The Six Acts and Censorship of the Press

Today we round off our Peterloo blog series with Dr Katie Carpenter’s second post about the legislation that was rushed through Parliament following the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819. Today she discusses its aim of censoring the press…

After the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Liverpool’s government quickly passed six pieces of oppressive legislation in late 1819. These new laws, which became known as the Six Acts, were designed to prevent another incident like the Peterloo Massacre, by quashing political radicalism and preventing mass meetings. Two of these Acts were designed to counter what, on introducing the bills to Parliament, Lord Castlereagh called ‘the treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press’ (Lord Castlereagh, HC Hansard, 29 November 1819).

The ‘Six Acts’, 1819 © Parliamentary Archives

Prior to 1819, radical newspapers had been able to avoid paying some taxes by publishing ‘opinion’ and not ‘news’. The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act imposed taxes on?  these publications. Subsequently the price of the newspapers went up, and fewer people could afford them, forcing some out of business. The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Acts placed harsher punishments on those accused of publishing blasphemous or seditious material. The maximum sentence was transportation for up to fourteen years. The other four of the Six Acts sought to suppress mass meetings and prevent the use of weapons by protesters.

The passing of the Six Acts prompted protest from all over the country. However, this is not to suggest that condemnation of the Acts was universal. Indeed, one petition from the vicar, churchwarden, vestrymen and others of St. Pancras, presented to the House of Lords on 29 November 1819, was in favour of restricting the freedom of newspapers, or, to use their phrase, to prevent ‘Abuses of the Liberty of the Press’. The petition was over three metres long with hundreds of signatures arranged in three columns.

The petitioners were very grateful ‘to Almighty God for the Liberty, both Civil and Religious, which has been enjoyed by the Inhabitants of this Country for a Course of Years’. However, the petitioners [or they] were in favour of the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, on the grounds that it would protect the uneducated working classes from being unduly influenced by blasphemous and radical ideas. They wrote: ‘That the petitioners do therefore view with indignation, the unwearied and audacious efforts of evil-minded men, who labour, by abusing the liberty of the press’. They described the efforts of such men to ‘delude and inflame the Mass of the people into a hatred of those principal [sic] and habits on which the well-being of society and the everlasting happiness of mankind depend.’ The petition concluded by asking for laws which could suppress blasphemy or sedition in the press more effectively.

Habeas Corpus © Parliamentary Archives

The suggestion that the poor and uneducated masses were susceptible to being ‘deluded’ by radical reform was common in this period. In 1817, just before habeas corpus was suspended, a House of Lords report described politically radical clubs and societies as aiming ‘to infect the minds of all classes of the Community, and particularly of those whose situation most exposes them to such impressions’ (The Report of the Secret Committee (1817), 23-24, HL/PO/JO/10/8/387, Parliamentary Archives). Indeed, when Castlereagh introduced the Six Acts to the House of Commons, he declared, ‘It was in his opinion utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders’ (Lord Castlereagh, HC Hansard, 29 November 1819).

Whilst the Six Acts might seem draconian today, historians such as Norman Gash and John Plowright have highlighted their ineffectiveness. Norman McCord has argued that in comparison to other regimes in Europe at this time, these measures seem fairly minor. The new punishments were rarely implemented. In 1830, the sentence of banishment was repealed from the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act. Arguably it was the four-penny stamp duty imposed by the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act which had the ‘most lasting injury to the community’, but even this was reduced to a penny in 1836, before all taxes on newspapers, sometimes called the ‘taxes on knowledge’, were completely repealed between 1853 and 1861 (George Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782-1919), 190-191).

KC

Further Reading:

  • Norman Gash, Aristocracy and People: Britain 1815-1865 (1979)
  • Norman McCord, British History 1815-1906 (1991)
  • John Plowright, Regency England: The Age of Lord Liverpool (1996), 31-32.
  • George Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782-1919) New ed. (1960), 190-191.

Katie Carpenter is an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow with the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, and the Parliamentary Archives, who has been researching Peterlooas part of the Citizens Project’s forthcoming Massive Online Open Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts and the Parliament & Peterloo exhibition.

Check out our video: What happened after Peterloo? From Repression to Reform.

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