Wednesday, 27 April 2011

William Cobbett and Rural Rides - Seminar Summary

In our latest seminar we took a look at William Cobbett, a rather miserable, moany radical. It's worth taking a quick look at Cobbett's life in the form of a timeline to help understand why he developed the views he did and what actions he took to uphold these beliefs.

Cobbett was born in 1763 in Farnham, Surrey. He grew up in the countryside. It's likely his place of upbringing led to his love for nature. I remember studying John Clare in the past and him and Cobbett are similar in terms of their views towards the negative impact industrialisation can have on the country. Anyway, that's a tangent.

In 1792 he wrote an article in the 'Porcupine Gazette' which was an attack on pro-French Revolution ideals of 'Rights of Man' author, Tom Paine. Unfortunately for Cobbett as a result of what he wrote he was financially ruined when heavy libel damages were put against him.

In 1799 he returned to England (from France) and started his own newspaper, the Political Register. At first he supported the Tories but gradually became more radical.

In 1815 newspaper taxes meant a drop in sales for Cobbett's Political Register. He decided to publish his work in the form of a pamphlet instead. It was mainly read by the working class which, in the governments eyes, made him a dangerous man. He fled to the U.S.A after hearing the government planned to have him arrested for sedition (which essentially means resisting lawful authority)

In 1830 Rural Rides was published, which is a record of British town and country life in the early 19th Century. It takes the viewpoint of a social reformer / farmer. His travels in the book allowed him to see the effect industrialisation was having on Britain's countryside. Cobbett was distrustful of the governments description of the state of agriculture, so decided to see it for himself.

In 1831, Cobbett was charged after writing an article in support of the Captain Swing Riots and died 4 years later of Influenza.

Within Rural Rides, Cobbett explores themes such as estate ownership, corn laws, taxes, parliament and the Enclosure Policy. Lets take a quick look at the Corn Laws. Cobbett was heavily against these laws, which were in fact designed to protect corn prices. The Law was introduced in 1804 and saw duties being imposed on imported corn. While the law ultimately helped to protect British farming from foreign competition, it caused distress to the poor as bread prices rose as a result.

At the time of Rural Rides, there was an influx of people moving to the city in the search for work. Returning soldiers from the Napoleonic war found no work in the countryside.

Cobbett was a radical through and through, meaning he strived for complete political / social reform. He realised agriculture was declining and so used Journalism to spread a message. If you take a look at Rural Rides you'll see a lot of the time Cobbett will address local townsfolk and discuss land ownership and local government. It seems to me like Cobbett was travelling the country and trying to help encourage improved rights for farmers and labourers. At the time of writing, the Enclosure Policy was another problem for farmers, who were forced away from the country and into the city as a result of its arrival.

Cobbett's views on land ownership are somewhat similar to Rousseau's theory of the state of nature. However, whereas I think Rousseau would be against land ownership and human intervention of any kind (a typically romantic idea) Cobbett would perhaps not be opposed to local farmers owning the land. For Cobbett, the problem is industrialisation and mechanisation.

Cobbett's aim of his travels, in his words, were "to see the country, to see the farmers at home, and to see labourers in the fields." As I said earlier, Cobbett's journey gave him a first hand look at the state of British agriculture its relationship with land ownership.

Being a radical, it's not surprising some of Cobbett's views are delivered in such a blunt fashion. I quite like this approach though; it's refreshing. He says, for example, that Middlesex is 'ugly' because it's 'dirty' and 'full of shabby dwellings of labouring people'. He also mentions Surrey, saying: "It has some of the very best and some of the worst lands, not only in England, but the world." Cobbett also explains his issue with estate ownership, saying: "Because of fraudulent paper-money, loan-jobbers, stock-jobbers and Jews have got the estates in their hands." Cobbett argues it is the 'system' that is taking estates away from landlords and giving them to 'people of dead weight'.

It was interesting to read what Cobbett got up to when he headed to Winchester. It turns out he went to a local inn and made a moany speech about how taxes were sucking the life out of the farming industry. Interestingly, the 'manifesto concerning the poor' had been recently issued when Cobbett visited. During his speech at Winchester, Cobbett says: "I mean to speak of all that mass of wealth which is vulgarly called church property, but which is, in fact, public property". He also goes on to add: "It is the taxes that are taking away the rent of the landlord and the capital of the farmer". The Parsons were afraid to see tax reduced because it would mean that their 'interest of debt' couldn't be paid. Cobbett adds: "They wish the taxes to be kept up and rents to be paid too".

A modern day take on Cobbett's Rural Ride. It's taken the internet by storm, generating 51 views in 4 years.

I liked reading Rural Rides because Cobbett's constant winges and satirical personal judgements of both the towns he visited and the folk within them were quite amusing to me. I think the fact he was a radical helped shape his extreme opinions and therefore this lead to an enjoyable read. I think Cobbett would make a good stand-up comedian, actually. I'd like to see him do a set on 'people of dead weight' and 'tax gatherers' at the Hammersmith Apollo.


A fantastic short summary of William Cobbet :)

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