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Black Dwarf

The innovative and influential radical paper's response to the suspension of Habeas Corpus (among other repressive measures) in 1817: an advert showing a coffin with 'H.C.' on it

Detail of poster advertising the Black Dwarf, 1817

Poster advertising issue 7 of the Black Dwarf, 1817
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What was the Black Dwarf?

The Black Dwarf was a satirical weekly radical journal, published by Thomas Wooler. It started in January 1817 in response to the government crackdowns of that month and pursued a strong editorial line of parliamentary reform. Within three months, Wooler was arrested and charged with seditious libel, but was found not guilty.

In its heyday the paper sold around 12,000 copies every week and had a strong following among working people. This was despite its cover price of 4d (about half a day's wages for a craftsman, or the cost of eight pints of beer). That went up to 6d in 1819, after a tax loophole exempting non-news periodicals was closed - part of the Six Acts, a new government clampdown on radical activity. Its final issue came out in 1824.

What did it look like?

The technology available didn't allow for reproductions of pictures, so the Black Dwarf, like all papers, consisted of dense printed text, even on the front page. Headlines were in the same size as the main copy.

Much of the paper was taken up with Wooler's tub-thumping opening editorial. Invariably it dealt with the latest political goings-on, furiously naming and shaming MPs whose self-serving antics he had taken exception to. The first page of the first edition cites the liberties and freedoms of "Magna Charta" as it rails against recent curtailment of rights and liberties by the government.

What was its editorial tone?

The Black Dwarf's mix of satire, humour and parody, and fearless exposure of establishment shortcomings, was in a great English publishing tradition that continues today in magazines such as Private Eye. Though many of the incidents or personalities referred to in the Dwarf are now long-forgotten, and its florid writing style is very much of the period, the modern-day reader will recognise virtually all the jokes.

Wooler's hatred of injustice by officialdom ran to all levels, not just parliament. The first issue of 1817 highlighted the story of a Brentford pub landlord. A policeman peering through a window saw five women inside the man's (locked) pub after closing time. All concerned were testified as being of good character and there was never any suggestion of impropriety, yet the local magistrates - whether out of spite or because of some hidden agenda - stripped him of his licence, consigning him and his family to the workhouse.

The Dwarf also included a few acerbic drama reviews, satirical poems, and several spoof news items. The first issue for instance carried a list of the current value of certain qualities in parliament, in the style of a daily paper's stock market report. ("Talent. - A very old commodity not now deemed worth looking after... Deception. - Will fetch a fair price. It is best to apply at Downing-street, but there are other houses that deal very liberally. It is usual not to pay beforehand on this merchandise.")

Was Wooler popular?

Clearly not with politicians, and evidently not with some of the press either. The Times of 17 Sep 1819 sniffed: "His dull commonplace made, it seems, very little impression. Without education and without natural resources, he can never be popular even among the lowest, either as a speaker or a writer."

What was this poster for?

This poster advertised the forthcoming issue of Black Dwarf, No. 7, which was published on 12 Mar 1817. In the issue then on the streets - No. 6, dated 5 Mar 1817 - Wooler, incandescent with rage, dealt in his editorial with the recent suspension of Habeas Corpus.

Later in the same issue though, in the great English tradition, he turns his fury into mordant humour. In a joke collection of 'at-a-glance' news digests parodying those in contemporary newspapers ("Restlessness at night cured by - Lord Castlereagh's somnolent pomposities") comes a play on a formulaic newspaper headline of the time about outrages committed by persons as yet unidentified: "Habeas Corpus Act suspended... It is hoped that the perpetrators of this terrible deed will be found and brought to justice".

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