National Daily Newspapers and Their Circulations in the UK, 19081978

John Cunningham
 Managing Director of McGougan Advertising, London.

The 19th October 1980 is the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Audit Bureau of Circulations and it is now such an accepted and valued part of the advertising scene that it is easy to forget both the hostile environment in which it was founded and also the slow struggle which it had to gain acceptance.

Indeed it was not until 1946 some sixteen years after its foundation that such respected papers as the Financial Times, Daily Mirror, News of the World, People, Sunday Times and Sunday Pictorial/Mirror joined the ABC.

But the story behind its foundation goes back a long way and can even be taken to 29th June 1855. This was the date of the final abolition of stamp duty on newspapers (and it was not a coincidence that it was also the date of the first issue of the Daily Telegraph, price 2d). Stamp duty has been as high as 4d a copy between 18151836, and had been reduced to ld between 1836 and 1855. Almost as important a factor was the advertisement duty (3s 6d per advertisement between 18151833; 1s 6d from 18331853) which was a distinct discouragement to advertising. Advertisement duty had been abolished two years earlier in 1853, but both it and the stamp duty had kept the price of newspapers and advertising high, and circulation low.

However, one must not confuse lack of circulation with lack of influence. There is no doubt that the duties were in part imposed as a preventative measure by Governments who were hostile to the idea of cheap newspapers which they felt would be full of unsettling ideas and which could be afforded by the lower orders who were not to be trusted. This may have lowered circulations, but with the widespread incidence of coffee shops and newsrooms which provided newspapers for their customers, it did not reduce readership. (As an aside, one might hypothesise that a major factor in the prosperity of coffee shops and newsrooms was the free availability of newspapers and that the abolition of the duties led to their decline.)

The abolition of the duties stimulated the growth of circulation. In 1800, there had been no daily newspaper with a circulation of more than 5,000. By 1850 there was none with a circulation of  more than 50,000. By 1905 the highest the daily was up to over 700,000.

Circulation growth was helped by  1870 Education Act (of which Curzon is reputed to have said that the only result of it would be that graffiti would start six inches lower down the wall) and also by population growth. The period the slogan 18551896 saw the creation of the penny daily and the beginnings of the popular press. It also saw growing secrecy about circulations, coupled with often outrageous claims, and this led eventually to the creation of the ABC in 1930.

The refusal by many publications to state their circulations can be seen as largely defensive measure but the other problem was the difference between the printrun and actual circulation. Most publications were put out on a saleor return basis and it was common for up to 25 per cent to be returned. The printrun was frequently quoted as the circulation and many advertisers resented this deception.

Such circumstances led to the foundation in 1904 of the Advertisers Protection Society (yes, advertisers then felt that they needed protection, but in 1920 the APS changed its name to the now more familiar Incorporated Society of British Advertisers ISBA) and one can see in their Monthly Circular that they were stumbling towards the concept of costperthousand. They reported that the Strand Magazine had been selling 400,000 copies in the 'palmy days of Sherlock Holmes.' But in 1908 the APS believed that circulation was only about 100,000 and they complained that 'the rate had only dropped from 49 to 40.'

The APS attitude is summarised in the slogan which they put under their masthead: 'What we want is net sales. Pulp mill circulation does not sell goods.' And in the absence of adequate figures, they took the bold and potentially dangerous step of publishing in issue No. 49 (May 1908) of the APS Monthly Circular their own estimates of 'net sales,' i.e. circulation of some 210 newspapers and magazines. It is significant that only 18 of the 210 had allowed the APS to inspect their books and certify the circulation.


Estimated by the APS Actual*
Daily Express 320,000 268,471 (1909)
Times 60,000 41,000(approx)
Manchester Guardian 100,000 36,000
Daily Mirror 400,000 513,726
Daily News 150,000 168,526
Daily Mail 700,000 713,321

*as reported by publication when approached in 1980


Total national
No. of titles 'Average'
circulation '000
1908 APS estimate
         likely actual
1938 9,396,061 11 854
1948 15,186,672 11 1,350
1958 16,558,983 11 1,505
1978 14,288,808 9 1,588

The publication of these estimates caused a furore of protest. It ranged form the Gentlewoman who objected to the APS estimate of 8,000 a week: 'It is not the usual policy for high class papers like the Gentlewoman to obtain advertisements on the basis of guaranteed circulation,' to the Observer which started a libel action in October 1908 against the APS. The action dragged on until 1910, but it is refreshing to know that the APS won.

It is also interesting to discover through research in 1980 that the APS estimates were reasonably accurate, as  Table 1 shows. The Manchester Guardian estimate was wildly out, as were the Times and the Mirror, but the others are quite reasonable.

1908 was the beginning of the heydays of the press barons and it is instructive to remember how low individual circulations were the highest only 713,000 and certainly not enough to satisfy todays newspaper managements.

In 1908, there were some 14 'national' dailies and the APS estimate of their circulation was only 2,416,000 very low by today's standards. A comparison (Table 2) at 30, 10 and 20 year intervals shows that there has been enormous growth in circulation (nearly 600%) but a decline in the number of titles. In this period the population grew by 45% from 38 million in 1901 to 55 million today, so it was not the major factor in circulation growth.

From the long term point of view of a historian, there has been a remarkable stability in national daily circulations over the past 32 years. Individual fluctuations may send managements into paroxysms but the total trend is very stable. Indeed the impact of TV (owned by less than one per cent of households in 1948, 61 per cent in 1958 and 97 per cent in 1978) on total circulation cannot be said to be very great.

But while total circulation has grown and is now reasonably stable, there have been an enormous number of amalgamations (Table 3).


Title First date
of publication
APS est Actual 1938 1948 1958 1978
National Mornings:
Morning Post1 2 Nov 1772 40,000 ?} 638,784 1,015,940 1,305,032 1,358,875
Daily Telegraph 29 Jun 1855 150,000 ?}
The Times2 1 Jan 1785 60,000 41,000 196,999 157,342 248,428 295,059
(Manchester) Guardian3 5 May 1821 100,000 36,000 50,431 126,415 177,232 275,597
Daily News Jan 1846 150,000 168,526} 1,295,488 1,623,475 1,243,125} 1,973,580
Morning Leader4 23 May 1892 200,000 ?}
Westminster Gazette5 1893 40,000 ?}
Daily Chronicle6 28 May 1877 200,000 ?}
Daily Graphic7 1889 40,000 ?} ? 804,541 1,202,421}
Daily Sketch }
Daily Mail8 4 May 1896 700,000 713,321 1,520,560 2,077,542 2,103,877}
Financial News 22 Jan 1884 8,000 ? ?} 46,773 85,565 181,678
Financial Times9 13 Feb 1888 8,000 ? 24,572}
Daily Express 24 Apr 1900 320,000 268,471 2,486,393 3,856,963 4,084,603 2,458,792
Daily Mirror 2 Nov 1903 400,000 513,726 1,250,000 3,212,616 4,527,964 3,783,036
Daily Herald/Sun10 Apr 1912 1,933,833 2,143,556 1,513,218 3,942,286
Daily Worker/Morning Star11 1 Jan 1930

Morning Advertiser12 1794 25,000 ? ? 30,000 28,000 35,000
London Evenings
Globe13 1803 40,000 ?
Standard14 21 May 1827 35,000 ?} 389,521 766,806 592,485 379,895
Evening Standard15 29 Jun 1857 60,000 ?}
Pall Mall Gazette 7 Feb 1865 30,000 ?}
Evening News 1881 240,000 ? 822,195 1,649,934 1,211,532} 532,519
Star16 1888 150,000 ? 502,639 1,073,866 780,872}
555,000 1,714,335 3,490,606 2,584,889 947,414


***Data for 1956.

**2,427,044 if APS estimates are allowed, where actual circulations are not known.

*UK and Eire only a further 14,222 overseas.

  1. Amalgamated with the Daily Telegraph 1st October 1937.
  2. Published first as The Daily Universal Register on 1st January 1785, and changed its name to The Times on 1st January 1788.
  3. Deleted Manchester from its title and became The Guardian in 1959.
  4. Amalgamated with the Daily News on 13th May 1912.
  5. Amalgamated with the Daily News on 1st February 1928, after changing from evening to morning paper in 1924.
  6. Amalgamated with the Daily News on 2nd June 1930, with combined name of News Chronicle.
  7. Daily Graphic and Daily Sketch merged in 1926 under title of Daily Sketch, when Berry brothers bought Sketch from Rothermere. Daily Sketch merged with Daily Mail 3rd May 1971.
  8. Daily Mail took over News Chronicle on 17th October 1960.
  9. Taken over by Financial News in 1945, but title retained for both.
  10. Daily Herald changed its name to Sun in 1964 and went tabloid on 17th November 1969 when taken over by Rupert Murdoch. (The first Sun was founded as an evening paper in 1792 but did not survive.)
  11. Daily Worker changed its name to Morning Star on 25th April 1966. The first Morning Star had been launched on 17th March 1856 by the Radicals, Cobden and Bright, but it foundered in 1869.
  12. The Morning Advertiser started, as it still is, as the organ of licensed victuallers. Despite fluctuations in the number of licensed victuallers it has had a remarkably consistent, if limited, circulation for almost 200 years.
  13. Ceased publication in 1921 after 118 years.
  14. The Standard (which was an offshoot of the St. James Chronicle, which had existed as an evening triweekly since 1781) started as an evening, then introduced a morning edition on 29th June 1867, maintaining a separate existence for the evening edition as the Evening Standard.
  15. Absorbed the evening St. Jamess Gazette (founded May 1880) in 1905, and the Pall Mall Gazette in 1923.
  16. The first Star was founded in 1788 as an evening paper and amalgamated with the Albion in 1831 and subsequently ceased. The recent Star was founded in 1888 and was absorbed by the Evening News on 17th October 1960, at the same time as the news Chronicle was absorbed by the Daily Mail.

? Not known by existing publishers.

Only seven of the 14 titles which existed in 1908 are still extant, and the six London evenings of 1908 have contracted to two. (Ed: since November 1980, only one)

There can be no doubt that the evenings have been hit by TV. The original growth of evening papers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth was linked to the growth of and interest in sports journalism and hence the relevance of the evening edition relating to sport played during the day. And this role has been superceded by TV.

It is also astonishing to realize that no less than seven newspapers have amalgamated into what is now the Daily Mail, while other newspapers, notably the Times, Guardian, Express and Mirror, have kept their genetic purity.

It could be argued that genetic purity is one of the secrets of success that the more one waters down the original concept, the more one compromises on ones original position, the more one tries to be all things to all men then the harder the uphill battle. But the pressures are such that it is very difficult to maintain that genetic purity.

The current national daily situation is not one which should cause widespread gloom. According to UNESCO, the UK has the largest per capita readership of daily newspapers in the world. It also probably has proportionately the fewest number of national daily titles, but each with a substantially higher average circulation than most dailies in most countries.

The UK also has one of the best regulated and researched press media in the world, and the Advertisers Protection Society and the Audit Bureau of Circulations must be given due credit for playing a major part in achieving this.

(Grateful thanks are expressed to Reg Best of JSBA for providing access to original APS material; to Mr. Gordon Phillips, Archivist of The Times; to V.G. Ball, Librarian of the Daily Telegraph; to Mr. Cox, Librarian of the Mirror Group; to Mr. Neill and Mr. Fitzgerald of the Daily Mail and to many other anonymous members of the libraries of national dailies for their help and advice. A special acknowledgement should be made to the famous paper given to the Manchester Statistical Society in 1955 by A. P. Wadsworth, Editor of the Manchester Guardian, on the subject Newspaper Circulations 18001954.)