The late Robert Ernst, a professor of history at Adelphi, wrote the following essay about Cobbett and Hunt. It is a fitting introduction to the list of manuscript material in The William Cobbett Collection.


"If you were to die I should think the world a great deal less worth living for." So wrote William Cobbett from Newgate Prison to his sick friend, Henry Hunt, in the year 1811. The full story of the relationship of these two scrappy English radicals is long and turbulent, and Adelphi University's collection of Cobbett's fascinating letters to Hunt during the period 1809-1829 sheds much light on these men and their times.

Cobbett (1763-1835) and Hunt (1773-1835) were both farmers' sons and never lost their interest either in agriculture or in improving the sad condition of the impoverished rural population of England. Both became radical reformers and anticipated the Chartist movement by advocating universal suffrage, voting by ballot, and the annual election of Parliament. Both ran afoul of the authorities and landed in jail -- Hunt apparently more often than Cobbett -- and both eventually were elected to Parliament a few years before their deaths. Cobbett was a pungent journalist, who loved a fight and whose style was racy, sarcastic, and savage, while Hunt was a popular political orator, who, as an accomplished debater in the House of Commons, attacked the moderate reformers, demanded repeal of the Corn Laws, and presented the earliest petition in favor of women's rights.

As a young militiaman, Hunt had been fined and had served his first jail term at the turn of the century for challenging his commanding officer to a duel and refusing to apologize for his conduct. In 1810, for assaulting a gamekeeper, he was again sent to prison. Soon Cobbett was incarcerated there for another offense, and these two prisoners shared the same room. The two radicals already had become friends, Hunt having introduced himself to Cobbett sometime between May 1805 and January 1806. Hunt had presented Cobbett with a freehold tenement in Bristol in 1809 to enable him to address a political meeting which Hunt had organized there.

After serving their prison terms, these indomitable reformers became ever more popular among the masses. They exploited working class discontent during and after the Napoleonic Wars and tirelessly flayed the Tory politicians in power, Cobbett in his Political Register, and both of them in stump speeches. In 1812 Cobbett canpaigned for Hunt Adelphi now possesses the manuscript of a speech he delivered in Bristol -- but his friend failed of election to Parliament in that year. About the same time, Cobbett vented his disgust at the use of troops at elections. "This employment of soldiers is abominable," he wrote Hunt on July 4, 1812. "It is the last stage of degradation of the system. The nature of that system now stands confessed."

It was Hunt who presided at the famous meeting in Manchester on August 16, 1819, which was dispersed by troops in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. The object of the meeting was to demand the reform of Parliament. Some 60,000 people, including many women and children were present. Suddenly the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire Yeomanry swooped down upon the unarmed crowd, and when the slaughter was over at least 600 were killed or wounded. Hunt was arrested and convicted on a political charge, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. While in jail he wrote his wordy memoirs. He emerged in 1822 amid the carefully staged rejoicing of his followers. It was he who set the fashion in the 1820's of wearing a white hat as a symbol of radicalism and defiance of the Tory regime.

Handsome and vivacious, with a powerful physique, Hunt was vain, domineering, capricious, and jealous of political rivals. Eventually he alienated even his old friend Cobbett. When he died he was buried in the family vault of his mistress, who evidently was one of the few who befriended him to the last.

Robert Ernst
Professor of History


Cobbett, Anne. [Account of the family, by Anne Cobbett]. -- 1824?

46 [i. e. 51] p. Pages 4A, 4B and 46 unnumbered in the ms.
Holograph (photocopy), original in Nuffield College Library.
Title from Pearl's annotated entry: p. 239 (item 283).
Marginalia (some of which are on separate sheets wafered to pages 29, 30, 38, 42) by Susan Cobbett.
Gift of Nuffield College Library, Oxford University. Presented by the Honorable Lord St. John Trend, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University on the occasion of ground breaking ceremonies (Sept. 15, 1979) for the extension of Swirbul Library, Adelphi University.

Anne, eldest daughter of William Cobbett, gives an account of her father's life to the year 1824.

Cobbett, William. A.D.S. (London) Dec. 19, 1825. (Advertisement).

An advertisement about the publication of the author’s Weekly political register.

_______. A.L.S. London; May 16, 1821. To (William Holland).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; August 28, 1809. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. London; Mar. 21, 1810. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Newgate; Jan. 9, 1811. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Newgate; May 16, 1811. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Newgate; Feb. 10, 1812. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Newgate; June 27, 1812. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Newgate; July 4, 1812. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Nov. 22, 1813. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. London; Jan. 14, 1814. To (Henry Hunt).

Cobbett, William. A.L.S. London; Feb. 5, 1814. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; June 17, 1814. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Bromley; July 18, 1814. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Aug. 23, 1814. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Jan. 19, 1815. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Bromley; May 5, 1815. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Oct. 2, 1815. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Oct. 24, 1815. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Apr. 16, 1816. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; June 5, 1816. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Botley; Aug. 2, 1816. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Long Island; Oct. 17, 1817. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L. Long Island; Jan. 8, 1818. To (Henry Hunt). Incomplete.

_______. A.L.S. London; Feb. 24, 1820. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. London; Feb 25, 1820. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm; June 16, 1827. To (Henry Hunt).

Includes an autograph manuscript address “To the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor.”

_______. A.L.S. Kensington; July 6, 1828. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. [s. l.]; Sept. 26, [1828]. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm; Jan. 9, 1829. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm; June 15, 1829. To (Henry Hunt).

Cobbett, William. A.L.S. Barn-Elm Farm; July 16, 1829. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm Farm; July 18, 1829. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm Farm; July 21, 1829. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. [s. l.]; Monday evening. To (Henry Hunt).

_______. A.L.S. Kensington; Dec. 25, 1824. To (George Patmore).

Tipped in Lewis Melville’s The life and letters of William Cobbett in England & America. Vol. 1

_______. A.L.S. Barn-Elm; Nov. 7, 1828. To (unknown).

Contains a reference to a letter to “the Papa of Rome.”

_______. A.L.S. [s. l.]; April 16, 1832. To (Capt. Griswold).

_______. A.Ms. Address to the electors of Bristol. Incomplete.

_______. Ms. Copy of l. London; Nov. 20, 1816. To (Henry Hunt).

Original letter is at the Huntington Library.

_______. Ms. Copy of l. Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania; Feb. 7, 1818. To (Henry

Original letter is at the University of Illinois.

Cobbett, William, Junior. A.L.S. Botley; Sept. 13, 1816. To (Henry Hunt).

Waller, John. A.L.S. London; Aug. 27, 1868. To (Manners).
About the sale of Cobbett letters and informing addressee of the availability of thirty more letters to the radical Henry Hunt.

William Cobbett's Life Guide to the Collection Exhibit Home ALICAT online catalog