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Cobbett's Boyhood








Perhaps, in Cobbett's voluminous writings, there is nothing so complete
as the following picture of his boyish scenes and recollections: it has
been well compared to the most simple and touching passages in
Richardson's Pamela:--

"After living within a hundred yards of Westminster Hall and the
Abbey church, and the bridge, and looking from my own window into
St. James's Park, all other buildings and spots appear mean and
insignificant. I went to-day to see the house I formerly occupied.
How small! It is always thus: the words large and small are
carried about with us in our minds, and we forget real dimensions.
The idea, such as it was received, remains during our absence from
the object. When I returned to England in 1800, after an absence
from the country parts of it of sixteen years, the trees, the
hedges, even the parks and woods, seemed so small! It made me
laugh to hear little gutters, that I could jump over, called
rivers! The Thames was but 'a creek!' But when, in about a month
after my arrival in London, I went to Farnham, the place of my
birth, what was my surprise! Every thing was become so pitifully
small! I had to cross in my postchaise the long and dreary heath
of Bagshot. Then, at the end of it, to mount a hill called Hungry
Hill; and from that hill I knew that I should look down into the
beautiful and fertile vale of Farnham. My heart fluttered with
impatience, mixed with a sort of fear, to see all the scenes of my
childhood; for I had learned before the death of my father and
mother. There is a hill not far from the town, called Crooksbury
Hill, which rises up out of a flat in the form of a cone, and is
planted with Scotch fir-trees. Here I used to take the eggs and
young ones of crows and magpies. This hill was a famous object in
the neighbourhood. It served as the superlative degree of height.
'As high as Crooksbury Hill,' meant with us, the utmost degree of
height. Therefore, the first object my eyes sought was this hill.
I could not believe my eyes! Literally speaking, I for a moment
thought the famous hill removed, and a little heap put in its
stead; for I had seen in New Brunswick a single rock, or hill of
solid rock, ten times as big, and four or five times as high! The
post-boy, going down hill, and not a bad road, whisked me in a few
minutes to the Bush Inn, from the garden of which I could see the
prodigious sand hill where I had begun my gardening works. What a
nothing! But now came rushing into my mind all at once my pretty
little garden, my little blue smock-frock, my little nailed shoes,
my pretty pigeons that I used to feed out of my hands, the last
kind words and tears of my gentle and tender-hearted and
affectionate mother. I hastened back into the room. If I had
looked a moment longer, I should have dropped. When I came to
reflect, what a change! What scenes I had gone through! How
altered my state! I had dined the day before at a secretary of
state's, in company with Mr. Pitt, and had been waited upon by men
in gaudy liveries! I had had nobody to assist me in the world. No
teachers of any sort. Nobody to shelter me from the consequence of
bad, and nobody to counsel me to good behaviour. I felt proud. The
distinctions of rank, birth, and wealth, all became nothing in my
eyes; and from that moment (less than a month after my arrival in
England), I resolved never to bend before them."

Cobbett was, for a short time, a labourer in the kitchen grounds of the
Royal Gardens at Kew. King George the Third often visited the gardens
to inquire after the fruits and esculents; and one day, he saw here
Cobbett, then a lad, who with a few halfpence in his pocket, and Swift's
Tale of a Tub in his hand, had been so captivated by the wonders of
the royal gardens, that he applied there for employment. The king, on
perceiving the clownish boy, with his stockings tied about his legs by
scarlet garters, inquired about him, and specially desired that he might
be continued in his service.

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