Henry Hetherington worked for Richard Carlile as a shopman before he began publishing the daily paper Penny Papers for the People in 1830. In the first edition published on 1st October, 1830, Hetherington explain his motives for publishing this paper: "It is the cause of the rabble we advocate, the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes. We will teach this rabble their power - we will teach them that they are your master, instead of being your slaves."
In July 1831 changed the name of his paper to the Poor Man's Guardian. Hetherington's refused to pay the 4d. stamp duty on each paper sold. On the front page, where the red spot of the stamp duty should have been, Hetherington printed the slogan "Knowledge is Power". Underneath were the words, "Published in Defiance of the Law, to try the Power of Right against Might".
The Poor Man's Guardian was closely associated with the National Union of the Working Classes, an organisation formed earlier that year by Hetherington and William Lovett to campaign for universal suffrage and trade union rights. Hetherington gave extensive coverage to the struggle over the 1832 Reform Act and was deeply disappointed by the refusal of Parliament to give the vote to working men.
Henry Hetherington toured Britain giving speeches on parliamentary reform and recruiting agents to sell the Poor Man's Guardian. By 1833 circulation had reached 22,000, with two-thirds of the copies being sold in the provinces. In a three year period, twenty-five of these forty agents went to prison for selling an unstamped newspaper. One of those was arrested was George Julian Harney, who was imprisoned three times for selling the Poor Man's Guardian. Later Harney was to become the editor of the very successful Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star.
Hetherington was also imprisoned for two periods of six months and in November 1832, he was replaced as editor by James Bronterre O'Brien. The new editor had been influenced by European socialist writers such as Gracchus Babeuf and began publishing translations of their work in the Poor Man's Guardian. O'Brien argued that workers in other countries were also involved in a struggle for universal suffrage. In October 1834 he wrote: "The history of mankind shows that from the beginning of the world, the rich of all countries have been in a permanent state of conspiracy to keep down the poor of all countries, and for this plain reason - because the poverty of the poor man is essential to the riches of the rich man. The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another's labour is the original sin of the world."
Although the Poor Man's Guardian gave its support to the trade union movement it constantly argued that the real struggle was for universal suffrage. As it pointed out on many occasions, if working men were not represented in the House of Commons, gains made by the trade unions could always be undermined by legislation passed by Parliament.
The campaign for an untaxed press obtained a boast in June 1834 when it was ruled that the Poor Man's Guardian was not an illegal publication. The newspaper reported: "After all the badgerings of the last three years - after all the fines and incarcerations - after all the spying and blood-money, the Poor Man's Guardian was pronounced, on Tuesday by the Court of Exchequer (and by a Special Jury too) to be a perfectly legal publication." As a result of this court ruling, Henry Hetherington invested in a new printing press, the Napier double-cylinder, a machine capable of printing 2,500 copies an hour.
This decision did not stop the authorities from continuing the persecution of those trying to publish and sell radical newspapers. In 1835 the offices of the newspaper were raided. Hetherington's stock and equipment, including his new Napier printing machine, was seized and destroyed. For a while Henry Hetherington printed the Poor Man's Guardian on borrowed equipment but in December, 1835, he decided to cease publication.