Monday 25 September 2023

John Cleave - Chartist and campaigner for a free press

John Cleave was one of the great names of London radical publishing. His book shop at 1 Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street, stocked all manner of risky and risqué publications, while Cleave's Weekly Police Gazette may have sold as many as 40,000 copies a week at its height. It earned him a significant income - and two brief spells in prison for his refusal to pay stamp duty, the 'tax on knowledge'.

But his origins have always been slightly mysterious. Some biographers have suggested that he came from Ireland, or that his family at least did so. But this appears to be based on his long and unwavering support for the cause of Irish independence rather than on documentary evidence. And even his date of birth has been so uncertain that biographers have given it variously as 1790 or 1795.

The question of John Cleave's origins can now be answered with some greater certainty, however. Church of England baptism records for the diocese of Westminster show that John Cleave was born on 22 October 1796, and baptised at St Clement Danes on the Strand on 27 February 1797. It names his parents as John and Elizabeth Cleave. And my reading of the record (below) suggests that young John had a twin brother named Samuel.

The record was always there, of course, but would have been very difficult to find in the pre-digitisation era. This particular record came to light on Ancestry.

John Cleave baptismal record.

My research (for a biography of Cleave that now appears on my Chartist Ancestors website) also confirms his claim to be a freeman of the City of London. This time the evidence comes from FindMyPast. It shows that he paid 46s 8d to become a member of the Company of Joiners, which would greatly have helped his business: though Shoe Lane where he had his shop and publishing interest was in Westminster, it was a matter of a few minutes’ walk to Temple Bar and the City.

Admission as a freeman of the City.
Cleave was an interesting man. Although he played only a walk-on part in the story of Chartism (though a much bigger one in the campaign against the taxes on knowledge which preceded it), he was able to bring his business experience to bear in managing the finances of various campaigns and institutions, he would hold steady to his belief in Irish independence throughout his life, and he was not afraid to take unpopular positions within Chartism. Finally, he would end up buried alongside one of the other great names of Chartism - though for more on that you will have to read the biography.

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