Grub Street has been a synonym for hack journalism (and journalists) for over 300 years. But where would the hacks have been without being published? Ruth Herman looks at two once-famous printers, Grub Street’s unsung early heroes – or possibly villains, depending on whose side you took.
We celebrate the British tradition of a free press, fearless in its news gathering and a champion of the truth. We also tend to give the credit to the journalists and editorial staff for keeping the spirit of integrity alive. But even in the earliest days of the newspaper industry they did not work alone. They needed printers and booksellers to take their work to the readers.
The press played an important part in the battle between the Royalists and the Roundheads in the English Civil Wars and was a constant thorn in the side of authority. And then the press found itself briefly without restraint in the closing years of the 17th century.
In 1695 Parliament ‘forgot’ to renew the Licensing Act. This legislation required approval of any printed texts. Why this lapse happened is unclear but writers took advantage and Parliamentary panic set in. Successive Ministries, alarmed that speech had become far too free, tried everything from the Stamp Act to fines, the stocks, and even imprisonment in the Tower.
Writers were arrested, but many of them had powerful backers. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, for instance, had the secret support of Robert Harley, First Lord of The Treasury and Tory leader.
Printers and booksellers came in for equally draconian treatment. As the unsung heroes of the free press, they were also subjected to the fines and imprisonment. And, in addition, they would receive visits from government agents who would trash their workrooms and destroy their livelihood.
In an attempt to redress the balance, let me introduce you to two, very different, printers (one also a bookseller) who operated at opposite ends of the market. Although unheard of now, in the early 18th century they were very well known. They are prime examples of how the new printing industry produced pamphlets, newspapers, song sheets and grew in strength. Some of the material was political and some was market-driven. But it all came under the scrutiny of the authorities.
The first of our two subjects is the printer John Barber: rich, and one of the few individuals who made money out of the South Sea Bubble. This may have been because he printed the tickets and was not averse to a bit of insider trading.
He played host to a regular meeting of senior politicians who provided him with a stream of lucrative contracts. His girlfriend was the most notorious scandal writer of her day, and he made a considerable fortune by printing her outrageous descriptions of the sex lives of luminaries.
Who could resist gossip about a Lord Chancellor living openly with his mistress, disposing of her husband by sending him to prison? Readers could be shocked by the story of the married lawyer who had his mistress murdered when she became a nuisance.
Endless stories such as these brought riches to Barber’s door. They also brought him before the law but somehow his powerful friends made the charges vanish into thin air. He made enough money to abandon his printing business and go into City politics, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London.
His girlfriend, Delarivier Manley, also found herself in trouble and spent two weeks in the Tower accused of seditious libel. But again, the charges did not stick. Barber dumped her for her maid, but I am pleased to report that after a life of some hardship and a number of unsuitable men she retired to a charming little estate near Oxford where she surrounded herself with adoring young students.
The talk of Manley brings us to the most hated and despised of all the booksellers of his day. Edmund Curll was unscrupulous, completely lacking in integrity and was loathed by most of the writers whose work he published, often without their permission.
The link to Manley came at the peak of her success with her scandal fiction. Everybody wanted the ‘key’ to ensure that they had guessed the identities of the barely disguised characters.
Seizing the opportunity to make some money from Manley’s own story, Curll told her that if she did not write an autobiography for him to publish, he would simply have one written.
She already knew that Curll had little or no respect for anything remotely resembling the truth and she had already gained a name for being of easy virtue. Any reputation she had left would be utterly destroyed by Curll’s version of her life. So, in a mere six weeks she returned to him with the manuscript of her life as she wished it to be remembered.
Other better-known writers took a more proactive role in letting Curll know what they thought of him. He had made a particularly unfortunate enemy in Alexander Pope, who seems to have been extremely imaginative in the ways he made Curll suffer. It was rumoured that he had persuaded the boys at Westminster School to take revenge when the Head Boy’s poetry was reprinted without permission. They invited him round for tea. On arrival he was bundled into a blanket and given a severe drubbing, which only stopped when he apologized for his sins.
Curll, whose principal talent was his knowledge of his market, printed anything that would sell. This ranged from printing parliamentary debates, a relatively common transgression, to being the first publisher in England to be prosecuted for pornography.
The judges struggled to find the best way to formulate the actual charge to punish him, but they ended up by putting him in the stocks for “intending to weaken the bonds of civil society, virtue and morality.”
By today’s standards his pornography was very mild. The offence rested mostly on the frontispiece of A Treatise on the Use of Flogging, which showed a “woman beating a man with his breeches down in front of a mirror while he gazed over his shoulder at a girl clad in a smock with her hand at her breasts”.
The book itself was quite dull so some readers may have been disappointed, but possibly too embarrassed to complain!
This has been a snapshot of the struggles of the first newspapermen and women, writers and printers. If these little snippets have intrigued you, there is more. You will find a much more detailed picture in Grub Street: The Origins of the British Press, published by Amberley.
Ruth took her first degree as a mature student. She was then awarded a studentship from the Open University to read for a PhD. She changed career and left public relations to lecture at the University of Hertfordshire. Having retired from university life she now enjoys writing for a general readership with the aim of making history accessible.
Other Historia features about the 18th century include:
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, mental health pioneer and Discovering Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s porcelain by Jo Willett
A respectable trade in brutality: Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Castrati: did the end justify the means? by Marilyn Pemberton
Unboxing Pandora’s myth – in Georgian London by Susan Stokes-Chapman
Did time run slower in the old days? My year living by almanack time and A charmed life: childbirth and superstition by Martine Bailey
Historia Interviews: Antonia Hodgson by Katherine Clements
Historia interviews: Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Review: The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola by Essie Fox
- The Distrest Poet by William Hogarth, c1733–35: Birmingham Museums Trust via Wikimedia (public domain)
- Book auctioneer, c1700: Wikimedia (public domain)
- John Barber Esq, Lord Mayor of the City of London, in the Memorable Year 1733 by John Faber the Younger after Bartholomew Dandridge: © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
- Frontispiece and title cover of Delarivier Manley’s The Adventures of Rivella, 1714: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Frontispiece of A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs by John Henry Meibomius: Wikimedia (public domain)