Stamping down on (newspaper) tax evasion

We are used to newspapers competing for an ever dwindling readership and attempting to lure us in with special offers or by reducing the cost of the paper. Until the middle of the 19th century however we didn’t have such a free market for the press, nor was government keen for there to be one. Newspapers were potentially dangerous; they might spread sedition or  undermine the monarchy or government. Presses could be banned but they could also be limited by making papers too expensive for ‘ordinary’ people to buy.

In 1815 – in a period of post-war tension in domestic politics with radicals emerging from the shadows Lord Liverpool increased the stamp duty on newspapers to 4d, taking them out of the budget of most working men and women. In 1834 the tax remained but there were those who flouted the rules and published papers without paying the tax. The unstamped press continued to grow in the early 1800s despite government attempts to stop it. This helps explain the appearance of a ‘miserable-looking lad’ at Bow Street Police Office in September 1834.

George Lunts was charged with selling ‘an unstamped publication called The People’s Police Gazette. He was brought in by a man named Colley who admitted he was motivated by the government reward of 20s available for those bringing such prosecutions.

Sir F. Rose (in the chair) scrutinized the newspapers produced but noted they were old. The magistrate discharged the lad on the grounds that it was not an offence under the cat to sell old papers without the tax, just new ones. However, he warned George that had he been selling more current ‘news’ he would have fined him as the law required to do ‘justice to the newspapers whose proprietors paid the regular stamp duties’.

Stamp duty fell in the 1830s and was abolished in 1855; the first edition of the Daily Telegraph after the abolition was just 1d – now newspapers could be bought and read by all and the rise of the popular press can be dated from this time.

What kind of publication was The People’s Police Gazette? Some version of that title existed since the late 1700s and there is one small run of the paper in Stanford University library in the USA. Sadly I don’t think it exists in the British Library’s collection.


[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 2, 1834]

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