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Thomas Cooper (1805-1892)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

Thomas Cooper was born in Leicester on 20 March 1805. He was the son of a working dyer. The family moved to Exeter when Cooper was a few months old, and his father died there three years afterwards. His widow returned to Gainsborough and opened a business in dyeing and fancy box making. Cooper was admitted into a bluecoat school, and remained there until 1820, when, after a trial of the sea, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. He had been an intelligent pupil, and as an apprentice seized every opportunity for self-culture, studying Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He put these to use when, after a serious illness in 1827, he gave up shoemaking at Gainsborough and opened a school there. In 1829 he added the work of a Methodist local preacher to that of schoolmaster, but, failing at Gainsborough, he moved to Lincoln. Here he was no more successful, and in 1836 joined the staff of a liberal newspaper in Lincoln, whence, after a few months' residence in Stamford, he went to London in 1839.

Failing to obtain newspaper work, he assisted a second-hand bookseller, and then for a month or two edited the Kentish Mercury from Greenwich, but in 1840 he accepted an invitation to go to Leicester and join the staff of the Leicestershire Mercury. Immediately afterwards he became a Chartist, and, his employers objecting, he left them and undertook the editorship of the Chartist Midland Counties Illuminator. For the four succeeding years he was one of the foremost of the more extreme party among the Chartists, and in 1841 was nominated for the representation in the House of Commons of both the town and the county of Leicester, but did not go to the poll. In the following year, when proceeding from Leicester to Manchester as a delegate to a Chartist conference, he addressed the colliers on strike at Hanley. Passion ran high, and next day a serious riot took place, and Cooper was arrested at Burslem, but liberated for want of evidence. He proceeded to Manchester and, finding that a great strike had begun, urged his friends in Leicester to join in it. Some disturbance followed, and on his return Cooper was arrested for his Hanley speech and tried for arson. Acquitted on this charge, he was re-arrested on a charge of sedition and conspiracy. After an adjourned trial he was sentenced in March 1843 to two years' imprisonment. Most of the time he spent in Stafford jail. After his liberation he quarrelled with Feargus O'Connor and took no part in the further developments of the Chartist movement.

When in prison Cooper wrote some tales and The Purgatory of Suicides, a political epic in ten books, written in Spenserian stanzas. The poem is a poetical rendering of the ideals of the radical movement, and the circumstances and motives of some of the most famous suicides of history are used as the moral and political setting of the work. His efforts to publish his poem brought him into contact with Disraeli (afterwards Earl of Beaconsfield) and Douglas Jerrold, through whose influence a publisher was found in 1845. It reached a third edition in 1863. Cooper then turned his reputation as poet and cultured working man to account by lecturing to radical and freethought audiences upon historical and educational subjects. While addressing one of these audiences in the hall of science in 1856, he suddenly broke off and announced that he had been reconverted to the truths of Christian evidences, and from that time, with the exception of a month or two when he was employed as copyist at the board of health, he was engaged as an itinerant lecturer on Christian proofs. In 1867 he was presented with an annuity by his friends. He died at Lincoln on 15 July 1892. He married in 1834, but his wife died in 1880.

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