The Leeds Mercury was established by John Hirst in 1718. The newspaper only had a small circulation in its early years. In 1797 a journalist, Edward Baines, joined forces with a group of Unitarians led by John Marshall, to purchase the newspaper. Four years later Baines became the editor and sole proprietor.
Edward Baines was a staunch Methodist and supported the cause of the Dissenters. He advocated that industrial towns and cities such as Leeds should be represented in Parliament. Edward Baines also strongly disapproved of the Slave Trade and willingly used The Leeds Mercury to support the campaign of Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp to bring an end to slavery in the British Empire. However, influenced by his many friends involved in the textile industry, Baines was totally opposed to factory legislation.
Although in favour of some aspects of parliamentary reform, Edward Baines disagreed with the working class being given the vote. Edward Baines' criticisms of those advocating universal suffrage resulted him becoming very unpopular with radicals in Leeds. On 16th August, 1819, Edward Baines' son observed the Peterloo Massacre and the report in The Leeds Mercury blamed both the organisers of the event and the officers of the yeomanry for the disaster.
Meetings to petition for Parliamentary Reform were held in many parts of the country; and amongst others in Leeds, in the month of January, 1817. At this meeting Edward Baines was the principal speaker. He showed the extreme inequalities and abuses in the representation, which gave members of decayed boroughs, and withheld them from the largest commercial towns, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.
During this summer occurred the dismal event in Manchester, which was popularly and not unjustly called the Peterloo Massacre. I was an eye-witness, and was on the hustings, having attended to observe and report the proceedings of the meeting. I was a perfectly impartial spectator, disapproving both of the opinions and the proceedings of Henry Hunt and his colleagues.
On the 16th August, 1819, when seventy or eighty thousand persons were collected at Manchester, on St. Peter's Field, to petition for Parliamentary Reform, and when Henry Hunt was addressing the meeting, a troop of Manchester yeomanry was ordered by the magistrates to take Hunt and others into custody; and in execution of this most unwise and improper order, the yeomanry dashed furiously into the midst of an unarmed multitude, whom they trampled down and struck with their sabres, till they surrounded the hustings, which they threw down, and took all the persons who had been upon them into custody. Then, galloping over the field, they dispersed the immense assemblage, who fled in every direction. Several persons were killed and hundreds wounded by this military outrage.
It is my conviction now, at the distance of thirty years, is precisely the same as it was on the day of the massacre, namely, that the military assault on the unarmed and peaceful multitude was a mad, savage, and wicked act. Henry Hunt was not blameless: but the meeting was perfectly peaceable; and the best proof that the intentions of its leaders were so is supported by the fact that many young women, the daughters of the active promoters of the meeting, were placed on the hustings, from whence they were hurled when the yeomanry overturned the hustings, and were cut and trampled upon in that brutal assault.
The poll for Leeds commenced on the 13th February 1834. For some hours, owing to superior arrangements and energy, Sir John Beckett. was considerably ahead of his competitor. At eleven he had a majority of more than 200 - the numbers being Beckett 718, Baines 515, Bower 6. At one o'clock the Tory majority had been reduced to 125. During the afternoon the majority was slowly reduced but at the close of the first day's poll, to the extreme mortification of the Liberals, Sir John Beckett had a majority of 70. The second day of polling was Saturday, the market-day; and perhaps never has there been so high a degree of excitement in town. The friends of Edward Baines, stung with shame at their position, made every exertion. The clothiers left their places in the Cloth Hall and gathered round Edward Baines's Committee Room. At one o'clock the majority for Mr. Baines was 30. At the close of poll, at four o'clock, the numbers were as follows: Mr. Baines 1,951, Sir John Beckett 1,917, Mr. Bower 24.
I have heard my father relate how a number of handloom weavers contributed a halfpenny a week to buy a copy of the weekly Leeds Mercury, which was then sevenpence, and with these coppers he was sent to a village four miles away each week to get the paper; and then the subscribers to this newspaper met in a cottage and he read the news to them.
The Leeds Mercury in those days was a Radical journal. Those were times of great political and social excitement. The Chartist movement was affecting the industrial population, and the agitation was affecting the industrial population, and the agitation for the Repeal of the Corn Laws was at its height. They were dangerous times for those known to harbour Radical opinions. Throughout the West Riding, as well as other parts of England, men were being arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for alleged sedition and political conspiracy.
This group of Radical-Chartists in Cowling had to take precautions against the attentions of the constable, and when they gathered together to discuss politics and hear my father read the paper for them they shuttered the window and sometimes placed a scout outside to watch for the constable.