“The buildings consist generally of tax-eaters’ showy, tea-garden-like boxes, and of shabby dwellings of labouring people who, in this part of the country, look to be dirty and have every appearance of drinking gin.”
William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey in 1763, the son of a farmer and innkeeper. Between 1784 and 1791 he served in the Army but after blowing the whistle on military corruption he was forced to flee to America. There he started a new career as a journalist, publishing 12 volumes of attacks on American democracy and earning himself the pseudonym ‘Peter Porcupine’. He returned to England in 1800 and in 1802 began publishing a weekly newsletter, the ‘Political Register’. Cobbett saw himself as a champion of traditional rural society against the changes being brought about by the Industrial Revolution. He was a severe critic of proposals being made in Parliament to relieve poverty amongst agricultural workers, and in 1821 he set out on a series of rides through the countryside of south east England and the Midlands in order to see rural conditions for himself. His observations, known as ‘Rural Rides’, were first published in serial form in the ‘Political Register’ between 1822 to 1826.
Cobbett was an active grassroots radical. In 1831 he was charged with seditious libel after writing a pamphlet entitled ‘Rural War’ in support of the Captain Swing Riots, which encouraged agricultural workers who were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks. Cobbett conducted his own defence and he was so successful that the jury acquitted him.
On the morning of Wednesday September 25th 1822 William Cobbett and his son set out on horseback from Kensington in London for Uphusband, near Andover, in Hampshire, a journey that would take them across Richmond Bridge and through the small holdings, market gardens and country estates of Twickenham Park, an area that in less than 50 years time would be known as “St Margarets”. This is what Cobbett saw and reported…
“THIS morning I set off, in rather a drizzling rain, from Kensington, on horseback, accompanied by my son, with an intention of going to Uphusband, near Andover, which is situated in the north-west corner of Hampshire. It is very true that I could have gone to Uphusband by travelling only about sixty-six miles, and in the space of about eight hours. But my object was, not to see inns and turnpike roads, but to see the country; to see the farmers at home, and to see the labourers in the fields; and to do this you must go either on foot or on horseback. With a gig you cannot get about amongst bye-lanes and across fields, through bridle-ways and hunting-gates; and to tramp it is too slow, leaving the labour out of the question and that is not a trifle. We went through the turnpike gate at Kensington, and immediately turned down the lane to our left, proceeded on to Fulham, crossed Putney bridge into Surrey, went over Barnes Common, and then, going on the upper side of Richmond, got again into Middlesex, by crossing Richmond bridge. All Middlesex is ugly , notwithstanding the millions upon millions which it is continually sucking up from the rest of the kingdom; and, though the Thames and its meadows now and then are seen from the road, the country is not less ugly from Richmond to Chertsey bridge, through Twickenham, Hampton, Sunbury and Shepperton, than it is elsewhere. The soil is a gravel at bottom with a black loam at top near the Thames; further back it is a sort of spewy gravel; and the buildings consist generally of tax-eaters’ showy, tea-garden-like boxes, and of shabby dwellings of labouring people who, in this part of the country, look to be about half Saint Giles’s: dirty, and have every appearance of drinking gin.”
Cobbett’s ‘showy, tea-garden-like boxes’ must include the large and opulent country houses that once stood along the river between Old Isleworth and Richmond Bridge. The only one remaining today is Gordon House in North St. Margarets.
His description of the rest of the population as being “about half St Giles” is a reference to the Parish of St Giles in London in the area now known as Seven Dials. This was a notorious slum of narrow stinking streets and fetid overcrowded cellars occupied by ‘noisome and squalid outcasts’. This is where William Hogarth set his famous picture ‘Gin Lane’ showing a child falling from the arms of its drunken syphilitic mother, an emaciated beggar, a suicide and the overwhelming filth and misery of a London ‘rookery’. Cobbett would have remembered the calamity that struck St Giles just 4 years earlier in 1818 when a huge vat at the Horseshoe Brewery ruptured releasing 10,000 gallons of beer into the streets, knocking down the hovels of the poor and drowning 8 people in the festering cellars.
Having turned his nose up at our 19th century neighbours Cobbett and his son continued on their way to Uphusband passing through Chertsey. He didn’t think much of that little market town either…
At Chertsey, where we came into Surrey again, there was a fair for horses, cattle and pigs. I did nor see any sheep. Everything was exceedingly dull. Cart colts, two and three years old, were selling for less than a third of what they sold for in 1813. The cattle were of an inferior description to be sure; but the price was low almost beyond belief… I had no time to inquire much about the pigs, but a man told me that they were dirt-cheap.
In 1832 William Cobbett was elected to Parliament as the member for Oldham but died in 1835, a man with strongly held opinions until the very end…
“Women are a sisterhood. They make common cause in behalf of the sex; and, indeed, this is natural enough, when we consider the vast power that the law gives us over them.”
“Nothing is so well calculated to produce a death-like torpor in the country as an extended system of taxation and a great national debt.”
“I view the tea-drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engender of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and maker of misery for old age”
He didn’t think much of St Margarets either.
—from Martyn Day