The Northern Star was by some distance the most important of all the Chartist newspapers, and for family historians it is the single most significant primary research resource now available online. To get the most out of it, however, requires some preparation, and it is useful to have some idea of how the paper developed over time. This page provides a short introduction to 15 years of the Northern Star.
A brief history of the Northern Star
Launched on 17 November 1837 by the radical preacher and publisher Rev William Hill, the Northern Star was initially based in Barnsley. But unable to finance it, Hill sold the paper to Feargus O’Connor, who invested his own money and took up a popular subscription to help fund it.
O’Connor moved the paper to Leeds, renaming it the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. Hill remained as editor, but the paper was printed and published “for the proprietor” by Joshua Hobson, from his home and office in Market-street, Briggate. Hobson had been a handloom weaver before launching the radical Voice of the West Riding in Huddersfield, and was imprisoned on at least three occasions for publishing unstamped papers.
Sales grew rapidly from 10,000 in 1838 to a steady 18,000 in 1840, and for many years the paper appears to have been a commercial success, enabling O’Connor to help fund the wider Chartist movement. At its very peak during 1839, the Star could sell 50,000 copies of a single issue, outselling even The Times.
The Northern Star operated as a commercial newspaper, reporting crime and court stories alongside a steady diet of Chartist news, and carried adverts. Unlike many other Chartist newspapers, it did not confine itself to comment and opinion but sought to give an account of both national and local meetings and events, happily recounting clashes between local Chartist activists and their rivals in the Anti-Corn Law League and later attempts to pack out Church services, to the consternation of the local squirearchy.
In adopting this approach the paper developed a significant network of local correspondents and agents, who reported events, sold copies of the Star and acted as a focal point for Chartism in their locality. In the absence of a centralised party structure, the Northern Star served a crucial organising role for Chartism.
William Hill left as editor in 1843 to be replaced by Joshua Hobson, and the following year O’Connor relocated the paper once more to London as the Northern Star and National Trades Journal. Hobson was rapidly replaced by George Julian Harney, an old ally of O’Connor, who remained in post until 1849, when the two fell out over Harney’s increasingly socialist outlook and interest in European politics.
With Harney out of the picture and Chartism past its peak, GA Fleming, who had been involved in the paper’s production for some time took over as editor. In March 1852 he bought the paper from O’Connor for £100 and renamed it The Star, severing its ties with Chartism. This policy did not last, as Harney himself acquired the title a month later, renaming it The Star of Freedom, under which name it finally closed later that year.
How was the Northern Star read at the time?
The Northern Star was a relatively expensive paper, costing four and a half pence (4½d) at its launch and rising to five pence (5d) in 1844.
Although this put it outside the reach of many Chartists, it did not exclude them from its message. Like many publications of the time, the Northern Star was often bought by groups of Chartists and read aloud, prompting much political discussion and debate.
The Star itself claimed that seven people on average read each copy of the paper – pushing its real readership well into six figures. Indeed, the paper was written and laid out to aid reading aloud. Speaking at the 2008 Chartism Day conference in Newport, Dr Janette Martin explained how italics, capital letters and other typographical devices were used to guide readers.
At the same conference, Dr Fabrice Bensimon presented an image from L’Illustration (a French paper somewhat similar to the Illustrated London News) showing a British factory worker reading what appears to be the Northern Star to fellow workers in the workshop.
The French paper commented:
“Not a single syllable is uttered during twelve working hours of the day; only in the centre of the room, a reader, concealed behind the broadsheet format of The Times, with a powerful voice which seems to borrow its notes from the voice of a locomotive, declaims to his fellow workers, all of them fervid Chartists, the content of the gigantic newspaper from the date to the name of the publisher.”
Like most newspapers of the time, the Star was printed as a large broadsheet paper. It had six tightly packed columns of type to a page, and very few pictures. In Papers for the People (edited by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton, Merlin Press, 2005) Professor Malcolm Chase noted that there were “barely a dozen illustrations of any note in nearly 800 issues of the paper”.
However, alongside the paper, a total of 34 prints were produced and given away – almost all of them portraits of Chartists and other contemporary political figures with links to Chartism.
In addition to news of Chartist meetings up and down the country, a typical issue would include a lengthy address by Feargus O’Connor himself, stories and snippets of general news (mostly culled from other publications), an extensive letters section and a replies column in which the editor would issue sometimes cryptic responses to queries and comments made by readers, lists of recent donors and subscribers to the paper and to various Chartist causes including the Land Company and the Victims’ Fund, and advertisements.
For the first 18 months of its existence, the Star carried up to a page and half of advertising on its first two pages, before giving over increasing space on the front page to news and comment as O’Connor sought to boost circulation and make up for lost advertising revenues in that way.
For most Chartists, the Northern Star brought news about Chartism’s forward march on the national and local stage, calls for action in advancing the Charter and defending those victimised for their involvement in it, new ideas and the rudiments of a political education – and a focal point for political discussion.
Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (Chartist Studies Series) edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton
How do I find the Northern Star online?
A freely accessible and fully searchable run of the Northern Star can be found online courtesy of the Nineteenth Century Serials Edition project. The paper is also available on the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required).