life stories

John Cleave, 1796 – 1850

An energetic publisher of radical tracts whose newspapers flourished thanks to a judicious mix of politics and true crime stories, John Cleave played an important part in London Chartism, but was never happier than when taking care of business.

John Cleave was born in London on 22 October 1796. Although his origins have long been uncertain, and he is often thought to have been Irish or of Irish descent, there is no documentary evidence to support this. Baptised at St Clement Danes on the Strand on 27 February 1797, he would appear to have grown up within a stone’s throw of Shoe Lane, where he later ran his publishing business.

Baptismal record for John Cleave. His entry is the last on the page, which also gives a date of birth of 22 October 1796. Click for larger image.

John’s father is most likely the John Cleave of Dean Street who was assessed for both poor rates and paving & lighting rates each year from 1795 until 1810. His death that year must have hit the family finances hard, as poor rate entries, subsequently in Elizabeth’s name, are noted as being ‘in arrears’ from then until 1820, by which time the younger John was making his own way in the world.

This greater certainty about John Cleave’s early years is possible because so much more parish and other data is now available online. However, as one origin mystery is solved, another appears – for the church register records that the birth and baptismal dates given above are for ‘John & Samuel’. Although Samuel seems to have disappeared from the record, and may have died in infancy, John Cleave had a twin brother.

On 29 October 1817 at the age of twenty-one, John married Mary Ann Chappell, at the church of St Mary-le-bone, Middlesex. Their first daughter Lucy Chappell Cleave was born in York in 1822, though why they were there is unknown. Two years later, at the age of twenty-three Cleave was also admitted as a freeman of the City of London. Among other things, this would have enabled him to vote in parliamentary and civic elections.

Image of handwritten document admitting John Cleave as a freeman of the City of London
‘…the said John Cleave be admitted into the freedom of this City’. Click for larger image.

Cleave later claimed to have been a sailor as a young man, telling a meeting that he had ‘served two apprenticeships in the navy’ (Poor Man’s Guardian, 14 July 1832). Possibly he went to sea for a time as a teenager following his father’s death, but no further evidence of this has emerged.

By 1828, Cleave was working as an assistant to William Carpenter, a radical dissenter and journalist who edited the Weekly Free Press. The paper was closely associated with the co-operative movement of the late 1820s, and in 1829 Cleave joined the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge. As a leading figure in the Westminster Co-operative Society, Cleave met William Lovett, Henry Hetherington and James Watson; the four men would work closely together in the Radical Reform Association, Metropolitan Political Union and other radical bodies.

Around 1830, Cleave opened a coffee shop in Snow Hill, Smithfield, which stocked radical literature; he also continued to work for a time with Carpenter, including on a series of weekly tracts known as the Political Letters and Pamphlets. Specifically intended to challenge newspaper stamp duty (the ‘taxes on knowledge’), and in print from October 1830, nine months before Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, they served their purpose when Carpenter was arrested, refused to pay a £120 fine and was sent to prison for six months.

In May 1831, Cleave joined the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), and with Lovett sought unsuccessfully to commit the National Political Union set up to support the Reform Bill of 1832 to universal suffrage. Cleave was especially active in the NUWC, and in March 1832 led a procession against a proclamation by the Church of England, backed by Parliament, of a ‘general fast’ in the face of the first cholera epidemic. Cleave, and Hetherington in the Poor Man’s Guardian, pointed out that the poor had already fasted enough. Later that year, Cleave was part of an NUWC delegation to Birmingham which helped launch a Midland Union of the Working Classes in opposition to Thomas Attwood’s middle-class Birmingham Political Union.

Cleave kept up his interest in co-operation in the 1830s, but was critical of Robert Owen’s lack of a political perspective, and disliked his atheism. Though Cleave was strong anti-clerical and lost little opportunity to attack the established church, he was a Baptist, not an atheist (or infidel, in the language of the time).

Cleave was prominent in London radicalism, supporting the Tolpuddle labourers and other good causes and involving himself in a series of short-lived publishing ventures. With some business success behind him, Cleave opened a new coffee shop, bookshop and, in due course, publishing venture at 1 Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street, and in due course it became a hub of publishing activity. In 1834, Cleave, ‘a highly principled political activist but a ruthless businessman’, as one biographer put it, launched the Weekly Police Gazette – a commercially successful combination of radical news and sensational crime stories, and without doubt the best-selling of all the unstamped papers, with a circulation that may have reached 30,000 to 40,000 a week.

Masthead of Cleave's Weekly Police Gazette newspaper

Cleave quickly came into conflict with the law. In April 1834, he was found guilty of publishing and vending an illegal newspaper. Sentenced to pay a £20 fine or spend three months in prison, he chose the latter, but was swiftly released when someone (possibly Cleave himself) came up with the money. The following August, Cleave’s printing press and type were seized for non-payment of an earlier fine. And in February 1836 he was again prosecuted for publishing the Gazette. Both he and Hetherington were sent to prison, but once again the fines, this time of £500, were paid.

With stamp duty reduced to 1d from September 1836, Cleave and Hetherington now claimed victory and gave up their defiance of the tax.

That same year, Cleave became a founder member of the London Working Men’s Association, once again working alongside Lovett, Hetherington and Watson. Cleave’s political views were evolving however: he now broke with the Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell over the latter’s opposition to trade unions and factory legislation; and despite embarking on a series of ‘missionary’ tours for the LWMA he became distinctly less enthusiastic about mass agitation and the use of violent and emotive language. He also argued against enlarging the LWMA itself, preferring to see it as a focused lobbying body. One speaking tour for the LWMA, however, would have personal consequences for Cleave: paired with the young firebrand speaker Henry Vincent, he was sent North to establish working men’s associations in Yorkshire. It must surely have been at this point that Vincent first met Cleave’s daughter Lucy; they would later marry.

Cleave remained a big name in London radical publishing. The People’s Charter itself was published by Hetherington, but as the front page makes clear, it was ‘sold by Cleave, 1 Shoe Lane; Watson, 15 City Road’. His days as a political activist, however, were coming to an end: elected for London and Reading to the First Chartist Convention, Cleave consistently opposed all ulterior measures once the petition was rejected, and strongly opposed moving the convention to Birmingham.

People’s Charter. Cleave’s name appears along with those of Watson and Hetherington. Click for larger image.

As ever, Cleave was happiest taking care of business – collecting subscriptions for Lovett and acting as treasurer of the defence campaign for Henry Vincent following the arrests of both men. Things were less happy at home, however, and in 1840, to the great distress of his wife Mary Ann, Cleave moved his mistress into the family home. A decade earlier, Cleave had publicly disapproved of the libertarian radical Richard Carlile, who had separated from his wife Jane to form a ‘moral marriage’ with Eliza Sharples. Carlile now took his revenge, characterising Mary Ann’s apparent breakdown in the face of her husband’s actions as Cleave seeking to put his wife in an asylum so that he could sleep with her servant.

And when the following year Cleave’s name appeared alongside that of William Lovett and others in an address announcing the launch of their new ‘moral force’ National Association of the United Kingdom for promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, Francis Place was outraged. In a letter to Lovett, Place declared that Cleave had been, ‘Cruel in the extreme towards his wife whom he always boasts of as his delight, his friend, his companion and his helpmate…without her being so, he never could have had the means of acting so barbarously towards her as he did. His conduct was disgraceful beyond expression towards his daughters; and yet he is here put forward, as an expounder of and a principal person to teach and maintain morality.’1

Henry Vincent’s release from prison in January 1841 must have come as a great relief to Lucy Cleave, who effected her escape from unhappy domestic circumstances by marrying him within the month.

Though Cleave was now less prominent in Chartist politics, and less influential, he continued his involvement with the wider movement. He served as treasurer of the Political and Scientific Institute set up by London Chartists in 1842.Indeed, Cleave spoke at the Institute’s opening meeting despite being unwell. But then, as he told the gathering, he had good reason for wanting to be there as ‘he had been imprisoned on that very spot’ when it was the borough compter (Morning Advertiser, 21 February, 1843). He also kept the accounts of the victim committee in 1842, and of the National Charter Association itself.

Between 1841 and 1843, Cleave published the English Chartist Circular and Temperance Record but never made a profit (like Henry Vincent, he had an enduring interest in temperance). His life-long interest in Irish politics also continued, and in 1847 he joined the Irish Democratic Federation, but in common with so many others, he fell out with Feargus O’Connor, not least over the land company, which he thought was destined to fail.

Though sometimes difficult, Cleave was liked and admired by many. Thomas Cooper described him as ‘an earnest and kind friend’, recalling that he had helped find a publisher for his Purgatory of Suicides2; others recalled John and Mary Ann’s kindness to the impoverished children usually to be found around Smithfield, often bringing them home to be fed and cared for; there are descriptions of him as ‘compassionate’ and ‘generous’; and despite his other criticisms, Place would describe him as ‘a sturdy little fellow totally devoid of fear and like Lovett ready to undergo any persecution’.

George Jacob Holyoake, who knew Cleave towards the end of his life, described him as ‘a rotund, energetic Radical publisher… [who] did not give others an impression that he had a passion for risk’.3

John Cleave died at his home at 22 Stanhope Street, Clement Danes, at the age of fifty-five on 19 January 1850 (Reasoner, 23 January 1850). He is buried at Abney Park Cemetery, in a grave he shares with his son-in-law and daughter Henry and Lucy Vincent, and other family members. Of his wife, Mary Ann, however, there is no sign.

Sources and further reading

1. Place to Lovett, 30 March 1841, Radical Politics and the Working Man in England, Series One, The Francis Place Papers in the British Library, Department of Manuscripts, (Brighton, 1978), Reel 50, cited by Thomas Scriven in his PhD thesis Activism and the Everyday: The Practices of Radical Working-Class Politics, 1830-1842 (2012). Accessed 29 August 2023.

2. The life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself (Hodder & Stoughton, 1872).

3. Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, by George Jacob Holyoake (T. Fister Unwin, 1906).

‘Cleave, John (1795?-1850)’ by I.J. Prothero and Joel H. Wiener, Dictionary of Labour Biography vol VI (Macmillan, 1982).

‘Cleave, John (1790?-1847)’ by Henry Weisser, Dictionary of Radical Biography, vol II, 1830-1870 (Harvester Press, 1984).

‘John Cleave (1795?-1850)’, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism.