life stories

Henry Hetherington, 1792 – 1849

Campaigner against newspaper taxes, radical printer and leading London Chartist

henry hetherington chartist

Henry Hetherington represented both London and Stockport in the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and was one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn for The Charter newspaper.

Hetherington was one of the most significant and respected figures in London radicalism in the 1830s.

By the time Chartism appeared on the political scene, he had already been at the forefront of the successful campaign to repeal taxes on newspapers, and had been imprisoned for his refusal to pay stamp duty on The Poor Man’s Guardian, which he published.

Born in Compton Street, Soho, in 1792, the son of a tailor, Hetherington was apprenticed to Luke Hansard, the parliamentary publisher, and first entered radical politics when he joined a co-operative printers association under the influence of Robert Owen.

Hetherington launched a series of newspapers, culminating in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1831. Because the paper was unstamped, he could sell it for just a penny rather than the 5d that would have been the case had he paid the 4d duty due on it. As a result, he was three times imprisoned, but was able to continue publication with the help of the editors and shopmen he employed, among them George Julian Harney, who would himself become a significant figure in Chartism.

Hetherington was forced into subterfuges to keep the Guardian going, sending dummy parcels of papers out of the shop in one direction to be seized by the constables, while the real papers went by another route. Eventually, Hetherington would succeed in his campaign. Number 159 of the Poor Man’s Guardian stated:

“This paper, after sustaining a persecution of three years and a half duration, in which upwards of five hundred persons were imprisoned for vending it, was declared in the Court of Exchequer to be a strictly legal publication.”

Hetherington would go on to be a leading figure in the London Working Men’s Association, serving as its treasurer, and as a missionary, spreading word of the Charter around the country. He was a prominent advocate of moderation and of an alliance with the middle class – a cause he advocated both in the 1839 convention and at the Sturge unity conference of 1842.

Hetherington’s interest in Chartism waned, though he remained an ally of William Lovett, the secretary of the LWMA and first Chartist convention and the ‘New Move’ away from the confrontational politics of Feargus O’Connor and the National Charter Association. But other causes – most notably religious free thought – came to the fore. He had been imprisoned once again in 1840 for blasphemy after publishing an attack on the Old Testament.

Having once been a successful radical publisher, Hetherington fell into debt in his final years. Only one of eight children, his son David, survived him. Henry Hetherington himself fell prey to Cholera in 1849, having refused all medication out of personal conviction. He died on 24 August 1849, and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. Two thousand people attended his secular funeral.

See also: Meet the Kensal Green Chartists: a walking tour.

Charter masthead

Portraits of Delegates No. 11: Henry Hetherington

The Delegate whose “counterfeit presentment” we this week give, represents London and Stockport, in the General Convention. Mr Hetherington is a native of London, and he is well known and highly respected by all who have taken an interest in public affairs, during the last twelve or fifteen years. He is by trade a printer, but with that he has for some time past united the business of a general publisher and newsvender. Some years since, he was brought prominently before the public, connection with the Mechanic’s Institute, of which he was a member, and in which he made a stand against what he believed to be an attempt to take its management too much out of the hands of the mechanics, for whose benefit it purported to be founded. Mr Carpenter, in October 1830, having put forth a prospectus for the publication of the “Political Letter” – “the father of the unstamped,” as Tait has denominated it – Mr Hetherington at once resolved upon strengthening the position taken up, and with this view, he brought out “Papers for the People, by the Poor Man’s Guardian;” a publication which ultimately obtained great popularity, and was mainly instrumental in giving birth to those numerous unstamped publications which compelled the government, after carrying on an unsuccessful war against them, for the space of five years, to reduce the stamp duty to a penny. In 1831, Mr Hetherington was appointed to draw up a circular, for the formation of Metropolitan Trades’ Unions; and this, having received the sanction of a meeting of delegates, formed the basis of “The National Union of the Working Classes.” The first attack made by the government on the unstamped press, was immediately followed by the prosecution of Mr Hetherington, for the publication of the “Poor Man’s Guardian.” Three several convictions were obtained against him, before the Bow-street Magistrates, and he was, after eluding pursuit for some time, taken into custody, in September 1831. Towards the close of the following year he was again convicted for the like offence and paid the penalty by six months incarceration in Clerkenwell Prison. In the May ensuing, a criminal information was filed against him, for the publication of an alleged libel on the New Police, but this was ultimately abandoned, that proceedings might be taken against him on apparently surer ground. In June, 1834, he was tried before Lord Lyndhurst and a special jury, for the publication of the “Conservative” and “The Poor Man’s Guardian,” both of which were alleged to be illegal publications; but, in a very able speech, he made such an impression upon the jury, that he obtained a verdict on the Guardian, although it was given against him on the Conservative. Being indisposed to become an inmate of a prison, a second time, he contrived to evade the warrant for his apprehension, but “the bond” was satisfied by another process. Davis, the Sheriff’s officer, who does the high behest of the Commissioners of Stamps, made a seizure upon his property, for the sum of 220l-; and this having been effected, a body of policemen swept the premises of all the “bums” had left behind, upon the frivolous and false pretext, that Hetherington was not duly registered as a printer! Nothing daunted, however, he continued the publication of the obnoxious papers until the reduction of the stamp duty, when he stamped “The London Dispatch,” into which the Poor Man’s Guardian had been merged, and ultimately transferred it to other hands. In person Mr Hetherington is slightly formed, and is about five feet nine inches in height. His complexion is very fair, his scant hair inclining to a sandy colour. He is in his 47 th year, and has had a large family, although he has but two sons now living. Amongst the political men of the present day, we know but few who are entitled to rank so high in public estimation as he is. To a cool and sound judgment he unites great susceptibility and generosity of feeling; and the poor and oppressed ever find in him a prompt and an eloquent advocate. He is no noisy declaimer; but the brief sketch we have given of his public career, shews him to be a man of action, who will not shun either fatigue or danger, when any worthy object is to be achieved. He is one of the honest-hearted, cool-headed, and noble-spirited men with whom we could wish to be associated in any great and arduous enterprise.

* Our next will contain a portrait and biographical sketch of Mr Skevington, delegate for Derby.

[Source: The Charter, Sunday 12 May 1839]