William Bradbury was born in Bakewell, Derbyshire, in 1800. After leaving school he became an apprentice compositor in Lincoln. Bradbury moved to London in 1824 and began a printing business at 76 Fleet Street in partnership with his brother-in-law William Dent.
In 1830 Bradbury formed a partnership with the printer Frederick Mullett Evans in Bouverie Street. In July 1833 Bradbury and Evans moved the printing works to nearby Lombard Street where they installed a large, steam-driven cylinder press, that was ideal for printing newspapers and magazines. As his biographer, Robert L. Patten , has pointed out: "This and some twenty smaller machines were kept running round the clock six days a week, with men working in relays, thus achieving a level of productivity that soon gained Bradbury and Evans a reputation as one of the most efficient printing firms in Britain."
Patten has argued: "After opening a printing works dominated by a large steam-driven rotary press of the latest design, and advertising the firm as one capable of handling the demanding task of printing newspapers and other periodicals, Bradbury and Evans soon had such major clients as the Chambers brothers in Edinburgh, for whom they printed Chambers's Edinburgh Journal and Chambers's Cyclopedia, as well as Richard Bentley, Alexander Maxwell, Edward Moxon, and Edward Chapman and William Hall. In the 1850s they became the main printers for Smith, Elder, and obtained additional work from Macmillan."
Bradbury and Evans also printed several weekly newspapers and periodicals such as the Illustrated London News. The company was also the printers of the books published by Chapman and Hall. It has been argued that the company was the first printers in Britain to adopt the French process of stereotyping. During this period the company employed over 200 compositors. M. H. Spielmann claimed that Bradbury was "the keenest man of business that ever trod the flags of Fleet Street, and the founder of a dynastic line nearly as long and eminent as that of John Murray himself."
In December 1842 Bradbury and Evans were persuaded to become the printers and the proprietors of the struggling new magazine Punch. The journalist Mark Lemon became the editor and within a few years began selling over 40,000 copies a week and bringing in some £10,000 a year to the company. Punch's success created a ready market for other books by its writers and artists, and Bradbury and Evans subsequently published volumes written or illustrated by people such as Douglas Jerrold, William Makepeace Thackeray, Shirley Brooks, John Leech, Richard Doyle, Henry Mayhew and Charles Keene.
In 1844 Charles Dickens decided to end his relationship with Chapman and Hall. The author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has pointed out: "If Dickens is to be believed, each publisher started well and then turned into a villain; but the truth is that, while they were businessmen and drove hard bargains, Dickens was often demonstrably in the wrong in his dealings with them. He realized that selling copyrights had been a mistake: he was understandably aggrieved to think that all his hard work was making them rich while he was sweating and struggling, and he began to think of publishers as men who made profits from his work and failed to reward him as they should. Chapman & Hall kept on good terms with him largely by topping up what they had initially agreed with frequent extra payments."
The author of Charles Dickens and his Publishers (1978) has argued: "In 1844, dissatisfied with Chapman and Hall, Dickens proposed to his printers that they become his publishers as well. Despite the firm's initial reluctance, on 1st June Dickens entered into agreements that constituted Bradbury and Evans for the ensuing eight years his publishers as well as printers, with a quarter share in all future copyrights, in exchange for a large cash advance."
Charles Dickens was a supporter of the Liberal Party and in 1845 he began to consider the idea of publishing a daily newspaper that could compete with The Times. He contacted Joseph Paxton, who had recently become very wealthy as a result of his railway investments. Paxton agreed to invest £25,000 and Dickens' publishers, Bradbury and Evans, contributed £22,500. Dickens agreed to become editor on a salary of £2,000 a year.
The first edition of The Daily News, published on 21st January 1846. Dickens wrote: "The principles advocated in the Daily News will be principles of progress and improvement; of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal legislation." Dickens employed his great friend and fellow social reformer, Douglas Jerrold, as the newspaper's sub-editor. William Henry Wills joined the newspaper as assistant editor. Dickens put his father, John Dickens, in charge of the reporters. He also paid his father-in-law, George Hogarth, five guineas a week to write on music.
The Times had a circulation of 25,000 copies and sold for sevenpence, whereas The Daily News, provided eight pages for fivepence. At first it sold 10,000 copies but soon fell to less than 4,000. Dickens told his friends that he missed writing novels and after seventeen issues he handed it over to his close friend, John Forster, complaining that Bradbury had attempted to interfer with the editorial management of the paper. The new editor had more experience of journalism and under his leadership sales increased. However, Bradbury and Evans lost a large sum of money on its investment.
Robert L. Patten has argued that Bradbury was much more successful with his publication of Dickens's novels: "By contrast, the publishing of Dickens's books, on terms highly favourable to the author, was substantially and steadily profitable for all concerned. Evans bore principal responsibility for drafting terms renewing the firm's publishing agreement with Dickens in 1852. As they had done with Thackeray, they voluntarily renounced their 10 per cent commission as a charge against expenses before the profits were divided, and the novelist happily accepted. Over a period of fourteen years Bradbury and Evans published for Dickens some of the most memorable novels in the language: four of the Christmas books, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House and Little Dorrit."
In February 1850, Dickens decided to join forces with his publisher, Bradbury & Evans, and his friend, John Forster, to publish the journal, Household Words. Dickens became editor and William Henry Wills, a journalist he worked with on the Daily News, became his assistant. One colleague described Wills as "a very intelligent and industrious man... but rather too gentle and compliant always to enforce his own intentions effectually upon others." Dickens thought that Wills was the ideal man for the job. He commented to Edward Bulwer-Lytton: "Wills has no genius, and is, in literary matters, sufficiently commonplace to represent a very large proportion of our readers". However, he went on to praise his "boundless energy".
Dickens rented an office at 16 Wellington Street North, a small and narrow thoroughfare just off the Strand. Dickens described it as "exceedingly pretty with the bowed front, the bow reaching up for two stories, each giving a flood of light." Dickens announced that aim of the journal would be the "raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social condition". He argued that it was necessary to reform a society where "infancy was made stunted, ugly, and full of pain; maturity made old, and old age imbecile; and pauperism made hopeless every day." He added that he wanted London to "set an example of humanity and justice to the whole Empire".
After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that Dickens would have half share in all profits of Household Words, whereas Bradbury & Evans to have one quarter, John Forster and William Henry Wills, one eighth each. Whereas the publisher was to manage all the commercial details, Dickens was to be in sole charge of editorial policy and content. Dickens was also paid £40 a month for his services as editor and a fee was agreed for any articles and stories published by the journal. The first edition of the journal appeared on 30th March, 1850. It contained 24 pages and cost twopence and came out every Wednesday. On the top of each page were the words: "Conducted by Charles Dickens". All contributions were anonymous but when his friend, Douglas Jerrold, read it for the first time, he commented that it was "mononymous throughout".
Dickens planned to serialise his new novels in Household Words. Another project was the serialisation of A Child's History of England. He also wanted to promote the work of like-minded writers. The first person he contacted was Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens had been very impressed with her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) and offered to take her future work. The magazine proved highly popular, its circulation rivaling that of Punch.
Peter Ackroyd has argued: "It was nothing like such serious journals as The Edinburgh Review - it was not in any sense intellectual - but rather took its place among the magazines which heralded or exploited the growth of the reading public throughout this period... Since this was not the cleverest, the most scholarly or even the most imaginative audience in Britain, Household Words had to be cheerful, bright, informative and, above all, readable."
Frederick Mullett Evans was a close friends of Charles Dickens and they took holidays together. In May 1858, Catherine Dickens accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen Ternan. Her daughter, Kate Dickens, says her mother was distraught by the incident. Charles Dickens responded by a meeting with his solicitors. By the end of the month he negotiated a settlement where Catherine should have £400 a year and a carriage and the children would live with Dickens. Later, the children insisted they had been forced to live with their father.
In June, 1858, Dickens decided to issue a statement to the press about the rumours involving him and two unnamed women (Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth): "By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... I most solemnly declare, then - and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name - that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth."
The statement was published in The Times and Household Words. However, Punch Magazine, edited by his great friend, Mark Lemon, refused, bringing an end to their long friendship. Frederick Mullett Evans supported Lemon in this dispute. William Makepeace Thackeray also took the side of Catherine and he was also banned from the house. Dickens was so upset that he insisted that his daughters, Mamie Dickens and Kate Dickens, brought an end to their friendship with the children of Lemon and Thackeray.
Dickens felt betrayed by Evans and he decided he would not publish his next novel, A Tale of Two Cities, in Household Words. Jealous of the money that Bradbury & Evans had made out of the venture, he decided to start a new journal, All the Year Round. He had 300,000 handbills and posters printed, in order to advertise the new journal. When Bradbury & Evans heard the news they issued an injunction claiming that Dickens was still contracted to work for their journal. Dickens refused to back-down and the first edition of the journal was published on 30th April 1859. For the first time in his life he had sole control of a journal. "He owned it, he edited it, and only he could take the major decisions concerning it." This was reinforced by the masthead that said: "A weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens."
Bradbury responded by publishing a new journal. Robert L. Patten has argued: "Bradbury and Evans soon began publication of a rival periodical, Once a Week, that drew upon the firm's long experience with woodblock printing, and its relationships with prominent artists, to present lavishly illustrated serialized novels. Evans had initially extracted a half-promise from Thackeray to contribute, which would have given the magazine a big name to offset its Dickensian rival, but the terms of Thackeray's subsequent agreement with George Smith to write two novels for the Cornhill Magazine forbade him to write for any other journal. Despite this early misstep the magazine soon set the highest standard of illustration of any periodical of its time, and attracted contributions from a wide variety of writers and artists... The magazine's circulation, however, never matched its critical esteem, and three successive editors failed to slow its decline. Expensive to produce and lacking a consistently attractive series of novels, Once a Week became a financial burden on the firm over the following decade."
In 1865 Bradbury and his partner, Frederick Mullett Evans, relinquished control of the company to their sons and to William and Thomas Agnew, prominent Manchester art dealers who at the same time were taken into partnership to supply the firm with much needed capital.
On 1st June, after many preliminary discussions with Forster and with William Bradbury and Frederick Evans, an agreement was signed whereby they paid £2,000 into his account and he assigned to them a quarter share in everything he would write over the next eight years, without being formally committed to write anything, although it was expected that there would be another Christmas book for 1844.