Henry Hetherington

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Henry Hetherington
The Late Henry Hetherington.jpg
BornJune 1792
Soho, London, England
Died24 August 1849
Hanover Square, London, England
Resting placeKensal Green Cemetery
OccupationPrinter and publisher
Employer Luke Hansard
Known forSuffragist and social activist
Criminal charge(s)Blasphemy; non-payment of stamp duty
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Thomas (1811–?)

Henry Hetherington (June 1792 – 24 August 1849) was an English printer, bookseller, publisher and newspaper proprietor who campaigned for social justice, a free press, universal suffrage and religious freethought. Together with his close associates, William Lovett, John Cleave and James Watson, he was a leading member of numerous co-operative and radical groups, including the Owenite British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge, the National Union of the Working Classes and the London Working Men's Association. As proprietor of The Poor Man's Guardian he played a major role in the "War of the Unstamped" and was imprisoned three times for refusing to pay newspaper stamp duty. He was a leader of the "moral force" wing of the Chartist movement and a supporter of pro-democracy movements in other countries. His name is included on the Reformers' Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery.



Early years

Hetherington was born in June 1792 in Compton Street, Soho, London, son of John Hetherington, a tailor. [1] [2] At thirteen he became an apprentice printer, working for Luke Hansard, the printer of the Journals of the House of Commons . [3] In 1811 Hetherington married Elizabeth Thomas, from Wales, and the marriage produced nine children, although only one, David, survived him. [4] Because work was hard to come by after his apprenticeship ended, Hetherington worked as a printer in Ghent, Belgium from c. 1812 to c. 1815, then returned to London. [5] [6]

Co-operation and radical politics

During the 1820s Hetherington established his own business as a printer and publisher. He also became an active member of a number of radical organisations whose aims included co-operation, the provision of education to working men and universal suffrage. Through these organisations he made lasting friendships with William Lovett and James Watson, with whom he would work closely for the rest of his life.

In 1820 he became influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen after attending a series of lectures by the Owenite, George Mudie. Together with other printers he became a founder member of Mudie's Co-operative and Economical Society. The society encouraged wholesale trading and set up a co-operative community in Spa Fields. [7] [8]

In 1822 he registered his own press and type at 13 Kingsgate Street, Holborn, an eight-roomed house, including shop and printing premises, costing £55 per annum rent. [9] His first publishing venture, in January 1823, was Mudie's journal, the Political Economist and Universal Philanthropist. [10]

Hetherington then joined the London Mechanics Institute in Chancery Lane, founded by George Birkbeck to provide adult education to working-class men. He served on its committee between 1824 and 1830 and it was there that he met Lovett and Watson. [11] [12]

In 1828 he joined the First London Co-operative Trading Association. [13] Newly formed co-operative societies would often ask the First London for advice and assistance, so Hetherington and others founded the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge (BAPCK) (18291831) to act as co-operation's educational and co-ordinating arm. [14] The BAPCK rented a house in Greville Street, Hatton Garden, where they operated a co-operative bazaar on the first floor, while the First London occupied the ground floor. [15] Hetherington became one of the BAPCK's most accomplished speakers and played an important role in the growth of the movement. [16]

Like other leading BAPCK members such as Lovett, Watson and John Cleave, Hetherington did not believe that co-operation could be divorced from the struggle for political rights. While still members of the BAPCK he and the others joined several short-lived radical political groups, whose aims and membership often overlapped. These included, the Civil and Religious Liberty Association (CRLA), which campaigned for Catholic emancipation; the Radical Reform Association (RRA) (18291831), led by Henry Hunt to demand universal (male) suffrage; and the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) (18311835), which absorbed the remnants of all the other groups, to become London's leading ultra-radical force of the early 1830s. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

The BAPCK's involvement in radical politics caused a rift with the co-operative movement's figurehead, Robert Owen, who believed that politics were irrelevant to the success of co-operation, and this led to the BAPCK's decline. [22] Hetherington remained loyal to Owen's social and economic views, but criticised his apolitical stance. [23] The main focus of his activities during the 1830s would be universal suffrage and the campaign for a free press,

The War of the Unstamped

In an attempt to prevent working-class people from absorbing radical ideas, the Tory government of Lord Liverpool had increased the stamp duty on newspapers to four pence in 1815, and extended it to cover periodicals in 1819. This ensured that only the affluent could afford to buy a paper. Radical publishers such as Thomas Wooler, Richard Carlile and William Cobbett sold their publications duty paid, their sales declined and there was little attempt to defy the law during the 1820s. [24] [25]

In 1830, however, the campaign for electoral reform was boosted by the July Revolution in France, which created a market for a radical working-class press. On 1 October, Hetherington published an unstamped paper, The Penny Papers for the People, Published by the Poor Man's Guardian, quickly followed by William Carpenter's Political Letters. Both were prosecuted, thus commencing the War of the Unstamped. [26] Between 1830 and 1836 several hundred unstamped newspapers were published and over 800 people were imprisoned for distributing them. [27] Hetherington published a string of such papers, the best known and most important being The Poor Man's Guardian (18311835), whose front page bore the slogan "Established Contrary To "Law" To Try The Power Of "Might" Against "Right"". [28]

Hetherington did not edit his own papers, using James Bronterre O'Brien and other writers to do so. [29] Instead he toured the country, addressing NUWC meetings where he denounced the Whig Reform Bill for excluding working-class voters and the government for suppressing press freedom. He combined these activities with recruiting vendors and setting up distribution networks for his papers. [30]

His high-profile made him one of the government's main targets for prosecution. He was imprisoned three times, fined and his printing presses were seized. He always defended himself in court and his defiant speeches from the dock were sold as cheap pamphlets. [31] His exploits in avoiding the police, such as adopting various disguises, were widely reported in the unstamped press and Hetherington became a hero to his readers. [32] [33] At the height of its popularity (18321833), The Poor Man's Guardian sold around 15,000 copies per edition, with a readership of several times that number. [34]

In 1836 the government reduced the stamp duty from four pence to one penny. At the same time it increased fines for non-compliance and imposed such stringent conditions on newspaper publishing that the unstamped press could not survive. [35] Hetherington converted his unstamped Twopenny Dispatch into the stamped London Dispatch and People's Political and Social Reformer, apologising to his readers for the price rise and saying that personal courage was useless against the government's new powers. [36]


Hetherington remained politically active, joining William Lovett's London Working Men's Association (LWMA). [37] This was a small organisation, most of whose members were artisans, and whose primary objective was working-class self-improvement through education. Its activities included discussion groups, research, pamphlets and public meetings. [38] One such meeting, at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand in February 1837, led to the LWMA drafting the People's Charter for parliamentary reform and Chartism became the main focus of its activity. [39]

Hetherington and other speakers, including John Cleave and Henry Vincent, toured the country promoting universal suffrage and encouraging local groups to organise along LWMA lines. [40] [41] He was an elected delegate to the Chartist "General Convention of the Industrious Classes", which assembled in London and Birmingham 1839 to oversee the presentation of a parliamentary petition in support of the Charter, and to plan Chartism's response in the event of the petition being rejected. [42] [43] During that year he also addressed Chartist meetings in mid-Wales. [44]

Although Hetherington and other LWMA members supported the people's right to bear arms and resist attacks on their liberty, they became identified with "moral-force" Chartism. This put them at odds with "physical-force" Chartists, such as Feargus O'Connor, who, in their opinion, deliberately provoked the authorities to violence. [45] [46] The rift became permanent in 1841 when Lovett, Hetherington and others announced the formation of the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People (NA), whose aim was to achieve the Charter through educational and moral self-improvement. [47] O'Connor and his supporters in the newly formed National Charter Association (NCA) condemned them as traitors, accusing them of being in league with middle-class reformers trying to dilute the Charter. In spite of Hetherington's angry protestations of their innocence he and the others became exiles from mainstream Chartism. [48] [49]

Later years

Hetherington remained in the NA for six or so years, but it was a small organisation, never able to challenge the supremacy of O'Connor and the NCA, and he turned his attention to other issues, including religious freethought, international politics and Owenism. [50] [51]

He had been interested in freethought since the 1820s, joining the Freethinking Christians, a small sect. However, after his expulsion for questioning a decision by its leader, Hetherington had written a pamphlet exposing what he saw as the group's hypocrisy. [52] [53] In another pamphlet he had advocated a primitive Christianity without clergy, [54] and in 1840 he had been imprisoned for four months for publishing an allegedly blasphemous book, C. J. Haslam's Letters to the Clergy of All Denominations. [55] [56] In 1846 his commitment to freethought led to a rift with Lovett, after which Hetherington left the NA to join the atheist George Holyoake at the Literary and Scientific Institution, John Street. [57]

The John Street Institution was one of Robert Owen's London bases [58] and during the 1840s Hetherington reconnected with mainstream Owenism. He attended Owen's Rational Society conference in 1845 [59] and, with Owenites such as Holyoake, Lloyd Jones and Robert Buchanan, founded the League of Social Progress in 1848. [60]

Both the LWMA and the NA supported pro-democracy movements in Europe and elsewhere. [61] In 1844, following meetings to support the German radical, Wilhelm Weitling, Hetherington helped to form the Democratic Friends of All Nations, and he later joined Giuseppe Mazzini's Peoples' International League. [62] [63]

He did not, however, abandon his belief in the Charter. He had joined Lovett in an alliance with Joseph Sturge's Complete Suffrage Movement in 1842, [64] and in 1848 he co-founded the moral-force People's Charter Union. [65] This folded within a year and most of its ruling council, including Hetherington, rejoined the fight for a free press by forming the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. [66]


Hetherington caught cholera in August 1849. He refused medicine in the belief that his long-standing teetotalism would protect him from disease. [67] He died at 57 Judd Street, Hanover Square, London, on 24 August. [68] In his Last Will and Testament he affirmed his atheism, his support for Robert Owen and his belief that it was "the duty of every man to leave the world better than he found it". [69] His non-religious funeral at Kensal Green Cemetery was attended by two thousand mourners. [70]

In 1885 a Reformers' Memorial obelisk, which included Hetherington's name, was erected in the cemetery. [71]

Organisations with which Hetherington was involved

Hetherington in print

Newspapers and journals

Pamphlets and leaflets

Articles and letters


During his career Hetherington made a great number of speeches, and many of these were reported in the press. The following are speeches which, by their length, can be considered a good representation of Hetherington's views, plus his ability as a speaker - in essence, they are of article length. There are numerous other occasions when Hetherington spoke at a meeting, but either he spoke only briefly or the reporter edited the speech to the extent that what remains is a short precis, and cannot provide any real information.

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  7. Hollis, 'Introduction', The Poor Man's Guardian 1831-1835, p. vii.
  8. R. Hunt, J. Shallard, J. Jones, G. Hinde, R. Dean, and H. Hetherington, Report of the Committee appointed at a meeting of Journeymen, chiefly Printers, to take into consideration certain propositions, submitted to them by Mr. George Mudie, having for their object a system of social arrangement, calculated to effect essential improvements in the condition of the working classes, and of society at large (London, 13 January 1821).
  9. Hollis, 'Introduction', The Poor Man's Guardian 1831-1835, p. vii.
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  27. Hollis, The Pauper Press, p. 171.
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  34. Hollis, The Pauper Press, pp. 118/9.
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  50. Weiner, William Lovett, pp. 88; 106.
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  52. Wiener, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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  55. Wiener, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  56. Hetherington, Henry, A Full Report of the Trial of Henry Hetherington, on an Indictment for Blasphemy (1840)
  57. Weiner, William Lovett, p. 106.
  58. Harrison, J. F. C., Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) p. 225
  59. Claeys, p. 229.
  60. Royal, Edward Victorian Infidels (Manchester University Press, 1974; ISBN   0-7190-0557-4) p. 148.
  61. Weiner, William Lovett, pp. 46/7; 110-113.
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  65. National Archives, Address of the People's Charter Union. Retrieved 3 May 2020.
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  68. Wiener, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  69. Holyoake, pp. 9/10.
  70. Wiener, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  71. British Listed Buildings, The Reformers' Memorial.
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Further reading