“Taxes on knowledge” was the slogan used in a long-running campaign against duties on newspapers, their advertising content, and the paper they were printed on. The paper tax was early identified as an issue; “A tax upon Paper, is a tax upon Knowledge” is a saying attributed to the Scottish headmaster Alexander Adam (1741–1809), but the slogan was first coined by either by Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890), one time Secretary of the Poor Law Board and social reformer, or the critic, essayist and poet Leigh Hunt.
The slogan refers collectively to the stamp, advertising and paper duties imposed on British newspapers between 1712 and 1861, which by making their cost prohibitive, effectively kept newspapers out of the hands of the working classes, and for almost 150 years was “the most important restriction on the liberty of the press.”
The Stamp Act of 1712 introduced taxes on paper, newspapers and advertisements along with a range of other goods including soap, candles, leather and playing cards, chiefly to raise revenue to fund the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1715), but with the welcome side-effect from the point of view of the authorities of controlling and censoring the press. The tax was introduced at a rate of ½p per sheet, which had a disproportionate effect on the cheaper publications, resulting in a reduction in 1712 of weekly publications from fifteen to four.
By 1815 the duty had risen to 4d. per sheet, equivalent to about £1.26 as at 2020, and 3s. 6d. per advertisement, about £13.30,[a]Both conversions using the retail price index. at a time when most newspapers cost 6d or 7d. But a vigorous campaign to have the taxes on newspapers repealed, “the war of the unstamped”, succeeded in having the duty reduced from 4d to 1d in 1836.
Advertisement duty was abolished in 1853, followed by newspaper stamp duty in 1855 and paper duty in 1861.