A courageous newspaper founder

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On New Year's Day 1838, Robert Blakey went to Newcastle and bought himself a newspaper.

“I this day bought the whole of the printing materials used in carrying on the Newcastle Liberator newspaper for 500l. Mr Augustus H. Beaumont had started the paper only a few months before, but could not remain in Newcastle to superintend it.”

Augustus Hardin Beaumont was born in New York of Irish parents, orphaned, and brought up in Jamaica by his aunt, Mrs Hardin.

Augustus was a troublesome child. One of his brothers went to Oxford and the other to Edinburgh, but Augustus was sent at 18 to a ‘cane piece’ to manage the slaves and keep the books.

He became clerk to a lawyer in Kingston and in 1822 or 1823 tried to save a black woman from hanging, whom he thought innocent. For this he was thrown into prison and kept in chains for 16 days. He brought an action against the Deputy Marshall for not giving him a copy of the warrant of arrest, acted as his own attorney, and won the case.

He established a weekly paper called The Trifler, and in 1823 a daily paper, the Courant and Advertiser.

In 1826 he went to England to represent the colonists in negotiations with the British Government and wrote a pamphlet on Compensation To Slave-owners, which was well received in the colony.

He became a magistrate, and in 1829 created a stir by licensing a black man, James Killick, to preach. In the same year he was elected to the House of Assembly and paid the fees himself for a bill to remove Jewish disabilities.

His health broke down and in 1830 he sailed to England and was active in the pro-slavery West India Association, despite having become an abolitionist. But he favoured a gradual approach, believing that most of the slaves could not benefit from immediate and unregulated freedom.

In 1830, a revolution broke out in France, and spread rapidly to the Netherlands. He joined the National Guard in Paris in September, and on September 21 went to Brussels and fought at the barricades. He was offered a Belgian decoration and the title of M. le Baron, but declined both.

In 1831 he went back to Jamaica, and was again elected to the General Assembly.

On Christmas Day, a large number of slaves who were members of the Baptist church went on strike. Being more politicised than those of other denominations, they followed closely the abolition debate in England and were bitterly disappointed when the British Government did not give them their freedom.

This revolt, known as the Baptist War or Christmas Rebellion, was soon put down. Augustus raised an official corps, called the Cornwall Rangers, and held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in it.

He persuaded 3,000 slaves to surrender, promising them a full pardon, which was ratified by the General Commandant. Even so, he was suspected of inciting rebellion and was questioned by a secret committee of the Jamaican legislature, though nothing could be proved against him.

In 1832, sales of his newspaper plummeted when he brought in a Bill to allow slaves to buy their own freedom.

He sold it to a friend, who immediately branded him an “arch-traitor” in the same paper and called on anyone who owed him money not to pay him. Most of his debtors “seized the opportunity of at once evincing their patriotism and saving their pockets”.

He married in 1832, and became “the first white married gentleman whoever received a coloured man into his house, or introduced him to his family.... For this both he and Mrs B. had the door of intercourse hermetically sealed upon them... and never was it opened up to the period of their departure for Europe”.

Despite this, the Governor Lord Mulgrave took the cue and invited Beaumont’s black friends to his own table.

The Northern Liberator’s Memoir of him gives many examples of his generosity and courage.

He three times rescued people from drowning, fought 13 duels, and in 1829 bought a slave at the man’s own request and gave him his freedom. He later helped more than 100 people to gain their freedom who were being illegally kept in slavery.

The Beaumonts left for England in 1835. He joined the Working Men’s Association in London, which led to his adoption as the Radical candidate for Newcastle in 1837.

He did not expect to be elected, and wasn’t. But his supporters still paraded him through the town, and it was after that that he founded the Northern Liberator.

The Memoir says: “Having heard that the people of the North of England desired to have a paper on decided and uncompromising Democratic principles, he at once resolved to gratify them, though at the expense of immense inconvenience to himself.

“Nothing could prove more strongly the hold which he had upon the people than the great and immediate success of this paper, which, with hardly any exertion on his part beyond the mere task of Editor (for his other avocations rendered even this a source of great trouble) sprung at once into life, and was supported by the spontaneous efforts of the people, who, of themselves, did much that Mr Beaumont was compelled to leave undone.”

Many years later, a contemporary (Thomas Devyr) stated that Beaumont sold the Northern Liberator because he wanted to take an armed force of Swalwell and Winlaton blacksmiths to Canada to join in a rebellion there amongst the French Canadians, but it never happened.

Despite being so popular in Newcastle, Beaumont actually lived in London, making frequent journeys from there to the North and Scotland.

Early in 1838, he travelled from Scotland to Newcastle. Friends begged him to stay for his own good, but he was bent on attending a meeting at Leeds and went from there to London on the outside of the coach on a bitterly cold night.

On Friday, January 19, ignoring his symptoms as usual, he was called to the bar in the Middle Temple and was to have pleaded his first case soon after. But on the Monday he was taken ill and brought home, where he died “in the arms of his wife and surrounded by his weeping domestics”.

The Memoir concludes that: “All his tendencies were good, yet his want of firmness in resisting any impulse led him into acts that greatly retarded his personal advancement, or his power of being useful to his fellow men.

"This was his great error in politics as well as in private life, the enthusiasm of his character found congeniality only among the people of the North, and there only was the impulse of his feelings usefully directed.”

Robert Blakey thought the same: “Mr Beaumont, of whom I purchased the Liberator newspaper, died suddenly in London of brain fever. He was a kind-hearted, generous person, enthusiastic in politics, but knew little of them, and wanted judgment.”

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is now on sale at Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan.