The first tax on newspapers in Britain was introduced in 1712. Newspaper tax in the United Kingdom reached a height following the Napoleonic wars at 4d, restricting readership to high-income earners. In the Stamp Act of 1814, tax was set at 4 pence a copy. Government taxes kept news out of reach for the working class. Duties on newspapers and pamphlets received radical push back from the press, unions and middle class, resulting in the ‘war of the unstamped’. The movement was spearheaded by Henry Hetherington resulting in hundreds of imprisonments.
Henry’s campaign dubbed the tax on newspapers a ‘tax on knowledge‘ and distributed its first paper ‘The Poor Mans Guardian’ illegally without stamps. Many others protested, including Richard Carlile who published his newspaper, ‘the Republican‘ without stamp duty, landing him in Gaol for 3 years.
The war on ‘knowledge tax’ saw taxes on pamphlets and newspaper reduce consistently for half a century in the United Kingdom until advertisement duty was abolished in 1853, newspaper stamp duty in 1855 and paper duty in 1861.
Removing ‘tax on knowledge’ paved the way for the development of mass media in Britain.