The Rise and Fall of the Gentleman’s Magazine

Museum of the Order of St John Judi McGinley, Museum Assistant
 The Gentleman’s Magazine, first published January 1731. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a highly successful publication which was founded in 1731 by Warwickshire businessman Edward Cave. It was Cave who coined the term ‘Magazine’ to describe a periodical, and for many years his monthly publication served as a hand book for the stylish and intelligent gent about town.   Cave wrote under the pseudonym Sylvanus Urban in an attempt to appeal to readers in the provinces as well as those in towns and cities. Despite the magazine’s title, Cave also wanted to the publication to be of interest to female readers, and often featured recipes for homemade remedies, articles on how to pickle and preserve, as well as tips and tricks on how to rid one’s kitchen of black beetle or one’s bedroom of bedbugs  

The publication was produced here at the Gate, in fact Cave’s office was located in our Council Chamber, a room which he shared with his employees which included English writer and poet Samuel Johnson who published ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1755.  

The Gentleman’s Magazine covered virtually every facet of Georgian life and included topics such as medicine, natural history, scientific discoveries, political debates, foreign and domestic news, letters to the editor and crime and punishment to name but a few.

A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds 1775
A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds 1775. Public domain image.

Although an extremely competent editor, Cave was notorious for pushing boundaries often sailing very close to the wind.  He regularly sent employees to the Strangers Gallery at the House of Commons where they were instructed to take skeletal notes during debates. At the end of these sessions the notes would be delivered to the Gate where they would be embellished by Samuel Johnson in preparation for the next edition of the magazine.  This was an extremely risky undertaking during a period when it was illegal to publish any information pertaining to parliamentary debates.  Parliament responded by placing tighter restrictions on Cave’s attempts to produce these reports, but he simply changed the title from”Debates in Parliament” to “Debates in the Senate House of Lilliput“. This was a polite nod and a cheeky wink at satirist writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, another regular contributor to the magazine. Swift also wrote Gulliver’s Travels which tells the story of Lemuel Gulliver who is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself held captive by the tiny inhabitants of the fictional Island country of Lilliput.  In April 1747 Cave was arrested for reporting on the treason trial of Jacobite rebel, Simon Baron Lovat. The trial took place before the House of Lords and Cave was convicted of breach of privilege, fined and  forced to beg for forgiveness at the bar of the Lords.

A portrait of Jonathan Swift by Rupert Barber, 1745
A portrait of Jonathan Swift by Rupert Barber, 1745. Author: Stephencdickson. Wikimedia Commons.

Gripping, graphic and gruesome accounts of murder, crime and punishment were regularly featured in the magazine. Cave’s writing style attracted a large following of fascinated readers  who salivated over every grisly detail.  A good example of this was his grim account of the execution of butler Tim Croneen, who murdered his employers Andrew St Leger and his wife Jane at their Cork residence in 1731. Cave provided a detailed description of the hanging, beheading, disemboweling and quartering of Croneen. These articles kept his readers riveted.

Edward Cave died here at the Gate in 1754 and was buried at St James Church, Clerkenwell. He was succeeded by David Henry who took over as editor of the magazine and he in turn was later succeeded by John Nichols. The magazine flourished under Henry and Nichols’ editorship, while readership numbers increased dramatically.  Nichols eventually relinquished control of the publication to his son John Bower Nichols, after which the magazine floundered and after subsequent editors, went into steady decline. 

General publication of The Gentleman’s Magazine eventually ceased in September 1907 and although the magazine was revived between late 1907 to 1922, it took the form of a four page pamphlet which was produced solely to keep the title “The Gentleman’s Magazine” formerly in print.

Latest blog posts