Eliza Cook

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Eliza Cook
Portrait by William Etty, c. 1845
Portrait by William Etty, c. 1845
Born(1818-12-24)24 December 1818
London Road, Southwark, England
Died23 September 1889(1889-09-23) (aged 70)
Wimbledon, England

Eliza Cook (24 December 1818 – 23 September 1889) was an English author and poet associated with the Chartist movement. She was a proponent of political freedom for women, and believed in the ideology of self-improvement through education, something she called "levelling up." This made her hugely popular with the working class public in both England and America.


Eliza Cook was the youngest of the eleven children of a brazier (a brass-worker) living in London Road, Southwark, where she was born. When she was about nine years old her father retired from business, and the family went to live at a small farm in St. Leonard's Forest, near Horsham. Her mother encouraged Eliza's fondness for imaginative literature, and despite attending the local Sunday school the child was almost entirely self-educated. At Sunday School she was encouraged by the music master's son to produce her first volume of poetry.[1] She began to write verses before she was fifteen, contributing to the Weekly Dispatch and New Monthly,[2] and published her first poetry collection two years later; indeed, some of her most popular poems, such as "I'm afloat" and the "Star of Glengarry," were composed in her girlhood. [3]


Her first volume of poetry, Lays of a Wild Harp, appeared in 1835, when she was only seventeen. Encouraged by its favourable reception, she began to send verses anonymously to the Weekly Dispatch, the Metropolitan Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, and The Literary Gazette;[3] William Jerdan sang her praises in the last of these. After a time she confined herself to the radical Weekly Dispatch, where her first contribution had appeared under the signature 'C.' on 27 Nov 1836,[3] and she became a staple of its pages for the next ten years. Its editor was William Johnson Fox and its owner was James Harmer, a London alderman.[4] She lived for a time at Harmer's residence, Ingress Abbey, in Greenhithe, Kent,[5] and wrote certain of her works there.[6]

Her poem The Old Armchair (1838) made hers a household name for a generation, both in England and the United States. In that year, she published Melaia and other Poems.[2]

Her work for the Dispatch and New Monthly was pirated by George Julian Harney, the Chartist, for the Northern Star. Familiar with the London Chartist movement in its various sects, she followed many of the older radicals in disagreeing with the O'Brienites and O'Connorites in their disregard for the repeal of the Corn Laws. She also preferred the older Radicals' path of Friendly Societies and self-education.

From 1849 to 1854 she wrote, edited, and published Eliza Cook's Journal, a weekly periodical she described as one of "utility and amusement." The periodical was described as having "variety, piquancy, benevolent aim, and hardly had a superior" in comparison to other periodicals of the time. Although some found solace in Cook's work, the periodical was short lived due to lack of appreciation among the majority. After a noble struggle to keep the periodical afloat and through health issues the periodical ultimately fell.[7]

Cook went on to publish Jottings from my Journal (1860), where a lot of Eliza Cook's Journal's contents reappeared. This publication was one of the few times Cook wrote in prose. It included many essays and sketches that were written in a clear and simple manner, usually conveying a moral lesson for the reader. Some of the essays are "mild satires on the social failings of her contemporaries," and exhibit good sense and even some humour.

She also published, New Echoes and Other Poems (1864), which showed more limited power when compared to her previous work and therefore did not find as much success as her previous efforts.[8]

Despite a lack of interest in her later works, Eliza Cook still had become a staple of anthologies throughout the century.


At the time Cook was a Chartist,[9] one of "a body of 19th century English political reformers advocating better social and industrial conditions for the working classes." The goal of Chartist poetry is to create a sense of camaraderie for the people within a vast community who found themselves oppressed and suffering.[10]

In her poem "A Song for the Workers," Cook emphasises the importance of shorter working hours. Within this poem she goes on to compare the treatment of labourers to that of the slaves in America. In another poem, "Our Father," Cook speaks out against child labour at the time and once again compares child labour to slavery. She also implies how children working such vigorous jobs turn their brains "dull and torpid," engaged in hard tasks that do not allow them to be children.[11]

Along with these views Cook was a proponent of political and sexual freedom for women, and believed in the ideology of self-improvement through education, something she called "levelling up." This made her a great favourite with the working-class public.[2]

Not much is known about Cook's view on sexuality; however, through speculation researchers would infer that Eliza Cook and some of her readers were lesbian women. Her peers described her as having short "boyish" hair, a "mannish appearance," and mentioned that she wore lapelled jackets which showed off her shirt front and ruffles, described as "a very masculine style, which was considered strange at the time."[12]

Later life[edit]

She was a close friend and lover of the American actress Charlotte Cushman.[13][14][15] Cook and Cushman sometimes wore matching dresses, a practice to symbolise their friendship and "difference from heterosexual women."[12]

On 18 June 1863, Eliza Cook received a Civil List pension of £100 a year.[2] Afterwards she published only a few poems in the Weekly Dispatch, and quickly became what was described as a "confirmed invalid." Despite her loss in popularity, she still collected royalties from her publishers almost up to the end of her life.[8][2] In the 1870 census she is recorded as living at Beech House, 23 Thornton Hill, Wimbledon, Surrey, along with a maid, Mary A. Bowles, her sister Mary Fyall, nephew Alfred Pyall, his wife Harriet, and their daughters Mary and Jane.[16]

Cook's state of health prevented her writing anything new, or revising her existing works. After many years of suffering on and off from illness she died at her home at Beech House on 23 September 1890.[2][17] Cook's personal estate was £5,957 9s, and her will was proved by her brother Charles Cook and her nephew Alfred, still a resident of Beech House.[18] She is buried at St. Mary's Church, Wimbledon.[19]


  • The Fair Rose of Killarney – A Ballad – By Miss Eliza Cook – Music by Stephen Glover (New-York Mirror Saturday 29 June 1839 pp 32) [1]
  • Her article "People Who Do Not Like Poetry" (May 1849) can be found in the book A Serious Occupation: Literary Criticism by Victorian Women Writers ISBN 1-55111-350-3.
  • Poems (1859, poems)
  • "The Heart That's True" was set to music in 1857 by Australian composer George Tolhurst[20]


  1. ^ Shea, Victor; Whitla, William (31 December 2014). Victorian literature : an anthology. Shea, Victor, 1960-, Whitla, William, 1934-. Malden, MA. ISBN 9781405188654. OCLC 880418796.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ a b c Norgate 1901.
  4. ^ http://www.harmer.org/Alderman_James_Harmer.pdf harmer.org
  5. ^ http://www.garyvaughanpostcards.co.uk/ingress_abbey_20.html?frm_data1=32&frm_data1_type=large Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine The Gary Vaughan Collection
  6. ^ http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-172722-ingress-abbey-swanscombe-and-greenhithe- British Listed Buildings
  7. ^ Zoubir, Abdelhak (January 2012). "IEEE Signal Processing Society's Flagship Magazine [From the Editor]". IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. 29 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1109/msp.2011.943257. ISSN 1053-5888.
  8. ^ a b Norgate, Gerald le Grys, "Cook Eliza", Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, vol. 2, retrieved 20 February 2019
  9. ^ "Definition of CHARTISM". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  10. ^ Mays, Kelly J. (2001). "Slaves in Heaven, Laborers in Hell: Chartist Poets' Ambivalent Identification with the (Black) Slave". Victorian Poetry. 39 (2): 137–163. doi:10.1353/vp.2001.0013. ISSN 1530-7190. S2CID 162378755.
  11. ^ "eliza cook | The Confidential Clerk". Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  12. ^ a b Encounters in the Victorian press : editors, authors, readers. Brake, Laurel, 1941-, Codell, Julie F., Palgrave Connect (Online service). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005. ISBN 9780230522565. OCLC 312481501.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NZH18801015.2.31 Recollections of Eliza Cook
  14. ^ William Flesch (2010). The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 19th Century(Companion to Literature Series). Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-0816058969.
  15. ^ Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, p 217
  16. ^ "Eliza Cook." Census Returns of England and Wales, 1871. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1871. Data imaged from the National Archives, London, England. Ancestry.com
  17. ^ "Eliza Cook © Orlando Project". orlando.cambridge.org. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  18. ^ "Eliza Cook." Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  19. ^ Ancestry.com. Surrey, England, Church of England Burials, 1813-1987 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
  20. ^ Calvert, Samuel, 1828-1913; Williams, W. H. (William H.), active 1857-1874 (1858), Williams's musical annual and Australian sketch book for 1858, W.H. Williams, retrieved 1 August 2018{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cook, Eliza" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 71.
  • Norgate, Gerald le Grys (1901). "Cook, Eliza" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). Vol. 2. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 53–54. Endnotes:
    • Notable Women of our own Times, pp. 138–150, with portrait ;
    • Miles's Poets of the Century ; Times, 26 Sep 1889;
    • Daily News, 26 and 27 Sep ;
    • Illustr. London News, 5 Oct, with portrait ;
    • Academy and Athenæum, 28 Sep ;
    • Brit. Mus. Cat. ;
    • Allibone's Dict. Engl. Lit. vol. i. and Suppl.

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