William Cobbett defends the labourers of Little Massingham, Norfolk in 1823

Whilst transcribing Rev. Ronald McLeod’s parish history Massingham Parva Past & Present (1882), I came across some information about social unrest amongst the labourers of the parish in 1823. Being partial, Rev. McLeod regarded the labourers as little more than criminals, stirred up by outside agitators. He concludes that “the time of disaffection was the moment of prosperity for the working class – the year in which they were in a position to purchase more meat and comforts than in any other.” Another words, they’d never had it so good.


There was more to it than that, though. Enough for William Cobbett to come to the defence of the labourers of Little Massingham in his inimitable style:

From Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 5th June 1824:

“To Parson Brereton,

of Little Massingham, in the County of Norfolk.


“On his pamphlet, which contains, like the book of Parson Malthus, an attack upon the labourers, who are paupers only because they are oppressed with taxes.




“Your book, or pamphlet, is no more than a sort of hash of a part of the disgusting, bloody-and-raw and half-cooked mess of your brother Parson, Malthus.  Mr. Copeland has given you a complete answer; and I should not have noticed your book, had it not afforded me a fair opportunity to give a blow to a Parson; to one of that tribe, from whom I have received so many blows, and whom the whole nation begins now to see in their true light.


“Parson, your object is to prevent parish relief being given. This is your object. You and the rest of the parsons have been pushed a good deal by the rating of your tithes! This has set your wits to work; and those wits seldom travel out of the direct path of your interests. The taxes, necessary for the purposes of the parsons, have robbed, and do rob, the labourers so much, that they must get from the parish, or starve. You dare not push them to the latter.  You would not like open rebellion. Therefore, you hate the labourers. You cannot tell why; but you hate them. I will tell you why: they cause deductions from the amount of your tithes. That is the true and only cause of your hatred towards them. Your scheme would make them half-naked, like the Irish.  You forget, but you must have them shut up in their houses from sunset to sunrise, and, besides this, have a bayonet and a red coat ready at every corner of the street! You are puzzled, Parson; but, you will be a great deal more than puzzled by-and-by. You smell danger; but, I am convinced, that you have not the scent so strong as you ought to have it.


“Parson, why ought not poor labourers to be relieved? A very large sum has been voted, partly out of the taxes laid on the labourers, to relieve the poor clergy; and why should not something be given to the poor labourers?  You talk of idle labourers. Are they more idle, Parson, than non-resident parsons are?  You, Parson, have two livings yourself, I fancy, and can you take care of the souls of the people in both these parishes?


“But, Parson, I have not time now to deal with you in a proper manner.  I promise to do it shortly. I will take the side of the labourers; and if I do not place the parsons in a proper light, may I have to endure their blessings! I will show a little more plainly than you have, what it is that makes paupers: I will show, as clearly as day-light, that it is the church parsons, and the church parsons only, that have been the cause of the paupers.”


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