THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
(Sir) Edward Baines (1800-1890)
Press Baron, Politician and Educationist
For over half the nineteenth century Edward Baines (Junior) was editor and owner of the influential Leeds Mercury newspaper, a powerful figure on the political and social scene, locally and nationally. A man of deep convictions, with a strong sense of justice, unafraid of conflict, he made the Mercury into the leading provincial journal in the country.
Born in Leeds in 1800, he was the second son of the pioneering newspaperman Edward Baines (1774-1848), who had arrived in Leeds from Preston as an apprentice printer but in 1801 bought out the Mercury, financed by a group of leading Liberals and dissenters like himself – they wanted a newspaper to give them a voice in Leeds and across the north. Through his impassioned editorials Edward Baines Senior transformed the paper into a campaigning platform for Whig/Liberal views on social and political reform, massively increasing its circulation and its influence on public opinion. From the age of 15 his son, young Edward Baines, was its roving reporter, covering the turbulent period after the Napoleonic wars.
In 1819 he was there as an eye-witness at the infamous Reform meeting in Manchester when the unarmed crowd, including women and children, were cut down by cavalry troops: the ‘Peterloo massacre’. His detailed report of what happened, reflecting his horror at the scenes he witnessed – ‘the trampling of horses, the clanging of swords, the shrieks of the wounded, the groans of the dying’ – was printed in full in the Mercury, one of the first examples of the press providing an independent account of events which might otherwise have been suppressed (as the Government of the time tried to do). He spent the next years in London and abroad, reporting for the paper, until he was taken into partnership with his father and brother. He married – seven children were to follow – and in 1834, when Edward Baines Senior was elected MP for Leeds, he took over as the Mercury’s editor.
In that role he continued to campaign for Liberal reforms, but his passionate belief in individual freedom and responsibility and his rejection of state intervention led him into violent and divisive conflicts, particularly on factory reform and education. While he supported improvements in factory conditions, he opposed legislation to limit working hours, and was accused of condoning the slavery of children in Yorkshire’s mills. He was deeply committed to widening educational opportunity but was convinced that this could be achieved by voluntary action and opposed state involvement as ‘unjust, unconstitutional and dangerous’. It was only much later in his life that he recognised the need for state intervention to ensure working-class children got the education they needed, and he supported the 1870 Education Act which introduced compulsory education for all children.
He was a great believer in self-improvement: president of the West Riding Union of Mechanics’ Institutes for 44 years, a leader of the Yorkshire Village Library scheme, a moving force in founding the Yorkshire College of Science, later to become the University of Leeds (the Baines Wing is named after him); a Sunday school teacher for almost 50 years. Aged only 18, he had been a founder (and probably the instigator) of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and remained a member all his life. Meanwhile he found time to write several books, including a biography of his father.
He was elected Liberal MP for Leeds in 1859, but lost his seat in 1874. Although he had given up editorship of the Mercury he still wrote for it and controlled its editorial policy – theatre advertisements were banned on moral grounds, and he led campaigns against alcohol and to keep Sunday sacred, both life-long passions and part of the firm non-conformist faith which underpinned his life. He was knighted in 1881 and died in his ninetieth year at his home at St Ann’s Hill, Burley – celebrated in newspapers around the country for the part he had played in the history of journalism.