Paper at Politics and the Power of Print Conference, Manchester, 30 Nov. 2012

On the 30th Nov. 2012 at Chetham’s Library, Manchester, I am giving a paper at the Politics and the Power of Print Conference organised by Manchester Metropolitan University. The paper is titled ‘ “Agitate, agitate, agitate”: the publishing career of Joseph Livesey (1794-1884)’. It uses the career of Joseph Livesey, temperance reformer, free trader, Liberal and political agitator par excellence to analyse the role of print in Victorian political culture. For more details about the conference including the programme click here


The rapid expansion of print culture in the 19th century was exploited by numerous political and religious campaigns in Britain. The agitations for free trade, Chartism and anti-slavery all relied on print, which was regarded as the most important medium for educating and mobilising public opinion. Print was critical in forging and maintaining a sense of collective identity in political movements that were often disjointed and localised.

A study of the publishing career of Joseph Livesey reveals the importance, but also the limits, of print as a political tool in the Victorian period. Livesey was a self-made man born in poverty and best known today as the founder of teetotalism. A talented political communicator, his temperance lectures frequently had an electrifying effect on audiences. His ground-breaking temperance publications of the 1830s used woodcuts to appeal to a poor audience. Livesey’s language also blended the distinction between oral and print culture. He made use of various distribution networks and strategies to circulate his newspapers to a wide audience.

In the 1840s, Livesey played a crucial part in the anti-corn law campaign through his periodical The Struggle (1842-6), which was aimed at urban workers sceptical of the manufacturer-dominated Anti-Corn Law League. Livesey employed anti-aristocratic rhetoric, woodcuts and ballads to popularise the free trade message.

Despite his prowess as a political publisher, in his later life Livesey wrote perceptively on the limitations of print.  He complained that official temperance newspapers largely preached to the converted. Furthermore, the dissemination of tracts by temperance and religious bodies had become an end in itself and a way of avoiding direct, face-to-face contact with the poor by increasingly remote and bureaucratic organisations.

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