Joseph Gales was born in Eckington, Derbyshire in 1761. He was apprenticed as a printer in Newark and in 1784 moved to Sheffield where he started a publishing business. Soon after arriving in the town Gales became a Unitarian. This resulted in Gales joining the campaign to end the political disabilities of dissenters. Gales also supported Radical Whigs in the House of Commons, such as Charles Grey and Richard Sheridan, who were advocating parliamentary reform.
Gales met Tom Paine who inspired him to start publishing his own radical newspaper. The first edition of the Sheffield Register was published on 9th June 1787. Gales pioneered the idea of a newspaper which gave extensive coverage to local issues while reporting on major national stories. Unlike most provincial newspapers, the Sheffield Register did not rely on copying articles that had first appeared in London journals.
Joseph Gales attempted to educate his readers. He published extracts from the work of radical reformers such as Tom Paine, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price and John Horne Tooke in the Sheffield Register. In 1792 Gales began producing the fortnightly, Sheffield Patriot, a journal that attempted to deal with political issues in more depth than the Sheffield Register.
The Sheffield Register both educated and reflected the views of the artisans and small manufacturers in the area. In 1791 the newspaper gave support to those people who opposed the enclosure of 6,000 acres of land in Sheffield without compensation to holders of common rights.
At the end of 1791 Gales helped form the Sheffield Constitutional Society. This was the very first artisan political society. Speeches made at public meetings held by the organisation was published in great detail in the Sheffield Register. In 1792 Gales made contact with the recently formed London Corresponding Society. As an experienced publisher, Gales was a useful contact and was recruited to serve on the committee of the society.
In April 1793 Gales chaired an open meeting in Sheffield on parliamentary reform. At the meeting it was decided to start a petition in support of universal suffrage. Gales eventually presented Parliament with a petition signed by 8,000 people from Sheffield.
By May 1794 the Sheffield Register was selling over 2,000 copies a week. Such a large circulation was extremely unusual for a provincial newspaper in the 18th century. Sheffield was now seen as the most radical town in Britain.
William Pitt and his government became concerned about the activities of Gales. The authorities were particularly unhappy when they heard that Gales had published the first ever cheap edition (6d. a copy) of Tom Paine's Rights of Man.
The government was also worried about the growth and tactics of the parliamentary reform movement in Sheffield. At a large meeting of the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, chaired by Henry Yorke, a resolution was passed that abandoned the policy of petitioning Parliament. William Pitt and his government feared that this meant that reformers in Sheffield would now resort to violence.
The authorities had already started arresting members of the Corresponding Societies. By 1794 Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot had been found guilty of sedition and had been sentenced to between seven and fourteen years transportation. Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were also arrested and were in the Tower of London awaiting trial.
Joseph Gales wrote articles in the Sheffield Register attacking the arrest of reformers. He also mounted a campaign against the suspension of habeas corpus. Gales was now considered a dangerous man and was charged with conspiracy. Aware that he would not receive a fair trial, Gales decided to flee the country. After publishing the last edition of the Sheffield Register on 27th June, 1794, Gales escaped to Germany.
After a short stay in Europe, Gales emigrated to the United States. He settled in North Carolina and in October 1799 began publishing the successful Rayleigh Register.
Joseph Gales died in 1841.