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From: Problems: Editorials
Date: April, 2011
By: Joe Keenan

William Cobbett's Rural War: Introduction

William Cobbett was born on 9th. March 1763 in the parish of Farnham in Surrey, where his father was a farmer and publican.
On the idyll of his early life he wrote (in the autobiographical Life & Adventures of Peter Porcupine):—
“I do not remember the time when I did not earn my living. My first occupation was driving the small birds from the turnipseed, and the rooks from the pease. When I first trudged a-field, with my wooden bottle and my satchel swung over my shoulders,I was hardly able to climb the gates and stiles; and, at the close of the day, to reach home, was a task of infinite difficulty. My next employment was weeding wheat, and leading a single horse at harrowing barley. Hoeing pease followed, and hence I arrived at the honour of joining the reapers in harvest, driving the team, and holding plough. We were all of us strong and laborious, and my father used to boast, that he had four boys, the eldest of whom was but fifteen years old, who did as much work as any three men in the parish of Farnham. Honest pride and happy days!”

Though unschooled, he was taught to read and write by his father.
In 1783 he went to London and worked in an attorney’s office in Gray’s Inn. Early in 1784 he enlisted in the 54th Regiment, serving in Nova Scotia between 1785-91. At the finish he was Sergeant-Major under Lord Edward FitzGerald.
Having been discharged, as he put it, “thanks to the kindness of Lord Edward”, he brought corruption charges against other officers, which he was forced, not being the stuff of which useless martyrdoms are made, to abandon, fleeing to France in March 1792. That August he fled even further, to Wilmington near Philadelphia in the United States.In America, Cobbett began his career as a political journalist there, writing, from the outset, as an English Loyalist.
When he returned to England in 1800 he was taken up by Pitt, his Secretary at War, William Windham, and the Giffords of The Anti-Jacobin, and the Anti-Jacobin Review. He was offered the run of the Government press but preferred to found his Political Register as an independent journal. For the next few years he wrote in favour of the anti-revolutionary French War, in favour of Burke and Malthus, in favour of enclosures and against everything favourable to democracy and the working classes.
Then, at Michaelmas 1804, as Ian Dyck has pointed out (in From ‘Rabble’ to ‘Chopsticks’: The Radicalism of William Cobbett, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies, Volume 21, No. 1, Spring 1989), Cobbett …
“…spent the most informative day of his life. It was a Sunday in Hampshire, and he decided to take an afternoon stroll around the common land at Horton Heath.”

What he saw there changed Cobbett’s life. He immediately sent a report to Windham which has been lost but which he drew on for an article in the Political Register of May 1821. This was in the form of an open letter to Windham’s great friend, the agricultural reformer, Thomas Coke of Holkham in Norfolk (Cobbett elsewhere referred to him disparagingly as “Daddy” Coke)…
So long ago as 1804, I went round a little common, in Hampshire, called Horton Heath. “The better day the better deed,” and, on a Sunday I found the husbands at home. It was when the madness for enclosures raged most furiously. The Common contained about 150 acres; and I found round the skirts of it, arid near to the skirts, about 30 cottages and gardens, the latter chiefly encroachments on the Common, which was waste (as it is called) in a manor of which the Bishop was the lord. I took down the names of all the cottagers, the number and ages of their children, the number of their cows, heifers, calves, sows, pigs, geese, ducks, fowls, and stalls of bees; the extent of their little bits of grounds, the worth of what was growing (it was at, or near Michaelmas), the number of apple-trees, and of their black cherry-trees, called by them merries, which is a great article in that part of Hampshire. I have lost my paper, a copy of which I gave to Mr. WINDHAM; and, therefore, I cannot speak positively as to any one point; but, I remember one hundred and twenty-five, or thirty-five stalls of bees, worth at that time ten shillings a stall at least. Cows there were about fifteen, besides heifers and calves; about sixty pigs great and small; and not less than five hundred head of poultry! The cattle and sheep of the neighbouring farmers grazed the Common all the while besides. The bees alone were worth more annually than the Common, if it had been enclosed, would have let for, deducting the expense of fences. The farmers used the Common for their purposes; and my calculation was, that the cottages produced from their little bits, in food, for themselves, and in things to be sold at market more than any neighbouring farm of 200 acres! The cottages consisted, fathers, mothers, and children, and grandfathers, grandmothers and grandchildren, of more than two hundred persons.
Why, Sir, what a system must that have been that could lead English gentlemen to disregard matters like these! That could induce them to tear up “wastes” and sweep away occupiers like those that I have described! “Wastes” indeed! Give a dog an ill name. Was Horton Heath a waste Was it a “waste” when a hundred, perhaps, of healthy boys and girls were playing there of a Sunday, instead of creeping about covered with filth in the alleys of a town, or, at least, listening to the ravings of some weekly-penny hunting hypocrite? Was it a “waste?” No: but, it would have been a waste, if it had been “improved.”

I shall be told, perhaps, that many large farmers treat their labourers very kindly, and even take care to see, that they are supplied with a sufficiency of food and raiment. I believe this, and I have heard, that your estates are remarkable for this kindness and benevolence. But, Sir, the Jamaica farmer does the same by his slaves. From a different motive, perhaps; but he does it. This renders slavery less cruel; but, still, a state of life which contains a compulsion to work without a moral possibility of saving something for old age, is slavery, call it by what name you will; and, one of the consequences of such a state of things, is, that a large standing army is required in time of profound peace. The social tie being broken; the tie of content being no longer in existence, its place must be supplied by force…

In the previous issue of the Political Register (19th., May, 1821), Cobbett referred to his experiences elsewhere in that year of 1804. Writing in an open letter to his friend John Hayes of Bolton, he said:
I myself, in the early part of my writing life, was deceived in the same way; but, when, in 1804, I re-visited the English labourer’s dwelling, and that, too, after having so recently witnessed the happiness of labourers in America; when I saw that the clock was gone; that even the Sunday coat was gone; when I saw those whom I had known the most neat, cheerful, and happy beings on earth, and these my own countrymen too, had become the most wretched and forlorn of human beings, I looked seriously and inquired patiently into the matter; and this inquiry into the causes of an effect which had so deep an impression on my mind, led to that series of exertions, which have occupied my whole life, since that time, to better the lot of the labourers.

At all events, from 1804 on was the beginning of the end in Cobbett of Anti-Jacobin, and Burke and Malthus, and support for anti-revolutionary French wars. From 1804 on was Cobbett for Workers’ Rights and Parliamentary Reform.
By March 1806 Cobbett had broken with William Windham, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in the Ministry of All the Talents. From that point on he was, in his Political Register and his Two-Penny Trash, with his series on Parliamentary History, on the History of The Reformation in England and Ireland, and his Rural Rides, a very independent thorn in the side of each and every English administration.
Attempts at a rigid imposition of its two-party system onto English political history sometimes obscure the more subtle aspects, or gloss over the outright crudities, of its to and fro. Ian Dyck fell victim to that weakness in the article cited earlier, where he described William Windham as an “old Tory” and spoke of the “traditional toryism espoused by Windham and Cobbett”. For, really, Windham, at a time of political adjustment and realignments due to Pitt’s splitting of the Whigs, was just an “old whig” with a sentimental streak that led him to defend the rough and tumble of Merrie England. While he was Pitt’s Secretary at War he encouraged Cobbett’s anti-Jacobin journalism. And Cobbett seconded Windham’s parliamentary opposition to the progressive campaign against popular sports such as boxing and bull-baiting.
But Cobbett went further, challenging the anti-popular sports and anti-slave trade Evangelical, William Wilberforce MP, to “…invoke the full force of your philanthropy in behalf of the more than a million of wretched creatures, called paupers, who, at this moment, are in existence, in England. Yes, in England! Englishmen and women and children! more than a million of them? One eighth part of our whole population!” (Political Register, February 9th., 1805).
Cobbett’s polemics sometimes ran ahead of his common sense, as when he went on there to claim that “…negro slaves in the West Indies are, in every respect, better off than the labouring poor are in England”. But, that to one side, the domestic point was well made, that as English wealth increased English pauperism trebled and the conditions of life of agricultural workers were made insupportable.
Windham’s sentimental anti-puritan Whiggery could not commit to the lives and livelihoods of labourers. Cobbett’s traditional toryism could, and did, make a lifelong commitment to the material welfare and, beyond that, to the political interest of the agricultural labourers who were the working class in the making.
Windham was no Tory. Cobbett was. And such a Tory as could transform his attachment to the past (those good old days which in this instance certainly had been better) and his sense of tradition into a radical programme for the class from which he came.
The depressed, demoralised, declassed state of Cobbett’s agricultural labourers was a new thing and Cobbett attacked both the hidden material basis and the obvious newness of it all. At the root of his attacks was always the poverty of working families which he knew since 1804, in the contrast between the common at Horton Heath and the general run of enclosed and improved lands, could not be explained away by the fecklessness, the immorality or simply the numbers of the poor.
On February 8th., 1808, he wrote in the Political Register
As connected with the department of finance, we must, too, remember the state of the poor. Upwards of six millions a year are now raised upon the parishes to be dealt out in aid of those means by which the labourer obtains his bread; and of persons receiving this aid there families, are now paupers! This is a new state of things; a state of things which has been produced by the funding and taxing system, pushed to an extreme. Let us not be answered, by the observations, that there must be poor, that there always will be, in every state of society in every country in the world. We know there must be poor; we know that some must be very poor; we know that some must be maintained, or assisted, at least, either by the parish or by voluntary alms; but, is there any one who will deny, that this is a new and most deplorable state of things, which has rendered all the labourers, having families, paupers? The plain fact is, that a man with a wife, and with four children that are unable to work, cannot now, out of his labour, possibly provide them and himself with the means of living. I do not mean, that he cannot live comfortably, for, to comfort such men have long ago bid farewell; but, I assert, and am ready to prove, that he cannot provide them, without parish aid, with a sufficiency of food, not to satisfy their cravings, but to sustain life. And, will any one say that this state of things is such as England ought to witness?…There are hundreds of thousands of the people of England who never taste any food but bread and vegetables, and who scarcely ever know what it is to have a full meal even of these. This is new: it was not so in former times: it was not so even till of late years…

Through the course of more than three hundred years, since the Glorious Revolution in which England’s landed and commercial oligarchy established a broad Liberalism as the lodestone of the British state, that horror of The New has been the first response of hitherto stable social elements to the destabilisation of their overthrow and remoulding. It was Cobbett’s first response to the cataclysmic dismantling of the abiding structures of English rural life, and it continued throughout as the essence of his increasingly radical politics. Genuine regard for the networks of reciprocal human relations and the material basis of those relations, all of which Liberalism aimed to destroy, was the necessary foundation of any immediate attempt to undo its catastrophic effects.
Thus, in the Political Register of November, 1817, in the form of an open letter to Earl FitzWilliam, Cobbett wrote…
The state of the people relative to the nobility and gentry used to be such as to be productive of great advantages to both. The labourers were happy. Each had his little home. He had things about him worth possessing and worth preserving. His clock, which had come to him from his father, in many cases, and from his grandfather, was preserved with as much care and veneration, as you would preserve your title-deeds, or any building upon your estates. Men lived in the same cottage from the day of their marriage till the day of their death. They worked for the same masters for many years. They were so well off that there was no desire for change.

The people had no desire for change, but they had been changed, and were being changed still further, by a ruling class whose mode of life was perpetual disruption and frequent destruction of social habit and economic routine.
The people had no desire for change, as why would they, when social habit and economic routine guaranteed them the wherewithal to eat, if not well then well enough, and the familial and social structures were in place within which they could live relatively comfortably on a diet of bread, bacon and home-brewed beer. And after that the recreation, regular if infrequent, of bull-baiting, cudgels and single-sticks, at harvest-homes and fairs.
Even after the 16th. century Reformation in England and Ireland, which Cobbett abhorred as a great robbery of the poor, Elizabethan employment and welfare legislation worked to secure the fundamentals of village life.
The Depopulation Acts, Statute of Apprentices and Cottages Act worked to keep land under cultivation and labourers in employment, wages were fixed to the price of food, every labourer had a cottage and four acres of land and access to common rights on the common land and on the waste. The Old Poor Law of 1601 ensured that no-one starved.
The Cottages Act was repealed in 1775, the Statute of Apprentices in 1814 and the New Poor Law of 1834, the industrialists’ and Evangelicals’ hymn of praise to Themselves, rang in the changes brought by the passage of the 1832 Reform Act: that triumph of the New in which all were threatened with starvation and many starved.
Cobbett may have made too much of the letter of laws that were under attack from the moment they were enacted. But he made no more of them than did the labourers who regretted their passing and demanded their return.
Initially Cobett sought to rebuild the politics of a united agricultural interest that he felt had been disrupted by high taxation which encouraged farmers to a policy of low wages and enclosures. The organising principle of such a “Countryman” Party was Parliamentary Reform. As he wrote in an appeal To The Journeymen And Labourers Of England, Wales, Scotland And Ireland, in the Political Register of November 1816:
As to the cause of our present miseries, it is the enormous amount of the taxes, which the Government compels us to pay for the support of its army, its placemen, its pensioners, &c., and for the payment of the interest of its debt…
…this whole intolerable weight has all proceeded from the want of a Parliamentary Reform…
You have been represented by the Times newspaper, by the Courier, by the Morning Post, by the Morning Herald, and others, as the scum of society. They say, that you have no business at public meetings; that you are rabble, and that you pay no taxes. These insolent hirelings, who wallow in wealth, would not be able to put their abuse of you in print were it not for your labour. You create all that is an object of taxation; for even the land itself would be good for nothing without your labour. But are you not taxed? Do you pay no taxes? One of the correspondents of the Board of Agriculture has said, that care has been taken to lay as little lax as possible on the articles used by you…
On your shoes, salt, beer, malt, hops, tea, sugar, candles, soap, paper, coffee, spirits, glass of your windows, bricks and tiles, tobacco: on all these, and many other articles you pay a tax, and even on your loaf you pay a tax, because every thing is taxed from which the loaf proceeds. In several cases the tax amounts to more than one-half of what you pay for the article itself…
We have seen that the cause of our miseries is the burden of taxes, occasioned by wars, by standing armies, by sinecures, by pensions, &c.…The remedy is what we have now to look to, and that remedy consists wholly and solely of such a reform in the Commons’ or People’s House of Parliament, as shall give to every payer of direct taxes a vote at elections, and as shall cause the Members to be elected annually…
…we may ask for, and we want nothing new. We have great constitutional laws and principles, to which we are immoveably attached. We want great alteration, but we want nothing new. Alteration, modification to suit the times and circumstances; but the great principles, ought to be and must be, the same, or else confusion will follow…
…you should neglect no opportunity of doing all that is within your power to give support to the cause of Reform. Petition is the channel for your sentiments, and there is no village so small that its petition would not have some weight. You ought to attend at every public meeting within your reach. You ought to read to, and to assist each other in coming at a competent knowledge of all public matters. Above all things, you ought to be unanimous in your object, and not to suffer yourselves to be divided…
On the subject of lowering wages, too, you ought to consider, that your employers cannot give to you, that which they have not. At present corn is high in price, but that high price is no benefit to the farmer, because it has arisen from that badness of the crop, which Mr. HUNT foretold at the Common Hall, and for the foretelling of which he was so much abused by the hirelings of the press, who, almost up to this very moment, have been boasting and thanking God for the goodness of the crop! The farmer, whose corn is half destroyed, gains nothing by selling the remaining half for double the price at which he would have sold the whole…
When journeymen find their wages reduced, they should take time to reflect on the real cause, before they fly upon their employers, who are, in many cases, in as great, or greater, distress than themselves…But, it is certain, that a great many, a very large portion, of the farmers, tradesmen, and manufacturers, have, by their supineness and want of public spirit, contributed towards the bringing of this ruin upon themselves and upon you. They have skulked from their public duty. They have kept aloof from, or opposed, all measures for a redress of grievances; and, indeed, they still skulk, though ruin and destruction stare them in the face. Why do they not now come forward and explain to you the real cause of the reduction of your wages? Why do they not put themselves at your head in petitioning for redress…
Instead of coming forward to apply for a reduction of those taxes which are pressing them as well as you to the earth, what are they doing? Why, they are applying to the Government to add to their receipts by passing Corn Bills, by preventing foreign wool from being imported; and many other such silly schemes. Instead of asking for a reduction of taxes, they are asking for the means of paying taxes…
I have no room, nor have I any desire, to appeal to your passions upon this occasion. I have laid before you, with all the clearness I am master of, the causes of our misery, the measures which have led to those causes, and I have pointed out what appears to me to be the only remedy namely, a reform of the Commons’, or People’s House of Parliament. I exhort you to proceed in a peaceable and lawful manner, but at the same time, to proceed with zeal and resolution in the attainment of this object. If the skulkers will not join you, if the “decent fire-side” gentry still keep aloof, proceed by yourselves. Any man can draw up a petition, and any man can carry it up to London, with instructions to deliver it into trusty hands, to be presented whenever the House shall meet…

But the farmers did not bestir themselves, on their own behalf, let alone on behalf of their labourers. As the 1820s came to a close, with no relief in sight for the increasingly distressed and pauperised workers, Cobbett turned, first to the threat, and then to the fact, of violent upheaval.
Ian Dyck (in William Cobbett and the Rural Radical Platform, Social History, Vol. 18, No. 2, [May, 1993]) refers to Cobbett’s “frequent warnings” at the end of the decade:
…that the rural labourers were now reduced to ‘land-slaves’, that they touched their lowest point during the winter of 1829-30, and that ‘horse, foot and artillery [would] never make them touch that point again…everyone but Cobbett chose to dismiss the labourers’ threat that they would soon have the farmers ‘under our thumb’.

In 1830 then occurred what the Hammonds (in The Village Labourer, 1760-1832, by J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, New Edition, London, 1920) called The Last Labourers’ Revolt:
…several counties in the south of England were in a state bordering on insurrection; London was in a panic, and to some at least of those who had tried to forget the price that had been paid for the splendour of the rich, the message of red skies and broken mills and mob diplomacy and villages in arms sounded like the summons that came to Hernani. The terror of the landowners during those weeks is reflected in such language as that of the Duke of Buckingham, who talked of the country being in the hands of the rebels, or of one of the Barings, who said in the House of Commons that if the disorders went on for three or four days longer they would be beyond the reach of almost any power to control them. (ibid, page 219)

The first fires, in protest at enclosure, were set that summer, at Orpington and Sevenoaks. The first riot, in which labourers destroyed threshing machines, was at Hardres on August 29th.
Throughout September threshing machines were wrecked around Canterbury and rioting spread to Dover. As rewards were promised to informers, threatening letters began to appear signed ‘Swing’.
After calming down around the middle of October, by the end of the month disturbances spread to the area around Maidstone. Early in November they broke out in Sussex, originally around Battle and Brede and then throughout the county and into Surrey.
In Kent and Sussex the rioting labourers were clearly acting as the vanguard of Cobbett’s Countryman Party. The full range of their demands is given by Ian Dyck as “higher wages, the destruction of threshing machines, an end to hired overseers, direct access to the land, a democratic reform of parliament and the granting of poor relief as a right, not a privilege” (op. cit. Social History, page 196). Where they successfully demanded increases in wages and parish relief they also insisted on reductions in rents and tithe payments, which brought many farmers onto their side. And so, in Kent and Sussex at least, the government found it could not rely on the magistrates, or on many of the local yeomanry, and was unable to recruit special constables.
The Hammonds relate how…
Mr Hodges, one of the Members for Kent, declared in the House of Commons on 10th. December that if the Duke of Wellington (Prime Minister until November 1830, JK] had attended to a petition received from the entire Grand Jury of Kent there would have been no disturbances. (page 229)

The petition reads:
We feel that in justice we ought not to suffer a moment to pass away without communicating to your Grace the great and unprecedented distress which we are enabled from our own personal experience to state prevails among all the peasantry to a degree not only deadful to individuals but also to an extent which, if not checked, must be attended with serious consequences to the national prosperity. (page 229)

From the middle of November the insurrection spread to Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, where, again, many of the farmers sympathised with the labourers. In Hampshire, the workhouses at Selborne and Headley were destroyed. The fire then spread further, to Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire; then to Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Devonshire and Herefordshire.
In Northamptonshire there were several fires and also risings round Peterborough, Oundle and Wellingborough, and a general outbreak in the Midlands was thought to be imminent. Hayricks began to blaze as far north as Carlisle. Swing letters were delivered in Yorkshire, and in Lincolnshire the labourer was said to be awakening to his own importance. (ibid, page 245)

But, as the insurrection spread further, with more fire now than riot, to the West and North of England, government alarm finally translated into vigorous action. In November the vacillating Tories, Iron Duke and all, were replaced by forceful Whigs, a circumstance which left the Liberal Hammonds groping for excuses for their hero, the noble Lord Grey, speaking of how difficult it was “to understand how men like Grey and Holland and Durham could ever have lent themselves to the cruelties of this savage retribution” (ibid, page 289). Ah well, such wags those whigs!
On November 24th, the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, issued a circular letter to lord-lieutenants and magistrates urging them to be firm and promising them immunity for illegal acts committed in the right spirit. Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, told the House of Lords on December 2nd:
Within a few days from the time I am addressing your Lordships, the sword of justice shall be unsheathed to smite, if it be necessary, with a firm and vigorous hand, the rebel against the law. (ibid, page 246)

Within a matter of a few weeks, from December into January 1831, as well as proceedings in the ordinary courts of the assizes, six Special Commissions had reduced the Swing Revolt to a set of criminal statistics. Upwards of 2,000 people were charged: 250 of them were condemned to death (of whom 19 were actually executed), 500 were transported, and 600 imprisoned.
Oddly, though the main characteristic of the insurrection throughout the country was fire, and the Special Commissions dealt with a majority of cases arising from it in its southern heartland, they did not deal with a single case of arson. Eleven such cases were tried at the assizes, leading to eight convictions and six executions. One of those convicted but not executed was a “half-witted” 14 year old boy. The other was 18 year old Thomas Goodman who, having been sentenced to death for the burning of Henry Atherton’s barn on December 2nd., was persuaded to claim that he was incited by hearing Cobbett speak in Battle on October 16th. After this, Goodman was granted a fourteen day stay of execution and his sentence was then commuted to transportation for life.
In October 1830, with the burnings in full swing, Cobbett toured Kent and Sussex, delivering a series of lectures in which he explained the causes and expounded the aims of the revolt. And no doubt he explained in the insurrection’s heartland, what he wrote in the article “Rural War” (pages 20-24 of this magazine), that the “proceedings would have been put an end to long ago, had it not been for the FIRES” (see page 24).
The authorities which had already canvassed among the prisoners in Kent for witnesses against Cobbett took up Goodman’s confession and in January 1831 decided to prosecute him for incitement to “violence and disorder and to the burning and destruction of Corn, Grain, Machines and other property”.
At the trial, which was held in July, Cobbett was acquitted by a hung jury.
Articles from the Political Register and Two-Penny Trash were put into evidence against him, including the two which follow.