William Cobbett circa 1831
Life and Times
William Cobbett lived from 9 March 1763 — 18 June 1835. He was a social reformer at the start of the Industrial Revolution; he was also a farmer and a pamphleteer (nowadays, we would call him an “activist”), and the founder of Hansard publications.
Cobbett was a fan of the political writer, Thomas Paine. He even had Paine’s remains brought back to England from America, where Paine had been buried. He was opposed to the Corn Laws, which put duties on imported grain to protect the livelihood of some farmers, because it increased the price of food for everyone else, particularly the poor. He not only wanted to eliminate corruption in the political system, but to encourage the common man to improve himself, even down to how and what he ate. He laid the groundwork in the public mind to the Reform Bill of 1832, which did away with a great deal of the corruption.
He published Cottage Economy in 1822, collected from a series of pamphlets he had written from 1821 to 1822. His aim was to help a family be self-sufficient, especially in feeding themselves. He despised how tea, which a family couldn’t produce for themselves, was displacing good old-fashioned beer, which they could (straight-up water wasn’t an option: no one trusted “pure” drinking water at the time.) He estimated the yearly cost of homemade beer for a family to be 7 pounds 5s, and tea at 11 pounds 7s 2d.
Consequently, in his book he even gave detailed directions on how to brew ale. He said only malt, water, hops and yeast should be used. Knowing that most ordinary people wouldn’t have had a thermometer, he gave directions such as letting boiled water cool to the point where you could see your face in it (making it then around the equivalent of 170 F / 76C, according to him.)
The book was popular, undergoing a 17th edition in 1850; a 1916 edition (London: Peter Davies, Ltd), had a preface by the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 — 1936.)
Cobbett was as clear, it seems, on what he was against as what he was for. He was against paper money; he was anti-Semitic and racist, and Methodists and potatoes fared no higher in his estimation.
Chronology of his life:
- Born at Farnham, Surrey, 35 miles (55 km) southeast of London. The farmhouse where he was born is now a pub called “The William Cobbett.”
- His father was a farmer and innkeeper, running a pub called the “Jolly Farmer.”
- His father taught him to read and write.
- 6 May 1783 he decided on the spur of a moment to take a stagecoach to London, and see where it might lead him.
- Spent 8 to 9 months in London working as a clerk for a Mr Holland at Gray’s Inn, a barrister’s office.
- In 1784 at the age of 21, he then decided to apply for the Marines, but there was a mix-up and he ended up in the army instead. He spent 13 months in England at Chatham, and then in March 1785 was bound for New Brunswick, North America as part of the 54th Regiment to help protect it from the newly-born United States to the south. He spent 6 years in total in New Brunswick.
- While there, he found time to study, taught himself to read and write better, and learned things such as French, geometry, and logic, as well as more strictly military things such as the art of fortifications. He became a Sergeant Major. In that position, looking after the regimental books at Fort Howe in Fredericton, he saw what corruption was going on, but decided it would be safer to expose it when he was back in England, and out of the army.
- In September 179, he left New Brunswick, arriving back at Portsmouth, England on 3 November 1791.
- On 19 December 1791, he got his discharge from the army.
- On 5 February 1792, he married Nancy (aka Anne) Reid in Woolwich (a town to the south-east of London which is now part of Greenwich.) She was the daughter of a fellow soldier, and had known her in Canada since she was 13. At the time of their marriage, she was 18, he was just a month shy of being 29. They would eventually have 7 children in total; all his sons became lawyers; none of the daughters married.
- In March 1792, when he went public with the corruption he had found, his newly-made enemies attacked with counter-allegations of their own, to the extent that he was forced to flee to France with his wife.
- Sadly, he went from the frying-pan to the fire, arriving in France at the height of the French Revolution, so six months later they packed up again and went to America, sailing from Le Havre in August and arriving in America in September 1792.
- He was in Philadelphia by the spring of 1793, and then they settled in Wilmington, Delaware. He lived there for 6 years. He taught English to French speakers, and did French to English translation. He also opened a bookshop there, and started a newspaper that he called the “Porcupine’s Gazette.” He published 12 works criticizing democracy in the new country, using the pen name of “Peter Porcupine.” He took a strong pro-British stance.
- In 1799, he was finally sued for libel by someone, had to pay a heavy fine which ruined him, and indignant and bereft, he returned to England in 1800. He sailed out of New York on the Lady Arabella and landed back at Falmouth 15 July 1800. At this time, he was very popular with the British establishment for how he had wound up the Americans.
- In January 1802, he founded a weekly Saturday newspaper called the “Political Register.” He used it to advocate reform in society and government, and pointed out that social unrest was happening because people wanted food and work. He would publish “Political Register” until his death. In the same year, 1802, he also started the publication of debates in Parliament, which later became known as “Hansard” when he sold it to Luke Hansard.
- In July 1805, he moved from London to Botley, Hampshire, because he wanted to farm again. The farm eventually grew in size to 600 acres by 1810.
- In 1806, he ran for Parliament to become the member for Honiton, but he wasn’t successful. He felt that the election was won by bribing the voters.
- In 15 June 1810, he was judged guilty of “treasonous libel.” In his paper, the “Political Register”, he had denounced the practice of flogging in the army (brought on by an instance of it that occurred at Ely, when German troops “Hanoverians” were used in 1809 to both put down a mutiny by English soldiers demanding their back pay and then flog them later.) He was sent to Newgate prison in London for 2 years. Still, publication of the “Political Register” continued. At the time, Cobbett had six children in age from 3 to 15, one of whom was a daughter named Ann.
- In 1812, he left prison, firmly anti-establishment. Sir Francis Burdett held a celebratory dinner at the Crown and Anchor attended by 600 people. Reputedly, bells rang out along his route home.
- By 1815, the tax on newspapers had increased to 4 pennies, which meant the papers had to be sold for at least 6 or 7 pennies, putting them out of the reach of all but the wealthy. His circulation dropped to 1,000 copies a week. He protested against the government tax on newspapers as a tax on free speech. In 1816, he re-formatted his “Political Register” as a pamphlet. This allowed him to avoid the newspaper tax, and sell it for only two pennies a copy. Circulation increased dramatically to 40,000 copies a week, and became the primary newspaper of the working classes. He caught the discontent sweeping the country, which annoyed the government.
- In 1817, the government passed the Power of Imprisonment Bill in 1817, which allowed them to imprison people without a hearing and violated the principle of Habeas Corpus. Informed on the side that the government planned to use these new powers to detain him, he left for America from Liverpool on 27 March 1817, arriving 5 May 1817. He travelled with his two eldest sons, John and William, on the “Importer”, captained by a D. Ogden. Back in England, his farm and house was seized by creditors; the family there had to move to London for a short time, then came to America, staying until the summer of 1818. Cobbett stayed on in America until 1819. During this time, he had a farm on Long Island, New York, wrote a book called “Grammar of the English Language” and another called “Journal of a Year’s Residence in the United States.” William Benbow back in London kept the Political Register there running for him.
- In 1819, the Habeas Corpus Act was restored. He returned to England in November arriving in Liverpool with no money, and he’d lost his “edge” — it seemed people had forgotten who he was.
- 1820 — ran unsuccessfully as MP for Coventry, costs of it forced him back into bankruptcy.
- From 1821 to 1833, he had a small, four-acre farm in what was then the village of Kensington. Today, it is the site of Kensington High Street Tube Station. He grew corn (aka maize in Europe), in an effort to promote it in England; he’d grown it on his farm back in America. He was opposed to the heavy dependence on potatoes that the government was encouraging.
- 1826 — ran unsuccessfully as MP for Preston.
- 1830 — was tried, but acquitted of sedition for his support of workers who rioted in southern England.
- 1830 — published a volume called “Rural Rides”, based on observations and opinion pieces he’d written from 1822 to 1826 for the Political Register. Instead of waiting for news from the countryside to come to him, he’d set out on horseback to actually dig up news.
- 1830 — was acquitted of seditious libel for his article “Rural War” (published 11 December 1830 in the Political Register) that supported farm workers destroying machinery.
- 1831 — got a farm in Normandy, Surrey.
- 1832 — elected an MP to parliament, aged 69, member for Oldham, Lincolnshire.
- 1835 — died of the flu. He was buried at Farnham, Surrey. The funeral was attended by thousands.
- 1848 — his wife Nancy died.
Literature & Lore
“Cranberries, the finest fruit for tarts that ever grew, are bought for about a dollar a bushel, and they will keep for five months.” (Journal of a Year’s Residence in the United States)
“A couple of flitches of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist sermons and religious tracts.”
“The immense sums [taxes], thus pinched from the millions, and put into the hands of thousands.” (Weekly Reg. 13 Apr. 69.)
“Public property is never so well taken care of as private property; and this, too, on the maxim, that that which is every body’s business is nobody’s business.” (Advice to Young Men)
“The man who can talk about the honour of his country, at a time when its millions are in a state little short of famine; and when that is, too, apparently their permanent state, must be an oppressor in his heart; must be destitute of all the feelings of shame and remorse; must be fashioned for a despot, and can only want the power to act the character in its most tragical scenes.” (Thirteen Sermons, 1822)