Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Dickens & Cobbett

Historical context

The Napoleonic wars cost the United Kingdom a lot of money; an income tax was therefore created in 1799. While other European countries were at war, the UK started to build its empire: India, Singapore, South Africa and Sri Lanka. The country also benefited from the Triade which was the trade of slaves, cotton and food between Europe, Africa and America. Slavery was abolished in 1833.
Some cities such as Manchester grew dramatically thanks to the industrial revolution: Manchester grew from 17,000 inhabitants in 1760 to 180,000 in 1830. Inventions such as gaslight allowed people to work late at night in factories.
The end of the war meant the end of the boom, which resulted in a fall in employment and wages. The government created the Corn Law, which was a tax on imported grains. Living conditions in cities were terrible, people were sick, poor and left without any help. In addition to that, there was a policy of brutal repression towards poor people because the British government feared that the French revolution encouraged British people to revolt against the Government. The country was very agitated, there was a great risk or revolution. In 1846, the Corn Law was repealed and the bread became cheaper.

Industrial farming began and landholding peasantry came to an end. Rural farmers were strongly opposed to new advanced technology, which required less people and less time to do the work.

Poor people had to rely on the Speenhamland system which was a sort of charity to help poor people buying bread. The money was given by landowners. In 1834, the New Poor Law act was created to discourage poor people to seek assistance from the Government. People who wanted help were put in workhouses and were forced to work in harsh conditions for a very low wage.


Cobbett was an anti radical who became radical. The rapid industrialisation made him change his mind and he thought that progress was going to destroy British traditions. He spent 20 years abroad, in the army. When he returned to England, he was shocked to see how the country has changed. He was a journalist and was jailed twice for libel. He campaigned and agitated against industrialisation, he described farms workers as walking skeletons. Farms workers were getting poorer and landowners wealthier as he stated: "When farmers became gentlemen, labourers became slaves." He also created the two-penny-trash which was a leaflet designed to inform people who couldn't afford to buy newspapers. He was almost 60 when he started Rural Rides.


Dickens was obsessed with city life. At that time, London was overcrowded and living conditions were very poor. He was against the New Poor Law which he saw as an oppressive regime for poor people. He was also a journalist, he used to report on politics but he was not as controversial as Cobbett. He mainly showed his opinions in his novels, where he tried to encourage people to help the poor.


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