Taxing times for city's pioneer newspaper man T1 LOCAL HISTORY As The Birmingham Post celebrates its 150th anniversary CHRIS UPTON looks at the life...
(The Birmingham Post Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Taxing times for city's pioneer newspaper man T1 LOCAL HISTORY As The Birmingham Post celebrates its 150th anniversary CHRIS UPTON looks at the life and times of John Frederick Feeney, founder of the newspaper
Birmingham in 1857. A town of some 260,000 people, two central railway stations and the same number of MPs. A town with only one decent theatre (on New Street) and one suburb (Edgbaston). A place with just two public buildings, whose councillors met in the pub (even when they were on duty) for want of anywhere better. And if the conduct of its politics was grubby, even worse was the grubbiness of the streets and the courts, where most of the people lived. So much for the positive side. Then there were the critics. They would say that it was a town with only one work of art (the statue of Lord Nelson) and a population whose only interest was in making money.
There were others, however, who knew that there was more to Birmingham than this. The government had cause to remember Birmingham well, for when the issue of Reform seemed to be pushing England towards to revolution, Birmingham had been in the front line.
And when the Chartists had been pressing their case for a truly democratic system of government with the vote for all adult men and women, Birmingham had been there too. And anyway, what was wrong with making money?
When the Chartist protests in 1839 had turned into riot and disorder in the Bull Ring and Peel had sent in the metropolitan police to maintain the peace, the first spark that led to the trouble had been a man reading a newspaper. An unlikely reason for civil war, you might think, except that the paper was being read to several thousand people.
Newspapers had power: the power to make friends and influence people and to make enemies too. In 1839 the paper in question had been the Birmingham Journal. The Journal had been founded in 1825 by a group of disaffected Tories who felt they had been insulted by the leading national newspaper of the day, The Times. Not only would they boycott the "Thunderer", but they would also replace it by their own weekly paper.
However, by the 1830s the Journal had fallen into the hands of Liberals and its politics had swung from right to left. At the height of the Chartist movement the Journal's sales reached the heady heights of 2,500 copies a week.
This might not look an impressive figure, but a well-run newspaper could survive on a few hundred sales. Nor does the figure reflect the actual readership of the paper.
It was said that for every copy sold there were 20 readers. People read their papers in the coffee-house or in the pub or in a newsroom, or - more importantly - they listened to someone else reading it. Levels of literacy were so low that the average man or woman got all their news through their ears, not their eyes. And if the readership estimates of the Journal are correct, it was reaching the ears of half the people in Birmingham.
In the 1830s the days of seeing your newspaper come through the letterbox, or picking it up from a newsagent, were still a long way off. Not because of problems of distribution, but because of the sheer cost of it.
The government had, over the century or so that newspapers had been common, imposed three separate taxes on them: there was a stamp duty, a paper duty and an advertisement tax.
As a result, the cost of an average paper in the 1830s was seven pence (3p), taking it well beyond the means of the working classes. If the price had continued to rise at the same rate it would mean that your daily newspaper today would cost you about pounds 11, and I fear you would think twice about buying one. In fact, you would probably only think once.
The government of course denied that their taxes were an attempt to keep news and politics out of the way of the people; simply that they were raising much needed revenue from a luxury item. But there was a growing campaign against it, not least from the newspaper proprietors who called the duty a "tax on knowledge".
It was not the first or the last time that newspaper owners hid their business interests behind a campaign for freedom of information.
Who were these proprietors, the distant ancestors of the multi-media, multi-national magnates of today? The best way to answer that question is to introduce one of them.
John Frederick Feeney came to Birmingham from Ireland in 1835 at the age of 27 to edit a small weekly newspaper called The Philanthropist. We know little of Feeney's origins or education, but like many an editor of his time he probably trained as a printer or stationer. Any job specification for a newspaper editor would have these skills at the top of the list; a political attitude came next.
The Philanthropist was a worthy paper, but not a major one. Founded by the Birmingham Quaker, Joseph Sturge, it had campaigned for the abolition of slavery. But by the mid-1830s that battle was about to be won, and Feeney was soon to move on to a new and bigger paper, the Midland Counties Herald. Feeney's position on the Herald was as a reporter, which makes one wonder how he filled his day, since there was precious little news in it.
On the major political issues of the day the Herald kept its head well below the parapet and preferred to cover stock prices and the occasional prize fight. It's a sobering thought that the future founder of The Birmingham Post learned his craft standing in a ploughed field in Warwickshire watching two ne'er-do-wells bludgeoning themselves to a standstill. (I suppose it was good practice for covering PMQs.)
The owners of Midland Counties Herald knew from the experience of others that as long as the stamp and paper duties remained in force, the secret of success in the newspaper business was not sales but advertising. Indeed, there were occasions when the Herald literally carried no news at all and was filled up entirely by adverts.
John Frederick Feeney worked on the Herald for seven years, until he had made enough money to make his first big move: in 1844 Feeney bought the ailing Birmingham Journal. This was a decidedly risky undertaking, since, with the demise of Chartism, the Journal's great days seemed to be over too and its sales had sunk to 1,200 a week.
Feeney, however, was a shrewd operator. He brought to Birmingham to assist him a brilliant young Scotsman called John Jaffray, who would be his right-hand man for the rest of his career.
And the times conspired to assist him too. The railway boom of the late '40s stoked up the British economy and brought advertising revenue pouring in, and then, in 1855, the government finally abolished stamp duty on newspapers.
Overnight the price of the Journal could be reduced from seven pence to four pence and the owner could begin to contemplate a second mid-week edition as well.
John Frederick Feeney, by then a man of 47 years, could easily have begun to think about winding down. He had increased the circulation of his paper to a remarkable 23,000 copies and was bringing in about pounds 5,000 a week, profits that even a national paper would have been happy with.
Not only that, but in holding the freehold of the newspaper offices at 371/2 New Street, Feeney paid himself rent for using it. And in John Jaffray he had the ideal successor to carry on the good work.
But businessmen don't get where they are by standing still and the times themselves were changing in the newspaper industry. The abolition of stamp and paper duties had not so much shifted the goal-posts as removed them altogether.
The potential for profits (now that the cost was no longer beyond the pocket of readers) was enormous.
The question was: how much could the market take? Birmingham already had five newspapers: the fiercely conservative Gazette, the equally fiercely liberal Journal, the noncommittal Herald, the Daily Press, which had been the first to take advantage of the new spirit of free competition and produce a daily paper, and the Birmingham Mercury, which, as it happened, was about to go to the wall.
In December 1857 John Frederick Feeney made his move. A little before Christmas of that year a new star arose over the little town of Birmingham: the Daily Post. Notice the title: the word "Daily" had only once been used of a Birmingham newspaper before and it was important enough to appear on the masthead.
A daily newspaper of four pages that cost only one penny and would be "on the breakfast table of every subscriber in town and country", as the first day's leader trumpeted.
This challenge alone - to get the first edition out by five in the morning - was a big enough task. However, Mr Feeney's vision went higher than that. Not only would the Journal and the Post run five days a week (the word "daily" was slightly economical with the truth), but there would also be a Saturday "compendium" of the week's news for those who could still not afford a penny newspaper a day.
The latter, the Saturday Evening Post, was a reflection of the owner's political sympathies, as well as a shrewd piece of opportunism. A giant broadsheet from the days when broadsheets lived up to their name, it was meant "to find its way into every working man's household in Birmingham" with the hope "that the working man after his week's labour will carry a copy home with him to his fireside, and enjoy with his family the cheap luxury of becoming acquainted with the incidents and opinions, the joys and the sorrows, the virtues and the crimes, which form the daily life of the busy world around him."
Ironically the success of the Saturday evening paper ultimately spelled the end for the Journal, which ceased publication in 1869.
Feeney's move was well-timed; not only was the Post launched before the Daily Press could get a firm grip on the market, it was also the day after the Queen's Speech in Parliament, which was always a good day for sales. Feeney printed the speech in full on the back page.
But there was also shrewd investment in new technology too. The proprietor bought new cylinder presses to increase printing from 1,000 an hour to 5,000, and ensured that the new paper had the latest in telegraphic equipment to guarantee that the latest news (and also the latest racing results) were hot off the press.
Within a year Feeney had burned his major rival, the Daily Press, off the track and the Post had the daily market to itself. The advertising revenue rolled in accordingly. By the 1870s the Birmingham Daily Post was the largest circulating daily newspaper in the Midlands.
So John Frederick Feeney delivered a newspaper that made money to a town that made it too. Hand-in-hand they marched towards the great Victorian years, when Birmingham was, in the eyes of many, "the workshop of the world" and "the best governed city in the world" to boot.
As for the founder himself, his circulation stopped in the same year as the Journal. He died on May 11, 1869 at the age of 62, and was laid to rest in Berkswell churchyard. But the foundations he had laid would serve his newspaper well enough for 150 years.
The cost of an average paper in the 1830s was seven pence (3p), taking it well beyond the means of the working classes. If the price had continued to rise at the same rate it would mean that your daily newspaper today would cost you about pounds 11
Copyright 2007 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd , Source: The Financial Times Limited
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