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The Manchester Guardian and the Manchester Observer

Robert Poole, Professor of History, University of Central Lancashire discusses the Manchester Observer, Peterloo Massacre and their importance in the founding of the Manchester Guardian.

Guest Article by Robert Poole, Professor of History, University of Central Lancashire and Author of Peterloo: the English Uprising (2019)

The founding of the Manchester Guardian is closely bound up with both the history of its radical predecessor the Manchester Observer and with the Peterloo massacre of 16 August 1819.

The studio portrait of the Manchester Guardian’s founding editor, John Edward Taylor, displays evidence of both these connections. On the desk in front of Taylor is a manuscript headed ‘Peterloo’; this will be his tract Notes and Observations. On the floor are two pairs of bound volumes. The larger pair under the table appears to be the two first volumes of the Manchester Guardian. The smaller pair, propped against Taylor’s chair, looks very much like the two volumes of the Manchester Observer, for reasons which are explained below.

John Edward Taylor, Ayerst, David. ‘Guardian’ : biography of a newspaper, London: Collins, 1971.

The Manchester Observer, published between 1818 and 1822, was for a time the leading radical newspaper in the country.  At 4,000 printed copies its circulation exceeded that of all the other Manchester newspapers combined; they were overwhelmingly Tory. Unlike other radical papers, which refused to pay the newspaper stamp tax and so were allowed to carry only commentary, the Manchester Observer paid the duty and operated a full service of national and local news. Its high cost meant that copies were widely shared through pubs, neighbourhoods, and radical groups, where they read aloud. Its estimated readership was around 30,000; its listenership was still greater.

When the leading reporter of The Times, John Tyas, visited Manchester in early August 1819 to cover the Peterloo meeting, he took a professional interest in the Observer’s Market Street office.

The shop of Wroe, the printer of the Manchester Observer, in that part of Market-street which has been called ‘Sedition-corner’, is perpetually beset with poor misled creatures, whose appetite for seditious ribaldry, created at first by distress, is whetted by every species of stimulating novelty. Medusas, Gorgons, Black Dwarfs, and all the monstrous progeny begotten by disaffection upon ignorance, are heaped on the table or in the windows, with hideous profusion.

When the radical procession passed nearby on the day of the demonstration, with the enterprising Tyas in Henry Hunt’s coach, Hunt’s call for three cheers for the paper was ‘answered by a deafening and tremendous yell.’ When the next issue came out the following Saturday, Major Dyneley of the Hussars found it impossible to get a copy, complaining: ‘The shop has been surrounded since day light this morning, and they are sold as fast as they can be printed . .  . hundreds are waiting to take them to the country.’

Manchester Observer issue after Peterloo Massacre, Manchester Observer August 21st, 1819 – Vol. 2 No. 34, R229748

Peterloo was one of the first regional events to be covered in person by reporters from the regional and national press. It became an unwitting gathering of war correspondents. Horton of the London New Times was slashed at by a Yeoman, while Wright of The Courier, who had wangled his way onto the hustings, was beaten up in mistake for an Observer reporter. (Ironically, both were Tory reporters co-operating with the authorities).

Saxton of the Manchester Observer was lucky to escape alive; one of the cavalry was heard to shout, ‘There’s that villain Saxton – run him through!’ He sustained only a small flesh wound from the point of a sabre. Tyas himself, who saw it all from the hustings, was arrested and held overnight in police cells before rushing to London to stop the presses of The Times with his famous report of Peterloo.

A view of St. Peters Place and manner in which the Manchester Reform meeting were dispersed by civil & military power. August 16th, 1819: a cabinet picture, R52983.2

After Peterloo the authorities made a determined attempt to close down the Manchester Observer, with legal backing from the government. Three of the Observer’s leading lights, Saxton and the radical manufacturers Joseph Johnson and John Knight, were tried alongside Henry Hunt for their role at Peterloo. Knight and Johnson were gaoled but Saxton was acquitted. The editor James Wroe, who was in hiding at the time, was eventually arrested on more than a dozen charges of libel and other offences, and gaoled for twelve months.

Both the Guardian’s founders published combative accounts of Peterloo. Taylor, who gathered evidence on behalf of the relief committee, replied to official claims in the weighty Notes and Observations on the Papers Related to the State of the Country (1820).  His co-founder Jeremiah Garnett had been at Peterloo to report for the conservative Manchester Chronicle, a paper to which Taylor also contributed. The paper refused to publish his account and he left his job there and teamed up with Taylor. His powerful report turned up in the Manchester Observer’s series of Peterloo supplements, Peterloo Massacre.

In the aftermath of Peterloo, the Manchester Observer pioneered joint newspaper publication between Manchester and London, anticipating the Manchester Guardian’s move to the capital around 1960. After James Wroe was imprisoned in 1820 he sold the paper on to a leading London radical, Thomas Evans junior. Evans moved north and ran it in a defiant spirit for over year before he too was successfully prosecuted for libel. 

Evans was succeeded by another Londoner, G. W. Service, a colleague of Taylor’s on the Peterloo relief committee. Service ran the Observer for a few months in the spring of 1821, just as Taylor was setting up the Manchester Guardian. It may have been a canny move by Taylor to keep the paper’s readership network going until he was ready to tap into it. The Manchester Guardian was launched in May 1821. In June the Observer went bankrupt, and Taylor bought up itspresses; with them, no doubt, came the back issues which appear in his portrait.

Front Page of the first issue of the Manchester Guardian, May 5th 1821, R228817.1

The Observer was not dead yet, however. It was revived in the summer of 1821 by the London radical publisher Thomas Wooler, who combined it with his own British Gazette and engaged Saxton to act as editor in Manchester. The paper was printed in London and sent to Manchester via the efficient mailcoach system¾the postage was already covered by the stamp tax.

Wooler’s British Gazette, Manchester Observer, August 25, 1821 New Series 1, R229748

The main lesson which Taylor’s Manchester Guardian took from the Manchester Observer was not radicalism but resilience. The founding capital insulated it from the high risk of legal actions such as had driven out three of the Observer’s proprietors, and his pledge in the opening editorial to avoid ‘scurrility and slander’ made such proceedings less likely. The Manchester Observer, in the form of those two bound volumes, at last found a safe home in Manchester, in the office of successive editors of the Manchester Guardian.

There they remained until the late 1950s, when the then editor A. P. Wadsworth (himself a historian of the cotton trade) lent them to a young Manchester-based postgraduate historian, Donald Read, to assist his 1958 history of Peterloo. Wadsworth died, the Guardian moved to London, Read took a post at the University of Kent, and the paper moved south with him. When he retired and moved back to Lancashire, Read learnt of my work on Peterloo and passed the two bound volumes to me. My own book was eventually published 61 years after his own.

Sadly Donald Read died just before the bicentenary, but he did so knowing that the Manchester Observer had been reunited with the rest of the Manchester Guardian archive in the John Rylands Library, and safely digitised. Regency England’s leading radical newspaper is now available online as part of the Peterloo Collection.

If you wish to find out more about the Guardian Archive, you can access the online version of our bicentenary exhibition ‘Manchester’s Guardian: 200 years of the Guardian newspaper’ here or come and visit the John Rylands Research Institute and Library to see the physical exhibition this summer. Check our events and exhibition page for details on current opening hours.

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