History of The Tablet

The following account is a summary of "1840-1990 A Commemorative History, The Tablet" by Michael Walsh

The Tablet was founded in 1840 by Frederick Lucas, a Quaker convert to Catholicism at the age of twenty-seven. Lucas was brought to Catholicism by Thomas Anstey, a member, like Lucas, of the Middle Temple and also a convert. On his conversion in December 1838 he published a pamphlet entitled "Reasons for Becoming a Catholic"; it ran to three editions in the year. It took him a week to convert his fiancée to Catholicism. On his return from a tour of Belgium he became a contributor to the quarterly, the Dublin Review , which, despite its name, was published in London.

A number of leading Catholics felt the need for a weekly publication and Father R. Lythgoe SJ, the priest who had converted Lucas, suggested that he take the task on. Lucas chose the name, The Tablet, and the first edition came out on 16 May 1840. The title piece was very modern in style and a quotation from Edmund Burke adorned the masthead: "My errors, if any, are my own: I have no man's proxy". Lucas made clear in the third issue just what he meant:

"With the exception of the Irish the world has exhibited hardly an instance of long-enduring passive courage to be compared with that of the British Catholics. Every class has displayed this quality most admirably in a manner which its peculiar position required. There has been but one thing wanting, and that is that they should know when and how to lay aside the defensive tactics which their former situation compelled them to adopt …."

The Catholic community in England at this time was sharply divided between the largely urban poor, many of whom were Irish immigrants, and the "old" Catholic families, often of considerable wealth. Because the latter were comparatively few in number, converts like Lucas strengthened them both numerically and intellectually. It was this group that The Tablet served: selling at 6d, it was expensive. However, Lucas swiftly showed himself a champion of the underprivileged.

The paper carried a wide mix of news, both political and legal as well as religious. Politically, The Tablet's readers were mostly supportive of the Whigs because they had campaigned for the full emancipation of Catholics, even though, when it arrived the Tories were actually in government. Catholics on the whole preferred moderation, not wishing to draw attention to themselves. This was not Lucas's editorial style.

When the paper began Lucas had two principles: first that the paper should be properly financed, and second that he should have full editorial control. The paper was initially backed by two leather merchants, the Keasley brothers. But when they were declared bankrupt in 1841 Lucas went into partnership with his Protestant printer, John Cox, who already printed pamphlets for a number of Catholic organisations. Cox paid £100 for his stake. At the time of the deal, with a number of subscribers, profit looked inevitable.

By the time of the summer elections of 1841, however, Lucas's moderation had disappeared. His erstwhile supporters were alienated by his support of the Catholic cause. For example, a Catholic landowner in South Lancashire, Sir John Gerard, called upon his tenants to vote for a Protestant Tory rather than a Catholic Whig. Lucas bitterly attacked him in The Tablet at the end of June and July. Catholic landowners were shifting allegiance to their natural allies, the Tories. Together with Cox, also a Tory, these landowners conspired to oust Lucas and replace him with Michael Quin, the former editor of the Dublin Review.

The attempt failed because of Daniel O'Connell's open support. Relations between Lucas and Cox were irreparably soured. Lucas wished to change printer and the paper continued to lose money; he gave Cox's firm a month's notice. Cox objected to this, so Lucas replied that he would bring out The Tablet at his own expense. Cox then broke into his office and took the list of subscribers.

Cox's rival publication, still called The Tablet, was edited by Michael Quin. There was much controversy over which distinguished Catholics supported which paper. Lord Shrewsbury was on Cox's side, who was at odds with O'Connell. Lucas was disparaging of the Catholic aristocracy in general. The coadjutor bishop of the Midlands, Nicholas Wiseman, cancelled his subscription to the original Tablet, now called The True Tablet, in April 1842. Lucas printed letter, together with one of support from O'Connell. This brought in 500 subscribers in a single morning, decisively tipping the balance in his favour. Cox's publication expired on 23 July 1842.

Many Catholics sympathised with Lucas, and when in 1842 he announced the need for £1,000 to keep the paper going, the money was furnished in less than a month. It came from the Catholic aristocracy, several bishops, seminaries, religious orders, clergy and the laity. Money came from as far as Belgium and Portugal. In January 1843 an enlarged paper was produced, its original name restored, with an image of the Virgin Mary at the head of the leader, together with the words "Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei genetrix ("We fly to thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God"). This act of piety was too much for some readers, who felt it an uncomfortable marriage. Lucas soon moved the Virgin Mary to the inside leader page.

Lucas's brother wrote that his policy was to unmask bigotry against Catholicism. In this he angered his friends and foes. Lucas railed against the Earl of Arundel's support of the the priority of the existing country's Church establishment within schools, in March 1843. Many Catholics supported the Earl's stance. Lucas's opposition, however, eventually won him wide support.

Lucas had style and wit, but The Tablet was most notable for its invective. Lucas offended the hierarchy with his criticisms of the way the Church was run. He successfully advocated the establishment of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Britain. He objected to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the papal court. Lucas had supported Wiseman's appointment as assistant bishop for the whole of South-East England, but they found through subsequent visits that they did not get on. Lucas also fell out with Anstey, his trusted old friend, over a parliamentary bill. They soon ceased to communicate.