Cobbett on Frome

 

In 1830 William Cobbett published his Rural Rides, “Economical and Political Observations relative to matters applicable to, and illustrated by” the state of Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somersetshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Herefordshire. Cobbett, a practising and knowledgeable farmer, had journeyed through these counties on horseback over the previous eight years, and his populist attachment to a perceived golden age before the Industrial Revolution made him a formidable critic of much that he saw and of the corrupt political ‘system’ which he blamed for it. The government tried hard to silence him, introducing laws against sedition and stamp duty on cheap newspapers, for instance.

 

In 1826 Cobbett journeyed via Salisbury and Warminster to Frome and from there on to Devizes and Highworth, and found opportunities to hold forth on some of his favourite scandals – the degradation of working people, paper money, stock-jobbing, rotten boroughs, the standing army, the abandonment of ‘English’ values. The economic depression was to be intensified locally in the 1830s and to result in urban and rural disturbances, draconian legislation against the poor and migration on a massive scale to new industrial centres in England, North America and Australia. The Reform Act, however, did extend the franchise to ten-pound householders and ensured that newly populous industrial centres were more fairly represented in Parliament.

 

The extract that follows is from the Penguin Classics edition by Ian Dyck (Harmondsworth, 2001) pages 313-16. I have broken the text into paragraphs for ease of legibility.

                                               

Saturday, September 2nd

 

After I got to Warminster yesterday, it began to rain, which stopped me in my way to FROME in Somersetshire, which lies about seven or eight miles from this place; but, as I meant to be quite in the northern part of the county by to-morrow noon, or thereabouts, I took a post-chaise in the afternoon of yesterday, and went to FROME, where I saw, upon my entrance into the town, between two and three hundred weavers, men and boys, cracking stones, moving earth, and doing other sorts of work, towards making a fine road into the town. I drove into the town, and through the principal streets, and then I put my chaise up a little at one of the inns.

 

This appears to be a sort of little Manchester. A very small Manchester, indeed; for it does not contain above ten or twelve thousand people, but, it has all the flash of a Manchester, and the innkeepers and their people look and behave like the Manchester fellows. I was, I must confess, glad to find proofs of the irretrievable decay of the place. I remembered how ready the bluff manufacturers had been to call in the troops of various descriptions. ‘Let them,” said I to myself, ‘call the troops in now, to make their trade revive. Let them now resort to their friends of the yeomanry and of the army; let them now threaten their poor workmen with the gaol, when they dare to ask for the means of preventing starvation in their families. Let them who have, in fact, lived and thriven by the sword, now call upon the parson-magistrate to bring out the soldiers to compel me, for instance, to give thirty shillings a yard for the superfine black broad cloth (made at Frome), which, Mr ROE, at Kensington, OFFERED ME AT SEVEN SHILLINGS AND SIXPENCE A YARD just before I left home! Yes, these men have ground down into powder those who were earning them their fortunes: let the grinders themselves now be ground, and, according to the usual wise and just course of Providence, let them be crushed by the system which they have delighted in, because it made others crouch beneath them.’

 

Their poor work-people cannot be worse off than they long have been. The parish pay, which they now get upon the roads, is 2s. 6d. a week for a man, 2s. for his wife, 1s. 3d. for each child under eight years of age, 3d. a week, in addition, to each child above eight, who can go to work; and, if the children above eight years old, whether girls or boys, do not go to work upon the road, they have nothing! Thus, a family of five people have just as much, and eight pence over, as goes down the throat of one single foot soldier; but, observe, the standing soldier, that ‘truly English institution’, has clothing, fuel, candle, soap and house-rent, over and above what is allowed to this miserable family! And yet the base reptiles, who are called ‘country gentlemen’, and whom SIR JAMES GRAHAM calls upon us to commit all sorts of acts of injustice in order to preserve, never utter a whisper about the expenses of keeping the soldiers, while they are everlastingly railing against the working people of every description, and representing them, and them only, as the cause of the loss of their estates!

 

These poor creatures at Frome have pawned all their things, or nearly all. All their best clothes, their blankest and sheets; their looms; any little piece of furniture that they had, and that was good for any thing. Mothers have been compelled to pawn all the tolerably good clothes that their children had. In case of a man having two or three shirts, he is left with only one, and sometimes without any shirt; and, though this is a sort of manufacture that cannot very well come to a complete end; still it has received a blow from which it cannot possibly recover. The population of this Frome has been augmented to the degree of one-third within the last six or seven years.

 

There are here all the usual signs of accommodation bills and all false paper stuff, called money: new houses, in abundance, half finished; new gingerbread ‘places of worship’, as they are called; great swaggering inns; parcels of swaggering fellows going about, with vulgarity imprinted upon their countenances, but with good clothes upon their backs. I found the working people at Frome very intelligent; very well informed as to the cause of their misery; not at all humbugged by the canters, whether about religion or loyalty. When I got to the inn, I sent my post-chaise boy back to the road, to tell one or two of the weavers to come to me at the inn. The landlord did not at first like to let such ragged fellows up stairs. I insisted, however upon their coming up, and I had a long talk with them. They were very intelligent men; had much clearer views of what is likely to happen than the pretty gentlemen of Whitehall seem to have; and, it is curious enough, that they, these common weavers, should tell me, that they though that the trade never would come back again to what it was before; or, rather, to what it has been for some years past.

 

This is the impression every where; that the puffing is over; that we must come back again to something like reality. The first factories that I met with were at a village called UPTON LOVELL, just before I came to HEYTESBURY. There they were a doing not more than a quarter work. There is only one factory, I believe, here at Warminster, and that has been suspended, during the harvest, at any rate. At FROME they are all upon about a quarter work. It is the same at BRADFORD and TROWBRIDGE; and, as curious a thing as ever was heard of in the world is, that here are, through all these towns, and throughout this country, weavers from the North, singing about the towns ballads of Distress! They had been doing it at SALISBURY, just before I was there. The landlord at HEYTESBURY told me, that every one of them had a license to beg, given them, he said ‘by the Government’. I suppose it was some pass from a Magistrate; though I know of no law that allows of such passes; and a pretty thing it would be, to grant such licenses, or such passes, when the law so positively commands, that the poor of every parish, shall be maintained in and by every such parish.

 

However, all law of this sort, all salutary and humane law, really seems to be drawing towards an end in this now miserable country, where the thousands are caused to wallow in luxury, to be surfeited with food and drink, while the millions are continually on the point of famishing. In order to form an idea of the degradation of the people of this country, and of the abandonment of every English principle, what need we of more than this one disgraceful and truly horrible fact, namely, that the common soldiers of the standing army in time of peace subscribe, in order to furnish the meanest of diet to keep from starving the industrious people who are taxed to the amount of one half of their wages, and out of which taxes the very pay of these soldiers comes! Is not this one fact; this disgraceful, this damning fact; is not this enough to convince us, that there must be a change; that there must be a complete and radical change; or that England must become a country of the bases slavery that ever disgraced the earth?