About William Cobbett

The Life of William Cobbett

William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer, journalist and member of parliament born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament, including abolishing “rotten boroughs”, would ease the poverty of farm labourers. Relentlessly he sought an end to borough-mongers, sinecurists and “tax-eaters” (meaning a wide class of overpaid or corrupt bureaucrats). He opposed the Corn Laws, which imposed a tax on imported grain. Early in life he was a loyal devotee of King and Country, but he later pushed for radicalism, which helped the Reform Act 1832 and his election that year as one of two MPs for the newly enfranchised borough of Oldham. He strongly advocated of Catholic Emancipation. His polemics cover subjects from political reform to religion. His best known book is Rural Rides (1830, still in print).

A Summary


Born: Farnham 9 March, 1763. At Jolly Farmer/William Cobbett Pub.

Early Life: Worked as a farm labourer, and briefly at Farnham Castle.


(May) Took a stagecoach to London; worked as a Clerk. (Autumn) Joined 54th Regiment of Foot

1785 - 1791

Posted to Canada. - Educated himself; read widely and studied grammar. - Became Regimental Sergeant Major.


1791 Returned to England; requested and received honourable discharge.


(Feb) Married Anne 'Nancy' Reid (they met in Canada). Seven surviving children. * Attempted to charge senior officers with corruption. * Case turned against him * (March) fled to France. (Sept) To France: Revolutionary Wars in progress. * Continued on to Philadelphia; became a political (and pro-British) writer. * Established reputation as pamphleteer - 'Peter Porcupine'.


Attacked local Lawyer; sued for libel; moved to New York.

Journalistic/Political Life in England


Returned to England, initially treated as a hero and offered Government 'jobs'. -Settled in Botley, Hants where he farmed and wrote.


Published his Weekly Political Register until his death in 1835. -Initially a Tory journalist; gradually more radical and anti-establishment. -Wrote with 'characteristic directness and vigour'.


Criticised use of German troops to suppress mutiny in Ely. -Tried and convicted of 'seditious libel'.

1810 - 1812

Two years in Newgate Prison. Continued to write and publish.

1817 - 1819

Returned to America fearing a second trial; farmed on Long Island; -Published (1818J 'A Grammar of the English Language'. -Back to UK just after Peterloo 'Massacre'.


Leading advocate of Political and Agricultural Reform. -Supported radicals; but against violence. -Continued to demand freedom of speech; and Parliamentary reform. -Against enclosures and the impoverishment of the rural poor.


Began Horseback tours of southern England. Later published as 'Rural Rides'. -Strong supporter of Queen Caroline (against King George IV). -Stood for Parliament but defeated. Tried again in 1826 and in March 1832.


1831 Tried again for sedition (for supporting Agricultural Rioters). Not convicted.


1832 Reform Act passed. Elected MP for Oldham at subsequent election. -Attacked continuing corruption in Government. -Visited Scotland; and Ireland in 1834. Given Hero's welcome. -Ineffective in Parliament; resented loss of influence.


1834 Against Poor Law reforms and introduction of workhouses.


1835 (18 June) Died on farm at Normandy, Surrey. Buried in Farnham, St Andrews Churchyard - 500yds from Birthplace. 8,000 people attended the funeral. (More than the population of Farnham.) He wrote 25m+ words in over 50 works; started Hansard. He influenced, among others, Dickens, the Chartists, Karl Marx.

Bibliography: 'The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett' by Richard Ingrams; Harper Collins, 2005. A sympathetic and very readable introduction. 'Rural Rides' ed Ian Dyck; Penguin, 2001. ‘Cobbett's England'. Selection of his writings, edited by J Derry. Parkgate, 1977 (originally Folio 1968). 'William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend'; George Spater, Cambridge, 1982. A two volume Biography with new material.

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