Radical Rowdies: A Public Falling-Out Ended the Close Political Friendship between Two Leaders of Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain. A Familiar Scenario?

By Young, Penny | History Today, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Radical Rowdies: A Public Falling-Out Ended the Close Political Friendship between Two Leaders of Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain. A Familiar Scenario?


Young, Penny, History Today


'It is, I hope, quite unnecessary for me to repeat my assurance that nothing short of sickness or death shall ever deprive you of the fulfilment of my solemn promise made this day. But I beseech you be careful to do nothing to expose yourself to the treachery of villains. You have a host of enemies now, even greater than I have. I beg you, therefore, to be on your guard.'

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This is part of an undated letter written by William Cobbett one Monday evening to his great friend, Henry Hunt. As far as I know, it has not been published before. It can be found in a collection of letters from Cobbett to his 'dear Hunt' in the library of Adelphi University in New York.

The life of William Cobbett is well documented. Born in 1763, the son of a farmer from Farnham, Surrey, he became the most popular radical political writer of the early nineteenth century, the man William Hazlitt called 'a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country'. Cobbett's weekly Political Register was read by everyone from presidents, kings and emperors to poets, soldiers and farm labourers. The establishment press, or the 'reptiles' as he called them, loathed him. Governments, challenged at every twist and turn by his writings, plotted to suppress him and all his works. But who was Henry Hunt, the man who elicited such a solemn promise in such passionate language from Cobbett? What promise did Cobbett, a famously aloof, independent and self-sufficient man, make to him, and did he keep it?

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Derisively dubbed 'Orator Hunt' by his enemies and, like Cobbett, vilified and demonized by the establishment, Hunt was the greatest popular political speaker of his time and the darling of the people. When he spoke at mass public meetings, he attracted huge crowds. He was the star speaker at the great reform meetings held at Spa Fields, London, in 1816-17 as well as the protest meeting in St Peter's Field, Manchester that led to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, for which he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years' incarceration in Ilchester Prison, where he wrote his Memoirs.

Unlike Cobbett, who has been well served by biographers, Hunt has only had two--Robert Huish, who published a biography soon after Hunt's death in 1835, and John Belchem, now professor of history at Liverpool University, whose political biography, published in 1985, dispelled the myth of Hunt as the violent, argumentative, vain demagogue who wilfully opposed the Great Reform Act of 1832. Belchem painted a very different portrait of the Wiltshire farmer who became a democratic radical, established a mass platform for parliamentary reform and, alone in the House of Commons, argued quite correctly that the planned Bill was a cheat and a sham.

What nobody has written about in any depth is the unlikely but very real political partnership that existed between Cobbett and Hunt. Their relationship lasted in one way or another for thirty years until the deaths of both men in 1835, swinging from close friendship to deadly enmity, with peaks and troughs in between. The letter quoted above was probably penned around November 1816, at the time of the Spa Fields protest, when the two men's relationship was at its peak.

It was Hunt who made the first approach. In 1802, two years after returning to England from America, where he had established a name for himself as a controversialist writer, Cobbett had launched his weekly Political Register. In his Memoirs, Hunt describes how he became a loyal reader and longed to become acquainted with this most celebrated writer of the day. In typical Hunt style, he took the bull by the horns and went up to London to call on Cobbett. That was in 1805.

It was not a particularly productive meeting, and both men initially took a dislike to one another. But from 1809 the two came together at political county meetings, and took great delight in bashing the system and baiting both Whigs and Tories, the Ins and the Outs. …

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