E. I. (Edward Irving) Carlyle.

William Cobbett, a study of his life as shown in his writings; online

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A Study of His Life as Shown
in His Writings




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Edinburgh : T. and A. Constaulk, Printers to His Majesty


The object of this work, as has been set forth in the title,
is to portray the life and character of William Cobbett,
with the assistance chiefly of the materials to be found in
his writings. Besides writing several fragmentary auto-
biographies, Cobbett had the habit of illustrating his
disquisitions on politics, on finance, or on agriculture,
with personal references and reminiscences which, col-
lected together, would fill several volumes. These
autobiographical treasures are to be found in all of
his works, though not everywhere in equal abundance.
Moreover, they are usually sudden excursions with little
in the context to indicate their presence to the seeker.
His Political Register, for instance, is particularly rich in
references to his past life, but in order to discover them
it is necessary to examine more than seventy volumes
page by page. As much the same process is necessary
in regard to his other works the task is one of some
magnitude, for Cobbett was probably the most prolific
writer whom England has known, with the exception of

Perhaps the number of Cobbett's writings, in addition
to the ephemeral interest of many of them, is a reason

why they are now so little read. With a view of bringing



some of his less known pieces to the notice of the public,
I have selected passages for quotation which, though
not directly autobiographical, yet seem to illustrate his
political and social opinions, or to afford good examples
of his literary style. But I have endeavoured to avoid
extracts which are recommended only by their beauty of
form and to choose those in preference whose context
is in direct connection with the narrative.

While necessarily basing this study chiefly on Cobbett's
own writings, I have also availed myself of the statements
and opinions of his contemporaries in regard to him.
But to collect these together is a task which would require
many years to perform with any approach to complete-
ness. Not only is the literary output of the first forty
years of the nineteenth century immeasurably greater
than that of any similar preceding period, but it has also
been much less worked over. Thus while its extra-
ordinary volume renders an exhaustive examination
impossible, its unorganised condition makes it very diffi-
cult to proceed on any satisfactory process of selection.
It is certain that much material of importance must still
lie hidden amid the immense mass of contemporary news-
papers, periodicals, and books, which have neither been
analysed nor indexed.

I have, however, always where possible, applied inde-
pendent tests to Cobbett's statements of fact, and in
general I have found them accurate, except where he
has meant to mislead. Almost all his writings wm
intended for immediate publication, and were composed


with the knowledge that they would be jealously scrutinised
by his political antagonists. If he made a serious mis-
statement, he was liable to be confuted at once and to
incur corresponding discredit. In two or three instances
where he has undoubtedly made false assertions, he made
them either under the influence of strong feeling or
because he believed that the actual facts could not become
known. In general his statements in regard to occur-
rences or events may be relied on. Where facts seemed
to discredit him, he took refuge in silence or in vehement
utterance on a different topic.

Only two serious biographies of Cobbett are in
existence. The first was published in two large volumes
in 1836 immediately after his death. Its author, Robert
Huish, at one time held a commission in the army and
afterwards made his living by the compilation of books.
In the same year in which his Memoirs of Cobbett appeared
he published lives of Henry Hunt and O'Connell, so that
his rate of writing must have been prodigious. Although
a strong opponent of the Tory party he had also a great
dislike to Cobbett, and he iost no opportunity of present-
ing him at a disadvantage. The chief value of his work
indeed consists in the collection of hostile passages
concerning Cobbett which he made from contemporary
publications. In most respects it is worthless, filled
with ridiculous blunders and void of any particulars
concerning some of the most important passages in
Cobbett's life.

The other biography of Cobbett is entirely different in


character : it is that published in 1878 by Mr. Edward
Smith. Mr. Smith had a profound admiration for
Cobbett and a great knowledge of the literature that
grew up around his hero. He has devoted considerable
attention to ascertaining the particulars of Cobbett's
biography. To any one interested in Cobbett's career
his work must always be valuable.

In conclusion I should like to say that I am very
much indebted to Mr. Thomas Seccombe for his advice
and assistance, and that I shall always be grateful to
him for the interest he has taken. I have also to thank
Mr. Sidney Lee and the Rev. R. C. Gillie, of Eastbourne,
for calling my attention to references to Cobbett which
otherwise I might have overlooked.






III. COBBETT THE TORY, . . . . -75









APPENDICES, ....... 303

INDEX, ........ 309




[ The first eight of these are by Gillray, and the remainder by ' H. B. ' (John Doyle)]

i. An apocryphal incident in Cobbett's childhood. The
representation of the Jolly Farmer is as imaginary as
the rest of the picture, .... to face page 6

2. Cobbett as a recruit. His perversity is indicated by his

being out of step, while the gallows indicates the fate

he has escaped, to face page 17

3. Cobbett instructing his officers in the new system of

drill, ........ to face page 21

4. Cobbett and Bestland copying the regimental accounts,

to face page 28

5. Cobbett making his charges against his officers to the

Judge-Advocate. The shadow behind him represents
his soul, which he is imperilling by his perjury,

to face page 30

6. Cobbett flees to France from the Court Martial, ,, 32

7. Cobbett at Botley. Among the seated figures are Maseres

and Major Cartwright. Lord Cochrane is standing
with his back turned, while Sir Francis Burdett is
waving a cap of liberty on the left. The figure on the
floor is Colonel Wardle, .... to face page 119

8. An anticipation of Cobbett's final destruction, published in

1809, when his trial for libel was pending, to face page 160



g. Cobbett is being urged by Lord Althorp (on his right)
and Sir Robert Peel (on his left) to fulfil his promise
to allow himself to be basted, while Spring Rice holds
the gridiron, to face page 178

10. Cobbett approaching Burdett hat in hand, . „ 213

11. Cobbett seated on the front bench in the House of

Commons. Next to him is Lord Althorp. The other
seated figure is Sir Robert Peel, while Sir F. Burdett
is standing behind, . . . . . to face page 282

12. The Nursery. The Whig Chancellor of the Exchequer,

Lord Althorp, threatening to retire if not supported
on the Budget by the Radicals. The nurse is Lord
Althorp. The other figures from right to left are
Cobbett, Stephen Lushington, Sir F. Burdett, and
Sir John Hobhouse, to face page 290



cobbett's early life

The parish of Farnham, Cobbett's birthplace, is situated
in the extreme west of Surrey, within a short distance of
the Hampshire border. The chalk ridges of the North
Downs, running east and west, cut Surrey in two and
extend far into Hampshire. In western Surrey they
consist for the most part of a succession of rolling downs,
covered with short turf or with heather or gorse and
sparsely dotted with pine-trees, while the line of high
ground is broken in two places by the streams of the
Wey and the Mole. Farnham lies in the valley of the
Wey, and Guildford to the eastward in that of the Mole,
with the ridge of the Hog's Back running between them.
The district of Farnham, both in Cobbett's time and
now, is chiefly devoted to the cultivation of hops, and to
him it seemed the 'neatest' spot in England, and perhaps
in the whole world. He loved to dwell on its well-
ordered appearance, on its lines of close-clipped hedges
extending in every direction and becoming fainter to the
eye as they receded in the distance, and on the thousand
indications of rustic prosperity which the neighbourhood
afforded. Three miles east of Farnham rises Crookes-
bury Hill, a pine-clad height, which forms the most



conspicuous landmark in that direction, and half-way
between the hill and the town is Moor Park, the last
retreat of Sir William Temple, famous as the abode of
Swift and Stella. Overhanging the town to the north-
west is Hungry Hill, close under which runs the London
road. At the present day Farnham is a scene of bustle
and activity owing to the nearness of the military camp
at Aldershot. It has far outgrown its former limits and
has extended itself eastward across the Wey. In
Cobbett's time, however, the town only reached the
western border of that stream, although there were a few
isolated buildings on the other bank. It was then a
peculiarly retired country town with a long main street,
overlooked on the north by Farnham Castle, a favourite
residence of the Bishops of Winchester. Among the few
houses existing at that time on the other side of the Wey
was that in which Cobbett was born. It was an inn
called the 'Jolly Farmer,' and still stands unaltered, facing
a bridge over the stream at a point where a lane from
Weydon Mill runs into Abbey Street. It is a long low
building with pretty casement windows, and a big
plastered gable showing towards the road. Though now
part of a long street running parallel with the river, it
then stood alone, forming an outpost of the town in the
south-eastern side towards Millbridge and Frensham.
In this house Cobbett spent the first twenty years of
his life.

The story of Cobbett's earlier years is only preserved
in his own writings, chiefly in a fragment of autobio-
graphy, published at Philadelphia in 1796, under the
title of The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine. The
motto prefixed to this pamphlet, 'Now, you lying varlets,


you shall see how a plain tale will put you down,' is
an incorrect quotation from Shakespeare's Henry IV.
While its inaccuracy shows haste, its purport indicates
that the book was written in the heat of controversy.
In composing this autobiographical fragment Cobbett
had two objects in view — first, to justify his Tory
principles to the Americans by showing that they were
not aristocratic prejudices acquired by birth and edu-
cation, and secondly, to indicate delicately that though
he had the misfortune to differ from many of his
neighbours on political questions, yet as a self-taught,
self-made man, he was really akin to the majority of
Americans in the disposition of his mind.

'To be descended from an illustrious family,' he observes,
'certainly reflects honour on any man, in spite of the sans-
culotte principles of the present day. This is however an
honour that I have no pretension to. All that I can boast of
in my birth, is, that I was born in England ; the country from
whence came the men who explored and settled North America ;
the country of Penn, and of the father and mother of George

He goes on to say that his grandfather, George
Cobbett, was a day-labourer in the neighbourhood of

' I have heard my father say, that he worked for one farmer
from the day of his marriage to that of his death, upwards of
forty years. He died before I was born, 1 but I have often
slept beneath the same roof that had sheltered him, and where
his widow dwelt for several years after his death. It was a
little thatched cottage with a garden before the door. It had
but two windows ; a damson-tree shaded one, and a clump of
filberts the other. Here I and my brothers went every

1 George Cobbett died on 13th December 1760, at the age of fifty-nine.


Christmas and Whitsuntide to spend a week or two, and
torment the poor old woman with our noise and dilapidations.
She used to give us milk and bread for breakfast, an apple-
pudding for our dinner, and a piece of bread and cheese for
supper. Her fire was made of turf, cut from the neighbouring
heath, and her evening light was a rush dipped in grease.'

Cobbett's father, George Cobbett, was a farmer and
also landlord of the 'Jolly Farmer.'

' The reader will easily believe, from the poverty of his
parents, that he had received no very brilliant education ; he
was, however, learned, for a man in his rank of life. When a
little boy, he drove plough for twopence a day ; and these his
earnings were appropriated to the expenses of an evening
school. What a village schoolmaster could be expected to teach,
he had learnt ; and had, besides, considerably improved himself
in several branches of mathematics ; he understood land-
surveying well, and was often chosen to draw the plans of a
disputed territory : in short, he had the reputation of possessing
experience and understanding, which never fails in England, to
give a man in a country place, some little weight with his neigh-
bours. He was honest, industrious, and frugal ; it was not there-
fore wonderful, that he should be situated in a good farm, and
happy in a wife of his own rank, like him, beloved and respected.'

On 1 2th October 1759 George Cobbett married Ann
Vincent, of whom her son William always spoke with
tenderness. She was unable to write, for her mark may
still be seen in the Farnham marriage register. William
was born in his father's house on 9th March. The year
of his birth is not quite certain. He himself has said
that it was 1766, but this is impossible, for he was
baptized on 1st April 1763. At the time of his death
his son, John M. Cobbett, had an extract made from
the Farnham register which he thought fixed his father's
birth in 1762. But an examination of the register shows


that John M. Cobbett quoted it incorrectly, and that
though the date 9th March 1762 is not impossible, it is
more probable that Cobbett was born on 9th March 1763. 1
Cobbett was the third of four sons, George, Thomas,
William, and Anthony. Of his brothers the eldest
became a shopkeeper, the second a farmer, and the
youngest entered the service of the East India Com-
pany as a private soldier. He himself began work at
an early age.

' I do not remember the time when I did not earn my living.
My first occupation was, driving the small birds from the turnip-
seed, 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 ! ' 2

In his English Gardener he says that Waverley Abbey,
an estate some two miles south-east of Farnham, was a
haunt of his childhood. It belonged to Sir Robert Rich,
a lieutenant-general, who had been severely wounded at
Culloden. The Abbey, which had been the earliest
foundation of the Cistercians in England, had a beautiful
kitchen-garden —

'The spot,' says Cobbett, 'where I first began to learn to
work, or, rather, where I first began to eat fine fruit in a gard«. n ;

1 For date of Cobbett's birth see Appendix A.
- Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine.


and, though I have now seen and observed upon as many fine
gardens as any man in England, I have never seen a garden
equal to that of Waverley. Ten families, large as they might be,
including troops of servants (who are no churls in this way), could
not have consumed the fruit produced in that garden. The
peaches, nectarines, apricots, fine plums, never failed ; and if the
workmen had not lent a hand, a fourth part of the produce
never could have been got rid of.'

Cobbett's early education was slender.

' I have some faint recollection of going to school to an old
woman, who, I believe, did not succeed in learning me my
letters. In the winter evenings my father learnt us all to read
and write, and gave us a pretty tolerable knowledge of arith-
metic. Grammar he did not perfectly understand himself, and
therefore his endeavours to learn us that necessarily failed ; for
though he thought he understood it, and though he made us get
the rules by heart, we learnt nothing at all of the principles.' 1

Slight though this education was, it was sufficient to
enable him to gratify that love of literature which was a
notable feature of his earlier years. Many years later he
narrated how he first became acquainted with Swift, an
author who afterwards strongly influenced the form and
style of his own writings.

'At eleven years of age 2 my employment was clipping of box-
edgings and weeding beds of flowers in the garden of the Bishop
of Winchester, 3 at the Castle of Farnham, my native town. I
had always been fond of beautiful gardens ; and, a gardener, who
had just come from the King's gardens at Kew, gave such a
description of them as made me instantly resolve to work in

1 Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine.

2 Cobbett was probably older when this incident occurred. He goes on to
say that he entered the army at sixteen, fixing the year of his birth erroneously
at 1766.

15 John Thomas. He had two contemporaries of the same name, at
Salisbury and Rochester.

An apocryphal incident in Cobbett's childhood


those gardens. The next morning, without saying a word to
any one, off I set, with no clothes except those upon my back,
and with thirteen half-pence in my pocket. I found that I must
go to Richmond, and I accordingly went on, from place to
place, inquiring my way thither. A long day (it was in June)
brought me to Richmond in the afternoon. Two penny-worth
of bread and cheese and a penny-worth of small beer, which
I had on the road, and one half-penny that I had lost somehow
or other, left three pence in my pocket. With this for my whole
fortune, I was trudging through Richmond, in my blue smock-
frock and my red garters tied under my knees, when, staring
about me, my eye fell upon a little book in a bookseller's
window, on the outside of which was written : "Tale of a Tub ;
price 3d." The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited.
I had the three pence, but, then, I could have no supper. In
I went, and got the little book, which I was so impatient to
read, that I got over into a field at the upper corner of Kew
Gardens, where there stood a haystack. On the shady side of
this, I sat down to read. The book was so different from any-
thing that I had ever read before : it was something so new to
my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it,
it delighted me beyond description ; and it produced what I
have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on
till it was dark, without any thought about supper or bed. When
I could see no longer, I put my little book in my pocket, and
tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the
birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning 5 when off
I started to Kew, reading my little book. The singularity of my
dress, the simplicity of my manner, my confident and lively
air, and, doubtless, his own compassion besides, induced the
gardener, who was a Scotsman, I remember, to give me victuals,
find me lodging, and set me to work. And it was during the
period that I was at Kew that the present king l and two of his
brothers laughed at the oddness of my dress, while I was
sweeping the grass plat round the foot of the Pagoda. The
gardener, seeing me fond of books, lent me some gardening
books to read ; but these I could not relish after my Tale of a

1 George IV.


Tub, which I carried about with me wherever I went, and when
I, at about twenty years old, lost it in a box that fell overboard
in the Bay of Fundy in North America, the loss gave me
greater pain than I have ever felt at losing thousands of
pounds.' 1

While the perusal of Swift's satire was the beginning
of Cobbett's delight in literature, his interest in politics,
which absorbed so much of his life, was first awakened
by the American War of Independence.

' As to politics,' he says, ' we were like the rest of the country
people in England ; that is to say, we neither knew or thought
anything of the matter. The shouts of victory, or the murmurs
at a defeat, would now and then break in upon our tranquillity
for a moment; but I do not remember ever having seen a news-
paper in the house. . . . After, however, the American war
had continued for some time, and the cause and nature of it
began to be understood, or rather misunderstood, by the lower
classes of the people in England, we became a little better
acquainted with subjects of this kind. . . . My father was a
partizan of the Americans : he used frequently to dispute on the
subject with the gardener of a nobleman who lived near us.
This was generally done with good humour over a pot of our
best ale ; yet the disputants sometimes grew warm, and gave way
to language that could not fail to attract our attention. My
father was worsted no doubt, as he had for antagonist a shrewd
and sensible old Scotchman, far his superior in political know-
ledge ; but he pleaded before a partial audience : we thought
there was but one wise man in the world, and that that one was
our father. He who pleaded the cause of the Americans had an
advantage, too, with young minds : he had only to represent the
king's troops as sent to cut the throats of a people, our friends
and relations, merely because they would not submit to oppres-
sion ; and his cause was gained. Speaking to the passions is
ever sure to succeed on the uninformed.

' Men of integrity are generally pretty obstinate in adhering to

1 Cobbett's Evening Post, 5th February 1820.


an opinion once adopted. Whether it was owing to this, or to the
weakness of Mr. Martin's arguments, I will not pretend to say ;
but he never could make a convert of my father : he continued
an American, and so staunch a one, that he would not have
suffered his best friend to drink success to the King's arms at
his table. I cannot give the reader a better idea of his obstinacy
in this respect, and of the length to which this difference in
sentiment was carried in England, than by relating the following

' My father used to take one of us with him every year to the
great hop-fair at Wey-hill. The fair was held at Old Michaelmas-
tide, and the journey was, to us, a sort of reward for the labours
of the summer. It happened to be my turn to go thither, the
very year that Long Island was taken by the British. 1 A great
company of hop-merchants and farmers were just sitting down
to supper as the post arrived, bringing in the Extraordinary
Gazette, which announced the victory. A hop-factor from
London took the paper, placed his chair upon the table, and
began to read with an audible voice. He was opposed, a
dispute ensued, and my father retired, taking me by the hand,
to another apartment where we supped with about a dozen
others of the same sentiments. Here Washington's health, and

Online LibraryE. I. (Edward Irving) CarlyleWilliam Cobbett, a study of his life as shown in his writings; → online text (page 1 of 26)