Thomas Cooper’s “Prison Rhyme” (1845)

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently came into possession of a book written by Thomas Cooper (1805-92), a famous Chartist activist, which he gave to his friend, the newspaper proprietor and fellow Chartist, John Cleave (1790-1847).

Chartism was the first large-scale working-class political reform movement in Britain who had six demands, which they laid out in their People’s Charter: votes for all men; equally-sized electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that MPs be property owners; payment for M.P.s; annual general elections; and the secret ballot.

chartists
The Chartist Rally at Kennington Common in 1848

Leaders of the movement held mass meetings in public places but the movement was also supported by a great corpus of literature including novels, newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and songs. Most of this literature was written by people who hailed from the working classes.[i]

Thomas Cooper was one such man. He was born in Lincoln in 1805 (he was the childhood friend of Robin Hood novel author, Thomas Miller, also from Lincolnshire) and from a young age was a shoemaker’s apprentice. While he was an apprentice, he educated himself by reading a range of literature including history books, fictional works, and poetry. He excelled in English studies and by the age of 23 became a schoolmaster with a side-job as a journalist. By all accounts he was a fiery man and very passionate about whatever subject he was preaching about, and was in a large part responsible for turning Leicester—where he went after his years at Lincoln—into a Chartist stronghold when he became active in the movement.

Cooper 3
Thomas Cooper in later life

And so we come to the book itself. Cooper was passionate about the movement he joined and employed his literary talents to promote its message. In the midst of the General Strike in 1842—a nationwide strike that began in the northern manufacturing districts and spread throughout Britain—Cooper arrived in Hanley, Staffordshire to deliver a speech to workers assembled there and declared that

            All labour cease until the People’s Charter becomes the law of the land.

This was incendiary stuff in an era when unions, or ‘combinations’, were legal but members could often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did in the 1830s. Many arrests were made in the aftermath of Cooper’s speech, and Cooper was among those arrested and he was sentenced to two years in gaol for sedition due to his part in the ‘rising’.

01_T0221_0
The Tolpuddle Martyrs

It was in gaol that he wrote The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme, which was then published three years later in 1845 after his release. The theme of the poem is taken from the speech which Cooper gave at the meeting: Slaves Toil No More!

Slaves toil no more!—why delve, and moil, and pine,

To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?

Slaves, toil no more—to win a pauper’s doom!

And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom

Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud

Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—

How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!

Slaves toil no more—to starve!—go forth, and tame the proud![ii]

The poem, written in Spenserian stanzas, in emulation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–96), sees Cooper exploring various forms of government while conversing with people who had committed suicide throughout history (and who were in purgatory), including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero, and the late Lord Castlereagh on what the ideal form of government was—whether it be monarchical, republican, or democratic and in the words of Stephanie Kuduk:

The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of “Knowledge” and poetry.[iii]

So, where at the beginning of the poem, Cooper referred to his fellow workers as ‘slaves’, the poem at the end has a more upbeat tone:

Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe

Are gone and universal life doth bloom

With joy!—The dream o’erwrought me to a throe,

Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home

A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come

The day that goodness shall the earth renew,

And Truth’s young light disperse old Error’s gloom,—

When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—

And when the many cease their slavery to the Few![iv]

The influence of Percy B. Shelley’s earlier poem, The Mask of Anarchy—written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—comes through in the lines about the many versus the few, of which we repeat the final lines here:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.[v]

However, having been written before the appearance of the first English translation of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848), they neither Shelley nor Cooper talk in terms of ‘class struggle’, and the fight between the elites and the many are seen as one of nobles vs. serfs (see also my post on G. W. M. Reynolds’s political beliefs).

Snap 2014-06-08 at 16.17.13
Stafford Prison, where Thomas Cooper was imprisoned in 1842 (c) Black Country Muse

When Cooper was released from prison two years later, he decided to publish the poem. In the preface to the first edition he (quite sarcastically) thanked his government captors for giving him the time to finish a poem which he had been planning to write for a couple of years:

My persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a more robust character to my verses,—though I most assuredly owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other torments,—occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the generally injurious influences of imprisonment.[vi]

Cooper2
Thomas Cooper’s inscription to his friend, John Cleave.
Cooper1
Title Page to Thomas Cooper’s Purgatory of Suicides (1845)

Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed. This was not an unusual number of copies printed for a first edition of a work by a (at this point) relatively minor author. Just like publishers do today, authors receive a number of copies of their own works which they can distribute to friends and family gratis. The copy of Cooper’s work which I have was given to his friend John Cleave, and inscribed on the front end paper is the following message:

A keepsake,

From the author to his respected friend,

Mr. John Cleave.

London,

Oct. 20th, / 45

John Cleave was a member of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), ‘a major reforming organisation’ which counted among its members radical publishers such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, and of course, Cleave.[vii]

Cleave was also the editor of several newspapers over the course of his career: Cleave’s London Satirist, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, and Cleave’s Penny Police Gazette. His sympathies most definitely lay with the radicals and the Chartists—before striking out on his own, Cleave had collaborated with Henry Hethertington on The Poor Man’s Guardian. He was also a businessman, and was not only a newspaper proprietor but also owned a coffee shop and a book shop, which was based at 1 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London.

prpoor3
The Poor Man’s Guardian–one of John Cleave’s first projects with fellow radical Henry Hetherington

Just like Thomas Cooper, Cleave had also had his own brush with the law. When Cleave’s business was at its height, the Stamp Act was in full swing; this ‘tax on knowledge’ was a duty placed on paper, and newspapers had to pay it if they printed news. Publishers of serialised popular fiction were exempt from paying it, which is why many cheaper ‘news’ papers often combined light entertainment in the form of serialised novels as well as commentary on political and social issues. Yet Cleave continued to publish newspapers without paying the tax, and for this he was imprisoned for short spells in Newgate gaol twice, in 1834 and again in 1836.

862739
Cleave’s Penny Gazette

Cleave refused to pay the Stamp Tax because, along with believing that all working men and women should have the vote—unusual even among radicals at this point—he also believed that the key to building a democratic society was through the education of the masses, and in this his newspapers had a role to play. The idea that the spread of knowledge would emancipate the working classes is found throughout Cooper’s poem, which is probably why Cooper gave a copy of his book to his ‘respected friend’.

Henry_Vincent_Chartist
John Cleave’s Son-in-Law, Henry Vincent

Cleave died in 1847, and it is not known what happened to the many books he possessed. The particular copy I have in my possession made its way across the Atlantic at some point, for I purchased from a bookseller named Ann Kruger in the USA. This is strange as neither Cleave, nor his daughter Lucy, who married Chartist activist Henry Vincent, ever appears to have taken a trip to the USA, although the Vincents’ descendants have now settled in New Zealand. This is what perhaps makes antiques, and books in particular, special: you never know who has ‘thumbed the pages’ before you. Also, we often know of these working-class writers and publishers through their printed works, yet they leave very few physical mementoes behind, so it is nice to know that something Cooper himself touched still survives.

Cooper lived on until 1892, and during this time published several works of prose fiction and poetry. He turned more to religious matters and was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In later life, by the time that he wrote his autobiography entitled The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (1872), Cooper was still a committed democrat and advocate of social justice, and counselled readers at the end to

If you have any money to spare, give it away to relieve the wretched; they abound on every hand. Give yourself up to your work, and live for that only. Go and sell all you have and follow your Master, and you shall have treasure in heaven.[viii]


References

[i] See: Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ian Haywood, ed., The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, rev. ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ian Haywood, Working Class Fiction: from Chartism to Trainspotting (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).

[ii] Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme (London: Jeremiah How, 1845), p. 1.

[iii] Stephanie Kuduk, ‘Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides’, Victorian Poetry, 39: 2 (2001), 165–86 (pp. 165–66).

[iv] Cooper, p. 344.

[v] Percy B. Shelley, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 400–11 (p. 411).

[vi] Cooper, Purgatory of Suicides, p. iii.

[vii] Ian Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics, and the People, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 108.

[viii] Thomas Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), p. 400.

Advertisements