Case Study: Individual publications of note: The Penny Magazine, 1832-1845

Lucy Warwick
Oxford Brookes University

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’s Penny Magazine
is often overlooked by historians, who focus on its failures rather
than achievements throughout its 14 year life span. Current
explorations of the Penny Magazine simply scratch the surface of a
complex and influential publication.
The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), founded in
1826 by Henry Brougham, aimed to offer education to those who had no
access to schooling, or simply preferred to learn alone. The Society
began publishing biweekly scientific treatises on subjects such as
optics and hydraulics, but soon began to create texts of a more light
hearted nature, such as natural history, ornithology, and
travellers’ tales.
In 1832, Charles Knight spearheaded the Society’s next venture, a
penny periodical aimed at those who would only have around thirty
minutes of reading time a day. Knight, abridging already published
Society volumes, and after accepting articles from willing
contributors, was able to produce up to three issues of the magazine
at a time, which in turn meant that the Penny Magazine was able to
reach sellers in all corners of Britain ahead of its Saturday release
From the outset Knight wanted to provide ‘real illustrations of the
text, instead of fanciful devices’, as ‘true eye-knowledge’,
that is, accurate images, were ‘sometimes more instructive than
words.’ Thus illustrations accompanying difficult texts would help
the reader understand the subject of the article without needing to
compromise its content. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s he created a
circle of artists and engravers capable of fulfilling his dreams of
supplying quality art to the working classes, the largest of which,
Stephen Sly and Co. are missing from our history books. Through the
illustrations in the Penny Magazine the British reader could discover
the cities and countryside of their great nation, as well as explore
the wider world of the British Empire. The Penny Magazine had a
particular emphasis on teaching the British about the origins of
foodstuffs from the empire, the races and cultures of the colonised
people, and British scientific discoveries abroad.
At its peak the Penny Magazine reached 200,000 British readers, but it
also travelled across the globe. European useful knowledge societies
commissioned translations, and sister SDUK branches and committees
were established in the USA, China, and India. Moreover the Penny
Magazine was sold in annual volumes by booksellers across the empire,
and numerous individual issues travelled with members of the East
India Company on their voyages. It was truly a global publication.
Although the Penny Magazine may be a well-known name in nineteenth
century periodical studies, to date scholarship thereon has been
superficial. This paper aims to bring to light the networks behind the
magazine, and moreover its ability to disseminate knowledge globally,
particularly promoting Britain’s economic, military, and scientific
success as an imperial nation.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900