Richard Carlile, the son of a shoemaker from Ashburton in Devon, was born on 9th December, 1790. Richard's father abandoned the family in 1794 and it was a struggle for his mother to look after her three children from the profits of the small shop that she ran in Ashburton. Richard received six years free education from the local Church of England school and learnt to read and write. At the age of twelve Richard left school and was apprenticed as a tinplateman in Plymouth.
In 1813 Richard married a local woman and soon afterwards the couple moved to London. Over the next few years Jane Carlile gave birth to five children, three of whom survived. Richard found work as a tinsmith but in the winter of 1816, Carlile had his hours reduced by his employer. Short-time work created serious economic problems for the Carlile family. For the first time in his life, Carlile began attending political meetings. At these meetings Carlile heard speakers like Henry Hunt complain bitterly about a parliamentary system that only allowed three men in every hundred to vote.
Carlile found the arguments for reform convincing and began to wonder why it had taken him so long to realize that the system was unfair. As a young boy living in Ashburton, Carlile remembered taking part in ceremonies where an effigy of Tom Paine was burnt at the stake. Carlile, like the rest of the people living in his village had believed the local vicar when he told them that Paine was an evil man for suggesting the need for parliamentary reform.
Carlile decided to try and earn a living by selling the writings of parliamentary reformers such as Tom Paine on the streets of London. Later Carlile was to comment that he often walked "thirty miles for a profit of eighteen pence". In 1817 Carlile decided to rent a shop in Fleet Street and become a publisher. Instead of publishing works such as Paine's The Rights of Man and the Principles of Government in book form, Carlile divided them into sections and then sold them as small pamphlets.
Carlile also began publishing a radical newspaper called The Republican. As well as reporting political meetings, The Republican also included extracts from books and poems by supporters of the reform movement such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Carlile's newspaper was very popular and it was not long before he was making £50 a week profit from his publishing venture.
On 16th August 1819, Richard Carlile was asked to join Henry Hunt as one on the main speakers at a meeting on parliamentary reform at St. Peter's Fields in Manchester. The local magistrates ordered the yeomanry (part-time cavalry) to break up the meeting. Just as Hunt was about to speak, the yeomanry charged the crowd and in the process killed eleven people. Afterwards, this event became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
In the next edition of The Republican Carlile wrote an article on the Peterloo Massacre. Carlile not only described how the military had charged the crowd but also criticised the government for its role in the incident. Under the seditious libel laws, it was offence to publish material that might encourage people to hate the government. The authorities also disapproved of Carlile publishing Tom Paine's Age of Reason, a book that was extremely critical of the Church of England.
In October 1819, Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and was sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol. Carlile was also fined £1,500 and when he refused to pay, his Fleet Street offices were raided and his stock was confiscated. Carlile was determined not to be silenced. While he was in prison he continued to write material for The Republican, which was now being published by his wife. Due to the publicity created by Carlile's trial, the circulation of The Republican increased dramatically and was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.
In December 1819 the government took further action by imposing a 4d. tax on cheap newspapers and stipulating that they could not be sold for less than 7d. As most working people were earning less than 10 shillings a week, this severely reduced the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.
The government also continued it policy of prosecuting those involved in publishing radical newspapers. In 1821 Jane Carlile was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was replaced by Richard Carlile's sister, Mary Carlile, but within six months she was also in prison for the same offence. During the next few months, over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling The Republican.
When Richard Carlile was released from prison in November 1825 he returned to publishing newspapers. Carlile was now a strong supporter of women's rights. He argued that "equality between the sexes" should be the objective of all reformers. Carlile wrote articles in his newspapers suggesting that women should have the right to vote and be elected to Parliament. In 1826 he also published Every Woman's Book, a book that advocated birth control and the sexual emancipation of women.
Carlile also became involved in the campaign against child labour. In 1827 Carlile was given a copy of manuscript written by John Brown, a radical journalist from Bolton. Brown's manuscript was based on an interview with a former parish apprentice called Robert Blincoe. Carlile published Robert Blincoe's Memoir in his newspaper, The Lion. Robert Blincoe's story appeared in five weekly episodes from 25th January to 22nd February, 1828.
In 1830 Carlile was back in prison for writing an article in support of agricultural labourers campaigning against wage cuts. When Carlile left prison two and a half years later, he was deeply in debt. Government fines had taken its toll and Carlile no longer had the financial resources to successfully publish newspapers. For the next few years Richard Carlile lived in extreme poverty but when he died in 1843, a large number of people attended his funeral in recognition of the important role he had played in achieving a free press.