The Southampton Free Press and General Advertiser had an ephemeral existence between 1 December 1856 and 24 March 1857.

It was the child of the fratricidal Southampton by-election of February 1857. The appointment in November 1856 of Alexander Cockburn as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and his subsequent elevation to the House of Lords created a vacancy in the representation of the borough.

It was a three-cornered contest between the Tory Sir Edward Butler and the two Liberal candidates, Richard Andrews and Thomas Weguelin. The core of the election was the battle between the two Liberals. Andrews represented the faction that had governed the borough for the last decade and which was increasingly wary of what was seen as the centralist tendencies of Palmerston's administration. Weguelin, a director of the Bank of England and a Russian merchant with no previous connection with the town, was the nominee of the Liberal government. Weguelin became a focus of dissent for those disaffected Liberals who had defected from the Andrews' camp. These included William Lankester, Henry Buchan, John Traffles Tucker, Richard Coles, Alfred Pegler, Thomas Hill, Francis Cooper, George Gorsuch, Alexander Forbes, Thomas Gregory Gutch and James Charles Cox. Many of these were instrumental in the establishment of the Southampton Free Press, brought to life for the specific purpose of ensuring the success of Thomas Weguelin.

Francis Cooper, surgeon by profession, radical in politics and wayward by temperament, was reputed to be editor (Hampshire Independent, 10 January 1857). Thomas Gutch - of the the printing firm Marshall and Co, successor to the Fletchers (qv) - was printer and publisher. Opponents of the newspaper claimed that it was financed by Weguelin.

The weapon of choice in the war against their quondam ally Richard Andrews was character assassination. An editorial in the Hampshire Independent, 31 January 1857 described Andrews as the best abused man in England: "It would really seem as if a paper had been established for no other earthly purpose than to "pitch into him", as his opponents express it". The attack on Sunday canvassing by the Andrews' party exemplifies this venom: "Eager as jackals in the foul pursuit, hunting in every nook and corner with an unwearied zeal worthy of a better cause, no day, no law, however sacred, stays their career; but whilst the Sabbath bells throughout the town are calling together the numerous congregations of worshippers, they, too, believe it consistent with their duty to call on the working man to affix his signature to this unworthy instrument [supporting Andrews]".

A more vulnerable target was Thomas Leader Harman, protege of Andrews and editor of the Hampshire Independent. The newspaper, part owned by Andrews, was in a parlous financial position. The Free Press, with all the trappings of a conventional provincial newspaper but priced at only one penny, was a direct threat to the Independent, priced at five pence per copy. It was claimed that one of Weguelin's supporters had offered £50 to amalgamate the Free Press with a second unstamped local newspaper, the Southampton Examiner, to ruin Harman and the Independent (Edwin Jones in Hampshire Independent, 24 January 1857). For Harman, "a more disgraceful thing [than the Free Press] was never published".

The abuse towards the Andrews party was more than matched by the treatment afforded to officers of the Hampshire Advertiser. This was in part a continuation of traditional inter-party rivalry between Whig and Tory. But it was also a legacy of the battles over the mayoralty the previous year: a conflict which predicted the fault lines of the February 1857 by-election. The established line of succession had been broken by the appointment of Richard Andrews as mayor on the death in office of Sampson Payne in June 1856, an appointment confirmed - for his fifth term of office - in November 1856.

Two of those most aggrieved, John Tucker and Richard Coles, were senior members of Weguelin's election committee (vice-chairman and joint secretary respectively) and key supporters of the Free Press. The Hampshire Advertiser, for long an implacable enemy of Andrews, had endorsed his candidature as a true Southampton patriot. This was the background to an unprecedented column-long anonymous attack by Francis Cooper on George William Lauder, a reporter on the Advertiser for nearly 25 years and sometime editor and manager of the paper. The following extract is given not gratuitously but to show how pervasive can be the cancer of a contested election when personality becomes the stock in trade. The piece is headed 'The Fat Boy':

"This poor creature gives us the most lively apprehension every time we see him. If it be our misfortune to sit at a public dinner where courtesy admits him, we are fearful every moment of an unfortunate occurrence - so gluttonous and capacious are his gustatory qualities, that we expect every instant the possibility of an inquest. It is truly alarming to see the appetite of the man; nothing comes amiss to him, and his potations are so formidable as to create an absolute horror. Every moment we expect to see that apoplectic visage go into coma; every moment we are disgusted with that voracity, which devours with canine eagerness the last bone on his plate or the last morsel of food, and whose appetite to a quiet observer appears to rival the Esquimaux who eat till the salmon or seal can be swallowed no further, and till the train oil itself refuses to obey the law of gravitation and runs from the mouth. Even as he walks the street, it is hard to say whether the law of physics is not about to be set aside, so much does he appear inclined to forsake the perpendicular, and crawl like his kindred reptiles on the earth. We never look at him but we are reminded of a Michaelmas goose or a Vienna turkey, fed till feeding can go no further; or, like the Smithfield prize ox, his identity is smothered in fat. Louis XVIII was said to have lived to see how far the human skin would stretch. This newspaper hack may be spoken of as being permitted to disfigure humanity by the largest amount of blubber that any specimen of the genus Homo could conveniently carry about with him. He is a sort of a portable soup kitchen, or as the navvies say, a big Tommy shop …." (Southampton Free Press, 24 February 1857).

A month later the "Penny Whistler" was dead. It is a prime example of a newspaper published without regard to the conventions normally governing the fiercely-intense world of nineteenth-century political journalism. Its epitaph, as given by the Hampshire Advertiser, 28 March 1857 continues the vendetta. "Most unceremoniously it was pitched into its plain deal coffin, and thus confined to the limbo of all earthly vanities, "unwept, unhonoured, and unsung" …. Had the Free Press been edited by a man of inflexible principle - a man of education - and a gentleman of intellect and honesty and not entrusted to the keeping of the uninitiated - men of straw - of less than half-instructed minds - of low and vulgar habits - mere brawlers in our streets, and charged offenders in our courts of justice - the too free patrons of the of the most vulgar portions of the vulgar tongue - the shakers of sticks, and the flourishers of umbrellas [a direct reference to Francis Cooper] - the most unscrupulous of public slanderers - then, perhaps, it would have been living at the present moment, and not, as now, rotting unlamented in an early grave".


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