life stories

Joshua Hobson, 1810 – 1876

Joshua Hobson was printer, publisher and later editor of the Northern Star. Though Feargus O’Connor first proposed the idea of a weekly radical newspaper of the sort that the Star became, it was Hobson who did much of the work to make it happen, suggesting William Hill as editor, equipping premises and taking on printers in Leeds, and overseeing the business from its launch in 1837 to his split with O’Connor in 1845.

Joshua Hobson by Richard Waller,
© Kirklees Museums and Galleries

A handloom weaver by trade, and an activist by inclination, Hobson sold Chartist breakfast powders, Chartist pills, Chartist almanacs and a profusion of other publications to supplement his printing business, and for more than a decade he was the main publisher of radical tracts and newspapers in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Later, in what might almost be seen as a second stage in his life, after leaving the Star and returning to Huddersfield, Hobson was to become a mainstay of civic life, as clerk to the Improvement Commissioners, dealing with the problems of a booming Victorian town that had been run until then under a vestigial feudal system of local government better fitted to a smaller, more rural community. Hobson later returned to journalism, ending his career as editor of two of the town’s principal Conservative newspapers.

This short biography uses a range of primary and secondary sources, but it would not have been possible without John Halstead’s excellent chapter ‘The Charter and something more! The politics of Joshua Hobson, 1810-1876’ in the Huddersfield Local History Society book The Charter Our Right!1.

Origins

Joshua Hobson was born in West Parade, Huddersfield, on 20 November 1810, and baptised some four months later, on 14 March 1811, at the High Street Chapel of the Methodist New Connexion. The Connexion had split in the 1790s from the Wesleyan Methodists over its demand for greater power for the laity, and some accused it of having revolutionary sympathies and links to the radical Thomas Paine2,3.

Joshua’s father John Hobson, a cardmaker at the time of his son’s birth, and mother Elizabeth (nee Taylor), the daughter of a cloth drawer, had married in 1803, and Joshua was to be their fifth and final child. His schooling was necessarily limited by the family’s lack of money, and by the age of ten Joshua was put to work as a pot boy. John Hobson’s politics are unknown, and Joshua is unlikely to have learned much of this at school, but as John Halstead, the historian of West Riding radicalism, has pointed out, his was a childhood surrounded by radicalism and rebellion: not just that of the New Connexion, but the Luddite actions of 1812-1813 and later insurrectionary events at Folly Hall and Grange Moor. But John Hobson died in 1820, and his son left for Oldham when barely a teenager to become a cotton handloom weaver.

Radical activist, printer and publisher

Joshua Hobson returned to Huddersfield probably in 1829 to find the town in a state of agitation, thanks to the visit of an ‘infidel mission’ led by Rev Robert Taylor and Richard Carlile. He soon became associated with the Owenite Lawrence Pitkethly snr, who had moved to Huddersfield in 1824, and with John Hanson, becoming involved in plans for a Huddersfield Philanthropic Institution.

Hobson soon became active in demands for political reform through the Huddersfield Political Union and its short-time committee, which, following a meeting with the factory reformer Richard Oastler, launched a Ten Hours movement. By 1832, however, he had found his vocation: building the wooden frame for a printing press. The Union Press moved rapidly from small jobs such as the printing of placards to publication on 1 June 1833 of the first issue of The Voice of the West Riding, an unstamped newspaper with Hobson as editor. By August, Hobson had been prosecuted, refused to pay a fine and been sent to prison, thereby becoming a significant radical political figure in his own right.

Hobson resumed publication of the Voice of the West Riding following his release from Wakefield gaol in January 1834. Despite Hobson’s personal commitment to the causes of a free press and later Chartism, however, John Halstead notes that Hobson was always willing to work with those sympathetic to the workers’ cause – which in Whig-dominated Huddersfield, at least, meant the Tories.

By August 1834, however, Hobson’s paper had failed and he left for Leeds. Here he once more became involved in selling, though not yet publishing, unstamped newspapers, and in 1836 he was again imprisoned. By the time he was released early the following year, stamp duty had been cut to a penny and the war of the unstamped was over.

By 1837, Hobson was the leading radical publisher outside London. But like many radical publishers, the shop he had opened in Leeds sold much else besides. ‘Hobson sold a variety of medicines in his store, from the ubiquitous Morison’s Pills and such commonplaces as Bocock’s Dinner Pills, Parr’s Life Pills, and Haigh’s Spinal Ointment, to the exotic- sounding Dr Stone’s Tasteless Compound Herbal Solution, Kears- ley’s Original Widow Welch’s Female Pills, and Dr Greer’s Genuine Improved Universal Vegatable Hygeian [sic] Medicines, of Glasgow. Hobson advertised the availability of these remedies in the radical press, although he usually made only passing reference to them at the conclusion of a list of recently published (and overstocked) works. However, he paid particular attention to Chartist Pills, an all-purpose restorative sold to aid the families of imprisoned Chartists.’4

He sold in addition Chartist Breakfast Powder, which claimed that because it was an excise-free substitute for coffee, costumers could eat breakfast knowing that they were neither contributing to national debt repayments nor supporting government subsidies to the aristocracy. Similarly, and somewhat later, sales of Pindar’s Chartist Blacking would generate a small sum for the National Charter Association.

The Northern Star
An early copy of the Northern Star. Click for larger image.

On 15 May 1837, Hobson was at the great Anti-Poor Law Rally at Hartshead Moor, where he talked to Feargus O’Connor about the possibility of a new radical newspaper for the North. Further discussions followed, during which O’Connor led Hobson to believe that he had considerable capital to invest in such a scheme. Although this turned out not to be the case, the two men’s discussion would lead that November to the launch of the Northern Star, with Hobson as printer and, at his urging, the Hull Swedenborgian minister William Hill as editor5. Before then, however, Hobson was in the chair for a meeting addressed by the London Working Men’s Association ‘missionaries’ John Cleave and Henry Vincent that led to the formation of the Leeds Working Men’s Association. Hobson’s links with the London printer and publisher Cleave proved just as important as those with O’Connor. Writing on ‘Joshua Hobson and the Business of Radicalism’, historian Simon Cordery argues that Hobson, Cleave and Abel Heywood in Manchester formed between 1837 and 1844 the core of an extensive network distributing radical publications. ‘For those eight years, anything printed by one of them was distributed by the other two.’

Hobson was intimately involved in the Northern Star from its launch, the two-horsepower steam press installed at his Leeds printworks in Market Street, Briggate, in March 1838 churning out thousands of copies every week for national distribution (NS, 31 March 18388, p4). Together with O’Connor, he was part of an effort to get financial sureties and investment for the paper in 1839. And when William Hill, who resisted all efforts to get him to relocate from Hull to Leeds, failed in his duties, it was Hobson who stepped in to fill the pages and get the paper out. But Hobson was not simply a newspaperman. He took an active part in organising ‘intrusions’ to disrupt Whig and Anti-Corn Law League meetings. In 1839, he and other radicals took to the platform of a meeting chaired by Edward Baines, owner of the Leeds Mercury and MP for the town. Instructed to arrest him, several policemen tried to ‘seize him in the most ruffianly manner, and endeavoured to drag him from the platform. Mr. Hobson, however, who is a powerful man, maintained his position for some time without using violence’6. It was not the only occasion on which the fiery Hobson would resist attempts to remove him from a platform.

In 1843, O’Connor ousted Hill from the editor’s chair and installed Hobson in his place. Almost immediately, however, Hobson’s previous loyalty to the Star’s proprietor came under pressure. Though not ideologically opposed to the Land Plan that was increasingly the focus of O’Connor’s attention, Hobson’s business experience told him that there were significant and perhaps fatal flaws in its execution. O’Connor’s decision to relocate the Star from Leeds to London in November 1844 must have tested Hobson to breaking point. Not only did it mean he had to oversee a huge undertaking and start a new life in the capital, it also meant that what must surely have been the biggest revenue earner of his Leeds print business disappeared overnight. For some months, Hobson tried to maintain his affairs in both Yorkshire and in London, but O’Connor took exception to his editor’s neglect of the paper while he himself was on an extended visit to Belgium, and on 30 October 1845, O’Connor sacked him. Hobson was free to go home.

Huddersfield and civic respectability

Hobson returned briefly to Leeds, and then to Huddersfield. On his return to his home town, Hobson moved to Spring Wood, to the west of the town centre, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He never married, but his widowed sister, Elizabeth Haigh, lived in as housekeeper with her children, and there was a long-term lodger: Benjamin Brown, a master letterpress printer and bookbinder, appears in the household’s census returns for both 1851 and 1861 (though he was gone by 1871)7,8,9. Brown, himself a Chartist and political ally, was Hobson’s business partner in his news agency and book store.

Though still committed to his Chartist principles, Hobson found a new focus for his energies. He put himself at the forefront of efforts to overhaul the governance of the town, taking over a vestry meeting and committing it to setting up a single improvement commission in charge of everything from roads to sewers to the water supply. The initiative petered out, but Hobson remained attached to such reforms, which were much needed in a town that had grown nearly four-fold during his lifetime. In 1848 an Act of Parliament gave Huddersfield what one local historian has called ‘a local council in disguise’. Though offered a place on the commission, Hobson preferred to take on the job of clerk of works, which gave him an income as well as a position of influence10,11.

In his new role, Hobson was instrumental in addressing one of the most pressing issues facing Huddersfield – the quest for a new cemetery to replace the overflowing burial ground at St Peter’s parish church. The sexton had been facing ‘the utmost difficulty’ in digging new graves without mutilating the bodies already there since at least 1842, and in 1851, ‘a Government inspector reported that there were 21 layers of bodies at St Peter’s, with nine burials per square yard. Corpses and coffins were piled 40 feet high… Church windows were closed to keep out the stench.’ The commission would eventually succeed in getting the new Edgerton Cemetery approved and opened, but not until 1855, the year after Hobson had stepped down and following two public inquiries, three attempts at legislation and endless interdenominational disputes over the building of new chapels.

Hobson left the board of works amid some acrimony and amid allegations of corruption and favouritism12. After a brief semi-retirement during which he farmed on the borders of the town, T.P. Crosland, a local Whig/Liberal factory owner and political sparring partner, hired Hobson to edit his Huddersfield Chronicle, allowing him to use it as a vehicle for Oastlerite Tory politics12. When in 1871 Crosland turned the paper from a weekly to a daily paper, Hobson moved on again, accepting the editor’s chair at the Huddersfield Weekly News, part-owned by his business partner Benjamin Brown.

Afterlife
‘Unveiling of the Hobson memorial’, Huddersfield Chronicle, 12 May 1877, p.5. Click for larger image.

Hobson died at his home in Spring Wood, Huddersfield, on 8 May, 1876 after a short illness. He had continued to edit the Weekly News until shortly before his death. The rival Huddersfield Examiner noted: ‘With those who knew him intimately, Mr Hobson was very genial, but to outsiders he was very reserved, and those who were most intimate with him will most regret his decease. He was in the sixty-sixth year of his age and was never married.’

The former Chartist publisher was buried at Edgerton Cemetery in his home town, where a monument erected by public subscription still stands in his memory.

Postscript: In April 1876 the Huddersfield Burial Ground Committee was asked by Hobson’s memorial committee to remit all or part of the expense of his burial in view of his efforts for the town and in particular his achievement in getting the new cemetery built, in which he now lay. Following some discussion, the committee agreed to deduct £13 13s from the total bill of £23 18s 6d – leaving the people of Huddersfield to cover cost of the grave space and monument while Hobson’s family and friends picked up the balance13. It was the sort of deal of which the successful business owner Hobson would surely have approved.

Sources and further reading

1. ‘The Charter and something more! The politics of Joshua Hobson, 1810-1876’ by John Halstead in The Charter Our Right! Huddersfield Chartism reconsidered, edited by John A. Hargreaves (Huddersfield Local History Society, 2018). Available from Huddersfield Local History Society.

2. Joshua Hobson, Baptism, in West Yorkshire Nonconformist Records, 1646-1985. On Ancestry (subscription needed).

3. ‘Death of Mr Joshua Hobson of Huddersfield’, Huddersfield Examiner, 13 May, 1876, p.7.

‘4. Joshua Hobson and the Business of Radicalism’ by Simon Cordery, Biography, 11:2, Spring 1988. On JSTOR.

5. ‘Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star’, by Jacob Epstein, International Review of Social History, 21:1, 1976. Available here (PDF).

6. Northern Star, 7 September 1839.

7. Joshua Hobson in the 1851 England Census. On Ancestry, (subscription needed).

8. Joshua Hobson in the 1861 England Census. On Ancestry, (subscription needed).

9. Joshua Hobson in the 1871 England Census. On Ancestry, (subscription needed).

10. ‘Building an alliance for urban improvement: Huddersfield 1844-1848’ by David Griffiths, The Local Historian, 59:3, August 2009. Available here.

11. ‘The search for a new cemetery site – 160 years ago’ by David Griffiths, Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 1 February 2012, Available on the Huddersfield Local History Society website.

12. Hobson, Joshua, 1810-1876, by Simon Cordery in Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume VIII (Macmillan, 1987).

13. Huddersfield Chronicle, 19 May 1877, p6.