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A Chartist cobbler

We have previously encountered Thomas Cooper as a ‘seditious classicist’ who turned Leicester into a Chartist stronghold (pp. 287-9), but his first employment was as a cobbler’s apprentice. Born in Leicester, the illegitimate son of a dyer, and raised by his widowed mother in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Cooper showed early signs of intellect, reciting from ‘Aesop’s fables’ at the age of three.70 He won a Bluecoat scholarship to a local school,71 and in 1816 began teaching the younger children at a boys’ day school, in exchange for a more advanced syllabus.72 Here he encountered books including ‘Mavor’s British Plutarch, and the abridgment of Goldsmith’s Histories of England, Greece and Rome’.73 His activist awakening happened when he overheard conversations at a brush-makers, who ‘were the most determined politicians’; they lent him the radical weekly The News and criticised Castlereagh, and the Prince Regent ‘until I hated the Liverpool Ministry, and its master, bitterly, and believed that the sufferings of the poor were chiefly attributable to them’.74

On 10th June 1820, at 15, he joined an old school friend as an apprentice in a cobblers’ garret. His master, Joseph Clarke, introduced him to Shakespeare, Byron, Burns and Bloomfield.7’ He made something of a name for himself as a reciter of poetry, but he wanted to become a writer himself, and began a regime of self-education. He was inspired by a life of Samuel Lee (1783-1852), Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge.76 It was published in the Imperial Magazine, a popular educational journal edited by none other than Samuel Drew.77 Lee, Cooper reflected,

had been apprenticed to a carpenter at eleven years old, had bought Ruddiman’s Latin Rudiments on an old book-stall for a trifle, and learnt the whole book by heart; and had stepped on, from Corderius’s Colloquies to Caesar, and from Caesar to Virgil, and so on; and had learnt to read Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, all from self-tuition, by the time he was five or six and twenty.78

Cooper secured cheap access to a supply of books via a kindly stationer, who allowed him to borrow, for a paltry sum, from a circulating library she ran from her shop.79 Cooper began—in imitation of Lee—with Ruddiman’s Rudiments, memorizing most of the book, as he says, ‘notes and all’. Every Sunday evening he practised his Hebrew letters, copying from Israel Lyons’ small Hebrew Grammar (much reprinted, but the first edition was dated 1735), which he found on a stall. ‘I got hold of a Greek Grammar ... but did not master it earnestly, because I thought it better to keep close to the Latin for some time’.80 ‘Historical reading’, he explains, ‘or the grammar of some language, or translation, was my first employment on week-day mornings, whether I rose at three or four, until seven o’clock, when I sat down to the stall’.81 In the winter, he would read standing up, wrapped up in his mother’s old red cloak, ‘and frequently kept my feet moving to secure warmth, or prevent myself from falling asleep’.82 They could not afford to light the fire before his mother was up.

His confidence and competence as a Latinist improved steadily over the next two or three years, when he also recited declensions and conjugations at work.

In the spring of 1826, after getting through Valpy’s Delectus, and a part of Stewart’s “Cornelius Nepos”, and also a part of Justin, but somewhat clumsily, with the help of Ainsworth’s Dictionary, I commenced Caesar, and sped on well, so that by the time I had reached the third book, “De Bello Gallico”, I found myself able to read page after page, with scarcely more than a glance, now and then, at the dictionary.83

Cooper gives us a rare thing indeed, the Latin reading record of a self-educating worker and his thrill on achieving fluency:

It was about five in the morning, the sun shone brightly; and as I lifted my eyes from the classic page of the great conqueror of the Gauls and Helvetians, and they fell on the mouldering pile called the “Old Hall”— part of which had been a stronghold of John of Gaunt, and of one of the barons in the reign of Stephen—I said to myself, “I have made a greater conquest, without the aid of a living teacher, than the proudest warrior ever made—for I have conquered and entered into the possession of a new mind”. And that seems to me the truest expression, when you find you can read a language you could not read before.

After Caesar, Cooper fell in love with Virgil’s Aeneid.

In 1828 Cooper opened a school in Lincoln, which was ‘eagerly patronised by the poor’,84 who revered his prodigious learning. After a year he had ‘an average attendance of eighty, and had to think of engaging an assistant’.85 He made quill pens for his pupils every morning and spent a good deal of money on furnishing the classroom with ‘pictures of every imaginable kind’, and filled the corners ‘with plaster figures and busts’.86 His pupils’ parents were not interested in their children being taught Latin, but he did it anyway. ‘Soon, I had copies of declensions and conjugations written out on sheets of paper, with lists of the prepositions, and so on; and gave them to a good number of the boys to commit to memory’.87 Every morning began with a chorus of Latin accidence.

Some of the boys made good progress with their Latin, even reading some Cornelius Nepos with their teacher, ‘But the great body of them were never able to construe a Latin sentence. They had no taste for it themselves; and they had no stimulus at home’.88 This information provides an important counterweight to this chapter’s tales of marvellous self-education. The vast majority of the working poor would not have dared, like Lackington, Woodhouse, Gifford, Bradburn, Drew, Carey and Cooper, to set their sights higher than the working life into which they were born. And so what? Perhaps Cooper’s pupils’ parents were right when they complained, ‘What’s the use of his larning Latin? It will nivver be no use to him’.8

This chapter has been strangely centrifugal. Its protagonists left the trade behind and rose to more prominent and occasionally more lucrative positions. These cobblers often became men of letters—poets, theologians, scholars, teachers, translators, literary editors or booksellers. We have been handling the stories of exceptional shoemakers who made their way out of obscurity via

Robert Bloomfield (1766—1823), CCA.34.16(17) Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

FIGURE 20.7 Robert Bloomfield (1766—1823), CCA.34.16(17) Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

routes—patronage, Nonconformism networks or Chartist conviction—in which classical learning is present in vivid variety. While celebrating their achievements, we need to attend to the structures that supported them, and heed the warning of Robert Bloomfield (Figure 20.7), a famous Suffolk cobbler-turned-poet. He was so astonished when he heard his popular classic The Farmer’s Boy was translated into Latin by a local vicar that he wrote another poem, in which he darkly warns his protagonist against ever despising his humble origins:

Hey, Giles! in what new garb art dress’d?

For Lads like you methinks a bold one;

I’m glad to see thee so caress’d;

But, hark ye!—don’t despise your old one.

Thou’rt not the first by many a Boy

Who’ve found abroad good friends to own’em;

Then, in such Coats have shown their joy,

E’en their own Fathers have not known’em.9"


  • 1 We follow the popular custom of using the terms ‘shoemaker’ and ‘cobbler’ interchangeably, although ‘cobbler’ sometimes denotes those who mend rather than make shoes. In practice, most were trained and accustomed to do both.
  • 2 Wright (1922) 224.
  • 3 Winks (1882) iv.
  • 4 Winks (1882) iii.
  • 5 See Sellars (2003) for other ancient references.
  • 6 See Thompson (1960) and Camp (1992) 145-7.
  • 7 Stobaeus (Flor. 4.32.21) via quotation from a lost work by the Hellenistic Cynic philosopher Teles of Megara. See Hall (2019).
  • 8 On Political Shoemakers see Hobsbawm (1980).
  • 9 Naturalis Historia 35.85.
  • 10 E.g. Anon [Honestus] (1788) 528—30, to make fun of political dissent among mechanics in the alehouse; Beddoes (1800) 28, to challenge reactionary critics.
  • 11 Woodhouse (1896) 1.1, 1.9.
  • 12 Williams (1939) 648.
  • 13 Woodhouse (1803) 96.
  • 14 Woodhouse (1803) 96.
  • 15 Woodhouse (1803) 99.
  • 16 Woodhouse (1803) 100.
  • 17 For an excellent biographical account and introduction to Woodhouse’s poetry see Van-Hagen (2009). As bookseller, Dodsley’s classical works included Christopher Pitt’s edition of Virgil’s Aeneid (1740), William Melmoth’s The Letters of Pliny (1746), and translations of Callimachus (1744) and Sallust (1744). He also published Joseph Spence’s influential Polymetis (1747).
  • 18 Woodhouse (1766) 5-6.
  • 19 Woodhouse (1766) 12.
  • 20 Woodhouse (1766) 70-2.
  • 21 On the British reception of Horace, see Harrison (2017).
  • 22 Van-Hagen (2009) 387. For more on Spence see pp. 48, 79-80, 87-8.
  • 23 For more on patronage and the ‘politics of benefaction’ see Rizzo (1990).

Woodhouse (1764) 31 [‘Spring, lines 94-104].

c.f. Stephen Duck’s Sisyphus and Mary Collier’s Danaids, discussed on pp. 84-6 and 000 respectively; and Sid Chaplin’s Atlas, p. 466.

Landry (1990) 14-16.

See Mary Collier’s domestic injuries on p. 85.

Woodhouse (1764) 31 [‘Spring’, lines 105-8].

Van-Hagen (2009) 385.

Christinas (2001) 206. Woodhouse (1896) 2.61.

Woodhouse and Van-Hagen (2005) 2. Johnson (1958) 255.

Van-Hagen (2009) 398.

Lackington (1792) 65.

Lackington (1792) 350-1. His Memoirs, which remained in print until the 1830s, was published first in 1791, but we quote from the 1792 version.

Lackington (1792) 98.

Lackington (1792) 176.

Lackington (1792) 177-8.

Lackington (1792) 178.

Lackington (1792) 175-6.

Lackington (1792) 289.

Knight (1865) 282.

Roe (2012) 17-8.

In 1806 he also spent ,£3,000 on a Temple Methodist Church in Taunton, and made other donations to Methodist causes during his retirement in the South West of England.

‘A letter to William Gifford’ (1819), Hazlitt (1932) 9.13.

Hunt (1823) v.

Hunt (1823) v.

Gifford (1810) 10, lines 25-6.

Lessenich (2012) 274-5.

Gifford (1803) vii. His Satires of Juvenal were published first in 1802, but we quote from the more widely accessible 1803 version, which also contains his autobiographical introduction.

Gifford (1803) xi.

Gifford (1803) xiv.

Gifford (1803) xviii-xx.

Gifford (1803) xxi.

Blanshard (1870) 2, 8, 249-251 (suspension).

Blanshard (1870) 4.

Cork, March 31st (1779) quoted in Blanshard (1870) 75-6.

Blanshard (1870) 203.

Blanshard (1870) 203-4.

Drew (1834) 18.

Drew (1834) 63-5; he was occasionally involved in smuggling. In December 1784 he nearly drowned while unloading contraband in adverse conditions.

Drew (1834) 160.

Drew (1834) 83.

Drew (1834) 118-9.

Drew (1834) 366.

Winks (1882) 132. Dyche’s Latin Vocabulary was first printed in 1709 and its 6th and final edition was printed in 1816. It is basically a primer with a vocabulary of the most common Latin words.

Winks (1882) 134.

Winks (1882) 131.

Winks (1882) 137.

Stanley (2004) ODNB.

Cooper (1872) 5; Winks (1882) 166.

Cooper (1872) 13.

Cooper (1872) 33.

Cooper (1872) 33; Mavor (1800); Goldsmith (1764), (1769), (1774a), (1774b).

Cooper (1872) 36.

Cooper (1872) 42-3; Winks (1882) 169-70.

Cooper (1872) 55.

Anon (1819) columns 177-189.

Cooper (1872) 55; Anon (1819) columns 179. The French-born Swiss scholar Mathurin Cordier, alias ‘Corderius’, published his Colloquiorum scholasticorum libri quatuor (‘Four Books of Scholastic Conversations’ (for children) in 1568. They were reprinted and read across Europe for three centuries. Cordier was born into Normandy’s peasantry and lived to become director of the famous School of Theology at Lausanne. The Colloquies were printed in a bilingual edition, translated by Charles Hoole, in London from 1657. It became an important resource for English children to learn spoken Latin: Cordier (1568); Hoole (1657).

Cooper (1872) 52.

Cooper (1872) 58.

Cooper (1872) 59.

Cooper (1872) 60-1.

Cooper (1872) 59-60; Stewart (1818); Ainsworth (1758).

Cooper (1872) 72.

Cooper (1872) 73.

Cooper (1872) 74.

Cooper (1872) 75.

Cooper (1872) 76.

Cooper (1872) 76.

Bloomfield (1827) vol. II, 390: Chibbe (1801); Hall (2008b) 390.

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