Last Years of the Morning Chronicle

In 1877 Charles Mackay published his two-volume “Forty Years’ Recollections of Life, Literature and Public Affairs from 1830 to 1870” and dedicated two chapters to The Morning Chronicle, one of the years from 1835 to 1844 and the other of the final years of the newspaper. Another related chapter details some of the newspaper work he undertook and discusses Angus B. Reach who was both a friend and fellow Morning Chronicle journalist and who penned the Manufacturing Districts letters during the “Labour and the Poor” investigation.

Forty Years’ Recollections, Charles Mackay, 1877.


In the olden times, when newspapers were overburdened with taxation, that brought but little to the national revenue, but which very effectually repressed the circulation of news and political opinion, it was a more costly and hazardous enterprise to establish a daily journal than it is now, though even in our day, when the State has removed its heavy hand, the field is so fully occupied that rivalry with any of the existing favourites cannot be wisely attempted by any one unprepared to risk a hundred thousand pounds in the venture. The public, in the days of our fathers and grandfathers, did not read half so much as they read now, and cared less for opinions than for facts; and when a journal was fairly alive and able to pay its way, its growth was almost as slow as that of a tree. But once firmly rooted—as the Times and Morning Chronicle were thirty years ago—it was as difficult to kill a great journal as to give it birth. Yet the unfortunate Morning Chronicle, that, under the administration of Messrs. Easthope, McGillivray, and Duncan, showed no symptoms of weakness or decay, inflicted upon itself in the year 1846 a blow from which it never recovered. Alarmed by the establishment of the Daily News, under the auspices of Mr. Charles Dickens, and the powerful moneyed friends by whom he was supported, a paper which was started in avowed opposition to the Chronicle; alarmed also by the secession of some of the best writers and critics, who had been allured from their allegiance to the good old journal by the handsomer salaries, greatly in excess of what they had hitherto enjoyed, or that were previously known in connection with the London press—Sir John Easthope and his partners took what proved to be an unwise determination. The price of the Chronicle, like that of the Times, and all the other morning and evening journals of the metropolis, was fivepence per copy, and it was proposed to publish the Daily News at twopence. To meet this competition, and in the hope of increasing its circulation by the lowering of its price, the Chronicle, in spite of the warnings of the late Mr. W. Smith, the experienced senior partner in the greatest newspaper house in the world, resolved to reduce the price of the Chronicle to fourpence. This was, in the first place, a confession of weakness, and, in the second, it was a most inadequate concession to the rivalry of cheapness. To have reduced the price to twopence might have been an act of successful strategy, but to retain the Chronicle at a price double that of its young competitor, was simply to sacrifice one penny per day on every copy sold. The daily circulation of the Chronicle was reputed to be about 9,000; and to strike off nine thousand pence per diem from its revenues was to sacrifice £225 per week, or about £13,000 per annum. The reduction was not attended with any perceptible addition to the number of its subscribers, while the diminution in price was such as to convert its former large profit into a small one, if not into a loss. The Chronicle never recovered from this blow, and did for itself what no rivals or enemies could ever have accomplished. At the same time it made bad worse, by retrenching its expenses, dismissing some of its most powerful writers, and lagging behind the newspaper enterprise of the time, when it ought to have braved rivalry by well-judged expenditure. The inevitable result was not long in declaring itself. The Chronicle lost prestige, not so much by the superiority of its rival as by its own confession of want of faith in its destiny. It very shortly afterwards passed into the hands of a new set of politicians, composed of men who, unlike the old proprietors, had little faith in Lord Palmerston, the rising genius of the Whig party, or of that coalition of Whigs and more advanced Liberals that at the time were known as Whig Radicals, but much faith in the Duke of Newcastle (then Lord Lincoln), the Earl of Aberdeen, and Mr. Gladstone, who all at that time steered a middle course between Liberalism and Toryism, and who might have been justly called Liberal Conservatives.

The new proprietors of the Chronicle were not very anxious to disclose their names to the public, but they could not conceal that of the editor, John Douglas Cook, a hard-headed Aberdonian, once a reporter on the parliamentary staff of the Times, who, if he did not wield the pen of a very ready writer, had much political knowledge, a judicial head, and a capacity for government, which enabled him to bring under control, and compel to homogeneity, the sometimes conflicting views and opinions of his editorial assistants, so that their work, when presented to the public, should exhibit the impress of one leading and governing mind, and one consistent and self-sustained idea, whether in questions of politics, literature, or art. The financial and business management was entrusted to Mr. W. F. Delane, who had been long connected with the Times, and had lately seceded from that journal. Under this gentleman, though neither money nor enterprise was wanting, it was up-hill work for some time with the Chronicle. Yet it seemed, nevertheless, in the year 1850, that the fine old newspaper, the Nestor of the London press, always consistent, always brave, and always liberal, would not only regain its lost political influence, but increase it. Some time towards the close of the year 1849, a grand enterprise was suggested to the managers by Mr. Henry Mayhew, no less than an exhaustive enquiry into the condition of the poor, and of the labourers and handicraftsmen of the British Isles and of the whole of the nations of Europe. The scheme was vast, and costly; but nothing daunted by the difficulties that lay in the way of its successful execution, the new proprietors of the Chronicle resolved to undertake it. No enterprise of such magnitude had ever before been attempted by a newspaper, although it has subsequently been dwarfed by the joint enterprise of the Daily Telegraph and the New York Herald in sending the gallant Mr. Stanley, at the head of a little army of explorers, to discover the sources of the Nile, and lay bare the hidden secrets of the heart of Africa. Mr. Mayhew commenced his work by a comprehensive enquiry into the condition of the workers and the destitute classes in London, in which unwieldy metropolis there were said to arise every morning one hundred thousand persons, young and old, male and female, adults and infants, who knew not how to procure the sustenance of the day. Mr. Mayhew divided his great subject into those “who can work, and do work;” “those who can work and are willing to work, but who can get no work to do;” and those “who will not work, unless upon compulsion of the workhouse and the prison, and who prefer the to them easier and pleasanter life of tramps, beggars, vagabonds, and thieves.” As his work proceeded many curious and invaluable revelations of the inner life of the miserable, the vicious, and the degraded, as well of the hard and all but hopeless struggles and sufferings of the virtuous poor, were brought into the blaze of a critical publicity. It was, in one sense, as if a mighty microscope were applied to the festers, social sores, and diseases of humanity; and in another, as if some unparalleled photographic apparatus was brought to portray fresh from the life the very minds, rather than the bodies, of the people. While Mr. Mayhew reserved for himself the extended field of the metropolis—more than sufficient to occupy the time and energies of a philosophic mind, and an untiring hand for the best part of a life-time—coadjutors were found necessary to assist in other departments of the work, and were easily procured. Mr. Angus B. Reach undertook some of the large towns and chief centres of industry in England, and was afterwards dispatched to the wine-producing districts of France to describe the condition of the vintagers, and all who were occupied in the cultivation of the grape. He republished these letters in an interesting volume entitled “Claret and Olives,” which is now out of print, and rarely to be met with. Mr. Alexander Mackay, author of a book of travel in America, in three volumes, entitled “The Western World,” which is equal in many respects to the far better known work of M. De Tocqueville on “American Democracy,” and who had twice visited the United States in the service of the Morning Chronicle, investigated the condition of the rural population in various parts of England, but had to leave his work unfinished to undertake a mission to India, on behalf of a body of Manchester manufacturers, to report on the causes which prevented or impeded the cultivation of cotton in that region. Mr. Shirley Brooks took up the work that he had left unfinished, and described the avocations and the people of some of the Midland Districts, agricultural as well as manufacturing. His labours were varied by a lengthened sojourn in the Southern grain-producing provinces of European Russia. These Russian sketches were of greater interest at the time than they would be now, for the politicians of 1850 were doubtful whether Russia could supply this country with as much corn from Odessa as the public had been led to suppose. On the earnest solicitations of Mr. Delane and Mr. Cook, I undertook, though not on the regular staff of my old journal, to enquire into the condition of the people in the two important towns of Liverpool and Birmingham. Two of the subjects which engaged particular attention at Liverpool, and the publication of which excited more than usual notice, both in Great Britain and America, deserve a passing record. The first was the discovery of that singular sect the Mormons, of whom and whose practices the public now knows so much, and of which it then knew nothing. The second afforded a curious example of the power of the London press to remedy an evil which the local and provincial press was generally unable to remove, and sometimes unwilling even to discuss.

In such a port as Liverpool, from whence the main streams of the great flood of British emigration flows, and have long continued to flow to the United States and Canada, the emigration question, as part of a still larger subject, was certain to attract the early attention of any one, deputed by a great London newspaper, to investigate the condition of the poor. But there was one rill that helped to swell the emigrational river, that trickled at its own wanton will, unknown and unnoticed, or if occasionally noticed, despised as of no account, that by mere accident attracted my attention as the representative of the Morning Chronicle. On calling at the office of a great firm, by the agency of whose vessels—not at that time steamers, but fast-sailing packets, now almost entirely superseded—many thousands of people were conveyed across the Atlantic, I was informed that on the following day a party of Mormons were to take their departure for New Orleans. On expressing my wish to go on board and see the party off, the agent expressed his surprise that I should have any curiosity with regard to the proceedings of such “obscure and worthless fanatics,” and thought that the public and the readers of the Morning Chronicle would not care to know anything about them. My opinion was different, and it was arranged that one of the clerks of the firm should accompany me on board the following day, and introduce me to the captain. This was done, and the captain in his turn introduced me to some of the principal Mormons, who were elders of the congregation, and had charge of the passengers. I learned from one of them that so far back as 1840 the disciples of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and four years before the murder of that singular impostor, by the enraged mob of the city of Nauvoo, where he had founded his temple and avowed the principles of polygamy, he had established some sort of emigrational agency in Liverpool, having correspondents in all the great centres of industry in England and Scotland. During the year 1849 about 2,500 emigrants from Wales, the North of England, and Glasgow, had sailed from Liverpool for New Orleans, to join the Latter Day Saints, as the Mormons called themselves, in Salt Lake City, in the territory of Utah, where these semi-Mahometan, semi-Judaic Christians had established themselves on their expulsion from Nauvoo, and that since 1840 the total emigration in connection with the sect had amounted to about 14,000 souls. The English Mormon agents, not alarmed at publicity, but, on the contrary, courting it, with a hope of increasing the volume of emigration to the territory of the new prophet, Brigham Young, who, after a troubled and uncertain interregnum, had succeeded the murdered Joseph Smith as chief magistrate and pope of the polygamy community, placed at my disposal a whole barrow-load of tracts, magazines and periodicals, published by the Mormons both in England and America. By the aid of these I was enabled, in a series of three letters in the Morning Chronicle, to place before the public, for the first time, a true and impartial history of the origin and progress of the new superstition, or imposture, which had its birth in the brain of the ignorant, but nevertheless clever and ambitious Joseph Smith. The letters excited very great attention. The information conveyed was not only new to the British public, but surprising; and, being afterwards supplemented by a large accession of fresh and authentic materials, was republished in April, 1852. This volume first made the religious world acquainted with the so-called religion which had taken root in the New World, and was drawing from Great Britain many stalwart men, to parody in America the part of the Hebrew patriarchs, and aspire to be, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the progenitors of another chosen people, by means of polygamy, and to settle their descendants in the possession of a new Canaan in the heart of America.

The second subject of inquiry, which proved to be as unexpectedly important to the people of Liverpool as it was to the rest of the empire, related to the local government and management of the noble docks of that great emporium. Nearly half a century previous to this time a great fire had broken out in the Goree warehouses, a large and valuable pile of buildings on the banks of the Mersey, which destroyed property valued at nearly £330,000. The warehouses had cost £44,500 to erect, and contained at the time of the conflagration, bonded grain of the estimated value of £120,000; sugar of £60,000; coffee of £8,500; cotton of £30,000; and miscellaneous articles amounting to £60,000. The ruins continued to emit smoke and occasional flashes of flame for nearly three months; and before the great alarm which the conflagration caused had entirely subsided, the public fears for the safety of the shipping in the port was again excited by a fire which broke out on board of a lighter in one of the most crowded of the docks. This fire was speedily extinguished, and though it did but little damage, the alarm it caused so acted upon the minds of the Liverpool people—the merchants, the directors of insurance offices, the owners of warehouses, and others—as to make all parties yield their assent, without due thought and enquiry, to a provision introduced into a subsequent Dock Act, that neither fire nor light should in future be allowed on board of any vessel in the docks of Liverpool. For nearly forty-eight years the Act had been in operation, during all which time it had inflicted much discomfort and hardship upon the sea-going population that frequented the port, inasmuch as the officers and crews of ships in the Mersey, in the long, cold, and dark nights of winter, were driven to seek the warmth and accommodation on shore that they could not procure on board of their own ships. The American captains from New Orleans, New York, and other transatlantic cities, were loud in their complaints, and declared, publicly and privately, that they would rather enter any port in the world than Liverpool, because in all other ports, London included, they could find the comforts of home in their own vessels. I was invited to dine with half-a-dozen New York captains—who had their head-quarters at the Waterloo Hotel—in the hope that they could persuade me to institute a thorough investigation of the operation of this oppressive bye-law, and place the results before the London public—and, consequently, before the public of the whole empire. I gladly accepted the invitation. The local press, I was informed, had for years, and from time to time, published letters of complaint on the subject, but wholly without effect. Efforts had been made, but in vain, to have the subject discussed in Parliament. The members for Liverpool either would not meddle with it for fear of offending their most influential constituents, or were of opinion that the prohibition was just and necessary; and the persons more immediately aggrieved had not succeeded in inducing any member for any other place to take up the question. The New York captains thought there might be a chance of obtaining a hearing from the dock authorities if a great London journal, like the Morning Chronicle, would go fully into the matter—take evidence and publish it—and appeal to the good sense of the nation, on what they considered, though it might at first glance appear to be of purely local importance, an affair of national interest. I undertook the task, constituted myself a court of enquiry, and found no lack of witnesses, ready and anxious to give important evidence.

I found that the prohibitory enactment had many friends and supporters, who contended on its behalf that if Liverpool were singular in this respect it was only a proof that the docks of Liverpool were better regulated than any other docks in the world; and that the danger of fire was in reality so great that it was much better to inflict a little temporary hardship upon the sailors and officers, than by abolishing or relaxing the law, endanger the existence of millions’ worth of property. The captains alleged, on the other hand, that the prohibition was so cruel and oppressive as in many cases to defeat itself; that lights were used secretly, and therefore dangerously; that the expense of boarding the captains, officers, and men on shore, amounted to a heavy and unjustifiable tax both upon the foreign and the coasting trade; and that, worse than all, the regulation had the direct effect of sending the sailors into public-houses, gin-shops, low dancing-houses, and brothels, in search of such common comforts as light and warmth, of which they were cruelly and unnecessarily deprived; that they were thereby demoralized and rendered unfit for their work, and that very often valuable ships on leaving Liverpool were lost on account of the inability of the men to perform their duty after a course of two or three weeks’ revelry among the debaucheries and depravities of the town.

The evidence proved to be of a very startling character, and more than corroborated all the preliminary statements of the aggrieved captains. It filled altogether about twelve columns of the Morning Chronicle, and excited so much sensation when reproduced in the principal local journals, and reprinted as a pamphlet at the expense of the American captains for gratuitous distribution to every householder in the town, that the Dock Trustees had no alternative but to reconsider their previous legislation on the subject, with a view to the relief of the maritime population. Though it was conclusively proved that great injury was done to the health and morals of the seamen, that trade was improperly taxed, that a greater number of vessels caught fire, and were lost on leaving Liverpool, and in a much greater proportion than in London or any other port in the world; and that all these evils, and many others, were clearly traceable to the operation of the obnoxious bye-law, it was possible that all these representations of evil, and all these proofs of it, might have continued to be unavailing to produce a remedy except for one little but highly important fact. There was one dock in Liverpool over which the Liverpool dock authorities had no control, a private dock, constructed by the famous Duke of Bridgewater, and at that time the property of his heir and representative, the Earl of Ellesmere. This was called the Duke’s Dock, and such frequent mention was made of it by the witnesses who voluntarily came before me, that I resolved to make inspection of it. I found it to be a narrow dock with abundance of quay room, and that it contained on the day of my visit twenty-four “flats” or barges, and two schooners, that had reached Liverpool by canal. I saw from the smoke that there were fires on board every one of these vessels. The quays were covered with cotton bales, bound for Manchester, with barrels of tar and oil, and with kegs of naphtha, and other inflammable spirits. One flat particularly engaged attention. It was so heavily laden with cotton, that unable to stow the cargo otherwise, the crew had piled the bales to a height above the chimney, and the smoke seemed to be issuing from the cotton. The dockmaster, to whom I spoke on the subject, said there was no danger. No accident had ever occurred in that dock so long as he remembered it, or that he had ever heard of. “What was more,” he added, “the Duke’s Dock is the principal gunpowder dock in Liverpool, and independently of the powder which is shipped and unshipped on the quays in large quantities, no dock had such inflammable matter entering it and leaving it as the Duke’s—and yet there never had been an accident from fire.” This evidence proved to be irresistible. The local journals made the most of it. Public opinion was fairly aroused to demand the concession claimed. The dock authorities, after animated discussions, yielded the points in dispute, and permitted fires and lights on board of all the ships in the docks, with only such restrictions as to time as were enforced in London, Southampton, and other ports.

The sequel of this story will be best told in the two following letters from a gentleman, a member of the Society of Friends, who took much interest in the question on the grounds of humanity and philanthropy, and who acted as honorary secretary to a committee that charged itself with the presentation of a memorial, in remembrance of the victory that had been won.

Beechley, near Liverpool,

“9 mo. 2, 1850.

My esteemed Friend,

“I send thee by this post a copy of the Liverpool Chronicle, containing important proceedings by our Dock Committee, and a good article on Fires and Lights. The subject, I think, is now about settled.

“The American captains feel how much they are indebted to thee for the rapid progress of this cause, and have expressed repeatedly their wish to make thee some little return: and if thou would accept of a present, either in the form of a gold snuff-box, a bank note, or in whichever way would be most agreeable to thyself, I am sure it would be affording them a gratification, and I shall be only too happy to carry out their wishes.

“Captain Knight has gone to sea: Captain Shearman goes to-morrow. He dined with me yesterday, and wished, that if I had an opportunity, I would tell thee, that if thou ever wished to visit the United States, so long as he and Knight sailed, they should esteem it a privilege to give thee a free passage in their ships out and home.

“I remain,

“Thine very sincerely,

Charles Wilson.”

Beechley, Liverpool,

“1 mo. 30, 1851.

My esteemed Friend,

“It is with real pleasure that I sit down to inform thee that the testimonial from the American captains is at length completed, and will be sent off to London on Saturday night next. Till then it remains on view in Mr. Mayer’s window, to give the worthy captains and all who have taken an interest in the Fire and Light question an opportunity of seeing so well merited and, I may say, popular a tribute.

“As a pleasing incident, I may mention that as soon as Mr. Mayer was aware of the object of the testimonial, he expressed his wish to be allowed to contribute towards it, by producing as handsome an one as the subscriptions would allow, free from all charge, except the cost of material and workmanship, saying that the introduction of Fires and Lights on ship-board would tend so greatly to the comfort of the sailor and to the morality of the town.

“Hoping that thou mayst live long, and with every happiness, to enjoy this mark of appreciated services in a good cause, I remain, with sincere regards,

“Thy sincere friend,

Charles Wilson.”

It only remains to add that the testimonial consisted of four very handsome silver candlesticks, with a complimentary inscription.

Though the inquiry into the condition of the masses of the people in all parts of the country was carried on with great spirit and energy by the Morning Chronicle and its numerous correspondents; and though vast quantities of valuable information were thus communicated to the world, it was generally understood that the circulation of the paper was not in consequence increased to the extent which the proprietors anticipated. But they did not lose courage, or bate a jot of heart and hope in their great enterprise. But a circumstance occurred which brought it to a premature conclusion. The gentleman who had the largest pecuniary interest in the Chronicle, as well as the greatest confidence in the political cause which it represented, and the greatest sympathy with the social questions which it had undertaken to discuss, unexpectedly died. His executors, in the absence of any instructions in his will, decided that his estate could no longer contribute to the working expenses of his favourite journal, and that it was their duty to his family to sell his interest in it.—A purchaser with the requisite means and courage to sacrifice large sums annually, with the hope of eventual profit and reward was not easily to be found. Ultimately, the copyright of the Chronicle was sold to a person unskilled in newspaper management, who damaged its character by selling its columns for a subsidy from a foreign potentate. From his possession, after a short and not very brilliant struggle to keep it standing on this rotten foundation, it passed into the hands of a speculative American, who knew little or nothing of English politics or English feeling. He speedily discovered the mistake that he had made. Under his manipulation the Chronicle went rapidly down in character, and in sale; and passed finally into a still lower depth of degradation, in which it expired of inanition and mismanagement in 1864, in the ninety-sixth year of its age.

But “even in its ashes live its wonted fires.” One of the old proprietors, who had carried it on with so much spirit in the days of its “Labour and Poor Commission,” resolved, after the Chronicle had been sold to the acceptor of foreign subsidies, to establish a weekly journal, and to employ in conducting it its late editor, Mr. Douglas Cook, and the principal members of its editorial staff. That weekly journal still exists, as a vigorous offshoot of the old Morning Chronicle, and it is known far and wide as the Saturday Review—a power in the world, both of politics and literature.

Forty Years’ Recollections, Charles Mackay, 1877.