Charles Knight’s Impact on Nineteenth-Century Print Culture

Ged Hodgson
De Montfort University

Charles Knight (1791-1873) was a key figure in the nineteenth-century proliferation of print. Born in a printing and stationary shop, Knight launched Windsor’s first ever newspaper before moving to London where he wrote, edited, or published some 400 titles – many in his capacity as Superintendant of Publishing for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which strived to increase literacy among the lower classes and offered fledgling readers an alternative to what its committee members, such as Lord Henry Brougham believed to be the morally corrupting literature available elsewhere. Knight adopted a policy of enculturation, providing poorer readers with the cultural capital needed to appreciate or produce legitimate art, and to renegotiate what Pierre Bourdieu terms the field of cultural production. Of Knight’s more notable titles, The Penny Magazine (1832-45) achieved regular sales of 200,000 copies, making it Britain’s first truly popular magazine; The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere (1838-43) was the first to offer less wealthy readers an affordable but high quality illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s life and works in monthly instalments and other formats; and Old England a Pictorial Museum… (1845-46) was the first book to include machine printed colour illustrations.

The paper proposed will discuss how texts accessed through online databases such as and can be used to explore the innovations brought about by Knight’s success. Knight’s printers, William Clowes and Sons, installed the first steam-driven printing press to be used for the production of books on a commercial scale, and by 1840, employed 20 steam presses and over 600 men, women, and children. Clowes also operated the colour printing press which Knight patented, in order to produce illuminated maps in seven colours for as little as 4½d, as well as books such as Old England…. In turn, Knight established an extensive sales network across Britain and the Commonwealth, and by pioneering the use of stereotype printing plates, allowed his titles, or the images that appeared in them, to be printed at unprecedented rates of speed and cost. When used by printers in New York and Boston, this practice circumvented the import taxes that were levied on foreign literature as it entered the States, and helped to introduce British culture to international readerships.

By exploring the impact that an important but largely neglected author, editor, and publisher had upon nineteenth-century print culture, this paper will address the periodical press as a physical artefact; aspects of visual culture, illustration and technical development in the periodical press; the movement of print information across space and time; and the networks and communication structures that Knight developed.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900