John Black, the son of Ebenezer Black, a farm worker, was born near Duns, in Berwickshire on 7th November 1783. While he was a child his mother, father and sister died. He was taken in by his mother's brother John Gray, who was also a farm worker. Black was an avid reader and obtained books from the local subscription library.
At the age of thirteen Black was articled by his uncle to a writer. In 1800 he accepted a well-paid clerkship in the branch bank of the British Linen Company. This was followed by work as an accountant in Edinburgh. In his spare time he attended classes at the University of Edinburgh.
During this period he became friends with William Mudford, who eventually moved to London to became editor of Universal Magazine. Brown contributed several articles for the magazine before joining him in the capital. According to his biographer, Robert Harrison: ""It was through Mudford's persuasion that Black left Edinburgh for London in 1810. Charles Mackay gives as a doubtful statement of Black himself, that he walked with a few pence in his pocket all the way from Berwickshire to London, subsisting on the hospitality of farmers. He carried a letter of introduction to Robert Hartley Cromek, engraver and publisher, who received him at once into his friendly home."
Three months later Black was engaged as a reporter and translator of foreign correspondence by James Perry, the joint-owner of the Morning Chronicle. By 1810 the newspaper had a circulation of 7,000. Perry was now able to recruit Britain's best radical journalists, including William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb.
Black got married in December 1812. The union was extremely unhappy and it was not long before she had involved him in debt, sold some of his furniture, and began a relationship with a former lover. In February 1813 she left Black, and in 1814 he sought a divorce. This was not possible and over the next few years she continued to extract money from her husband.
In 1817 Perry developed an internal disease that compelled him to undergo several hospital operations. When he failed to improve, his doctor suggested that he should live by the sea. Black now became editor of the Morning Chronicle. Perry continued to be hounded by the government and in February 1818 was charged with Leigh Hunt and The Examiner for criticizing King George III. Perry defended himself well in court and was found not guilty.
Black soon developed a reputation as a brave editor. He was heavily criticised for his determined condemnation of the conduct of the authorities in the Peterloo Massacre on 16th August 1819. Even the long-time radical, William Cobbett, attacked Black's coverage of the event. Soon after this he was described by Jeremy Bentham as "the greatest publicist yet produced in Great Britain".
John Stuart Mill, was another supporter and wrote: "I have always considered Black as the first journalist who carried criticism and the spirit of reform into the details of English institutions. Those who are not old enough to remember those times can hardly believe what the state of public discussion then was. People now and then attacked the Constitution and the boroughmongers but none thought of censuring the law or the courts of justice and to say a word against the unpaid magistracy was a sort of blasphemy. Black was the writer who carried the warfare into these subjects… And by doing this he broke the spell."
James Perry died in Brighton on 5th December, 1821. The Morning Chronicle was purchased by William Innell Clement, but Black remained as editor. However, he had difficulty competing with The Times, that tended to support the Tories, whereas Black tended to agree with the reforming Whigs.
In August 1834 Black gave a permanent job the young Charles Dickens, on a salary of five guineas a week. Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has argued: "Black was a Scot, a friend of James Mill and follower of Jeremy Bentham, and he ran the Morning Chronicle as a reforming paper, and set out to rival The Times, encouraged by a tough new owner, John Easthope, a Liberal politician who had made a fortune on the stock exchange. Dickens would be a key member of the team taking on The Times." A friend of Black claimed that "I have often heard Black speak of him (Dickens), and predict his future fame." Another recalled that Black had "the highest opinion of his original genius."
Dickens was one of twelve parliamentary reporters employed by Black. He later wrote about reporting on speeches made by politicians outside of London: "I have often transcribed for the printer from my shorthand reports, important public speeches in which the strictest accuracy was required... writing on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post chaise and four, galloping through a wild country, all through the dead of night."
Dickens had obtained a reputation for speed and accuracy in recording debates. In was a well-paid but exhausting job. Reporters were consigned to the back bench of the Strangers' Gallery, where it was hard to hear what was taking place on the floor of the chamber. A fellow reporter claimed: "It was dark: always so insufficiently lit that on the back benches no one could read a paper so ill-ventilated that few constitutions could long bear the unwholesome atmosphere." Charles Mackay, a colleague at the Morning Chronicle, wrote that Dickens "had the reputation of being the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press".
Dickens enjoyed working with Black: "Returning home from exciting political meetings in the country to the waiting press in London, I do verily believe I have been upset in almost every description of vehicle known in this country. I have been, in my time, belated on miry by-roads, towards the small hours, forty or fifty miles from London, in a wheelless carriage, with exhausted horses and drunken post-boys, and have got back in time for publication, to be received with never-forgotten compliments by the late Mr. Black, coming in the broadest of Scotch from the broadest of hearts I ever knew."
Black also agreed to publish Dickens' short stories. Over the next few months five of Dickens' stories appeared in the newspaper. Dickens called Black "my first hearty out-and-out appreciator". A friend of Black claimed that "I have often heard Black speak of him (Dickens), and predict his future fame." Another recalled that Black had "the highest opinion of his original genius." These stories were so popular that they were collected together and published as a book entitled Sketches by Boz (1836).
According to Andrew Sanders, the author of Authors in Context: Charles Dickens (2003), Dickens often clashed with Black over politics: "Dickens later claimed that he and Black had quarrelled many times about the effect of that cornerstone of Utilitarian legislation, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. But it was not simply the Poor Law that offended Dickens's sense of humanity, it was the whole tenor of philosophy, and by extension an economic system, which militated against the proper, and often spontaneous, practice of humane charity."
R. Shelton MacKenzie, the author of Life of Charles Dickens (1870), argued that John Black was "of great learning and remarkable memory, with very liberal political opinions". He also pointed out that a "ten-line leader would have appalled him, by its brevity, for he resembled some of the old world soldiers, in his predilection for charging in long columns... His plan in writing a leading article, was to meditate upon it from morning until night, and then write two or three heavy sticksful, closing with a quotation, at least a column in length, from Bayle, Pascal, Thomas Aquinas, Dun Scotus, or some other light writer."
John Forster, a close friend of Charles Dickens, has pointed out: "Mr. Black is one of the men who have passed without recognition out of a world their labours largely benefited, but with those who knew him no man was so popular, as well for his broad, kindly humour, as for his honest great-hearted enjoyment of whatever was excellent in others. Dickens to the last remembered, that it was most of all the cordial help of this good old mirth-loving man, which had started him joyfully on his career of letters."
Black remained an avid book collector. James Grant argued: "It was an essential part of his creed that no book which he borrowed from a friend should ever be returned… The truth was that Mr Black never could part with any books that ever came into his possession, no matter by what means, or under what circumstances." It has been claimed that he had over 30,000 books in his home. His rooms had reportedly been so full of books that he and his second wife had been "obliged to creep into bed at the end, both sides being blocked up with dusty volumes of divinity and politics".
In 1834 John Easthope, a a Liberal politician who had made a fortune on the stock exchange, purchased the newspaper from William Innell Clement for for £16,500. According to Peter Ackroyd the daily newspaper had "under its previous owner had somehow lost its way." He was considered to be a difficult employer and in February 1836, Charles Dickens led a short, successful strike against Easthope in February 1836 over the terms of employment of his journalists.
Black had a terrible temper and when John Arthur Roebuck published a pamphlet, The Stamped Press and its Morality, criticised those newspaper owners and editors who accepted the 1815 Stamp Act that had placed a 4d tax on newspapers. John Black was so upset he challenged Roebuck to a duel. Roebuck accepted and although shots were fired at the meeting, no one was injured.
In 1843 Black, who had reached the age of sixty, was asked to resign. He had saved very little money but a group of friends arranged for him to receive an annuity of £150. Another old friend, Walter Coulson, provided a cottage at Snodland, near Maidstone, rent free.
Dickens later claimed that he and Black had quarrelled many times about the effect of that cornerstone of Utilitarian legislation, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. But it was not simply the Poor Law that offended Dickens's sense of humanity, it was the whole tenor of philosophy, and by extension an economic system, which militated against the proper, and often spontaneous, practice of humane charity.