Ever heard of the Reverend William Hill? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you haven’t. There is no biography of this man. No entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. No entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. Even Wikipedia has forgotten about the Revd. Hill. You could be forgiven for thinking that he was a Victorian Nonconformist minister who did his duty on the preaching front and perhaps penned the odd theological pamphlet … and, er, that was it. Well, he was a minister for sure … but in the late 1830s and early 1840s he was also one of the most influential men in the country. Many thousands read or heard his words. For the Revd. Hill, you see, was the editor of the famous Northern Star, which, in summer 1839, was selling an astonishing 50,000 copies a week.
The Northern Star was one of Chartism’s great achievements. It is the greatest working class newspaper in English history. A bit over the top that, you might think …yes, you might have a point … I’ll have a think about what I’ve just written …no, I’m sticking with that … the Northern Star is the greatest working class newspaper in English history. The paper had everything … a confident, defiant letter from Feargus O’Connor on the front page, a column from hard-thinking Bronterre O’Brien, stirring reports of Chartist meetings ‘packed to suffocation’ from across the country, letters from itinerant lecturers about the excellent progress of the cause, poems … even jokes. And each issue came with a lengthy editorial from William Hill. These were cogently-argued, but they also revealed a deep depth of feeling for the cause and for the paper’s readers. Working people, you see, when they read the good reverend’s editorials realised that here was a man on their side.
William Hill edited the Star from his office in Leeds for almost six years – from 1837 until 1843. Of course, he made enemies. The Leeds Mercury wasn’t a fan. It was Whig, the Star was Chartist. It sold diddly squat. The Star sold shed loads. But it got a scoop in 1841. Hill had separated from his wife … or, as the Mercury had it, deserted her. So William Hill had to endure a ‘ruthless invasion of the sanctities of my domestic misery’. Being a Chartist leader meant there was always a price to pay. With your colleagues it occasionally meant shutting up or getting embroiled in nasty rows.
William Hill wasn’t a man to shut up. And so he got involved in a few nasty rows. When the Chartists fell out with each other, it was only rarely about policy … often it was about money or personal position. Now the Chartists tried to be scrupulous when it came to money. The executive of the National Charter Association published its accounts in the Star. Casting his eye over these on one occasion, Hill found himself concerned by payments to men like John Campbell, Jonathan Bairstow and Peter Murray McDouall. Looked like they were helping themselves to more than they should, he thought … and this is what he said in a blistering editorial in the Star. A nasty row ensured.
Feargus and his editor never shared a drink. This is because William Hill championed teetotalism – Feargus, enjoying a bottle of brandy a day, unsurprisingly didn’t. For quite a few years they managed to rub along. But eventually the rupture came. It had been brewing for sometime. This time it was actually over policy – too arcane to go into here but it concerned the NCA executive – but clearly there were personal antagonisms. Feargus sacked his editor and called him ‘a knobstick parson’. He was never to contribute to the newspaper he had edited so successfully ever again. A sad ending to a great partnership.
I am glad to say that the Revd. William Hill’s story will be told. I have agreed to write it up for the DLB.