OK, folks. Sorry for the delay. Below is part two of my conference paper “Artful Emissaries”: Media Abuse and Popular Protests in 1756 Britain.” The introduction for this paper has already been published on this here blog (a totally copyright protected site – no plagiarists, please… and can be accessed by clicking here and here). Part II introduces you – the reader – to how news was presented and distributed to people in England in the 1750s. Forthcoming, or Part III and Part IV, will be a brief on the Byng Affair, or placing it in context; and then a detailed explanation of the media manipulation surrounding the Byng crisis. Enjoy, and as always, feedback highly encouraged.

Part II

By the mid-eighteenth century, British media took several major forms: newspapers, pamphlets, prints, novels, ballads, rituals, plays and theatre – all of which struck at British imaginations. Thus, when French forces landed 15,000 troops on a small island off of Spain, in April of 1756, a long and massive media-driven paper trail began soon thereafter.[1] From London to Boston, Dublin to Edinburgh, press machines cranked out ream upon reams of printed material, many of which survived and provided past and present historians with a wide open window into the world of mid-eighteenth-century British media. By focusing solely on the Byng Affair print historians now possess a clearer understanding of news generation, its purpose, its dissemination, and ultimately its affect upon the general populace. For example, many newspapers and pamphlets satirically attacked Admiral Byng’s post-Battle of Minorca dispatch. The source of the satire emanated from the ministry as it purposefully attempted to shift culpability for the loss of Minorca from itself and onto Admiral Byng. But the distribution of Byng’s faux dispatch also reveals the breadth of the eighteenth-century news distribution system as well as the depth of audience demand.[2] The rioting that quickly followed the publications of Byng’s fake dispatch also attests to the power of the media. In short, because of the depth and acceptance of the media in mid-eighteenth-century British culture, the general populace played a key role in the outcome of Admiral Byng’s arrest and trial.[3]

Some numbers: by 1750 the British free press produced 7.5 million newspapers annually;[4] by 1750 there were more than 40 provincial newspapers produced each week;[5] by 1760, London readers could choose from four daily newspapers, four weekly newspapers, and as many as six tri-weekly accounts from the presses at Grub Street. Additionally, some newspapers operated as joint-stock companies showing not only a clear economic and industry-wide sophistication, but increasing independence from Tory and Whig political partisanship. Further, by 1760, total annual circulation of newspapers reached 9.4 million based on records of the purchases of newspaper stamps.[6] And though the Byng Affair and the Seven Years’ War drove the sharp rise in demand for news, Hannah Barker reminds us that “when newspapers began to emerge in the early seventeenth century, they were the product of a relatively mature print culture…”[7] Thus by 1680, the city of Aberdeen published 50,000 almanacs per year.[8] None of this could occur were it not for the comparatively high rates of literacy in Britain. John Brewer reports that English literacy rose from 10% in 1500, to over 45% by 1714, and 60% by 1750.[9] Additionally, the laboring classes, especially “skilled artisans and craftsmen who lived in an urban environment,” were nearly as literate as their middle class brethren.[10]

Pamphleteering, in addition to newspapers, became an eighteenth-century mainstay as well. Work by Robert McJimsey proved that an eruption in pamphlets occurred early in William III’s reign. On one side the government’s explanation for joining a Grand Alliance, on the other a vigorous campaign to discredit it. The government argued openly through pamphlets attempting to dodge charges of “secret machinations” or that it joined the “conspiracies of a cabal – the natural enemies of liberty.”[11] To persuade members of parliament initially brought pamphleteering to life. It never died away. Some sixty years later, for instance, the audience of pamphlets extended well beyond the MPs of the Commons, or the gentry in the House of Lords. Pamphlets became a quick an easy way for the Newcastle ministry to defend its war policies and to attack Byng. Conversely, opponents to Newcastle used pamphlets to charge his ministry with malfeasance and in some cases, to defend Byng by laying the blame for Minorca’s loss back onto the ministry.[12]

Novels also entered into and played a significant role in the imaginations of Britons. Not only did the 1719 publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe sweep the nation (it went into its eighth printing by 1735), but the novel was so widely popular that it spurred its own genre imitations, or as J. Donald Crowley insists “Robinsonads.”[13] Novels connected the far extant regions of the empire to a hungry and increasingly literate audience. The Byng Affair, too, entered into novel form. The famous phrase “Mais dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres,” referred directly to Voltaire’s unsuccessful though surprisingly active efforts to prevent Byng’s execution.[14] Nonetheless, two years after Byng’s demise, Voltaire added the Byng story to his work Candide which lampooned the absurdities of the Western world, and immediately found numerous reprinting in both France and England despite the Seven Years’ War between them. Further, many book publishers and sellers owned vast and complex distribution networks that circulated printed material (books, pamphlets, magazines, satirical prints, etc.) near and far.[15]

From small skits in coffeehouses to full three act plays in theatre, news (or to be more precise: propaganda) within and of the empire often traveled in this form. The objectivity of news during the rise of the fourth estate, however, was never an initial goal. Information, whether parodied or written with masterful rhetoric, first and foremost entertained.

For example, by the 1750s, the practice of disseminating political news via ballads had been around since the fifteenth century.[16] Usually in the form of song, accompanied by drums, fife, and string instruments, ballads became a significant industry well before the English Civil War. Some made a living off of balladeering, demonstrating witty prose set to music about current events which, when printed on single sheets, could be sold to crowds of listeners. As Margarette Lincoln states, ballads were “a key means of bridging the gap between the literate and the partial literate. Easily remembered and recited, ballads could be a powerful form of propaganda.”[17] By the mid-eighteenth century, ballads became a serious pursuit of scholars, often printing their collections after archival raids and oddity shops visits as Thomas D’Urfey did in 1723 with the publication of Collection of Old Ballads, and as Thomas Percy did in 1749 with the publication of Ancient British Musick.[18] M. J. Cardwell rightly proclaims that the institution had become such an entrenched part of English culture, that ballad writers “were drawn from every social rank, including courtiers, politicians, men of letters, printers, journalists, booksellers, professionals, tradesmen, laborers and the hawkers themselves…” In a 1757 pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the Nation, ballads were pointed out as the primary agent in Byng’s character assassination…

“If I am not mistaken, the Clamour was began against the Admiral, by the Hawkers and Ballad-singers; every one must remember Sing Tantarara Hang Byng! and from a Circumstance so trivial as this is, undoubtedly took Rise the Misfortunes of the Gentleman.”[19]

That ballads entered into the political drama of 1756 and 1757 mirrored the significance of other cultural mainstays that spread information throughout the British archipelago. Common rituals such as coffeehouses, bar songs, hanging days, Guy Fawkes Day, and the selling of trinkets reinforced the news media network ensuring that even the illiterate received nearly daily doses of news by which various political and social factions intended. Some popular trinkets sold during the uprisings against Admiral Byng included everything from satirical medals to fine glassware and porcelain china.[20]

All of these forms of media and the already complex methods of their distribution throughout the empire reinforces an observation made by Ernst Gellner that content pales in comparison to the “pervasiveness” of communication: “What is actually said matters little.” [21] What the Newcastle ministry recognized in their early excoriations of Admiral John Byng was the fact that they could deliver a potent and pervasive media messages bent on purposeful deflections of the loss of Minorca onto another, that this message could be delivered and overwhelm nearly every segment of British society that no matter how a Briton citizen conducted his or her daily life, the national issues of the day invaded and would be near impossible to escape.


[1] Admiral Byng’s small fleet arrived in Gibraltar from Portsmouth on 2 May 1756. The news that the French occupied the island and surrounded the garrison at Port Mohan shocked Byng, who sent a tersely worded dispatch from Gibraltar claiming that had he arrived earlier the French “would not have gained a toehold.” See H. W. Richmond, Papers Relating to the Loss of Minorca in 1756, (London: Navy Records Society, 1913), 6-7. See also Dudley Pope, At Twelve Mr. Byng was Shot, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott, 1962), 111-12; and Cardwell, 46-7.

[2] Edward Jacobs argues that by the mid-eighteenth century, Britain possessed a nationalized system of trade in printed materials, thereby creating a national demand for printed materials throughout the provinces. See Edward H. Jacobs, “Buying into Classes: The Practice of Book Selection in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 33, no. 1 (Fall 1999), 45.

[3] Cardwell claims that Byng’s dispatch aptly demonstrated the universality of readers and how they tapped into all forms of media mid-eighteenth century. See Cardwell, 54. Further, numerous historians have shown that the public played an active role in disseminating news, in other words, they were not confined to mere passive absorbers of the news. Rather, the general populace eagerly participated in spreading information via plays, ballads, parades, poetry contests, and other means. Also, that a significant portion of Britain’s middle ranks demanded an active role in the affairs of the country and, therefore, readily sought out news in all its forms to keep abreast. See, for example, Jason Peacey, “The Print Culture of Parliament, 1600-1800,” Parliamentary History, vol. 26, no.1 (Mar2007), 1-16

[4] Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 290.

[5] Margarette Lincoln. Representing the Royal Navy: British Sea Power, 1750-1815, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 45.

[6] This is likely a conservative number since it does not take into account newspapers that printed illegally and without the benefit of paying a stamp tax, a continuing problem for the government since at least 1695. Cardwell, 3-10.

[7] Press, Politics, and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820, Hannah Barker and Simon Burrows, eds., (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 2-3.

[8] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 to 1837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992), 22.

[9] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1997), 167.

[10] According to Lorna Weatherill, mid-eighteenth-century probate inventories show that literacy rates in London may have approached as much as 80%. Lorna Weatherhill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660–1760 (London, 1988), 2. See also, Cardwell, 11.

[11] Robert McJimsey, “Shaping the Revolution in Foreign Policy: Parliament and the Press, 1689-1730,” Parliamentary History, 25, no. 1 (2006): 18.

[12] Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-1785 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 182. According to Wilson, “The periodical press was obsessed with Minorca’s loss, as were newspapers like the Monitor, the London Evening Post and the Daily Gazetteer which promoted the view that Byng was an instrument of ministerial malfeasance.”

[13] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, J. Donald Crowley, editor (Oxford University Press, 1983), viii-xxv.

[14] “But in this country it is good from time to time to kill an admiral to encourage the others.” Voltaire, Candide, ou L’Optimisme (Paris: La Sirène, 1759), 183.

[15] Cardwell, 3.

[16] Nick Groom, ““The Purest English”: Ballads and the English Literary Dialect,” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 47, no. 2 (2006), 191. Cardwell places the transmission of news and political ideas via ballads a century later, see Cardwell, 4.

[17] Lincoln, 45-6.

[18] Groom, 180-81, 186.

[19] An Appeal to the Nation, Being a Full and Fair Vindication of Sir John Mordaunt, and the other Gentlemen employed in the Conduct of the late Secret Expedition (London: 1757),  2.

[20] Thomas Wright, Caricature History of the Georges, 2nd ed., (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1968), 95. See also Peter Francis, “Franz Tieze (1842-1932) and the Re-Invention of History on Glass,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 136, no. 1094 (May 1994), 300.

[21] “It matters precious little what has been fed into them: it is the media themselves, the pervasiveness and importance of abstract, centralized, standardized, one to many communication, which itself automatically engenders the core idea of nationalism, quite irrespective of what in particular is being put into specific messages transmitted.” Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 127.

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