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Problems Problems
From: Problems: Articles
Date: July, 2011
By: Joe Keenan

Introduction To The 1831 Trial Of William Cobbett

The fires of "Rural War" raged in England from the end of 1830 into 1831. William Cobbett's weekly Political Register and his monthly Two-penny Trash had stoked those fires and he can hardly have been surprised when elements of the Parliamentary oligarchy called for his head.

In October 1830, Cobbett toured the epicentre of the Swing Revolt, Kent and Sussex, delivering a series of lectures in which he explained the causes and expounded the aims of the burnings, wreckings and expropriations. On 16th. October he spoke in Battle.

Very shortly after it was delivered, Cobbett's speech in Battle was characterised by the Earl of Ashburnham in a letter to Kent's Lord Lieutenant Camden as

"…there never was such rank treason utter'd in any country, or at any age…he reprobated the labouring class in Sussex for not shewing the example set them…in Kent, where their fellow sufferers were asserting their rights by destroying the property of those who tyrannized over them". (quoted Roger Wells, Mr William Cobbett, Captain Swing, and King William IV, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (1997))


Early in November Ashburnham's report had reached Robert Peel who was then Home Secretary (until Wellington's Tory Government resigned on 16 November and he was succeeded by the Whig, Lord Melbourne).

On the 16th. December, 1830 and then again on 23rd. December, Arthur Hill-Trevor, MP for New Romney (he was a family connection of the Downshires and this was an Irish constituency) raised the matter of "a person called Cobbett" in connection with an article in the Political Register of December 11, entitled "Rural War," in which the following passage occurred:—

"But without entering at present into the motives of the working people, it is unquestionable that their acts have produced good, and great good too. They have been always told, and they are told now, and by the very parson X I have quoted above, that their acts of violence, and particularly the burnings, can do them no good, but add to their wants, by destroying the food that they would have to eat. Alas! they know better: they know that one thrashing-machine takes wages from ten men; and they also know that they should have none of this food; and that potatoes and salt do not burn! Therefore this argument is not worth a straw. Besides, they see and feel that the good comes, and comes instantly too. They see that they do get some bread, in consequence of the destruction of part of the corn; and while they see this, you attempt in vain to persuade them that what they have done is wrong. And as to one effect, that of making the parsons reduce their tithes, it is hailed as a good by ninety-nine hundredths even of men of considerable property; while there is not a single man in the country who does not clearly trace the reduction to the acts of the labourers, and especially to the fires; for it is to the terror of these, and not the bodily force, that has prevailed."


Thinking Cobbett's article to be inflammatory Trevor declared:

"…it was the duty of the House, if it was not within the immediate province of the law-officers of the Crown, to adopt some measures with regard to it; and at all events to record their sense of the mischief it must produce." (quoted in The Life & Letters of William Cobbett In England & America, Lewis Melville, London 1913, Vol. 2, page 229.)


The Government business manager Lord Althorp persuaded Trevor to withdraw his motion. Then the Government itself took up the matter.

The King too was concerned that Cobbett should be brought to book.

George IV had died on 26 June 1830 and was succeeded by his brother, the Duke of Clarence, as King William IV.

William, the Sailor King, took a general interest in the "licentious and unrestricted press" and a particular interest in Cobbett and the Political Register. On Christmas Day the king's private secretary wrote to the Duke of Wellington that:

"Proceedings at Lewes have been of the same Character and one of the Incendiaries has confessed that he had been incited to the mischief by Cobbett's Publications and Lectures." (quoted in Roger Wells, op. cit.)


This was Thomas Goodman, whose first confession implicating Cobbett was procured by Curate Rush of Crowhurst on 23 December, the same day that Hill-Trevor spoke to his motion against Cobbett in the House of Commons.

On 30 December, three magistrates, Walter Burrell, Henry Tredcroft and Francis Scawen Blunt (perhaps some relation of the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who was born in Sussex in 1840?) visited Goodman in Horsham Jail, where he was scheduled to be hanged on New Year's Day. They obtained a second more detailed confession. A third confession, even more detailed again, was later published by The Times.

Thomas Sanctuary, the High Sheriff of Sussex, presented the second confession to King William at Brighton Pavilion on New Year's Eve. That same day the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne "formally and hurriedly transmitted the king's commands granting Goodman a fourteen-day stay of execution; within days it was commuted to transportation for life" (quoted in Roger Wells, op. cit.).

Goodman's confession(s) was inadmissable as evidence and his continued presence in England raised a danger that he would be subjected to unfriendly questioning, so, his work having been done, his usefulness being over, he was shipped abroad post-haste.

Later that January the king told the Duke of Wellington that:

"Ministers had carried too far their pardons to the rioters. He took great blame to himself for having been led to propose the pardoning of Goodman. Some Sussex gentlemen had got round him & there was a hope he would have given some evidence against Cobbett." (quoted in Roger Wells, op. cit.)

However much the king blamed himself for getting between the hangman's noose and Thomas Goodman, he cannot have been too upset about the immediate consequence for Cobbett. A link having been established in the press between Cobbett's lecture tour of the areas in which the fires were raging and the fires themselves, the Whig Government moved against him.

On 18th. February 1831, an indictment for publishing a seditious libel was found against him at the Old Bailey. Six days later his son John wrote to William Palmer:

"Your very kind letter of the 14th reached us but a few days, you see, before the vile wretches of Whigs had openly avowed their hostile intentions in the shape of a bill of indictment. However, we are all firm, and indignation is the main feeling of us all—women as well as men. The Government certainly wished my father to go abroad; but not friend of his, I am sure, would advise it. We are all decidedly for a hard fight, without the semblance of flinching or compromise; and my father, I am glad to say, is determined. I believe the trial will come on in May. It may be before; but we have great hopes in the City of London Special Juries. They are very different to the others…" (quoted in Melville, op. cit. vol. 2, page 230).


The trial took place of 7th., July 1831, before Lord Chief Justice Tenterden and a special jury. Cobbett was prosecuted by the Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Denman. He defended himself, advised by his solicitor, Edward Faithfull.

Cobbett knew very well what to expect at such a trial. This was his eighth trial for libel. Twenty years earlier, also defending himself, though very weakly, he had been found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. His son's statement to William Palmer, that the Government wished his father to flee abroad, was not altogether correct. The Government certainly expected his father to flee, which, given Cobbett's experience of trial, loss and imprisonment in 1810, was scarcely unrealistic.

In March 1792, after eight years service in the British army, which saw him rise to the rank of Sergeant-Major, Cobbett found he had to flee to America. At the end of his military service he provided evidence which led to a court-martial case against the corrupt officers of his regiment. When he understood that the corruption was not an isolated matter, confined to his regiment, but was army-wide, and both endemic and lucrative he reconsidered his action, refused to give evidence in court and fled to America, where he remained for eight years. That was perhaps the last public thing he ever did by way of prudence.

Returning to England in 1800, he began he began to write and publish his Poltiical Register in January 1802. Initially this paper was an anti-Jacobin propaganda organ for Pitt's Government, but within a couple of years it went into opposition. Government lawyers then read it carefully for anything they could proceed against.

On 4th., February 1809, Cobbett wrote, in a reply in the Register to a charge that he had libelled the Duke of York

"Upon one thing I am resolved, be the consequences to myself what they may, and that is, to continue to exercise the freedom of writing and speaking, as my forefathers were wont to exercise it, as long as I have my senses, and the power of doing either one or the other" (quoted in William Cobbett, A Study of His Life as Shown in His Writings by E. I. Carlyle, London 1904, page 144).


Bold words which were very quickly put to the test. A few months later some militia-men mutinied at Ely, over being made to pay for their knapsacks. The mutiny was quickly put down and five ringleaders were court-martialled and sentenced to be very viciously flogged. The sentence was bad enough, but worse in Cobbett's eyes was the way in which it was executed, by German mercenaries. In the Register Cobbett wrote…

"Flog them; flog them; flog them! They deserve it, and a great deal more. They deserve a flogging at every meal time. 'Lash them daily, lash them duly.' What, shall the rascals dare to mutiny, and that, too, when the German Legion is so near at hand! Lash them, lash them, lash them! They deserve it. O, yes; they merit a double-tailed cat. Base dogs! What, mutiny for the sake of the price of a knapsack! Lash them! Flog them! Base rascals! Mutiny for the price of a goat's skin; and, then, upon the appearance of the German soldiers, they take a flogging as quietly as so many trunks of trees!—I do not know what sort of a place Ely is; but I really would like to know how the inhabitants looked one another in the face, while this scene was exhibiting in their town. I should like to have been able to see their faces, and to hear their observations to each other at the time. This occurrence at home will, one would hope, teach the loyal a little caution in speaking of the means which Napoleon employs (or, rather, which they say he employs), in order to get together and to discipline his conscripts…" (Political Register, 1st., July 1809, quoted ibid, page 147).


The Ministry was quick to prepare its retaliation, and Cobbett had no illusions about what was in store for him. Later that month he wrote to his friend John Wright, a Piccadilly bookseller who acted as his London assistant…

"I have a most serious business to impart to you, and that is, that I hear from Mr. White [Cobbett's solicitor], that the hell-fire miscreants are about to prosecute me for the article about the flogging of the local militia…It is quite useless to fret and stew about this.—I must meet it.—They may, probably, confine me for two years, but, that does not kill a man, and may, besides, produce even good effects, in more ways than one" (Cobbett to Wright, 22nd., July 1809, quoted ibid. page 148).


It took one year for the case to come to trial, in the Court of King's Bench, before the notorious Lord Chief-Justice, Lord Ellenborough, on 15th., June 1810. It did not go well for Cobbett who defended himself very ineptly.

The radical London tailor, Francis Place, who has to be credited with at least the organised aspect of the organised working class which developed in England in the first part of the 19th. century, did not think very highly of Cobbett. He regularly spoke of him as an "impudent mountebank" and an "unprincipled cowardly bully". He may not be regarded as an unbiased witness, but his account of Cobbett's handling of this trial simply confirms everything else I have read concerning it. This is the Fabian Graham Wallas's statement of the matter in his biography of Place:

"Place first met Cobbett after the Westminster election of 1807, and the two remained pretty good friends for some years. In January 1810 Cobbett was prosecuted for an article in the Register against flogging in the army, and Place helped with the preparation of his defence. He describes how, when they met at the Crown Office to arrange for the picking of the jury, Cobbett 'sprung from his chair, threw his hands above his head, and paced the room damning and blasting the Attorney-General.' At the trial 'he made a long defence, a bad defence, and his delivery of it and his demeanour were even worse than his matter. He was not at all master of himself, and in some parts where he meant to produce great effect he produced laughter. So ludicrous was he in one part that the jury, the judge, and the audience all laughed at him. I was thoroughly ashamed of him, and ashamed of myself for being seen with him…I never saw Cobbett but once after his trial. He called on me in a few days, but I was unable to congratulate him on any part of his conduct. I never spoke to him afterwards.' ('Autobiography')" (Graham Wallas, The Life of Francis Place, New York 1919, footnote, page 117).


The Lord Chief-Justice summed up, saying…

"In cases like the present, the law requires me to state my opinion to the jury, and where I have held a different opinion to that which I have of the present case, I have not withheld it from the jury. I do pronounce this to be a most infamous and seditious libel." (quoted in Carlyle, op. cit. page 155)


The jury did not have to retire, taking only five minutes to find Cobbett guilty. Three weeks then intervened between the verdict and the sentence, a period in which Cobbett tried to negotiate his way out of jail, but the Government would have none of that. On 9th. July he was sentenced to two years imprisonment, with a fine of £1000. He was required upon release to give bail of £3000, with two sureties of £1000 each, for his keeping the peace for seven years.

He later wrote:

"The Borough-mongers had me shut up in Newgate…They thought that this horrible punishment, which was inflicted only because they dreaded my pen, but, professedly because I had expressed my indignation at the flogging of English Local Militia Men, in the heart of England, under the force of Hanoverian bayonets and sabres; they thought, that this savage sentence would break my heart, or, at least, silence me for ever. It was, indeed, a bloody stab. They thought they had got rid of me. Just after the verdict of guilty was found, Perceval met his brother-in-law Redesdale at the portal of Westminster Hall. They shook hands and gave each other joy! Chucklehead but crafty Curtis met Tierney in the Hall. 'Ah, a, ah! We have got him at last,' said Curtis. 'Poor Cobbett! Let him be bold now!' The old place-hunter answered: 'Damn him! I hope they'll squeeze him!' They did squeeze indeed; but their claws, hard as they were, did not squeeze hard enough.' (Political Register, 22nd. August 1818, quoted in Carlyle, ibid. pp. 159 - 160).


[Sir William Curtis was an army contractor who had been Lord Mayor of London in 1795-96. Spencer Perceval was Prime Minister of the Parliamentary Party of the friends of Mr. Pitt; he was assassinated in 1812.]

And so, twenty years later, Cobbett was prepared to risk at least as severe a penalty, rather than forego his advocacy of the interests of the English working class.

The Whigs expected him to run, but, far from that, he stood firm and made the charge against him ridiculous.

The convenient absence of the closest thing to a witness against him, the convicted five-time arsonist, Goodman, told against the prosecution; as did the refutation of Goodman's accounts of Cobbett's Battle lecture by a declaration of 103 people who had attended it, including the farmer whose barn Goodman had been convicted of burning.

Most telling of all was the story that emerged of the involvement of the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, and the trial prosecutor, the Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Denman with Cobbett himself, in the aftermath of his having published the allegedly libellous article.

Henry Brougham was from the heart of the Whig Party. He was one of the founders, and a frequent contributor to, the Edinburgh Review. In 1825, when Wellington famously told Harriette Wilson to "publish and be damned", Brougham paid up. When Wellington's Tory government fell in 1830, the Whigs under Lord Grey offered him first the post of Attorney-General and then, when he refused that, the great office of state, the Lord Chancellorship (which raised him to the House of Lords, as Baron Brougham and Vaux). He was a fervent abolitionist (of slavery). In 1825, he was one of the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The Attorney-General of 1831, Sir Thomas Denman, was a fellow member of that society.

And so, while Cobbett was waiting to hear whether he would be prosecuted for inciting labourers to sedition, the Lord Chancellor had the Secretary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge write to Cobbett's son asking if it might republish his father's Letter to the Luddites of 1816 as a means of calming the very sedition he was charged with inciting.

The point at which Cobbett called the Lord Chancellor to testify, and Henry Brougham testified that he had asked for Cobbett's assistance in calming the Swing disturbances and Cobbett had agreed to his request, the trial effectively collapsed.

The diarist of the high aristocracy, Charles Greville, wrote:

"They have made a fine business of Cobbett's trial; his insolence and violence were past endurance, but he made an able speech…The Chief Justice was very timid, and favoured and complimented him throughout; very unlike what Ellenborough would have done. The jury were shut up the whole night, and in the morning the Chief Justice, without consulting either party, discharged them, which was probably on the whole the best thing that could be done. Denman told me that he expected they would have acquitted him without leaving the box, and this principally on Brougham's evidence, for Cobbett brought the Chancellor forward and made him prove that after these very writings, and while this prosecution was hanging over him, Brougham wrote to his son, 'Dear Sir,' and requesting that he would ask his father for some former publications of his, which he thought would be of great use on the present occasion in quieting the labourers. This made a great impression, and the Attorney-General never knew one word of the letter till he heard it in evidence, the Chancellor having flourished it off, as is his custom, and then quite forgotten it. The Attorney told me that Gurney overheard one juryman say to another, 'Don't you think we had better stop the case? It is useless to go on.' The other, however, declared for hearing it out, so on the whole it ended as well as it might, just better than an acquittal, and that is all."


In fact, the jury sent the Chief Justice this note:

“The jury in this cause, after mature consideration, cannot agree to a verdict, six being of one opinion, and six of another, they, therefore, respectfully solicit the court to grant their discharge.”


And that was that.