The Daily Herald was once the world’s top-selling newspaper. Read the story of its rise and fall, as captured in the paper’s vast photographic archive.
Launched in 1911 as a strike sheet, the Daily Herald became the first newspaper in the UK to sell more than 2 million daily copies. Despite its popularity, the paper struggled financially. In 1964 it relaunched as The Sun before finally being sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1969.
Editions of the newspaper are preserved at the British Newspaper Archive, while the National Science and Media Museum is home to the amazing Daily Herald Photographic Archive, a collection of around 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives.
Like other major newspapers, the Daily Herald covered the seismic events and powerful people of the 20th century. But it also shone a light on ordinary people, their struggles, and the cultural shifts of a tumultuous half-century. Archived photographs reflect the Daily Herald’s idiosyncratic view of the world; they also provide fascinating insights into the then-emergent profession of photojournalism.
The birth of the Daily Herald
The years 1911–14 are remembered as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’, a time of strikes, rebellion and violence across the UK. Events like the 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike, the 1913 Dublin Lockout and a growing women’s suffrage movement contributed to the zeitgeist of the era. A product of its time, the newly founded Daily Herald gave the labour movement a voice.
The Daily Herald began its life as a strike sheet for the London printing unions on 25 January 1911. Once the fight for better pay and a reduced working week of 48 hours was won, the Herald closed its doors on 28 April 1911.
But the idea of the Daily Herald persisted, and a committee was formed with the intent of permanently establishing a British socialist newspaper. It was chaired by David Walls of the Association of Correctors of the Press, and members included prominent trade unionists Tommy Naylor and Ben Tillett.
Labour politician George Lansbury—who went on to become the Herald’s first proprietor, editor and general manager—was also recruited to the cause. Together this group sought funds and promised a paper that would be ‘one of inclusion and not exclusion’.
A rebellious voice
The Daily Herald relaunched with just £300 in its accounts on 15 April 1912—a far cry from the £10,000 that the committee initially envisaged as necessary. Dubbed the ‘Miracle of Fleet Street’ by a competitor, the Herald was rebellious and, in the words of George Lansbury, ‘avowedly anti-official’.
During the First World War, the Daily Herald championed pacifism, conscientious objection and the Bolshevik Revolution. Writers for the newspaper encouraged debate on topics ranging from workers’ rights to women’s suffrage and independence for India. In fact, Lansbury’s unwavering editorial support for the labour movement and the Poplar Rates Rebellion landed him in jail during the 1920s.
Printing and distribution come at a cost for any newspaper, but the Daily Herald’s rebelliousness—and refusal to relinquish editorial control—made it difficult for the paper to seek funds through advertising and wealthy individuals.
The most fantastic resources, not all strictly legal, were exhausted in order to bring the daily quota of paper to the hungry machines... the several hundred pounds required each night to pay for paper were somehow obtained, usually at the last minute.
George Slocombe, Writer, journalist and war correspondent (1936)
Lev Kamenev, a Bolshevik revolutionary, reportedly gave the Herald around £40,000 in 1920, but even this was not enough to ensure the paper’s independence.
In 1922, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) took ownership; in 1929, Odhams Press purchased a controlling share (51%) in the Daily Herald. The new owners aimed to increase circulation, broaden the Herald’s appeal and ensure its financial viability.
Inside the Daily Herald
The Daily Herald sustained a bustling newsroom, editorial staff, and all the supports needed to bring a daily paper to press, though financial woes meant it was often understaffed. In 1927, it employed only four general reporters—less than half the amount of other national dailies. In 1928, its full editorial staff comprised only 44 people, a fraction of the size of its competitors.
The situation improved under Odhams’ ownership, though primary investments focused on brand, design and recruiting readers, with journalists and editors remaining a secondary financial priority.
The photographs show below depict the people who laboured daily on typically uncompetitive wages for almost 60 years, regardless of ownership.
The Daily Herald operated a ‘cuttings library’ that was the envy of Fleet Street. With pioneering photojournalist James Jarché at the head of a crack team of photographers, the Herald not only visualised the news, but brought artistry to current events and public interest stories.
Today, we know little about many of these photographers other than their names—but their dedication to documenting the news influenced emergent photojournalism practices.
We know even less about the people who worked behind the scenes to develop, edit and organise the millions of images captured by the Herald’s photographers.
The Daily Herald Photographic Archive is still housed within its original filing system and acts as a continuing record of the newspaper’s idiosyncratic editorial perspective on 20th-century history. These images also reveal the behind-the-scenes processes and people instrumental to producing and maintaining such an archive.
Full steam ahead
In late 1929 Odhams Press began a massive drive to boost the paper’s popularity—and, they hoped, achieve a degree of financial stability.
Ahead of the Daily Herald’s official relaunch in March 1930, its length was doubled from ten to twenty pages. The new management held rallies across the country, fronted by Labour Party members, and a weekly supplement called ‘The Helper’ galvanised an army of supporters to promote the ‘New Daily Herald’.
Recruiting readership was an ongoing concern for Odhams’ busy publicity department. Despite condemnation from the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, gift schemes, competitions and promotional campaigns became important tools for building the Herald’s loyal following. Gifts such as fountain pens and cameras were offered, as well as a free £10,000 family insurance policy for registered readers.
The campaign worked. On 17 October 1929, sales reached 332,554 copies. By the night of 17 March 1930, the Herald had a registered readership of 922,000.
Now for the North!
This drive for an ever-increasing readership led to the opening of a second office in Manchester.
On Saturday 28 June 1930, Labour politician J.R. Clynes—then Home Secretary, and also former MP for North East Manchester—opened the new Northern office on Chester Street, Oxford Road, with a golden key.
This is the key for opening the door; the Daily Herald is the key to the situation of the future.
J.R. Clynes, Home Secretary (opening the Herald’s Manchester office, 1930)
As Mr Clynes set the printing press in motion, crowds described as ‘bigger than the opening crowd at Wembley and far greater than a Cup Final’ gathered outside. Rochdale-born star of stage and screen Gracie Fields sang as a procession of floats representing local industries and trade unions rolled down Oxford Road to Belle Vue Gardens.
An estimated 200,000 people travelled from far and wide, some arriving on special trains organised for the event. It was a marketing extravaganza, with plans for a Sunday edition announced and the drive towards 2 million sales launched.
The beginning of the end
Though competition was fierce, the Daily Herald became the first paper to achieve 2 million daily net sales in June 1933. It held the coveted title of ‘World’s Best-Selling Paper’ for the next three years.
But the competition took its toll on the Herald. Its reliance on gift schemes and other promotions to recruit readers wasn’t sustainable.
While readership had increased, many subscribers had low incomes, and this made it difficult to attract reliable income from advertisers. On 14 September 1964, the Guardian reflected on the downfall of the Daily Herald, describing it as a victim of ‘its own [poverty] and that of its readers’.
The political radicalism expressed on the Herald’s pages was largely tempered in its later years. It continued to support official Labour policies, but the tone was moderate, reflecting changes in TUC leadership and the commercial concerns of Odhams Press.
Nonetheless, fears that political partisanship were hampering the paper’s growth led to problems in the relationship between the owners. In the early 1960s, faced with a downward spiral in sales and the loss of advertising revenue, the TUC relinquished their shares in the newspaper.
Dawning of The Sun
Odhams Press attempted to improve their financial fortunes by seeking a new partnership. They even lined up a merger with Canadian publisher Roy Thomson. But just before the deal became official, a counter-offer from Cecil King, Chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), went directly to Odhams’ shareholders. They side-stepped Odhams’ management and accepted.
This controversial sale took place in March 1961. When MGN took control, they formed IPC Magazines to manage many of Odhams’ other titles. The new owners prioritised a massive drive to broaden the Herald’s appeal and gain a younger audience.
In September 1964 the paper relaunched as The Sun with the slogan ‘A Paper Born of the Age We Live In’. Despite this change of image and an initial upsurge in circulation, sales again declined. MGN/IPC decided to cut their losses and, in 1969, sold The Sun to Rupert Murdoch’s News International.
Coming up next...
Despite never attaining financial stability, the ‘Miracle of Fleet Street’ survived for 52 years. True to its political origins, the Herald continued to represent working class and socialist causes. Its need for a broad readership meant it also featured fashion, pop culture and human-interest stories.
After its sale to News International, the Daily Herald’s photo library—still housed within its original filing system—was transferred to the National Portrait Gallery. In 1983, it transferred to the National Science and Media Museum which became its permanent home.
Our care for this unique archive includes ongoing efforts to digitise the collection and share stories about the people, places and ideas that featured on the pages of the Daily Herald. With the help of our partners at Google, we digitised more than 40,000 images between 2021 and 2022. You can explore some of them in the stories on this website, at Google Arts & Culture, and in the Science Museum Group Collection Online.
- George Lansbury, The Miracle of Fleet Street: The Story of the Daily Herald, 1925
- Huw Richards, The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left, 1997
- John Shepherd, George Lansbury: At the Heart of Old Labour, 2002
- George Slocombe, The Tumult and the Shouting: The Memoirs of George Slocombe, 1936
- The Daily Herald in the British Newspaper Archive
- ‘Monopoly, Power and Politics in Fleet Street: The Controversial Birth of IPC Magazines, 1958–63’ (PDF), Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt, Business and Economic History On-line, vol. 12, 2014