THOMAS COOPER
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"...a man must be strangely devoid of reflection who does not ask himself at the close of a year—'How have I spent the year which is now ending?  Shall I live through the next year?  And, if so, how shall I deport myself, as I proceed with the pilgrimage I have to make through life?' . . ."

――――♦――――

"The night falls fast, and finds me brooding thus
O'er evils that afflict my fatherland:—
The night falls fast, yet brightly luminous
Beam out the cotton mills that round me stand,
Where garish gas turns night to day; and hand,
And eye, and mind of myriad toilers win
The wealth of England, but cannot command
A certainty of bread,—though, for her sin,

Woman, like man, doth weave, and watch, and toil,
                and spin."

From . . .  'The Paradise of Martyrs'.

THOMAS COOPER
(1805-92: engraving by W. J. Linton).
Chartist, journalist, writer, poet and
preacher.

――――♦――――


THOMAS COOPER, the illegitimate son of a working dyer, was born at Leicester on the 20th of March 1805.  After his father's death his mother began business as a dyer and fancy box-maker at Gainsborough, and Cooper was apprenticed to a shoemaker.  Living with his mother and half-sister Ann, he spent his free time on an astonishing - 'fanatical' by most standards - programme of self-education.  By the age of twenty Cooper could recite thousands of lines of poetry (including the first three books of Milton's "Paradise Lost"), and was conversant with a large number of historical and theological texts, as well as Latin, Greek, and French.

    In 1827 Cooper gave up cobbling to become a schoolmaster, and later, a Methodist preacher.  His affairs did not prosper, and after going to Lincoln, where he obtained work on a local newspaper, he went to London in 1839 where he became assistant to a second-hand bookseller.  In 1840 Cooper joined the staff of the Leicestershire Mercury, but his support of the Chartist movement obliged him to resign his position.  In 1841 he edited The Midland Counties Illuminator, a Chartist journal, and became a leading member of the Chartists.  For his part in promoting the riots in the English pottery towns in 1842, Cooper was imprisoned for two years in Stafford Gaol.  It was during this time that he wrote his epic poem, 'The Purgatory of Suicides', in ten books - over 900 Spenserian stanzas - which embodies the radical ideas of his time.  In his efforts to publish this work he came to the notice of Disraeli, Carlyle, Kingsley and Douglas Jerrold; it was with Jerrold's help that 'Purgatory' was published in 1845.

 

More heat was in impulsive Thomas Cooper, the poor shoe-maker, who beguiled captivity by writing the "Purgatory of Suicides; a Prison Rhyme," in ten books, which, with part of an historical romance, a series of simple tales, and a small Hebrew guide, were the fruits of two years and eleven weeks' confinement in Stafford Gaol.  The author speaks of himself as one "who bent over the last and wielded the awl till three-and-twenty, — struggling amidst weak health and deprivation to acquire a knowledge of languages, — and whose experience in after life was at first limited to the humble sphere of a school-master, and never enlarged beyond that of a laborious worker on a newspaper."  His imprisonment was for "seditious conspiracy"—a speech  made by him to some colliers on strike having been followed, without his purpose or his  knowledge, by riot.  He stood two trials—first for taking part in the riot, when he proved  an alibi; the second for conspiring to produce the riot, for which, after a ten days' trial, he  pleading for himself, he was convicted.  To return to his poem.  Noteworthy on account  of the circumstances under which it was produced, it also deserves credit for itself: a poem  well conceived, wrought out with no ordinary amount of power, and not wanting in poetic imagination.  A few lines may suffice to show its form,—lines of which Ebenezer Elliott, the "Corn-law Rhymer," would not have been ashamed.  The opening of the third book:

"Hail, glorious Sun! 
Great exorcist, that bringest up the train 
Of childhood's joyance and youth's dazzling dreams 
From the heart's sepulchre, until again 
I live in ecstasy 'mid woods and streams

And golden flowers that laugh while kiss'd by thy
                bright beams.


"Ay! once more, mirror'd in the silver Trent, 
Thy noontide majesty I think I view, 
With boyish wonder; or, till drowsed and spent 
With eagerness, peer up the vaulted blue
With shaded eyes, watching the lark pursue 
Her dizzy flight; then on a fragrant bed 
Of meadow sweets, still sprent with morning dew, 
Dream how the heavenly chambers overhead

With steps of grace and joy the holy angels tread.

'WHO WERE THE CHARTISTS'
by W. J. Linton


    Cooper's collection of short stories, 'Wise Saws and Modern Instances' (1845—later extended and republished as 'Old Fashioned Stories') is generally regarded as his best piece of prose fiction, providing in places a vivid account of the miserable, impoverished lives of the Leicester stockingers of his age (e.g. The Minister of Mercy; Merrie England; Seth Thompson).   Two volumes on 'self-help'—a theme more generally associated with Cooper's contemporary,  Samuel Smiles—appeared in 1847/8; "Triumphs of Perseverance" and "Triumphs of Enterprise" [later (ca. 1880) extended and combined into a single volume] comprise a collection of "biographical sketches of the achievements of men famous in many fields of enterprise, and distinguished by the perseverance they exhibited" which, Cooper hoped, would "stimulate the youthful reader to attempt to follow in their footsteps".  Among Cooper's other titles is the historical novel 'Captain Cobler' (1850), and the novels 'Alderman Ralph' (1853) and 'The Family Feud' (1855).  The 'Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time' (1871) is a modestly sized and very readable book on Christian evidences in which Cooper, in a well-argued low-church manner, answers the question, "if Christianity be not true, where did it come from?"—and in the process never misses an opportunity to heap blame at the Vatican's doorway.  Cooper's autobiography, 'The Life of Thomas Cooper, written by Himself' (1872), is among the best memoirs of a Victorian artisan.  His life as a preacher is reflected strongly in his 'Thoughts at Four-Score' (1885), a collection of opinions (including Cooper's views on Darwin and 'the fallacies of evolution') and solid Victorian—at times Puritanical—moralising aimed principally at 'young working men'.


    Cooper has a further niche in English literature, being the model for the Chartist 'poet of the people', in Charles Kingsley's popular novel Alton Locke and the provider of much of Kingsley's background information on Chartism among working people.

Literary Notices, Harper's Magazine, 1851


   Cooper eventually turned to lecturing upon historical and educational subjects.  In 1856 he suddenly renounced the free-thinking doctrines which he had held for many years, and became a lecturer on Christian evidences.  In 1867 his friends raised an annuity of £100 per annum for him, and in the last year of his life he received, belatedly, a modest government grant.

The First Lord of the Treasury yesterday sanctioned the contribution, through Mr. Mundella, of a grant of £200 to Mr. Thomas Cooper, the veteran Chartist leader, and author of the poem "Purgatory of Suicides," who is now in his 84th year and infirm in health.  The grant is made in recognition of Mr. Cooper's literary talent and influence as a moral teacher.

The Times, April 30, 1892.


    Thomas Cooper died at Lincoln on the 15th of July 1892.  Hard-working and intellectually gifted, with a reputation for honesty and generosity, Cooper was also capable of being pedantic and was a man who disliked being challenged.  In his "Memoirs of a Social Atom", W. E. Adams describes him thus—"Thomas Cooper had the 'defect of his qualities.'  I have given one example of his irritability.  Many others were known to his friends....Warm in his friendships, he was bitter in his animosities.....But Thomas Cooper had other qualities that redeemed his defects.  Innumerable instances of his kindness and generosity are recorded.  It is a loving trait in his character that he never forgot or neglected any old friend whom he knew to be living in any of the towns he visited during his later peregrinations."

PHOTOGRAPHS.

Thomas Cooper Chapel
as built

Thomas Cooper Chapel
today.

Thomas Cooper's
grave.

Thomas Cooper Chapel
website.

 
Other artisan memoiresSee also G. J. Holyoake's "Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life", Samuel Bamford's two-part autobiography, "Early Days" and "Passages in the Life of a Radical" (to which a biographical supplement, Reminiscences, was added in 1864), Hugh Miller's "My Schools and Schoolmasters,"; "Memoirs of a Social Atom" by the printer turned newspaper editor, W. E. Adams and "Recollections of Fifty Years" by poetess and author Isabella Fyvie Mayo (aka "Edward Garrett").

 



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