A Blupete Biography Page

Imprisoned, 1810-12, Part 6 to the Life & Works of
William Cobbett

In 1809, there was to appear, in the Political Register, an article by Cobbett which was to get him into great trouble. Cobbett knew something of the army and the abuses within. In the officer corps, things got done because of favours that were extended back and forth: for the common soldier things got done, all to often, through the use of the whip. It seems that at Ely there was an incident where a certain German cavalry unit (the British were never adverse to hiring German mercenaries) were called in to put down a perceived mutiny; the local militiamen at Ely had demanded their back pay. The ringleaders, according to one report in the paper23 "were tried by a Court Martial, and sentenced to receive five hundred lashes each ..." Cobbett flew into the administration, opening his article with the observation that finally the administration had found a "useful employment" for German troops, viz. "the means of compelling Englishmen to submit to that sort of discipline which is so conducive to producing in them the disposition to defend the country, at the risk of their lives." A charge of criminal or seditious libel followed; and, after a period of time, a trial was brought on in the Court of King's bench with Chief Justice Ellenborough and one of government's special juries24. Cobbett made the mistake of trying to defend himself without legal counsel. For Cobbett the result was that he was imprisoned in Newgate for two years and given a £1,000 fine, and at the end of two years he would be released if he bound himself over on a £3,000 bond with two sureties in the amount £1,000, each, so, "to keep the peace" for seven years -- and thus the authorities effectively gagged Cobbett. He had been to them, a festering thorn in their sides. George Spater:
"Not Perceval [the Prime Minister] alone, but the government at all levels had scores to settle with Cobbett. He had condemned the celebration of the king's jubilee on October 25, 1809, a day set aside to commemorate the fiftieth year of the reign of George III. What reason was there to rejoice? asked Cobbett. During that period the national debt had been increased from £90 million to £700 million; the number of paupers had increased from 200,000 to 1,200,000; America had been lost following the capture of a whole British army at Saratoga and another at Yorktown. At the moment of celebration thousands of British soldiers were sick and dying at Walcheren; thousands more wounded had been left behind a retreating British army in Spain; and the French, who dominated the European continent, threatened to invade the country. The junior members of the royal family had also come under attack by Cobbett: He opposed increases in their handsome allowances and inveighed against the public display of their mistresses. He thought the royal family should pay taxes like everyone else. The influential leaders of the opposition, as well as the members of the cabinet, were constantly under Cobbett's flail. And the letter addressed 'To the Right Honourable Lord Ellenborough' published by the Political Register in September 1808, how he should interpret the law of libel."25
So off went Cobbett to prison.26 At the time he had dependant on him a pregnant wife and six children from three to fifteen years old. He had no liquid assets. He had but his farm at Botley (since his return from America, over the succeeding nine year period, Cobbett had collected up tracts of land at Botley amounting to about 600 acres) and his publishing business in London.

While in prison, Cobbett continued to write and his articles got published. They were usually ended with, "State Prison, Newgate." On June 18th, 1812, Cobbett was released from Newgate. To celebrate his reentry into society, a grand dinner was given at the Crown and Anchor attended by 600 admirers with Sir Francis Burnett27 in the chair. The next day, Cobbett, in "a carriage full of gentlemen" left London for Cobbett's home at Botley. The family, I should say, noticed that there was to be a marked change in Cobbett after his release from prison: he was more severe and less good humoured.

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Peter Landry
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2011