Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Oct. 19th to 21st, 1825: Across Surrey

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Wednesday Evening, October 19, 1825.

HAVING some business at Hartswood, near Reigate, I intended to come off this morning on horseback, along with my son Richard, but it rained so furiously the last night that we gave up the horse project for to-day, being, by appointment, to be at Reigate by ten o'clock to-day: so that we came off this morning at five o'clock in a post-chaise, intending to return home and take our horses. Finding, however, that we cannot quit this place till Friday, we have now sent for our horses, though the weather is dreadfully wet. But we are under a farm-house roof, and the wind may whistle and the rain fall as much as they like.

Thursday Evening, October 20.

Having done my business at Hartswood to-day about eleven o'clock, I went to a sale at a farm, which the farmer is quitting. Here I had a view of what has long been going on all over the country. The farm, which belongs to Christ's Hospital , has been held by a man of the name of Charington, in whose family the lease has been, I hear, a great number of years. The house is hidden by trees. It stands in the Weald of Surrey, close by the River Mole , which is here a mere rivulet, though just below this house the rivulet supplies the very prettiest flour-mill I ever saw in my life.

Everything about this farm-house was formerly the scene of plain manners and plentiful living . Oak clothes-chests, oak bedsteads, oak chests of drawers, and oak tables to eat on, long, strong, and well supplied with joint stools. Some of the things were many hundreds of years old. But all appeared to be in a state of decay and nearly of disuse . There appeared to have been hardly any family in that house where formerly there were, in all probability, from ten to fifteen men, boys, and maids: and, which was the worst of all, there was a parlour . Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too! One end of the front of this once plain and substantial house has been moulded into a "parlour "; and there was the mahogany table, and the fine chairs, and the fine glass, and all as bare-faced upstart as any stock-jobber in the kingdom can boast of. And there were the decanters, the glasses, the "dinner-set" of crockery-ware, and all just in the true stock-jobber style. And I dare say it has been 'Squire Charington and the Miss Charingtons; and not plain Master Charington, and his son Hodge, and his daughter Betty Charington, all of whom this accursed system has, in all likelihood, transmuted into a species of mock gentle-folks, while it has ground the labourers down into real slaves. Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages. This is the real cause of the change. There needs no more to prove that the lot of the working classes has become worse than it formerly was. This fact alone is quite sufficient to settle this point. All the world knows that a number of people, boarded in the same house, and at the same table, can, with as good food, be boarded much cheaper than those persons divided into twos, threes, or fours, can be boarded. This is a well-known truth: therefore, if the farmer now shuts his pantry against his labourers, and pays them wholly in money, is it not clear that he does it because he thereby gives them a living cheaper to him; that is to say, a worse living than formerly? Mind, he has a house for them; a kitchen for them to sit in, bedrooms for them to sleep in, tables, and stools, and benches, of everlasting duration. All these he has: all these cost him nothing ; and yet so much does he gain by pinching them in wages that he lets all these things remain as of no use rather than feed labourers in the house. Judge, then, of the change that has taken place in the condition of these labourers! And be astonished, if you can, at the pauperism and the crimes that now disgrace this once happy and moral England.

The land produces, on an average, what it always produced, but there is a new distribution of the produce. This 'Squire Charington's father used, I dare say, to sit at the head of the oak table along with his men, say grace to them, and cut up the meat and the pudding. He might take a cup of strong beer to himself, when they had none; but that was pretty nearly all the difference in their manner of living. So that all lived well. But the 'squire had many wine-decanters and wine-glasses and "a dinner set ," and a "breakfast set ," and "dessert knives "; and these evidently imply carryings on and a consumption that must of necessity have greatly robbed the long oak table if it had remained fully tenanted. That long table could not share in the work of the decanters and the dinner set. Therefore it became almost untenanted; the labourers retreated to hovels, called cottages; and, instead of board and lodging, they got money; so little of it as to enable the employer to drink wine; but, then, that he might not reduce them to quite starvation , they were enabled to come to him, in the king's name , and demand food as paupers . And now, mind, that which a man received in the king's name , he knows well he has by force ; and it is not in nature that he should thank anybody for it, and least of all the party from whom it is forced . Then, if this sort of force be insufficient to obtain enough to eat and to keep him warm, is it surprising if he think it no great offence against God (who created no man to starve) to use another sort of force more within his own control? Is it, in short, surprising, if he resort to theft and robbery ?

I could not quit this farm-house without reflecting on the thousands of scores of bacon and thousands of bushels of bread that had been eaten from the long oak-table which, I said to myself, is now perhaps going at last to the bottom of a bridge that some stock-jobber will stick up over an artificial river in his cockney garden. "By-- -- it shan't ," said I, almost in a real passion: and so I requested a friend to buy it for me; and if he do so, I will take it to Kensington, or to Fleet Street, and keep it for the good it has done in the world.

When the old farm-houses are down (and down they must come in time) what a miserable thing the country will be! Those that are now erected are mere painted shells, with a mistress within, who is stuck up in a place she calls a parlour , with, if she have children, the "young ladies and gentlemen" about her: some showy chairs and a sofa (a sofa by all means): half a dozen prints in gilt frames hanging up: some swinging book-shelves with novels and tracts upon them: a dinner brought in by a girl that is perhaps better "educated" than she: two or three nick-nacks to eat instead of a piece of bacon and a pudding: the house too neat for a dirty-shoed carter to be allowed to come into; and everything proclaiming to every sensible beholder that there is here a constant anxiety to make a show not warranted by the reality. The children (which is the worst part of it) are all too clever to work : they are all to be gentlefolks . Go to plough! Good God! What "young gentlemen" go to plough! They become clerks , or some skimmy-dish thing or other. They flee from the dirty work as cunning horses do from the bridle. What misery is all this! What a mass of materials for producing that general and dreadful convulsion that must, first or last, come and blow this funding and jobbing and enslaving and starving system to atoms! I was going, to-day, by the side of a plat of ground, where there was a very fine flock of turkeys . I stopped to admire them, and observed to the owner how fine they were, when he answered, "We owe them entirely to you , sir, for we never raised one till we read your Cottage Economy ." I then told him that we had, this year, raised two broods at Kensington, one black and one white, one of nine and one of eight; but that, about three weeks back, they appeared to become dull and pale about the head; and that, therefore, I sent them to a farm-house, where they recovered instantly, and the broods being such a contrast to each other in point of colour, they were now, when prowling over a grass field, amongst the most agreeable sights that I had ever seen. I intended, of course, to let them get their full growth at Kensington, where they were in a grass plat about fifteen yards square, and where I thought that the feeding of them, in great abundance, with lettuces and other greens from the garden, together with grain, would carry them on to perfection. But I found that I was wrong; and that though you may raise them to a certain size in a small place and with such management, they then, if so much confined, begin to be sickly. Several of mine began actually to droop: and the very day they were sent into the country, they became as gay as ever, and in three days all the colour about their heads came back to them.

Friday Evening, Oct . 21.

It has been very fine to-day. Yesterday morning there was snow on Reigate Hill, enough to look white from where we were in the valley. We set off about half-past one o'clock, and came all down the valley, through Buckland, Betchworth, Dorking, Sheer and Aldbury, to this place. Very few prettier rides in England, and the weather beautifully fine. There are more meeting-houses than churches in the vale, and I have heard of no less than five people, in this vale, who have gone crazy on account of religion. To-morrow we intend to move on towards the west; to take a look, just a look, at the Hampshire parsons again. The turnips seem fine; but they cannot be large. All other things are very fine indeed. Everything seems to prognosticate a hard winter. All the country people say that it will be so.

William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Letchworth: Temple Press, 1932)

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