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On this day in history in 1763, was born William Cobbett.
Cobbett, sometimes known as Peter Porcupine, was a journalist and a politician who held extreme right and left wing views simultaneously and tried to preserve the countryside in the face of the Industrial Revolution.
Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey on a small farm kept by his father. [Now a pub. The William Cobbett, 4 Bridge Square, Farnham, Surrey GU9 7QR] He was brought up as a farm hand, but had sufficient education to enable him to obtain employment as a clerk at Gray’s Inn. When aged twenty-one, Cobbett joined the army and, in due course, rose to the rank of sergeant major. He used the ample spare time available to soldiers in peacetime, to learn the rudiments of English grammar. After service in Canada, Cobbett reached the rank of sergeant but on his return to Portsmouth, charges were brought against him by corrupt officers, against whom he had gathered evidence of venality.
Although the charges were unsubstantiated, Cobbett was obliged to flee to France, which he found in the throes of revolution. After escaping to Philadelphia, Cobbett supported himself and his family by teaching English to French immigrants. Cobbett disliked the American Revolution and its consequences and began writing pamphlets criticising America, its constitution and its republic. His vitriolic journalism was not popular and gained him many enemies but he continued for six years, writing against the American system, until eventually he lost a libel suit and was ruined.
Cobbett fled to London, where he founded a weekly journal, Political Register, in which he attacked the government’s conduct of the war against France. He also produced a journal containing continual verbatim reports of the proceedings of the House of Commons. This journal still exists and is now called Hansard. Cobbet particularly disliked the fact that commercial interests were dictating foreign policy, and was particularly enraged when the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, brought the war with France to a dishonourable end, for the sake of the resumption of trade. He called for a recommencement of the war and was vindicated when hostilities resumed later the same year. In 1816, when he denounced corruption in parliamentary elections, his enemies sought to have him arrested and he was obliged to leave for America, where he continued to write the Political Register, sending his copy to agents in London.
In 1819, when Cobbett thought it safe to return home, he conceived the idea of repatriating the remains of Thomas Paine, the anti-revolutionary writer. According to some contemporary reports, Cobbett exhumed Paine’s body and shipped it to Liverpool. Cobbett followed later in another vessel, but when he arrived at Liverpool, he found to his dismay that the other ship had been lost at sea and Paine’s bones were at the bottom of the ocean.
During the 1820’s, Cobbett toured the country on horseback, writing descriptions of the countryside, hoping to draw attention to the plight of the agricultural workers, who were suffering great hardship due the effect of the Corn Laws. He published his writings in the Political Register, and in 1830, published them in book form under the name Rural Rides. This book gave an unrivalled picture of the land, in the period before wholesale agricultural reform swept the country in the mid nineteenth century. Rural Rides became famous, not only for its realistic, and often humorous, portrayal of the countryside, but as a historical document, giving an insight into the habits and customs of village life. The village way of life, as portrayed by Thomas Hardy, has more to do with Rural Rides than life in Hardy’s own time.
Cobbett stood for Parliament on several occasions, but each time was rejected, on account of his unwillingness to offer voters the customary bribe. Eventually he was elected as MP for Oldham, in 1832, at 69 years of age. Sadly the nocturnal schedule of Parliament disturbed his wellbeing and hastened his death, from influenza. Cobbett died on 18th June 1835, and is buried in his home town of Farnham. [St Andrew’s Church, Upper Church Lane, Farnham, Surrey GU9 7PW]
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