Saturday, 4 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Samuel Cook

A Chartist, Cook[1] was born on 15th July 1786 at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, the son of Samuel Cook, a cloth manufacturer and his wife, Amy. After his apprenticeship with a draper at Poole, Cook sought work in London, Birmingham, and Manchester. In 1810, he married Maria (1787/8–1827), the daughter of George Jones, a builder from Edgbaston, and they had six children. In partnership with his brother Joseph, Cook established a business in Liverpool, but it quickly ran into difficulties, and in 1818 the business was declared bankrupt. On 8th May 1819, following his release from debtors’ prison, he moved to Gibraltar House, Dudley, where he established a draper’s shop. The business was successful until 1843, when he was again declared bankrupt. In this shop Cook displayed a number of posters outlining political events, and the business became the focal point of radicalism in the Black Country. He was ‘the radical conscience of middle-class Dudley, a dissident whose integrity was recognised by many who did not share his views’[2]. As a nonconformist, Cook advocated the religious, social, and political rights of many fellow dissenters. He opposed church rates at Dudley from 1823 onwards, called for Catholic emancipation in 1829 and sought ‘genuine democracy’ in parochial administration and better working and living conditions in the town.

In 1826, in his defence of the nailers’ strike at Dudley and Lye, Cook accused the government of starving the local populace, and subsequently the Home Office arraigned him for seditious libel. He declined bail and was imprisoned at Worcester gaol. On 1st August 1827, in spite of the valiant efforts of his barrister, Sir John Campbell, Cook was convicted, forced to pay a £100 fine, and bound over to keep the peace. His release was greeted with great enthusiasm by a crowd reputed to be over 40,000 strong at Dudley. Tragedy, however, struck his family on 7th September 1827, when his wife died, aged thirty-nine, allegedly as a direct consequence of her last pregnancy.

During the demand for parliamentary reform in the early 1830s, Cook expressed his middle-class radical sentiments with a series of reform posters and became the chairman of Dudley Political Union. In April 1832 he was accused of sedition, but the local magistrates found in favour of the defence, as there was insufficient evidence to convict him. In March 1836, Cook was not so successful, as he was accused and convicted of libel by Thomas Badger, an ardent Tory magistrate, whom he blamed for corrupting the judicial process.

After the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, Cook assisted the parliamentary career of Sir John Campbell, as well as expressing his views that the Whig reforms had not gone far enough. In March 1834, he published Some of the Principles of Dudley Radicalism, a series of public statements which foreshadowed the Chartist demands of the late 1830s. Other publications from this period include To the Magistrates of the County of Worcester (1830) and To All Genuine Reformers (1835). On 19th July 1839, because of his association with the Chartist movement, Cook was arrested for holding an unlawful assembly at Dudley and was remanded on £300 bail. At his trial witnesses noted that Cook had encouraged a tumultuous crowd to take action against the Metropolitan Police, and had called for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. The jury convicted him, and Cook was imprisoned for six months.

Released from prison in April 1840, Cook was ‘quite unrepentant and vociferous in his criticisms of the conduct of the visiting magistrate in impounding letters he had written to his children’[3]. In January 1841, he was appointed as sub-treasurer of the Dudley National Charter Association and greatly assisted in the recruitment of new members. In support of the miners’ strike of July and August 1842, Cook posted a number of purportedly inflammatory posters, and on 20th August he was arrested for advertising a Chartist rally in Birmingham. There is no evidence of any subsequent prosecution.

In 1844, after his business had been declared bankrupt, Cook entered into a partnership with his son, Samuel Quartus Cook. From 1846, Cook became involved in the Chartist Land Company and in the following year contested the general election at Wolverhampton. Between 1845 and 1848, he supplied statistical information on mining accidents in south Staffordshire, helped promote the Dudley Mechanics’ Institute from February 1848 and in the 1850s promoted the cause of trade unionism in the Black Country. Although Chartism had rapidly declined after 1848, Cook tried to revive its fortunes, notably in August 1855, when he promoted the Staffordshire Chartist and Complete Suffrage Association. He continued to promote radical reform, helped to organise a miners’ strike in May 1858 and petitioned for almshouses in 1859. He sponsored a number of self-help and discussion groups, particularly the Dudley Mutual Improvement Society, the Temple of Investigation, the Manhood Suffrage Association, and the Working Men’s Institute, and remained committed to radicalism until his death on 8th December 1861. He was buried shortly afterwards at King Street Independent Chapel, Dudley, where his funeral was attended by a small number of mourners. It has been observed that Cook could have: ‘lived a comfortable and prosperous life if he had, like most middle class people of the time, ignored the injustices and desperate poverty of the mass of the people. Instead he threw in his lot with the working class of Dudley, never flinching from the consequences. Tough, uncompromising … he is one of the local leaders entitled to a place of high honour in the annals of the British working class movement.’[4]


[1] Sources: A full report of the trial of Samuel Cook, draper, Dudley, for an alleged seditious libel, tried at Worcester, August 1 1827, before Mr Justice Littledale, 2nd edition, 1827, Birmingham Daily Post, 10th December 1861, Worcestershire Chronicle, 11th December 1861, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14th Dec 1861, Wolverhampton Journal, 14th December 1861, Worcester Herald, 14th December 1861, National Reformer, 18th January 1862, J. Rowley and E. Taylor, ‘Cook, Samuel’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 6, G. Chandler and I. C. Hannah Dudley as it was and as it is today, 1949, G. J. Barnsby The Dudley working class movement, 1750–1860, 1986, C. F. G. Clark (ed.) The curiosities of Dudley and the Black Country, from 1800 to 1860, 1881, C. F. G. Clark ‘Dudley in the nineteenth century’ in E. Blocksidge (ed.) Dudley almanack, 1892, C. F. G. Clark 1819–1897: an illustrated souvenir of F. W. Cook’s drapery warehouses…, 1897 and H. M. Atkins and others Dudley, 1988.

[2] J. Rowley and E. Taylor, ‘Cook, Samuel’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 6, page 64.

[3] J. Rowley and E. Taylor, ‘Cook, Samuel’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 6, page 65.

[4] G. J. Barnsby The Dudley working class movement, 1750–1860, 1986, page 61.

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