William Cobbett Needs Farm Help

William Cobbett Needs Farm Help


William Cobbett
A portrait of William Cobbett. Courtesy of the William Cobbett Society

They say good help is hard to find these days, and for a man of discriminating requirements it was also hard in the early 19th century.

I became aware of the great 19th century journalist, politician, and agrarian William Cobbett last year while reading Farming for Self-Sufficiency, which used his amusing quotes as the epitaph for almost every chapter.

Cobbett was an early advocate of going back to the land, and even at the beginning of the 19th century he was critical the way the Industrial Revolution changed man’s relationship with food. I’ve been reading the collection “William Cobbett’s Farm Book”, where his delightful eccentricities and biting social commentary are consistently on display.

One of the most amusing parts is his very specific wanted ad for a farm hand. It isn’t like any classified ad I’ve ever seen.

Cobbett begins by explaining that he needs a young man between 16 and 18 who can be an apprentice at farming, gardening, and nursery work. The young man is to help Cobbett’s brother, who is not “Able to move about so quickly” on account that “he began to work hard more than fifty years ago; and verily I believe him to have done more hard work than any other man now living in England.”

Cobbett then explains that he needs someone obedient who is not influenced by prior experience,

“He is wanted to see the orders of myself, or my brother, obeyed. I do not want a Bailiff; for bailiffs do not think they can earn their wages unless they furnish you with science, or at least, with advice, as well as with care; and I want neither science nor advice. I want legs that are able to move nimbly and willingly, and a young head capable of learning. The lad ought to be stout, and not stunted; he ought to be able to read and write a little; but, two things are indispensable; namely that his father be a farmer, and that the son has lived on a farm in England, all his life, and at a distance of not less than forty miles from London; ad not less than twenty miles from Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, or Norwich.”

Well, so far some of that is normal, such as wanting an obedient laborer. I’ve never seen a printed ad which puts such a low bar for literacy. Most amusing, you can see that he doesn’t cotton to city folk, with the requirement of distance from the cities.

From here, it goes into some of Cobbett’s greater eccentricities.

“He is never to quit the farm; except on my business, and to go to the parish church on Sunday, and is to be under he control of my brother as completely as if it were his son.”

It’s hard to say how normal it was to demand that level of obedience from a 16 year old laborer in the early 19th century.

Cobbett then lists general agricultural skills the lad will learn, as well as virtuous life habits, “He will learn how to make beer; to see butter and cheese made before breakfast time. He will have constantly before his eyes examples of early rising, activity, punctual attention to business, content with plain living, and perfect sobriety.”

It’s unclear to me how brewing beer goes with “perfect sobriety.”

Cobbett was also more politically partisan than is common even in our era, writing, “Now, if any farmer, who is of my political principles, full up to the mark,  have such a son…”

So for Cobbett this means Tories need not apply!

This is where it gets especially amusing, as Cobbett shows how political consciousness informs all aspects of how the household is run. I found it particularly interesting that he writes, “It is, I hope, unecessary to add, that this is a farm house without a tea-kettle or a coffee-pot, and without any of the sweets that come from the sweats of African slaves.”

Cobbett tea quote
Cobbett really hated tea, for some reason that is unclear to me.

It is mentioned in Farming for Self-Sufficiency that for some reason Cobbett thought caffeine was the path to depravity and the gallows, and that you should give your children beer instead. I found the anti-slavery sentiment as well, since Cobbett was a bitter political rival of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce– and it appears that really was all over Cobbett’s hatred of the protectionist “Corn Laws“, which Wilberforce supported.

Cobbett then goes on to explain how he wants a country boy, not someone weakened from prosperity,

“Please to observe, that I do not want a young gentleman; but a good sturdy lad, whose hands do not instinctively recoil from the frozen chain, or from the dirty heels of an ox or a horse. I hope that the lad or young man, that I am to have, will never have been at an establishment,  vulgarly called a boarding-school: if unfortunately he have, and should suit in all other respects, I must sweat the boarding-school nonsense out of him; that is all.If he have a mind to improve himself in study, here are books and all the other means of well employing is leisure hours.”

It’s always nice to see someone else who shares my hatred of schools!

Cobbett then goes into a short post-script demanding to only hear from applicants of virtue,

“P.S. The great qualities are, a fitness to give orders, and spirit to enforce obedience; and, above all things, never to connive at the misconduct of the men; but invariably to make true report of their behaviour, whether good or bad. It will be quite useless to engage a soft, milky thing, that has not the courage to make a lazy fellow stir, or to reprove a perverse one. Fathers will know what stuff their sons are made of, and will, of course, not recommend them to me unless they fit my purpose. They know well what I want, and I beg them not to offer me what will not suit me.”

Cobbett then ends with one final requirement,

“N.B. I will have no one, who has any near relation, that is a tax-eater of any sort.”

So that’s what Cobbett needs: a stout and fit lad who has been on an English farm his whole life, away from the city, hasn’t been to boarding school, doesn’t consume caffeine or sugar, supports the Liberal party, is not related to any government employees, and is fine being confined to his place of employment besides to run errands and go to church.

Do you think he found anybody?

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