William Cobbett

William Cobbett
William Cobbett

William Cobbett, portrait in oils, possibly by George Cooke, about 1831. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Born 9 March 1763(1763-03-09)
Farnham, Surrey, England
Died 18 June 1835(1835-06-18) (aged 72)
Normandy, Surrey, England
Occupation Pamphleteer, journalist
Notable work(s) Rural Rides

William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament and abolishing the rotten boroughs would help to end the poverty of farm labourers, and he attacked the borough-mongers, sinecurists and "tax-eaters" relentlessly. He was also against the Corn Laws, a tax on imported grain. Early in his career, he was a loyalist supporter of King and Country: but later he joined and successfully publicised the radical movement, which led to the Reform Bill of 1832, and to his winning the parliamentary seat of Oldham. Although he was not a Catholic, he became a fiery advocate of Catholic Emancipation in Britain. Through the seeming contradictions in Cobbett's life, two things stayed constant: an opposition to authority and a suspicion of novelty. He wrote many polemics, on subjects from political reform to religion, but is best known for his book from 1830, Rural Rides, which is still in print today.


Early life and military career: 1763–1791

William Cobbett's birthplace

William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9 March 1763, the third son of George Cobbett (a farmer and publican) and Anne Vincent.[1] He was taught to read and write by his father, and first worked as a farm labourer.

Cartoon of Cobbett enlisting in the army. From the Political Register of 1809. Artist James Gillray.

On 6 May 1783, on an impulse he took the stagecoach to London and spent eight or nine months as a clerk in the employ of a Mr Holland at Gray's Inn. He joined the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot in 1783 and made good use of the soldier's copious spare time to educate himself, particularly in English grammar.[1] Between 1785 and 1791 Cobbett was stationed with his regiment in New Brunswick and he sailed from Gravesend to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cobbett was in Saint John, Fredericton and elsewhere in the province until September 1791, rising through the ranks to become Sergeant Major, the most senior rank of NCO.

He returned to England with his regiment, landing at Portsmouth 3 November 1791, and obtained discharge from the army on 19 December 1791. In Woolwich in February of 1792, he married Anne Reid, whom he had met while stationed at Fort Howe in Saint John. He had courted her by Jenny's Spring near Fort Howe.[2][3]

France and the United States: 1792–1800

Cobbett had developed an animosity towards some corrupt officers, and he gathered evidence on the issue while in New Brunswick, but his charges against them were sidetracked. He wrote The Soldier's Friend (1792) protesting against the low pay and harsh treatment of enlisted men in the British army.[1] Sensing that he was about to be indicted in retribution he fled to France in March 1792 to avoid imprisonment. Cobbett had intended to stay a year to learn the French language but he found the French Revolution in full swing and the French Revolutionary Wars in progress, so he sailed for the United States in September 1792.

He was first at Wilmington, then Philadelphia by the Spring of 1793. Cobbett initially prospered by teaching English to Frenchmen and translating texts from French to English. He became a controversial political writer and pamphleteer, writing from a pro-British stance under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine.

A successful lawsuit brought against him by the eminent physician and politician Dr. Benjamin Rush,[4] led to his fleeing to England in 1800 to avoid punishment. He sailed from New York, via Halifax, Nova Scotia to Falmouth in Cornwall.

Political Register

The government of William Pitt the Younger offered Cobbett the editorship of a government newspaper but he declined as he preferred to remain independent.[1] His newspaper The Porcupine bore the motto "Fear God, Honour the King" first started on 30 October 1800 but it was not a success and he sold his interest in it in 1801.[1]

Less than a month later however he started his Political Register, a weekly newspaper that appeared almost every week from January 1802 until 1835, the year of Cobbett's death.[1] Although initially staunchly anti-Jacobin by 1804 Cobbett was questioning the policies of the Pitt government, especially the immense national debt and the profligate use of sinecures that Cobbett believed was ruining the country and increasing class antagonism.[1] By 1807 he supported reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Cartwright.[1]

Cobbett opposed attempts in the House of Commons to bring in Bills against boxing and bull-baiting, writing to William Windham on 2 May 1804 that the Bill "goes to the rearing of puritanism into a system".[5]

Cobbett published the Complete Collection of State Trials in between 1804 and 1812 and amassed accounts of parliamentary debates from 1066 onwards but he sold his shares in this to T. C. Hansard in 1812 due to financial difficulties.[1] This unofficial record of Parliamentary proceedings later became officially known as Hansard.

Cobbett intended to stand for Parliament in Honiton in 1806, but was convinced by Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to let him stand in his stead. Both men campaigned together but were unsuccessful, for they refused to bribe the voters by 'buying' votes; it also encouraged him in his opposition to rotten boroughs and the very urgent need for parliamentary reform.[6]

Prison: 1810–1812

Contemporary engraving of Cobbett in prison, captioned "The Hampshire Hog in the Pound"

Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on 15 June 1810 after objecting in The Register to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment in infamous Newgate Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet Paper against Gold, warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many Essays and Letters. On his release a dinner in London, attended by 600 people, was given in his honour, presided over by Sir Francis Burdett who, like Cobbett, was a strong voice for parliamentary reform.

‘Two-Penny Trash’: 1812–1817

By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached 4d. per copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a daily newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Cobbett was only able to sell just over a thousand copies a week. The following year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000. Critics called it ‘two-penny trash’, a label Cobbett adopted.[1]

Cobbett's journal was the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man and in 1817 he learned that the government was planning to arrest him for sedition.

United States: 1817–1819

Following the passage of the Power of Imprisonment Bill in 1817, and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings, he fled to the United States. On Wednesday 27 March 1817, at Liverpool, he embarked on board the ship Importer, D. Ogden master, bound for New York, accompanied by his two eldest sons, William and John.

For two years, Cobbett lived on a farm in Long Island where he wrote Grammar of the English Language and with the help of William Benbow, a friend in London, continued to publish the Political Register.

Cobbett also closely observed drinking habits in the United States. In 1819, he stated "Americans preserve their gravity and quietness and good-humour even in their drink." He believed it "far better for them to be as noisy and quarrelsome as the English drunkards; for then the odiousness of the vice would be more visible, and the vice itself might become less frequent."[7]

A plan to return to England with the remains of the British radical pamphleteer and revolutionary Thomas Paine (died 1809) for a proper burial led to the ultimate loss of Paine's remains. The plan was to give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died over 20 years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own parts of Paine's remains such as his skull and right hand.

Cobbett arrived back at Liverpool by ship in November 1819.

England: 1819–1835

Cobbett arrived back in England soon after the Peterloo Massacre. He joined with other Radicals in his attacks on the government and three times during the next couple of years was charged with libel.

The introduction of horse-powered threshing machines to farms was one of the principal causes of the Swing Riots

In 1820, he stood for Parliament in Coventry, but finished bottom of the poll.

Cobbett was not content to let newspaper stories come to him, he went out like a modern reporter and dug them up, especially the story that he returned to time and time again in the course of his writings, the plight of the rural Englishman. He took to riding around the country on horseback making observations of what was happening in the towns and villages. Rural Rides, a work for which Cobbett is still known for today, first appeared in serial form in the Political Register running from 1822 to 1826. It was published in book form in 1830.

While not a Catholic,[8] Cobbett at this time also took up the cause of Catholic Emancipation. Between 1824 and 1826, he published his History of the Protestant Reformation, a broadside against the traditional Protestant historical narrative of the British reformation, stressing the lengthy and often bloody persecutions of Catholics in Britain and Ireland. At this time, Catholics were still forbidden to enter certain professions or to become Members of Parliament. Although the law was no longer enforced, it was officially still a crime to attend Mass or build a Catholic church.

In 1829, he published Advice to Young Men in which he heavily criticised An Essay on the Principle of Population published by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus.

Cobbett continued to publish controversial material in the Political Register and in July 1831 was charged with seditious libel after writing a pamphlet entitled Rural War in support of the Captain Swing Riots, which applauded those who were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks. Cobbett conducted his own defence and he was so successful that the jury failed to convict him.

William Cobbett (left foreground), John Gully (middle) and Joseph Pease (right) (the first Quaker elected to Parliament) arriving at Westminster, in March 1833. Sketch by John Doyle.

Cobbett still had a strong desire to be elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in Preston in 1826 and Manchester in 1832 but after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act Cobbett was able to win the parliamentary seat of Oldham. In Parliament, Cobbett concentrated his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law.

From 1831 until his death, he farmed at Normandy, a village in Surrey.

In his later life, however, Macaulay, a fellow MP, remarked that his faculties were impaired by age; indeed that his paranoia had developed to the point of insanity.

He was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's Parish Church, Farnham.

Parliamentary career

In his lifetime Cobbett stood for parliament five times, four of which attempts were unsuccessful:

In 1832 he was successful and elected as Member of Parliament for Oldham.


Cobbett is considered to have begun as an inherently conservative journalist who, angered by the corrupt British political establishment, became increasingly radical and sympathetic to anti-government and democratic ideals. He provides an alternative view of rural England in the age of an Industrial Revolution with which he was not in sympathy. Cobbett wished England would return to the rural England of the 1760s to which he was born. Unlike fellow radical Thomas Paine, Cobbett was not an internationalist cosmopolitan and did not support a republican Britain. He boasted that he was not a "citizen of world": "it is quite enough for me to think about what is best for England, Scotland and Ireland".[1] Possessing a firm national identity, he often criticised rival countries and warned them that they should not "swagger about and be saucy to England".[1] He said his identification with the Church of England was due in part because it "bears the name of my country".[1] Ian Dyck claimed that Cobbett supported "the eighteenth-century Country Party platform".[9] Edward Tangye Lean described him as "an archaic English Tory".[10]

Cobbett has been praised by many thinkers of various political persuasions, such as Matthew Arnold, Karl Marx, G. K. Chesterton, A. J. P. Taylor, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson and Michael Foot.[1]

Cobbett's birthplace, a public house in Farnham named "The Jolly Farmer", has now been renamed "The William Cobbett".

The Brooklyn-based history band Piñataland has performed a song about William Cobbett's quest to rebury Thomas Paine entitled "American Man".

A story by Cobbett in 1807 led to the use of red herring to mean a distraction from the important issue.[11]

An equestrian statue of Cobbett is planned for a site in Farnham.[12][13]

William Cobbett Junior school in Farnham was named in his honour, whose logo is a porcupine.

Cobbett's sons were trained as solicitors and founded a law firm in Manchester, still called Cobbetts in his honour.


See also

  • Tilford - an ancient oak tree described by Cobbett.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Ian Dyck, ‘Cobbett, William (1763–1835)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 23 July 2011.
  2. ^ John Robert Colombo Canadian literary landmarks p47
  3. ^ Jenny's Spring
  4. ^ Cobbett, William (1817). "The Pride of Britannia Humbled". Belmont Abbey College NC USA. http://crusader.bac.edu/library/rarebooks/Pride.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-27. 
  5. ^ The Earl of Rosebery (ed.), The Windham Papers. Volume Two (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1913), p. 234.
  6. ^ David Cordingly, Cochrane the Dauntless: The Life and Adventures of Thomas Cochrane, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2008 (isbn 978-0-7475-8545-9), p. 105-113.
  7. ^ Walters, Ronald G., Getting Rid of Demon Alcohol
  8. ^ Hanink, James G (November 2005). "William Cobbett. By G.K. Chesterton. Review". New Oxford Review LXXII (10). http://www.newoxfordreview.org/briefly.jsp?did=1105-briefly. Retrieved 2009-03-30. 
  9. ^ Ian Dyck, ‘Introduction’ in William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Penguin Classics, 2005), p. xxiii.
  10. ^ Edward Tangye Lean, The Napoleonists. A Study in Political Disaffection. 1760-1960 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 206.
  11. ^ World Wide Words
  12. ^ BBC Home town plans statue of Cobbett 21 January 2009
  13. ^ Waverley Borough Council Committee Document William Cobbett Statue


Further reading

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
New constituency Member of Parliament for Oldham
With: John Fielden
Succeeded by
John Fielden and
John Frederick Lees

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