MP, Radical & publisher; Joseph Cowen was ahead of his times in 19th Century. A friend of revolutionaries, he fought to abolish slavery and he campaigned for the vote. He angered Gladstone and Queen Victoria was not amused at his rabble rousing -in other words, he was the perfect man to launch the Chronicle. MIKE KELLY reports.
AS founder of the Evening Chronicle in 1885, Radical Joseph Cowen naturally enough had his say on what stories the paper would cover.
Writer Tom Kelly who penned the play ‘The Blaydon Bricklayer’ about him said it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at the news conferences back then while speculating as to their content if Cowen were alive today.
“He’d say ‘We’re not going to talk about charvas, we’re going to talk about Italian unification’,” chuckled Tom.
“It would be interesting to see what modern day newspaper readers would have made of it.”
They could have also found themselves reading about the struggle by Polish nationalist to rid themselves of Russian Tsarist oppression and the fight for Home Rule in Ireland, maybe not the usual topics for discussion in pubs and clubs, but Cowen’s mission was to inform and educate, having a high opinion of what the readers should be interested in.
Perhaps more accessible was his pioneering of sports coverage, viewed in Victorian days by most as not the done thing, as they believed it encouraged gambling.
His energy and drive saw the circulation of the paper rocket from day one as it blew rivals away and established itself as the paper of choice for Newcastle.
“He was an extraordinary man,” said Tom. “It’s hard to think of his equivalent today or in history. Compared to him, T Dan Smith was just a flea bite.”
Author Nigel Todd who wrote a biography of Cowen added: “He was the consummate newspaper man, in some ways a bit like Citizen Kane.”
Cowen was born in Stella Hall, Blaydon, in 1829, the son of Sir Joseph Cowen, MP for Newcastle from 1865 to 1873, and owner of a brick factory.
Cowen junior was educated privately in Ryton and at Edinburgh University where his interest in European revolutionary movements began. On graduating he joined his father in the family business. His friends were a who’s who of European political revolutionaries and thinkers.
They included Giuseppe Mazzini, ‘the soul of Italy’ who helped form modern Italy and Alexander Herzen, the ‘father of Russian Socialism’. Felice Orsini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the foremost military and political figure of Italy and still a national hero, both visited Cowen on Tyneside and were feted by the Geordie public.
Tom said: “Garibaldi stayed with Cowen at Stella Hall and was here for three weeks. He gave a talk at the Blaydon Mechanics Institute.
It was quite an event. A statue was made in his honour, the head of which can still be found in Blaydon library.”
Before founding the Chronicle, Cowen bought the Daily Chronicle in Newcastle through which he asked readers for financial help for Garibaldi.
Even in the arts he found a cause to fight for. Tired of what he saw as the cosy relationship between the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and licensing magistrates who were loathed to let another theatre open in the city, he took them on.
After submitting several applications to build a new one which were rejected, eventually, worn down by his persistence, the magistrates gave in.
The result in 1867 was the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in Westgate Road -now the Journal Tyne Theatre. It’s first play was Arrah-na-Pogue about Irish patriotism.
In 1874, he was elected MP as a radical liberal, succeeding his father.
Cowen’s radicalism continued with human rights and Republicanism at its core. While he had backed Italian unification and the abolition of slavery, he continued his demand for Home Rule for Ireland as well as the right to vote for all men and women.
“Not everyone saw being able to vote as a right -they saw it as a privilege,” said Nigel. “Cowen wanted suffrage extended not just to men but also to women, something which most people just had not considered.”
In speech, dress and manner he identified himself with the North East mining class. He would turn up to the Commons wearing a flat felt hat which was the traditional Sunday headgear of the Northumbrian pitman.
Nigel said: “When he spoke some MPs said they couldn’t understand him because of his accent, describing it as like a foreign accent. There were times when Cowen might exaggerate his Northumberland burr.” Short in stature, his individuality at first shocked fellow MPs, but his obvious sincerity and independence of spirit went on to impress them. All except Gladstone. In the run up to the 1885 General Election there was much Liberal opposition to him. As his opponents took their fight against him in the Newcastle Daily Leader paper, Cowen hit back, first in the Daily Chronicle and then in his new newspaper, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. “It was all quite vicious,” said Nigel but in the end Cowen triumphed, not only by winning his seat again but also winning the newspaper war with the closure of rival publications.
He died in 1900. An obituary in The New York Times said he was one of the most extraordinary men in Europe, friend to every conspirator from Moscow to Madrid.