William Shirrefs was a Scot who came to the Island in the early 1840's to exploit its tax-free status and disappeared into obscurity when changes in the postal regulations financially ruined his press in 1849.
For much of the 1840's the Isle of Man served as a tax-free publishing haven for various political and 'faddish' groups - in particular chartist and temperance publicists used its low tax status and free off-island postage. The basis of the Island's attraction lay in the combination of its lack of a newspaper and advertisement tax unlike the case in England; and the inclusion of the Island within the free postage zone that was originally meant to benefit colonial publications by making their transmission back to the 'motherland' economically possible. The newspaper tax (or stamp duty) was seen by many radicals as a tax upon knowledge as it effectively put newspapers and periodicals out of the reach of ordinary working people. Even when, after much agitation, this stamp duty fell from 4d to 1d in 1836 it still placed a popular, and radical, press beyond reach of most of the newly emerging reading public. The 1830's saw many high minded "popular education" periodicals (e.g. Charles Knight's Penny Magazine) but by the 1840's such mass publication had moved either to the penny dreadful (lurid court reporting etc.) or the anodyne family magazine.
It was the extension, in 1840, of the postal privilege to cover repostage that placed the Isle of Man on the publishing map (the Channel Islands had similar privileges and also exploited them in a similar way). By allowing free repostage, an Island publisher could send a bundle of publications to some local agent who would then repost them to individual subscribers.
Temperance Journals were the first to exploit these facilities - Robert Fargher played an early and important role, though soon publication moved to the larger and better equipped printers, William Robinson in particular specialised in these off-Island based publications.
William Sherrifs saw a market among the rapidly expanding Friendly Societies - these were the precursors of today's welfare state in that for a weekly subscription a member could draw upon the chest in times of illness. Such organisations included the Rechabites and the Odd-Fellows - it was the latter for which in 1844, Shirrefs, himself a member of Mona Lodge, launched the Odd-Fellows Chronicle and which soon became their official organ reaching a print run of 10,000. Originally these copies were run-off by other printers; until 1847 Peter Curphey of the Manx Sun produced Shirrefs publications but after that Shirrefs teamed with Andrew Russsell to form the Manx Steam Press at premises in Lord Street employing "the Newest and most approved Printing Machinery..." It was here that Shirrefs started the Peoples Press and Monthly Historical Newspaper with its strong Chartist sympathies which managed to attract a number of talented contributors. He also used the same press to produce other early 'Trades Union' publications.
These journals were not intended for the Insular market - however in 1847 he also started The Isle of Man Times which was successful, allowing Shirrefs to claim in January 1848, when he enlarged the format, that it had the largest insular circulation as well as the most readable matter of any Island newspaper. Its aims were however controversial - "Union with England, free Municipal Institutions in the Isle of Man, coupled with the continuance of our present Fiscal privileges" - which seemed rather having one's cake and eating it! It was also guaranteed not to make him friends with the Manx establishment - he was regularly attacked by Peter Curphey of the Sun.
Although Shirrefs was apparently a good businessman and had fulfilled all legal requirements, the whole raison d'etre of locating his business on the Island was removed when the Post Office regulations were suddenly changed in April 1849 to levy standard letter postage on newspapers leaving the Island (with a special 1d rate for long established local newspapers). His business was wound up in July 1849. Shirref and Russell continued for a little longer from London but ceased at the end of 1849.
James Brown, who came over to work at Shirrefs and Russells resurrected the Times title some years later and it has continued from that date.
J.C. Belchem Radical Entrepreneur: William Shirrefs and the Manx Free Press of the 1840's Proc IoMNH&ASoc X No 1 pp33/47 1992
W. Cubbon Bibliography of works relating to the Isle of Man Vol II section L4 Douglas:1939
| Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
© F.Coakley, 2006