Henry Hetherington: The Revolutionary Life of a Radical Printer (1850) | G. W. M. Reynolds

The following biography of Henry Hetherington originally appeared in Reynolds’s Political Instructor, accompanied with a portrait of Hetherington on the front page. Likely written G.W.M. Reynolds, it has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo.[1]

The Late Henry Hetherington

The name of the late Mr. Hetherington is no doubt familiar to our readers as that of a man who was ever engaged in the good work of political and intellectual progress, and who suffered severely by advocating those rights so tenaciously withheld from the humbler classes in this country. Henry Hetherington was born in the year 1792, in Compton Street, Soho, and was apprenticed to the trade of a printer, serving his time with the father of that well-known charitable gentleman, Luke Hansard. When his apprenticeship had ceased, the trade being dull and overstocked, Hetherington went to Belgium, where he worked for a considerable period. On returning to England he established himself in a shop situated in Kingsgate Street, Holborn, from whence he issued the first number of the Poor Man’s Guardian. This was in the year 1831. At the close of 1830 he was appointed by the working men of London to draw up a circular for the formation of Trades’ Unions; and that document being sanctioned by a meeting of delegates, formed the basis of the “National Union of the Working Classes,” which ultimately led to Chartism.

The Poor Man’s Guardian

Three convictions were obtained against Hetherington for publishing the unstamped Poor Man’s Guardian, and warrants were issued for taking him into custody; but he contrived for a long time to frustrate the endeavours of the Bow Street officials to capture him; and might have done so much longer in the country, had he not resolved upon returning to London for the purpose of having a last interview with his dying mother. He reached the door of his house, knocked hard, but was not answered; before his second summons was heard, the Bow Street runners had pounced upon him, and he was their prisoner. Hetherington was then conveyed to Clerkenwell Gaol where he remained for six months. The Guardian was carried on all the time. In the year 1832, before he had been many months at liberty, Hetherington was again imprisoned in the same gaol for six months, during which period he endured the most rigorous and cruel treatment,—all for the high crime of selling a penny paper without being stamped.

A regular system of persecution was adopted by the government to suppress unstamped publications and crush cheap literature for ever. Heywood of Manchester, Guest of Birmingham, with about five hundred other news venders, were imprisoned for selling the “Unstamped.” In the year 1833 Hetherington removed from Kingsgate Street to his well-known shop in the Strand; he fearlessly persevered in his efforts to obtain for the people the immense advantages attendant upon cheap literature. The Destructive, ironically styled the Conservative, was issued from the Strand; and the London Dispatch followed, at one time obtaining a weekly circulation of twenty-five thousand. In 1834 Henry Hetherington was again tried for publishing the Guardian, he defended himself and obtained an acquittal; but was convicted for the Conservative. He, however, contrived for some time to elude the vigilance of the officers employed to capture him, by entering and leaving his house in the disguise of a Quaker. But the government revenged themselves by seizing in his shop for two hundred and twenty pounds, in the name of the commissioners for stamps, on the ground that he was not a registered printer: his premises were cleared out; but Hetherington, nothing daunted, purchased another printing-machine, and as no printer had courage sufficient to undertake his work, continued, in spite of the government’s persecution, to publish his unstamped periodicals until they consented to reduce the newspaper stamp to one penny, when he issued the Two penny Dispatch, a journal, edited by Mr. James Bronterre O’Brien. Mr. Hetherington had thus, by his persevering courage, achieved a triumph that should endear his name for ever to the poorer classes in England: he defied the law, he suffered imprisonment, and lost his property in struggling for a right which eventually was partially conceded; and to his energy, ability, and per severance are we indebted for the immense benefits derived by the masses from the circulation amongst them of cheap literature.

Henry Hetherington was one of the earliest and most energetic of working-men engaged in the foundation of the Mechanics’ Institute, and his zeal and intelligence procured for him the friendship of Dr. Birkbeck. Upon the opinions in respect of religion entertained by Mr. Hetherington, it is not our intention to dwell; holding it, as we do, an arrogant assumption on the part of any man to censure or denounce the honest conviction of his fellows on a question that alone rests between man and his Creator.

The subject of this sketch represented London and Stockport in the great convention of 1839, of which the martyr Frost was a member; and his latter years were devoted to advocating the principles of Socialism and Chartism. In the parish of St. Pancras, where he was a director of the poor, he was universally esteemed for his benevolence, ability, integrity, and good sense, even by those who dissented from his views. His strict temperance warranted him in believing that he was not very to fall a victim to the prevailing epidemic—the cholera, and when first seized with it he refused to call in medical relief. Professional advice was subsequently summoned, but it was too late; Hetherington’s hours upon earth were numbered, and his useful life drew rapidly to a close. He sunk under the disease, and expired on the morning of August, the 24th, 1849, aged fifty-seven years; leaving behind him one son and a widow, who carries on her lamented husband’s business in Judd Street, New Road. Several orations were made over the grave of Hetherington by friends who had known him long, and appreciated the excellence of his intentions.

[1] [G.W.M. Reynolds], ‘The Late Henry Hetherington’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 2 February 1850, 1–2.