The Manchester Herald: How the city’s first radical newspaper was silenced, shut down and smashed to pieces
The Manchester Herald was a publication so inflammatory that it was shut down and had its offices smashed up within a year of its first issue - with its editors fleeing into voluntary exile.
When The Manchester Observer finally ceased publication in 1821, the ruling elite must have breathed a sigh of relief.
The local northern newspaper had been a thorn in the side of the authorities since its formation three years prior – its pages littered with incendiary pieces aimed at rousing the public into forcing political change.
But governing figures began to change their minds about the Observer in 1819. Initially, they’d considered the paper a nuisance. By summer, they’d revised that view: regarding it actively dangerous.
In August, Observer editor James Wroe invited the loquacious Henry Hunt to Manchester to speak at a mass rally at St Peter’s Fields – where a crowd had gathered to ask for political representation at a time when only wealthy landowners could vote.
The animated but peaceful protest was invaded by troops who took a shockingly violent approach to the occasion – killing 18 people and injuring hundreds more.
The Observer exposed the murderous behaviour of the cavalry in grisly detail and dubbed the event The Peterloo Massacre – a name which has stuck to this day.
In the aftermath, anyone associated with the Observer was targeted, prosecuted or even imprisoned by officials, and the paper was eventually closed.
But the lingering sense of public anger (and fear) meant there was still demand for press that dared to rail against the establishment; and more progressive newspapers were born throughout the course of the century – beginning with The Manchester Guardian (which remains in print 200 years later, now based in London).
The Observer is often hailed as Manchester’s first radical newspaper – the publication that paved the way for more robust local press.
But around thirty years prior to Peterloo there was The Manchester Herald: A publication considered so inflammatory that it was shut down and smashed up within a year of its first issue – with its publishers fleeing into voluntary exile.
By the end of the 18th century, there was growing demand for parliamentary reform in England, with calls emerging for changes at national and local level.
Two of the most passionate reformers in Manchester were barrister Thomas Cooper and local cotton merchant Thomas Walker.
The pair launched the Manchester Constitutional Society in 1790 and asked the city’s local newspapers – The Manchester Mercury and The Manchester Chronicle – to print the group’s notices about meetings and petitions.
Over time, however, both papers became increasingly reluctant to publish material discussing the controversial topic of parliamentary reform, so Cooper and Walker decided to set up their own newspaper instead.
They called it The Manchester Herald – and convinced local stationer Matthew Falkner (and his business partner William Birch) to print it.
The publication was the self-proclaimed ‘paper of the people’ and released its first edition on 31 March 1792.
Around 50 issues of the Herald were created overall – the last of which was published on 23 March 1793.
Despite its fleeting existence, the Herald was described as operating with “a degree of spirit and reputation that will not soon be forgotten in [the] neighbourhood”; packed with radical writing including abolitionist articles and “positive” pieces about the French Revolution.
The paper’s progressive stance made it some powerful enemies in the process.
In December 1792, an angry pack of Loyalists – described by writer John Bugg as a “drunken church-and-king mob” – raided the Herald’s offices on Market Place, before attempting to attack the paper’s founder Walker at his home.
The editor scared them away by firing his gun above their heads.
The Herald was repeatedly targeted in the subsequent months, and by spring the government initiated legal action to ensure the newspaper was shut down.
The publication’s critics revelled in its demise and quickly danced on its grave – smashing up the Herald premises and hurling printing equipment into the street.
The Herald’s printer’s – Falkner and Birch – fled to America, “preferring a voluntary exile to imprisonment”.
Falkner returned home several years later but never retrieved his stationery business, printing house or property, and passed away in Burnley in 1824.
One of Falkner’s friends bemoaned the unfairness of the situation, claiming Falkner had been “seduced into political opposition” and was “deserted” by his former allies in the adversity surrounding the Herald‘s closure.
Falkner’s obituary read: “One of the kindest-hearted of mankind was driven from his country, and his fortunes, till then prosperous, entirely ruined.”
Herald co-founder Walker was placed on trial for treason in 1794 – accused of attempting to mobilise his own army (the incident in which he fired a gun at invaders was raised in court).
But the prosecution leaned heavily on a testimony from an informer who proved to be drunk and unreliable, and eventually Walker was acquitted.
He dabbled on and off in local politics in his later years, and died in 1817.
Fellow Herald founder Cooper, meanwhile, moved to the States in 1794, developing a reputation as an academic leader who was, according to President Thomas Jefferson, “one of the ablest men in America”.
He passed away in Columbia in 1839.