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The Circulation of Some London Newspapers, 1806-1811: Two Documents by Robert L. Haig
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The Circulation of Some London Newspapers, 1806-1811: Two Documents
Robert L. Haig

IN THE absence of Stamp Office accounts for the early nineteenth century, historians of the press are compelled to rely upon scattered and fragmentary evidence as to the circulation of London newspapers during the period of the Napoleonic wars.[1] Professor Arthur Aspinall's studies of the problem[2] have thrown light upon the methods of circulation, the size of the newspaper-reading public, and the extent of influence exerted by the newspaper press during the period, but reliable contemporary estimates of the circulation of individual newspapers are unfortunately rare.[3] A few such estimates, hitherto unnoticed, occur in memoranda among the papers of the Treasury Solicitor preserved in the Public Record Office.[4] They relate to the years 1806-1808 and 1811, and are based on figures supplied by the Stamp Office from records no longer extant.

During the period from 1808 to 1811 libel actions against the London newspapers were instituted by the government in unprecedented numbers-more


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than forty in three years. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Law Officers of the Crown were taking an interest in newspaper circulation. That interest was responsible for the compilation of the memoranda here described.


In June, 1808, Henry White and John Herriott Hart, proprietor and printer respectively of The Independent Whig (a Sunday paper distinguished for its criticism of Tory policies),[5] were twice brought to trial for libels.[6] Both prosecutions were based upon ex-officio informations filed by the Attorney General, and the first group of circulation figures to be considered was apparently compiled in preparation for the trials. It consists of reports on the quantities of stamps issued by the Stamp Office to the printer of the Independent Whig. The period covered extends from the first issue of the paper on January 5, 1806, to the middle of January, 1808.

The earliest memorandum in the group records that "the Circulation [of the Independent Whig] commenced with printing 1188-Stamps issued 1500[.] During the first Thirty weeks gradually increased to 2439-Stamps 2500." The circulation figures, as here distinguished from the number of stamps issued, seem to indicate that the compiler received information from someone close to the paper itself, but such a distinction is not carried consistently through the reports. The second note is headed "1806 Number of Stamps paid for by Mr Hart Printer of the Whig Newspaper" and records issues of stamps at irregular intervals from January 4 to November 20, 1806. The total number issued was 109,100, an average of 2,424 stamps for each number of the paper during the forty-five week period. A similar list of stamps purchased by Hart between January 8 and July 29, 1807, totals 83,950, for a weekly average of 2,894.

There is no report of purchases at the Stamp Office for the Independent Whig between July, 1807, and an unspecified date in the following year, but a noted signed "L. Booth Regr (i.e., "Register") explains the absence of such figures for the period: "Mr Hart does not appear to have paid for any Stamps since July 29-1807-therefore must have been served by some Stationers." Booth's surmise is borne out by another memorandum headed "Independent Whig-bought of Messrs Magnay and Pickering-Newspaper Stamps." Magnay and Pickering were stationers in Queen Street, Cheapside. A list of four purchases from them reveals that the Independent Whig used 80,500 stamps between September 10, 1807, and January 14, 1808. In the manuscript, this figure has been divided by twenty-four (the number of weeks between Hart's last recorded purchase at the Stamp Office and the latest purchase from the stationers), and the quotient, 3,354, is labelled "d week." The approximate circulation of each


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issue of the paper from January, 1806, to January, 1808, may be tabulated, then, as follows:      
January to November, 1806   2,400  
January to July, 1807   2,800  
September, 1807 to January, 1808   3,300  

The owner and printer of the Independent Whig were found guilty at both trials in June, 1808, but they appealed to the House of Lords, and the Attorney General remained interested for a time in the circulation of their paper. The final reference to it in this group of documents occurs in a letter of November, 1808, addressed to W. C. Litchfield, the Treasury Solicitor:

Having laid your Letter of this day's date before the Commissioners, I am directed to transmit to you the inclosed Account of the Number of Stamps paid for on account of the Independent Whig for half a Year with the Weekly Average thereof, Signed by the proper Officer, for the Information of the Attorney General.
I am, Sir,
Your most humble Servant
F. C. Beresford
The enclosure is as follows:
Stamp Office November 11, 1808
The Number of Stamps paid on account of the Independent Whig is--109,525-for l/2 a year Weekly Average of which is-4,212-
L Booth Register
The figure supplied in Booth's memorandum reveals an increase of nearly twenty-six per cent in the average number of stamps purchased weekly between January and November, 1808. The proportionate circulation increase which is indicated was undoubtedly due in part to the notoriety attendant upon the prosecutions themselves.


The second, and more comprehensive, group of Stamp Office figures contains estimates of the average daily circulation of thirteen London papers for the month of January, 1811, together with the total number of stamps sold during the month. These occur in both rough draft and fair copies; in the former it is apparent that the average daily circulation figure in each case has been obtained by dividing the total number of stamps issued for each paper during the month by twenty-seven, the number of publication days in the month. A specimen will most clearly illustrate the method:

Mg Post   27/87000
Day about  3000 
It should be noted that in every case the nearest round figure below the quotient was taken as the daily average, thereby making some allowance for the margin


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between the number of stamps purchased and the number of papers actually sold. I reproduce the fair copies.[7]

Number of London Newspapers and Amount of Stamps for January 1811  
The Number of London Newspapers now Published is   60  
Country Newspapers in England . . . . . . . . . . . .   112  
Country Newspapers Irish . . . . . . . . . . . . .  40  
Country Newspapers Scotch . . . . . . . . . . . .   27  
The Number of Stamps paid for at the Stamp Office for Newspapers in the Month of January 1811 was as follows  
By the London Printers   1,268,750  
By Stationers part used by London Printers & part in the Country   768,669  
Total 2,037,419  
Circulation of some of the London Newspapers (per Day)  
Morning Post   about 3000  
Morning Chronicle (more during Sitting of Parliamt than at any other time)   about 3500  
Courier   about 5800  
Times & Mail 3 Times in the week   about 5000[8]  
Press & Globe (both daily)   3000[8]  
Morning Herald   about 1500  
Day   about ll00  
Statesman   about 1500  
London Chronicle
Commercial Chronicle } together 
about 1500 


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The thirteen newspapers listed were almost certainly considered to be the leading journals published in London at the time. All were issued daily except the Mail, the London Chronicle, and the Commercial Chronicle, which appeared thrice weekly. The individual circulations of these three, therefore, would probably have been more extensive than is indicated by the figures given, which were computed on a daily basis. Such a computation was made necessary by purchases of stamps in single lots for use by several papers, no indication being given of how many were used by each. Thus, The Times, with six issues per week, and the Mail, with three, drew upon the same stocks of stamped paper, and only a combined daily average afforded a basis for comparing their circulation with that of other newspapers.



The original returns of the Stamp Duty on newspapers from about 1750 to 1855 were scheduled for destruction under the Public Record Office Act of 1877. Some returns for the period after 1815 are cited in the House of Commons Accounts and Papers. See General Index to the Accounts and Papers Reports of Commissioners &c. &c. Printed by Order of the House of Commons 1801-1852 (1938), pp. 637-639. Surviving records at Somerset House begin only with the year 1835.


"The Circulation of Newspapers in the Early Nineteenth Century," RES, XXII (1946), 29-43. See also the same author's Politics and the Press c. 1780-/1850 (1949), chapt. 1.


Occasionally a newspaper would publish a statement of its own circulation as a recommendation to prospective subscribers, but such statements were rare, and most of them must be regarded sceptically.


P.R.O. TS 11/157 (550).


The title was undoubtedly adopted from the paper of 1720-21 produced by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard. On Henry White's Independent Whig, comparable in tone and sentiments to Cobbett's Political Register, Woller's Black Dwarf, and Leigh Hunt's Examiner, see Aspinall, Politics and the Press, pp. 46n., 310-311.


T. B. and T. J. Howell, ed., A Complete Collection of State Trials (1816-28), XXX, 1131-1346.


The fair copies appear on separate sheets, only the first of which is dated; the rough drafts of both, however, are on the same sheet of paper, and are written in the same hand.


The rough draft indicates that this average represents the combined circulation.


The rough draft indicates that this average represents the combined circulation.