15th June 1855. Tax on Knowledge.
Newspapers were once considered a luxury and the taxes on their publication was justified in that they wouldn’t affect the poor, but they did constitute a form of censorship.
Today the Royal Assent was given to the abolition of the Stamp Act in 1855 which came into effect on the 1st of next month.
The Stamp Act of 1712, of 1d a sheet, on all newspapers was to increase revenue to be used to fund a lottery encouraging people to buy bonds to finance the War of the Spanish Succession.
By 1815 the tax had increased so the Times newspaper cost 6d of which 4d was tax, and publishers had also to pay duties on advertising and the paper for the printing.
This was the era of revolutionary ferment after the Napoleonic Wars and the repression of the later Peterloo uprising when the authorities were frightened that radical ideas could be spread by newspapers and pamphlets.
To stifle this under the repressive Six Acts, a tax on newspapers and pamphlets was now expanded to all publications sold for less than 6d which dared to express an opinion. Also any meeting for radical reform was considered as an ‘overt act of treasonable conspiracy’.(1)
One publisher Richard Carlile, bravely ignored the Tax who apart from publishing the radical works of Tom Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’, was critical of the Church of England in The Republican.
Found guilty in October 1819 of Blasphemy and Sedition he was imprisoned at Dorchester for three years and fined £1,500. Then in 1835 a destitute man was jailed for 4 years for selling the above newspaper. He was one of many sentenced for similar ‘crimes’.
The previous year The Poor Law Commissioners’ Report said: ‘The dearness of newspapers in this country is an insurmountable obstacle to the education of the poor. I could name twenty villages within a circuit of a few miles in which a newspaper is never seen….’ In 1836 the tax was reduced.
The hated ‘Trinity of Taxes’ regarded as a tax on knowledge was eventually to be abolished by Liberal Prime Minister, Gladstone in three Acts: on Advertising in 1853, on Newspapers in 1855, with the tax on paper following in 1861.
The Daily Telegraph was launched on 29th June 1855, cutting its price from 2d to 1d on 17th September, and soon to have the largest circulation in the world.
New forms of journalism such as the Illustrated London News and the Manchester Guardian arrived as dozens of papers were now being published. By 1871 the Daily News was published as a 1d daily. The new literate working class had now won the freedom to be informed: democratic voting was to follow.
(1) Introduced by Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth, it passed Parliament by December 30th 1819 despite Whig opposition. One of the leaders in the Tory Government responsible was Lord Castlereagh, the unpopular Leader of the House in the Lord Liverpool Government.