Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walter, John (1776-1847)

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WALTER, JOHN (1776–1847), chief proprietor of 'The Times' newspaper, second son of John Walter (1739-1812) [q. v.], was born probably at Battersea on 23 Feb. 1776. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' school from 1787, and proceeded thence to Trinity College, Oxford, where he entered in 1795, being destined for holy orders. But in 1797 or 1798 his father recalled him from Oxford and associated him with himself in the management of 'The Times.' He soon infused a new spirit into the management of the paper, though for some years it still had to sustain an arduous struggle with adversity and official disfavour. In 1803 the younger Walter became sole manager of the paper, and acted for some years as its editor as well. 'From that date it is,' as he wrote in his own person in 'The Times' of 11 Feb. 1810, 'that he undertakes to justify the independent spirit with which it has been conducted. On his commencing the business he gave his conscientious and disinterested support to the existing administration, that of Lord Sidmouth. The paper continued that support of the men in power, but without suffering them to repay its partiality by contributions calculated to produce any reduction whatsoever in the expense of managing the concern; because by such admission the editor was conscious he should have sacrificed the right of condemning any act which he might esteem detrimental to the public welfare.' Such a declaration of independence was little to the taste of governments in those days, and little in accord with the ordinary practice of newspapers. It cost the Walters dear, but it made the fortune of 'The Times.' When the government of Addington was succeeded by the last administration of Pitt,'The Times' went into opposition so far as concerned the 'Catamaran expedition,' as it was called, and the official malpractices of Lord Melville. 'The editor's father held at that time, and had held for eighteen years before, the situation of printer to the customs. The editor knew the disposition of the man whose conduct he found himself obliged to condemn, yet he never refrained a moment on that account from speaking of the "Catamaran expedition" as it merited, or from bestowing on the practices disclosed in the tenth report the terms of reprobation with which they were greeted by the general sense of the country. The result was as he had apprehended. Without the allegation of a single complaint, his family was deprived of the business, which had been so long discharged by it, of printing for the customs. … The government advertisements were at the same time withdrawn. 'After the death of Pitt and the return of Sidmouth and some of his former colleagues to the ministry, overtures were made to Walter for the restoration of his father's privilege of printing for the customs. But he declined to sign a memorial for presentation to the treasury, believing, for certain reasons, that this bare reparation of an injury was likely to be considered as a favour entitling those who granted it to a certain degree of influence in the politics of the journal;' and he wrote 'to those from whom the restoration of the employment was to spring' to disavow all share in the projected presentation of the memorial. The printing business was never restored, and for several years the government carried on a warfare against 'The Times' and its conductor which would have ruined a less resourceful and determined man. From 1805 onwards he began to make arrangements for obtaining foreign intelligence which were unprecedented in those days. Henry Crabb Robinson [q. v.], the first of the race of special correspondents, was despatched by Walter to Germany in this capacity early in 1807, and afterwards, in 1808, to the Peninsula. Other correspondents were employed in like manner, and thus by Walter's enterprise was initiated one of the most characteristic features of modern journalism. But 'government from time to time employed every means in its power to counteract his designs. . . . The editor's packages were always stopped by government at the outports, while those for the ministerial journals were allowed to pass. The foreign captains were always asked by a government officer at Gravesend if they had papers for "The Times." These, when acknowledged, were as regularly stopped. The Gravesend officer, on being spoken to on the subject, replied that he would transmit to the editor his papers with the same punctuality as he did those belonging to the publishers of the journals just alluded to, but that he was not allowed. This led to a complaint at the homee secretary's office, where the editor, after repeated delays, was informed by the under-secretary that the matter did not rest with him, but that it was then in discussion whether government should throw the whole open, or reserve an exclusive channel for the favoured journals; yet was the editor in formed that he might receive his foreign papers as a favour from government. This, of course, implying the expectation of a corresponding favour from him in the spirit and tone of his publication, was firmly rejected, and he in consequence suffered for a time (by the loss or delay of important packets) for this resolution to maintain at all hazards his independence. The same practices were resorted to at a subsequent period. They produced the same complaints on the part of the editor, and a redress was then offered to his grievance, provided it could be known what party in politics be meant to support. This, too, was again declined, as pledging the independence of the paper' (The Times, ut sup.)

At a great cost this independence was ultimately vindicated, and 'The Times' emerged from the struggle the leading journal in Europe. Walter organised his own system of despatches, and on many occasions information from abroad was published in 'The Times' several days before official intelligence of the same events was received by the government. He frequently employed smugglers for the conveyance of his parcels from the continent, and told Croker in 1811 that that was the only means by which French journals could be procured (see his letter to Croker in the latter's Correspondence and Diaries, i. 37). He attempted through Croker to obtain protection from the admiralty for a person engaged in this traffic on the understanding that the person so employed was to abandon the contraband traffic, and that the papers so procured should be at the disposition of Croker for the use of the government (ib.) It is probable that this overture was favourably entertained, but Walter did not allow it in any way to prejudice his independence; for a few days after Perceval's assassination in 1812, he wrote to Croker 'to inform you that I must hesitate at engaging by implication to support a body of men so critically situated, and so doubtful of national support, as those to whom public affairs are now likely to be intrusted. . . . It might seem unfair in me to receive farther assistance when I cannot make the return which I have hitherto done with so much pleasure' (ib. p. 38). It would seem that Walter's resolve to maintain his independence of governments, parties, and persons, and otherwise to conduct his paper on principles little recognised in those days, though now well established in the ethics of journalism, was not altogether to his father's taste. It may be that the elder Walter, now nearing his end, was alarmed at what he regarded as his son's rashness and extravagance, and distressed at his sacrificing what was then recognised as a legitimate source of newspaper income by his refusal to continue the insertion of theatrical puffs. But there is no foundation whatever for the statement that these and similar acts were 'made the subject of painful comments in his father's will' (Smiles, Men of Invention and Industry). On the contrary, the will displays the testator's full confidence in his son by appointing him sole manager of the paper, and vesting in him and his successors the fee simple of the premises in Printing House Square and the capital involved in the business. At the same time the profits of the business, which were largely the creation of the energy and enterprise of the younger Walter, were divided into sixteen shares.

Walter was really the creator of 'The Times' as the world has known it for well-nigh the whole of the present century. He differentiated the paper at once from the party prints of the day. He instituted the novel principle in journalism of judging men and measures solely on their merits. He invented 'the special correspondent,' and practically introduced the 'leading article.' By the one agency he laid before his readers prompt and authentic intelligence on all matters of public interest; by the other he strove to focus public opinion, to inspire himself with the mind of his countrymen, and to give to its deliverances articulate utterance and cogent expression. A pioneer in the creation of the modern newspaper, he had to determine for himself and to impose on others the conditions which governed its being and sustained its influence. Resolved to maintain its independence 'at all hazards,' as he said himself, he had to reconcile the requirements of individual management and control with the personal idiosyncrasies of a staff of singularly able contributors. In the solution of this problem he gave to the organisation he created many of the characteristics of a secret society, together with something of the nature of a cabinet council. Secrecy was its mainspring; solidarity and self-suppression were its indefeasible conditions. The views propounded on any given subject were those of 'The Times,' and the personality of the individual writer was absorbed in the corporate unity of the paper. Of what forces the policy of the paper at this period or that was the resultant was never disclosed to the world at large, except so far as the world at large saw its own opinions skilfully and faithfully reflected. This inscrutable secrecy, this honourable solidarity of confidence, was Walter's arcanum imperil. If two contributors who happened to be personal friends chanced to meet within the precincts of the office, he would expect them to pass without recognition. One contributor at least was never known either by name or by sight to the editor. His copy was brought to the office by Walter himself, who corrected and revised the proofs. This contributor once heard a fellow-guest at a dinner party openly claim the authorship of an article which he himself had written—a proceeding which might have satisfied anyone who knew the ways of 'The Times' that a babbler who thus betrayed the confidence of the paper either never had been a contributor to its columns or would very soon cease to be so. It is well known that Sir Robert Peel, writing in 1835 to 'the editor of "The Times"' to thank him for the powerful support which his government had received from the paper, declared that he was 'addressing one whose person even was unknown to him' (Carlyle, Life of John Sterling).

Walter was at first his own editor. He so describes himself in the remarkable manifesto alreadly quoted from 'The Times' of 11 Feb. 1810. But shortly after this date he handed over some portion of his editorial functions to (Sir) John Stoddart [q. v.], a vigorous writer of strong tory prejudices— satirised by Moore as 'Dr. Slop'—who afterwards became chief justice of Malta. Stoddart and Walter did not long agree, and Walter, who meant to be master, invited his refractory editor to retire, and offered to grant him a pension. But Stoddart, preferring his independence, seceded from 'The Times' and started a journal called 'The New Times,' which, though liberally financed by his friends and supported by an able staff of contributors, survived for only a few years. Stoddart's secession occurred in 1815 or early in 1816 (Grant, The Newspaper Press), and Walter then appointed as editor the famous Thomas Barnes [q. v.], whose name is so well known to readers of the 'Greville Memoirs' and other political literature of the time. Barnes remained editor until his death in 1841 (though during the long illness which preceded his death many of his duties must have been discharged by deputy), and was succeeded by John Thaddeus Delane [q. v.], another famous name in the history of modern journalism. The language of Carlyle in his 'Life of John Sterling' would seem to imply, though it does not explicitly affirm, that Edward Sterling [q. v.], the father of Carlyle's friend, was at one time editor of 'The Times.' This is a misapprehension. For the rest, Carlyle's account of the elder Sterling's relation to the paper, which acquired through him the sobriquet of 'The Thunderer,' is probably accurate as far as it goes, though it serves to illustrate the difficulty of defining relations which the conductors of 'The Times' have always regarded as strictly confidential.

Walter's early difficulties were not a little enhanced by occasional trouble with his printers and compositors. In 1810 a serious crisis occurred. Labour troubles were rife in the printing trade, and a conspiracy was formed among the employes of 'The Times' to stop the publication of the paper by striking without notice. 'The strike took place on a Saturday morning. Mr. Walter had only a few hours' notice of this formidable design. … Having collected a few apprentices from half a dozen different quarters, and a few inferior workmen anxious to obtain employment on any terms, he determined to set a memorable example of what one man's energy can accomplish. For six-and-thirty hours he himself worked incessantly at case and at press; and on Monday morning the conspirators, who had assembled to triumph over his defeat, saw to their inexpressible astonishment and dismay "The Times" issue from the hands of the publisher with the same regularity as ever. A few months passed on, and Mr. Walter brought out his journal every day without the aid of his quondam workmen '(The Times, 5 Nov. 1894, quoted from an article which first appeared at the time of Walter's death). Walter ultimately found a permanent remedy for labour troubles of this kind by organising 'The Times Companionship' in a form which identified his employes' interests with his own, and cutting it entirely adrift from outside combinations of the trade. He was still, however, his own best workman on occasion. In 1833 an important despatch from Paris reached him at the office when most of the compositors had left. Walter at once translated it, and then, with the assistance of a single compositor, proceeded to set it up in type. Another workman, dropping in about noon, 'found Mr. Walter, M.P. for Berks, working in his shirt-sleeves.' An hour later a new edition of 'The Times' was circulating in the city containing the speech of the king of the French on the opening of the chambers (Smiles, ut sup.)

Having thus organised his staff and settled the industrial economy of his workshop on lines of permanent stability, Walter next sought to meet the growing circulation of his paper by the application of steam to the printing-press. He adopted and improved the invention of a German printer named Koenig for printing by means of cylinders. Machines driven by steam and embodying this principle were set up secretly, to forestall the opposition of the workmen, in premises adjoining the office in Printing House Square. On the morning of 29 Nov. 1814 Walter, issuing from these premises, announced to his pressmen that '"The Times" is already printed by steam,' informing them at the same time 'that, if they attempted violence, there was a force ready to suppress it; but if they were peaceable their wages should be continued to every one of them until they could obtain similar employment.' This quieted them, and there was no disturbance. 'The Times ' of the same morning contained an article announcing the adoption 'of the greatest improvement connected with printing since the discovery of the art itself' (ib.)

From this time forward the personal biography of Walter parts company from the history of 'The Times.' The latter runs underground in channels which have never been explored and cannot now be traced. The external changes in 'The Times' were inconsiderable after steam printing was introduced the first double sheet of the paper was issued in 1829 and its changes of policy were less the result of individual influence than the reflection of corresponding changes in the drift of public opinion. One possible exception, of which the history has often been distorted, may, however, be noted. In the spring of 1834 'The Times,' contrary to general expectation, violently opposed the bill for a new poor law introduced by Lord Grey's government. A letter was written by Althorp to Brougham reflecting on the conduct of 'The Times.' Campbell gives an inaccurate transcript of this letter (Campbell, Lives of the Chancellors, viii. 441), which is still extant and in the possession of the present chief proprietor of 'The Times.' Its text is as follows: 'The subject I want to talk to you about is the state of the Press, and whether we should declare open war with "The Times" or attempt to make peace.' By some means the fragments of this letter, hastily thrown away, came into the hands of the persons on whose conduct it reflected. 'From that hour,' says an ill-informed and often prejudiced historian, 'the virulence with which the leading paper pursued the lord chancellor, the new poor law, and the parties concerned in its preparation exceeded any hostility encountered by the whig government from any other quarter' (Marineau, Hist. of the Peace, ii. 509). The imputation refutes itself, for 'The Times' had taken up its attitude towards the new poor law before the letter in question came into the hands of its conductors. Possibly the incident exacerbated the tone of its opposition; but Walter himself was bitterly opposed to the measure, and remained opposed to it to the end of his days. Three years later, when the Irish poor law was introduced, his opposition was unabated. 'An agitation was arising against the cruelties of the English law. "The Times" supported the attack upon it in its columns; the principal proprietor of "The Times" renewed it, night after night, in his place in parliament' (Walpole, Hist. of England, iii. 451). It seems clear that the attitude of the paper was in this case largely determined by the personal convictions of its proprietor, which cost him his seat in parliament.

As the prosperity of 'The Times' increased, Walter purchased the residence and estate at Bear Wood which has since been the seat of the family. On 21 Dec. 1832 he was returned to parliament for the county of Berks, and retained his seat until 1837, when he retired owing to a misapprehension of the feeling of his constituents in regard to his attitude towards the poor law (Fraser's Magazine, vol. xxxvii.) On 26 April 1841 he was returned for Nottingham, a constituency which shared his opinions regarding the poor law; but he was unseated in 1842, his election being declared void on grounds unconnected with his personal action (The Times, 5 Nov. 1894).

Walter's life apart from 'The Times' presents few features of general interest. His title to fame rests on his creation of 'the leading journal.' This was achieved early in the century as the result of his victorious resistance to the persecution of the government. The 'Edinburgh Review' (vol. xxxviii.) wrote in 1823: '"The Times" newspaper is, we suppose, entitled to the character it gives itself of "the leading journal of Europe," and is perhaps the greatest engine of temporary opinion in the world.' This points to a supremacy already long established, and its establishment was exclusively Walter's work. But from the time when Walter handed over the editorship to another, the history of 'The Times' became the record of an association whose archives have never been opened. 'This then,' says Kinglake (Invasion of the Crimea, chap, xiv.), 'was the great English journal; and whether men spoke of the mere printed sheet which lay upon their table, or of the mysterious organisation which produced it, they habitually called either one or the other the "Times." . . . The form of speech which thus impersonates a manufactory and its wares has now so obtained in our language that, discarding the forcible epithets one may venture to adopt in writing, and to give the "Times" the same place in grammatical construction as though it were the proper name of an angel or a hero, a devil or a saint, or a sinner already condemned, custom makes it good English to say: "The 'Times' will protect him;" "The 'Times' is savage;" "The 'Times' is crushing him;" "The blessed 'Times' has put the thing right;" "That d—d 'Times' has done all the mischief." 'But the one thing one may not venture to do is to treat the history of this mysterious organisation as identical with the biography of its creator. For this reason no attempt can be made to trace the history of 'The Times' beyond the point at which the paper ceased exclusively to represent Walter's individual personality and initiative. In the tablet placed over the entrance of 'The Times' office to commemorate the gratitude of the subscribers for the exposure by 'The Times,' at great cost to its proprietors, of an extensive series of commercial frauds in 1840, the name of Walter is not even mentioned. No doubt it was his own wish that his personality should be veiled in a general reference to the proprietors of 'The Times.' On the other hand in 1814, a piece of plate, now in the possession of his grandson, was presented to him by the merchants of London with a Latin inscription which records in language characteristic of the time his personal services as a journalist: 'Joanni Walter in testimonium sapientiæ, eloquentiæ, et constantiæ inscriptis suis prolatæse auibus Galliæ tyranno vigente corda Britannorum indies consolabatur eosque ut instarent usque dum Dei O.M. gratiá prseceps iret monstrum illud horrendum sedulo incendebat a mercatoribus Londin. dono datum.'

Towards the close of his life Walter associated his eldest son with himself in the management of the paper, and gradually left in the hands of the latter more and more of the control he had so long exercised. After his retirement from parliament he lived chiefly at Bear Wood, but, being stricken with cancer, he removed to Printing House Square in order to be nearer his physicians. There he died on 28 July 1847, in the old house, still annexed to the modern office of 'The Times,' in which his father was living when he founded the paper. He was twice married. His first wife, who died childless, was a daughter of Dr. George Gregory (1754-1808) [q. v.], vicar of West Ham in Essex. His second wife, whom he married in 1818, was Mary, daughter of Henry Smithe of Eastling, Kent. Several children were the issue of this second marriage, the eldest son being John Walter (1818-1894) [q. v], who succeeded him in the management of 'The Times.'

[Authorities in text. See also the note appended to the article on Walter, John (1739-1812).]

J. R. T.