John Edward Taylor, the son of John Taylor, a tutor at the Daventry Academy, was born at Ilminster, Somerset on 11th September, 1791. John's mother Mary, a supporter of equal rights for women, had been involved with Anna Seward in the publication of The Female Advocate (1774).
Taylor was a Unitarian minister in Ilminster but he became a Quaker and opened a school in Bristol. After the death of his wife in 1793, Taylor and his young son moved to Manchester and ran a school in Salford. John Taylor educated his son at his own school and when he was old enough, was sent to Daventry Academy. This was followed by employment with a company owned by John Shuttleworth, a Manchester cotton merchant.
Shuttleworth was a supporter of parliamentary reform and he introduced Taylor to other men in Manchester who held liberal political opinions. The leader of this group of social reformers was John Potter, who ran a drapery business in the city. Others in the group included Archibald Prentice, Absalom Watkin, Joseph Brotherton, William Cowdray, Thomas Potter and Richard Potter. The group was strongly influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley and objected to a system that denied such important industrial cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, representation in the House of Commons. The men met in the back room of Potter's house which became known as Potter's Planning Parlour.
All the men were held Nonconformist religious views. Taylor was a Quaker whereas Shuttleworth and the Potter family, attended the Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. Taylor was a supporter of Joseph Lancaster and the monitorial school that he opened in Manchester. In 1810 Taylor became secretary of the committee that ran the school.
William Cowdray, the owner and editor of the Manchester Gazette, was another member of Potter's Planning Parlour. Taylor began contributing articles to the newspaper. Taylor was not paid for his articles but it gave him the opportunity to communicate his strong views on the political situation in Britain.
The subject that concerned Taylor most was parliamentary reform. However, Taylor, like most middle-class reformers, had doubts about the wisdom of universal suffrage. This brought him into conflict with radicals in Manchester such as John Knight, James Wroe, John Saxton, Joseph Healey and Joseph Johnson. This rivalry became commercial as well as political when in 1818, Johnson, Wroe and Saxton formed the Manchester Observer.
It was the group of radicals involved with the Manchester Observer that invited Henry Orator Hunt and Major John Cartwright to speak at the parliamentary reform meeting at St. Peter's Field on Monday 16th August 1819. Taylor strongly disapproved of Hunt's militant political opinions and the methods he was employing to obtain universal suffrage. Therefore Taylor attended the meeting more as a journalist than as a supporter.
Taylor left the meeting before the soldiers attacked the crowd. When he heard the news he quickly returned to St. Peter's Field and began interviewing eyewitnesses. Taylor discovered that John Tyas of The Times, the only reporter from a national newspaper at the meeting, had been arrested and imprisoned. Taylor feared that this was an attempt by the government to suppress news of the event. The next edition of the Manchester Gazette was not due out to Saturday. Taylor therefore decided to send his report to Thomas Barnes, the editor of The Times. Barnes had a policy of not naming the writers of the articles that appeared in his newspaper, however it is believed that the piece that appeared on Wednesday 18th August, was written by Taylor. It was definitely very similar to the account that appeared in the Saturday edition of the Manchester Gazette.
The government responded to the events at St. Peter's Field by passing the Six Acts. Taylor was radicalized by these events and felt that theManchester Gazette did not accurately record the outrage that the people felt about what happened at St. Peter's Fields. Taylor's political friends agreed and it was decided to form their own newspaper. Eleven men, all involved in the textile industry, raised £1,050 for the venture.
It was decided to call the newspaper the Manchester Guardian. A prospectus was published which explained the aims and objectives of the proposed newspaper: "It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy."
The first four-page edition appeared on Saturday 5th May, 1821 and cost 7d. Of this sum, 4d was a tax imposed by the government. The Manchester Guardian, like other newspapers at the time, also had to pay a duty of 3d a lb. on paper and three shillings and sixpence on every advertisement that was included. These taxes severely restricted the number of people who could afford to buy newspapers. The Manchester Guardian, like all newspapers based outside of London, could only publish once a week.
In the first couple of years the Manchester Guardian sold about 1,000 copies a week. Readership was much higher than this with a large number being purchased by newsrooms, a place where people could go and read a selection of newspapers. Taylor's account books show that newsrooms as far away as Glasgow, Hull and Exeter purchased the newspaper.
Sales of the Manchester Guardian continued to grow. By 1823 it was 2,000 and two years later it reached 3,000. Taylor was helped by Manchester's fast growing population. This not only provided more potential readers but emphasized Taylor's point that Manchester needed to be represented in Parliament.
Although Taylor was successful in using the Manchester Guardian to gain more supporters for his political views, he had upset some old friends in the process. Archibald Prentice, Thomas Potter and John Shuttleworth all accused him of moving to the right. They complained when the Manchester Guardian refused to support the campaign by John Hobhouse and Michael Sadler to reduce child labour in the textile industry. Taylor's view was "though child labour is evil, it is better than starvation". He also refused to support Richard Oastler and the Ten Hour Movement. Taylor argued that this proposed legislation would cause "the gradual destruction of the cotton industry".
Taylor's views on parliamentary reform also became more conservative. Taylor now argued that "the qualification to vote ought to be low enough to put it fairly within the power of members of the labouring classes by careful, steady and preserving industry to possess themselves of it, yet not so low as to give anything like a preponderating influence to the mere populace. The right of representation is not an inherent or abstract right, but the mere creation of an advanced condition of society."
Taylor's old friend, Archibald Prentice, became his strongest critic. He accused Taylor of supporting the interests of the employers over those of the workers. With the financial help of John Shuttleworth and Thomas Potter, Prentice purchased the Manchester Gazette and moved it to the left of the Manchester Guardian.
The Gazette's attempt to gain the support of radicals did not damage the Guardian's sales. By the 1830 Taylor was selling over 3,000 copies a week. What is more, the Guardian was the third most successful provincial advertisements.
The government's decision in 1836 to reduce the tax on newspapers also helped sales. Taylor was able to cut the price to 4d while increasing the size of the newspaper. The paper also became a bi-weekly. In 1837 the Wednesday edition sold over 4,100 whereas on Saturday it was close to 6,000 copies. John Edward Taylor remained editor of the Manchester Guardian until his death on 6th January 1844.