Autarchy in the UK!
An Introduction to William Cobbett, the Father of Self-Sufficiency
William Cobbett was many things in his long life, but he was above all a champion of the country poor and a farmer. Not an absentee, idling-type farmer, mind you, but an eminently practical, calloused-handed cultivator.
These enduring aspects of Cobbett, as much a part of the man as his beery breath and ruddy complexion, were perfectly synthesised in Cottage Economy, first published as a series of pamphlets in 1821-2, and intended as a self-help manual for the rural impoverished. 'I purpose to show', he promises, 'how a large part of the food of even a large family may be raised... from forty rod, or quarter of an acre' and accordingly proceeds with instructions on brewing beer, making bread, keeping cows, pigs, bees, poultry and much else.
Cobbett’s vision was a far cry from other, future-oriented concepts of the time.
But Cottage Economy is something more than a practical handbook; it is also a manifesto for self-sufficiency. Even as Cobbett wrote it, 'the coming of the paper money' (capitalism) had served both to drive down agricultural wages and nurture a dependency on bought-in goods and services, both of them invariably shoddy. Against the brave new order, Cobbett sought the restoration of a brave old world. Or as GK Chesterton termed it, 'a really medieval England', where the cottager worked a plot of land with his family, and grew not only food but freedom, self-reliance and dignity. Chesterton thought Cobbett the 'noblest' agitator. Certainly, he had it over his peers; he practised what he preached. William Cobbett was born in 1763 in Farnham, Surrey, the son of a farmer.
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Almost as soon as he could walk, he was employed on the farm, dressed in a blue smock, as a bird-scarer. When older he graduated to weeding, then reaping and ploughing with the horse. At 21, Cobbett enlisted in the army and rose to the rank of Sergeant Major. He served in North America, but hated the snobbery of the officers and the corruption and bought a discharge.
After a spell in France, he sailed for America in 1792, where he published a paper called Porcupine's Gazette, only to flee prosecution for libel. In 1800, back in England, Cobbett purchased a model farm at Botley, Hampshire, founded Parliamentary Debate (the fore-runner of Hansard) and continued his political writings, which increasingly took on a Radical hue. From 1810-12 he was imprisoned in Newgate for a stricture against flogging in the army and in 1817, fearful of a second imprisonment, he sailed to America with his family where he rented a farm on Long Island.
He ventured back to England in 1819, but Botley had to be sold because of debts, so Cobbett started a seed-farm in Kensington and promoted the virtues of 'Cobbett's Corn', or maize, which he had encountered during his American residencies. It was also in Kensington that he penned his most famous books, Cottage Economy and Rural Rides (1830).
In 1832 he was elected to Parliament as member for Oldham, but soon fell into ill health and retired to a new farm in Hampshire. Only days before his death in May 1835, he asked his sons to carry him around the farm's fields. During the procession they encountered a small boy in a blue smock. Cobbett, his son wrote, 'seemed refreshed at the sight of the little creature which he had once precisely resembled, though now at such an immeasurable distance'. But what relevance has Cottage Economy nearly two hundred years on? There is the occasional oddity to modern ears - it would have been a brave person to suggest Cobbett ate a potato ('the root of slovenliness') - but as a small-holder self-help guide it retains its importance. Almost uncannily so for those dismayed by modern agriculture's addiction to chemicals.
Cobbett in his later years.
An organic farmer before the concept was conjured, Cobbett drops useful advice off almost every page, on everything from winter diet for chickens (add dried nettles to the menu) to the virtue of the pig as a walking muck-maker. (For Cobbett, the pig was the cottager's animal sans pareil, an all on-one system, which ate everything, manured all and then did the decent thing of turning itself into prime food; 'A couple of flitches of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist tracts and religious sermons'). There are fulsome instructions in the lost arts of brewing beer and baking bread - both of which, incidentally, can still be made at home more cheaply than they can be purchased from Messrs Sainsburys or Wal-Mart - and few might feel the need for an ice-house in the Virginian manner' or a rush light, but wouldn't it be fun to try?
Any smallholder will be captivated by Cobbett's method of keeping a milk cow on a quarter of an acre. Nor, oddly enough, does Cottage Economy seem dated as a manifesto for self-sufficiency. Much has changed since Cobbett's time, but little has. The British were already being turned into a nation of shoppers in the early 19th century, divorced from their own ability to produce the stuffs of life. In our times, a degree of self-sufficiency - even if only a yard or two of DIY vegetables - may be the best means to connect with our essential nature, even Nature itself.
For Cobbett, the management by a family of a small plot of ground was an unsurpassed foundation for the happiness of the family, bonding it in purpose and familiarity, all whilst educating the children in the useful things of life. Can anyone gainsay him? If you believe self-sufficiency too quaint, ponder this: in France some 15-20% of the fresh produce consumed is still raised in the kitchen garden, the potager. During the Covid lockdowns one of France’s major newspaper declared ‘Potagers et jardins, les stars du confinement’. Well, obviously. Soul, stomach, sense of self-reliance, re-connection to healing nature all satisfied by a quarter of an acre.
Even the French king had his own, rather larger and more glamorous potager.
Every one of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ ticked. Voila! No dry read, Cottage Economy. Cobbett made a virtue of plain-writing, and was death on paper to cant and boredom. Frequently humorous, he was more frequently abusive, a sort of rural Dr Johnson. When some town council somewhere banned his anti-Malthusian play Surplus Population, he riposted with a drama entitled Bastards in High Places.
Aside from potatoes, his favourite targets were the gentry, politicians, parsons, industry- and tea. 'I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age'. Typically, Cobbett had cardinal proof of the uselessness of tea: you can feed a pig just about anything and it will thrive. Except tea-leaves. How did he know? Because he'd tried it. Cobbett never sold the reader an opinion that was not based on his own experience. There was one more hapless target of his ire. In a mindset quite remarkably modern, he loathed those who were cruel to animals: 'He who can deliberately inflict torture upon an animal... is an abuser of the authority which God has given him, and is, indeed, a tyrant in his heart'.
Anyone seeking what Cobbett called 'a good living' will find it almost impossible to close the covers of his Cottage Economy without being inspired, educated and entertained. William Cobbett was many things in his long life. Not least among them the grandfather of self-sufficiency.
Self-sufficiency, autarchy, backyard farming — call it what you like — is a venerable British tradition. Once upon a time governments even sponsored self-sufficiency via Smallholdings Acts authorising acquisition of land for those wanting to grow their own. Between 1908 and 1914 alone, 205,103 acres were purchased in England and Wales for smallholders and allotmenteers. In return for service in the Great War, 24,000 soldiers were settled on plots in our green and pleasant land.
The allotment movement was boosted by Round 2 with militaristic Germany, 1939-45, and the “Dig for Victory” campaign. By 1943 there were 1,400,000 allotments in the UK, producing a gob-smacking 1.3 million tonnes of food. Then came the outbreak of peace, the population doubling to 60 million, and an expansion of housing which caused hard-pressed local authorities to sell land to developers. Currently, there are a niggardly 250,000 allotments in the UK, and the waiting lists are as long as rake handles. Is it not about time that government and councils reversed ferret and purchased land to be divided up into food-producing plots for village people and townspeople alike? I propose this land reform be called ‘The Cobbett Scheme’.
Autarchy in the UK! As the Sex Pistols should have sung.