The Northern Star

The first issue of the Northern Star appeared on the 18 November 1837. Over the next fifteen years the paper played a crucial role in cohering Chartism as a mass radical movement and ensured that its proprietor, Feargus O’Connor, became one of its most recognizable leaders. It also became one of the most successful newspapers of the early nineteenth century, with a regular circulation of 80,000 copies a week in 1839. This edition, which for the first time brings together the issues, multiple editions, and supplementary portraits, is one of the most complete in the world, offering users an unparalleled resource for early nineteenth-century social history and the print culture that shaped it.

The Star was established by Feargus O’Connor in 1837 in co-operation with the printer and publisher Josiah Hobson. Hobson was a veteran of the radical press, whose Voice of the West Riding had been one of the most successful unstamped publications of the 1830s (Chase 2007). The location of his shop on Briggate in Leeds provided a geographical identity for the title that was reproduced in its mastheads (its full title was the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser) and imprint. Leeds was by far the centre of the Yorkshire press, its three weekly papers – the radical-liberal Leeds Times, Tory Leeds Intelligencer and Whig Leeds Mercury – all having higher circulations than any others in the region. From its earliest issues the Star was a large (41 x 59cm) broadsheet weekly newspaper with six columns of closely printed type. It cost four and a half pence a week – a relatively high price for a paper aimed at a working class radical readership – and it was published in an initial edition of 3000. Its price was necessary to cover the newspaper duty of a penny per issue and brought the Star into line with the other papers in the region. Its masthead, as Aled Jones notes, was typical of many Victorian newspapers, and the format of the Star also did not distinguish it from its rivals (Jones, 2005, 4). For instance, all three Leeds papers were the same price as the Star and had the same number of pages and columns. Yet within eleven issues the Star could claim that it had surpassed the weekly sales of the Intelligencer by almost 6000 copies and was within 187 copies a week of the Mercury, a paper that boasted that it had the highest weekly circulation of any regional paper in the country. When the weekly averages for the 18 weeks up to the 31 March 1838 were calculated from the number of stamps bought, the Intelligencer averaged 3,333; the Times 2666; the Northern Star 9822; and the Mercury 9002. The paper with the next highest weekly average in the region was the Doncaster Gazette with 2000 and the paper with the highest weekly sales outside of London was the Stamford and Lincoln Mercury with 7683 (anonymous, 1838, 4).

Although the Leeds Mercury sought to dismiss the circulation of the Star by claiming that its circulation was artificially inflated by its policy of issuing portraits every six weeks, it had clearly reached a large audience very rapidly on the basis of its radical politics despite its relatively high price. As its sales increased week on week, Hobson had to invest in a new two horse power steam engine in order to meet the demand (click here for further details). The Mercury also claimed that the Star’s circulation seemed large as it included large numbers of readers in Lancashire. In a way, these readers, geographically distant from the Star’s offices in Leeds, were made possible by the price of the paper. The postal concessions that were included in the cost of the stamp allowed O’Connor and Hobson to take advantage of the postal network and so link up those readers who might otherwise believe they were unconnected (Thompson, 1984, 49). Jones acknowledges that it was probably the paper’s politics that accounted for its popularity, but also notes that it captured ‘a new kind of reader and a new kind of print’ (Jones, 2005, 19). The Star was edited by William Hill, a former handloom weaver and now Swedenborgian minister. The text he and Hobson put together combined reports of local news, often sent in my contributors or culled from other newspapers, with leading articles that addressed more general political issues. The news reports tended to focus on sensational accounts of crimes culled from magistrates courts and accounts of fires and other noteworthy events. These reports were mixed with (and sometimes used to fill space at the bottom of columns) accounts of meetings and other political activities usually sent in by the secretaries of local associations. The descriptions of meetings were lengthy, detailed accounts that contained the contents of speeches and the reactions of the audience. Drawing these disparate accounts together allowed the Star to demonstrate the continuity of the movement, with issues and speakers reappearing from place to place and sharing platforms with those better known locally. The leading article, ‘The Northern Star’, was located – as was typical for weeklies – in the middle of the paper, usually on page three or four. It was accompanied by a regular ‘To Readers & Correspondents’ column that acknowledged and replied to its readers. This column makes lively reading, and gestures towards the wider circulation of texts that underpinned the production of the paper. It also permitted the readers of the Star to see the dialogue between Hill in Leeds and its contributors distributed around the North of England and Scotland, establishing a sense of communal ownership of the paper and the reports that it contained. Whereas its politics undoubtedly helped establish it as a regional paper that could transcend its local readerships, the way local politics were presented alongside readers’ contributions and general news stories allowed its readers to see themselves as a body of people with a similar set of interests regardless of where they lived and what they did.

This mixture of the local and national – a format that the Star shared with most other regional papers – was also prevalent in its advertisements. Until the summer of 1839, the first page and a half of the Star was given over to advertisements. Some of these were for other radical publishers and titles, but many were drawn from local businesses, often located a few doors down from the Northern Star offices on Briggate in Leeds. However, as the Northern Star’s circulation soared with the agitation that led to the presentation of the Charter in May 1839, Hill increasingly devoted the front page to news, trusting to the rise in circulation to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue. In March 1839 the Star was purchasing over 40,000 stamps per issue and, claiming it was read by seven people for every purchaser, proposed a readership of almost 300,000. After the Newport Rising and the Bull Ring riots in Birmingham the Star found itself under extreme scrutiny. In March 1840 Hobson was accused of avoiding the newspaper stamp on another of his publications, the New Moral World, but was acquitted after it was proved that the title was exempt. Hobson, like O’Connor, was a wily operator who knew how far to go both in terms of printing radical sentiments and evading the stamp tax. However, this experience was not enough to save O’Connor from imprisonment in May 1840 for a libel that appeared in the Northern Star on 20 July 1839. The libellous passage appeared in an account of a speech by Bronterre O’Brien, another veteran of the unstamped press and, at that point, ally of O’Connor and the Star. In his defence, O’Connor claimed that the offending passage only appeared in the first edition of the Star and, as this was the smallest of the three (it was an edition of 3000; the second and third editions were of 37,000 each), had not caused much harm. However, the first edition of the Star, which was part-printed on Wednesday and completed on Thursday for distribution to places furthest from Leeds, also happened to be the London edition (for more on multiple editions, click here). O’Connor accounted for the difference in editions as an accident resulting from his missing the printing of the first edition due to his attendance at another trial at York. As the proprietor and the author of the report that contained the libellous speeches of others, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to eighteen months in prison. The summing up and sentencing was reported in the Star for 16 May 1840.

The impact of its proprietor’s imprisonment on the fortunes of the paper were limited. His letters, printed as the first column on the front page and written in a style that encouraged their reading aloud, still appeared regularly. By the end of 1841, the Star saw itself very much as a national paper. A rather grumpy column by Hill ‘To Readers and Correspondents’ published in the issue for 2 October 1841 made this plain while also giving a tantalizing glimpse of the working practices in the office. Hill’s complaint was that contributors, aware that the paper went to press on Thursday evening, sent in contributions by the Wednesday evening and Thursday morning posts. Hill explained that his staff began to set the paper on Monday, with the intention of having it more or less complete by Wednesday evening. This meant that if contributions arrived by the Wednesday or Thursday posts it was unlikely that there would be room for their inclusion and that space would instead be filled with police reports and items culled from other publications. The article demonstrated the pressures of time on the production of a weekly newspaper, particularly the way the time that it takes to set the paper had to be balanced against the value of contributions that arrived close to going to press. It also demonstrated the pressures that Hill was under to be responsive to his readers / contributors. The column ends, ‘Our anxious desire is to make the Star a truly national organ, equally representing all. But we cannot do this unless the country will aid us rightly in the sending of their matters of communication.’ Although the Star employed paid contributors (there were seven in 1842, including George Harney in Sheffield prior to his becoming sub-editor in 1843), it relied upon its readers for copy. As these readers were also necessary to finance the paper, Hill, Hobson and O’Connor were doubly indebted to them. The effective use of readers’ contributions would produce a timely text that flattered its contributors and so was more likely to sustain its readership; however, such readers were beyond the control of those who set the paper and distributed from Leeds.

There was a change of editorship of the Northern Star in 1843 prompted by a combination of declining circulation and an increasing rift between Hill and O’Connor. At the end of 1842 the circulation was a respectable 12,500; however, in 1843 there was a sharp fall to around 8,700, a figure below that of the early issues of the Star. O’Connor’s long cherished London daily, the Evening Star had been established in 1842 (his projected Morning Star had come to nothing in 1840) and, even though it was running at a loss, provided competition for the Northern Star. As Chase argues, 1843 was a difficult time for the radical press generally: the British Statesman, London Chartist Magazine, Poor Man’s Guardian and Repealer’s Friend, and English Charter Circular all folded, leaving only five Chartist publications: Aberdeen Review, Carlisle Patriot, Edinburgh Weekly Register, Scotch Reformers’ Gazette, and the Northern Star (Chase, 2007). Hill was finally removed from the editorship in July 1843, and O’Connor, taking decisive action, terminated the Evening Star and appointed Hobson stood as editor, bringing George Harney onto the staff as sub-editor.

As the energies of Chartism stagnated, so did the fortunes of the Star. O’Connor, recognizing that the resurgent Trade Union movement might lead to an increase in readers, aligned the Star with the trades and, in the process, relocated it in London. This was more convenient for O’Connor, who lived in London, and for Harney, a Londoner with connections to radical groups in Europe. From the 30 November 1844 the Star replaced its subtitle ‘Leeds General Advertiser’ with ‘National Trades’ Journal’ and, when the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour was formed in July 1845, Hobson was elected to its executive. The Star’s new metropolitan location reconfigured its relationship with both its readers and the news. Rather than being located near its core readership in the Northern manufacturing districts and so able to respond reasonably quickly to their news, the Star was now two journeys away: one for the news to reach London, and one to send copies of the paper back again. The expansion of the railway made distribution more rapid than it had been in 1838, but the location of the Star in London meant that it was oriented toward London news networks. For O’Connor’s justification to his readers for the move, as well as the increase in price to five pence that accompanied it, see the front page of the issue for 23 November 1844.

From 1843 O’Connor’s energies were increasingly devoted towards the Chartist land scheme. In 1845 the National Charter Association launched the Chartist Cooperative Land Society and the first Chartist village opened in 1846. The Star functioned as record keeper for the scheme as well as performing its more familiar role of cohering a movement that consisted of subscribers distributed across the country. However, the relationship between O’Connor and Hobson was becoming increasingly strained, leading to the removal of Hobson from the editorship of the Star in November 1846. Although this prompted a bitter law suit from Hobson over breach of contract and accusations that O’Connor was misappropriating funds from the land scheme, the change in staff, coupled with the momentum accrued by the land scheme and interest in the election of 1847 (O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham) raised the circulation of the Star from a lowly 6000 a week in 1846 to something like 1842 levels.

Hobson was replaced by Harney as editor and he saw the Star through the revolutions in Europe and the final presentation of the Charter in 1848. Sales, however, went into decline, falling to a low of 5000 by 1848. Harney, who clashed with O’Connor over his emphasis on foreign news (see Thompson, 1986, 53; Chase 2007), left the Star in 1850. The editorship was formally assumed by his successor, George Flemming, in the Spring of 1851, who quickly set about altering the format of the Star for the coming Parliamentary session. In the issue dated 1 February 1851 he proposed abolishing the Scottish edition and delaying the first edition until Friday evening so as to ‘place the Star on an equality with the other metropolitan journals published on the same day, as regards the lateness and variety of its news’. The extension of the railways would make it possible for Scottish readers to get this edition with other readers from outside of London, bringing them within a day of London news. This edition would be complemented by a Saturday edition for London and the home counties. He also announced that he would use more small type, increasing the content but making the paper harder to read. In a comment in the following issue he also announced a new department, ‘Our Weekly Mirror’, that would survey the week’s events. This department would be so ‘terse and complete’ that those who bound the Star would find it a ‘useful condensation of the Political and Social History of the year’. Fleming attempted to sever the link with local news and instead offer the Star as radical record of Parliamentary affairs: rather than encourage contributions, he asked that they be kept short so that more coverage of parliamentary business to be included.

This movement was completed when Harney bought the Star in April 1852 and resumed the editorship. Despite Fleming’s alterations, the format of the Star had remained relatively stable since 1838. However, it was clearly a paper in decline and Harney proposed some radical alterations. In the issue for the 17 April 1852 Harney announced that the following week the Star would be known as the Star of Freedom (it had become the Star and National Trades Journal on the 20 March 1852) and merged it with his Friend of the People. Harney also reduced the price to four and a half pence a week but claimed that further reductions were impossible. A Chartist paper, he argued, limited to its own class for its readership, would need to be half the size to survive at three pence. If the Star was to remain at its present size but be reduced to three pence, it would need to contain more police news and obtain a circulation of 30,000. Despite appointing Gerald Massay as literary editor, and securing W.J. Linton, Samuel M. Kydd and Alexander Bell as contributors, the Star was not a success. On the 14 August the Star of Freedom was relaunched, in new type, as a three column, 16 page weekly with a smaller page size of around 29 x 41cm. One advantage to this new format was that each department could be allocated a separate page. In a note explaining this change in the issue for 7 August 1852, Harney suggested that ‘its more compact form will be with many an additional inducement to preserve each consecutive number for binding in half-yearly volumes’. This shift in format marked the final stage in the transition of the Northern Star into a London weekly periodical. Its two editions, now marked ‘town’ and ‘country’ signalled Harney’s privileging of the metropolis, and his remarks about binding severed the title’s link with the passing events of the news. In this form the Star survived until 27 November 1852 before Harney moved on to his next project, the Vanguard. In the same year Feargus O’Connor was committed to an asylum where he died in 1855.

The Northern Star in ncse

The copy of the Northern Star used in ncse is held at the British Library. However, this resource – the copy text for many of the microfilm edition distributed around the world – is missing the first seven issues, beginning with issue eight, dated 6 January 1838. Earlier copies of the Northern Star are difficult to find. Issues three and five have been included from the National Archives, but we were unable to locate the others. However, the run of the Star is not just the 738 issues that were published from 18 November 1837 to the 20 November 1852: each regular issue was accompanied by a number of multiple editions. Many of these have not survived the archival practices of different institutions and, because of the problems that they cause subsequent editors, are often excluded from microfilm or digital editions. Our edition of the Northern Star includes every issue that we could find amongst the hard copy held by the British Library at Colindale. The Northern Star portraits (see below) were mostly obtained from the National Portrait Gallery. From August 2006 to January 2007 they were exhibited at the Gallery and, with the cooperation of the curator, Rab MacGibbon, we produced digital images from them. Malcolm Chase, who found the portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, alerted us to those held by Dorothy Thompson. With her cooperation, we were able to obtain two more portraits, bringing the total in ncse to fifteen.

Northern Star Portraits

The Northern Star issued thirty four engravings from its fifth issue in December 1837 until 1851. A full list is given in Chase 2005: below are the fifteen we managed to locate and film.

Of these engravings, 27 were portraits of notable figures and all but five were still living. Half of the portraits were of Chartist leaders but others included the poet Andrew Marvell, the radical Henry Hunt, and the radical liberal MP for Leeds Sir William Molesworth. As Malcolm Chase argues, the portraits were significant in that they moved away from the satirical tradition to present a pantheon of notable figures and scenes that helped establish a sense of the movement (Chase, 2005, 26). The portraits were notable for the way in which they placed the figures in classical settings, associating them with a fine art tradition while insisting on the contemporary relevance of those depicted. Cheap periodicals such as the Penny Magazine (begun in 1832 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) had already demonstrated both the market for images amongst a wide readership and the extant appetite for images that reproduced works of fine art. The portraits in the Northern Star were used to build up and maintain a base of subscribers. To produce the appropriate amount of copies it was necessary to use steel rather than copper engraving, but the process took substantially longer. O’Connor announced each portrait with much fanfare through the columns of the Star, but then often had to revise both the description of the forthcoming image and the estimated date it would be ready as it encountered difficulties in production. Although these repeated amendments to the promised image frustrated readers, they also contributed to a sense of anticipation. As only about 2000 images could be produced a week, it was necessary to distribute them by region, furthering the sense of occasion. As the paper’s circulation grew, O’Connor found himself committed to a scheme that was popular with readers and beneficial to both the paper and movement as a whole; however, as the numbers of readers wanting portraits increased, their demands became harder to fulfil, leading to protracted dialogue in the columns of the Star. As the circulation of the paper fell in 1842, O’Connor reduced the amounts of images that he offered. Between September 1841 and June 1846, only three were issued and these, Chase argues, were a reward for loyalty rather than a bid to boost circulation (Chase 2005, 42). In 1848 an attempt was made to resume issuing portraits and engravings of the Irish nationalists John Mitchell, William Smith O’Brien and T.F. Meagher were issued. Two more were scheduled to appear, but were replaced by engravings of the European revolutionaries Louis Blanc and Kossuth. The final set of portraits were issued in 1850-1 and featured Robert Peel, a group of the Presidents of the United States and two images of the Great Exhibition. For further details about the engravings, see Chase 2005.


1. Poster announcing a public meeting in Bradford, 13 December 1837.

2. Feargus Edward O'Connor after an unknown artist, December 1837. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

3. Henry Hunt, 320 x 260 mm, June 1838. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

4. William Cobbett, September 1838. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

5. Thomas Attwood, 325 x 254 mm, November 1838. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

6. John Frost, 413mm x 281mm, by William Read after unknown artist, September-November 1839. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

7. Joseph Rayner Stephens, by James Posselwhite after Benjamin, Garside 400mm x 293mm, November 1839. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

8. Richard Oastler, by James Posselwhite after Benjamin Garside, 495mm x 365mm, February 1840. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

9. John Collins, probably by William Read, 414mm x 284mm, Autumn 1840. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

10. Peter Murray McDouall, probably by William Read, 437mm x 314mm, Autumn 1840. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

11. Feargus Edward O'Connor, 457mm x 317mm, December 1840. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

12. Robert Emmet, by William Read after a sketch by James Petrie, 519mm x 365mm, July 1841. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

13. Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, George Stodart after John Childe, 504mm x 376mm, November 1842. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

14. W.P. Roberts, September 1843. Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

15. Patrick O’Higgins, June 1846. Reproduced by permission of Dorothy Thompson.

16. Ernest Jones, January 1848. Reproduced by permission of Dororthy Thompson.

Works cited

  • Anonymous, 1838, ‘Leeds, Saturday, May 19’,The Leeds Mercury, 19 May 1838, 4.
  • S. Roberts, 1995, ‘Who wrote to the Northern Star?’, Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson, ed. by Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (London: Mansell).
  • Chase, M.S., 2005, ‘Building identity, building circulation: engraved portraiture and the Northern Star’, in Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press, ed. by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton (Merlin Press), 3-24.
  • Epstein, J. A., 1976, ‘Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star’, International Review of Social History, 21, 51–97.
  • Jones, Aled, 2005, ‘Chartist Journalism and Print Culture in Britain, 1830-1855’, in Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press, ed. by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton (Merlin Press), 3-24.
  • Thomspson, Dorothy, 1986, The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution (Aldershot: Wildwood House).

Jim Mussell