Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9 March 1763, the son of a tavern keeper. He was educated at home, and worked as a farm labourer until 1783 when he moved to London. There he took a position as a clerk for a year, before joining the army and seeing service in he British colony of New Brunswick. But, after making accusations of theft against some officers, he left the army, escaping to France, first, and then the United States, where he published pro-British pamphlets under the pseudonym of Peter Porcupine. Before leaving England, though, in early 1792, he had married Anne Reid, an English woman he had first met in New Brunswick.
Cobbett returned to Britain in 1800, where he applied himself to journalism. At first, he started a magazine called The Porcupine but then, having sold his interest in that, he launched Political Register, which was often critical of the government. In 1809, for example, he attacked the use of German troops to put down a mutiny in Ely, and subsequently was tried and convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Newgate Prison. When released he continued his popular campaigns, and, by reducing the price of Political Register, turned it into the main newspaper for the working class. In 1817, on rumours that he might be arrested again for sedition, Cobbett fled to the US. There he wrote a text on English grammar and, with the help of a friend in London, continued to publish Political Register. By the time he returned to England, in late 1819, he had lost all influence, and was poor, but still he remained politically active.
In 1821, Cobbett began a tour of Britain on horseback, which led to a series of articles in Political Register, later published as Rural Rides. His single greatest concern at this time was the distressed state of English farming, and the only solution, he argued, was for a radical reform of parliament, including universal manhood suffrage. He wrote in Political Register that his purpose in riding through England was to hear ‘what gentlemen, farmers, tradesmen, journeymen, labourers, women, girls, boys, and all have to say; reasoning with some, laughing with others, and observing all that passes’. In 1830, he was tried and acquitted of sedition. In 1832, he was elected to Parliament for Oldham, focusing his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law. He died in 1835. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, or Peter Landry’s website.
Rural Rides, which is considered Cobbett’s most enduring work, is essentially a collection of diaries written on journeys across England between 1821 and 1832. The 1853 version of Rural Rides, published by A. Cobbett, is available at Internet Archive, as are reprints published a century later with an introduction by the historian Asa Briggs. The much-issued two volume 1885 edition by Reeves and Turner is also available at Internet Archive. The Vision of Britain Through Time website has put chunks of Cobbett’s text into chapters with maps of the areas covered.
10 January 1822
‘Lewes is in a valley of the South Downs, this town is at eight miles distance, to the south-south-west or thereabouts. There is a great extent of rich meadows above and below Lewes. The town itself is a model of solidity and neatness. The buildings all substantial to the very outskirts; the pavements good and complete; the shops nice and clean; the people well-dressed; and, though last not least, the girls remarkably pretty, as, indeed, they are in most parts of Sussex; round faces, features small, little hands and wrists, plump arms, and bright eyes. The Sussex men, too, are remarkable for their good looks. A Mr. Baxter, a stationer at Lewes, showed me a farmer’s account book, which is a very complete thing of the kind. The inns are good at Lewes, the people civil and not servile, and the charges really (considering the taxes) far below what one could reasonably expect.
From Lewes to Brighton the road winds along between the hills of the South Downs, which, in this mild weather, are mostly beautifully green even at this season, with flocks of sheep feeding on them. Brighton itself lies in a valley cut across at one end by the sea, and its extension, or wen, has swelled up the sides of the hills and has run some distance up the valley. The first thing you see in approaching Brighton from Lewes, is a splendid horse-barrack on one side of the road, and a heap of low, shabby, nasty houses, irregularly built, on the other side. This is always the case where there is a barrack. How soon a reformed parliament would make both disappear!
Brighton is a very pleasant place. For a wen [a large overcrowded city] remarkably so. The Kremlin, the very name of which has so long been a subject of laughter all over the country, lies in the gorge of the valley, and amongst the old houses of the town. The grounds, which cannot, I think, exceed a couple or three acres, are surrounded by a wall neither lofty nor good-looking. Above this rise some trees, bad in sorts, stunted in growth, and dirty with smoke. As to the “palace” as the Brighton newspapers call it, the apartments appear to be all upon the ground floor; and, when you see the thing from a distance, you think you see a parcel of cradle-spits, of various dimensions, sticking up out of the mouths of so many enormous squat decanters. Take a square box, the sides of which are three feet and a half, and the height a foot and a half. Take a large Norfolk-turnip, cut off the green of the leaves, leave the stalks nine inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of the box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s “a Kremlin!” Only you must cut some church-looking windows in the sides of the box. As to what you ought to put into the box, that is a subject far above my cut.
Brighton is naturally a place of resort for expectants, and a shifty ugly-looking swarm is, of course, assembled here. Some of the fellows, who had endeavoured to disturb our harmony at the dinner at Lewes, were parading, amongst this swarm, on the cliff. You may always know them by their lank jaws, the stiffeners round their necks, their hidden or no shirts, their stays, their false shoulders, hips and haunches, their half-whiskers, and by their skins, colour of veal kidney-suet, warmed a little, and then powdered with dirty dust. These vermin excepted, the people at Brighton make a very fine figure. The trades-people are very nice in all their concerns. The houses are excellent, built chiefly with a blue or purple brick; and bow-windows appear to be the general taste. I can easily believe this to be a very healthy place: the open downs on the one side and the open sea on the other. No inlet, cove, or river; and, of course, no swamps. I have spent this evening very pleasantly in a company of reformers, who, though plain tradesmen and mechanics, know I am quite satisfied more about the questions that agitate the country than any equal number of lords.’
25 November 1822 [Some months earlier George Canning had been made Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons in the government led by Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool.]
‘In looking back into Hampshire, I see with pleasure the farmers bestirring themselves to get a County Meeting called. There were, I was told, nearly five hundred names to a Requisition, and those all of land-owners or occupiers. Precisely what they mean to petition for I do not know; but (and now I address myself to you, Mr. Canning,) if they do not petition for a reform of the Parliament, they will do worse than nothing. You, Sir, have often told us, that the HOUSE, however got together, “works well.” Now, as I said in 1817, just before I went to America to get out of the reach of our friend, the Old Doctor, and to use my long arm; as I said then, in a Letter addressed to Lord Grosvenor, so I say now, show me the inexpediency of reform, and I will hold my tongue. Show us, prove to us, that the House “works well,” and I, for my part, give the matter up. It is not the construction or the motions of a machine that I ever look at: all I look after is the effect. When, indeed, I find that the effect is deficient or evil, I look to the construction. And, as I now see, and have for many years seen, evil effect, I seek a remedy in an alteration in the machine. There is now nobody; no, not a single man, out of the regions of Whitehall, who will pretend, that the country can, without the risk of some great and terrible convulsion, go on, even for twelve months longer, unless there be a great change of some sort in the mode of managing the public affairs.
Could you see and hear what I have seen and heard during this Rural Ride, you would no longer say, that the House “works well.” Mrs. Canning and your children are dear to you; but, Sir, not more dear than are to them the wives and children of, perhaps, two hundred thousand men, who, by the Acts of this same House, see those wives and children doomed to beggary, and to beggary, too, never thought of, never regarded as more likely than a blowing up of the earth or a falling of the sun. It was reserved for this “working well” House to make the fire-sides of farmers scenes of gloom. These fire-sides, in which I have always so delighted, I now approach with pain. I was, not long ago sitting round the fire with as worthy and as industrious a man as all England contains. There was his son, about 19 years of age; two daughters from 15 to 18; and a little boy sitting on the father’s knee. I knew, but not from him, that there was a mortgage on his farm. I was anxious to induce him to sell without delay. With this view I, in an hypothetical and round-about way, approached his case and at last, I came to final consequences. The deep and deeper gloom on a countenance, once so cheerful, told me what was passing in his breast, when turning away my looks in order to seem not to perceive the effect of my words, I saw the eyes of his wife full of tears. She had made the application; and there were her children before her! And, am I to be banished for life if I express what I felt upon this occasion! And, does this House, then, “work well?” How many men, of the most industrious, the most upright, the most exemplary, upon the face of the earth, have been, by this one Act of this House, driven to despair, ending in madness or self-murder, or both! Nay, how many scores! And, yet, are we to be banished for life, if we endeavour to show, that this House does not “work well?” However, banish or banish not, these facts are notorious: the House made all the Loam which constitute the debt: the House contracted for the Dead Weight: the House put a stop to gold-payments in 1797: the Home unanimously passed Peel’s Bill. Here are all the causes of the ruin, the misery, the anguish, the despair, and the madness and self-murders. Here they are all. They have all been acts of this House; and yet, we are to be banished if we say, in words suitable to the subject, that this House does not “work well!” ’