Thomas Barnes, the son of a lawyer, was born in Tenterden, Kent on 11th September 1785. He was educated at Christ's Hospital and Pembroke College, Cambridge. After obtaining a degree in 1808 he moved to London where he intended to become a lawyer. However, after becoming friends with a group of writers that included William Hazlitt, Henry Brougham, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, Barnes decided to become a journalist.
In 1809, Barnes met John Walter II, the owner of The Times. Barnes began contributing articles on legal matters but later that year became the newspaper's drama critic. The following year Dr. John Stoddart, the editor of The Times, appointed Barnes as the newspaper's parliamentary correspondent.
In 1817, Stoddart retired and Thomas Barnes became the new editor of The Times. When Barnes took over the newspaper it was selling around 7,000 copies a day and was failing to make a profit. John Walter II still held most of the shares in The Times, but by 1819 Barnes had sought and obtained full control over the editorial content of the newspaper.
Barnes supported the moderate reforms being suggested by his friends, John Hobhouse and Henry Brougham in the House of Commons. However, he was a strong opponent of radicals who favoured universal suffrage. In the summer of 1819, editorials in The Times denounced the activities of radicals such as Henry Orator Hunt and Major John Cartwright. Barnes criticised radicals for holding public meetings on parliamentary reform but warned the government not to try and suppress the movement by force. Barnes wrote that "last Monday we concluded an article which severely blamed Hunt as a moral agent, by expressing an anxious hope that no person would so conduct themselves as to share with that brawler the reproach of any evil consequences which might follow the assemblage of so large a body of discontented labourers."
One of Barnes' new innovations was to send staff reporters to cover political meetings. He decided that John Tyas should cover the parliamentary reform meeting at St. Peter's Field. Tyas was chosen because according to Barnes, he "was nephew to an individual of great respectability in the town of Manchester". Barnes was also convinced that Tyas was unlikely to write a sympathetic report on Henry Orator Hunt and the other radical speakers. Barnes wrote: "as far as we can judge from his preceding conduct towards this journal, (Tyas) is about as much a Jacobin, or friend of Jacobins, as is Lord Liverpool himself."
John Tyas and the other journalists at the meeting were positioned on the platform with the speakers. The soldiers assumed the journalists on the platform were sympathetic to the radicals. As a result, John Tyas was arrested with the speakers when the meeting was broken up.
Thomas Barnes was furious when he heard John Tyas had been arrested. As John Tyas was unable to send his report, The Times published an account written by John Edward Taylor, a journalist who worked for the Manchester Gazette. Although Taylor was not a radical, he was outraged by the Peterloo Massacre and the article was very critical of the authorities.
After John Tyas was released from prison, his full account of the events was published in The Times on 19th August. The Times mounted a campaign against the action of the magistrates at St. Peter's Field. In one editorial the newspaper told its readers "a hundred of the King's unarmed subjects have been sabred by a body of cavalry in the streets of a town of which most of them were inhabitants, and in the presence of those Magistrates whose sworn duty it is to protect and preserve the life of the meanest Englishmen." As these comments came from an establishment newspaper, the authorities found this criticism particularly damaging.
After the Peterloo Massacre Barnes became a more committed supporter of parliamentary reform. In 1830 Barnes and The Times supported Lord Grey and his government's attempt to extend the franchise. Barnes worked very closely with one of Grey's ministers, Henry Brougham. Barnes and Brougham saw a great deal of each other and most mornings had breakfast together. This close relationship upset the Tories and they complained that Henry Brougham was the real editor of The Times.
Thomas Barnes was now a committed supporter of parliamentary reform. Almost daily The Times urged the Whig government to take action. The views of Barnes had a great influence on public opinion. The government tax on newspapers meant that its price of 7d. made it too expensive for most people to buy. However, copies were available in reading rooms. In 1831 the St. James's Chronicle claimed that "for every one copy of The Times that is purchased for the usual purposes, nine we venture to say are purchased to be lent to the wretched characters who, being miserable, look to political changes for an amelioration of their condition."
In Parliament the Tories complained about The Times campaign. In a debate that took place in the House of Commons on 7th March, 1832, Sir Robert Peel argued that The Times was the "principal and most powerful advocate of Reform" in Britain. After the 1832 Reform Act was passed The Times called it the "greatest event of modern history."
In 1834 a group of Whigs purchased control of the Morning Chronicle. Barnes disagreed with the way the Morning Chronicle gave "slavish support to the government". Barnes had talks with the leaders of the Conservative Party and after they had agreed that they would not attempt to interfere with reforms introduced by the Whigs, such as the 1832 Reform Act and the Tithe Act, he agreed that the newspaper would became a supporter of Sir Robert Peel and his new government.
Under Thomas Barnes' editorship, sales of The Times continued to grow. For example, the issue of 11th February, 1839, that contained an account of Queen Victoria's plans to marry, sold 30,000 copies. Thomas Barnes remained editor of the newspaper until his death on 7th May 1841.
(1) Editorial in The Times (18th August, 1819)
We kept the press open until a late hour this morning in the hope of receiving minute accounts. The Riot Act was read, and the troops called upon by the Magistrates to enforce their orders that the crowd should at once disperse. Hunt himself was taken prisoner - and we add, with unfeigned sorrow, that several lives were lost.
The troops that were employed were the Manchester, Macclesfield and Chester Yeomanry. The 15th Light Dragoons were likewise in the field, but were not called into action. The local troops, it is said, behaved with great alacrity. The consternation and dismay which spread amongst the immense crowd cannot be conceived. The multitude was composed of a large proportion of females. The prancing of the cavalry and the active use of the sabre among them, created a dreadful scene of confusion, and we may add carnage, killed eight; wounded eighty to a hundred.
Such is the brief or general outline. What actual violence or outrage was perpetrated - what menaces were uttered, or symptoms exhibited, which induced the Magistrates to read the Riot Act, and to disperse the meeting by force of arms, we cannot possibly state.
(2) Editorial in The Times (19th August, 1819)
Whatever an observant mind may suspect as to the real objects of the few (Hunt and Co.) who thus played upon the passions and misfortunes of a suffering multitude - all such considerations, all such suspicions, sink to nothing before the dreadful fact, that nearly a hundred of the King's unarmed subjects have been sabred by a body of cavalry in the streets of a town of which most of them were inhabitants, and in the presence of those Magistrates whose sworn duty it is to protect and preserve the life of the meanest Englishmen.
(3) Thomas Barnes, The Times (9th December, 1830)
We are staunch friends to a broad and fundamental reform; and if enemies to universal suffrage, or to the establishment of a low qualification for the great mass of electors, it is because such a principle would be, in effect, a narrowing of the representative system, by the virtual exclusion of all influence derived from property. We are haters of all monopolies, and among others of a monopoly of the elective franchise, by such a reform of Parliament, by means of universal suffrage, the mass, and with the mass the dregs, of the existing population.
(4) Thomas Barnes, The Times (21st March, 1831)
The all-important question of full and satisfactory parliamentary reform is, we have no doubt, now completely settled. The people, the brave English people have won it decidedly as they have won battles in the field or on the ocean; nor can they by any possibility be cheated or robbed of the fruits of their victory. They petitioned, they addressed, they resolved. We proposed these courses to them, we urged the prosecution of them with vigour, and our advice prevailed to a degree that even we, used as we are to move the noble feelings of our countrymen in a just cause and on subjects of vast moment - could hardly have conceived, and were almost surprised at our success.
(5) Thomas Barnes, The Times (25th March, 1831)
We are too upright to be flatters of the wealthy, and what honest man will dare charge us with having ever abandoned or betrayed the poor? Who has pleaded more strenuously than we have done for the reform which has put power in the hands of some many of the working class? Who has pressed so vigorously against the landlords the wickedness of the tax upon the poor man's bread? Who raised and directed the public spirit in England against the vile massacre of the manufacturing poor at Peterloo in 1819? Who would now open the poor man's eyes to the snares and treacheries which his mock friends are practising against him, who but this Times journal.
(6) Thomas Barnes, The Times (22nd May, 1832)
Died, at the lodgings at St. James's on Friday, May 18th, 1832, at a very advanced age, but still in possession of his faculties, the Right Hon., Right Rev., and Right Worshipful TORY POWER, A squire! Born so long ago as the reign of Charles I, he was given over at the close of that of James II, but rallied under the later reigns of the House of Hanover, and was kept alive by artificial means until William IV; when, detected in the act of some disreputable practices, he expired by his own hand.