Northern Star – the paper that made Chartism

The Northern Star was by some distance the most important of all the Chartist newspapers, and for family historians it is the single most significant primary research resource now available online. To get the most out of it, however, requires some preparation, and it is useful to have some idea of how the paper developed over time. This page provides a short introduction to 15 years of the Northern Star.

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
Five things you didn’t know about the Northern Star – plus a detailed investigation into how the paper was printed and published
William Hill – a biography of the paper’s first editor
Joshua Hobson – a biography of the paper’s printer and publisher

A brief history of the Northern Star

N Star 1838
An early 1838 issue of the Northern Star

Launched on 17 November 1837 by Feargus O’Connor and the Leeds printer Joshua Hobson, the paper was edited by the radical preacher Rev William Hill, and was intended from the start as a way of ensuring that the radical message was spread widely and repeatedly among its intended working-class audience.

The question of who funded the paper and how it came about is discussed in detail by the Chartist historian James Epstein in a 1976 paper (freely available online) which seeks to tease apart later accusations of broken promises and financial mismanagement, and which establishes both that O’Connor did indeed invest his own money in the paper (though not as much as he had initially promised), and that while O’Connor always ran the Northern Star as if it were his alone, there were in fact a significant number of shareholders, at least at the start.

Published from Leeds, and originally titled the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, the paper owed much to Joshua Hobson. A former handloom weaver before launching the radical Voice of the West Riding in Huddersfield, he had been imprisoned on at least three occasions for publishing unstamped papers and was a significant figure in the campaign for a free press. It was Hobson who recommended Hill as editor, and who acquired the type needed to produce the paper, which was published from his premises in Market-street, Briggate.

Sales grew rapidly from 10,000 in 1838 to a steady 18,000 in 1840, and for many years the paper appears to have been a commercial success, enabling O’Connor to help fund the wider Chartist movement. At its very peak during 1839, the Star could sell 50,000 copies of a single issue, outselling its regional competitors in Leeds and on a national stage, selling more than The Times.

The Northern Star operated as a commercial newspaper, reporting crime and court stories alongside a steady diet of Chartist news, and carried adverts. Unlike many other Chartist newspapers, it did not confine itself to comment and opinion but sought to give an account of both national and local meetings and events, happily recounting clashes between local Chartist activists and their rivals in the Anti-Corn Law League and later attempts to pack out Church services, to the consternation of the local squirearchy.

In adopting this approach the paper developed a significant network of local correspondents and agents, who reported events, sold copies of the Star and acted as a focal point for Chartism in their locality. In the absence of a centralised party structure, the Northern Star served a crucial organising role for Chartism.

O’Connor dismissed William Hill as editor in 1843, replacing him with Joshua Hobson, and the following year relocated the paper to London as the Northern Star and National Trades Journal. O’Connor sacked Hobson in 1845 and replaced him with his sub-editor George Julian Harney, an old political ally, who remained in post until 1849, when the two fell out over Harney’s increasingly socialist outlook and interest in European politics.

N Star 1842
Northern Star at the height of its circulation in 1842

With Harney out of the picture and Chartism past its peak, the well-known Owenite G.A. Fleming, who had been the paper’s parliamentary correspondent for some time, took over as editor. In March 1852 he bought the paper from O’Connor for £100 and renamed it The Star, but passed it on to Harney a month later, who merged it with his Friend of the People as The Star of Freedom, under which name it finally closed later that year.

How was the Northern Star read at the time?

The Northern Star was a relatively expensive paper, costing four and a half pence (4½d) at its launch and rising to five pence (5d) in 1844.

Although this put it outside the reach of many Chartists, it did not exclude them from its message. Like many publications of the time, the Northern Star was often bought by groups of Chartists and read aloud, prompting much political discussion and debate.

The Star itself claimed that seven people on average read each copy of the paper – pushing its real readership well into six figures. Indeed, the paper was written and laid out to aid reading aloud. Speaking at the 2008 Chartism Day conference in Newport, Dr Janette Martin explained how italics, capital letters and other typographical devices were used to guide readers.

Yearly average weekly sales of the Northern Star, calculated from number of stamps bought per year. Source: Epstein J.A.. Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star. International Review of Social History. 1976;21(1):51-97.

At the same conference, Dr Fabrice Bensimon presented an image from L’Illustration (a French paper somewhat similar to the Illustrated London News) showing a British factory worker reading what appears to be the Northern Star to fellow workers in the workshop.

The French paper commented: “Not a single syllable is uttered during twelve working hours of the day; only in the centre of the room, a reader, concealed behind the broadsheet format of The Times, with a powerful voice which seems to borrow its notes from the voice of a locomotive, declaims to his fellow workers, all of them fervid Chartists, the content of the gigantic newspaper from the date to the name of the publisher.”

Like most newspapers of the time, the Star was printed as a large broadsheet paper. This distinguished it, however, from the rest of the Chartist press, which generally appeared less frequently, in a smaller format and focused largely on commentary and opinion for content. The Star had six tightly packed columns of type to a page, and very few pictures. In Papers for the People (edited by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton, Merlin Press, 2005) Professor Malcolm Chase noted that there were “barely a dozen illustrations of any note in nearly 800 issues of the paper”.

Star of Freedom
Star of Freedom – shortly before the paper’s demise in June 1852

However, alongside the paper, a total of 34 prints were produced and given away – almost all of them portraits of Chartists and other contemporary political figures with links to Chartism. See for example this portrait of Peter Murray McDouall.

In addition to news of Chartist meetings up and down the country, a typical issue would include a lengthy address by Feargus O’Connor himself, stories and snippets of general news (mostly culled from other publications),  an extensive letters section and a replies column in which the editor would issue sometimes cryptic responses to queries and comments made by readers, lists of recent donors and subscribers to the paper and to various Chartist causes including the Land Company and the Victims’ Fund, and advertisements.

For the first 18 months of its existence, the Star carried up to a page and half of advertising on its first two pages, before giving over increasing space on the front page to news and comment as O’Connor sought to boost circulation and make up for lost advertising revenues in that way.

For most Chartists, the Northern Star brought news about Chartism’s forward march on the national and local stage, calls for action in advancing the Charter and defending those victimised for their involvement in it, new ideas and the rudiments of a political education – and a focal point for political discussion.

Further reading

The Northern Star in numbers, who and what did the paper write about? On this website.

Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (Chartist Studies Series) edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton.

‘Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star’ by James Epstein, International Review of Social History Vol. 21, No. 1 (1976), available online here at JSTOR (accessed 8 December 2023).

How do I find the Northern Star online?
A freely accessible and fully searchable run of the Northern Star can be found online courtesy of the Nineteenth Century Serials Edition project. The paper is also available on the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required).