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John Cooke

John Cooke

By a public character in his way
You may find an anecdote of the day,
I wish every line to tell, and word I say.

Thus “Captain” John Cooke, the Exeter saddler, begins his pamphlet, Old England for Ever , published by Curson, of Exeter, in 1819.

John Cooke was born at the “Rose and Crown” public-house, on the old bridge, at Ashburton, in 1765. Ashburton, says Cooke, was not only famous as producing Dunning, Lord Ashburton, but also for its Pop. “I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning but eightpence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle. It is a great loss to the town, because its recipe died with its brewer about 1785.”

Captain Cooke


Drawn from Nature, on the stone by N. Whittock

Another drink of the past was white ale. This derived its name from its appearance, not unlike tea freely diluted with milk and having considerable quantities of some white curdy substance floating about in it, which had a tendency to settle at the bottom of the glass. The secret of its composition lay in the nature of the ferment employed, called “grout.” At one time white ale was a common drink in South Devon; now it is as dead as Ashburton Pop and John Dunning.

John Cooke's father was a plasterer and “hellier”—i.e. slater—but turned publican and maltster, and kept the tavern in which his son was born. John's grandfather brought the water into the town to the East Street conduit. At the age of fifteen his mother, then a widow, put John apprentice to Chaster, a saddler in Exeter, and on the death of Chaster, Cooke succeeded to the business at the age of twenty-one, and was highly esteemed in the county for the excellence of his work and his knowledge of how to fit the back of a horse. He made saddles for Lord Rolle, Sir Stafford Northcote, Sir John Duntze, Sir Robert and Sir Lawrence Palk, Sir Thomas Acland, and last, but not least, for Lord Heathfield. “His lordship was allowed to be one of the best judges of horses and definer of saddlery in the kingdom; his lordship's saddle-house consisted from the full bristed to the demi-pick, Shafto, Hanoverian, to the Dutch pad-saddles; and from the snaffle, Pelham, Weymouth, Pembroke, Elliott, Mameluke, and Chifney bridles. His lordship's saddle and riding-house was a school for a saddler and dragoon.”

Cooke breaks into rhyme:—

As few began the world so I multiplied,
I've gratitude to all my friends, who've supplied.
Plain at twenty-one, I did begin,
Which in my manuscript was seen,
Tho' years at school with arithmeterians,
Who wrote well, but they are no grammarians,
Tho' I did not know the use of grammar
I was well supported by my hammer.
I sticked to my King, leather and tools;
And for order wrote a set of shop rules.
It's not what work is brought for to be only done,
Every think that's necessary, buckle or tongue;
For instance, a saddle is brought to stuff, that's all,
A stirrup-bar is wanted to prevent a fall;
All your work must be done well, not like fools,
For if it breaks on the road, there's no tools.
Working with the hands only is but part,
The head's the essential to make work smart.
Be John Bulls, true to your country and Church,
Always tell the truth and don't never lurch.

John Cooke's saddlery was better than his grammar and his orthography, and his faults in these latter particulars called down upon him the scorn of Andrew Brice, the printer and publisher of a weekly paper. Cooke was a strong loyalist, and Brice was touched with republican ideas.

“Brice,” says Cooke, “posted me about the streets with halfpenny papers; and the poor hawkers got many pence through me; but all that he could do or say was to degrade my orthography; but to lessen my loyalty or character he could not; from his art or out of burlesque he said my letters were after the manner of Junius, and at the same time said I was of Grub-street. I winked at all this, whilst the people read my bulletins. I confess I did not know Junius's Letters or Grub-street then, but I know them now. At the attack and at different times he wanted to run aground my loyal advertisements; but, poor man, he ran himself aground dead.”

The bulletins and advertisements animadverted upon by Brice were handbills issued by Cooke opposing the republican inflammatory pamphlets that were put in circulation, as also bulletins of the news with comments of his own which he pasted up outside his shop. There was at the time a noisy party in England in favour of Bonaparte, and this was the Radical and Republican party. Cooke was taunted by these as a bull-calf. He replied that he gloried in the name of John Bull. “Even when the friends of one of the candidates at the recent general election at Exeter came to solicit my vote (I thank God I vote for six members) I told them that I would not vote for a man of such principles if they would give me £500. When I came to give my vote at the Guildhall, Mr. Sergeant Pell rose up out of fancy or fun, and said to me, Are you not a Frenchman? I said, A Frenchman! No, sir, I am a true John Bull. He said, Of the calf kind. I said, It must be a calf before it's a bull. The Sergeant sat down.”

In 1789 Cooke was made captain to the sheriff's troop. “About this time there were commotions by the mobility in London against his Majesty's minister, Mr. Pitt. I went into the pot-houses at Exeter, and treated with mugs round, and gave loyal toasts and sentiments—my own motto, Any income-tax sooner than a French-come-tax; a long pull and a strong pull and a pull altogether-mind how the fox served the chicken, and said the grapes were sour—a speedy necklace to all traitors—Old England for ever, and those who don't like it, leave it.

“There has been but one small riot in Devonshire, to its honour and credit, and that was stopped in its infancy. It was for breaking into a miller's house to get corn by violence; one Campion, a blacksmith, a young man called out from his work inadvertently to join the mob; from farmhouse to house they got liquor, got inebriated. He became a leader and carried a French banner, the old story. Campion was desired to desist by gentlemen; but he would not. He was apprehended in a day or two, committed to gaol, and tried at the Assizes, 1795, before the late Justice Heath; the jury found him guilty of the felony—riot and sedition. He suffered death. This prompt measure put an end and stopped the contagion in the West. There were thousands of spectators on the road, besides a thousand military of dragoons, artillery and volunteers of the district, who escorted him thirteen miles to the place of execution, Bovey-heathfield, in sight of his own village, Ilsington, as a rescue was talked of.

“At a foolish County Meeting in 1797, to petition his Majesty to remove his late Minister, Mr. Pitt, I called up my apprentices at 3 o'clock in the morning; we got a ladder, and scaladed the walls of the Castle of Exeter, got in unperceived, I wrote conspicuously No petition, no civil war , and at many more lofty hazardous places in the city, that the freeholders might read it when they came to the meeting; we (had) done the whole before the people were up. I again put out handbills warning the mobility of Exeter of riot; and at the show of hands by the Sheriff the mob held up both their hands, and there was a great majority of legal (loyal) votes.

“At another County Meeting a few violent gentleman wanted to turn out one or both of our old staunch County Members, Col. Bastard and Sir Laurence Palk. An orator, a Protestant Dissenter, took an elevated station and was haranguing; I perceived that the orator spared neither powder nor shot with his tongue. I being a freeholder mixed with the yeomanry freeholders; I fired a shot from my mouth, having good lungs it gave a loud report. I exclaimed ‘Palk's no presbyterian I'll sware [sic ].' It hit him, it had the desired effect, the orator was struck tongue-tied, he thought it came from higher authority. He attempted again in vain; the yeomanry caught flash from my pan and they fired a feu-de-joy with their tongues for Bastard and Palk, a loud clamour for question was called, and the old members were returned unanimously.

John Cooke of Exeter

Drawn from Nature by Geo. Rowe.

Printed by P. Simonau.


Captain of the Sheriff's troop at 74 Assizes for the County of Devon.

Published by Geo. Rowe N n  38 Paris Street Exeter.

“When Mr. Pitt armed this country I became a volunteer in the infantry, before the cavalry were equipped by my brother tradesmen, that they should not say my loyalty was for trade. After this, I joined the second troop of the first Devon Royal Cavalry.

“I may say John Cooke, the saddler of Exeter, is known from England to the Indies, on the Continent, Ireland and Scotland; from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Penzance. I had two direction posts at my door during the War, that no one had in the kingdom besides—one to the various places and distances from Exeter to London; the other a large sheet of paper written as a daily monitor, gratis, a bulletin of news, to cheer people in the worst of times, to guide them in the Constitutional Road, which both citizens and country-folks of a market-day looked up to Cooke's bulletin as natural as they look at their parish dial.

“I knowing the city and county of Exeter is the county town of the second county of England, I even made myself a direction-post when commotions were in London by the mobility, against the late Mr. Pitt, who was the people's friend, instead of their enemy; I being a public officer at the Assizes, having had the honour to serve thirty Sheriffs of the County, sixty Assizes, and 1817 I commanded two Sheriffs troops, Devon and Cornwall. In 1795 I wore a conspicuous breast-plate painted with this motto, Fear God, honour the King, and revere his Ministers ; which made not only the auditory, but the Judges, Sheriffs, and Counsel stare at me; which my heart did not mind being for the public good. Twice I had two escapes for my life in my achievements. I went from Exeter to London, to the funeral of Lord Nelson, the hero of the Nile, in 1805. In my going into the painted hall at Greenwich to see the corpse lie in state, I was nearly squeezed to death against the stone pillars. I might as well holloa in the bottom of the sea, as in a London throng. I have the pain to this day.

“I saw Mr. Pitt at his lodging window at Bath, a few weeks before he died; he looked very weak and thin. I had a tablet made to his memory and hung it over my door.

“In 1800, in consequence of that dearth year, potatoes were sixteen pence a peck. The poor grumbled, noisy, clamorous in the market. I went in the country and bought 500 bags, and sold them at a shilling a peck. The rumour that I had got all the potato trade; it lowered the market to a shilling a peck.

“In honour of his Majesty, on the Jubilee, 1809, I gave all the poor men, women and children of my parish, above 200, a good dinner in the long cloth hall of Exeter. My wife ripped sheets for tablecloths, and what is worth recording, in the evening the men would carry me home on their shoulders. They carried me by the Old London Inn, where a large party, it being a holiday, in our passing we were not halted.[23] In the centre of a 50 feet street, I saw a decanter thrown from the dining-room twelve feet high; I was bare pate, my hat being off, to make obedience to this company; I miraculously caught the decanter by its neck with my right hand, it was full of port wine; it came with such velocity not a drop was spilt. I thought no harm meant, I jocosely drank all their healths and gave the spectators the rest. I bought the decanter of Miss Pratt, of the Inn, in memory of such an event; which, if it had took me by the head, must have stun me.”

[23]His grammar is here perplexed.

Besides having done much for his King and country, Cooke flattered himself that he did much for the city of Exeter. He says: “We are indebted to Mr. S. F. Milford for the Savings Bank, and wholesome prisons in Exeter. We had no common sewers until 1810, it was like old Edinburgh before. About twelve years since, I rose one morning before the people were up, and numbered every house in Fore Street with chalk, which made the people stare. I was told I had not begun at the right end, with the sun. I went over the ground again. My house being a corner one, I got it properly numbered, and the street labelled, which soon led to be general. I paid for seven label boards at the street. Who would have done it beside? Our market days had ever been on Wednesdays and Fridays, only one day between. I wrote a requisition on the propriety of altering the Wednesday's market to Tuesday. I carried it for signatures to the principal inhabitants, and sent it to the Chamber, who upon perusing of their charters found they had a bye-law; the market was altered with unanimous approbation in 1812.” He also introduced watering-carts for the streets in summer. In 1809 he issued a catalogue of a hundred and ten nuisances in the city of Exeter, which he exhorted the Corporation to get rid of. He urged on the Dean and Chapter the pulling down of the gates into the Close, which unhappily was done. “At present,” said Cooke, “you have none but a dangerous way to the Cathedral. A coach-passenger was killed going under Catherine-Gate.”

There were still three gates left; three had already been destroyed.

Poor Allhallows, Goldsmith Street, was levelled with the dust but last year, so as to widen High Street. Cooke urged its destruction in 1809, as “useless and dormant.”

Cooke built himself a villa residence, which he dubbed “Waterloo Cottage.” He was a very plain man, with thick, coarse mouth, and a broken nose. A portrait, a profile, is prefixed to his pamphlet,Old England for Ever , but there is one much finer of him, in colour, representing him in uniform. This is in the library of the Institution at Exeter.

That the man had enormous self-confidence and conceit saute aux yeux , but that he was a useful man to his country, to the county, and to the city is also clear.

Cooke assures us that he had been in 400 out of the 466 parishes of Devon, “having the heartfelt satisfaction of being respected” in all of them, “and knowing fifteen lords, four honourables, twenty-two baronets, and three knights, and most of the clergy and gentry” of the county.

Universal suffrage will never, never do,
So experience tells me—and I tell you.
It would break down the barriers of our Constitution,
And plunge both high and low in cut-throat revolution.
You see, in the murder of the Constable Birch,
The means they'd employ to destroy King and Church.
The King is the head—the constable the hand—
For preserving peace and order in this happy land.
They who'd cut off the hand, would cut off the head—
So, a word to the wise; remember what's said
In the plain, honest Book
Of your humble servant,