It sounds a nice title – merry ploughboy whistling over the lea, and all that? Companion volume to George Sturt’s and Richard Jefferies’ elegies for the passing of agricultural England? Not really. Alexander Somerville (1811–85) was all too aware of the realities of rural life, and would never have described it as idyllic.
Born the youngest of eleven children in Springfield, East Lothian, Alexander was brought up in absolute poverty. His parents could not afford the shilling necessary to register his birth, and his clothes were made from stitched-together rags. He started earning his living at the age of eight, beginning with unskilled tasks such as cleaning out stables, and graduating to ploughing, haymaking and land drainage. He learned to read at home, but his formal schooling was intermittent since every opportunity to earn money had to be seized.
At the age of 20, he joined the army, and very soon afterwards – whether intentionally or not – he had become notorious as a figurehead for the Reform Movement. He was the last soldier to be flogged publicly in Britain, after stating in an open letter that his regiment, the Scots Greys, then stationed at Birmingham, would not fire on Reform agitators. He had not broken the law in doing this, but it appears that his superiors in the regiment saw him as a potential trouble-maker and manoeuvred him into a situation where he disobeyed a direct order and was punished with 100 lashes. Questions were asked in Parliament, a court of enquiry was convened, and a subscription was raised to buy him out of the army.
He determined to pursue a career as a radical journalist, but his stance was influenced by his concern that any violent uprising would inevitably be crushed by the military, and so lead to greater suffering among the working class; he therefore supported the less radical reform movement urged by Cobden. He was a passionate opponent of the Corn Laws, and The Whistler at the Plough (published in 1852) is a collection of his letters and essays for the Anti-Corn-Law League, based on information gathered during his own travels around the country. The Corn Laws crop up everywhere, either as an immediate evil, or as an analogy or a metaphor for another evil: they were clearly Somerville’s ‘King Charles’s Head‘.
He was (almost inevitably) a great admirer of William Cobbett, and one of his letters describes a visit to Cobbett’s grave in the graveyard of St Andrew’s church, Farnham, and to his former farm, ‘Normandy’ in the village of Ash near Farnham. He comments on the dilapidated state of the gravestone, and at Normandy Farm he tries to locate ‘Tom Paine’s bones’ – Cobbett was rumoured to have brought the bones of the great radical back from America. Somerville was told that the bones had been found in a chest at Cobbett’s death, and that the auctioneer who sold the contents of the house refused to handle them. The chest had been moved to another house about a mile off, but when Somerville, following his ‘desire to see the chest and the bones, to see the skull of “Common Sense” and “The Rights of Man”’ pursued the quest, he was told that six months previously, ‘a gentleman came from London and got them away to bury them there’. Somerville continues: ‘I heard names mentioned; but as it seems some secrecy had been enjoined, I do not repeat the names. I think the parties performed a very proper duty if they really did take the bones to London to bury them.’ Paine’s remains have never been certainly located since.
Somerville travelled throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, seeing with his own eyes what he felt were the dire effects on agriculture of the Corn Laws and other forms of protectionism, commenting on the good and bad agricultural practices he encountered, relating stories of ghosts and witches he had heard from the landlords and labourers he encountered. The final section of The Whistler is named ‘Letters from Ireland During the Famine of 1847’ – harrowing accounts of poverty and starvation intermixed with lacerating sarcasm at the unthinking callousness of most rich landlords and the failure of the government in both Dublin and London to act.
In 1858, after what appears to have been a mental breakdown, Somerville emigrated to Canada with his wife and children, and resumed a journalistic career. After initial successes, he appears to have become increasingly eccentric and isolated (his wife died in 1859). When he died in 1885, the New York Times reported that ‘The Whistler at the Plough’ was buried ‘from an old shed, having died two days previous under deplorable circumstances. Every comfort was offered to him, but to the last he refused to be removed to any place where he could have received proper attention.’ Independent, self-reliant and stubborn to the last, and with wealth at death, according to the ODNB, ‘probably nil’.