William Cobbett

From a very early age, I had imbibed the opinion, that it was every man's duty to do all that lay in his power to leave his country as good as he had found it. -- William Cobbett

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.

Give me, Lord, neither poverty nor riches. -- William Cobbett

The finest sight in England is a stagecoach about to start. -- William Cobbett

I defy the Attorney General, and even the Devil himself, to produce from my writings any one essay, which is not written in the spirit of peace. -- William Cobbett

William Cobbett (1762-1835), farmer, pamphleteer, radical, social commentator, started out in life as a crow-scarer and ploughboy.

As a young man, Cobbett was on his way from Farnham to Guildford for a social function, when as he was about to cross the turnpike, along came a stagecoach bound for London. On a whim, Cobbett boarded the stagecoach, and found himself in London that evening..

Cobbett found himself a job in London, where he spent eight or nine months as a clerk in the employ of a Mr Holland at Gray's Inn. Wandering one day in St James Park, he saw a poster recruiting for the Marines. Again on a whim, he decided to apply. Only he made a mistake, and instead of joining the Marines, he joined the Army and found himself in a regiment bound for New Brunswick, North America. The role of his regiment was to prevent infiltration from the newly independent states into the English colonies.

In New Brunswick, his talents were recognised and he was encouraged to study. He was an assiduous student and mastered French, rhetoric, geometry, logic and fortifications. He rose through the ranks to become Sergeant Major.

Promoted, and in charge of the regimental accounts and registers, he became shocked at the corruption he found. Determined to expose it, he decided to bide his time and wait until he was back in England. He was to spend six years in America. Once back and discharged, he pursued the case with vigour. But he found that malicious allegations were to be made against him which could result in his being sent to the penal colonies in Australia. With his new wife, who he had met a few years previous when she was only 13 (the daughter of a soldier), the two of them fled to France.

In France, Cobbett and his new wife, found themselves caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, and were forced to flee again, the second time in six months, this time to the newly independent states.

For the next six years he published 12 volumes of diatribes against American democracy, his style securing him many enemies and the nickname 'Peter Porcupine'. After paying a heavy fine in a libel judgement, which led to financial ruin, Cobbett returned to England in 1800.

On his return to England, Cobbett started his radical career. In 1802 he founded the Political Register, which started life as Tory weekly but soon turned Radical. The journal became an advocate of radical social and parliamentary reform. Cobbett recognised that popular unrest was caused by unemployment and hunger and not, as many thought, by subversion.

He also published Parliamentary debates (later taken over by Hansard). In 1810, Cobbett was sentenced to two years in prison for opposing the use of flogging by the army. Whilst in prison he continued to publish the Register.

His friends noticed that prison did nothing but good for his health, but his daughter observed it did nothing for his good temper. If he was not anti-establishment on entering prison, he was on leaving.

His friends celebrated his release from prison with a dinner attended by 600 people.

When William Cobbett rode through Alton on his way to Winchester following his release from Newgate Prison, his daughter Ann recorded that the bells rang out for an hour.

On leaving prison, his political views forced Cobbett to escape to America.

In total Cobbett spent nearly 20 years in America. He returned to England in 1819.

On his return, he was penniless and unimportant. During the 1820s he was active in grassroots politics and supported rioting labourers in southern England in 1830. For this he was tried and acquitted of sedition.

Under the Reform Bill of 1832, of which he was a supporter, Cobbett won a seat to Parliament in the same year. He died of influenza in 1835.

Cobbett's Rural Rides (1830), his social observations and commentary, extracted from the Register, are the best insight we have today to social conditions during his lifetime.

Cobbett had a small farm, more a smallholding, of four acres, in the village of Kensington. The site of the farm is now occupied by Kensington High Street Tube Station.

One of the crops Cobbett grew on his farm was maize, Cobbett's corn as he called it. He had grown maize on his farm on Long Island and tried unsuccessfully to introduce maize to England.

Cobbett railed against the growing of potatoes, a crop being promoted by the government as an alternative to bread. Cobbett was proven right after his death when the Irish potato famine struck.

Cobbett wrote Cottage Economy as a guide to self-sufficiency. A modern-day equivalent would be the late John Seymour's The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency.

Cobbett's Cottage Economy, originally published as a series of pamphlets (1821-2), was first published as a book in 1822, followed by a series of revisions and enlargements, the 17th edition was published by Cobbett's wife Anne (1850), to which G K Chesterton added a preface (1916).

Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey. Near the River Wey, not far from the Farnham Maltings, lies The William Cobbett, formerly The Jolly Farmer (renamed in the 1970s in honour of William Cobbett), home of William Cobbett. At the time of Cobbett's birth (1762) it was a farmhouse. The William Cobbett contains a framed copy of the Political Register, the political journal founded by Cobbett.

On the far bank of the River Wey, in Gostrey Meadow, used to be found a small bronze bust of William Cobbett by Willi Soukop. It has been relocated to the garden of Farnham Museum.

William Cobbett was greatly influenced by writer and political philosopher Thomas Paine. Ten years after Paine's death, Cobbett dug up his remains and brought them back to England. The whereabouts of the remains today are unknown.

The journal of the Cobbett Society, Cobbett's New Register, can be found in the reference section of Farnborough Library.

When Cobbett saw the stagecoach coming down the hill as he was on his way to the fair in Guildford, he set off on what he called an adventure. And what an adventure it was to be. From his first job a as little boy in a blue smock scaring crows, he ended up with a seat in the House of Commons. He died on his farm, and even with his last breath, was dictating a piece for the Political Register. He lies buried in the churchyard in Farnham. His funeral was attended by an estimated 8,000 people.

In the week beginning 27 June 2005, BBC Radio 4, as 'book of the week', had a reading of The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams. An annoying aspect of the readings was that it was extracts, leading to a disjointed telling. On the first reading, Cobbett, with his wife, was fleeing to America to escape the French revolution. The next reading had Cobbett in Newgate Prison with no explanation as to how he had arrived in this situation when he was last heard of embarking for America. This web page has been substantially revised based on this reading.

Thomas Paine, (1737–1809), English political philosopher, whose pamphlet Common Sense greatly influenced public opinion during the American Revolution, and The Rights of Man, seen as the foundation of modern democracy, was the driving force of the Atlantic-Democratic Revolution of the late 18th century. He personified the political currents that linked American independence, the French Revolution and British radicalism. He was to die a pauper, alone and forgotten.

Hansard,the official report of the proceedings of Parliament, takes its name from Thomas Curson Hansard, who joined William Cobbett in 1803 in publishing reports of the proceedings. With the creation of the Official Report in 1909, the name was dropped but reinstated in 1943 in response to popular demand.

Literature ~ Thomas Paine ~ Gilbert White
(c) Keith Parkins 2003-2005 -- July 2005 rev 4