George Fleming was editor of the Northern Star during its final years of decline, and briefly its proprietor. But he was better known at the time as an Owenite socialist, co-operator and trade unionist by political inclination, and as a long-serving political journalist by trade.
Born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1810, Fleming became a painter; and in his early twenties, moved to Salford, Lancashire, with his wife Isabella (Gray) and eldest son, John. Here he was involved in a co-operative store and co-operative school. The couple’s second son, Robert Owen Fleming, was born there that year.
In 1838, the family moved to Leeds, where Fleming became editor of Robert Owen’s New Moral World. Printed and published by Joshua Hobson, who had launched the Northern Star with Feargus O’Connor the previous year, the New Moral World had a small circulation, but the two papers were often sold side by side, with Abel Heywood of Manchester and John Cleave of London both listed as agents.
In the 1841 census, Fleming gives his occupation as journalist and his address as 3 Alfred Place, Leeds. The following year, Fleming and his family were on the move again, when Owen relocated the New Moral World to London. It moved again to the Harmony Hall Owenite colony in Hampshire in 1845, but by the end of the year, both colony and newspaper had collapsed.
By this time Feargus O’Connor had relocated the Northern Star to London and was in the process of replacing Hobson with George Julian Harney as editor, so it seems likely that Fleming was able to jump ship just as the Owenite paper ceased publication.
By early 1847, the Northern Star regularly carried the same notice to readers advising that, ‘All questions relating to Bills introduced into the Legislature, Acts of Parliament, their meaning and intent, &c., and questions respecting the Ministry, and the Members of the two Houses of Parliament, to be addressed to Mr George Fleming, “Northern Star” Office.’ He had, in other words, become the paper’s parliamentary correspondent.
He was also involved at Easter 1845 in setting up the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour – which sought to co-ordinate the political activities of trade unions. With the pro-Chartist radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe as president, and with Fleming as treasurer, the organisation effectively brought together Owenism, Chartism and trade unionism at least in a small way, and would continue (with Fleming as president after 1852) well into the 1860s.
Fleming became editor of the Northern Star in 1849, after O’Connor and Harney fell out politically. But by now, through no fault of Fleming’s, the paper was in terminal decline. Circulation had reached 12,000 in 1848, but fell to 7,000 in 1849, and 5,000 in 1850 as Chartism itself lost its mass appeal. Despite this, Fleming paid O’Connor £100 for the paper and in March 1852 renamed it The Star and National Trades Journal. Evidently unable to make anything of it, the following month Fleming passed the paper on to Harney, who merged it with his Friend of the People.
Fleming, however, was able to extract himself from the wreckage. He went on to work for the best part of twenty years as a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Advertiser, which though essentially a trade paper for the drinks industry was second in circulation only to The Times in the mid-nineteenth century. From which it seems likely that though a socialist, co-operator, trade unionist and Chartist, he was no teetotaller.
The South London Press would later note: ‘This, however, did not absorb all his time or talents. He wrote much, and in many papers, and for many years occupied a position on the staff of the South London Press.’ When he died on 2 May 1878, at his home at 18 Lucretia Road, Kennington, his obituary in the paper recorded that he also kept up his political associations ‘to an extent’, and was ‘a striking and effective orator’ (South London Press, 4 May 1878, p9-10).
The South London Press published a reasonably lengthy obituary of its former employee, which curiously included not a single mention of his one-time involvement in Chartism and the Northern Star. It remembered Fleming’s ‘genial manner’ and thought he would be much missed by his large circle of friends. A later memorial, written in 1883, recalled him as, ‘A big burly man, possessing a burly mind’.
Sources and further reading
‘Death of Mr George A. Fleming’, South London Press, 4 May 1878, pp.9-10. Via the British Newspaper Archive (accessed 17 December 2023).
Huddersfield Hall of Science on Underground Histories: The Website of Huddersfield Historian Alan Brooke discusses George Fleming’s involvement in the Owenite Association of All Classes of All Nations, and its activities in Huddersfield in the early 1840s (accessed 17 December 2023).
George Alexander Fleming – Painter, Politician & Pressman, published 27 October 2018 on the Borders Ancestry website (accessed 17 December 2023).
Fleming, George Arthur in Le Maitron: Dictionnaire Biographique, Mouvement Ouvriere, Movement Sociale (accessed 17 December 2023)
The New Moral World: Or Gazette of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists for 1839, via Google Books (accessed 17 December 1879).
Census entries and other personal records for George Fleming can be found on the Ancestry website.