The Northern Star was the paper of the first ever mass working class movement-Chartism. Chartism got its name from the fight for a Charter that would expand the right to vote. But it also focused wider social issues into a movement that struck fear into the ruling class. The Northern Star was the lifeblood of the movement-as educator, organiser and agitator.
The Northern Star was founded by the leading Chartist Feargus O'Connor in Leeds in 1837 and rapidly gained a working class readership. Within a year the paper was selling over 10,000 copies a week. And by 1839 that had risen to 50,000 a week-as high as that of the main ruling class paper the Times. The Post Office was even forced to hire extra wagons for the distribution of the paper.
But the readership of the paper was much bigger-possibly 20 times the paid sale. From the start the paper was shared around by groups of workers and read aloud to those unable to read.
This description from a knitters' workshop in Leicester gives a flavour: 'Some would seat themselves on the winder's stools, some on bricks, and others, whose frames were at the centre, would seat on their 'seat boards'. Then they would commence a general discussion upon various matters, political, moral and religious. After tea a short article would be read from the Northern Star, and this would form the subject matter for consideration.'
Benjamin Wilson, a Chartist from Halifax, said that in the woollen districts, 'It was common practice to meet together at friends' houses to read the paper and talk over political matters.'
One working class radical of the time described how, 'The most constant of our visitors was a crippled shoemaker... Larry made his appearance every Sunday morning, as regular as clockwork, with a copy of the Northern Star, damp from the press.'
The paper reflected workers' experiences in a language which its readers, and those being read to, could readily understand. Its coverage reflected the extent and depth of its roots in the working class. Workers not only read the paper, they also sent in reports and distributed it. It published reports which were sent in from all over Britain, and it had correspondents in almost every town and industrial area.
As the paper's editor wrote in 1841, 'The Star has more original matter than any ten papers in the kingdom.' The issue of 13 January 1838, for example, noted, 'Our columns are once again rife with demonstrations. Everywhere the people seem to be alive. In our present number will be found reports of gatherings in Stalybridge, Leeds and Bradford... A brief notice of a public meeting in Hull on the Canada question... of Huddersfield, where the sturdy determination of the people has stopped the appointment of a poor law clerk...'
So the Northern Star acted as an organiser of the movement. The paper was most successful during the periods when the movement was rising. It was much less successful at providing a clear direction to the struggle at the key turning points for the movement. And after the high points of the struggle its circulation tended to fall rapidly.
Nevertheless for over ten years the paper was vital to the world's first ever mass workers' movement. And it did much more than merely reflect workers' experiences of life and struggle.
It also drew on the best radical writing talent of the day in order to convey political ideas and theory. Chartists like Bronterre O'Brien and Julian Harney wrote articles that attempted a theoretical critique of capitalist society. Bronterre O'Brien, for example, wrote this on Ireland in the Northern Star of 27 February 1838:
'This faction (ie the government) talk of OUR colonies. They lie, the vagabonds. We have no colonies; our aristocracy, our merchants, possess colonies all over the world, but the people of England-the real veritable people of England-do not possess a sod of ground in their own country, much less colonies in any other. 'What are called our colonies belong to our enemies, our oppressors, to our enslavers.'