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6760Fw: Morning Chronicler

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  • Nancy Mayer
    Dec 12, 2013
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      Perry  [formerly Pirie],  James  (1756-1821), journalist, was born James Pirie at Aberdeen on 30 October 1756, son of a joiner and house builder. He was educated at Gairloch Chapel, at Aberdeen high school, and at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he matriculated in 1771, but three years later his father's business failed and he had to leave without a degree to earn his living.

      Early years

      Perry spent a year in the office of a local advocate, and may have worked as an assistant in a draper's shop in Aberdeen before attempting a career on the stage with a company led by Tate Wilkinson. There he met Thomas Holcroft, who later was a close friend. He gave up this venture, possibly as the result of an affair with an actress, but more probably because of his broad Scots accent which, he was warned, would not be understood south of the border. He nevertheless moved to Manchester, where he spent two years as a clerk in the office of a cotton manufacturer. During this time he read books to educate himself and spoke in debates at a local literary and philosophical society.

      In 1777 at the age of twenty-one Perry moved to London to try to break into the literary world. According to Thomas Holcroft, he hoped to 'get a place in some counting house, or public office'  (Holcroft, 1.211), but the friends to whom he bore letters of recommendation were slow in helping him. He passed the time in writing short essays and pieces of poetry which eventually attracted the notice of one of the proprietors of the General Advertiser, who offered Perry a post as writer and parliamentary reporter at a guinea a week, with an extra half-guinea for helping with the London Evening-Post. He devoted himself enthusiastically to his work and in 1778 he was sent to Portsmouth on a special assignment, to cover the proceedings at the court martial of Admiral Augustus Keppel over his conduct in the naval battle of Ushant. This was his opportunity and he took it eagerly. He sent in to London daily for six weeks reports which reputedly sometimes ran to a length of eight columns, and raised the circulation of the paper to several thousands a day, making his reputation as a thorough reporter with a clear and lively style. He also published anonymously several political pamphlets and poems, and became a well-known speaker at several London debating societies. By his own later account, the younger Pitt and Lord Shelburne were so impressed that they offered to help to bring him into parliament, but Perry's political sympathies lay elsewhere. He had grown up in a period when, after the cases surrounding the activities of John Wilkes, the press was fighting fiercely for the freedom of reporting and comment against government attempts to restrict it, and he supported their campaigns. His attitude was confirmed by his growing admiration for Charles James Fox as the champion of popular liberties. Henceforward he never wavered in his allegiance.

      Editorial apprenticeship

      Parry's first editorial venture was the conduct of the European Magazine, which was founded in January 1782 for a partnership of London booksellers. Twelve months later the same proprietors offered him the editorship of the Gazetteer on the death of its previous editor. He made his position clear at the outset, stipulating that he 'was to be left to the free exercise of his political opinions, which were those asserted by Mr Fox'  (Christie, 338). The paper's readers were soon left in no doubt: in the autumn of 1783 he declared that it was to be 'the Paper of the People'-echoing Fox's title of 'the Man of the People'. Political news was prominent from the start. Perry employed two assistants to enable him to provide the fullest, earliest, and most accurate available reports of parliamentary debates, rivalling and soon surpassing the feats of William 'Memory' Woodfall of the Morning Chronicle, who was said to have produced his extensive reports alone and from memory, as note-taking by reporters in the gallery was forbidden by both houses. Perry was also one of the originators of the 'leading article' in which the editor commented at length, and in his case from the Foxite viewpoint, on the news of the day.

      Perry did not stop at political news. He recognized that endless columns of parliamentary debates could deter the general reader who might not be committed to politics, and he determined to make the Gazetteer an all-round newspaper, catering for all tastes, literary and social as well as political. Consequently he reduced the amount of space devoted to advertisements, the lifeblood of most newspapers, and increased the proportion of news content. This policy, however, alarmed his proprietors, and it was probably due to disagreement over this, rather than the purchase of the paper by some tories, that Perry decided to leave in November 1790, although he was still negotiating for the purchase of a half-share of the paper and a partnership. His ambition was to own and control his own newspaper, and he saw his opportunity to purchase, in partnership with James Gray, another young Scot and parliamentary reporter, the once-dominant but now ailing Morning Chronicle which Perry's own superior parliamentary reports had forced into decline. Through the good offices of two booksellers who negotiated for them, Perry and Gray were able to buy the Morning Chronicle for a mere £210, and to raise a further £1000 for working capital, partly from Ransome's bank. They were provided with an office at 474 Strand, on the corner of Lancaster Court by St Martin-in-the-Fields, by the duke of Norfolk, one of Fox's friends. The paper was clearly intended to be the mouthpiece of the Foxite whigs, and in return for their substantial subsidy Perry was able to give a larger proportion of space to political news to serve the party's interest.

      Political crusader

      The moment was propitious, for the outbreak of the revolution in France, which was thought by many Englishmen at the time to be in imitation of the English revolution of 1688, the anniversary of which they had been celebrating, had created a voracious appetite for news. In the summer of 1791 Perry himself went to Paris, accredited to several of the French leaders of the revolution as a 'deputy' from the English Revolution Society. He stayed for almost a year, providing the fullest reports of the proceedings of the constituent assembly and the events of the revolution. However, as matters became more extreme and the mob more violent, sympathy in England evaporated and the whigs themselves became divided. Perry followed Fox in maintaining sympathy for the revolution, but Burke rallied the right wing and centre of the party to the 'cause of order' and the reaction against radical ideas, fearing the spread of revolution to England. As Fox's rapport with the party leaders diminished, so they became less favourable towards the Morning Chronicle, and at the instance of Portland and Fitzwilliam, both influenced by Burke, the party's subsidy to the paper was withdrawn. The increasingly radical tone of Perry's articles convinced them that he and Gray were paid agents of the French national assembly, employed to introduce revolution on this side of the channel.

      The government also became concerned at the tone of the Morning Chronicle's reports from France, and in 1793 a prosecution was instituted by the attorney-general following the printing of an advertisement for a meeting of the Society for Constitutional Information in Derby in July 1792. After some delay owing to difficulties in empanelling a special jury, the case was finally heard by Lord Chief Justice Kenyon on 9 December 1793 and the defendants were charged with seditious libel. As with other notable 'state trials' of this period, they were represented by Thomas Erskine against the attorney-general, John Scott (later Lord Eldon), and were acquitted after lengthy deliberation by the jury.

      The trial nevertheless marked a decline in the Morning Chronicle's popularity. Interest in Perry's reports from Paris had helped by December 1793 to raise its circulation from barely enough to keep it afloat in 1790 to a position where, according to Joseph Farington, it had made a profit over the year of about £6000  (Farington, Diary, 1.115). Burke, who was campaigning against its influence, referred to its 'amazing' circulation  (The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland and others, 10 vols., 1958-78, 6.451). After the trial, and principally no doubt owing to the swing of opinion in England against the French Revolution and the outbreak of war with France in February 1793, the circulation declined. At the same time Gray's health gave way, and a rival journalist, Daniel Stuart, purchased the Morning Post and built it up as another leading opposition paper, with more moderate political views. A further blow fell in 1797 when the government, determined to hamper the expression of dissident views, and partly also to raise extra revenue, increased the newspaper stamp duty, which helped to restrict circulations. The average daily issue of the Morning Chronicle in March 1797 was little over 1000.

      Prominence and prosperity

      However, the Morning Chronicle was too well established as a leading London daily newspaper to succumb entirely to these difficulties, and Perry survived. This was largely due to the paper's reputation for accurate and responsible reporting in general, and there was still a public for a paper whose views were critical of Pitt's regime. It was important that the paper was well written and that Perry had recruited a staff and contributors of high literary calibre. They included at various times Richard Porson, professor of Greek at Cambridge, the poet Thomas Campbell, Coleridge, Sheridan, Thomas Moore, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, together with James Mackintosh, David Ricardo, J. R. McCulloch, and John Campbell, later lord chancellor of England: several of these were fellow Scots and personal friends. He was concerned for the moral reputation of the paper, and he avoided vulgarity and political abuse in an age when newspapers and newspapermen in general had a low reputation in these respects. According to one unnamed contemporary thirty years after his death, he was 'a thorough gentleman, who attracted every man to him with whom he was connected'  (Hunt, 2.105-6).

      The Morning Chronicle's circulation recovered from the low point of 1797, which was the worst year of the war for the country in general, and during the next decade fluctuated between 3000 and 4000 copies (its readership in an age when people shared newspapers because of the high stamp duties would have been several times that number). The profits from advertisements were crucial to the paper's financial success. They rose from about £3000 in the first decade of the nineteenth century to £12,400 in 1819 and it has been calculated that out of an average profit of £200 per week in 1815, £150 represented a personal profit to Perry  (Asquith, 'Advertising', 706-7).

      In 1798 Perry had another brush with the law. He appeared before the House of Lords on 22 March for allegedly libelling the house, and despite pleading that he had not seen the offending article before publication he was sentenced to three months in Newgate. His incarceration was not onerous: he gave several parties to his friends in the prison and on his release he was presented with a silver-gilt vase at a party in the London tavern. On a third occasion in 1810 he was acquitted over a paragraph copied from Hunt's Examiner against the prince regent.

      Perry's financial position was stable enough for him to contemplate matrimony, and on 23 August 1798 he married Anne Hull (1773-1815), 'a woman of pleasing manners and intelligent countenance'  (Holcroft, 2.180); they had eight children, including Sir Thomas Erskine Perry and Anne Horatia (d. 1855), who married the diplomatist John Crawfurd  (1783-1868). Anne Perry died in February 1815 after having resided for some time at Lisbon to recover from consumption, only to be carried off by pirates on her voyage back to England and kept prisoner in Africa for several weeks. She died at Bordeaux after her release and on her way home. Perry had saved her life on 26 December 1798 when her clothes caught fire; he put out the flames with his hands, burning them badly.

      After Pitt's resignation in 1801 and the peace of Amiens in 1802, the Foxites recovered some of their reputation and popular support, which helped the Morning Chronicle to prosper. When they came briefly into office in 1806 Perry was given a place as a commissioner with a salary of £600, but their efforts to secure him a baronetcy were unsuccessful. He seems to have been relieved to give up the post when his friends lost power in 1807 and though he continued to support them, they began to lose faith in his efforts. Henry Brougham accused him of being too favourable towards the prince regent rather than following the party line of support for the cause of Princess Caroline, and of cutting down political news in their favour in order to preserve his advertising revenues. Perry was a newspaperman first and a politician second, and his energies were devoted to maintaining the paper's reputation and circulation by the quality of its reports rather than to scoring political points. During the Peninsular War he printed reports based on Wellington's dispatches before they even reached London by official channels, from a secret source at the duke's headquarters-probably Colonel Willoughby-Gordon, one of his staff. He was also alleged in 1818 to have been supplied with foreign intelligence by the duke of Kent on the continent.

      Retirement and achievement

      In 1817 Perry's health forced him into semi-retirement and he gradually handed over the management of the paper to John Black, one of his assistants, who became editor after Perry's death. He underwent several painful operations and never fully recovered. He died on 5 December 1821 at his house at Brighton. His income at the end of his life was £12,000 a year and his paper's circulation was steady at 4000. When it was sold after his death it fetched £42,000. Perry also owned several properties in and around London which were valued at £130,000, a substantial fortune by contemporary standards. He was buried near one of them at Wimbledon church on 12 December, and the members of the Fox Club subscribed to a memorial to him in the church.

      Perry was one of the most notable journalists of the age when the newspaper press was becoming established as a force in the country, and he did much to make it so. He was a lively companion, 'full of fire and energy'  (Gordon, 241), honest and trustworthy, kindly and convivial. He lived a full social life, belonged to several clubs, and entertained at his house a wide circle of writers, artists, and politicians. Mary Russell Mitford remarked that he was 'a man so genial and so accomplished that even when Erskine, Romilly, Tierney and Moore were present, he was the most charming talker at his own table'  (L'Estrange, 3.254). He has been described as 'the first journalist to gain general social acceptance among the upper classes'  (Asquith, 'Advertising', 721) and he did much to establish journalism as a respectable profession. Brougham wrote in 1821 that 'he was very faithful, and far superior to the ordinary tribe of newspaper folks'  (Aspinall, 304). In 1805 he wrote: 'I have never deviated from the principles of Whiggism and never outraged the decorums of private life.' It might be a fitting epitaph.

      E. A. Smith

      Sources  I. R. Christie, 'James Perry of the Morning Chronicle, 1756-1821', Myth and reality in late-eighteenth-century British politics, and other papers (1970) + I. Asquith, 'James Perry and the Morning Chronicle, 1790-1821', PhD diss., U. Lond., 1973 + A. Aspinall, Politics and the press, c.1780-1850 (1949) + I. Asquith, 'Advertising and the press in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: James Perry and the Morning Chronicle, 1790-1821', HJ, 18 (1975), 703-24 + J. Grant, The newspaper press: its origin, progress, and present position, 3 vols. (1871-2) + F. K. Hunt, The fourth estate: contributions towards a history of newspapers, and of the liberty of the press, 2 vols. (1850) + P. L. Gordon, Personal memoirs, or, Reminiscences of men and manners at home and abroad, 2 vols. (1830) + [T. Holcroft], Life of Thomas Holcroft, ed. E. Colby, 2 vols. (1925) + The life of Mary Russell Mitford, related in a selection from her letters to her friends, ed. A. G. K. L'Estrange [2nd edn], 3 vols. (1870) + Farington, Diary, vol. 1 + GM, 1st ser., 68 (1798), 722 + GM, 1st ser., 91/2 (1821), 565-6
      Archives Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam MSS + NRA, priv. coll., letters to William Adam + Sheffield Central Library, Fitzwilliam MSS + U. Durham, Grey MSS + UCL, Brougham MSS
      Likenesses  R. Dighton, etching, pubd 1824 (after his earlier work), NPG · R. Dighton, caricature, coloured etching, NPG · J. Jackson, pencil and watercolour drawing, BM [see illus.] · J. Lawrence, oils, repro. in European Magazine (1818) · J. Thompson, stipple (after A. Wivell), BM, NPG; repro. in European Magazine (1818)
      Wealth at death  £130,000-£190,000: DNB; Asquith, 'Advertising', 721n.




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