organisations and newspapers

The Northern Star: five things you didn’t know

For fifteen years, the Northern Star was at the heart of the Chartist cause, as a forum for radical ideas, organisational enabler and noticeboard for the movement. So it’s not surprising that there are some fascinating stories about it.

Front page of Northern Star article titled How the Northern Star was published
Click to download How the Northern Star was published: the full article (PDF).

You can download a detailed exploration of how the paper was published – investigating who wrote it, how the pages were typeset, why it needed a steam engine to turn the printing press, and where the money to run it came from in the PDF document download here titled How the Northern Star was published (and don’t forget the appendixes below). 👉

Also on Chartist Ancestors you can read about
* The Northern Star in numbers – a statistical guide to the paper’s reporting by subject and person
* The Northern Star: the paper that made Chartism – a brief history of Chartism’s most important institution
* William Hill – a biography of the paper’s first editor
* Joshua Hobson – a biography of the paper’s printer and publisher

But if you just want the highlights, here are five fantastic facts about the Northern Star that emerge from the longer investigation.

1. There would have been no Northern Star without steam power. 

Feargus O’Connor acquired a modern printing press in London and had it shipped to publisher Joshua Hobson in Leeds before the paper launched in November 1837. But at first, the hand-cranked press was only able to print a few thousand copies a week, limiting the paper’s circulation and influence. As demand rose in early 1838, Hobson bought a stand-alone steam engine to power it. Working the mechanisms of the press far faster than was possible by hand, this enabled Hobson to print and sell 50,000 copies of the paper a week. Without it, the Northern Star could not have become the national paper it aspired to be, and Chartism itself would have struggled to cohere as a national political movement.

Image of table from front of appendix 1
Appendix 1 and 2. Click to download (PDF).
2. It took eight compositors working 60 hours a week to set and make up the pages. 

The eight pages of the Northern Star ran to around 80,000 words every week, and every single one of those had to be typeset by hand, letter by letter, upside down and back to front, by a skilled compositor. Working at speed, and taking account of the need to decipher hand-written copy, supervise apprentices, and make changes for three editions of the paper every week, it would have taken up to eight men working ten hours a day, six days a week to complete the task. Compositors would have made up the biggest group of workers on the paper.

3. One apprentice printer went on to become a well-off newspaper owner.

Benjamin Brown turned fourteen in 1838, so probably began his apprenticeship with Joshua Hobson soon after the Northern Star was launched. He and other teenage members of the Star’s workforce lived in with the publisher, and can be found at Hobson’s address in the 1841 census. Later, when Hobson sold his business, he transferred his stock in trade and print to Brown, and the two men remained close. Many years later, when Brown had launched his own successful Huddersfield Weekly Examiner, he employed Hobson as editor. Brown did well out of the news business: when he died in 1903, he left his children a thriving newspaper, his print business and an estate valued at more than £10,000 (worth more than £1 million today).

4. The paper nearly failed to appear when someone dropped the metal forme. 

Compositors placed the lines of type they set into a metal frame called a forme in which each page was made up before printing. In September 1847, the paper had to publish a prominent apology for the long-overdue arrival of the paper’s second edition: ‘An accident, against which no care nor foresight could have guarded, occurred at the moment of our going to Press, by which two of the pages of type were demolished, and, in consequence, the Papers which should have been posted on Friday afternoon were delayed by some hours, and posted by Saturday’s day Mail.’ It is only possible to imagine the horrified silence that ensued in the print shop when the pages met with their accident – and the long overnight shift that must have ensued for compositors and press men alike.

5. Adverts for quack cures made the Northern Star profitable.

For the first eighteen months of publication, adverts filled most of the paper’s first two pages. The products on offer included radical publications, shoe blacking, ink, clothing, tea and coffee – and lots of patent medicines. Offering herbal pills to cure anything and everything from scurvy to scrofula and even cancer, these highly dubious medicines, often endorsed by reputable medical men, made up the bulk of the Northern Star’s advertising income. On the same front page, Mr Eskell would offer to fit you a complete new set of spring-loaded, incorrodible false teeth, while Dr Henry sold French Meroine Pills that would cure all manner of ‘venereal and syphilitic diseases’, and Dr Bird touted his ability to re-set broken bones – a final footnote to his advert adding, ‘horses and dogs cured’.

Click to download How the Northern Star was published: the full article and Appendix 1 and 2.