THE STORY of TWO COCKS ON THE DUNGHILL
Two Cocks on the Dunghill is an account of the extraordinary relationship between two leading radical reformers of the early 19th century, who spent their lives fighting for justice, human rights and a reformed, democratic House of Commons. Both were imprisoned because of their beliefs and both became fiercely independent members of parliament. The men were William Cobbett (1763-1835) and Henry Hunt (1773-1835).
William Cobbett was the greatest radical political writer of his times. His life is well documented. By contrast, Henry Hunt remains largely unknown, yet he was the most famous radical public speaker. It was 'Orator' Hunt who was speaking on St Peter's Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819 when the yeomanry slashed their way into the crowds. The event was called the Peterloo Massacre. (Mike Leigh is making a film about Peterloo to mark the 200th anniversary in 2019.)
What nobody has written about in any detail is the political partnership, friendship and, finally, deadly enmity between these two charismatic and inspiring men. Yet there is plenty of material. It can be found in Hunt's Memoirs and Addresses, scattered through the numerous volumes of Cobbett's Weekly Political Register and in the contemporary press, diaries and letters. The relationship lasted for more than thirty years until the deaths of both men just four months apart. The events take place in the run up to and the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. Hunt was an MP for Preston during the bill's passage. Cobbett sat in the first reformed House of Commons as a member for Oldham.
It is a puzzle why their story has remained untold until now. It was all there in black and white for everybody to read. People feasted on what the one wrote about the other. Not only were there Cobbett and Hunt's colourful political activities, there was also Cobbett's wife with her violent fury at her husband's friendship with that 'bad man'. There was Hunt's long-time mistress, his beloved and beautiful Mrs Vince, illegitimate granddaughter of a baronet. The press used Mrs Vince as a stick with which to beat Hunt, the would-be MP. Legitimate tactics or press intrusion into private life? Cobbett stoutly defended Hunt, adding to his wife's fury. There were also the scandals, including Mrs Cobbett's attempted suicide and her unfounded accusation that her husband had a homosexual relationship with his secretary. All these events sprang out of the relationship between William Cobbett and Henry Hunt and are of relevance in understanding what happened.
This is a story about the personal and political relationship between two men at a crucial moment in history. The issues, arguments and emotions resonate today. How should a government fight against a perceived foreign and home threat of 'Terror'? When, if ever, should human rights be suspended? What role does the press play? How much integrity can there be in politics and at what cost? Two Cocks on the Dunghill is a story about corruption and greed, compassion and morality, of love, hate, jealousy and scandal and how human beings deal with them. It is also about the courage of individuals against an oppressive state and the triumph of will power and determination in adversity.
Images used by kind permission of:
The fine portrait of Hunt: - Bristol Library
Portrait of Cobbett: - The Museum of Farnham
Ilchester gaol: - Ilchester Museum
The Hampshire Hog caricature: -
Cobbett as the Hampshire Hog dragging Tom Paine’s skeleton. Hunt follows on behind wearing his white top hat and holding a bag labelled ‘The Weekly Penny Radical Subscription’.
© The Trustees of the British Museum