Ch 11 The Industrial Revolution


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WILLIAM Cobbett was a man of many parts - soldier, orator, mathematician and language student before he turned his mind to radical politics.

Born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1763, the son of an innkeeper and small-time farmer, he worked as a farm labourer before jumping aboard a passing stagecoach one day and heading for London. There, he worked as an office clerk before enlisting at the age of 19 into the 54th Regiment of Foot.

By the following year he was a sergeant major serving in New Brunswick. He had already taught himself to read and write, and now began a systematic campaign to improve himself - logic, rhetoric, geometry and military fortifications were the subjects he studied and mastered.

He showed such promise that he was put in charge of the regimental accounts, but it wasn't long before he uncovered widespread corruption.

After buying his discharge in 1791 and returning to England, he brought corruption charges against several officers, but the military closed ranks and when allegations were made against him, he was forced to flee to revolutionary France.

He spent a year studying the French language before sailing for Philadelphia in 1792. There, he wrote scathingly against American democracy, publishing a newspaper called Porcupine's Gazette, and using its columns to blast the pro-French Revolution ideals of Rights of Man author Tom Paine and English chemist and religious writer Joseph Priestley, who had moved from Birmingham to Pennsylvania in 1794.

But he pushed things too far and was ruined financially when heavy libel damages were awarded against him.

Cobbett returned to England in 1800 and two years later launched his Political Register, which had at first a distinct Tory slant. By 1804, however, he had changed its politics to out-and-out radicalism and it continued in that vein until his death in 1835.

When newspaper tax threatened to kill off the publication, he turned it into a pamphlet, avoiding the tax, selling it for two

 pence a copy and reaching a readership of 40,000, making it the leading voice of the working classes.

His army experiences still rankled, and he went to prison for two years in 1810 for seditious libel, after castigating the military policy of flogging. Six hundred friends and acquaintances marked his release with a celebration dinner.

Money problems and fear of another gaol term sent him back across the Atlantic in 1817. He farmed in Long Island for a while before chancing a return to Britain in 1819 and standing unsuccessfully for parliament in 1821 and 1826. In 1832, after the first Reform Bill, he was elected MP for Oldham.

Cobbett was seen more as a champion of the farm labourer rather than the industrial working man, and his interests were demonstrated not just in his attempts to introduce maize as a crop into Britain, and his antagonism towards the Government's promotion of widespread potato growing, but also in his support of farm labourers in thje 'Captain Swing' Riots of 1830.

For this, he was tried for sedition, but acquitted.

Cobbett had founded the journal Parliamentary Debate in 1802, and he eventually sold it out to Luke Hansard, whose name it carries to this day.

Cobbett's book Rural Rides, an account of his travels around Britain on horseback, published in 1830, is an invaluable record of town and country life in the early 19th century.

When he died on his farm at Farnham, Surrey, of influenza in 1835, a reported 8,000 people attended his funeral

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