Sunday Observer

In 1791 W. S. Bourne borrowed £100 to start a Sunday newspaper. The first edition of The Observer was published on 4th December 1791. Bourne told his friends that a newspaper published on a Sunday would make him a "rapid fortune". He was wrong and three years later the newspaper was £1,600 in debt. Aware of the potential for political propaganda, Bourne tried to sell the newspaper to an anti-government group in London.

This failed and in 1794 Bourne's brother, a wealthy businessman, invested £1,600 in the newspaper. His strategy was to sell the newspaper to the government. Although unwilling to buy The Observer, the government did agree to help subsidise the newspaper in return for influencing its content. The money was paid from Home Office funds and this enabled ministers to write editorials praising government's policy. It also guaranteed that the newspaper would not give its support to Tom Paine, Thomas Spence, Sir Francis Burdett, Joseph Priestley and other writers advocating parliamentary reform.

In 1814 The Observer was bought by William Innell Clement. As he was also the owner of the Morning Chronicle, Bell's Life in London and The Englishman, Clement was now the most important press magnate in Britain. Clement continued the policy of taking a government subsidy in return for an influence over the political opinions expressed in the newspaper.

By 1815, Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, had also recruited the services of the newspaper's leading reporter, Vincent Dowling. At that time the government was very concerned about the activities of the Spencean Philanthropists. Although their leader, Thomas Spence, had died in 1814, this had not dampened their desire for parliamentary reform. Sidmouth gave John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street, and the supervisor of Home Office spies, the task of obtaining the evidence necessary to destroy this group. Stafford recruited John Castle, a member of the Spenceans, as a spy.

In December 1816, John Stafford paid Vincent Dowling to record what was said at a political meeting organised by the Spenceans. The speakers at the meeting at Spa Fields, Islington, included Henry 'Orator' Hunt, Arthur Thistlewood and James Watson. The evidence obtained by Dowling was used to arrest and charge the four leaders of the movement with high treason. However, the two main prosecution witness were two government spies, John Castle and Vincent Dowling. The defence council was able to show that as these men had been paid to collect information for the government, their evidence was unreliable and the four Spenceans were acquitted.

The government subsidy paid to The Observer failed to obtain the newspaper's support for the action taken by William Hulton and the Manchester magistrates that resulted in the Peterloo Massacre on 16th August, 1819. The report published on the Sunday following the incident was highly critical of the authorities. The reporter wrote: "I affirm from actual observation, that not the slightest breach of the peace had been committed, or appeared, as far as I could judge, likely to take place".

Nor did The Observer did not give its full support to the government over the Cato Street Conspiracy. Led by Arthur Thistlewood, one of the men that Vincent Dowling had given evidence against in June, 1817, the attempt to assassinate members of the British government was the most important story of the year. However, Lord Chief Justice Sir Charles Abbott, decided that there would be no reporting of the trial until after the passing of the sentences. William Innell Clement, the publisher of The Observer ignored this order. What is more, he selected the Cato Street Conspiracy to launch the idea of using woodcuts to illustrate stories in newspapers.

The Stable at Cato Street (The Observer, 6th March 1820)
The Stable at Cato Street (The Observer, 6th March 1820)
The Cato Street Conspiracy (The Observer, 6th March, 1820)
The Cato Street Conspiracy (The Observer, 6th March, 1820)

As a result of The Observer ignoring Abbott's ruling, Clement was ordered to appear before the Court. Clement refused to attend and as a result was fined £500. It is claimed that Clement's defiance helped to establish the freedom of newspapers to report criminal cases without government interference.

In the 1820s The Observer, gradually became a supporter of parliamentary reform. In 1830, Lewis Doxat, the editor, wrote: "The great manufacturing and commercial towns must and will have representatives. Their claims are too strong to be resisted." Later the newspaper embraced the idea of universal suffrage.

In the 1840s he newspaper was very critical of Chartist leaders such as William Lovett and Henry Hetherington who dared to suggest that all men should have the vote. It was not until 1866 that The Observer was able to say: "the time has come when the working classes must be effectively represented in the House of Commons". After pointing out that universal suffrage was in operation in France and the USA the writer added: "In these days, when everything progresses so rapidly, it would be strange if, after so long an interval of time, no alteration could be beneficially made in the representation of the people."

Primary Sources

(1) The Observer (6th January, 1793)

The execution of the positive and systematic incendiary Tom Paine, is now become as general and as favourable an amusement among the schoolboys of London, as the execution of that uncertain and preposterous incendiary, Guy Fawkes, has been for many years. We have the pleasure of seeing him on fire every day: would we could totally extinguish the flames which his wicked and absurd writings have too fatally kindled in the minds of weak and mischievous individuals.

(2) The Observer (21st June, 1801)

The defendant Thomas Spence was brought into court to receive judgment for having published a seditious libel, called Spence's Restorer of Society.

Mr. Justice Grose addressed the defendant upon the enormity of the publication of which he had been found guilty. It was a libel directly against the existence of the Government of the country, and recommended the subversion of those laws on which private property was founded, and by the operation of which, the industry, trade, commerce and wealth of the country, had arrived at so high a pitch.

It was calculated to level all distinctions in society, and to make the weak and helpless prey to the strong and ferocious; it promoted a system of rapine and murder, to which the defendant, whose wickedness was only equalled by his weakness and imbecility, must inevitably have been one of the first sacrifices. Such a plan of equalisation could only have the effect of making the people all equally poor and wretched.

For this offence the Court directed that he should be fined the sum of £20, be imprisoned 12 months in the gaol of Salop.

(3) The Observer (22nd August, 1819)

Moderate men universally concluded, that the meeting would be allowed to go off peaceably, provided no breach of the peace was committed by the people. Mr. Hunt exhorted the people to be firm, but peaceable. "And," said, he, "if any man makes the slightest attempt to break the peace, put him down and keep him down." Just as he had uttered those words, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry came galloping down Mosley Street and Peter Street, and ranged themselves in front of a row of houses on the south side of the area where the meeting was, in one of which the magistrates were assembled.

The greater part of the persons who were at the outskirts of the assembly on that side instantly ran away; but the main body remained compact and firm, and finding the soldiers halt under the houses, faced round to and cheered them. But a few moments had elapsed, when some orders were given to the troops, and they instantly dashed at full gallop amongst the people, actually hacking their way up to the hustings. Men, women and children - constables and reformers were all equally exposed to their attacks. Numbers were trampled down; and numbers were cut down.

Whether the Riot Act had been read, I am not enabled positively to say; but I affirm, from actual observation, that not the slightest breach of the peace had been committed, or appeared, as far as I could judge, likely to take place. What are the charges on which Hunt and the rest are arrested I know not. Rumour says High Treason, of which carrying the cap of liberty is stated as an overt act!

(4) The Observer (3rd March, 1820)

The interest excited by the discovery of the diabolical conspiracy to assassinate his Majesty's Ministers has, throughout the last week continued with unabated force. The premises in Cato Street, which will be ever memorable for the events of which they were the scene, was visited by several thousand persons. Among whom were many individuals of the highest rank.

The blood of poor Smithers was still visible on the floor, and seemed to be avoided with a sort of reverential awe. Lee, one of the officers who was there when the assault took place, was present, and explained the whole operation from the commencement to the conclusion. Among others attracted to the spot, we remarked several of the fair sex, who braved the inconvenience of the difficult ascent to the loft for the gratification of their curiosity.

(5) The Observer (21st June, 1801)

Our readers will observe that, for the step which we took on Sunday last, in publishing a correct and impartial report of the trials of Arthur Thistlewood and James Ings, we have subjected ourselves to what we cannot help thinking as unmerited severity on the part of the Commissioners - who have ordered us to pay "a fine to the King of Five Hundred Pounds".

We have, as we apprehended we had the right to do, published the proceedings of a public court of justice, and we submit, with humble deference to our judges, and our jurors, under circumstances in no respect calculated "to prejudice the course of public justice" - "to mislead the minds of British jurymen," or "improperly to inform the minds of honest witnesses."

(6) The Observer (7th November, 1830)

The great manufacturing and commercial towns must and will have representatives. Their claims are too strong to be resisted.

(7) The Observer (16th April, 1848)

The metropolis presented on Monday a scene of unusual excitement and alarm. The determination announced by the members of the Chartist National Convention to hold their meeting and procession in defiance of the law and the constituted authorities - the military preparations, almost unparalleled for extent and completeness to put down any insurrectionary attempts.

The weather was exceedingly favourable for the demonstration; no obstruction was offered by the police to the processions which left the Middlesex side of London for Kennington Common; a free thoroughfare was permitted to all who wished to take part in the public meeting; and yet, instead of the 300,000 persons who, we were told would assemble on Kennington Common does not reach 50,000

(8) The Observer (18th February, 1866)

The disclosures of the commissions of inquiry into corrupt practices of several boroughs have deeply affected the public mind, and it will no longer be possible to leave a large portion of the representation of the country in the hands of small and corrupt constituencies.

It is equally clear that the time has come when the working classes must be effectively represented in the House of Commons. In France, in Northern Germany, in the United States of America, and in most of our colonies universal suffrage exists.

The fact is, that the aristocratical and wealthy classes have it all their own way in the present Parliament. They have not misused their power; on the contrary, it is remarkable how wisely and liberally they have dealt by the general public; still people are tired of seeing others legislate for them; they think they can do better for themselves, and that certain admitted abuses will stand a better chance of being removed. In these days, when everything progresses so rapidly, it would be strange if, after so long an interval of time, no alteration could be beneficially made in the representation of the people."