William Cobbett and The Dilemmas of Writing History

Recent decisions to cancel a celebration in Hampshire of the bicentenary of Rural Rides by William Cobbett on grounds of historic antisemitism and racism have raised questions about the practice of history, local and otherwise (Hampshire Chronicle, 4 and 11 March, 2021). 

The book (Rural Rides, Penguin Classics, 1985) is a classic piece of place-writing, especially on Hampshire. It describes horseback tours undertaken by this political journalist and former Botley farmer over a period of four years in the 1820s. There are memorable passages about many Hampshire villages, notably Hurstbourne Tarrant, nicknamed ‘Uphusband’, a repeated port of call to stay at Rookery Farm with local character Joseph Blount.

Nationally, platforming, statue-toppling and wokeism in general have raised challenges for those who research and write history. These add to other inherent problems, especially the fact that every history project is a personal account. Whatever the topic, no one can ever read every relevant document or published article! So, even just telling the story leads to different versions from different laptops.

Judging the actions and views of individuals in the story is even harder. Treating them in the context of the period is reckoned to be good practice, but there are always some who step so far outside the norm that their behaviour must be labelled ‘unacceptable’. Who could pass by the actions of the cavalry at Peterloo, or the savage sentencing of Judge Jeffreys?

It is, of course, a matter of judgement who should be so labelled, and there is always a temptation for modern activists to use history for their own ends. This is at the heart of the Cobbett controversy. Should his historic antisemitism – which was of an extreme nature – mean that he and especially his Rural Rides, not be celebrated?  

According to literary critic George Woodcock (Penguin Classics edition, p. 7): “Few have described more evocatively, or for that matter, more accurately, the beauties of that England south of the Thames to which Cobbett belonged emotionally.”

This, for example, is what he wrote about East Meon (Penguin Classics edition, p. 80): “Here is a very fine valley, in nearly elliptical form, sheltered by high hills sloping gradually from it; and, not far from the middle of this valley there is a hill nearly in the form of a goblet-glass with the foot and stem broken off and turned upside down.”

There is much more like this: about Easton, Waltham Chase, Burghclere, Stoke Charity, Romsey, Portsdown Hill, Kings Worthy, East Stratton, as well as Winchester, and many other places in the county.

Cobbett is widely billed as a champion of country life fighting the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, especially the world of ‘paper money’ in the City.  The blurb of the Penguin Classics edition describes him as ‘a remarkable Englishman – manly, blunt, pragmatic, sometimes choleric’.   In modern parlance he might be described as a ‘sensational journalist in search of colourful copy’. He certainly does not spare individuals, whatever their rank. 

So, is it reasonable to shy away from Rural Rides because Cobbett at times made antisemitic comments? Any reasonable answer needs to consider the historical context. 

In another arena of wokeism, namely racism involving people of colour, the argument is well advanced, though much remains to be done. One important development is a growing willingness to learn about the history of slavery. David Olugosa, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, has done much to improve understanding.

So far, so good: let’s learn about the evils of slavery and who practised it in the hope that this can lead to better understanding and much more. And rather than tearing down statues, it might be better to relabel them and perhaps re-site them as well.

In contrast to the battle against racism, that against bigotry – of which antisemitism is a subset– has hardly started.  And yet here again, history has a huge role to play. The long-running tensions between the Church of England, Catholicism, Nonconformity, and Judaism are the subjects of a huge, mainly scholarly literature, most of which has scarcely seeped into public debate. 

There is much to learn about religious conflicts, especially after the 1660 Restoration– such topics as the Clarendon Code and statutory Anglican supremacy, the thuggery of the Hilton Gang, the Killing Time in Scotland and much else. 

The roots of antisemitism in the middle ages demonstrate other factors. Riots at the time of the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189, and the brutal, tragic pogroms that followed throughout the country – especially in York– were to a large extent supported by knights preparing to crusade in the Holy Land.  Fired up to fight Islam, they resented wealthy Jews attending what was a Christian ceremony. 

To return to Cobbett, he was writing at a time when the state itself was antisemitic. It would be another 50 years before the University Tests Act 1871 allowed non-Anglicans to study at Oxford or Cambridge. It was long before the Jews Relief Act 1858, which permitted non-Christian jurors to enter parliament. This allowed the banker Lionel de Rothschild to take a seat for the City of London, albeit more than a decade after he had first actually been elected to it!

The novelist and statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who was of Jewish heritage, was only able to enter parliament twenty years before the Act because at an early age he had converted to Anglicanism.

Although Cobbett undoubtedly expressed antisemitic views, he was at various times ‘anti’ almost everything. To quote Woodcock again (Penguin Classics, p. 19): “His dislikes were prodigious; he hated wholesale, by classes, creeds and races: Anglican parsons and Unitarians, bankers and brokers, Jews and Scots and above all Quakers. He detested canals and stage-coaches, tea and potatoes, and lived long enough to lay his curse on the railways.”

The sensitivity and care shown in cancelling the Cobbett celebration are to be respected, but it must be asked whether this nationally important political journalist and much more is to be ‘cupboarded’ forever?  Some will say yes, and others will want to speak out against creeping censorship. 

Those who wish to acknowledge ‘Cobbett the topographer’, as remembered by the Cobbett Society (www.williamcobbett.co.uk), can read Rural Rides or stroll along the Cobbett Trail, a circular footpath that follows ground the writer knew during the years 1805-17 when he farmed (unsuccessfully) at Botley. 

It passes the remote church and Manor Farm, site of the original settlement, once served by the Rev. Richard Baker, who had to endure Cobbett’s invective and practical jokes. He must have been pleased in 1817 when the arch-radical was forced to flee to the US to avoid imprisonment for proposing parliamentary reform, which, did of course eventually come about 15 years later.

First published by Barry Shurlock in the Hampshire Chronicle, 1 April, 2021.