Cobbett, William 1763 - 1835

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William Cobbett was an English author, journalist and "radical" during his time. His life and writings represent the history of the common people between the revolution of the 18th Century in England, the period known as the "Victorian era."

He was born in Surrey in March 9, 1763. His father was a small farmer and his grandfather was a day laborer. He worked on his father's farm as a boy but at 14 years of age he ran away to work in Kew Gardens. At 19 he became a lawyers' clerk in London. He taught himself grammar and writing. He was drafted into the Armed Services shortly and went first to Nova Scotia and then to New Brunswick, Canada, where by 1791 he became a sergeant major.

Cobbett became involved in many disturbing incidents both in England and America. He bought a farm in England and realized at once the misery of the laboring classes. This aroused his indignation and he vehemently attacked the conditions but again this only led to another prison term. Emerging from prison he was financially bankrupt. He again took up the unpopular cause of supporting improvement of the laboring classes but in order to prevent arrest he fled to America in 1817. He wrote his controversial Rural Rides which described the appalling misery and starvation of the common people in the English countryside and in the small towns. He wrote Cobbett's College Economy in 1822. The English Gardener appeared in 1829. In 1820 he settled down to rebuild his fortunes by means of writing. Also he developed a flourishing seed farm in Kensington and began to set up a nursery business dealing in American trees and imported seeds and plants. He urged the cultivation of maize ("Cobbett's corn"), the locust tree and Swedish turnips. His seed farm and his agricultural writings brought him a large following among the farmers. He finally became a member of Parliament. His persistent working at all hours undermined his health and he died of influenza on June 18, 1835.

G.D.H. Cole, a well known English economist writing in the Encyclopedia Brittanica calls him "an articulate peasant," "intensely English" and "in his way intensely patriotic." "It was this patriotism that aroused him to the defense of his fellow coutrymen, trodden under by the oppressions of war and the torn revolutions in agriculture and industry whose devastating social effects he watched from phase to phase." He had a "capacity to make himself express the aspirations of a whole suffering class."

The following addendum to the original course notes was received on September 8, 2001:

"William Cobbett was not drafted into the army. In 1784, at the time of his enlistment, conscription in the form of a draft hadn't been invented. It was invented coincidentally, by the French in response to meeting the demands of the Revoltionary wars, the year after Cobbett left the British Army.

Source: Eric Bloomquist, Interpretive Programs Asst., Old Fort Niagara Association