The Chartist movement emerged out of the London Working Men's Association in 1836. Several of the leaders of this group were already involved in publishing radical newspapers. Henry Hetherington had been the publisher of the very popular The Poor Man's Guardian and James Watson had edited the Working Man's Friend.
In 1836 John Cleave was the publisher and editor of the most successful radical newspaper in Britain. Cleave's the Weekly Police Gazette was selling over 40,000 copies a week. As well as providing information on the latest crimes in Britain, Cleave's newspaper also campaigned for the Chartist movement. William Lovett, the leader of the Chartists, also edited a newspaper, The Charter. This newspaper was much more intellectual in its approach that the Weekly Police Gazette and only managed to sell 6,000 copies a week. Another newspaper that supported the Chartists in 1836 was The Champion, a journal inspired by the ideas of William Cobbett.
The Charter, The Champion and the Weekly Police Gazette, were all written and published by supporters of Moral Force Chartism. The supporters of the Physical Force Chartists felt that there was a need for a newspaper that represented their views. In 1837, Feargus O'Connor, the Leeds representative of the London Working Mens' Association, decided to establish a weekly radical newspaper in Yorkshire. The first edition of the Northern Star was published on 26th May, 1838. Within four months of starting publication, O'Connor's newspaper was selling 10,000 copies a week.
The success of the Northern Star encouraged other Chartists to publish newspapers. This included newspapers edited by George Julian Harney (Democrat and the Red Republican); Bronterre O'Brien (The Southern Star and The Northern Liberator) and Thomas Cooper (The Illuminator and The Extinguisher). One of the most popular Chartist newspapers was the Scottish Chartist Circular and for a while sold 22,000 copies a week.
In 1851 Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney started a new radical newspaper, The Friend of the People. Jones wrote: "The very first, the most essential requisite of a movement is to have an organ to record its proceedings, to communicate through, with its several branches - to appeal through, to exhort through, to speak through, to defend through, to teach through. A movement that has not the mighty organ of the press at its command is but half a movement - it is a disenfranchised cause, dependent on others, pensioned on others, pauper on others for the expression of its opinions."
After a dispute with Harney in 1851, Jones started his own journal, The People's Paper. Jones attempted to publish what he hoped would be a "complete newspaper". As well as news of the Chartist movement, The People's Paper included reports of parliamentary debates, public meeting and what Jones called "legal, political, mercantile and general intelligence." The newspaper became a socialist newspaper and one of his main contributors included Karl Marx, who was now living in exile in London.
The circulation figures of these newspapers reflected the fortunes of the Chartist movement. For example, the sales of the Northern Star fell from 50,000 in 1839 to 1,200 a week in 1851. In April 1852 Feargus O'Connor sold the Northern Star to its former editor, George Julian Harney. Harney merged it with the Friend of the People and called his new paper, the Star of Freedom. However, the Star of Freedom only survived a few months and in December, 1852, the last of the Chartist newspapers came to an end.
Whenever the newspaper press is employed to separate the interests of society as a whole, and to secure for one class immunities and enjoyment not equally distributed amongst all, it then becomes an instrument of surpassing evil, disorganizing the community, and creating and calling into active operation all those maleficent influences which have in bygone times involved states and empires in intestine wars and ultimate ruin.
The gentlemen critics complain that the union of poetry with politics is always hurtful to the politics and fatal to the poetry. But these great connoisseurs must be wrong if Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Cowper and Burns were poets. Why should the sensitive bard take less interest than other men in those things which most nearly concern mankind? The contrary ought to be true, and is true. All true and lasting poetry is rooted in the business of life. It is not in vain that the great spirits of the world have raised their voices and cried 'Liberty'.
Would to God they had a Northern Star in every town throughout the kingdom! Would to God that every town could write upon the pillars of their churches, "A Northern Star to be obtained here". The very existence of such papers would be a guarantee that the Charter would be obtained.
It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek; but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into the princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves.
The very first, the most essential requisite of a movement is to have an organ to record its proceedings, to communicate through, with its several branches - to appeal through, to exhort through, to speak through, to defend through, to teach through. A movement that has not the mighty organ of the press at its command is but half a movement - it is a disenfranchised cause, dependent on others, pensioned on others, pauper on others for the expression of its opinions.