William Cobbett’s Rural War
by Joe Keenan
William Cobbett was born on 9th. March 1763 in the parish of Farnham in Surrey, where his father was a farmer and publican.
On the idyll of his early life he wrote (in the autobiographical Life & Adventures of Peter Porcupine):-
“I do not remember the time when I did not earn my living. My first occupation was driving the small birds from the turnipseed, and the rooks from the pease. When I first trudged a-field, with my wooden bottle and my satchel swung over my shoulders, I was hardly able to climb the gates and stiles; and, at the close of the day, to reach home, was a task of infinite difficulty. My next employment was weeding wheat, and leading a single horse at harrowing barley. Hoeing pease followed, and hence I arrived at the honour of joining the reapers in harvest, driving the team, and holding plough. We were all of us strong and laborious, and my father used to boast, that he had four boys, the eldest of whom was but fifteen years old, who did as much work as any three men in the parish of Farnham. Honest pride and happy days!”
Though unschooled, he was taught to read and write by his father.
In 1783 he went to London and worked in an attorney’s office in Gray’s Inn. Early in 1784 he enlisted in the 54th Regiment, serving in Nova Scotia between 1785-91. At the finish he was Sergeant-Major under Lord Edward FitzGerald.
Having been discharged, as he put it, “thanks to the kindness of Lord Edward”, he brought corruption charges against other officers, which he was forced, not being the stuff of which useless martyrdoms are made, to abandon, fleeing to France in March 1792. That August he fled even further, to Wilmington near Philadelphia in the United States. In America, Cobbett began his career as a political journalist there, writing, from the outset, as an English Loyalist.
When he returned to England in 1800 he was taken up by Pitt, his Secretary at War, William Windham, and the Giffords of The Anti-Jacobin, and the Anti-Jacobin Review. He was offered the run of the Government press but preferred to found his Political Register as an independent journal. For the next few years he wrote in favour of the anti-revolutionary French War, in favour of Burke and Malthus, in favour of enclosures and against everything favourable to democracy and the working classes.
Then, at Michaelmas 1804, as Ian Dyck has pointed out (in From ‘Rabble’ to ‘Chopsticks’: The Radicalism of William Cobbett, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies, Volume 21, No. 1, Spring 1989), Cobbett …
” … spent the most informative day of his life. It was a Sunday in Hampshire, and he decided to take an afternoon stroll around the common land at Horton Heath.”
What he saw there changed Cobbett’s life.
He immediately sent a report to Windham which has been lost but which he drew on for an article in the Political Register of May 1821. This was in the form of an open letter to Windham’s great friend, the agricultural reformer, Thomas Coke of Holkham in Norfolk (Cobbett elsewhere referred to him disparagingly as “Daddy” Coke) …
So long ago as 1804, I went round a little common, in Hampshire, called Horton Heath. “The better day the better deed,” and, on a Sunday I found the husbands at home. It was when the madness for enclosures raged most furiously. The Common contained about 150 acres; and I found round the skirts of it, arid near to the skirts, about 30 cottages and gardens, the latter chiefly encroachments on the Common, which was waste (as it is called) in a manor of which the Bishop was the lord. I took down the names of all the cottagers, the number and ages of their children, the number of their cows, heifers, calves, sows, pigs, geese, ducks, fowls, and stalls of bees; the extent of their little bits of grounds, the worth of what was growing (it was at, or near Michaelmas), the number of apple-trees, and of their black cherry-trees, called by them merries, which is a great article in that part of Hampshire. I have lost my paper, a copy of which I gave to Mr. WINDHAM; and, therefore, I cannot speak positively as to any one point; but, I remember one hundred and twenty-five, or thirty-five stalls of bees, worth at that time ten shillings a stall at least. Cows there were about fifteen, besides heifers and calves; about sixty pigs great and small; and not less than five hundred head of poultry! The cattle and sheep of the neighbouring farmers grazed the Common all the while besides. The bees alone were worth more annually than the Common, if it had been enclosed, would have let for, deducting the expense of fences. The farmers used the Common for their purposes; and my calculation was, that the cottages produced from their little bits, in food, for themselves, and in things to be sold at market more than any neighbouring farm of 200 acres! The cottages consisted, fathers, mothers, and children, and grandfathers, grandmothers and grandchildren, of more than two hundred persons.
“Why, Sir, what a system must that have been that could lead English gentlemen to disregard matters like these! That could induce them to tear up “wastes” and sweep away occupiers like those that I have described! “Wastes” indeed! Give a dog an ill name. Was Horton Heath a waste Was it a “waste” when a hundred, perhaps, of healthy boys and girls were playing there of a Sunday, instead of creeping about covered with filth in the alleys of a town, or, at least, listening to the ravings of some weekly-penny hunting hypocrite? Was it a “waste?” No: but, it would have been a waste, if it had been “improved.”
“I shall be told, perhaps, that many large farmers treat their labourers very kindly, and even take care to see, that they are supplied with a sufficiency of food and raiment. I believe this, and I have heard, that your estates are remarkable for this kindness and benevolence. But, Sir, the Jamaica farmer does the same by his slaves. From a different motive, perhaps; but he does it. This renders slavery less cruel; but, still, a state of life which contains a compulsion to work without a moral possibility of saving something for old age, is slavery, call it by what name you will; and, one of the consequences of such a state of things, is, that a large standing army is required in time of profound peace. The social tie being broken; the tie of content being no longer in existence, its place must be supplied by force … “
In the previous issue of the Political Register (19th., May, 1821 ), Cobbett referred to his experiences elsewhere in that year of 1804. Writing in an open letter to his friend John Hayes of Bolton, he said:
“I myself, in the early part of my writing life, was deceived in the same way; but, when, in 1804, I re-visited the English labourer’s dwelling, and that, too, after having so recently witnessed the happiness of labourers in America; when I saw that the clock was gone; that even the Sunday coat was gone; when I saw those whom I had known the most neat, cheerful, and happy beings on earth, and these my own countrymen too, had become the most wretched and forlorn of human beings, I looked seriously and inquired patiently into the matter; and this inquiry into the causes of an effect which had so deep an impression on my mind, led to that series of exertions, which have occupied my whole life, since that time, to better the lot of the labourers. “
At all events, from 1804 on was the beginning of the end in Cobbett of Anti-Jacobin, and Burke and Malthus, and support for anti-revolutionary French wars. From 1804 on was Cobbett for Workers’ Rights and Parliamentary Reform.
By March 1806 Cobbett had broken with William Windham, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in the Ministry of All the Talents. From that point on he was, in his Political Register and his Two-Penny Trash, with his series on Parliamentary History, on the History of The Reformation in England and Ireland, and his Rural Rides, a very independent thorn in the side of each and every English administration.
Attempts at a rigid imposition of its two-party system onto English political history sometimes obscure the more subtle aspects, or gloss over the outright crudities, of its to and fro. Ian Dyck fell victim to that weakness in the article cited earlier, where he described William Windham as an “old Tory” and spoke of the “traditional toryism espoused by Windham and Cobbett”. For, really, Windham, at a time of political adjustment and realignments due to Pitt’s splitting of the Whigs, was just an “old whig” with a sentimental streak that led him to defend the rough and tumble of Merrie England. While he was Pitt’s Secretary at War he encouraged Cobbett’s anti-Jacobin journalism. And Cobbett seconded Windham’s parliamentary opposition to the progressive campaign against popular sports such as boxing and bull-baiting.
But Cobbett went further, challenging the anti-popular sports and anti-slave trade Evangelical, William Wilberforce MP, to
” … invoke the full force of your philanthropy in behalf of the more than a million of wretched creatures, called paupers, who, at this moment, are in existence, in England. Yes, in England! Englishmen and women and children! more than a million of them? One eighth part of our whole population!”(Political Register, February 9th., 1805).
Cobbett’s polemics sometimes ran ahead of his common sense, as when he went on there to claim that ” … negro slaves in the West Indies are, in every respect, better off than the labouring poor are in England”. But, that to one side, the domestic point was well made, that as English wealth increased English pauperism trebled and the conditions of life of agricultural workers were made insupportable.
Windham’s sentimental anti-puritan Whiggery could not commit to the lives and livelihoods of labourers. Cobbett’s traditional toryism could, and did, make a lifelong commitment to the material welfare and, beyond that, to the political interest of the agricultural labourers who were the working class in the making.
Windham was no Tory. Cobbett was. And such a Tory as could transform his attachment to the past (those good old days which in this instance certainly had been better) and his sense of tradition into a radical programme for the class from which he came.
The depressed, demoralised, declassed state of Cobbett’s agricultural labourers was a new thing and Cobbett attacked both the hidden material basis and the obvious newness of it all. At the root of his attacks was always the poverty of working families which he knew since 1804, in the contrast between the common at Horton Heath and the general run of enclosed and improved lands, could not be explained away by the fecklessness, the immorality or simply the numbers of the poor.
On February 8th., 1808, he wrote in the Political Register …
“As connected with the department of finance, we must, too, remember the state of the poor. Upwards of six millions a year are now raised upon the parishes to be dealt out in aid of those means by which the labourer obtains his bread; and of persons receiving this aid there are upwards of a million. All, all, the labourers, having families, are now paupers! This is a new state of things; a state of things which has been produced by the funding and taxing system, pushed to an extreme. Let us not be answered, by the observations, that there must be poor, that there always will be, in every state of society in every country in the world. We know there must be poor; we know that some must be very poor; we know that some must be maintained, or assisted, at least, either by the parish or by voluntary alms; but, is there any one who will deny, that this is a new and most deplorable state of things, which has rendered all the labourers, having families, paupers? The plain fact is, that a man with a wife, and with four children that are unable to work, cannot now, out of his labour, possibly provide them and himself with the means of living. I do not mean, that he cannot live comfortably, for, to comfort such men have long ago bid farewell; but, I assert, and am ready to prove, that he cannot provide them, without parish aid, with a sufficiency of food, not to satisfy their cravings, but to sustain life. And, will any one say that this state of things is such as England ought to witness? … There are hundreds of thousands of the people of England who never taste any food but bread and vegetables, and who scarcely ever know what it is to have a full meal even of these. This is new: it was not so in former times: it was not so even till of late years … “
Through the course of more than three hundred years, since the Glorious Revolution in which England’s landed and commercial oligarchy established a broad Liberalism as the lodestone of the British state, that horror of The New has been the first response of hitherto stable social elements to the destabilisation of their overthrow and remoulding. It was Cobbett’s first response to the cataclysmic dismantling of the abiding structures of English rural life, and it continued throughout as the essence of his increasingly radical politics. Genuine regard for the networks of reciprocal human relations and the material basis of those relations, all of which Liberalism aimed to destroy, was the necessary foundation of any immediate attempt to undo its catastrophic effects.
Thus, in the Political Register of November, 1817, in the form of an open letter to Earl FitzWilliam, Cobbett wrote …
“The state of the people relative to the nobility and gentry used to be such as to be productive of great advantages to both. The labourers were happy. Each had his little home. He had things about him worth possessing and worth preserving. His clock, which had come to him from his father, in many cases, and from his grandfather, was preserved with as much care and veneration, as you would preserve your title-deeds, or any building upon your estates. Men lived in the same cottage from the day of their marriage till the day of their death. They worked for the same masters for many years. They were so well off that there was no desire for change. “
The people had no desire for change, but they had been changed, and were being changed still further, by a ruling class whose mode of life was perpetual disruption and frequent destruction of social habit and economic routine.
The people had no desire for change, as why would they, when social habit and economic routine guaranteed them the wherewithal to eat, if not well then well enough, and the familial and social structures were in place within which they could live relatively comfortably on a diet of bread, bacon and home-brewed beer. And after that the recreation, regular if infrequent, of bull-baiting, cudgels and single-sticks, at harvest-homes and fairs.
Even after the 16th. century Reformation in England and Ireland, which Cobbett abhorred as a great robbery of the poor, Elizabethan employment and welfare legislation worked to secure the fundamentals of village life.
The Depopulation Acts, Statute of Apprentices and Cottages Act worked to keep land under cultivation and labourers in employment, wages were fixed to the price of food, every labourer had a cottage and four acres of land and access to common rights on the common land and on the waste. The Old Poor Law of 1601 ensured that no-one starved.
The Cottages Act was repealed in 1775, the Statute of Apprentices in 1814 and the New Poor Law of 1834, the industrialists’ and Evangelicals’ hymn of praise to Themselves, rang in the changes brought by the passage of the 1832 Reform Act: that triumph of the New in which all were threatened with starvation and many starved.
Cobbett may have made too much of the letter of laws that were under attack from the moment they were enacted. But he made no more of them than did the labourers who regretted their passing and demanded their return.
Initially Cobbett sought to rebuild the politics of a united agricultural interest that he felt had been disrupted by high taxation which encouraged farmers to a policy of low wages and enclosures. The organising principle of such a “Countryman” Party was Parliamentary Reform. As he wrote in an appeal To The Journeymen And Labourers Of England, Wales, Scotland And Ireland, in the Political Register of November 1816:
“As to the cause of our present miseries, it is the enormous amount of the taxes, which the Government compels us to pay for the support of its army, its placemen, its pensioners, &c., and for the payment of the interest of its debt. ..
“… this whole intolerable weight has all proceeded from the want of a Parliamentary Reform…
“You have been represented by the Times newspaper, by the Courier, by the Morning Post, by the Morning Herald, and others, as the scum of society. They say, that you have no business at public meetings; that you are rabble, and that you pay no taxes. These insolent hirelings, who wallow in wealth, would not be able to put their abuse of you in print were it not for your labour. You create all that is an object of taxation; for even the land itself would be good for nothing without your labour. But are you not taxed? Do you pay no taxes? One of the correspondents of the Board of Agriculture has said, that care has been taken to lay as little lax as possible on the articles used by you …
“On your shoes, salt, beer, malt, hops, tea, sugar, candles, soap, paper, coffee, spirits, glass of your windows, bricks and tiles, tobacco: on all these, and many other articles you pay a tax, and even on your loaf you pay a tax, because every thing is taxed from which the loaf proceeds. In several cases the tax amounts to more than one-half of what you pay for the article itself …
“We have seen that the cause of our miseries is the burden of taxes, occasioned by wars, by standing armies, by sinecures, by pensions, &c …. The remedy is what we have now to look to, and that remedy consists wholly and solely of such a reform in the Commons’ or People’s House of Parliament, as shall give to every payer of direct taxes a vote at elections, and as shall cause the Members to be elected annually …
“… we may ask for, and we want nothing new. We have great constitutional laws and principles, to which we are immovably attached. We want great alteration, but we want nothing new. Alteration, modification to suit the times and circumstances; but the great principles, ought to be and must be, the same, or else confusion will follow …
“… you should neglect no opportunity of doing all that is within your power to give support to the cause of Reform. Petition is the channel for your sentiments, and there is no village so small that its petition would not have some weight. You ought to attend at every public meeting within your reach. You ought to read to, and to assist each other in coming at a competent knowledge of all public matters. Above all things, you ought to be unanimous in your object, and not to suffer yourselves to be divided …
“On the subject of lowering wages, too, you ought to consider, that your employers cannot give to you, that which they have not. At present corn is high in price, but that high price is no benefit to the farmer, because it has arisen from that badness of the crop, which Mr. HUNT foretold at the Common Hall, and for the foretelling of which he was so much abused by the hirelings of the press, who, almost up to this very moment, have been boasting and thanking God for the goodness of the crop! The farmer, whose corn is half destroyed, gains nothing by selling the remaining half for double the price at which he would have sold the whole …
“When journeymen find their wages reduced, they should take time to reflect on the real cause, before they fly upon their employers, who are, in many cases, in as great, or greater, distress than themselves … But, it is certain, that a great many, a very large portion, of the farmers, tradesmen, and manufacturers, have, by their supineness and want of public spirit, contributed towards the bringing of this ruin upon themselves and upon you. They have skulked from their public duty. They have kept aloof from, or opposed, all measures for a redress of grievances; and, indeed, they still skulk, though ruin and destruction stare them in the face. Why do they not now come forward and explain to you the real cause of the reduction of your wages? Why do they not put themselves at your head in petitioning for redress …
“Instead of coming forward to apply for a reduction of those taxes which are pressing them as well as you to the earth, what are they doing? Why, they are applying to the Government to add to their receipts by passing Corn Bills, by preventing foreign wool from being imported; and many other such silly schemes. Instead of asking for a reduction of taxes, they are asking for the means of paying taxes …
“I have no room, nor have I any desire, to appeal to your passions upon this occasion. I have laid before you, with all the clearness I am master of, the causes of our misery, the measures which have led to those causes, and I have pointed out what appears to me to be the only remedy namely, a reform of the Commons’, or People’s House of Parliament. I exhort you to proceed in a peaceable and lawful manner, but at the same time, to proceed with zeal and resolution in the attainment of this object. If the skulkers will not join you, if the “decent fire-side” gentry still keep aloof, proceed by yourselves. Any man can draw up a petition, and any man can carry it up to London, with instructions to deliver it into trusty hands, to be presented whenever the House shall meet.”
But the farmers did not bestir themselves, on their own behalf, let alone on behalf of their labourers. As the 1820s came to a close, with no relief in sight for the increasingly distressed and pauperised workers, Cobbett turned, first to the threat, and then to the fact, of violent upheaval.
Ian Dyck (in William Cobbett and the Rural Radical Platform, Social History, Vol. 18, No. 2, [May, 1993]) refers to Cobbett’s “frequent warnings” at the end of the decade:
“… that the rural labourers were now reduced to ‘land-slaves’, that they touched their lowest point during the winter of 1829-30, and that ‘horse, foot and artillery [would) never make them touch that point again … everyone but Cobbett chose to dismiss the labourers’ threat that they would soon have the farmers ‘under our thumb’. “
In 1830 then occurred what the Hammonds (in The Village Labourer, 1760-1832, by J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, New Edition, London, 1920) called The Last Labourers’ Revolt:
“… several counties in the south of England were in a state bordering on insurrection; London was in a panic, and to some at least of those who had tried to forget the price that had been paid for the splendour of the rich, the message of red skies and broken mills and mob diplomacy and villages in arms sounded like the summons that came to Hernani. The terror of the landowners during those weeks is reflected in such language as that of the Duke of Buckingham, who talked of the country being in the hands of the rebels, or of one of the Barings, who said in the House of Commons that if the disorders went on for three or four days longer they would be beyond the reach of almost any power to control them. (ibid, page 219)”
The first fires, in protest at enclosure, were set that summer, at Orpington and Sevenoaks. The first riot, in which labourers destroyed threshing machines, was at Hardres on August 29th.
Throughout September threshing machines were wrecked around Canterbury and rioting spread to Dover. As rewards were promised to informers, threatening letters began to appear signed ‘Swing’.
After calming down around the middle of October, by the end of the month disturbances spread to the area around Maidstone. Early in November they broke out in Sussex, originally around Battle and Brede and then throughout the county and into Surrey.
In Kent and Sussex the rioting labourers were clearly acting as the vanguard of Cobbett’s Countryman Party. The full range of their demands is given by Ian Dyck as
“higher wages, the destruction of threshing machines, an end to hired overseers, direct access to the land, a democratic reform of parliament and the granting of poor relief as a right, not a privilege” (op. cit. Social History, page 196).
Where they successfully demanded increases in wages and parish relief they also insisted on reductions in rents and tithe payments, which brought many farmers onto their side. And so, in Kent and Sussex at least, the government found it could not rely on the magistrates, or on many of the local yeomanry, and was unable to recruit special constables.
The Hammonds relate how …
“Mr Hodges, one of the Members for Kent, declared in the House of Commons on 10th. December that if the Duke of Wellington (Prime Minister until November 1830, JK] had attended to a petition received from the entire Grand Jury of Kent there would have been no disturbances.” (page 229)
The petition reads:
“We feel that in justice we ought not to suffer a moment to pass away without communicating to your Grace the great and unprecedented distress which we are enabled from our own personal experience to state prevails among all the peasantry to a degree not only deadful to individuals but also to an extent which, if not checked, must be attended with serious consequences to the national prosperity.” (page 229)
From the middle of November the insurrection spread to Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, where, again, many of the farmers sympathised with the labourers. In Hampshire, the workhouses at Selborne and Headley were destroyed. The fire then spread further, to Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire; then to Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Devonshire and Herefordshire.
In Northamptonshire there were several fires and also risings round Peterborough, Oundle and Wellingborough, and a general outbreak in the Midlands was thought to be imminent. Hayricks began to blaze as far north as Carlisle. Swing letters were delivered in Yorkshire, and in Lincolnshire the labourer was said to be awakening to his own importance. (ibid, page 245)
But, as the insurrection spread further, with more fire now than riot, to the West and North of England, government alarm finally translated into vigorous action. In November the vacillating Tories, Iron Duke and all, were replaced by forceful Whigs, a circumstance which left the Liberal Hammonds groping for excuses for their hero, the noble Lord Grey, speaking of how difficult it was “to understand how men like Grey and Holland and Durham could ever have lent themselves to the cruelties of this savage retribution” (ibid, page 289). Ah well, such wags those whigs!
On November 24th, the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, issued a circular letter to lord-lieutenants and magistrates urging them to be firm and promising them immunity for illegal acts committed in the right spirit. Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, told the House of Lords on December 2nd:
“Within a few days from the time I am addressing your Lordships, the sword of justice shall be unsheathed to smite, if it be necessary, with a firm and vigorous hand, the rebel against the law.” (ibid, page 246)
Within a matter of a few weeks, from December into January 1831, as well as proceedings in the ordinary courts of the assizes, six Special Commissions had reduced the Swing Revolt to a set of criminal statistics. Upwards of 2,000 people were charged: 250 of them were condemned to death (of whom 19 were actually executed), 500 were transported, and 600 imprisoned.
Oddly, though the main characteristic of the insurrection throughout the country was fire, and the Special Commissions dealt with a majority of cases arising from it in its southern heartland, they did not deal with a single case of arson. Eleven such cases were tried at the assizes, leading to eight convictions and six executions. One of those convicted but not executed was a “half-witted” 14 year old boy. The other was 18 year old Thomas Goodman who, having been sentenced to death for the burning of Henry Atherton’s barn on December 2nd., was persuaded to claim that he was incited by hearing Cobbett speak in Battle on October 16th. After this, Goodman was granted a fourteen day stay of execution and his sentence was then commuted to transportation for life.
In October 1830, with the burnings in full swing, Cobbett toured Kent and Sussex, delivering a series of lectures in which he explained the causes and expounded the aims of the revolt. And no doubt he explained in the insurrection’s heartland, what he wrote in the article “Rural War” (pages 20-24 of this magazine), that the “proceedings would have been put an end to long ago, had it not been for the FIRES” (see page 24) .
The authorities which had already canvassed among the prisoners in Kent for witnesses against Cobbett took up Goodman’s confession and in January 1831 decided to prosecute him for incitement to “violence and disorder and to the burning and destruction of Corn, Grain, Machines and other property”.
At the trial, which was held in July, Cobbett was acquitted by a hung jury.
Articles from the Political Register and Two-Penny Trash were put into evidence against him, including the two which follow.
Cobbett’s Two-Penny Trash
For the Month of November 1830
To the Working People of England, Bolt-Court, London 1830
Amongst all the crimes that men committed against their neighbours, that which the law calls arson, and which is a malicious setting fire to their buildings or their stacks; a crime always held in great and just abhorrence, and always punished with death; and so necessary has this punishment been deemed to the safety of society, that children not more than ten years of age have been put to death for it; because it is a crime so easily committed, committed with so much secrecy, and in the commission of which. a very young person may be the instrument of grown-up persons. It is a truly abominable crime, because the commission of it may cause innocent persons to perish in the flames; and, at the very least, it may, in a moment, ruin whole families, reducing them from competence to beggary.
When, therefore, we hear of acts of this description being almost nightly committed in England, our first feeling is that of resentment against the parties; but, when we have had a little time to reflect, we are, if we be not devourers of the fruit of the people’s labours, led to ask, What can have been the cause of a state of things so unnatural as that in which crimes of this horrid kind are committed by hundreds of men going in a body, and deemed by them to be a sort of duty instead of crimes? When we put this question we are not to be answered with the assertion, that the crimes arise from the vicious disposition of the working people; because then we ask, what it is that has made them so vicious. No; this cannot be the cause. The people are of the same make and nature that they always were; the land is the same, the climate the same, the language and the religion the same, and, it is very well known, that schools and places of worship, and the circulation of the Bible and of religious books, have all been prodigiously increasing for many years, and are now more on the increase than ever. There must, therefore, be some other cause, or causes, to produce these dreadful acts in a people the most just, the most good-natured, and the most patient, in the world. I know this cause; or, rather, these causes; I know also that there is an effectual remedy of this great and melancholy evil; and I need not say, that it is my duty to state them both with perfect frankness; a duty which I shall perform as briefly and with as much clearness as I am able.
The great and general cause is the extreme poverty of the working people; or, in other words, the starving state in which they are. That Bible, which they have been taught to read, as the means of saving their souls, tells them, from one end to the other, that their bodies also are not to be left to perish for want, while the land abounds with plenty, and that plenty arising, too, from their own labour. It tells them, and they know it, that the “labourer is worthy of his hire,” and they know that that hire means a sufficiency, not only for the man who works but for his wife and children, and of clothes and fuel and lodging too, as well as of victuals and drink. Can God, who commanded that even the ox should not be muzzled as he trod out the corn, be pleased to see men, who have tilled the land, sowed the corn and reaped it and housed it, forbidden to touch the flour, and condemned to eat roots, or herbage, not sufficient to keep a pig in good plight? Every line of Holy Writ tells them, that this cannot be the will of God, while tradition, while all the sayings of their forefathers, tell them, that such a state of things is contrary also to the laws and customs of their native country.
The natural consequence is discontent; that leads to resentment. No man can suffer what he deems a wrong without feeling anger against somebody. He may be in error as to the object of his anger; but he must feel anger against somebody; and that anger will vent itself in acts, whenever he finds himself able to act. It does not signify that he gets no redress by such action. He gets revenge, and that is redress to a certain extent. Now, the working people of England know that they work hard, and that they are fed like dogs and hogs. They know, too, that their forefathers were not thus fed. That they are thus fed now is a fact, not resting upon my assertion, or upon the assertion of any man; it is a fact proved by witnesses examined before Committees of the House of Commons. I will, now, first state the case of the labourers of England; which is as follows: 1. That they have been, by degrees, brought down to the most miserable living, not fit for human beings; 2. That this has been done by the taxes; 3. That, while those who work have been, and are, half-starving, those who live on the taxes have been, and are, wallowing in luxury and shining in splendour; 4. That, as the poverty and misery of the labouring people have increased, new laws have been made, by which new and heretofore unheard-of restraints have been imposed, and new punishments and indignities without number have been inflicted upon them; 5. That, at last, so desperate has become their state, that jails, transportation, and even death, have lost their terrors, when put in comparison with the sufferings under quiet submission.
Such is the case of the labourers, of the working people, of England, whose forefathers led the happiest lives of any working people upon the face of the earth. I am, at this time, speaking more particularly of the acts of the farming labourers; but, they are not to be separated from those who make and mend the implements and the tools and the harness, and who shoe the horses and slaughter the cattle; nor are they to be separated from those who spin and weave the cloth and make the coats, the shoes, and the hats, and those who make and repair the buildings; all who labour are in the same boat; all suffer alike; and from the same causes; all are discontented; all feel the same resentment; in the above five propositions the case of them all is stated ; and now I have to prove that I have truly stated that case.
- That the working people have been, by degrees, brought down to the most miserable living, not fit for human beings. The proof of this is in the following facts; that, in 1821, before a Committee of the House of Commons, Mr. John Ellman, sen., near Lewes, Sussex, said, that 45 years before that time, when he became a farmer, every man in his parish brewed his own beer, and enjoyed it, with his family, by his own fireside, and that, now, not a single man in the parish did it, except one or two to whom he gave the malt. Before the same Committee, the High Sheriff of Wiltshire said, that the labouring people, in that county, who used formerly to eat meat and bread and drink beer, now lived wholly on potatoes, and that the ploughmen and others carried cold potatoes to a field, instead of the meat, cheese, bread and beer, that they used to carry. In 1828, a magistrate of Wiltshire (it was just the same in Berkshire) laid a scale of payment of the labourers before the Committee, showing, that to each member of a family was allowed 25/7 a day, that is to say, the price of 1¼ lb. of bread, with nothing for clothing, fuel, or lodging; that is to say, only about a third of what was allowed to the sick in the hospitals, and about a half of what was allowed to the felons in the jails, and less than a fourth of what was, and is, paid to the common private foot soldier, exclusive of clothes, lodging, fuel and candle! And, while the hardworking men were, and are, living in this misery, they see, supported out of their toil, the fat horses of the soldiers, each man and horse of them costing more than would maintain seven families at the above rate! The Berkshire jail-regulations make provision for setting the convicted prisoners, in certain cases, to work, and, they say, *If the surgeon think it necessary, the working prisoners may be allowed meat and broth on meat days “; and on Sundays, of course! There it is! There is the “envy and admiration”! There is the state to which Mr. Prosperity and Mr. Canning’s best Parliament have brought us. There is the result of “victories” and prize-money and battles of Waterloo and of English ladies kissing “Old Blucher.” There is the fruit, the natural fruit, of anti-jacobinism and battles on the Serpentine River and jubilees and heaven-born ministers and sinking funds and “public credit” and army and navy contracts. There is the fruit, the natural, the nearly (but not quite) ripe fruit of it all: the convicted felon is, if he do not work at all, allowed, on week-days, some vegetables in addition to his bread, and on Sunday, both meat and broth; and, if the convicted felon work, if he be a working convicted felon, he is allowed meat and broth all the week round; while, hear it Burdett, thou Berkshire magistrate! hear it, all ye base miscreants who have persecuted men because they sought a reform! the working convicted felon is allowed meat and broth every day in the year, while the working honest man is allowed nothing but dry bread, and of that not half a belly-full! And yet you see people that seem surprised that crimes increase! Very strange, to be sure; that men should like to work upon meat and broth better than they like to work upon dry bread! No wonder that new jails arise. No wonder that there are now two or three or four or five jails to one county, and that as much is now written upon “prison discipline” as upon almost any subject that is going. But why so good, so generous, to felons? The truth is that they are not fed too well; for to be starved is no part of their sentence; and, here are surgeons who have something to say! They know very well that a man may be murdered by keeping necessary food from him. Felons are not apt to lie down and die quietly for want of food. The jails are in large towns, where the news of any cruelty soon gets about. So that the felons have many circumstances in their favour. It is in the villages, the recluse villages, where the greatest cruelties are committed. Here, then, in this contrast between the treatment of the working felon and that of the working honest man, we have a complete picture of the present state of England; that horrible state to which, by slow degrees, this once happy country has been brought.
- That this has been caused by the taxes. Look at the progress of the taxes, which amounted to £7,000,000 a year, when the present king was born, and which now amount to £60,000,000 a year. Malt, hops, sugar, tea, soap, candles, tobacco, every thing necessary to the labouring man, is taxed so as to make him pay for them three times as much as he would pay if there were no taxes on them: because, besides the taxes, there is the monopoly. Just in proportion as the taxes have increased, the misery has increased; thus it has been in all countries, and thus it has been in this, and thus it always must be. No matter on whom the taxes are laid: each class shifts them from its own shoulders to those of the class next beneath; the landlord to those of the farmer, for instance, the farmer to those of the labourer, and him they press to the earth. In like manner the big merchant and ship-owner shift them off to the shoulders of the manufacturer and master mechanic, and they to the working people, and they are pressed to the earth.
- That while those who work have been and are, half-starving, those who live on the taxes have been, and are, wallowing in luxury and splendour. We know that it has been proved, in the House of Commons itself, that 113 Privy Councillors receive amongst them, yearly, out of the taxes, £650,000; that is to say, these 113 men receive more in one year than would maintain 32,000 labourers’ families, consisting of 160,000 souls! And this is exclusive of the bishops and the members of the Royal Family who are in the Privy Council. This is more money than it has taken to defray the expense of the whole of the civil government of America for the last twenty years! The two families of Grenville and Dundas have received more in sinecures and pensions, during the last forty years, than it has taken to support and carry on the whole of the civil government of America during that forty years. But, we must have something more full here: we must have that information which my book of “Splendid Paupers” gives us. It is a report published by the House of Commons, in 1808; and, though I have often appealed to it, I must appeal to it again now. It is the Aristocracy, and not the Royal Family, that has made the people so miserable. The Aristocracy lakes away the fruit of the labour of us all. It does it in various shapes and ways; but, pay attention to the curious specimens that I am now about to lay before you, I laid the greater part of it before my readers thirteen years ago, just after the Dungeon and Gagging Bills were passed; but, millions of children have become men and women since that year, and some who then read may have forgotten; and every word of it ought always to be fresh in the mind of every man and woman in England. After describing a report, made by a Committee, in 1817, in order to pacify the people, after the passing of the Dungeon and Gagging Bills, I proceed to give a specimen of the manner in which the Aristocracy took away the earnings of the people. Pray read, now, especially if you be a young man, and then feel as you ought to feel.
The Sinecures in the Colonies amount to £76,546 a year, exclusive of those in the Cape of Good Hope, the Isle of France, and Malta, which probably amount to as much more; for, many of the Noble Lords and their sons, and a great many of the Right Hon. and Hon. Gentlemen, fill the offices of Clerks, Harbour-Masters, Naval-Officers, Tide-Waiters, Collectors, Surveyors, &c. &c. in those countries, which countries they have never seen, except upon the map, if they have seen them even there. Some of these offices are filled by women, and fine Ladies too; and some by children; but, then, these children are of high blood and of course they have extraordinary faculties.
Without going an inch further, then, we have Sinecures to the amount of £400,000 a year. But, was it Sinecures alone that we complained of? No; we complained of ‘Sinecures, Pensions, and Grants, not fully merited by well-known public services.’ Now of Pensions and Grants, there are in the official account before me. Eleven hundred and nine names, receiving in the whole £642,621, a year! And, observe well, that I have not included here one single person, who has any pretension to public merit of any kind whatsoever, except the ‘Late Foreign Ministers,’ and it is very clear that they ought to have no pensions at all. They are paid enormous salaries while in service; their expenses going and coming are all paid; they have an enormous service of plate as an out-fit, which they keep; and, when they have finished their employment what right have they to anything more? When a man has served his master for a year, or for twenty years, does not the master cease to pay him as soon as he ceases to work? When a war is over, are not the soldiers sent away without any pay for the rest of their lives, except in the case of wounds, and what foreign minister gets wounded? The officers of the army have, indeed, half-pay, but, then, they have bought their commissions; and, besides, they have been in the service so long that they are capable of being in no other sort of employ; and, in the navy, they are actually bred up to the business from their infancy. Why, then, these immense sums to the late foreign Ministers, whose bodies are as strong, and who can find employment the same as before? Besides, no other nation wastes its means in this way. The American foreign Ministers receive, while on service, each of them about a fifth part as much per year as Canning received per year while he was at Lisbon, and they receive no pensions after their employment ceases. But, then, the American people have not the satisfaction to see such men as Canning rolling in his chariot, while they eat grains and butter-milk! The American people have not the honour to pay 20s. a bushel for English salt; but, on the contrary, I now actually pay 2s. 6d. English money for that very salt for which I used to give 20s. a bushel in London, and 19s. a bushel at Botley. People here give salt to their cattle in great abundance and to surprising advantage ; they take their hay in sometimes almost green, and throw salt amongst it, which makes it, they say, as good as hay made in the general way. Yet this very salt comes from England, yea, is made in that same England, where a poor man can hardly get salt to use with his potatoes! But, then, the Americans, as I said before, have not the honour to have Sinecure Place-men, Big Pensioners, Great Grantees, and a long list of ‘Late Foreign Ministers’, though the foreign affairs of the country are conducted with more ability than those of any other nation in the whole world. As a proof of this, compare the public papers of the American Foreign Ministers with the papers of Castlereagh, Canning, Wellesley, or any of the rest of them. Besides, the American Foreign Ministers are always amongst the very first men in the country for talent, wisdom, and integrity. Of the five Presidents, three have formerly been Foreign Ministers. And, it is to men like these that the Americans give about a fifth part as much as we give to such men as Canning and Frere! But, then, the people of America do not live upon butter-milk and grains; nor do they live upon tea and potatoes.
If, indeed, our Foreign Ministers were to serve ’till they were worn out, as a soldier or sailor must (if not wounded) in order to get a pension, the evil would not be so great; because it is clear, that we never could have above one or two at a time of these gentlemen to keep. But the fact is just the contrary. Our Foreign Ministers serve only two or three years and then home they come and have a pension for life; and, indeed, it is perfectly notorious, that the younger sons of those who have seats, are thus sent abroad to stay two or three years in order to be fastened upon the nation for life! So that there is always a long list of these ‘Late Foreign Ministers;’ and, in the account before me, there are no less than forty-seven of these persons, receiving £51,589 a year out of the earnings of the people, who are in the deepest misery for want of food and clothing! There was one of the Wynnes sent to Dresden for four years, from 1803 to 1807, for which he has ever since been receiving a pension of £1,200 a year! This is Henry Watkins Williams Wynne. Not ‘Squeaking WYNNE,’ but a brother of his, and brother also to Sir Watkin, who is so famed for the loyalty, with which he is said to have been inspired, during the last war. Faith! this loyalty was no such foolish thing for Sir Watkin’s family! There are people who laugh at these Wynnes! but, the Wynnes might, with much more reason, laugh at them. This grave Ambassador was about twenty-one years of age when he went to Dresden. He is, of course, now about thirty-five; and if the system were to go on, till he were threescore and ten years old, he would receive £47,600 in principal money; and, if we were to reckon, as we ought, the interest and compound interest, he would receive £155,400 for his four years of service at Dresden! Besides a thumping salary while he was there! This is no visionary idea, for in the same list, there is a John Osborne, a relation of the Duke of Leeds, who was envoy at this same petty Court of Dresden four years, from 1771 to 1775, and he received a pension of £800 a year up to 1808 (the date of the account now before me); so that, in 1808, this gentleman had received, in principal money £26,400 besides his salary for four years’ Envoyship, and, if he be alive now, he has received £33,600 for the four years’ service. The interest and compound interest, which always ought to be reckoned in these cases, would make his sum surpass £100,000 for four years’ envoyship at Dresden, besides his salary for the four years. I find a Richard Shepherd upon this list, who is our friend the great law man’s son. This person was Charge d’affaire at Munich for two years, for which he has been receiving a pension of £250 a year for 18 years already; and, if his father can find law enough to uphold the system, he may receive it, or a bigger pension, for forty years longer, if so long he shall live!
It is farcical to pretend that these pensions are given for public services. These are able men, or they are not; if they are, why not employ them instead of new ones. If they are not, how can they merit a pension as late foreign ministers? I think it would puzzle brother Shepherd himself to get clear of this dilemma.
No, no! the Reformers prayed for the abolition, and at once too, of ‘all Sinecures, Pensions, and Grants, not fully merited by we/I-known public services;’ and, of course, they prayed for the abolition of the expense of £51,589 a year, amongst the other sums, paid annually to pensioners and grantees.
I have included in my above enumeration and statement not one name, not one sum, that comes fairly under the head of real public services. There may, indeed, be persons to differ from me in opinion as to what are public services, and what are not public services. These persons, such as the sublime and profound Lord Milton for instance, would probably contend, that the notorious Burke’s services were really of a public nature and of immense national benefit.
Of course, he would think, that, though Burke got a pension of £3000 a year for his own life, and £1200 a year for the life of Mrs. Burke, and, besides these, a grant of £2500 a year for five other lives; of course. Lord Milton would think, that public money could not possibly be better laid out! This last grant is a most curious thing. The pension for his own life and then one for Mrs. Burke’s life after him are nothing new. It is no more than those provident gentlemen and good husbands, Messrs. Long, Huskisson, Nepean, King, and hundreds of others, have done. But, to provide beforehand a grant of public money to be left to Executors at the Grantee’s death, is really something more shameless than I should have expected even the shameless Burke to ask; and, I leave the world to guess at the state of abject subjection in which Mr. Pitt was to the Boroughmongers, when he could give his consent to such a profligate grant, and that too to the man whom, of all men living, he despised the most. This grant is so great a curiosity, that I will transcribe it word for word.
“Grant to the Executors of the late Edmund Burke, annual amount, £2500. By authority of two patents, dated 24th Oct. 1793. That is to say, £1160 during the life of Lord Royston and the Hon. and Rev. Anchild Grey. And, £1340 during the life of the Princess Amelia, Lord Althorp, and Wm. Cavendish, Esq.”
Now, whether a calculation of these lives were made and the Grant sold, as it might be, as soon as it was obtained; or, whether it really was bequeathed to ‘Executors,’ perhaps Lord Milton the sublime, or Mr. William Elliott the beautiful, may be able to tell; but, I rather more than believe, that it was my exposure of this vile transaction, in a Register of November last, which drew forth from the latter, in the month of January, those vehement charges against the publishers of ‘Weekly Venom;’ and, at any rate, I am quite sure, that the nation continues to pay this £2500 a year to somebody, and that it will continue to pay it as long as Lord Milton and Mr. William Elliot shall have seats in Parliament.
What! And are there men in the world, not notorious robbers, to approve of such things as these! ‘Ah!’ says the Courier, ‘but they are vested rights; and, if you begin by seizing them, you may end by seizing people’s goods in their houses.’ If this be all we want to authorize the seizure, we may seize away; for how many thousand persons have had their beds sold from under them to pay the taxes since this grant was made! Thus the beginning to seize has actually taken place. But, what are we to seize? The grant is nothing in substance. We want to seize nothing. We only want not to be compelled to pay the amount of it any longer. We want to be able to live without Burke’s executors coming to seize our goods. We want not to be obliged to go naked and hungry in consequence of our earnings being taken away in this manner. And, because we complain, that £60,000 of the money, raised in taxes upon our beer, soap, candles, &c., have been given to this Burke, are we to be called Jacobins and Revolutionists? He, his wife and his executors, have already received about £66,000 of principal money out of the taxes, and as the lives are some of them very young yet, the executors may, possibly, receive as much more. If we reckon the interest, as we ought, this hireling writer; the trumpeter of that war, a ‘transition from which to peace’ has, upon the showing of the Boroughmongers themselves, produced unparalleled misery throughout a whole nation; if we reckon the interest, this base man, who prostituted his great talents to the vilest and most wicked of purposes, will, in the whole, if the system go on, have received by himself and his executors, a quarter of a million of the public money; and, because we complain of this, we are to be held forth as promulgating sedition and blasphemy!
The late Marquis of Buckingham has not received less, from his sinecure, than £700,000 of principal money; the Marquis Camden £700,000; Lord Arden not less than £500,000; the Seymours not less than £400,000; Garnier not less than £250,000; the Knoxes £400,000; Lord Hobart £400,000; the Dukes of Richmond, Grafton, Marquis Bute, Lord Melville, and others, each nearly half a million at least; and many, many others £200,000 and £100,000 each. Some £50,000 and so on; till, if we take a view of the last 57 years, since His Majesty has been upon the throne, and take in all the grants of money, given for no known public services, we shall find here what it is that has swelled up what is called the National Debt. But, of this we will speak more at large by and by, when we have asked a little more about the public services of the persons who receive the immense sums of money of which we have been speaking. Can any one imagine what public services were ever rendered by any of the persons just named? And by the Marchioness of Stafford? Yet her ladyship is down for £300 a year, though her husband has scores of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands a year in his own estates. Lady Grenville of course being bone of bone and flesh of flesh with her Lord, has rendered what some people might call services; but have they not been pretty decently paid for in that husband’s enormous salaries; and in the £118,000 of principal money, which he has received from his Sinecure as Auditor of the Exchequer? And are we to be called seditious, are we, because we complain of these things? We are to be muzzled and choked, that these people may not even be disturbed by our cries! My God! And, is this always to go on? There is Lady Augusta Murray, now called D’Amiland, who was married at Rome to the Duke of Sussex. A very virtuous lady, I dare say, but what has she done to merit £3417 a year out of the taxes? This lady has not received, in this way, less than £50,000 of the public money, principal money; and, for what? Mrs. Huskisson is to have a pension after her husband’s death: and for what? He has a pension of £1200 a year for life, when he is out of place; so has Lord Minto, and the family of this latter are all provided for out of the taxes. Now, what have they done to merit this of us who pay the taxes?
There is no end to these instances. Only think of Cumberland, the play-writer, having had a pension, and his daughters now being upon the list of those who live upon the sums which we pay on our beer, soap, &c. There are whole troops of fine ladies; whole families of children, of whose fathers we never even heard, who are kept out of the fruit of our labour. Let us take a few instances as they stand in the Account.
“Grant, by Warrant dated 20th May, 1799, to W. Borrows, Esq., in trust for Mary and Maria Hun, during their lives and the survivor of them, for £500 a year.”
These are the mother and half-sister of Canning. Great merit in his eyes perhaps; but what have they done for us? Mrs. Hun, they say, was once a most excellent play-actress, and, doubtless, a very worthy woman; but, in the name of all that is false and corrupt, I ask what claim she has to the taxes that we pay upon our beer and candles and tea?
“Grant of £400 a year to the Reverend H. Hobart and Mr. John Sullivan in trust for five children of the late George Hobart, Esq. during the lives of the five children, and after the death of four, £200 a year for the survivor.”
“Pension to Lord FitzHarris, to begin at the death of his father,” the Earl of Malmsbury. There is a provident young man!
A grant in trust for
“Mary Anne Herries, a year… £300
Catherine Herries… £150
Isabella Maria Herries… £150
Julia Mary Herries… £150
Lady Louisa Paget… £300
Same (now Lady L. Erskine)… £300”
This is a sister of the Marquis of Anglesey.
“A grant to Lord Sydney and the Rev. T. Selwyn, intrust, for
Charlotte Selwyn, a year… £100
Albina Frances Selwyn… £100
Maria Louisa Selwyn… £100
Henrietta E. Selwyn… £100”
These, I suppose, are the daughters of this Reverend Gentleman who is a relation of Lord Sidney. They may be called lucky girls, indeed: and, certainly, they have got very pretty names; but, let us come to conscience with the Reverend Gentleman, and ask him what right he has to fasten his four daughters upon our backs? What justice there is in taking away our bread and giving it to his daughters, while we are reduced to grains and potatoes? Whether he can find any precept for this in that Gospel which he is so well paid for teaching? And whether, while these things exist, it be not monstrously impudent in his brother MALTHUS, to pretend, that, to relieve the poor is to encourage population improperly, and that the poor labourers have no right to relief for their hungry children, seeing, ‘that it is their own fault if they have more children than they can support out of their own labour?’ I should like to hear what brother Selwyn would say, if these questions were put home to him, as they doubtless will be one of these days. I dare say brother Selwyn is a Magistrate, and that he regards my Register as both seditious and blasphemous.
“Grant to Anna Maria, Duchess Dowager of Newcastle, a year… £1,000
Lady Sarah Napier… £368
Louisa Mary Napier… £162
Emily Louisa Augusta Napier… £162”
“Grant in trust to Sir George Osborn and John Ley, for Jane Wraxall… £400”
Sarah Pierson… £27
Mary Pierson… £27
Diana Anne Pierson… £27
Frances Pierson… £27
Reverend Thomas Pierson… £130”
Here is another Reverend Gentleman’s family quartered upon us for life!
“Grant to Robert Halifax and Catherine Halifax, widow, in trust for
Gertrude Halifax, a year… £60
Charlotte Halifax… £60
Marianne Halifax… £60
Caroline Halifax… £60
Catherine Halifax… £60
Elizabeth Halifax… £60”
”The Right Hon. Thos. Steel” has his sinecure of £1,633 a year, though he, too, was proved to have misapplied the public money, to give to his conduct the mildest of terms. Is this not a shame? And, are we to be crammed into dungeons if we complain of these things? We will complain of them; and, we will persevere, till we obtain justice.
The Hon. Robert C. Clements is a Searcher and Packer of the Ports in Ireland; Sir Richard Hardinge is Surveyor-General of the Ports; Sir George Shee is Receiver-General; Hon. Edw. Acheson is Customer and Collector; two of the notorious Beresfords are Storekeepers; John Beresford and James D. Beresford are Wine-Tasters; Lord Robert Seymour is a Craner and Wharfinger; Earl Roden is another Searcher; Right Hon. Earl of Avonmore is another Searcher and Packer; the Earl of Donoughmore is another Searcher and Packer; Marquis of Drogheda and Mr. Bagwell are Muster-Masters-General. All this is in Ireland, and fifty times as much more.
It is notorious, that these people are no such thing as they are here called; but, they receive amongst them, on account of these pretended occupations, £15,200. Mr Abbot, the Speaker, has for many years, received £1,500 a year for keeping the Signet in Ireland, where there is no signet to be kept. The Wyndhams, younger sons of the family of the Earl of Egremont, hold places in the Colonies that yield them nearly £20,000 a year. And, what for? What have they ever done for the country, except to help ruin it by voting for wars and loans? Is it seditious, is it blasphemous, to complain that a waste like this is made of the people’s labour, and that these two Wyndhams spend of the nation’s money as much every year as would keep a thousand labouring families, amounting to four or five thousand persons?
Is this blasphemous? It is indeed most horrible blasphemy to attempt to justify such wicked acts; and this is a sort of blasphemy that I hope yet to see punished.
However, let us get on a little with our broods of Pensioners: for, it is very material to expose the atrocious falsehood, that these things have been given as rewards for Public Services.
“Grant, dated 1807, to James Earl of Lauderdale
Misses Barlow, the two Ladies Howard, the three Misses Harnage, have pensions to be paid by us, who never heard of their names before? Why should Ernestine Lawrence have £200 of our money every year, except on account of her or his pretty foreign name? for, I really do not know whether it be the name of a woman or a man.
“Pension to Sir Luke Wettestein, in trust for Sir Luke Schwab’s daughters, per years £200.”
These are foreigners: there can be no doubt of that. The Prince of Mecklinburgh Strelitz is in this list for £2000 a year La Comtesse D’Alton, £300 a year. There are many other foreigners on the Pension List. And yet, the Act of Parliament, in virtue of which the present family sit on the throne, declares, in the most clear and most positive manner that no one, who is not a natural-born subject of the King of England, shall hold a pension, or any place of profit or of trust, under the Crown. There is no act of naturalization, which can remove this impediment; and yet, this great law, made, as its title imports, for the preservation of our rights and liberties, has been paid no more regard to by the Ministers than if it had been an old ballad! They violate it every day; they live in a continual violation of it. They talk of illegal practices, indeed! They bring men to punishment for violation of the laws! What, is there no punishment for them, then? Are they to violate the laws with impunity; and that, too, in the most barefaced and most insolent manner? Are they never to be brought to justice; and, if we charge them with these violations of the laws; nay, if we humbly complain, and pray that the violations may cease, are they for ever to charge us with sedition and blasphemy for so doing, and to ride off themselves with impunity? I take my facts from an official account, made out by the Ministers and laid before the Parliament. What audacity! What a contempt of the law, to dare to lay before the Parliament these numerous proofs of a gross violation of it! But, indeed, the Ministers knew well who it was that they were submitting this account to. They would have taken special care not to have laid such an account before a Parliament chosen by the people at large; and here it is that we see the real reason for all the opposition to a Reform.
There is a Mr. Joseph Hunt, who was, some years ago, obliged to abscond in consequence of a misapplication of the public money; that very man has two pensions, amounting to £1037 a year! And this is a reward for public services!
[There is a lot more, which scanned imperfectly and I have left out.]
“Grant to Marie Claudine Silphie Duchess Fitz-James,, £200 a year, grant dated 22nd. Sept. 1806.”
This is so very audacious a thing that one can hardly believe one’s own eyes, till we see by the date, that it was the Whigs, the precious Whigs, who committed this act of profligate violation of law. This person is not only a Frenchwoman, the wife of a Frenchman, but that Frenchman is a descendant, as his name imports, from that very James the Second who was driven from the throne of England to make way for the present family! And this very Duke Fitz-James’s father had been one of the aiders and abettors of the Pretender! Where the honest Whigs, honest and faithful Whigs, looked to discover the Public Services which tempted them to this outrageous breach of the law, they will, perhaps, by-and-by, be induced to tell us.
My eye happening to drop upon Marie Claudine Silphie led me away from my family parties; and, it is useless to return to them, unless I had Parson Ma/thus by the ear to ask him, at every moment, why he does not apply his arguments to these abominable lists of paupers in high life. He would deny relief to the labourer, who is obliged to give away in taxes one half of what ought to go to support his family; but, he very quietly sees these swarms, who never have worked at all, receiving relief out of those very taxes, more than three-fourths of which the labouring classes pay!
One cannot help wondering at the shamelessness of Noblemen and Gentlemen in suffering themselves to be called Tide-Waiters, Harbour-Masters, Searchers, Packers, Craners, Clerks, Wharfinger, Prothonotaries, and the like; or, that such a man as Lord Charles Spencer, a brother of the Duke of Marlborough, should suffer himself to be stuck into the Pension List for £1,000 a year, when all the world knows, that he never performed the smallest quantity of public service in his life. There is a Baroness who is ‘Sweeper of the Mall in the Park’ for £340 a year; but, what is out of nature as well as shameless, is, that the Sisters of the Earl of Nottrington are with him joint Clerk of the Hanaper!
At first, when I looked over these Lists (for there are forty-seven separate lists), I wondered who the people could be. The Brudenels, the Seymours, the Talbots, the Herberts, Finches, Wyndhams, Hays, Cockburns, Selwyns, &c. &c. But upon closer examination, I found the far greater part of all these broods of pensioners belonging, in one way or another, to the great families; or, in other words, to the Boroughmongers, and those dependent upon them. It is true, that Lord Fitzwilliam and his
son have no places or pensions; but, Burke, their grand tool, took a fine bite out of our flesh. In short, we have only to look at the immense sums of public money, which are expended in this way, and observe well who it is that really has the disposing of these sums, to make us cease to wonder at the desperate deeds which are resorted to in order to prevent such a Reform as would enable the people, by their real representatives, to superintend the expending of the public money.
But, though the amount of the Sinecures, Pensions, and Grants, merited by no public service whatever, is enormous, these form only a part of what the Borough families receive out of the taxes. The fat things of that great gulf of expense, the Army, are almost wholly theirs. The post of Colonel of a Regiment is a sinecure in fact; and, if you look into the List, you will not find twenty, out of nearly two hundred, which are not in the hands of the Borough families. So it is with the Staff. So it is as to those enormous Sinecures, the Governorships of fortresses, castles, islands, provinces, &c., &c., which amount to immense sums; and, indeed, if you consider how small a portion of the money voted for the army really is wanted for the soldiers, you must see how this multitude of millions have gone, and how they still go, and must go, as long as the system goes on unreformed.
Now, my friends (first pulling off our hats), let us just peep into the Church, for there are some very good things there. There are three enormously rich Bishopricks, Canterbury, Durham, and Winchester, the revenues and the livings to be given in which are worth, probably, £150,000 a year. The first of these is held by a Cousin of the Duke of Rutland; the second by the Uncle of Viscount Barrington; and the third by the Uncle of the Earl of Guildford. Then out of the rest, twelve are held by the relations of great Noble Boroughmen; so that, out of the twenty-six in number, there are fifteen in the hands of real blood relations of Borough owners, or Borough Patrons of the Noble Order; and in amount of income and preferment, these fifteen are ten times as great as the other eleven. So that the Borough families have ten elevenths, at least, of the Bishopricks.
Now, let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the eleven other Bishopricks are filled without any portion of Borough influence. This is supposing a monstrous deal; but, we will, for a moment, so suppose. The Borough families form about one ten-thousandth part of the people; and, will any wretch alive, even the impudent man of the Courier, pretend to believe, that there are ten times more piety and scholarship in this ten-thousandth part, than in all the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine parts? What has been proved of Bishopricks applies to Livings, or Benefices of inferior value. All the rich ones are filled by the relations, or dependents, of the Borough gentlemen; and thus, in reality, the Property of the Church is theirs almost wholly.
As to the Law, that other great department of emolument, power, and honours, the Borough families are obliged to be content with patronage, and that too but in a moderate degree; for, the law requires, and it will have, Talents and Industry. Hence we have seen Wedderburn, Thurlow, Kenyon, Scott, Mitford, Law, and many others, beat their way up from the ragged Bar to the Peerage; not, indeed, in defiance of the Borough gentlemen, but, at the same time, without much of dependence upon them; and, what is very curious to observe, that, while we see all the other rich posts filled by the Borough families, they have scarcely ever put their noses into the active posts of the Law, though some of them rain showers of gold. But, though it is very true, that an Attorney General, a Chief Justice, or a Lord Chancellor, may, by mere possibility, be a superlative villain, it is impossible that he can be a fool.
Observe, however, that I speak only of the active posts even of the Law; for, as we have seen, the Borough families engross no small share of the sinecure emoluments of that profession too. But, while in the Army and the Church they are at the head, in the law they are at the tail. In the two former, they are Generals and Commanders and Colonels of Regiments, and Bishops and Deans and Archdeacons and Prebends. But, in the latter, they are Prothonotaries, Clerks, Filazers, Sealers of Writs, Ushers, Door-keepers, &c. In the two former they are decorated with the double Epaulet and the Truncheon; with the Mitre and the Red-Thing (I do not know what they call it) which goes over the shoulders above the surplus. But, in the Courts of Law, while men who have risen from “the Lower Orders” (as they call us) are decked out in the Big Wigs and in Purple and Scarlet and Ermined Robes, those high-blooded gentry stoop to the cam/et gown and the wand. The Duke Of Grafton, for instance, is the Sealer in the Court of King’s Bench at £2,886 a year, while the Honourable Louisa Browning and Lady B. Mostyn are Custos Brevium in the Court of Common Pleas! Lord Walsingham is in the petty office of Comptroller of first-fruits in the Court of Exchequer at £150 a year; and Arabella Walker Heneage (a relation of the Earl of Aylesford) is the Chief Usher! A pretty office enough for a high-blooded Lady! Three of the Moores, two of them Clergymen, and all relations of the Earl of Mount-Cashel, are the Register in the Prerogative Court, at £3,670 a year, while an honest coal-merchant’s son is the Judge. In the Court of Chancery, Lord W Bentinck fills the petty office of Clerk of the Pipe, though he is the son of a Duke. Thus it goes all through; and, indeed, so very fit are those high-blooded gentry for high stations in the Army and low ones in the Law, that many of them who are surprisingly great in arms are compelled to stand in camlet gowns and bare-headed before the Judges! This Lord William Bentinck, for instance, who is Clerk of the Pipe in the Court of Chancery, and part of whose office it is to attend the man who holds up the tail of the Lord Chancellor’s Robe when he enters and leaves the Court; yes, this very identical Clerk of the Pipe is a Lieutenant-General in the Army, though, when in his other office, he assists the train-bearer to a Coal Merchant’s Son, as the present Lord Chancellor is. Very nearly the same, is the case in numerous instances. Even the “Great Duke” himself is nothing more than a Remembrancer in the Court of Exchequer in Ireland. It is curious, too, that, now and then one of the Borough race, who have tried the Law, and, having given up all hopes of its honours, have very coolly condescended to share in its sinecure profits. Thus the Right Honourable Charles Yorke, who long went the Western Circuit in vain in search of briefs, appears to have discovered, at last, that, though court-sycophancy may be hereditary from the grandfather, talents from the law are not; and he therefore, instead of getting upon the bench, has, through the interest of his Borough-patron brother, the Earl of Hardwicke, secured for Life, £3,000 a year as Clerk of the Pells in the Court of Exchequer, to the Bench of which Court, at least, he once aspired.
I could go much further, and show, that, in fact, it is the Borough-families who have done all the mischief.-But, you, my friends, must see that it is so. In one character or another they have swallowed up the fortunes of some, and the very bread of others. No wonder that they are loath to part with their power, which power laces all the earnings of the people in their hands. No wonder that they have called us revolutionists, jacobins, and seditious dogs, for praying to them to give us up our right to choose one of the Houses of Parliament. They talk of checks and balances in the Constitution; and, yet, they have now upon their table a petition presented by Lord Grey, in 1793, offering to prove at the Bar, that one hundred and thirty persons of the Upper House sent a majority into the Lower House! What check, what balance, can there be in such a state of things?
If Jack, Will, and Dick, have the joint power of making laws; if all questions be decided by a majority of votes; and if Jack nominates Will and makes him vote as he pleases; is it not Jack who has the absolute power of making what laws he pleases; and is it not an insult to poor King Dick and to the common sense of mankind to talk about checks and balances? What we wanted was a House chosen by the Commons, that is to say, the people at large. There is a Lords’ House, and we wanted a Commons’ House. Then, indeed, there would have been real checks and balances; and the King would have had some real power of his own. But, to show that he has none, as things are now, we have only to compare the sums which his sons receive out of the public money with the sums received by many of the Borough gentlemen. Lords Arden, Camden, Buckingham, and several others, have, for many years, been receiving twice as much a year as three of the King’s sons receive. I believe that the family of Granville, in all its branches, received before the death of the Marquis of Buckingham, more per annum than the Royal Family, leaving out the King and Queen. I believe that the Seymour family, or the Manners family, either of them receive more now. Could this be the case, if the King had his due share of real authority; or, could this be the case for one single hour, if there were a Commons’ House of Parliament? No; and this the Borough gentlemen know full well; and, therefore, we need not wonder at the efforts they make, at the shameful and desperate deeds they resort to, in order to prevent the existence of such a House. Leases of Crown Lands is a monstrous thing. Only think of the Duke of Portland’s lease in Marylebone parish! In short, they have all the real power; and, of course, they will cut and carve for themselves.
But, they have now an enemy to deal with, whom they will never subdue; that is the Debt, which of course, is our true and faithful friend. The wars against America and France, the chief object of both of which was to prevent a reform of Parliament, could not be carried on without loans, or without the giving up of the emoluments before mentioned, and to retain them was the object in preventing a Reform. Yet, it was impossible to raise money enough in taxes to continue these emoluments and to carry on the wars too. Hence the Debt, the Funds, the Paper-Money, and those rivals of the Borough Gentlemen, the Fundholders. This is a serious business for the high-blooded order; for either they must give up their emoluments and their estates into the bargain, or the Fundholders must go unpaid, in part at least. This is the real state of the thing at this moment. the Borough system approaches its crisis. Have patience, my worthy Countrymen; only a little patience, and you will see that these borrowers and these lenders will, at last, do like most other borrowers and lenders; that is to say, come to an open quarrel, after having long cursed each other in their hearts.
That will be the day for the people, and in anxious expectation of that day, I shall now proceed to make a remark or two upon two or three particular parts of the above statements of facts; and to those remarks I beg your particular attention; for, my friends, here it is that we are to look for the real cause of the ill-will that now fills the bosoms of the working people.
Lord Stanhope warned the Lords, last winter, of the danger with which they were menaced by the open war that had begun between the poor and the rich. I have, for 16 years, been warning them of the dangers of this war. The war is come; and the real cause of it is things like those above stated, of the existence of which the working people have long been apprised. Let me now advert to two or three particulars; and then put it to the rich, whether it be possible that the working people should not burn with resentment; and whether the wonder is, not that they have now broken out into acts of violence, but that they should have been patient and submissive so long.
In the above selection there is Lady Louisa Paget, and then she is, again, down for another pension as Lady Louisa Erskine. This is a sister of the Marquis of Anglesey, and, of course, a daughter of the late Earl of Uxbridge. Burdett harangued on this pension twenty-eight years ago! Well may the people hate and pelt him! But, here are the mother and sister of Herries; and, in the pensioner Juliana Hay, we have the wife of the younger Hobhouse, who was, along with his master, pelted from the Hustings of Covent-Garden, in the month of August last. Now, it is literally impossible that any of these women could ever have rendered any service to the country. What they got and get was, then, so much in gift to them out of the public money, part of which the working people had to pay. And why should any of us, and especially the working people, be compelled to keep these people in ease and gentility? If we, in the industrious walks of life, fall into poverty, we must submit to its pains and disgrace: nay, to reproach for becoming ”paupers.” Why, then, when any of the aristocratic race become poor, are they to be kept in luxury by us? Why do not the rich aristocracy maintain their poor parents and children, as we are compelled to maintain ours?
This is a very striking thing, and worthy of our best attention. An old labouring man of Ticehurst, in Sussex, came to me for advice, some years ago, in great agitation of mind, his case being this: he had a son, who was dead, and who had left a widow and four children, whose poverty had compelled them to apply to the parish for relief. The grandfather, nearly fourscore years of age, had, by hard labour and great frugality, got and kept a couple of cottages, yielding about £15 a year, which, together with a little dealing or huckstering, enabled him to live without going to the poor-house. The law compels the grandfather, if he be of ability, to keep the grand-children from the parish. The farmers of the parish, for whom the children worked, mind, paid them part in wages and part in poor-rates. They demanded that the grandfather should pay the latter part! The old man said, that if he did this, he must go to the poor-house himself. “Oh! no,” said they, “you can sell the cottages, and the money will keep you for some time at any rate!” When the old man repeated this saying to me, he exclaimed, with tears in his eyes, “And this is what I am to come to at the end of sixty years of hard work, and never wasting a penny in my life!” “D- them!” said I, “and look here!” and, taking down the pension and sinecure list, I showed him the hundreds upon hundreds of masters and misses of the nobles and the rich, for the support of whom he had been labouring and pinching all his life long. Old as he was, he had blood enough in him to make him utter his feelings of indignation, not unaccompanied with vows of vengeance. I remember that I particularly pointed out to him the Herrises and the Hays, and one of whom had as much out of us in a month as his four grandchildren got from the parish in a year! There are no words that can do justice to one’s rage in a case like this. Men cannot talk about it. To complain argues baseness: men must either be silent or act.
Base and insolent vagabonds, like those at Batley, mentioned in the last Number of the Trash, call upon the working people to save their money; to put it in savings-banks and friendly societies! Vagabonds! why do they not save theirs? The working-classes are to save their money to keep them from the poor-book. Why do not these lazy and insolent vagabonds save theirs, to keep them from the pension and sinecure list? Oh yes! the working people are to be frugal and abstemious in order to be independent. Why do not these vagabonds practise these virtues in order to preserve their independence?
After this view of the treatment of the working people; after seeing many of them transported by the Squires and Lords for endeavouring to catch a hare, pheasant, or partridge; after making them endure the effects of Sturgess Bourne’s Bills; after seeing them compelled to draw carts and wagons like cattle; after seeing them sold by auction; after seeing man separated by force from wife to prevent them from the conjugal intercourse; after seeing one tyrant condemning men to starvation if they married before the age of thirty; and another condemning them to starvation if they kept a gun in their houses; after all this, who is to wonder at what we now behold!
What are the remedies, then: 1. Abolish the Game Laws totally and instantly. 2. Repeal Sturges Bournes cruel Bills. 3. Repeal Peel’s Apple-Felony and new Trespass Laws. 4. Abolish the Tread-mill and hellish solitary cells. 5. Restore the Law of England, and especially the trial by jury. 6. Abolish the Malt and Hop tax. And then there may be peace and safety until a reform of the parliament can be made. Then, instantly, let the farmers, in every parish, call together all the people, women as well as men, and explain to them the cause of their inability to pay them a sufficiency of wages. Have a petition ready for them all to sign, praying for the above things; sign it along with them; bid them hope that their prayers will be attended to; and then they would wait with patience. They would see, that they were embarked in company with their masters, that these made common cause with them; and the plague would be stayed.
There is no other remedy; and, if the farmers be too proud to do this; if their heads be still full of the Yeomanry Cavalry notions; if they persevere in relying on threats, or on force, these dangers and sufferings are only just beginning. Oh, good God! how often have I painted, or endeavoured to paint, the ruinous and devastating effects of the infernal system of paper-money, and particularly as relating to rural life and affairs! How often have I said, that this hell-born Scotch system, by drawing capital into great masses, and thereby annihilating small farms, had broken the chain which connected the landlord with the labourer! How often have I deplored the day when the accursed system of banking broke in sunder this nicely-connected series of English society, and divided the country people into two classes, masters and slaves, the former despising the latter, and the latter hating the former! Not a village is there in the whole kingdom, in which there are not several half-starved labourers, who, or whose fathers, were farmers. They can see no just cause for their fall: they are unable to trace the effect to any cause: but, their anger is the same as if they could. If they could see that it is the devil-hatched system of funding; if they could see, that they owe their ruin to bands of Jews and loan-mongers and such-like devils, their rage would be against them; but, not seeing the distant and hidden cause, they lay upon that which is near and visible. The farmers are, in fact, the unconscious agents of the aristocracy and the loan and fund-jobbers. What! and do they not see this now? Has it not been explained to them often enough? Well, then, let them take their reward!
As for Me, my friends, the whole body of aristocracy and loan-jobbers have sought my destruction for nearly thirty years. They are now in the situation into which I said they would bring themselves; and let them get out as they can! and, in that hope I remain, what I always have been, your sincere and zealous friend,
(Political Register, December 1830.)
London, 2nd Dec., 1830
This war continues with unabated fury. The parsons, during the war against the republicans of France, used to cry out incessantly for a Vigorous prosecution of the war. They have got a pretty vigorous one now! This war will be attended with one benefit, at any rate; it will open the eyes of the brave French nation with regard to the real state of England; it will show them what are the effects of national debts and funding systems. I shall begin this week in my account of, or remarks on, this war, by addressing myself to the spirited editor of La Revolution Paris newspaper, who has lately had his paper suspended under a law of the tyrant, Charles X., which has been rigorously executed by the “Citizen King of the best possible Republic.” My English readers will see what I say to the French with regard to this war. I have often used this manner of speaking to my own countrymen; and it is a very good one, because it renders proper a fullness of explanation, which, though necessary, would appear impertinent, if addressed directly to Englishmen. In three short Letters to the editor of La Revolution, I have, and I hope clearly, explained the causes of this Rural War; and when the reader has gone through them, I shall have to beg his attention to some remarks on the recent events of this “vigorous war,” as the parsons used to call the war that they prayed for during twenty-two years.
P.S. I will, in the course of next week, give a petition to some peer, with a request that he will present it to the House of Lords. this petition shall contain my prayer for measures to be now adopted, to prevent general anarchy and ruin. I have, many times, petitioned both Houses for the same purposes; but I will now repeat my prayers, that they may be fresh in people’s minds. Men now begin to talk familiarly of the very things which I have been, for twenty years, strenuously recommending; and, happen what may, I am resolved to be known to have been right.
The state of this country ought to be made known to the people of France; and the way to do this, is to give a description of it under the name of some person well known to the public, and who thereby makes himself answerable for that which he says. It is further necessary, that the description, published by you, be also published in England, in order to avoid the charge of libel, and to adhere to a maxim which all honest men observe, namely, to say nothing behind a man’s back that you dare not say to his face. This has been the rule of my life; and this rule I will now follow, in a series of letters, which I propose to address to you, on the state of England; which it is of the greatest importance that the People of France clearly understand; because it will show them how this powerful nation has been made feeble, and how this happy people has been made miserable, by the means of Taxation; it will show them that this taxation has been caused by the Public Debt, by a Standing Army, and by Pensions and Sinecures, and it will show that these have been occasioned by laws made by an hereditary aristocracy, and by a House of Commons not chosen by the people at large, but chosen by the aristocracy and the rich. By showing these things to the people of France, you will enable them to judge correctly with respect to what they ought to do with regard to these three great matters, the Public Debt, the Hereditary Aristocracy and the Manner Of Choosing Representatives.
Before I proceed to give you a description of the present state of England, I ought to observe to you, that England is, in fact, the whole kingdom in point of real importance; for that, though a considerable part of Ireland is rich in soil, and though it contains half as many people as England, it is so stripped of its products, its people have so long been accustomed to a degraded existence, and the political factions have contrived to make the people so hostile in feeling towards the English, that that miserable country is, in a political point of view, of no weight whatever; and, as to Scotland, it is worth less, and pays a less clear amount of taxes, than the single county of York; nay, my belief is, that, as a source of national power, either the counties of Kent, Devon, Norfolk or Lincoln, is of more value than the whole of Scotland, which is, besides, a land for the breeding of Government dependents and servile tools of tyranny.
What, as to the political state and weight of these two countries, do you want more than these two facts; that, while every county, town and village, in England, was sending addresses to the late persecuted Queen CAROLINE; while, in fact, all England expressed its resolution to defend her, and made that resolution good; not one single address, not one single demonstration of compassion, did she receive from either of those countries.
And now, with regard to the brave men of Paris; while there is no county in England which has not produced several subscriptions; while even the working people of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and, indeed, of every county, while even the villages in the counties of Kent and of Sussex have sent their mites, not one single sous has been sent from Ireland or from Scotland. It is not that the mass of the people in those countries are not good in their nature; but they are so completely kept down by selfish faction in the one country and by greedy place-hunters in the other, that they are rendered of no avail with regard to political influence. It is, therefore, from the state of England alone that you have to judge, and that state I will describe to you in my next letter.
I am, Sir, your most obedient servant, WM. COBBETT.
You hear of great commotion in England, and particularly of the fires which are now blazing in twenty-six counties out of forty that England contains. These fires consume barns and other farm-buildings, and stacks or ricks, of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas and hay; and sometimes the value of these, in one single farm-yard, amounts to a hundred thousand francs or more. The country working people are causing this destruction, which is spreading into every part of England. You will be sure that this terrible state of things has not taken place without A CAUSE; this cause I will explain to you, and in that explanation you will see the REAL STATE OF ENGLAND, all the causes of her feebleness, and of the slavery and misery of her once free and happy people.
The working people of England were, in all former times, better off, better fed, clothed, and lodged, than any other working people in the world. Their rights and their happiness seem to have been the chief object of the laws of England in all former times. During the predominance of the Roman Catholic religion, the municipal laws so far interfered with the property of the Church as to make it conducive to the relief of the indigent. When that religion was put down, and the property of the Church grasped by the aristocracy, a law was passed to cause provision to be made for all indigent persons. This famous law, passed in the 43rd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, appointed officers for each parish, to impose a tax on land and house, and thus to raise without any limit, whatever money might be wanted for the relief and support of persons unable to provide a sufficiency for themselves. So that there can, if this law be duly enforced, be no person in England to suffer for want. This law is called the POOR-LAW; and I beg you to bear in mind the description that I have given of it.
The working people, especially the country working people, lived in the happiest state that can be imagined, until the reign of George Ill. His war against our brethren in America, which added greatly to the taxes of the nation, made a great change for the worse; it made the people poorer than they had ever been before, but they still lived tolerably well; much better than the working people of any other country in Europe. It was the long and expensive war against the republic of France that brought them down to real poverty. Before the American war began, it was a rare thing that any one, even amongst the aged and the widows, had occasion to apply for aid from the poor-taxes; that war made this mark of wretchedness less rare; but now the rare thing is to know of a working man, single or married, who is not compelled to resort to the poor-taxes to keep himself from perishing with hunger. That the Debt and Government taxes have been the cause, and the sole cause, of the misery, is evident from the increase of the poor-taxes having kept an exact pace with the increase of the Debt and the Government taxes. Nothing can controvert this conclusion: the facts are undeniable and the conclusion is equally undeniable.
Thus, you see, Sir, how regularly the miseries of the working people have gone on increasing with the increase of the Government taxes and the increase of the Debt. The amount of the poor-taxes is the measure of the miseries of the people; and here you see that they are seven times as miserable as their grandfathers were. Taxes make the people of the nation poor; poverty is the parent of crime; and accordingly the jails are seven times as capacious as they were when Geo. Ill. mounted the throne. Let France take care, then; for, similar causes produce similar effect; and, if the funding system of France be suffered to exist for any length of time, misery will spread itself over France as it has done over England. When taxes are raised to be paid to fundholders, they create idle people; they cause a constant accumulation of the wealth of a country in a few hands; they create monopolies of all sorts; they cause Jews and loan-jobbers to live in palaces; and beggar all the industrious part of the community. Taxes, however applied, have naturally this tendency; but particularly when applied to create usurers (now politely called “capitalists”), who quickly absorb the whole of the fruits of a nation’s industry.
As the working people have gone on getting poorer and poorer, they have become more and more immoral; and, indeed, it has been proved by witnesses before the Committees of the House of Commons, that in innumerable instances men have committed crimes for the purpose of getting into jail; because the felons in the jails are better fed and better clad than the honest working people. As the working people have become poor, the laws relating to them have been made more and more severe; and the Poor-law, that famous law of Elizabeth, which was the greatest glory of England for ages, has by degrees been so much mutilated and nullified, that, at last, it is so far from being a protection to the working people, that it has, by its perversions, been made the means of reducing them to a state of wretchedness not to be described. The sole food of the greater part of them has been, for many years, bread, or potatoes, and not half enough of these. They have eaten sheep or cattle that have died from illness; they have eaten garbage, such as a lord or a loan-jobber would not give to his dogs; children have been seen stealing the food out of hog-troughs; thousands of them have died for want of food; three men were found dead last May, lying under a hedge, and, when opened by the surgeons, nothing but sour sorrel (oseille sauvage) was found in their stomachs, and this was within a few miles of a palace, which had cost millions of pounds sterling of the public money! The spot on which these poor creatures expired was surrounded with villas of Jews and fund-jobbers, living in luxury, and in the midst of pleasure-gardens, all the means of which living they derived from the burdens laid on the working people.
Thus, you see, Sir, how regularly the miseries of the working people have gone on increasing with the increase of the Government taxes and the increase of the Debt. The amount of the poor-taxes is the measure of the miseries of the people; and here you see that they are seven times as miserable as their grandfathers were. Taxes make the people of the nation poor; poverty is the parent of crime; and accordingly the jails are seven times as capacious as they were when Geo. Ill. mounted the throne. Let France take care, then; for, similar causes produce similar effect; and, if the funding system of France be suffered to exist for any length of time, misery will spread itself over France as it has done over England. When taxes are raised to be paid to
Besides sufferings from want, the working people have been made to endure insults and indignities, such as even negroes never were exposed to. They have been harnessed like horses or asses, and made to draw carts and wagons; they have been shut up in the pounds made to hold stray cattle; they have been made to work with bells round their necks, like cows put out to graze; they have been made to carry heavy stones backward and forward in fields, or on the roads; and they have, in these cases, had drivers set over them, just as if they had been galley slaves; they have been sold by auction for certain times, as the negroes are sold in the West Indies; the married men have been kept separated from their wives by force, to prevent them from breeding; and, in short, no human beings were ever before treated so unjustly, with so much insolence, and with such damnable barbarity, as the working people of England have been within the sixteen, and particularly with the last ten, years.
Such, Sir, are the fruits of public debts and funds! Without this vile system, this industrious and moral and brave nation never could have been brought into this degraded state; but as every evil, if not cured from other causes, has its cure in its own excess, so, at last, the cure will assuredly come, and it is, indeed, come, and in a manner which I shall endeavour to describe in my next Letter.
I am, Sir, your most obedient servant, WM. COBBETT.
The working people in almost all, if not all, of the counties of England, are, in part at least, in a state of commotion; for, since the date of my first Letter, the commotion has extended very widely. All across the south, from Kent to Cornwall, and from Sussex to Lincolnshire, the commotion extends. It began by the labourers in Kent entering the buildings of the great farmers, and breaking their thrashing-machines; tor, please to observe, one effect of heavy taxation is to cause the invention of machinery. The farmer or manufacturer is so pressed for money by the Government, that he resorts to all possible means of saving the expense of labour, and as machines will work cheaper than men, the machines are preferred. As to the good or evil of machinery, speaking of it generally, there may be some ground for dispute; but it is very certain that it may be carried to excess; for, suppose that the land could be ploughed, and the corn cut and carted as well as thrashed by machinery, there would be a country with crops, but without people. There can be no doubt that our forefathers, who built the cathedrals, could have invented spinning-jennies and thrashing-machines, if their minds had been turned that way; but they knew what our modern lawgivers seem not to know; that is to say, that it is men, and not machines, that constitute a nation.
The labourers of England see, at any rate, that the thrashing-machines rob them of the wages that they ought to receive. They, therefore, began by demolishing these machines. This was a crime; the magistrates and jailers were ready with punishments; soldiers, well fed and well clothed out of the taxes, were ready to shoot or cut down the offenders. Unable to resist these united forces, the labourers resorted to the use of fire, secretly put to the barns and stacks of those who had the machines, or whom they deemed the cause of their poverty and misery. The mischief and the alarm that they have caused by this means are beyond all calculation. They go in bands of from 100 to 1000 men, and summon the farmers to come forth, and then they demand that they shall agree to pay them such wages as they think right; and, you will please to observe, that even the wages that they demand are not so high by one-third as their grandfathers received, taking into consideration the taxes that they have now to pay.
The farmers, in their defence, say, that they cannot pay the wages that are demanded, because they have so much to pay in rent, in taxes and in tithes. The labourers have, therefore, in many instances, gone to the parsons, and compelled them to reduce their tithes; and in one parish, in Sussex, they have ordered the collector of the taxes not to take the money out of the parish, as it was, they said, wanted there! These proceedings would have been put an end to long ago, had it not been for the FIRES. The military force, backed by all the great farmers, the land-owners, and especially by the parsons and the innumerable swarms of Jews and fund jobbers and pensioners and State-dependants, would long ago have subdued these half-starved machine-breakers; but the FIRES! No power on earth could prevent them, if the millions of labourers were resolved to resort to them.
The farmers, therefore, seeing that there was more danger to be dreaded from the labourers than from the aristocracy, the stock-jobbers and parsons have generally made, and are making, common cause with the labourers, and are demanding a reduction of rents, tithes and taxes. You will please to observe, that it is impossible for the farmers to pay the wages which they are, everywhere, agreeing to pay; it is impossible for them to do this, and to pay the present rents, tithes and taxes; and, as they would be out of danger if the labourers were well paid, they wish to obtain a diminution of those burdens, and thus to be able to pay the labourers well. The tradesmen (la bourgeoisie), in the country towns, have the same interest in this matter as the farmers. They know that it is better for them also that the fruit of the land should be given to the labourers, who would then be their customers, which the aristocracy, the Jews, the stock jobbers and the parsons, are not. In short, all the industrious classes have a common interest with the labourers; and, let the Government do what it can, the wages of labour must be raised; and, if they be raised, one of two things must take place; namely, the aristocracy and the Church must lose their estates, or, the fundholders must lose their funds.
Such, Sir, is the present state of England, and such are the causes which have produced that state. Here you see, then, how a people, inhabiting the most productive land in the world, a people to whom God has given a large portion of all his choicest blessings, safety from foreign foes, climate, soil, mines, woods, downs, flocks and herds, and, above all, industry perfectly unparalleled; a people, too, whose forefathers gave them the best laws that ever existed in the world; here you see this people, who were famed throughout the world for their willing obedience to the laws, and whose forefathers scorned the thought of maintaining even a single soldier, except in case of war; here you see this people, whose laws say that no man shall be taxed without his own consent; here you see this people first reduced to a state of half-starvation; next setting the laws at defiance; and then attacked by a standing army, sent against them to capture them and to put them in prison! Such, Sir, are the effects of heavy taxes, and particularly when raised for the purpose of upholding a funding system, which is a system of usury and monopoly added to that of grinding taxation. Let the people of France beware of the encroachments of this infernal system: no open despotism is half so cruel; nothing like liberty can co-exist with such a system: this system has taken away our so much boasted trial by jury in nine cases out of ten where the property and personal liberty of the common people are concerned: this system has, in fact, in many cases made our laws to insure the independence of the Judges of no avail: this hellish system has plunged us into all our present dangers; and yet it is hugged and cherished by the Government, as was “the accursed thing” in the camp of the Israelites. Let the people of France beware of the crafty and silently-approaching curse! War! Is France afraid of war! What is war, what is pestilence, what is famine? an accursed funding system is all these in one. It is silent, fraudulent, inexorable tyranny: age, infancy, beauty, may have softened the heart of a Dey of Algiers; but never the hearts of the damnable bands that congregate at the ‘Change and the Bourse.
In the anxious hope that the brave French nation will get rid of all degrading curses, I remain, Sir,
Your most humble and obedient servant, WM. COBBETT.
This collection of articles appeared in Summer 2011, in Issue 5 of Problems magazine. You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.