On the 18th of June, 1812, the Orders in Council were repealed, and the blockaded port thrown open. You know very well - such of you as are old enough to remember - you made Yorkshire and Lancashire shake with your shout on that occasion: the ringers cracked a bell in Briarfield belfry; it is dissonant to this day.Charlotte Brontë Shirley (1849)
The Orders in Council (1807) were a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars, and were a series of mercantile embargoes placed on trade with France and her allies by the British, leading to the blockade of European ports, and retaliatory actions on British ports by the French. They led to, amongst other things, increased trade with British colonies overseas, a cotton famine in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the War of 1812 between Britain and America. One of the politicians who advocated free trade with Europe, leading to the Orders being repealed, was Henry Peter Brougham.
|Henry Peter Brougham|
Common sense tells you that Brougham (pronounced Broom) ought to be the sort of chap that you admire without a second thought (but more on that tomorrow). He was an outspoken opponent of the slave trade and instrumental in its abolition.
|H Brougham - Negro Slavery - 1830|
As Lord Chancellor, he supported the 1832 Reform Act, which removed many of the ‘rotten boroughs’ and greatly increased the franchise for those eligible to vote in general elections. He was in favour of universal education for adults, and encouraged the working poor to attend mechanics’ institutes, where they would have easy access to books (in the days before public libraries) and education.
|Henry Brougham - Practical Observations - 1825|
In his Practical Observations upon the Education of the People (1825), he suggests that even the poorest working man might put aside one or two pennies per week, with which he might buy books and, if several workers banded together, they might exchange these books between themselves, increasing the availability of texts that they might read.
|Monthly Supplement to the Penny Magazine|
As a direct result of these proposals, Brougham came up with the idea of publishing cheaply priced text-books and The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was born in 1826. The first venture was the publication of the Library of Useful Knowledge, a series of bi-weekly books on a variety of subjects, available for sixpence a copy.
|The British Almanac - 1856|
The British Almanac was founded in 1828, and was a deliberate attempt to produce a credible, factual alternative to the nonsense that appeared in the popular almanacs that were circulated in great numbers at the time. These ‘astrological’ almanacs were nothing more than guesswork put into print, but they held great sway over the credible public – it is said that farmers would not go out in a morning to harvest their grain if their almanac said that there would be heavy rain on that day, in spite of the thing having been written months previously, and in spite of their seeing it to be a perfectly fine, sunny day.
|Library of Useful Knowledge - Natural Philosophy - 1829|
In the late eighteenth century, Edmund Burke had estimated that there were eighty thousand readers in Britain; forty years later The Penny Magazine was selling two hundred thousand copies of each issue, with an estimated readership of about one million (in a population of about sixteen million).
|The Penny Cyclopaedia - 1832|
In 1832, the Society began publication of the Penny Cyclopaedia, which began as a weekly part-work of eight pages, but the following year moved to two issues per week, and continued for ten years, completed in twenty-seven volumes, with two additional supplements. Copiously illustrated and wide-ranging, it was an ambitious enterprise but quite a commitment for the average working man.
|The Penny Magazine - March 31 1832|
At the same time, from March 31st 1832, the Society launched The Penny Magazine, an educational weekly paper that sought to inform its readers on all manner of the arts and sciences. It lacked the structure of the Cyclopaedia, but allowed for subjects to be treated in greater depth, which was something of a two-edged sword.
|The Penny Magazine - April 18th 1835|
The Penny Magazine was aimed at the lower- and middle- classes, and the problem with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was its selective, if not down-right patronising, approach to what was deemed ‘useful’.
|The Domestic Habits of Birds - 1833|
Some of the volumes in the Library were obviously useful, if not to everyone, with such titles such as Cattle - their breeds, management and diseases (1834), or The History, Treatment and Diseases of the Horse (1848), and at a mere sixpence each, were an clear boon to their intended audience.
|Bacon's Novum Organon - 1828|
But one has to wonder how popular with the average working-man were such titles as The Differential And Integral Calculus (1842), An Explanation Of The Gnomonic Projection of The Sphere; And of Such Points of Astronomy as are Most Necessary in the Use of Astronomical Maps (1836) or Part II of Bacon’s Novum Organon Scientiarum (1828).
|The Penny Magazine - 1845|
Similarly, in the Penny Magazine, there were articles of great general interest alongside dry-as-dust expositions on the Quadrature of the Circle, Statistical Notes on Welsh Copper Mines or On the Importance of a Public Declaration of the Reasons of Decisions in the Courts of Justice.
|The Differential and Integral Calculus - 1842|
The aims and high ideals of the Society were undoubtedly well-meant but its Whiggish tone and authoritarian attitude did not sit well with its intended audience and the Society faltered, with the Penny Magazine folding in 1845, and the Society ceasing to exist entirely in 1848, although later works under its imprint were published, (The British Almanac continued until 1897).