John Walter - Encyclopedia




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JOHN WALTER (.1738/9-1812), founder of The Times newspaper, London, was born in 1738/9, probably in London, and from the death of his father, Richard Walter (about 17 55/6), until 1781 was engaged in a prosperous business as a coal merchant. He played a leading part in establishing a Coal Exchange in London; but shortly after 1781, when he began to occupy himself solely as an underwriter and became a member of Lloyd's, he over-speculated and failed. In 1782 he bought from one Henry Johnson a patent for a new method of printing from "logotypes" (i.e. founts of words or portions of words, instead of letters), and made some improvements in it. In 1784 he acquired an old printing office in Blackfriars, which formed the nucleus of the Printing-house Square of a later date, and established there his "Logographic Office." At first he only undertook the printing of books, but on ist January 1785 he started a small newspaper called The Daily Universal Register, which on reaching its 940th number on ist January 1788 was renamed The Times. The printing business developed and prospered, but the newspaper at first had a somewhat chequered career. In 1789 Mr Walter was tried for a libel in it on the duke of York, and was sentenced to a fine of £50, a year's imprisonment in Newgate, to stand in the pillory for an hour and to give surety for good behaviour for seven years; and for further libels the fine was increased by. £100, and the imprisonment by a second year. On 9th March 1791, however, he was liberated and pardoned. In 1799 he was again convicted for a technical libel, this time on Lord Cowper. He had then given up the management of the business to his eldest son, William, and had (1795) retired to Teddington, where he died, 16th November 1812. In 1759 he had married Frances Landen (died 1798), by whom he had six children. William Walter very soon gave up the duties he undertook in 1795, and in 1803 transferred the sole management of the business to his younger brother, John.

John Walter (2) (1776-1847), who really established the great newspaper of which his father had sown the seed, was born on the 23rd of February 1776, and was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Trinity College, Oxford. About 1798 he was associated with his elder brother in the management of his father's business, and in 1803 became not only sole manager but also editor of The Times. The second John Walter was a very remarkable man, the details of whose practice would be extremely interesting if we could recover them. But the conditions of newspaper work at that time, together with the natural reticence of one born to do, not to talk about doing, drew over his operations a veil of secrecy which there are now no means of penetrating. His greatness must be measured by the work he did. He found The Times one of a number of unconsidered journals whose opinions counted for little, and whose intelligence lagged far behind official reports, the accuracy of which they had no independent means of checking. He found it unregarded by the great except when a stringent law of libel enabled them to inflict vindictive punishment in the pillory and in prison for what in our days is ordinary political criticism. He left it in 1847 a great organ of public opinion, deferred to and even feared throughout Europe, consulted and courted by cabinet ministers at home, and in intimate relations with the best sources of independent information in every European capital. The man who, alone among contemporaries of older standing and with better opportunities, raised a struggling newspaper to a position such as no other journal has ever attained or is likely to attain in future, needs no further attestation of his exceptional ability and character. The secret of an achievement of that unique kind is incommunicable. Yet we may note some at least of the elements of John Walter's monumental success. From his father he inherited a fearless and perhaps slightly aggressive independence, to which he joined a steady and tireless energy and a concentration of purpose which are less conspicuous in his father's career. He had been associated with his brother in the management of the paper for five years before he took entire control and became his own editor in 1803. In the same year he signalized the new spirit of the direction by his opposition to Pitt, which cost him the withdrawal of government advertisements and the loss of his appointment as printer to the Customs, besides exposing him to the not too scrupulous hostility of the official world. These were undoubtedly serious discouragements in the circumstances of that day. In John Walter's way of meeting them we find a principle upon which he consistently acted through life, and which goes far to explain his success. He never allowed himself to be diverted from the pursuit of a great though distant object by any petty calculation of immediate gain or loss. He had set himself to build up a journal which all the world should recognize as independent of government favour, and which governments themselves should be compelled to respect and reckon with. He was not going to barter that splendid inheritance for to-day's mess of pottage, so he let the government do its worst and held on his way. At times the way must have been hard and the anxiety great, but great also was the reward. For the public in ever-widening circles received assurance, in an age of considerable literary and political servility, of a man who could not be bought, and a newspaper that could be neither hoodwinked nor terrorized. His determination to avoid even the appearance of being amenable to influence was forcibly illustrated when the king of Portugal sent him, through the Portuguese ambassador, a service of gold plate. It was a princely gift, and a flattering testimony to the European reputation and authority of his newspaper. Mr Walter promptly returned it, courteously recognizing the honourable motives of the giver, but stating that to accept the gift would place him under a sense of obligation incompatible with the perfect independence of thought and action which he desired to maintain. It was the same jealous regard for the complete independence of The Times that led him to insist, as he did with remarkable success, upon the strict anonymity of the able men whom he selected with the eye of a general to act as his coadjutors. From about 1810 he delegated to others editorial supervision (first to Sir John Stoddart, then to Thomas Barnes, and in 1841 to J. T. Delane), though never the supreme direction of policy. Their influence was essentially due to the fact that they had a great newspaper behind them, and behind the great newspaper was the remarkable man who made it, and never ceased from giving it inspiration and direction. To unassailable independence, inflexible integrity and sure sagacity he added complete business knowledge of details, a sound judgment of men and things, and untiring energy in the pursuit of excellence in literary quality, in typography (see Printing), in mechanical appliances, and in the organization for the collection of news. These are the things that went to the making of The Times, and the measure of the greatness of the second John Walter is that he supplied them all. In 1832 Mr Walter, who had purchased an estate called Bear Wood, in Berkshire (where his son afterwards built the present house), was elected to Parliament for that county, and retained his seat till 1837. In 1841 he was returned to Parliament for Nottingham, but was unseated next year on petition. He was twice married, and by his second wife, Mary Smythe, had a family. He died in London on the 28th of July 1847.

JOHN WALTER (3) (1818-1894), his eldest son, was born at Printing-house Square in 1818, and was educated at Eton and Exeter College, Oxford, being called to the bar in 1847. On leaving Oxford he took part in the business management of The Times, and on his father's death became sole manager, though he devolved part of the work on Mr Mowbray Morris. He was a man of scholarly tastes and serious religious views, and his conscientious character had a marked influence on the tone of the paper. It was under him that the successive improvements in the printing machinery, begun by his father in 1814, at last reached the stage of the "Walter Press" in 1869, the pioneer of modern newspaper printing-presses. In 1847 he was elected to Parliament for Nottingham as a moderate Liberal, and was re-elected in 1852 and in 1857. In 1859 he was returned for Berkshire, and though defeated in 1865, was again elected in 1868, and held the seat till he retired in 1885. He died on the 3rd of November 1894. He was twice married, first in 1842 to Emily Frances Court (d. 1858), and secondly in 1861 to Flora Macnabb. His eldest son by the first marriage, John, was accidentally drowned at Bear Wood in 1870; and he was succeeded by Mr Arthur Fraser Walter (1846-1910), his second son by the first marriage. Mr A. F. Walter remained chief proprietor of The Times till 1908, when it was converted into a company. He then became chairman of the board of directors, and on his death was succeeded in this position by his son John. See NEWSPAPERS: Modern London Newspapers (The Times), for the history of the paper. (H. CH.)

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