Seminar 3, Dickens, Cobbett and 18th Century England/Ireland

March 16, 2010

'This county of Surrey presents to the eye the traveller a greater contrast than any county in England' -Rural Rides.

Urban –Dickens Rural –Cobbett

England (the UK) did very well out of the French revolution. However, during the Napoleonic war it was very expensive; income tax was created in 1799 to pay for the war efforts.

British navel power was absolute (especially after 1805).

During the Battle of Trafalga, the Blockades of the French Ports destroyed the French trading economy, which the created a boom for British exports –to such an extent the British were supply uniforms for the French Army!

With other European armies occupied, the British built their empire; India, Singapore, South Africa and Sri Lanka were now owned by Britain.

A trading monopoly was now set up with South Africa.

The transatlantic triangular trade was enormously profitable for Britain in the 16th century. -One Million slavers were transported from Africa to America in the 16th century, three million in the 17th century and seven million in the 18th (they abolished slavery in 1833).

Textiles made up 60% of the exports. Coal output doubled between 1750 and 1800.

Manchester- from 17,000 people to 18,000 people from 1760 to 1830. –The city was revolutionary (Marx).

Cotton was key to the industrial revolution; the raw material came from slave plantations in South America, and Lancashire produced the finished product, mainly for export.

Inventions (such as the gas light) allowed the process to be done in enormous factories round the clock. The workers here usually consisted of woman and children.

The end of the war was the end of the boom for Britain, mass unemployment and a steep cut in wages followed.

Corn Laws were put in place to put a tariff on competition from outside imports and to protect British farmers.

Bread was so expensive; the phrase ‘beyond the breadline’ was invented. The huge scale of unemployment drove people to the cities to look for work.

The conditions in the cities were dire, slums and cholera were common. The government tried to criminalise the poor as they would have the excuse to export them to ‘new Britain’.

The ‘Peterloo Massacre’ was in Manchester, 1819. 60,000 people peacefully protested against conditions, however the Calvary were ordered to stop people from ‘revolting’; 11 died.

Protesters demanded the right to elect MP’s; less than 2% of men had the right to vote.

In 1832 there was a reformat.

A repeal of Corn Laws in 1846 meant bread was cheaper, but wages went down as the workers could survive on less.

Enclosures were abolished and big fields were created in order to use new field technolodgy.

In the early and mid 17th century the population rose slowly, if not at all. After 1770 the population was doubling every 50 years, however Cobbertt disputed that.

More people and less work with lower wages meant people were desperate. Swing riots occurred, and rural labourers opposed to new advanced technology such as threshing.

The Poor:

The poor were looked after by the Speenhamland system, which was devised as a means to alleviate the distress caused by the high grain prices.

It was means tested on such things as the price of bread, the amount of children you had and wages. Landowners and the local parish were liable to pay these fees, however they thought it to be unfair.

A new poor law was introduced in 1834 which stated no body was to receive help except f they were to work in a work house. Bentham (a Utilitarian) argued that people did what was pleasant and would not do what was unpleasant.

Britain made it so unpleasant in the workhouses that people didn’t want to work there. -Workers only received enough food to keep them active day to day, but it eventually killed them.


Ireland became part of the UK in 1801. However Britain was concerned as Ireland was seen as a dangerous ‘backdoor’ for France.

Daniel O’Connell thought Ireland should be governed by Ireland; before no Catholic could be elected for MP, even though Ireland was Catholic.

Monster meetings (which were peaceful) were held. Tara, the most famous, had ½ a million people attend. It was said it took O’Connell 2 hours to ride around the crowd on horse back.

There was a famine between 1845-1850; more than one million people died and two million emigrated. The handling of the famine was criticized. During the years of the famine Ireland was a net exporter of food. Armed troops escorted the crops to the ports to export them to England. The export in livestock also increased.


Cobbett was an anti radical was became a radical.

What changed him was the plight of farm workers in the early 19th Century.

He thought that rapid industrialisation was going to ruin the traditional ways of life (he was convinced all farmers were ruined).

He had no time for the Government, who taxed farmers, the Army, who he thought were free loaders or the Church and its titles.

He was nearly 60 when he started Rural Rides.

He also wrote the Political Register which was read by the lower classes.

A tax of newspapers led Cobbett to publish it was a pamphlet, which was nick-named Two Penny Trash, and had a circulation of 40,000.

He fled to America to avoid being arrested, however once he returned he was caught and charged for liable 3 times.


London was the largest city, in terms of population, in the world at the time.

It was the capital of the most advanced country in the world economically, politically and industirally.

But it was over crowded as the population had doubled in 50 years between 1800 and 1850 (sanitation problems were a great problem).

Dickens was interested in particular of times of reform (Oliver Twist) and very concerned with Bentham (utilitarian).

(Nicholas Nickleby also criticized schools in Yorkshire were pupils were treated badly).

Bleak house is a metaphor which for all which was wrong with Victorian society. –Kafka was extremly interested in Bleak house.

It tried to stir the middle classes into action.

He published it in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853.

'A very quick summery of Bleakhouse is: (however, I will be posting my own notes on each Chapter very soon!)

The Novel evolves around England's Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved.

This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills, all of them promising money and land surrounding the Manor of Marr in South Yorkshire.

The court case, which has already been going on for years and cost sixty to seventy thousand pounds in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery.

Dickens's flaws the British judiciary system. It is thought to be based on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books.

I found the main quotes from Rural Rides which include Winchester are:

'Just after day-light we started for this place. By the turnpike we could have come through Basingstoke by turning of to the right, or through Alton and Alresford by turning of to the left. Being naturally disposed towards a middle course, we chose to wind down through Upton-Gray, Preston-Candover, Chilton-Candover, Brown-Candover, then down to Ovington, and into Winchester by the north entrance.'

'... along through this country the people appear in general to be very neat. It is a country for sheep, which are always sound and good upon this iron soil. The trees grow well, where there are trees. The woods and coppices are not numerous; but they are good, particularly the ash, which always grows well upon the chalk.'

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