A tax was first imposed on British newspapers in 1712. The tax was gradually increased until in 1815 it had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes.
In 1816 William Cobbett began publishing his weekly Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000. John and Leigh Hunt, the publishers of the Examiner, paid the stamp duty but on the front page always called it the "tax on knowledge".
Other radicals decided to ignore the law. Jonathan Wooler's Black Dwarf was published unstamped and sold for 4d. Jonathan Wooler used the newspaper to support Major John Cartwright and his Hampden Club movement.
After the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, decided to change the law in an effort to reduce the circulation of radical newspapers and pamphlets. They persuaded Parliament to pass the Six Acts. Two of these were aimed at destroying the radical press.
Under the provision of one of these new laws, each publisher was compelled to deposit a bond with the government as surety against future conviction of seditious or blasphemous libel. The bond was £300 if the publisher was based in London or £200 for those who published in the provinces.
Another of the Six Acts applied the 4d. stamp duty to all journals that sold for less than 6d. As most working people were earning less than 10 shillings a week, this severely reduced the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.
The stamp duty was also applied on journals that contained any "public news, intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State." The government announced that it hoped that this stamp duty would stop the publication of newspapers and pamphlets that tended to "excite hatred and contempt of the Government and holy religion."
The tax was also applied to all journals that appeared more frequently than every twenty-six days. Some radicals tried to overcome this tax by converting their weekly newspapers into monthly journals. Examples of this strategy include United Trades' Co-operative Journal and William Carpenter's Monthly Political Magazine.
Other radicals such as Richard Carlile ignored the law and continued to publish his newspaper, the Republican without paying stamp duty. Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol and fined £1,500. Carlile was determined not to be silenced. While he was in prison he continued to write material for the Republican which was now being published by his wife. Due to the publicity created by Carlile's trial, the circulation of the newspaper increased dramatically and was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.
In 1821 Jane Carlile was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was replaced by Richard Carlile's sister, Mary, but within six months she was also in prison for the same offence. From his prison cell Richard Carlile called for financial support in his campaign to continue publishing the Republican. During the next few months over £500 a week was sent to Carlile's shop in Fleet Street.
Carlile also asked for volunteers to sell the Republican. The Morning Chronicle pointed out that Carlile campaign was bound to fail as "we can hardly conceive that mere attachment to any set of principles without any hope of gain or advantage will induce men (in any number) to expose themselves to imprisonment for three years." The Morning Chronicle was wrong, during the next few couple of years over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling the Republican. All told, they served over 200 years of imprisonment in the battle for press freedom.
In the 1830s men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and James O'Brien joined Richard Carlile in the fight against stamp duty. As these radical publishers refused to pay stamp-duty on their newspapers, this resulted in fines and periods of imprisonment.
In 1835 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man's Guardian, and John Cleave's Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000.
In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners had their first success when the 4d. tax on newspapers was reduced to 1d. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. The campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. However, it was not until 1855 that the newspaper stamp duty was finally abolished.