THE BRITISH LIBRARY

The Newsroom blog

23 April 2019

A political scandal, a fatal duel

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Heritage Made Digital Newspapers, the British Library’s project to digitise a number of 19th century British newspapers, is uncovering the hidden, forgotten or lesser-known stories surrounding the newspapers we have selected. One of the aims of the project it to begin to fill gaps in the digital archive, and therefore many of the newspapers that we have chosen are from the early 19th century, were short-lived, and are generally less well known (though not necessarily less important) than those that have been digitised by other projects and organisations. This means that there is often limited information about these newspapers, and in researching the publication histories of each title, we sometimes stumbled across interesting news stories, images and accounts of events; and even on occasion a juicy story that directly involves the newspaper itself. A perfect example of this is the Beacon (1821).

Masthead for The Beacon newspaper

The [Edinburgh] Beacon, vol. 1, no. 1, 6th January 1821, p. 1.

The Edinburgh Beacon

The Beacon was published in Edinburgh between January and September 1821, and is one of the few newspapers based outside of London that has made it on to our project shortlist. It came to our notice as it had links to a title that had already met some of our selection criteria (in that it was London based and out of copyright), a later newspaper also called the Beacon (1822), which had been identified as being of particular interest due to the involvement of the famous author and poet, Sir Walter Scott  (below, 1822 portrait by by Sir Henry Raeburn). However, after digging a little bit deeper, it became clear that these two separate titles, the Edinburgh Beacon and the London Beacon, had been muddled in some of the core resources on 19th century newspapers, and Walter Scott was, in fact, linked to the Scottish and not the London newspaper.

Sir_Henry_Raeburn - Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

It also became clear that the Edinburgh Beacon’s short existence was mired in controversy and scandal, and while there is only a limited amount of information and scholarship on the subject, what there is tells a hugely interesting story. The Beacon’s founding and financing set the stage for political turmoil; the way it was run led to libel action and heightened political and press antagonism; and the ultimate outcome of the newspaper’s existence was a fatal duel between Sir Alexander Boswell and James Stuart in March 1822. John Chalmers, who wrote a book on the surrounding scandal, suggests that the impact of events was far reaching and significant, crediting it with ‘a move toward more responsible journalism and a contribution towards the popular demand for parliamentary reform.' (John Chalmers, Duel Personalities: James Stuart versus Sir Alexander Boswell). These are no small claims. So how did a newspaper, which ran for only a few months, have such a huge impact?

The Beacon was established as a Tory counterpoint to the popularity of the Whig supporting Scotsman (1817-2004), and also as a reaction to the coverage in the Whig and Radical Press of the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820. However, the newspaper quickly caused trouble, printing personal and vicious attacks against those it disagreed with. In particular it levelled frequent abuse at a small number of Whig politicians, including Francis Jeffrey, James Stuart, James Gibson and Lord Archibald Hamilton. The Beacon was closed down suddenly in September 1821, after several cases of libel were brought against the publication, and its printer fled to the continent.

Two things elevated the Beacon’s notoriety to scandalous levels. The first was the involvement of a large number of well-known figures, many of them in positions of authority or with links to the Establishment. In general the financial backers of a newspaper during this period remained anonymous, and could therefore deny any involvement if trouble arose. However, the money to publish the Beacon had been raised via a subscription, and many of those involved, rather than paying the money up front, signed a bond of security with a bank which advanced the money, therefore creating documentary evidence of their ties to the publication. One of those named on the bond was Sir William Rae, Lord Advocate of Scotland, and his involvement with the publication sparked discussions about the close relationship between politicians and the press, and ultimately resulted in a debate before Parliament. Others named on the bond included the Solicitor General for Scotland, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and the MP for Stirling. Sir Walter Scott, whose involvement initially drew our interest, was also a signatory on the bond. He was one of the driving forces behind the launching of the newspaper, providing both funds and advice, however much of his advice was ignored, and he quickly became disillusioned with the venture, describing it as a ‘blasted business’. He attempted to distance himself from the paper as the scandal took hold, but this was largely unsuccessful and his reputation took a significant hit as a result.

James Stuart of Dunearn (1775–1849) 
 Duellist and Pamphleteer by Daniel Macnee

The second particularly scandalous element came about because of the attacks the paper printed against the Whig politician, James Stuart (right, portrait by Daniel Macnee), who was a favourite target for abuse. Stuart took exception to several of the items written about him, especially those that he saw as attacks on his social standing. The result was a prolonged dispute with the paper’s publisher, Duncan Stevenson, with Stevenson refusing to disclose who had written any of the offending articles. This largely played out in the pages of the Beacon, but also in one public event where Stuart horsewhipped Stevenson. Unable to find satisfaction via the publisher, Stuart turned his attention to Sir William Rae, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, after discovering his name listed on the bond. It was in Stuart’s public revealing of the connection between the newspaper and the Lord Advocate of Scotland, which led to the scandal and the ultimate demise of the paper. Stuart may have felt that the affair was laid to rest with the shutting down of the Beacon, but this was not to be the case.

Challenged to a duel

Upon closing, the Beacon’s cause was instantly taken up by a Glasgow paper, The Sentinel (1821-1823). Not only were several of the contributors shared between the two papers, but Sir William Rae had once again lent his support to the founding of the newspaper, under its former title The Clydesdale Journal (1820-1821), although he was more circumspect in that instance and did so privately. In particular the Sentinel continued in publishing personal attacks against those Whigs singled out by the Beacon, with a sustained campaign of articles, letters and poems levelled at James Stuart. This time, due to a dispute between the two publishers of the Sentinel, Stuart was able to get hold of original copies of the articles and identity their author. It was revealed to be Sir Alexander Boswell, son of Samuel Johnson's biographer James Boswell, a distant relation of Stuart’s, and a well-known and well-liked member of the Tory Establishment in Scotland. Stuart believed his only recourse was to challenge Boswell to a duel, and therefore sent his appointed ‘Second’ to issue the challenge.

The Sentinel newspaper, 10 October 1821

The Sentinel, vol. 1, no. 1, 10th October 1821, p. 1.

The duel was fought on 26th March 1822, and while neither side intended to cause actual harm, Boswell was fatally wounded by Stuart’s mis-aimed shot. The duel and Stuart’s subsequent trial for murder gained intense public interest, much of it whipped up the extensive media coverage of events. Many of those accounts linked back to the original scandal surrounding the downfall of the Beacon, with more focus placed upon that than the role of the Sentinel in the dispute. Stuart was acquitted, as so frequently happened at trials for duelling during this period, and came out of the affair with little damage to his reputation.

Many of the others involved suffered more long term consequences, particularly those who were directly linked to the two newspapers involved. Notably, the printer of the Beacon, John Nimmo, who despite being only a very minor figure in the operations of the newspaper, was briefly accused of being its proprietor. He fled to France, fearing prosecution, and remained in exile there for the rest of his life. William Borthwick, one of the publisher/proprietors of the Sentinel, also had his life completely turned upside down by the affair. It was his dispute with his former colleague, Robert Alexander that led to the revealing of Boswell’s authorship of the offending articles, but as a result of his actions he was arrested for stealing papers that may or may not have rightfully been his property. Borthwick’s circumstances were complicated because the papers he was accused of stealing also played a role in James Stuart’s trial, and his own prosecution was repeatedly delayed. Upon Stuart’s acquittal, Borthwick was suddenly released from jail without trail, but the legal wranglings and imprisonment had left him penniless and unemployed. He spent much of the rest of his life bitterly campaigning for compensation for the miscarriage of justice against him, claiming, not unreasonably, that he had been used as a pawn in the political dispute between the Scottish Tories and Whigs.

An important factor is all of this once again brings Sir William Rae, Lord Advocate of Scotland, to the fore. As Lord Advocate, Rae was the only public prosecutor in Scotland, and therefore oversaw all Crown prosecutions in the country. This meant that he oversaw not only James Stuart’s trial, but also William Borthwick’s, but in both cases he was personally connected to the case via his involvement with the Beacon and the Sentinel. His close relationship with scandalous elements of the Tory press would be debated in parliament, but alongside this he was also accused of using his political power and privilege to interfere with the legal proceedings surrounding the two cases, and particularly of illegally extending Borthwick’s detention, while having no real intention of prosecuting him. While a parliamentary vote narrowly acquitted him of these charges, allowing him to continue in the role of Lord Advocate, Rae’s reputation was severely dented. He continued in high office until his death in 1842, but Rae was not raised to the bench, as was customary for most Lord Advocates, indicating that his involvement in the scandal had long-term consequences for his career.

The London Beacon

Finally, we turn to the title which had originally drawn the attention of our project, the London Beacon, which was founded in April 1822. It boldly declared its connection to the original Beacon, introducing itself with a fiery statement:

newspaper article, 'The Beacon in London', 21 April 1822

‘The Beacon in London’, The [London] Beacon, vol. 1, no. 1, Sunday 21st April 1822, p. 1.

However, it lasted for only seven issues, perhaps indicating that the public had lost interest and patience with the personal attacks and antagonistic writing style that were the Beacon’s trademark. It might also speak to the geographically specific audience that the original publication had engaged with, meaning a London based successor did not have a solid base of readers to rely upon. Or it might tell us something of the wariness of investors to put money into a venture that might be both a political and a financial catastrophe for them.

While Chalmers credit’s the Beacon scandal with beginning a move away from the personal libellous attacks and irresponsible journalism that had characterised the period, there was certainly no sudden change in tone or attitude in either the Scottish or English press at this time. The shift was slow and subtle, and libel cases were frequent for many years afterwards, and even the occasional duel resulting from the fraught political and publishing environment of the time. However, it was a memorable case, drawing well-known individuals into a scandal that played out across the media, and may perhaps be seen as the starting point for the slow emergence of a more thoughtful approach to political journalism.

Whatever its impact, the Beacon, and those titles closely linked to it, provide interesting and amusing additions to the collections of newspapers being digitised by Heritage Made Digital. They remind us of the importance of detailed research into the titles we are presenting, and also the delight of coming across a hidden gem in the diverse range of material we are working with.

Further reading

 

Beth Gaskell, Curator Newspaper Digitisation