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Strange cargo

17 May 2010 by stepheng

museum display with large model of an official building

Model of Liverpool’s former Customs House in Seized!

This unusual story appeals to me because it reveals how attitudes have dramatically changed in the past 200 years.

Our ancestors had ideas which sometimes stretched belief to the limits and, even then, many people must have been shocked by this theatrical display by a man used to playing to popular sentiment.

A great crowd gathered on the Liverpool quayside to greet the famous radical pamphleteer and journalist returning home after more than two years of self-imposed exile.

William Cobbett fled to the United States after hearing the British government were planning to arrest him for sedition. His pioneering newspaper, the Political Register, was mainly read by working class people. This made Cobbett dangerous in the eyes of many members of the establishment.

On 27 March 1817 he sailed from Liverpool to New York on board the Importer accompanied by his sons, William and John. Although living on a farm in Long Island, he continued to publish the Political Register with the help of a friend in London.

Cobbett (1763 – 1835) arrived back in Liverpool on 23 November 1819 and proceeded through the cheering crowd to the Custom House for his luggage to be inspected in the usual way.

When the last trunk was opened and various deeds and manuscripts removed, the Customs officer lifted out a woollen bundle. Cobbett told the astonished crowd: “Here are the bones of the late Thomas Paine!”

As the people surged forward to see, he declared: “Great indeed must that man have been whose very bones attract such attention.”

There was also a coffin plate inscribed: “Thomas Paine, aged 74, died 8th June 1809”. The officer waved Cobbett through after examining his strange cargo.

Cobbett greatly admired Paine who was a British pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical, inventor and intellectual. At the age of 37, Paine emigrated to Britain’s American colonies where he later supported the War of Independence.

Paine wrote the monumental and hugely-influential Rights of Man in 1791 and spent time in revolutionary and Napoleonic France before returning to America. Cobbett removed Paine’s bones with the intention of reburying them in England.

However, the bones were lost and their final resting place is unknown although the original grave site is marked in New Rochelle, New York.

Merseyside Maritime Museum’s permanent display Seized! features a number of exhibits from Cobbett’s time, grouped around a model of the old Custom House (pictured).

They include a flintlock pistol, coin balancing and beam scales and an early 19th century writing quill made from a goose feather.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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