The Radical Sergeant Major by Aly Renwick


Towards the end of the 18th century William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) had spent nine years in the British Army, rising through the ranks to become a regimental sergeant-major. Officers could buy their commissions and often cheated their men out of pay, equipment and rations. As Cobbett remembered, the soldiers received only six-pence a day, hardly enough to keep them alive:
‘We had several recruits from Norfolk (our regiment was the West Norfolk); and many of them deserted from sheer hunger. They were lads from the plough-tail. All of them tall, for no short men were then taken. I remember two went into a decline and died during the year, though when they joined us, they were fine hearty young men. I have seen them lay in their berths, many and many a time, actually crying on account of hunger. The whole week’s food was not a bit too much for one day.’ [The Rambling Soldier, by Roy Palmer, Penguin Books Ltd 1977].

Cobbett left the army in 1791, fed up with the attitude of some officers who disliked his habit of reading books. He then wrote ‘The Soldier’s Friend’, which protested against the harsh treatment and low pay of the enlisted men who had joined the British Army. He also set about exposing some of the corrupt practices he had witnessed among officers, but had to flee to France for a time to escape retribution. Perhaps not surprisingly, with his sergeant-major background, Cobbett’s views then were fairly conservative. After moving from France to America, where he lived for a period, he wrote articles denouncing the French Revolution and supporting the British government’s military actions against the United Irishmen.

Back in England Cobbett’s attitudes began to change and he started to publish a campaigning paper called ‘The Political Register.’ In 1809 at Ely, five soldiers were sentenced to 500 lashes each for ‘mutiny’ after protesting in a ‘threatening manner’ over having to pay for a knapsack, on top of arrears of pay. Cobbett, in his paper, attacked the soldiers’ sentences in a forthright and sarcastic way:
‘Five hundred lashes each! Aye, that is right! Flog them! flog them! flog them! They deserve a flogging at every meal-time! Lash them daily! Lash them daily! What! mutiny for the price of a knapsack? Lash them! etc.’ Cobbett was arrested, charged with ‘sedition’, and found guilty of treasonous libel. He was sentenced to a £1,000 fine and two years in Newgate Prison. He continued to publish ‘The Political Register’ from his prison cell. When the government imposed a large tax on newspapers, Cobbett changed the ‘Political Register’ into a pamphlet and reduced its price to two pence. It then became the publication most read by working class people and Cobbett became a dangerous subversive in government eyes.

After the Peterloo Massacre, Cobbett, along with others in the radical movement, attacked the government actions and he was charged with libel three times over the next two years. [For details of the Peterloo Massacre see: ]. Cobbett was very argumentative and was often involved in spats with fellow reformers as well as with establishment interests. One such quarrel was with William Wilberforce, who was to become famous for his opposition to the slave trade. While Cobbett quite rightly criticised Wilberforce for his support for government actions and laws against working class people in Britain, he then wrongly also took to belittling him for his campaign against slavery. And, rightly, this was a blemish on Cobbett’s reputation. [For details of the Slave Trade please see: ].

Cobbett was not a revolutionary and combined his still held conservative instincts with his new radical beliefs and sometimes the former overcame the latter. He did not want to destroy the old order. But on issues to do with the working people in England, he was a militant and honest reformer, fighting against government excesses and bad laws. Cobbett was at his best, when he looked at situations and problems himself. He had been brought up on the land and in 1821 he began his famous rural rides around England. His findings about the conditions of the land, society and the people were printed in his paper over the next nine years. They were then, in 1830, published as a book, ‘Rural Rides.’

Cobbett and Ireland

Cobbett then tried to have his voice heard in the House of Commons and after a few failures was elected a member of parliament for Oldham in 1832 at the age of 69. He found that the Westminster Parliament was mostly filled by MP’s representing vested interests and the opposition to Cobbett’s reforming views was overwhelming. This led him to become involved with the Irish MPs who were led by O’Connell. Cobbett became intrigued with what the Irish MPs had to say about their homeland, which was often in total contradiction to government statements. So, he decided to see the country for himself and, in July 1834, he wrote about his wish to view Ireland in ‘The Political Register’:
‘I have resolved to see this country with my own eyes, to judge for myself, and to give a true account of it, as far as I am able, to the people of England. I am resolved to go, as if to a country about which I have never said a word. I have now, for two sessions of Parliament, listened to such contradictory statements, both coming from gentlemen of unimpeachable veracity, that it is impossible I should not desire to have the evidence of the facts before me. … In short, I have a desire to know the whole truth; and if I cannot get it by seeing the country, very few men can.’ [Not by Bullets and Bayonets – Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835, by Molly Townsend, Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983].


Later that year Cobbett sent a series of letters from Ireland to the paper. In the 4th letter he described some of his findings: ‘I have now been over 180 miles in Ireland, in the several counties of Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford. I have, in former years, been in every county in England … I have been through the finest parts of Scotland. I have lived in the finest parts of the United States of America. And here I am to declare to all the world, that I never passed over any 50 miles … of land so good on an average during the whole way, as the average of these 180 miles. … And yet here are these starving people!’
Cobbett went on to describe why this was happening:
‘In coming from Kilkenny to Waterford, I … came through a little town called Mullinavat, where there was a fair for cattle and fat hogs and apples. There might be 4,000 people; there were about 7 acres of ground covered with cattle (mostly fat), and all over the street of the town there were about THREE THOUSAND BEAUTIFUL FAT HOGS, lying all over the road and the streets. … Ah! but there arose out of this fine sight reflections that made my blood boil; that the far greater part of those who had bred and fatted these hogs were never to taste one morsel of them, no not even the offal, and had lived worse than the hogs, not daring to taste any part of the meal used in the fatting of the hogs! The hogs are to be killed, dried or tubbed, and sent out of the country to be sold for money to be paid to the landowners, who spend it in London, Bath, Paris, Rome, or some other place of pleasure, while these poor creatures are raising all this food from the land, and are starving themselves.’ [Not by Bullets and Bayonets – Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835, by Molly Townsend, Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983].


Cobbett told his readers about the hovels where most of the poor lived and the rags many used as clothing. Just a decade before the famine that would devastate Ireland’s population, he also explained to his readers how the poor people were forced to rely on ‘lumpers’, the worst quality of potato, for food. In his 5th letter he also hinted at the coercive system that was used to allow such a situation to exist:
‘From Clonmell we came to Fermoy … Fine land; a fine country; flocks of turkeys all along the way; cattle, sheep, hogs, as before; and the people, the working people, equally miserable as before. … From one side of this valley there rises up a long and most beautiful chain (miles in length) of gently sloping hills, and on those hills and on their sides, corn-fields and grass-fields are interspersed with woods and groves. But, standing on the bridge, and viewing this scene, my eyes were blasted by the sight of three BARRACKS for foot, horse, and artillery; buildings surpassing in extent all the palaces that I ever saw; elegant and costly as palaces; buildings containing, they say, three thousand windows and capable of lodging forty thousand men!’ [Not by Bullets and Bayonets – Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835, by Molly Townsend, Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983].

Barracks and Famine

There were barracks for British soldiers all over Ireland. Fermoy, built overlooking the Blackwater River in County Cork, was a huge barracks around which the town was built to service it. The largest garrison, the Curragh, was first established in 1646. Built on a large plain near Kildare, the barracks occupied one side of the Dublin road with the race-track on the other. Ireland became crisscrossed with large army barracks situated at strategic locations, and the smaller, but much more numerous, fortified buildings of the Irish Constabulary (IC).


During the period of the famine there were 1,600 IC barracks throughout the country, situated in villages, towns and cities. Backed by soldiers when necessary, armed IC men assisted in enforcing evictions, protected landlords and their agents, and guarded the foodstuffs that were still being shipped abroad for profit. An extensive prison network was also constructed, as the system of transporting prisoners was ending. By the time of the famine 26 new prisons had been built to augment the 18 already in existence. In these buildings political prisoners, especially, faced a harsh regime of control, punishments and forced-labour.

In 1856, Frederick Engels visited Dublin and gave his view of the country:
‘Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony … the so-called liberty of the English citizen is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country and the sodden look of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here amongst the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.’

Thirty years later, in 1887, Francis Adams also visited Dublin and recorded this image of the city and its colonial style police, in his poem, ‘Dublin At Dawn’:

Dublin At Dawn

In the chill grey summer dawn-light
We pass through the empty streets;
The rattling wheels are all silent;
No friend his fellow greets.

Here and there, at corners,
A man in a great-coat stands;
A bayonet hangs by his side, and
A rifle is in his hands.

This is a conquered city;
It speaks of war not peace;
And that’s one of the English soldiers
The English call “police”.

Located just a narrow strip of water away, it was inevitable that Ireland would become an early victim to English expansionism. While land and exploitation were the main motive behind the drive to subdue the Irish, there was a second reason. In the past, O’Neill and Tone had forged links with England’s enemies, Spain and France, who had both landed troops in Ireland. This had fuelled England’s determination to control Ireland and ensure it could never again pose a military threat.

Cobbett also thought that Britain’s security should be protected, but he knew that the use of repressive laws and military might in Ireland was wrong and counterproductive. He believed that ‘a real union of the hearts’ could be achieved between the people of Britain and Ireland if reason was used instead of force:
‘It is not by bullets and bayonets that I should recommend the attempt to be made, but by conciliation, by employing means suited to enlighten the Irish people respecting their rights and duties, and by conceding to them those privileges which, in common with all mankind, they have a natural and legitimate right to enjoy.’ [Not by Bullets and Bayonets – Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835, by Molly Townsend, Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983].

If Cobbett had been listened to, his approach might have altered the history between the two islands, and prevented the many conflicts that were to follow. Instead, his appeals fell on deaf ears, and even a tragedy like the famine brought no change in policy. In 1846, a new Coercion Act designed to control possible insurrection by the starving Irish people was enacted. It was the eighteenth Coercion Act to be brought in since the 1801 Act of Union. As Lord Brougham remarked, the new bill, ‘possessed a superior degree of severity.’ As over a million Irish people died from starvation and the subsequent diseases, ships still left Irish ports laden with meat, flour, wheat, oats and barley. The London government refused adequate help, claiming that the market could not be interfered with. And profits were clearly more important than Irish lives.

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