"THUS Sir, have I led you about the country. All sorts of things I have talked of, to be sure; but there are very few of these things which have not their interests of one sort or another. At the end of a hundred miles or two of travelling, stopping here and there; talking freely with everybody; hearing 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; and especially if your manner be such as to remove every kind of reserve from every class; at the end of a tramp like this you get impressed upon your mind a true picture, not only of the state of the country, but of the state of people's minds throughout the country." This, in his own words, is what William Cobbett did between 1821 and 1832. He rode about England, especially the southern counties, with his eyes open and with an unquenchable desire to shake the complacency of the Government by exposing poverty and distress. The Rural Rides, the record of his journeyings, shows that he was as vigorous a writer as a traveller, and it also shows him in his element.
He was born in the country, at Farnham in Surrey, in 1762, and was at first a farm labourer. Though later he became a clerk, a soldier, a bookseller, and an author, his love for the country—based on his intimate knowledge of it—remained unaltered. "Here was everything to delight the eye, and especially of one like me, who seem to have been born to love a rural life, and trees and plants of all sorts." As far as he could he kept away from the main turnpike roads, to explore the lanes and by-ways. He preferred riding on horseback because it was impossible in any other way to see "the real country places." He wrote of the country as a farmer (not as a romantic), noting the various kinds of soils, crops, methods of cultivation, and not forgetting to mention a new way of catching slugs.
But he was even more interested in the living conditions of the people—in his own time and also earlier—than in the price of corn. Unlike travellers who gaze rapturously at cathedrals and monuments, but do not consider the homes of the people, Cobbett made his standard the girls at work in the field. He thought Gloucester a fine and beautiful place, but he was much more impressed by the fact that the labourers seemed to be well-dressed and healthy. His object was "to see the farmers at home, and to see the labourers in the fields," and he knew that what people wanted first was enough to eat and to wear. To the road-menders at Wrecklesham he gave not tracts, but money to buy bread, cheese, and beer. It was no use talking to him of religion or education unless the labourer "have his belly-full, and be free from fear; and this belly-full must come to him from out of his wages, and not from benevolence of any description." He was roused to indignation by the fact that farm-workers were worse fed than felons in the gaols. He was delighted to find in Sussex a pig at almost every homestead, and nothing pleased him more than to see the helpful results of applying the advice of his "Cottage Economy." He noted instances of special hardship for publication in the "Poor Man's Register," and his conviction was that by the end of his life he would have "mended the meals of millions."
Essentially an individualist himself, he saw political and social problems in terms of individuals. He was a Radical (in so far as he was one) more from feeling than from reason, and he went round the country arguing violently for reform because he sympathized so strongly with the poor and oppressed. His membership of Parliament from 1832 till his death in 1835 was a fitting indication of his importance in the life of his time. His weekly articles in the Political Register made him famous—and notorious—in forming public opinion, especially among the working class. He became a marked man, and, as is clear from the Rural Rides, meetings where he spoke were liable to be rowdy.
There is no need to press the parallel between England after the Napoleonic War and the Great War to find much in Cobbett's writings which is pertinent and stimulating to-day. Many of the problems of his age remain, in their modern form, essentially unsolved, and need for their solution an attitude no less sympathetic than his. Also, as a vivid description of English life over a century ago, Rural Rides is an invaluable mine of information for the social and economic historian. But it has far more than a historical interest. It tells us a great deal about England, but it tells us a great deal more about William Cobbett.
The Rural Rides—and this is its chief charm—is a thoroughly personal book. With that unconscious self-revelation which is the essence of genuine letter-writing, the author disguised nothing about himself. He mentioned casual details of what he ate and when he slept, of how he had whooping-cough, and how he became bad-tempered when he was hungry. He was supremely interested in himself, and full of a self-confidence which might have been irritating were it not so naive, and boyish (he remarked in passing that his History of the Protestant Reformation was unquestionably the book of greatest circulation in the whole world, the Bible only excepted"). He almost felt it his duty to give advice, not only to young men, but to the world in general.
He was nothing if not independent. When told not to go to Lewes, he promptly went. When once, after obstinately choosing a route, he was misled by his guide, it was not the rain or the fatigue which most annoyed him in the end, but the fact that he had not been able to have his own way. He replied to the offer of a government post by repeating the fable of the mastiff and the wolf. He believed passionately in freedom for himself and others, and rushed to attack anything which he regarded as injustice. He went to prison from 1810 to 1812 for his comments on the flogging of Englishmen by German mercenaries. He went to voluntary exile in America in 1817 rather than sell his mind to the Government. In winning freedom for himself he helped to win it for others, since the eventual success of the Political Register marked the end of the crippling control of journalism by the law.
He made no secret of his opinions, but spoke at times with an excessive violence. He was a good hater—of, for example, Corn Laws, paper money, Malthus, Pitt, Peel, Wilberforce, the THING,* the WEN,** Scotsmen, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians (to whom he set a poser about sheep-fluke), tax-eaters, corruption, tea, and the landlord at the George Inn, Andover—and it would be difficult to arrange all these in order of their offensiveness to him, so vehement is his language about each. He did not mince his words about the "jolterheads" at Westminster, or the profligate London press. Cheltenham is described as "this resort of the lame and the lazy, the gormandizing and the guzzling, the bilious and the nervous," and—even on the subject of M.P.s—rarely has so much force been compressed into so few words as in Cobbett's withering picture of Sir Francis Burdett: "he is a sore to Westminster; a set-fast on its back; a cholic in its belly; a cramp in its limbs; a gag in its mouth: he is a nuisance, a monstrous nuisance in Westminster, and he must be abated."
It is not surprising that many people in England and America besides the hotel staff at Tunbridge Wells thought Cobbett "a d——d noisy, troublesome fellow." Otherwise he might have been a more balanced critic and a more persuasive advocate, but a less entertaining writer. His zeal, as he once admitted in the days when he supported the Government, often outran his knowledge. He judged by first impressions, and did not bother to be consistent. He was only logical within the limits of his prejudices. He had the largest share in making public the evidence which eventually made the case for reform overwhelming, but in many ways he was fighting quixotically against the tide of events. The great Wen has not yet been dispersed, and to-day encroaches even yet more irresistibly on the countryside. Straw-plat*** was not a remedy for agrarian distress, and the factories have, despite Cobbett, displaced Merrie England. (It was ironical that in Parliament he should represent Oldham.) But though he was often wrong and pig-headed, he was always direct and honest. Throughout his life he hated affectation and corruption in any form, from ministerial sinecures to Gothic arches made of Scotch fir. He thought hypocrisy was the great sin of his age: he himself worked hard and lived simply. In all his interests, ranging from grammar to morals, he showed keen observation and blunt common sense. His outbursts should not make us blind to his essential cheerfulness and good nature. The man who wrote the Advice to Young Men, and especially the account of how his sons received the news of his imprisonment, was a warm-hearted husband and father. Whatever he did, he did whole-heartedly. We may not share his interest in turnips, and he may rant and rail overmuch against the King's Ministers, but his writing is of permanent appeal because it is sincere. It is the clear expression of the strong and genuine feeling of a man alertly in touch with the life around him. His prose is vivid and vigorous, with always the fresh air atmosphere of one who loved to ride off early in the morning through the country lanes.
F. W. ALLEN.
* A term used somewhat vaguely by Cobbett in reference primarily to Pitt's creation of a sinking fund for the payment of the National Debt, and then to Pitt's policy in general, to paper money, and, almost, to anything in the financial system of his time which Cobbett disliked.
*** Cobbett encouraged the revival of cottage industries, and in particular of plaiting articles (e.g. hats) out of dried grass, not merely as a hobby, but as a means of saving money.
First part of Ride 24
FROM MALMSBURY, IN WILTSHIRE, THROUGH GLOUCESTERSHIRE, HEREFORDSHIRE, AND WORCESTERSHIRE
Tuesday Forenoon, 12th Sept. 1826.
I SET off from Malmsbury this morning at 6 o'clock, in as sweet
and bright a morning as ever came out of the heavens, and
leaving behind me as pleasant a house and as kind hosts as I
ever met with in the whole course of my life, either in England
or America; and that is saying a great deal indeed. This circumstance was the more pleasant, as I had never before either
seen or heard of these kind, unaffected, sensible, sans-façons,
and most agreeable friends. From Malmsbury I first came, at
the end of five miles, to Tutbury, which is in Gloucestershire,
there being here a sort of dell, or ravine, which, in this place,
is the boundary line of the two counties, and over which you go
on a bridge, one-half of which belongs to each county. And
now, before I take my leave of Wiltshire, I must observe that,
in the whole course of my life (days of courtship excepted, of
course), I never passed seventeen pleasanter days than those
which I have just spent in Wiltshire. It is, especially in the
southern half, just the sort of country that I like; the weather
has been pleasant; I have been in good houses and amongst
good and beautiful gardens; and, in every case, I have not only
been most kindly entertained, but my entertainers have been
of just the stamp that I like.
I saw again, this morning, large flocks of goldfinches feeding
on the thistle-seed on the roadside. The French call this bird
by a name derived from the thistle, so notorious has it always
been that they live upon this seed. Thistle is, in French,
chardon; and the French call this beautiful little bird chardonaret. I never could have supposed that such flocks of these
birds would ever be seen in England. But it is a great year for
all the feathered race, whether wild or tame: naturally so,
indeed; for every one knows that it is the wet, and not the cold,
that is injurious to the breeding of birds of all sorts, whether
land-birds or water-birds. They say that there are, this year,
double the usual quantity of ducks and geese: and, really, they
do seem to swarm in the farm-yards, wherever I go. It is a
great mistake to suppose that ducks and geese need water, except
to drink. There is, perhaps, no spot in the world, in proportion
to its size and population, where so many of these birds are
reared and fatted as in Long Island; and it is not in one case
out of ten that they have any ponds to go to, or that they ever
see any water other than water that is drawn up out of a well.
A little way before I got to Tutbury I saw a woman digging
some potatoes in a strip of ground making part of a field nearly
an oblong square, and which field appeared to be laid out in
strips. She told me that the field was part of a farm (to the
homestead of which she pointed); that it was, by the farmer,
let out in strips to labouring people; that each strip contained
a rood (or quarter of a statute acre); that each married labourer
rented one strip; and that the annual rent was a pound for
the strip. Now the taxes being all paid by the farmer; the
fences being kept in repair by him; and, as appeared to me, the
land being exceedingly good: all these things considered, the
rent does not appear to be too high. This fashion is certainly a
growing one; it is a little
step towards a coming back to the ancient small life and leaseholds and
common-fields! This field of strips was, in fact, a sort of
common-field; and the "agriculturists," as the conceited asses of
landlords call themselves, at their clubs and meetings, might, and they
would if their skulls could admit any thoughts except such as relate to
high prices and low wages; they might, and they would, begin to suspect
that the "dark age" people were not so very foolish when they had so
many common-fields, and when almost every man that had a family had
also a bit of land, either large or small. It is a very curious thing
that the enclosing of commons, that the shutting out of the labourers from all share in the land; that
the prohibiting of them to look at a wild animal, almost at a
lark or a frog; it is curious that this hard-hearted system should
have gone on until at last it has produced effects so injurious
and so dangerous to the grinders themselves that they have, of
their own accord and for their own safety, begun to make a step
towards the ancient system, and have, in the manner I have
observed, made the labourers sharers, in some degree, in the
uses, at any rate, of the soil. The far greater part of these strips
of land have potatoes growing in them; but in some cases they
have borne wheat, and in others barley, this year; and these have
now turnips; very young most of them, but in some places very
fine, and in every instance nicely hoed out. The land that will
bear 400 bushels of potatoes to the acre will bear 40 bushels of
wheat; and the ten bushels of wheat to the quarter of an acre
would be a crop far more valuable than a hundred bushels of
potatoes, as I have proved many times in the Register.