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I am the Watchman

Linda Colley: William Cobbett, forerunner of the Sun

20 November 2003
William CobbettSelected Writings 
edited by Leonora Nattrass.
Pickering & Chatto, 2312 pp., £495, December 1998, 1 85196 375 8
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Rural rides 
by William Cobbett, edited by Ian Dyck.
Penguin, 576 pp., £9.99, September 2001, 0 14 043579 4
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... It is partly because so much appears to be known about WilliamCobbett (1763-1835) that he is insufficiently understood. Few political writers anywhere and at any time have been more prolific or had more impact on their contemporaries. His newspaper The Political ...
15 July 1982
William CobbettThe Poor Man’s Friend 
by George Spater.
Cambridge, 318 pp., £15, March 1982, 0 521 22216 8
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... When WilliamCobbett was about forty he brought out a weekly paper that has dictated the style and shape of British and American journalism ever since. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register came out almost every week from 1802 until his death in 1835. According to George Spater, this once powerful paper is now largely forgotten ‘except by historians who ...

Shoy-Hoys

Paul Foot: The not-so-great Reform Act

6 May 2004
Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act 
by Edward Pearce.
Cape, 343 pp., £20, November 2003, 0 224 06199 2
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... centres such as Birmingham which had grown quickly from small towns often had no representation). That same summer George IV died, leaving the throne to his marginally more stable brother William. The death of the king brought a general election, and the Tories were replaced by the Whigs. The chief difference between the two parties was that the Whigs were more sensitive to the growing wrath ...

Call Her Daisy-Ray

John Sturrock: Accents and Attitudes

11 September 2003
Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol 
by Lynda Mugglestone.
Oxford, 354 pp., £35, February 2003, 0 19 925061 8
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... the notion that a standardised accent would be a general good. Someone who thought it was, if not a bad thing, then certainly one not worth spending time acquiring, was the no-nonsense ruralist WilliamCobbett, who declared that ‘the differences’ in pronunciation ‘are of very little real consequence . . . though the Scotch say coorn, the Londoners cawn, and the Hampshire folk carn, we all ...

Diary

A.J.P. Taylor: From Nuclear Bombs to Samuel Johnson

18 November 1982
... the pleasure and excitement with which I first read it some sixty years ago. Still, I have a qualm. There comes into my mind, not perhaps the greatest Englishman, but certainly the runner-up. This is WilliamCobbett, the People’s Friend. Cobbett was not, like Johnson, a great conversationalist. His conversation must have been pretty boring, being entirely about himself and his achievements, from his ...

Chucky, Hirple, Clart

David Craig: Robert Macfarlane

23 September 2015
Landmarks 
by Robert Macfarlane.
Hamish Hamilton, 387 pp., £20, March 2015, 978 0 241 14653 8
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... who knows, or hopes, that he is going to have experiences that will be fruitful for his work. In this his mindset differs from that of most of the country writers who have stayed with me indelibly: WilliamCobbett of Rural Rides, a farmer’s son and himself a farmer from time to time; John Muir of My First Summer in the Sierra, a farmer’s son and farmer; and Lewis Grassic Gibbon of A Scots Quair, a ...

Why Mr Fax got it wrong

Roy Porter: Population history

5 March 1998
English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 
by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Davies.
Cambridge, 657 pp., £60, July 1997, 0 521 59015 9
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The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap 
by Alan Macfarlane.
Blackwell, 427 pp., £45, May 1997, 0 631 18117 2
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... inevitably outruns food resources – was heralded by some as the decisive scientific refutation of the mad perfectibilist schemes of the French Revolutionaries and their English confrères like William Godwin, and damned by others as hardheartedness incarnate. Marie Antoinette had just told the poor to go and eat cake: Malthus trumped her, apparently sentencing them to death by starvation – and ...
19 May 1988
The Public Health Challenge 
edited by Stephen Farrow.
Hutchinson, 160 pp., £12.95, November 1987, 0 09 173165 8
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The Truth about the Aids Panic 
by Michael Fitzpatrick and Don Milligan.
Junius, 68 pp., £1.95, March 1987, 9780948392078
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Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830 
by Frank Mort.
Routledge, 280 pp., £7.95, October 1987, 0 7102 0856 1
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Medicine and Labour: The Politics of a Profession 
by Steve Watkins.
Lawrence and Wishart, 272 pp., £6.95, May 1987, 0 85315 639 5
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... is both powerful and evil. There is, of course, nothing new in radicals – or reactionaries, for that matter – spotting conspiracies where others see epidemics: no less a man of the people than WilliamCobbett was adamant that Asiatic cholera itself was a fiction invented by the powers-that-be to hold the masses in terror. Indeed, as Steve Watkins underlines in his book, the Left in many of its ...

Invader

Linda Colley

9 July 1987
Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider 
by Wendy Hinde.
Yale, 379 pp., £14.95, April 1987, 0 300 03880 1
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Richard Cobden: Independent Radical 
by Nicholas Edsall.
Harvard, 479 pp., £23.95, February 1987, 0 674 76879 5
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... and frequently unpopular opposition to war: ‘seldom has hero rested, stained by so superb a fault.’ A special train was laid on from London to take the great and the good to his funeral; William Gladstone helped to carry his coffin; statues were raised by public subscription; and the London and provincial presses enshrined his memory in laudatory poems and improving books for the young. But ...

The Statistical Gaze

Helen McCarthy: The British Census

28 June 2017
The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-Maker: The Story of Britain through Its Census, since 1801 
by Roger Hutchinson.
Little, Brown, 352 pp., £20, February 2017, 978 1 4087 0701 2
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... completely. The inaccuracies continued in later counts, fuelling scepticism. When Rickman announced in 1821 that the population had surged from ten to fourteen million over the previous two decades, WilliamCobbett responded that ‘a man that can suck that in will believe, literally believe, that the moon is made of green cheese.’ As late as 1931, it was discovered that one enumerator, committed to a ...

High Taxes, Bad Times

John Pemble: Late Georgian Westminster

10 June 2010
The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-32 
by D.R. Fisher.
Cambridge, 6336 pp., £490, December 2009, 978 0 521 19314 6
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... not since the 1640s and 1650s. ‘The House of Commons,’ Sydney Smith said in 1819, ‘is falling into contempt with the people.’ Taxes were high and times were bad, and journalists like WilliamCobbett were radicalising popular opinion by lambasting ‘Old Corruption’. Parliament, Cobbett stormed, was ruining the nation it no longer represented. An oligarchy of aristocrats and financiers, having ...

How They Brought the Good News

Colin Kidd: Britain’s Napoleonic Wars

20 November 2014
In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 
by Jenny Uglow.
Faber, 739 pp., £25, November 2014, 978 0 571 26952 5
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... in 1797. While it was true, for the most part, that Britain ruled the waves, Napoleon reckoned that he only needed control of the Channel for six hours to effect an invasion of England. After all, William of Orange had managed it in the autumn of 1688; and Bonnie Prince Charlie had got as far south as Derby with his ragamuffin army in December 1745. The notion of an impregnable island fortress was ...

Evil Man

Simon Schaffer: Joseph Priestley

21 May 1998
The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773 
by Robert Schofield.
Pennsylvania State, 328 pp., £35.95, January 1998, 0 271 01662 0
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... century England. In theology and politics, chemistry and prophecy, this seemingly dour and absurdly productive Yorkshire visionary inspired intense admiration and loathing in roughly equal measure. William Hazlitt, no mean polemicist himself, judged Priestley ‘the best controversialist in his day, and one of the best in the language’. Youthful intellectuals of the Revolutionary epoch such as ...

Diary

Gillian Darley: John Evelyn and his gardens

8 June 2006
... comfort at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But Evelyn, my more recent subject, emerges from a daunting paper chase at the British Library, where his archive arrived as late as 1995. In the early 1800s, William Bray, a solicitor and antiquarian, and William Upcott, a librarian whose address was Autograph Cottage and who was a notorious ‘collector’ of other people’s unconsidered trifles, arrived at ...

Before Darwin

Harriet Ritvo

24 May 1990
The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London 
by Adrian Desmond.
Chicago, 503 pp., £27.95, March 1990, 0 226 14346 5
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... constituency, echoed these demands with an editorial stridency that both reflected and intensified the unhappiness of their readers. The Lancet, for example, modelled its aggressive style on that of WilliamCobbett, who constituted one quarter of its editorial board; perhaps for this reason, a libel lawyer constituted another quarter. The contentious columns of these publications were not, however ...

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