Time Travel: A Rural Ride to the 1820s

I recently acquired a copy of “Rural Rides”, by William Cobbett, a radical 19th Century political activist — and farmer — who in the 1820s was writing a seditious journal called the Political Register. In his sixties, he was in the habit of setting off on long rides on horseback throughout southern England, and writing about them as he went, publishing his reflections in his journal — perhaps an early form of blogging.

His descriptions of the countryside and the topography — and of his encounters with rural people — offer a fascinating insight into rural life in the 1820s, which appears to have been by no means a bucolic idyll. I was raised in Southampton, so many of the places he visited are familiar to me — Selbourne, Alton, Botley; and Stonehenge and Salisbury. I was particularly taken aback by his description of Wootton Bassett, which clearly in those days had not attained the iconic status in the British consciousness which it occupies today: “I came to another rotten-hole (he means a rotten borough) called Wootton Bassett! This is also a mean, vile place, though the country all round it is very fine”.

But he reserved even worse vituperation for his political foes. He railed against the national debt (incurred in the wars with France, including Wellington’s Waterloo campaign), saying that the interest on it was taking bread out of the mouths of the poor and driving rural areas into dereliction. He attacked “the jolterheads, monopolizers, borough-mongerers, tax-eaters and stock jobbers”, and those on government pensions and sinecures. He attacked the Church, and Church property, and tithes, and parsons. Reprehensibly, he also attacked the Quakers and the Jews, whom he saw as traders who bought and sold but (he argued) added nothing to national wealth. He even attacked Adam Smith, which is practically sacrilege.

He made the point (which if true, is shocking) that an agricultural labourer’s wage, on which he had to feed, clothe and house his family, was no more than the cost of one soldier’s victuals (at public expense) — while the soldier also received uniform, and lodging, and candles!

Some of his strictures have a curiously modern ring, and not only his concern for the national debt and the interest on it. See if this rings a bell: “The bank is quite ready, they say, to take deposits; that is to say, to keep people’s spare money for them; but to lend them none, without such security as would get money even from the claws of a miser”. Or this: “Real relief (of the poor) never seems to occur, even for a single moment, to the minds of these pretty gentlemen; namely, taking off the taxes. What a thing it is to behold, poor people receiving rates or alms to prevent them from starving; and behold, one half at least of what they receive, taken from them in taxes!”. Amen to that, say I.

Cobbett’s concern does him credit, even if his remedies were not always practical. And it is wonderful to get political polemic interspersed with an account of the weather, the inns, the road; and of the turnips, and oats, and beans, and the price of corn.

I brought the book with me on my current visit to Malaysia (I’m writing in Putrajaya), to read on the plane, and I’m finding that the old radical is a good travelling companion.

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4 Responses to Time Travel: A Rural Ride to the 1820s

  1. Alfred says:

    As a newcomer to Cobbett, courtesy of an excellent exhibition in Farnham’s museum’s ‘Countryside Room’ featuring Farnham’s rural life as seen through the eyes of two famous writers; William Cobbett and George Sturt, I hope you enjoy the book.

    Cobbett brings into sharp focus the shortcomings of laissez-faire capitalism as the farm workers were being forced into poverty through industrial mechanisation of the farms. There was no other employment available at that time.

    In a country where we have become addicted to state employment, which our broken economy can no longer afford, I see a repeat of those times coming, for unemployed government workers, unless we can continue to fund an increasingly expensive welfare state (which we cannot).

    Hard times are ahead, as we adapt and learn that the only sustained way of providing employment is not through the state but through the very entrepreneurs, growing businesses,and wealth that our tax and regulation systems seem to want to drive abroad.

    Enjoy the book

  2. Journals such as this should never be forgotten – as a source of both facts and the opinions of prominent individuals, alive at the time. Indeed, would a contemporary historian have been impartial? Or, so keen to speak his own mind on a given topic? Either way, this article reminded me that some problems may always be with humanity (e.g. people exploiting their authority in order to take advantage of others). Clearly, bankers and tax collectors in those days – could be just as hypocritical and self-serving as seems to have become the “norm” over recent years. Perhaps, modern society should be worrying more about issues such this, and decide to behave accordingly (using legislation or other means)?

  3. Alfred says:

    Julian L Hawksworth January 26, 2011 @ 9:22 pm said: ” Perhaps, modern society should be worrying more about issues such this, and decide to behave accordingly (using legislation or other means)?”

    That’s the fundamental issue. Light touch government or fully interventionist. Both have their pros and cons. How much protection against exploitation do you give before you create a dependency class? Everyone will draw the dividing line in a different place, from full on socialist, shared ownership of every asset, to hands off government that leaves the vulnerable to the care of other areas of society.

  4. Thankyou, Alfred! Increasingly, our country has become interventionist. Even when well-intentioned, interventionist policies can be very damaging. Indeed, such policies can have negative social conseqences – in addition to causing economic problems. The UK needs a smuch smaller welfare state, for example. Alfred’s summary of the key options facing methods of government, is also very true.

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