This week’s Morpathia article by Roger Hawkins looks at William Cobbett in Morpeth.
ROBERT Blakey, philosopher and Mayor of Morpeth, was Morpeth-born, but moved to Alnwick when he was 13.
This is how he first learnt about the great English radical: ‘There were three persons I got acquainted with soon after my arrival in Alnwick, in February, 1809, to whom I have always considered I was under great obligations for giving my mind fresh impulses.
‘These were Robert Dunn, wheelwright; Thomas Hall, roper; and the Rev David Paterson, Presbyterian minister of the town. Dunn and Hall were poetical enthusiasts (and) ardent political reformers of a very advanced school. They took in the London Examiner, the Tyne Mercury, and Cobbett’s Register. The last was by far the greatest favourite, and there was always a rapturous display of political feeling on its being read aloud by Hall, who was well up in good reading.’
Cobbett advocated gold against paper money. In Scotland, the local bank notes were commonly accepted.
Robert wrote: ‘I have travelled into Scotland on my own account for these last seven or eight years, and I can safely and conscientiously say, that I have never been tendered a single gold coin, of any description, for payment, during all that time; nor have I seen a gold coin offered by a tradesman to anyone else.
‘For several years back, I have regularly taken what notes I got in Scotland to their respective banks, and demanded gold for them. I never meet with a direct refusal; but I have frequently been amused at the shifts and tricks of the clerks in the banks, to get me to waive my demand.’ (Political Register, August 2, 1828).
In 1831, Cobbett was charged with sedition for supporting distressed agricultural labourers who smashed threshing machines. He was acquitted and in July Robert chaired a meeting at the Grey Nag’s Head, when ‘Mr Cobbett’s friends at Morpeth’ passed resolutions of congratulation. (Political Register, July 16, 1831).
Robert was a furrier supplying rabbit and hare furs to hat makers and occasionally visited London on business. He now took a trip out to Kensington where Cobbett had a seed farm – his first meeting with the great man. They became well acquainted and in 1832 Cobbett visited Morpeth.
Robert records in his Memoirs: ‘September 29th, 1832.– I had this day as a visitor one of the most distinguished literary and political characters which ever adorned this or any other country, namely, Mr William Cobbett. About this time last year I called on this truly great man, at his house in Kensington, and was kindly received. When at Kensington he told me if ever he came to the North he would call and see me; and this promise he has now fulfilled.
‘After the passing of the Reform Bill, Mr Cobbett thought that a journey through the country might be of service. He had been last week lecturing in Newcastle, Shields, Sunderland, Durham, attended by a vast number of people. These lectures were generally delivered in Theatres, and admission was one shilling. He lectured here in the Town Hall. There were not more than 150 persons present. I believe every person was gratified; and had the people in general thought that the gratification would have been so great, the house would have been crowded.
‘Mr Cobbett is now in his 67th year. He is above six feet high, stout made, of a plump, ruddy countenance, and has a most winning and engaging smile. His hair is as white as the driven snow. His whole appearance is of the most gentlemanly kind.
‘He is singularly abstemious and temperate; never eating anything after dinner, with the exception of a little bread to his tea. He avoids spirits, wine, ale, porter. His dislike is so great that he will not sit down in a room where they are used. His common drink is a little skim milk. He goes to bed at eight or nine o’clock, and rises by four or five in the morning. He keeps an amanuensis, and dictates all his Weekly Register to him.
‘September 30th – Mr Cobbett stayed with us all night, and was early up this morning writing. He had read, apparently with great care and attention, all the works of the most eminent of the Christian fathers, and frequently quoted Justin Martyr, St Chrysostom, Ambrose, and St Augustine. He and I had a conversation of eight hours’ duration; and I must say it was one of the greatest intellectual treats I ever had. He went to bed to-night at eight o’clock.
‘October 1st – Mr Cobbett up this morning before daybreak, and finished his Weekly Register by twelve o’clock. Despite Blakey’s mortification at the poor turnout, Cobbett himself was quite satisfied. But his visit brought back sad reflections on the trial and sufferings of the Hampshire labourers.
‘Morpeth, 1. Oct., 1832.
‘From Newcastle I came to Morpeth, in order to lecture here on Saturday night, which I did to a very respectable audience in the Town-hall, sitting where the judge used to sit, and where the chairman of the Quarter Sessions sits now, I believe. Being thus seated on the bench, and looking down upon the big table around which the lawyers used to sit, I could not help letting my thought fly off to Winchester and poor Cook of Micheldever; of the handcuffs put around Mrs Deacle’s little beautiful wrists. It was impossible for me, placed, as I was, in the seat of judgment, not to think; and not to think seriously too.
‘Hexham, 1. Oct., 1832.
‘I left Morpeth this morning pretty early, in a post-chaise. Morpeth is a great market town, for cattle especially. It is a solid old town; but it has the disgrace of seeing an enormous new jail rising up in it. From cathedrals and monasteries we are come to be proud of our jails, which are built in the grandest style, and seemingly to imitate the Gothic architecture. At Morpeth my friend supplied me with plenty of peaches, along with every other good thing to eat and drink; and along with that, which was more valuable than all these put together, his most sensible conversation. He showed me some of my corn, nearly ripe, and as fine as any that I ever saw in my life.’
Corn and peaches – growing in Morpeth.
In 1848 Robert published two volumes of his four-volume History of the Philosophy of Mind. The later volumes never appeared, but the London School of Economics has the manuscript. In it, Robert devotes 14 pages to his old friend.
He recalls them discussing the Reform Act, and how short it fell of what Radicals wanted. Cobbett agreed, but said that the people now ‘had their hand in’ and soon it would be ‘the whole arm.’
In 1868, when all male householders had the vote, Robert added that: ‘The events now passing would seem in a great degree, to realise his prophetic anticipation.’
l All quotations are abridged. Further reading: Cobbett’s Tour in Scotland and the Four Northern Counties on www.archive.org.