Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School

Edited by: Hirst, Francis W.
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London: Harper and Brothers
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Collected essays and speeches by various writers, including Richard Cobden and John Bright, 1820-1896
19 of 34

Part II, Essay XII



This speech was delivered on April 22nd, 1852, by Milner Gibson, in bringing forward three resolutions for the repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge: (1) 'That such financial arrangements ought to be made as will enable Parliament to dispense with the duty on paper as early as may be, with reference to the security of the public revenue;' (2) 'That the newspaper stamp ought to be abolished;' and (3) 'That the tax on advertisements ought to be repealed.' On the adjourned debate (May 12th) these three resolutions were defeated by majorities of 88, 99, and 65. Milner Gibson was supported by Cobden and Hume. Mr. Gladstone made a very interesting speech, but did not vote. Two years before Disraeli had supported a proposition for the repeal of the paper duty. Now as Chancellor of the Exchequer he opposed it. Milner Gibson's speech, as it appears in Hansard, is diffuse and somewhat loosely constructed. It has been carefully edited, and a good deal of dead or redundant matter omitted. The speech is full of historical interest, especially to paper manufacturers, printers, and publishers.


IN bringing forward this question I would mention to the Government that I do not represent any suffering interest. Neither papermakers, nor newspaper proprietors, nor the publishers of cheap literature do I profess to represent on this occasion. My desire is simply to represent what I believe to be the public interest; and if it be alleged as an answer to the case I am about to submit, that particular papermakers are not in favour of the repeal of the tax, and that particular newspaper proprietors would rather retain the stamp duty as it is now, I beg to state that I am about to ask the House to repeal this tax solely on public grounds.


The first proposal that I shall make has reference to the simple question of the paper duty; and I would beg to remind the House that in submitting this general motion for the repeal of the taxes on knowledge, I do not ask gentlemen to commit themselves to a large reduction of taxation at this moment. I do not ask them to agree to any simple motion which embodies the three propositions—namely, the repeal of taxes on paper, advertisements, and stamps. I intend to ask their opinion on each proposition separately, so that any gentleman who is not favourable to the repeal of the newspaper stamp, but is to that of the paper duty, will be at liberty to vote for the latter proposition, and withhold his vote from the former. My own opinion undoubtedly is that all these three resolutions should be carried; but I shall submit them to the House separately, and take a separate division upon each. Let no gentleman, therefore, understand that he is committing himself to any immediate large reduction of taxation in agreeing to one or other of the resolutions that I shall propose.


In regard to the first resolution, the duty on paper, I am only asking the House to agree with a resolution which the Commission on Excise Duties came to in the year 1834, that the duty on paper, in conjunction with two other duties, should in the end, on moral and general and commercial grounds, be totally repealed. Now, the motion I have submitted is headed with a species of preamble. It speaks of the injurious policy of deriving revenue from taxes on knowledge. But before I go to the effect of the paper duty in preventing the diffusion of knowledge, I must allude to the oppressive regulations under which the manufacturers of paper labour, to the bad effect of the paper duty in obstructing the improvement in the manufacture of paper, in hindering the employment of labour, and in preventing our becoming an exporting country in the article of paper.


If I were to omit these points, I should be considered not to do justice to the subject in hand. I am quite aware that to complain of excise regulations is after all but a complaint against the whole of your excise system. I admit that. But what I maintain is that no case can be made out so strong, in regard to the manufacture itself, and the employment of labour on any article subject to excise duty, as can be made out with reference to paper. There are gentlemen far better acquainted with all the many details of the vexatious regulations which the excise, for the purpose of protecting the revenue, is obliged to carry out;*74 but of this I will remind the right honourable gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer that they are not sufficient to protect the honest manufacturer from fraudulent paper manufacturers. Large quantities of paper come into the market which have never paid the duty, and compete with the article produced by the fair and honest manufacturer who has paid the duty. This is important, because if you relax these regulations, in that very relaxation you conceive a new danger by enabling manufacturers the more easily to bring paper into the market which has never paid the duty. Bear in mind that these regulations are almost at the instance of the manufacturers themselves, as being necessary to protect them from the competition of fraudulent dealers.


With regard to the employment of labour, as I address a Government that especially cares for the agricultural interest, let me remind the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the manufacture of paper is one of our rural manufactures, and that the clear streams of Buckinghamshire*75 are precisely those best adapted for the manufacture of paper. But the excise duty on paper has shut up all the paper mills on the Buckinghamshire streams. The paper manufacturers are gradually becoming more and more reduced in numbers, a fact which shows that the excise system and these regulations have created a congestion of capital, and are bringing the whole business into the hands of a few great capitalists. I will take the liberty of reading a letter which the right honourable gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer has received from Mr. Herbert Ingram, the proprietor of the Illustrated London News:—

'...I take the liberty of addressing you upon a subject of national importance...that of the excise duty on paper, with the whole effect of which I am particularly acquainted, not only as a newspaper proprietor, but also as an extensive manufacturer and consumer of paper. Your long and honourable connection with literature, and the high position which you now occupy in the councils of her Majesty, justify me in believing that you will do me the honour to listen to the facts which I proceed to lay before you in explanation of the practical injuries inflicted by this impost—injuries which were, I am certain, never contemplated when the tax was first levied. I need scarcely explain to you that when paper is first made it is wet; that as the excise duty is levied upon the weight, the paper manufacturer naturally dries the paper that it may be as light as possible when he is favoured with the visits of the excise officer; and that after it has been so dried and paid the duty, it must be wetted again before it can be used in the printing-office. The double process of drying and wetting, besides being attended by a very considerable expense for labour, naturally damages the quality of the paper, and, moreover, involves an additional cost in subjecting it to pressure that the article may recover the glossy and smooth surface it has lost. Now, I have found by experiment and trial that paper can be manufactured in a fit state for the printer with a beautifully smooth surface which would not be impaired by printing and drying; and that printing upon such paper would be carried to much higher perfection as an art than can be attained by paper dried and re-wetted according to the present practice. The dampness of such paper would be scarcely perceptible to the touch, but would require (for such paper as the Illustrated London News is printed upon) a weight of steam or water amounting to no less than 13 lbs. per ream. If I were to use such paper in my business I should have to pay an excise tax upon water of no less than 1s.d. per ream, in addition to a tax of the same rate per pound on the paper itself. Now, I consume 26 tons of paper per week, or 1040 tons and upwards per annum, a fact which I state that you may see at a glance what an enormous sum I should have to pay as a penalty for using the improved paper which I could manufacture by the aid of a little water.'


This I read in order to show the effect of your regulations in preventing the best mode of manufacturing paper. Mr. Ingram then goes on to say that he could employ this invention in the manufacture of paper for educational books, but that he is prevented by this obnoxious paper duty from adopting that system. Mr. Ingram finishes his letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer by saying—

'You must, sir, in your youth have wandered along the beautiful streams of Buckinghamshire, and listened to the busy sounds of the water-wheel tearing to pieces an otherwise useless article to manufacture it into valuable paper; and it must have given you pleasure to reflect that this gave healthful, pleasant, and remunerative employment to great numbers of the rural population. Most of the Buckinghamshire mills have, I grieve to remind you, been swept away under the operation of the excise duty, and transferred to barren but populous coal districts, leaving the population of Buckinghamshire unemployed and to a great extent pauperized. I have no hesitation in saying that, if this excise duty upon paper were abolished, these mills would be again prosperous, and would employ large numbers of people. Nor is this the only evil result of the tax in agricultural districts. Straw is no sooner employed in paper-making than it is taxed 300 per cent.'


So that you see with regard to the raw material of which paper is made; with regard to the labour of men, and women, and children, who are employed in the manufacture of paper—and I believe that when paper is made three-fifths of its value consists of the labour that has been employed upon it—considering also that the agricultural districts are precisely the localities best adapted by the purity of their streams of water for the manufacture of paper, I contend that I have some claim to submit this question to the consideration of gentlemen opposite, even as an agricultural question. And in regard to Ireland, I can have no doubt whatever that the repeal of the excise duty on paper would have a most beneficent effect on the employment of labour in that country. The excise duty on paper causes a larger capital to be required to carry on a paper manufactory than would otherwise be necessary; and, therefore, in a country which has been so much pressed down by difficulties of various kinds as Ireland has been, and has so little capital to carry on various branches of industry, it is highly important that a manufacture so valuable, particularly in respect to the employment of labour, should no longer be oppressed by these excise duties, especially when you consider that the revenue derived from that excise duty in Ireland is very small, because the effect is not to give you a revenue, but to prohibit to a great extent the existence of the manufacture in that country.


There can be no reason whatever why this country should not manufacture paper for the whole world. We might become exporters of paper as we are exporters of cotton goods, but by your foolish duty you actually induce Americans to come to this country, and buy up cotton waste, and the refuse of ropes, and a variety of other articles, for the express purpose of manufacturing them into paper, with which your own colonies are supplied. Why, this is a system that does not supply you with revenue. All it does is to prevent in this country the progressive increase of a valuable manufacture, to prevent the employment of labour, and to prevent the improvement, both moral and physical, of the great body of the working population.


I will now allude to that most important view of this question that peculiarly belongs to it, and does not apply to any other question of taxation, and that is the effect the paper duty has upon the literature of the country. Now, sir, I beg to ask a favour of gentlemen opposite, if any of them condescend to go into this question, and also of gentlemen on this side of the House, that they will not make use of an argument which has been as it were a stock argument used in opposition to the repeal of the paper duty. It is said that the duty on paper enters to so small an extent into the retail price of a book, that a purchaser of that book would never feel the effect of the repeal of the paper duty; and the right honourable gentleman, lately the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and another right honourable gentleman, the late President of the Board of Control, who is no longer a member of this House, but is now a member of the other House, both made use of this argument, and alluded to M'Culloch's dictionary, saying it weighed four pounds and a half, and sold for 50s., and that the paper duty being three-halfpence a pound amounted to something like sixpence on this commercial dictionary, a reduction which the purchaser would not appreciate. Well, now I can only say in answer to that statement that it may be very just, but that it has no reference to the position I am taking up. My position is not in reference to the paper duty on works which sell at 50s., but on your cheap literature, which is sold at a low price, and to succeed must have an extensive circulation; that was the species of literature I was touching upon. But even as to the former argument, if the reduction of the price of books is of no value to the purchaser of books, what is the meaning of our repeal of the paper duty on bibles and prayer-books, but that you wish to increase the circulation of the sacred volume, and an acknowledgment that your excise duty on paper has to some extent at least an effect in preventing the circulation of these books? This view of the question is not at all met by the argument about M'Culloch's dictionary; and I ask as a personal favour that upon this occasion at least it will not be repeated, though I know it is the official argument that has always been used. What appears to me to be the real injurious effect of the paper duty on your cheap literature is, not that it raises the price, but that it deteriorates the quality; that the tax on paper stands in the way of improving the quality of that literature which is circulated among your people, and that you have a deep interest in taking every step in your power to render such literature as moral and as improving as possible. You have your penny publications; but what stands in the way of rendering these publications as good as they might be? Why, your paper duty; and I will explain how that operates. Take the case of a penny publication, and I will quote Mr. Cassell, who is extensively engaged in the publication of excellent works calculated to improve the great body of your population. One of them is entitled, and justly, the Popular Educator. Why, this gentleman calculates that the money he pays to Government in the shape of duty on paper used in these publications is little short of £100 per week. If the duty were repealed the price would not be reduced. The price of a penny is low enough to insure a large circulation, but he could not put into his pocket the £100 per week. Competition would force him to lay it out in improving the publications, and he would employ better literary talent than he is able to employ at present. Why, it is a monstrous thing that a man who issues penny publications in this country, like the Popular Educator and the Working Man's Friend, should be called on to hand over to the public exchequer some £40 or £50 a week for each such publication, the fund out of which authorship should be paid. The man who only looks to cheapness, who does not care what he publishes, and who gives translations from French novels, and matter appealing to the passions, for the purpose of creating a large circulation, copies what he wants from existing works, and the duty that he pays to Government does not stand in the way of his issuing these penny publications, because he does not want a fund out of which to pay for authorship; but if you wish to meet that man in the market with better cheap publications, you must create a fund out of which the authorship can be paid, and a higher order of literature produced. I do not know that I have stated the case clearly to the House. It is clear to my own mind, but I will refer the House to some observations written by a gentleman who is well qualified to give an opinion on this subject, Mr. Charles Knight, who has published one or two excellent pamphlets on the subject, one called The Struggles of a Book, and the other The case of the Authors against the Paper Duty. He is a man of weight on this question and of experience; and I am sure the House will admit he is a legitimate authority.


I think that if you are sincere in your wishes to advance education, you should show your sincerity by making this one of the first taxes to be repealed. It appears to me an inconsistent course to be teaching the people to read, if you do not at the same time do everything in your power to improve the quality of the books they are likely to peruse. The existing demand for penny publications, and the appetite for knowledge of some kind or another, is so strongly evidenced by the extent of the transactions in this branch of business, that you must not suppose that there will not be extensive circulation of some kind or another, no matter what may be the state of the law. That is no longer a matter of doubt, but a matter of certainty, and therefore every well-wisher of his country must desire that the quality of the literature which is so extensively circulated should be as good as it is possible to render it.


I have dealt with the advertisement, the paper, and the newspaper stamp duties together, because these three taxes originated at the same time, were put on together, were reduced together, and I should wish them to be taken off together. I admit that the duty derived from paper, amounting to about £800,000, although after all but a small sum when set against national education, is too large a sum when looked at financially to ask you at once to repeal. The Resolution of which I have given notice calls for the immediate repeal of the newspaper stamp and the advertisement duty; but, as I said before, I only ask you to record your opinion that the paper duty ought not to be retained as a permanent mode of taxation. I have great suspicions, and I will give my reasons for those suspicions, that these latter, and the paper duty itself, under the specious disguise of raising money, as it was called, for the purposes of the war, were really only parts of a system established for the purpose of restraining literature and keeping down the press. I suspect as much, and I think I am in a condition to prove it, in the case of the advertisement and stamp duties; and I cannot help thinking, as they came into being at the same time, and by the same Act of Parliament, that similar motives actuated the Parliament of those days in regard to them. With regard to the advertisement duty, what is it? Only £160,000 a year. Is that a large sum to be frightened at? Let us remember what a large surplus revenue we have when we talk about repealing a duty which strikes more than anything else at the very revenue which was proposed to be augmented by its adoption.


A tax on advertisements! A tax providing that no man may say what he wishes, or tell what he wants, in the way of business transactions without being fined eighteen-pence every time he speaks through the only channel by means of which he can make himself generally heard. It is impossible to conceive, if I may be allowed to use so unparliamentary an expression, a more stupid tax than this advertisement duty. Why, if I wanted to find out a mode for lessening the public revenue, I should certainly invent one restricting the communication between commercial men, and so in lessening communications, lessen transactions, lessen trade, lessen consumption—in short, lessen the sources from which revenue arises. I venture to say that if you repeal this advertisement duty of £160,000 a year, you will never know it in next year's revenue. Then, if this be true, can anything be more cruel than to say that the poor servant girl who wants a place, if she makes her want known, must be fined eighteen-pence? Take again the cases of shipping, of mercantile transactions of every kind, can anything be more obvious than that to impede the knowledge of what is going on is the surest possible way of restricting mercantile transactions? There is nothing a man has to sell which some other man does not want to purchase, if they could only be brought together. Do not add, then, to the unavoidable difficulties of trade, which are themselves large enough; do not stand in the way of the people making their mutual wants known to each other. Look at the United States, with their 10,000,000 of advertisements in their newspapers every year. How many have you in England with a similar, and, if possible, a more commercial population? Only 2,000,000; and you are thus defrauded of 8,000,000 of advertisements by the duty. And who are many of these advertisers who are shut out by this duty? The very poorest of the population. The rich advertiser who takes his column of the Times pays his eighteen-pence, and the poor servant maid, who wants a place is similarly taxed. Why, there is no justice in the distribution of the tax, setting aside the unfairness of the principle. Its inequality is so glaring, that, whether I advertise in a paper of large or small circulation, the duty is the same, although publicity is what I am supposed to be paying for. But I cannot believe that the money, £160,000 a year, is, or was, the object with the Legislature. Revenue never can be the reason why rational beings should persist in maintaining a tax which is so opposed to commercial progress and sound principles of legislation. There is something else; and that something is, to injure and keep down the newspaper press, and to cripple its independence. That is made evident by the tenor of your law. You practically say in your Act of Parliament that every time a man advertises in a newspaper he must pay eighteenpence, but if he advertises on a wall or in an omnibus, or employs one of those nuisances, the advertising vans, to which an honourable and gallant member some time since called the attention of the House, he may do so, and there is no duty imposed. But let him go to the newspaper, and he is mulcted in a pecuniary penalty at once. The advertisements form the legitimate fund for supporting a newspaper; and if you drive people away from its columns, you take the most direct means possible for injuring and lessening the independence of the newspaper press. Why, all these nuisance vans, placards, and advertising companies, are only so many proofs of the pressure of the advertisement duty on the means of publicity. I must here observe that a company has actually been formed for the purposes of this mode of advertising. But your advertisement duty does not affect them; it is only when you go to the unfortunate newspaper, the legitimate vehicle for this kind of knowledge which ought to have the benefit of these advertisements, that the penalty is enforced. I hold the prospectus of this company in my hand, and from this it appears that the company undertakes to advertise anything and everything, and will absorb the advertisements that would go to the newspapers, were it not for the tax.


And, after all, what is an advertisement? I am certain this House does not know. The Board of Inland Revenue does not know; so strange is the tax that even official personages cannot understand or explain it. There is, for instance, the Daily News, a paper that undertook to give a list of sales about to take place, not in the form of an advertisement, nor charging anything for the insertion. They gave it merely with a view of making their paper attractive, and to supply the public with a useful piece of information. But the Board of Inland Revenue at once pounced down upon the proprietors, and said, 'You shall not insert this list, although you charge nothing for it, unless you pay eighteen-pence for each separate announcement.' Again, it appears that announcing ships to sail is an advertisement, while announcements of arrivals are free of duty. I mention this to show you that trade is not dealt uniformly with. And there are other ways in which the general newspaper is interfered with. Class publications may make as many announcements without duty as they please. There is a sporting paper in which you have various kinds of announcements every week, which it appears to me are just as liable to duty as those upon which the duty is charged. In 'Matches to Come' there is a whole list of pedestrian matches; and another list of what is called 'The Canine Fancy,' in which there is a long list of dog fights. Again, in the 'Fancy' announcements as regards the 'Ring,' there is a regular announcement of all the fights to take place. For instance, there are 'Wedgebury and Green, announced to fight at Birmingham,' and fourteen or fifteen similar announcements. Now, what I have to say with regard to these announcements is, that they are much less valuable to the public than lists of ships to sail, or sales to take place, and that the latter are as much entitled to indulgence as the extracts I have read. Again, there are 'Horse-races' and 'Steeplechases,' very strong instances; and another announcement headed 'Rating Sports Extraordinary.' I believe the policy is not to interfere with this description of advertisement, which is only interesting to certain classes, and circulating only among particular persons, while you do everything to hamper the announcements in the general and political newspaper press of the country. You allow many of these announcements about prize-fights and steeplechases and meetings at public-houses, involving great pecuniary advantages to the parties interested, to go free, while on matters of public benefit and importance you come down on the newspapers for the advertisement duty. Inform the public that on such a day a sermon would be preached for the relief of the survivors of the Amazon calamity, or merely announce the places where subscriptions would be received, and although the newspapers put in those announcements gratis, the Board of Inland Revenue comes down for its eighteen-pence. It was the same in the case of the Irish famine, and in all subscriptions for religious or charitable purposes a great proportion goes to the Government; and it is only when we turn to the sporting world, to steeplechases and 'ratting' feats, that the Board of Inland Revenue exercises such extreme leniency. I hope, then, I may confidently appeal to the House for the repeal of this advertisement duty, which cripples the newspapers and prevents the diffusion of a vast mass of useful information, stands between the employer and the employed, and will, if persisted in, have a most pernicious effect on the competition in trade and commerce in which this country is engaged with the United States. I hope I shall have the support of the noble lord the member for London (Lord John Russell), who can have no objection on financial grounds, and who always expressed himself the friend of a free and independent press. Surely I may claim his support for my motion. As a matter of course I shall have the support of honourable gentlemen opposite, who brought forward a vote of censure on a distinguished member of the late Government for some transaction with a newspaper in Ireland. Why, the reason these newspapers are to be tampered with, and to take money for writing up this or that political view, is because you deprive them by taxation of the legitimate means of carrying on an honest and independent career. And let me tell you that throughout the whole newspaper press, although there may be some misgiving as to the newspaper stamp question, I never met one person who was not for the repeal of the advertisement duty; and it seems obvious that they should be so, because in proportion as you reduce the tax you must increase the number of advertisements. In the case of the Times, it would be impossible for it to have more advertisements than at present, for it would then become a huge book of advertisements. But there would be an overflow, and then every other newspaper would have a fair chance of getting a share. The Times would retain all it has, and possibly be improved in a commercial point of view, while the poor labourer or servant who advertised would be materially benefited. You must recollect that the advertising van is only a more costly mode of advertising than the newspaper, and that it is not suited to the servant or labourer and other humble persons, who require the cheapest possible mode of announcing that their services or other commodities are to be disposed of.


Having said thus much with regard to the advertisement duty, which more properly belongs to my honourable friend the member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart), who has devoted much attention to the subject, and has made great and meritorious efforts, I will now pass on to the question of the newspaper stamp. I said I could show that this was not a revenue question at all, and that it had never been proposed by the Legislature, or continued by the Legislature, speaking through the preamble of their Act of Parliament, as a revenue question. For how do we find that the Newspaper Stamp Act originated? On the 17th of January, 1711, there was a message from the Crown, and to that message there was a reply, which I have extracted from the journals of the House:—

'Mr. Secretary St. John informed the House he had a message. Her Majesty finds it necessary to observe how great license is taken in publishing false and scandalous libels, such as are a reproach to any Government. This evil seems to be grown too strong for the laws now in force; it is, therefore, recommended to you to find a remedy equal to the mischief.'


The answer of the House was as follows:—

'We are very sensible how much the liberty of the press is abused by turning it into such licentiousness as is a reproach to the nation, since not only false and scandalous libels are printed and published against your Majesty's Government, but the most horrid blasphemies against God and religion; and we beg leave humbly to assure your Majesty that we will do our utmost to find out a remedy equal to the mischief, and that may effectually cure it.'


In fulfillment of their pledge, I find the House proceeded to pass the following resolution:—

'Some members were so exasperated at the Dutch memorial being published in a newspaper, that on the 12th, the House being resolved into a Grand Committee to consider of that part of the Queen's message to the House, the 17th of January last, which relates to the great license taken in publishing false and scandalous libels, Sir Gilbert Dolben being the chairman, they came to these two resolutions: "1. That the liberty taken in printing and publishing scandalous and impious libels creates divisions among her Majesty's subjects, tends to the disturbance of the public peace, is highly prejudicial to her Majesty's Government, and is occasioned for want of due regulating the press. 2. That all printing presses be registered, with the names of the owners and places of abode; and that the author, printer, and publisher of every book set his name and place of abode thereto."'


These resolutions were ordered for discussion on the Tuesday following, but it was put off, and further adjourned from time to time, because some member of the Grand Committee of Ways and Means had in the interim suggested a more effectual way of putting down libel—namely, that of putting a duty on newspapers and pamphlets. To show that the object was not mistaken by the public writers of the day, I will read an extract from Dean Swift, in which he says—

'Among the matters of importance during this Session, we may justly number the proceedings of the House of Commons with relation to the press, since her Majesty's message to the House of January 17th, concludes with a paragraph representing the great licenses taken in publishing false and scandalous libels, such as are a reproach to any government, and recommending them to find a remedy equal to the mischief. The meaning of these words in the message seems to be confined to those weekly and daily papers and pamphlets reflecting upon the persons, and the management of the Ministry. But the House of Commons in their address which answers this message, make an addition of the blasphemies against God and religion; and it is certain that nothing would be more for the honour of the Legislature than some effectual law for putting a stop to this universal mischief; but as the person who advised the queen on that part of her message had only these in his thoughts, the redressing of the political and factious libels, I think he ought to have taken care by his great credit in the House to have proposed some way by which that evil might be removed; the law for taxing single papers having produced a quite contrary effect, as was then foreseen by many persons, and has since been found true by experience. Those who would draw their pens by the side of their princes and country are discouraged by this tax, which exceeds the intrinsic value both of the materials and the work; and this, if I be not mistaken, without example.'


Now, all that Dean Swift foresaw has since come to pass. I therefore say, that experience up to the present time shows that taxes on newspapers and pamphlets is not the best mode of suppressing irreligious publications or libels upon government, because such publications can be managed in a way in which you cannot reach them. They are sure to come out in times of excitement unstamped, and those who would support the cause of order and religion are disqualified by the tax from establishing wholesome publications to defend the truth. But the same feeling actuated the Legislature up to a recent period. When they extended in the reign of George III. the stamp to various publications to which it did not before apply, they said nothing about revenue, nothing of the kind. The preamble of that Act ran thus:—

'Whereas pamphlets and printed papers containing observations upon public events and occurrences, tending to excite hatred and contempt of the Government, and constitution of these realms as by law established, and also vilifying our holy religion, have lately been published in great numbers and at very small prices, and it is expedient that the same should be restrained, may it therefore please your Majesty that it may be enacted, and be it enacted by the king's most excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords spiritual and temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, that from and after ten days after the passing of this Act, all pamphlets and papers containing any public news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State, printed in any part of the United Kingdom for sale, and published periodically, or in parts or numbers, at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days between the publication of any two such pamphlets or papers, parts or numbers,' etc.


It is clear, therefore, that revenue was not the object. An idea, however, has sprung up, that though the stamp duty was not imposed for revenue purposes, the postal advantages which have been connected with it were such that the duty had better remain as it is, since it enabled newspapers and other printed papers to be transmitted through the post free from other charge. But with this question of the postal transmission of newspapers, the tax on news has really nothing to do. You may make what regulations you please for the transmission of printed papers by post, but the question is whether a man may be allowed to publish news without a stamp. It must be observed that there are upwards of fifty-four papers which are allowed this privilege of only stamping the stamp on the particular papers which are transmitted by post; but by your plan you make those pay who do not send by post, in order that those who do may have postal accommodation. Now, it appears that there are 80,000,000 of stamps issued annually, and that there are 66,000,000 of postal transmissions. But of these, as was proved before a committee of that House, one half are re-transmissions; so that, in fact, the number of papers benefited by the accommodation is reduced to 33,000,000, and 80,000,000 of papers are taxed for the accommodation of 33,000,000 of papers. Besides, how easy would it be to provide a stamped wrapper for printed papers, up to a certain weight, charging on it a penny, or a halfpenny, if you please. I am not here to suggest postal regulations; but of this I am sure, from what Mr. Rowland Hill said, that the post-office authorities are anxious to retain the carriage of printed matter, and that, rather than lose it, they would carry them for the lowest possible charge. It might be less than a penny, for they would have to compete with private carriage; and Mr. Rowland Hill said that if all the newspapers were taken from the post-office, they would not be able to reduce to any appreciable extent the expenses of the establishment. It is therefore clear that all that would be got for carrying newspapers would be so much added to the revenue of the post-office. Besides, if the stamp was taken off, the man who now waits two or three days for stale news, by taking in a second-hand newspaper, could then have a fresh newspaper at the same cost each day, and get the news at the earliest moment. It is clear that the object would be obtained by a cheap system of postal transmission. I am not one of those who think that newspapers ought to be carried free, but I object to making a law that every man shall stamp his paper if it contain news, because there happen to be some people who wish to have the privilege of sending these papers by post. I say take off the stamp generally, and when you send by post let there be a stamped wrapper. I will not say more upon the postal question, which is beside the question before the House; and, besides, it will be perfectly easy to deal with it without injuring any person whatever.


I now revert to the point which was suggested in the time of Swift, that these stamps would secure you from libellous publications. They do not, even if you were able to enforce the law, which you are totally unable to do, and perhaps would be afraid to do. The wording of the Act does not touch essays or political speculations. Among these publications there is one entitled the English Republic, or God and the People, attacking monarchical institutions, and, in the words of the Act, bringing the laws and institutions of the country into contempt. But this also deals with religious questions, attacks the truths of Christianity, and enters into political and theological questions—in fact, all those things which you wish to prevent. Then there is another paper. It is called Notes for the People, and is written by Mr. Ernest Jones. I will not say that it is of an objectionable character, because I give no opinion on these publications; but I will read a paragraph from it, in order to show the doctrines which are published for the working classes in the form of speculative theories, while you are passing a law which has the effect of preventing their having any record of public news, or allowing papers of that kind to compete with publications such as these. It is a passage from this work of Mr. Ernest Jones, addressed to the people of the Bristol Cotton Works.*76


Such is the tone of the publications, and such are the theories which you are willing to allow. This is an unstamped publication, but it is precisely of the nature of those which the present law was intended to put a stop to. In quoting these publications, I am showing the extreme folly of preventing the people from having a choice between buying such a publication as this, and buying news of a useful character such as a cheap newspaper would record, which comprises the course of current events, the proceedings of our Courts of Justice, the proceedings of Parliament, and the occurrences of daily life in which every man takes a lively interest; and there is no one who would not prefer news to any mere speculative theories or any collection of essays. But independently of this, it is a monstrous injustice to deprive the working classes from having news in their penny publications. If you make war against news contained in penny publications, we of the upper and middle classes alone have all the news; and why are the upper classes to monopolize it all? Is not the labourer interested in obtaining a knowledge of all that is going on relating to trade, to the progress of emigration, and the advancement of industry? Look at the established newspaper press. What a pernicious effect these duties appear to have had on the established newspaper press! It can be shown that there are only two morning papers in London that have an increasing circulation; all the rest are declining, and becoming year by year 'small by degrees and beautifully less.' It appears to me that, unless you allow them the opportunity of reducing their prices, so that new fields of operation may be open to them, we shall soon have only two London morning papers left, the Times and Morning Advertiser. The Times has risen from a comparatively small circulation to one of 12,000,000 annually, while the rest of the press is declining. The House is in possession of all the tables which were laid before them last year, containing a return of the number of all the stamps issued; and it will be found with regard to the other papers that the Morning Chronicle has a yearly circulation under 1,000,000, the Morning Herald of perhaps something more than 1,000,000, and the Daily News perhaps of something like 2,000,000. The Daily News, soon after it commenced, reduced its price to 2½d., when its publication immediately rose to between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000. The price was again raised, however, owing to the pressure of the taxation, and its circulation at once fell back to its old point, nor is it now, as far as can be judged, improving. In fact, the only two papers whose circulation is maintained are the Morning Advertiser and the Times. The former had a peculiar class of support, and the latter is eating up all the rest of the London daily newspapers, so that in a few years they will probably be the only newspapers which the people will have to read. That is not a satisfactory state of things. I take these facts from a work written by Mr. Henry Hunt, called the History of the Newspaper Press, who there comments on the fact that during the last fifty years—with the exception of the Daily News and the Morning Advertiser—all attempts to set up new morning papers have failed; thus showing that there is no room for any new London paper; and that the tendency of your taxing newspapers three times over is to create a kind of monopoly in them, and to limit the diffusion of news to a few hands. I do not charge any existing paper with advocating the maintenance of the stamp duty, on account of their own vested interests. It was stated, on behalf of the Times, before the committee of last session, that the removal of the stamp duty would be attended with commercial advantages to that paper, and that the stamp on the supplement has a tendency to limit its circulation; and the words of Mr. Mowbray Morris, the manager of theTimes, who was examined before the committee, as I recollect them were, "that if, as manager of the Times, he had only to consider the supplying the public with as many papers as they would buy, he could double the circulation in two years." The effect of the stamp duty on the supplement of the Times was to render it necessary for the managers to prevent the circulation from going beyond a certain amount; for when the advertisement fund, for the advertisements in the supplement, is exhausted, then, as far as the supplement is concerned, profit ends, and loss commences, so that the circulation must be stopped. Thus the effect of the stamp law is, first to lessen the circulation of the leading paper to half what it might be; and also to affect all the other papers by causing a declining circulation; and, what is worse than all, to prevent the working classes from having any newspaper at all. You limit the supply of newspapers to the wealthy and middle classes, and deny it altogether to the working classes. I ask you, therefore, to repeal this tax upon principle.


Can you enforce your law after all, and can you say what is news on which you profess to be able to impose a tax? What is the law upon this subject, and can your law officers explain it? What is the position in which you are now placed? You engaged in a suit at law with Mr. Charles Dickens, or rather his publishers, who published an excellent and interesting compilation called Household Narrative of Current Events, which is issued every month, and gives the news up to the end of the month. The Board of Inland Revenue, having put down other monthly publications of a similar character in different parts of the country, tried to put Mr. Charles Dickens's publication down also. He tried the question in a court of law, and the judges decided three to one in his favour. So that, after all the expense which was incurred in getting up the case and bringing it to trial, it was decided that the Household Narrative of Current Events was not a newspaper, and that Mr. Dickens had a right to publish news in a publication without a stamp, provided that it was not issued oftener than once a month. The judges did not decide in accordance with the practice of the Board of Inland Revenue, as pursued in many cases, but on a new view of the question—namely, that of the infrequency of the publication, and that news which is published only once a month is to escape the duty. Mr. Dickens has obtained a verdict in his favour; but the Government say they are not satisfied with that verdict, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or rather the Attorney-General, says that he proposes to disturb that decision, and that he will have another lawsuit, in order to see whether this paper is liable to the stamp duty or not I say this is a great grievance. You happen, in this instance, to have fallen in with a man of spirit, who is able and willing to fight the question in a court of law; but how many persons are there who have neither the means nor the courage to contest a suit at law with the Board of Inland Revenue? If you tax so vague and so indefinite a thing as news, to all time the law will be one mass of uncertainty, and many persons will be subject to great injustice. You will be in the same position as you were under the Stamp Law in 1836, when, after some hundred persons who were connected with the publication and sale of the Poor Man's Guardian had been imprisoned, the Courts of Law decided that it was not a newspaper, and did not require a stamp; and therefore the whole of the proceedings against these persons was a gross injustice and a very great oppression. You will be in the same position if you carry out the law, as you are trying to do, in the case of the Household Narrative of Current Events, and you will end the matter in the same way as when the Board of Inland Revenue prosecuted these papers and seized the printing presses. I do not mean to say that there is any desire on the part of the Board of Inland Revenue to oppress the publishers of the Household Narrative of Current Events; for I believe there was a desire to administer the law leniently; but it is inherent in the system of taxing so indefinable a thing as news, that they should appear to act severely, and should be defeated in the end; and you will find that you will be defeated in the end. Those consequences will be the natural result. If you think it right to attempt to maintain the respectability of the press, to maintain your institutions, and the interests of religion, by taxing newspapers, is it fit that you should leave the discretion of prosecuting them or not to the Board of Inland Revenue? Are excisemen the sort of persons to be entrusted with the maintenance of religion and of your institutions? If it is to devolve on them, as has been clearly proved before the committee, to decide what publications are to be proceeded against, and in what cases the law may be dispensed with, you set them up in a certain degree as the censors of the press; and it is possible that in bad times they may be made subservient to the wishes of the ministers of the day, or of any party that may wish particular papers to be oppressed. It appears to me to be a most dangerous doctrine to lay down, that the law is not to be enforced in all cases, but is to be held in terrorem over these publications, and they are to be told that they may go on within a certain limit, but if they break beyond that point which the Board of Inland Revenue may think to be dangerous to our institutions, then the penalties on unstamped publications will be enforced. It appears to me that such a result will follow from the law as it now stands on the Statute-book. Can any one believe that the Government of 1852 will venture on a crusade against the unstamped press, like that of 1836? I believe they would shrink from such an undertaking. But it is their duty to undertake it. If you are afraid to enforce the law, repeal it. If you cannot enforce it equally, do not maintain it at all; for if you do, you cause great injustice. There is nothing to prevent the Board of Inland Revenue from proceeding against these publications; but if they do, they will endanger the little that remains in their power, and the very existence of the stamp itself. I have stated that many of these unstamped publications contain news, but I will not confine myself to assertions, but I will bring forward proofs, and then leave the House to judge whether that is not the case. There are several sporting papers which are unstamped. Take the Racing Times; does it not contain all relating to the various races and the latest betting? and is not that news? There is the Racing Telegraph, which is as much a newspaper with regard to races as anything can be. Here is a recent number, which takes a glance at the late meeting at the Northampton and Pytchley Hunt Races, and gives a list of the stewards and the whole account of the races. Then, with regard to the Epsom Spring Meeting, it tells us that 'Lord Derby was successful in pocketing the Whittlebury stakes by means of his Longbow, and that Mr. Meiklam came in second.' This is regular news; but the Board of Inland Revenue has chosen to draw a distinction between this class of intelligence and general news. So long as a publication confines itself to one subject, it need not be stamped. It appeared the principle is that if you divide one newspaper into half a dozen, each confined to one subject, they might be untaxed; but, if you collate them into one, the newspaper must pay. All this is, I believe, a pure invention of the Board of Inland Revenue; for a horse-race is undoubtedly a public occurrence. If the 'Derby' is not, what is, when this House has, for some time past, regularly adjourned upon that day? There are many sporting papers of the same kind. The Racing Times, as well as the Racing Telegraph, gives a similar account of the Northampton meeting. This is actual news, and the paper is a record of facts; and there are many other papers of the same kind, such as the Legal Observer, which chronicles all suits at law, and all the proceedings of our courts of justice; and the same may be said of the Builder, and others, which, if the law was enforced, would come under the operation of the Stamp Act. Then, again, with regard to comments on news, your legislation was intended to affect not only the chronicling of current events, but the observations made on them. I ask if this is not an example which I take from a publication of Mr. Richard Oastler, entitled The Home? He gives Mr. Ferrand's letters to the Duke of Newcastle, and then he comments on several public proceedings, and on debates in this House, and addresses a letter to my honourable friend and colleague [Mr. Bright], in which he says—

'I should have left you to have taken your chance in your own "tumult," had you not ventured, in the House of Commons, to utter the most extravagant, impertinent nonsense that ever escaped from the lips of mortal. At a time when all our military and naval authorities, supported by the voice of the public, demand that this nation shall be put in a better state of defence against foreign invasion, and when both the last and the present Government had determined that that most constitutional force, the militia, shall once more be organized, and that the men shall be trained a few weeks every year, to enable us to resist any invading force, you are ready to oppose that necessary and constitutional proposition. Not from any love of peace—that is impossible; for, but a few days before, you had proved that you were animated, from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head, with the martial spirit, the spirit of war, and were prepared to take the field, to engage in civil war, in defence of what you call free trade, which, no man knows better than yourself, means the ascendancy of the cotton lords, low wages, and long hours of factory toil.'


I say, such a document, coming immediately after a speech delivered in this House, observing on public occurrences, and the publication which contains it, is liable to a stamp; but you cannot enforce the law, and if you did, you would have to deal with a legion of the same kind, and you would be involved in all the troubles of 1836. This is a cogent reason why I should vote for the repeal of this law. Again, take the Legal Observer. I found in it an article relating to the question of the attorney's certificate, which states 'that many burdens of like character had been removed, while the attorney's annual certificate was excepted,' and concludes—

'We observe that several petitions for the repeal of this tax have been presented from individual members of the profession, and a few from particular towns; and we presume there can be no objection to these occasional notes of preparation for the renewed contest; but we understand the preferable course will be to procure the attendance of members on the day fixed for the debate, in order that they may present the petitions to the House just before the motion of Lord Robert Grosvenor.'


This is merely observation upon news, and I might quote hundreds of the same kind from other papers, but there is one so marked, that I must state it. It is taken from the Lamp, an unstamped paper of 6th March, 1852, and it is contained in its first leading article, in which it is said—

'Be it known unto all whom it may concern, that the Russell and Durham Ministry has paid the debt of nature. Long before these lines meet the eye of our readers, all the world will have learned the fact, and all the world—save the paltry, place-loving family clique—will rejoice at it. What a singular turn out! And by what singular instrumentality! "Old Pam" has had his revenge, and no doubt he chuckles o'er the downfall of him who so lately and so unceremoniously requested him to vacate his chair in the Foreign Office.'


Now, I call this commenting on public events. Why does not the Attorney-General enforce the law? or, if he is afraid to do that, why not repeal it? This publication also contains many comments on the late Government, as well as on the present, and has also a leading article upon the coming elections, and states what the duty of the electors is in the following words:—

'But, after all, what is our present duty? Why, to take every means in our power to thwart the "Tories" to put them out of office as soon as possible. Give them not an hour's security. What, then! let the Whigs reassume power. Not so. The Whigs, as they are, can never again take office. There must be no family compact. There shall be none; or, if there be, the "Brigade" will drum them out of their quarters.'


If this is to be the mode in which you enforce the stamp duty on such papers, then I say that I have established a clear case why the House should consent to the resolution I propose. The Postal question I have disposed of. The newspaper proprietary we are not entitled to consider as a body who have vested interests in the maintenance of these taxes, or who are entitled to urge that they should be maintained to prevent a new rivalry with their interest. Nor do I believe there would be many of them who would take that course, but if there were, we, as a Parliament, are bound to deal with them on the broad ground of justice to the community. Having so long detained the House, I will not trouble them with any lengthened peroration, but simply move the first resolution.

Notes for this chapter

Some interesting illustrations were given later in the debate on May 12th by Cowan, the member for Edinburgh, himself a paper manufacturer.
Disraeli, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was member for Buckinghamshire.
Milner Gibson then read the passage in question, which was in effect an invitation to the people to break down the monopoly possessed by the proprietors of the Cotton Works, and to endeavour to possess works of their own, and urging them to endeavour to obtain for the working classes £10,000,000 out of the interest of the national debt, and £10,000,000 out of the £16,000,000 spent on the naval and military expenditure of the country.

Part III, Essay I

End of Notes

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