Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walter, John (1739-1812)

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WALTER, JOHN (1739–1812), founder of 'The Times,' born in 1739, was the son of Richard Walter, a coal merchant in the city of London. He succeeded to his father's business on the death of the latter in or about 1755. He prospered greatly for a time, and, as head of the firm of Walter, Bradley, & Sage (Macmillan's Magazine, vol. xxix.), he accumulated a considerable fortune, taking a leading part in the establishment of the coal market or coal exchange, an institution of which he records that he was 'the principal planner and manager' (The Case of Mr. John Walter, of London, Merchant, a flysheet apparently printed in 1782 or 1783, but having no date or title). For several years he was chairman of the committee of this institution, but he resigned that position in 1781, when he finally abandoned the business of a coal merchant for that of an underwriter, which he had pursued concurrently for some years (ib.) At first his ventures were confined to the insurance of ships engaged in the coal trade, ‘and success attended the step, because the risques were fair and the premiums adequate.’ But after a time he engaged in larger and more hazardous speculations, and became a member of Lloyd's rooms. ‘I was,’ he wrote in 1799, ‘twelve years an underwriter in Lloyd's Coffee House, and subscribed my name to six millions of property; but was weighed down, in common with above half those who were engaged in the protection of property, by the host of foes this nation had to combat in the American war’ (Letter of John Walter to Lord Kenyon, 6 July 1799, in Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. App. pt. iv. p. 551). In the beginning of 1782 (Mr. W. Blades, in the article in Macmillan's Magazine above quoted, puts the date as 1781) he called his creditors together and announced his bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was an honourable one, and the creditors had such confidence in Walter's uprightness and integrity that they appointed him to collect the debts due to the estate, and made him a present of all the household furniture, plate, and effects of the house in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, in which he was living at the time (ib.) It appears, however, that his ‘valuable library’ was sold for the benefit of the creditors (ib. ut sup.). He had previously lived for some ten years at Battersea Rise, but had quitted that ‘desirable residence’ when his affairs became involved (The Case of Mr. John Walter, ut sup.) The creditors suffered little in the end; but Walter was practically ruined.

Compelled thus to begin life again, Walter at first sought an official situation under the government. Although he possessed influential recommendations and powerful patronage, his hopes were shattered by the resignation of Lord North in 1782, and he forthwith turned his attention in an entirely new direction. In 1782 he had made the acquaintance of Henry Johnson, who had devised and patented in 1778 and 1780 a new method of printing by means of ‘logotypes,’ or founts composed of complete words instead of separate letters (Nos. 1201 and 1266). Walter was greatly impressed by the invention, the patent rights of which he purchased from Johnson, and himself contributed by new devices to its further development. In 1784 he purchased the premises in Printing House Square, the former site of the monastery of the black friars, and subsequently of the Blackfriars Theatre, which, constructed in 1596, was in 1609 occupied by Shakespeare's company. Here also John Bill had founded and printed the ‘London Gazette’ (Fraser Rae in Nineteenth Century, January 1885). This building was known as the King's Printing Office, and was successively occupied by Bill, by several members of the family of Baskett or Basket, and by the firm of Eyre & Strahan until they removed to New Street in 1770. The original building was burnt down in 1737. Some years ago, when ‘The Times’ office was reconstructed, ‘a large quantity of half-burnt leaves of the Prayer-book printed by John Baskett, the king's printer, were found there’ (The Times, 2 Jan. 1888). When Walter purchased the premises they had been unoccupied since 1770, but they still belonged to a member of the Basket family, for on 17 May 1784 Walter issued an advertisement which ran as follows: ‘Logographic Office, Blackfriars. Mr. Walter begs leave to inform the public that he has purchased the printing-house formerly occupied by Mr. Basket, near Apothecaries' Hall, which will be opened the first day of next month for printing by words entire, under his Majesty's patent’ (Macmillan's Magazine, ut sup.) The purchase-money appears to have been derived from a present made to Walter by his creditors on the settlement of his bankruptcy. Here, from the beginning, in buildings enlarged and reconstructed from time to time until they have now absorbed the whole of Printing House Square, the business of ‘The Times’ has been continually carried on at a place which has been associated with printing in name and in fact for more than two centuries.

At first Walter, in partnership with Johnson, only undertook the printing of books, relying on the ‘logographic’ process for great improvements in the mechanism and economy of printing which he confidently expected to prove a national benefit, and frequently represented in appeals to the public as his title to the gratitude of the nation. His robust faith in the ‘logographic’ process, however, brought him as little profit, and probably as much anxiety, as his ventures in underwriting. In 1785 he was elected a member of the Society of Arts, and in the same year he brought the new process to the notice of the society, with the result that the printing of the third volume of its ‘Transactions’ was entrusted to him (see preface, and Minutes of Society, 11 Feb., 16 and 23 March 1785).

It has been stated that John Walter first learned the art of printing in the office of Dodsley, proprietor of the 'Annual Register' (Smiles, Men of Invention and Industry). This is a misconception based on the following passage in 'Literary Anecdotes' (vol. vi. pt. i. p. 443): 'Mr. John Walter died July 25, 1803. He was the only apprentice of Mr. Robert Dodsley; was afterwards forty years a bookseller at Charing Cross' (see also Annual Reg. xxxix. 13). Robert Dodsley retired from business early in 1759 (ib. ut sup.) John Walter, his only apprentice, may or may not have been a relative of the founder of 'The Times,' but was certainly not identical with him; he was related to Richard Walter [q. v.] Like his namesake, he was a printer and publisher, but his business had been established at Charing Cross for upwards of forty years, whereas his namesake's business was always carried on at Printing House Square; and in 1789 John Walter of 'The Times' announced that 'for the more effectual carrying into execution the various objects of the logographic press, he has taken the premises lately occupied by Mr. Debrett, opposite Old Bond Street, Piccadilly' (advertisement in Morning Herald, 19 Jan. 1789). There is thus no doubt that the two men were different persons, carrying on business of the same kind simultaneously in different localities.

The logographic process was not a success, although the titles of some forty books printed by it, and sold by John Walter in Printing House Square, are given in a flysheet, now in the British Museum, issued by John Walter as an appeal for public support some time between 1785 and 1788. Many of the books are of quite ephemeral interest. But among them are ' Robinson Crusoe,' 2 vols. 8vo; 'Bishop Butler's Analogy,' 8vo; 'Translation of Necker's Finances of France,' 3 vols. 8vo; 'Translation of Arataeus' (sic), 8vo, and 'Life of Henry VII,' 8vo, presumably a reprint of Bacon's treatise (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. i. 198, 3rd ser. ix. 3, 5th ser. xii. 223, 252, 314). Possibly 'as a means of obtaining a profitable business in job printing' (Smiles, ut sup.), he started a small newspaper originally entitled 'The Daily Universal Register,' of which the first number, 'printed logographically,' was issued on 1 Jan. 1785. This was really, though not in name, the first number of 'The Times.' The nine-hundred-and-fortieth number, which appeared on 1 Jan. 1788, was for the first time entitled 'The Times, or Daily Universal Register,' and was still described as 'printed logographically;' but the alternative title was dropped on 18 March, though the logographic process of production survived for some time longer. A symptom of its practical failure is to be found in the fact that when the name was changed the price of the paper was raised from twopence-half- penny to threepence.

'The Times'—including under this title the 'Daily Universal Register'—was no great success at the outset. It was regarded by its founder rather as a by-product of the logographic press than as an independent venture standing on its own merits. As a printer and an innovator in the art of printing, Walter regarded himself as a public benefactor, and frequently advanced his claims to the national gratitude in the columns of his paper and in fly-sheets reprinted therefrom. But the American war, which had shattered his fortunes as an underwriter, still exercised a malign influence over his new project. 'Among many other projects which offered themselves to my view was a plan to print logographically. I sat down closely to digest it, and formed a fount which reduced the English language from ninety thousand words which were usually used in printing to about fifteen hundred. . . . By this means I was enabled to print much faster than by taking up single letters. ... I was advised to get a number of nobility and men of letters . . . to patronise the plan, to which his majesty was to have been the patron. But happening unfortunately, as it turned out, to correspond with Dr. Franklin, then ambassador at Paris, whose opinion I wished for, his name was among my list of subscribers, and when it was given, among near two hundred more, to the king's librarian, and a fount of the cemented words had been sent there [to Buckingham House] for his majesty's inspection and acceptance, I found an increasing coolness in the librarian, and afterwards a note from him, saying the king had viewed it with pleasure, but, there being no room in Buckingham House, he desired I would send some person to take it away. Thus ended royal patronage; and when it [the invention] was used by me in business, the journeymen cabaled and refused to work at the invention without I paid the prices as paid in the common way. Thus all the expence and labour I had been at for some years fell to the ground' (letter to Lord Kenyon, ut sup.) The fount was removed from Buckingham House to the British Museum, where it is still preserved (Walter to Earl of Ailesbury in Hist. MSS. Comm. 15th Rep. vii. 244).

The printing business, however, apart from the publication of the paper, cannot have been quite so unsuccessful as Walter here represents. Many books were printed at the logographic press, and a shop for their sale was opened in the west end. From the outset Walter appears to have obtained the printing of 'Lloyd's List' (Smiles, ut sup.), probably through his former connection with Lloyds as an underwriter; and in or about 1787 he was appointed printer to the customs—a privilege which was withdrawn eighteen years later because 'The Times,' by that time a growing power in the land, had sharply criticised the policy of the government and the conduct of Lord Melville, which led to the dismissal of the latter. There is no foundation for the report mentioned in Timperley's 'Encyclopædia of Literary and Typographical Anecdotes' that Walter 'had obtained a pension or sinecure of 700l. a year from Mr. Pitt.'

Moderately successful as a printer and publisher, sanguine and somewhat visionary as an inventor and innovator, Walter was not fortunate as a journalist. But he gave 'The Times' in germ the character which it has since maintained. Some of the more ephemeral and less worthy features of its first numbers have disappeared in its maturity. But in spite of occasional lapses into frivolity, and even what would now perhaps be regarded as scurrility, it devoted itself from the first to the serious discussion of public manners and policy—it denounced prizefighting, and never defended the slave trade—to a sagacious and independent survey of public affairs, foreign and domestic; to the intelligent discussion and promotion of the country, and more especially to a reproduction of the debates in parliament at once prompter, more accurate, and more copious than any other newspaper attempted at the time. Financially, however, it was not an immediate success, and it brought upon Walter himself much personal vexation. In 1786 he was convicted at the Guildhall, at the suit of Lord Loughborough, 'for a libel in propagating an infamous and injurious report, highly injurious to the honour and character of the plaintiff' (Ann. Reg. vol. xxviii.'), and ordered to pay damages 150l.In 1789 he was tried before the king's bench for a libel on the Duke of York. The libel appears to have consisted in the statement that the duke and two of his brothers, the Dukes of Clarence and Cumberland, were 'insincere' in their expressions of joy at the king's recovery (Fraser, Rae nt sup.) For this offence he was sentenced to pay a fine of 50l., to undergo a year's imprisonment in Newgate, to stand in the pillory for one hour between the hours of twelve and three, and to enter into recognisances for his good behaviour for seven years (Ann. Reg. vol. xxxi.) During his imprisonment he was again brought before the court on two fresh charges of libel: one on the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, whom he had represented as having so demeaned themselves as to incur the just disapprobation of his majesty; and another on the Duke of Clarence, of whom he had said that he had returned home without authority from the admiralty or his commanding officer. A fine of 100l. was inflicted for the latter offence; for the former, Walter was sentenced to pay another fine of 100l. and to be imprisoned in Newgate for a second year after the term of the imprisonment he was then undergoing (Fraser Rae, ut sup.; Ann. Reg. vol. xxxil.) The libel on the Prince of Wales appears to have a curious history. 'I kept consistent to my opinion to defend the administration during the regency, when the other papers veered round to the rising son (sic), though many temptations were made me by individuals of the opposite party. I was accustomed to receive communications from the treasury, with a private mark, by direction of one of the under-secretaries of state; by the insertion of one of them I was prosecuted at the instance of the Prince of Wales, at the suit of the treasury, for a treasury offence. Expecting remuneration, I gave up no author, and suffered a long and painful imprisonment, under a delusion of being soon released, though it lasted sixteen months. . . . Had I disclosed the authors and their employers, I might have escaped prosecution myself, and proved it on others' (letter to Lord Kenyon, ut sup.) In the end the Prince of Wales relented. On 9 March 1791 Walter 'was liberated from his confinement in Newgate in consequence of receiving his majesty's most gracious pardon, at the instance of his royal highness the Prince of Wales' (Ann. Reg. vol. xxxiii.); but no reparation appears to have been made by the treasury. Once more Walter was involved in 1799 in an action for libel at the suit of Lord Cowper, and again convicted. This he ascribes to 'an incautious insertion of my eldest son, on whom I have for several years committed the guidance of the paper.' He was adjudged to be technically liable, under a then recent statute, as proprietor of 'The Times,' for a paragraph of which he assured Lord Kenyon he was utterly ignorant until he read it in 'The Times,' and which he also avowed that he was not prepared to defend (letter to Lord Kenyon, ut sup.)

Advancing in years, with health impaired by imprisonment and energy weakened successive disappointments and misfortunes, Walter seems at one time to have despaired of 'The Times.' His business must otherwise have prospered, however; for in 1795 he 'gave up the management of the business and retired into the country'—to the house at Teddington, where he died on 16 Nov. 1812—'intending to enjoy the few years I have to live in otium cum dignitate' (ib.) He married early, on 31 May 1759, and the maiden name of his wife appears to have been Frances Landon or Lenden. She died at Printing House Square on 30 Jan. 1798. At the time of his bankruptcy in 1782 he was the father of six children.

The eldest son, William, who involved his father in the libel suit with Lord Cowper, was born in 1763. His management of the 'Times' was not a success, and appears to have been brought to an end before the close of the century. His place was taken by his younger brother, John Walter (1776-1847) [q. v.], who in 1797 or 1798 was associated in the management, and in 1803 took sole charge of the business. The elder Walter remained sole proprietor till his death, but by deeds executed in his lifetime, and supplemented by the provisions of his will, he divided the profits of 'The Times' into a number of shares, which he distributed among members of his family and other persons connected with the paper. These shares, being inalienable by sale, are still held by the descendants and legal representatives of the original beneficiaries. The fee simple of the premises and the capital involved in the undertaking, together with the sole management of the paper, were retained by the founder of 'The Times' in his own control, and passed successively to his son and grandson.

[Materials for a biography of the founder of 'The Times' are scanty and meagre. They have already been cited in the text; but some private information has been communicated by Mr. Arthur F. Walter, the present chief proprietor of 'The Times' and the great-grandson of its founder.]

J. R. T.