Sue Young Histories

Richard Cobden 1804 – 1865

March 28, 2009

Richard Cobden 1804 – 1865 was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright and George Wilson in the formation of the Anti Corn Law League as well as with the Cobden Chevalier Treaty.

Richard Cobden was also a colleague of Louis Bonaparte, William Cullen Bryant, George Combe, Moncure Daniel Conway, Benjamin Disraeli, Jean Barthelemy Arles Dufour, John Epps, William Gladstone, Harriet Martineau, and Henry Palmerston.

Richard Cobden was born at a farmhouse called Dunford, in Heyshott near Midhurst, in Sussex. His family had been resident in that neighbourhood for many generations, occupied partly in trade and partly in agriculture. His grandfather owned Bex Mill in Heyshott and was a maltster, an energetic and prosperous man who served as bailiff and chief magistrate, taking rather a notable part in county matters. His father, forsaking malting, took to farming. A poor business man, he died while Richard was a child.

The family returned to Midhurst where Cobden attended a dame school and then Bowes Hall School in Teesdale, Yorkshire. When fifteen years of age he went to London to the warehouse business of his uncle Richard Ware Cole where he became a commercial traveller in muslin and calico. His relative, noting the lad’s passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. Cobden was undeterred and made good use of the library of the London Institution. When his uncle’s business failed, he joined that of Partridge & Price, in Eastcheap, one of the partners being his uncle’s former partner.

In 1828, Cobden set up his own business with Sheriff and Gillet, partly with capital from John Lewis, acting as London agents for Fort Brothers, Manchester calico printers. In 1831, the partners sought to lease a factory from Fort’s at Sabden, near Clitheroe They had, however, insufficient capital between them. Cobden and his colleagues so impressed Fort’s that they consented to retain a substantial proportion of the equity.

The new firm prospered and soon had three establishments: Sabden, where the printing works were, and sales outlets in London and Manchester. The latter came under the direct management of Cobden, who, in 1832, settled there beginning a long association with the city. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the “Cobden prints” soon became well known for their quality.

Had Cobden devoted all his energies to the business, he might soon have become very wealthy. His earnings in the business were typically £8,000 to £10,000 a year. However, his life long habit of learning and inquiry absorbed much of his time. Writing under the byname Libra, he published many letters in the Manchester Times discussing commercial and economic questions.

When Cobden returned from abroad, he addressed himself to what seemed to him the logical complement of free trade, namely, the promotion of peace and the reduction of naval and military armaments. His abhorrence of war amounted to a passion and, in fact, his campaigns against the Corn Laws were motivated by his belief that free trade was a powerful force for peace and defence against war. He knowingly exposed himself to the risk of ridicule and the reproach of utopianism.

In 1849, he brought forward a proposal in parliament in favour of international arbitration, and, in 1851, a motion for mutual reduction of armaments. He was not successful in either case, nor did he expect to be. In pursuance of the same object, he identified himself with a series of peace congresses which from 1848 to 1851 were held successively in Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

On the establishment of the Second French Empire in 1851–1852, a violent panic, fuelled by the press, gripped the public. Louis Napoleon was represented as contemplating a sudden and piratical descent upon the English coast without pretext or provocation. By a series of speeches and pamphlets, in and out of parliament, Cobden sought to calm the passions of his countrymen. In doing so, he sacrificed the great popularity he had won as the champion of free trade, and became for a time the best abused man in England.

However, owing to the quarrel about the religious sites of Palestine, which arose in the east of Europe, public opinion suddenly veered round, and all the suspicion and hatred which had been directed against the emperor of the French were diverted from him to the emperor of Russia. Louis Napoleon was taken into favour as England’s faithful ally, and in a whirlwind of popular excitement the nation was swept into the Crimean War.

Again confronting public sentiment, Cobden, who had travelled in Turkey, and had studied its politics, was dismissive of the outcry about maintaining the independence and integrity of the Ottoman empire. He denied that it was possible to maintain them, and no less strenuously denied that it was desirable. He believed that the jealousy of Russian aggrandizement and the dread of Russian power were absurd exaggerations.

He maintained that the future of European Turkey was in the hands of the Christian population, and that it would have been wiser for England to ally herself with them rather than with what he saw as the doomed and decaying Islamic power. “You must address yourselves,” he said in the House of Commons, “as men of sense and men of energy, to the question—what are you to do with the Christian population? for Mahommedanism [Islam] cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Mahommedanism … You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, you may call the country by the name of Turkey if you like, but do not think you can keep up the Mahommedan rule in the country.”

The torrent of popular sentiment in favour of war was, however, irresistible; and both Cobden and John Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy.

In 1835 he published his first pamphlet, entitled England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer. Cobden advocated the principles of peace, non intervention, retrenchment and free trade to which he continued faithful. He paid a visit to the United States, landing in New York on 7 June 1835.

He devoted about three months to this tour, passing rapidly through the seaboard states and the adjacent portion of Canada, and collecting as he went large stores of information respecting the condition, resources and prospects of the nation. Another work appeared towards the end of 1836, under the title of Russia.[2] It was designed to combat a wild outbreak of Russophobia inspired by David Urquhart. It contained also a bold indictment of the whole system of foreign policy founded on ideas of the balance of power and the necessity of large armaments for the protection of commerce.

Bad health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the end of 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet Ali, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He returned to England in April 1837.

Cobden soon became a conspicuous figure in Manchester political and intellectual life. He championed the foundation of the Manchester Athenaeum and delivered its inaugural address. He was a member of the chamber of commerce and was part of the campaign for the incorporation of the city, being elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education.

Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright. In 1837, the death of William IV and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was narrowly defeated.

In 1838, an association was formed in Manchester in opposition to the Corn Laws, which, on his suggestion, was afterwards changed into a national association, under the title of the Anti Corn Law League. During the league’s seven years, Cobden was its chief spokesman and animating spirit. He was not afraid to take his challenge in person to the agricultural landlords or to confront the Chartists, led by Feargus O’Connor.

In 1841, Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, Cobden being returned as MP for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on 19 August.

On the 24th, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Cobden delivered his first address. “It was remarked,” reported Harriet Martineau in her History of the Peace, “that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance.” Undeterred, he gave a simple and forceful exposition of his position on the Corn Laws. This marked the start of his reputation as a master of the issues.

On 17 February 1843 Cobden launched an attack on Robert Peel, holding him responsible for the miserable state of the nation’s workers. Robert Peel did not respond in the debate but the speech was made at a time of heightened political feelings. Edward Drummond, Robert Peel’s private secretary, had recently been mistaken for the prime minister and shot dead in the street by a lunatic.

However, later in the evening, Robert Peel referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Robert Peel’s party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, he was drowned out.

Robert Peel went on to “fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression,” and was eventually swayed by Cobden’s arguments, at the cost of splitting his own party. The bill to repeal the Corn Laws passed the House of Commons on 16 May 1846 by 98 votes. In the next month Robert Peel was forced to resign the Prime Ministership, and in his resignation speech he credited Cobden, more than anyone else, with the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Cobden had sacrificed his business, his domestic comforts and for a time his health to the campaign. His friends therefore felt, that the nation owed him some substantial token of gratitude and admiration for those sacrifices. Public subscription raised the sum of £80,000. Had he been inspired with personal ambition, he might have entered upon the race of political advancement with the prospect of attaining the highest office. John Russell, who, soon after the repeal of the Corn Laws, succeeded Robert Peel as prime minister, invited Cobden to join his government but Cobden declined the invitation.

Cobden had hoped to find some restorative privacy abroad but his fame had spread throughout Europe and he found himself lionised by the radical movement…

He visited in succession France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, and was honoured everywhere he went. He not only addressed public demonstrations but also had several private audiences with leading statesmen. During his absence there was a general election, and he was returned (1847) for Stockport and for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose to sit for the latter.

At the beginning of 1857 tidings from China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton province in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the Arrow, which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sidney Herbert, James Graham, William Gladstone, John Russell and Benjamin Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Henry Palmerston by a majority of sixteen.

But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Henry Palmerston’s defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton.

Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs. He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the U.S. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Henry Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily “crushed” as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Thomas Milner Gibson to become members of his government.

In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Henry Palmerston offered him the role of President of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept but without a moment’s hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour.

On his arrival in London he called on Henry Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Henry Palmerston tried good humouredly to combat his objections, but without success.

But though he declined to share the responsibility of Henry Palmerston’s administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with John Bright and Michel Chevalier.

Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Henry Palmerston, John Russell and William Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with Louis Bonaparte and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority.

On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Louis Bonaparte, in which he urged many arguments in favour of removing those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable impression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Eugene Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated.

After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Henry Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays, hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable.

He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connection with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man.

But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them.

But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Henry Palmerston brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard.

This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months’ incessant labour, the work was completed in November 1860…

On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Henry Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours.

Cobden’s efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes: the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country.

In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years.

When the American Civil War threatened to break out in the United States, Cobden was deeply distressed. But after the conflict became inevitable his sympathies were wholly with the Union, because of the perception that the Confederacy was fighting for slavery. His great anxiety, however, was that the British nation should not be committed to any unworthy course during the progress of that struggle.

When relations with America were becoming critical and menacing in consequence of the depredations committed on American commerce by vessels issuing from British ports, actions that would lead to the post war Alabama Claims, he brought the question before the House of Commons in a series of speeches of rare clearness and force.

For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 1860 in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather.

In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents - the last he ever delivered. That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he determined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in.

But in the month of March there were discussions in the House of Commons on the alleged necessity of constructing large defensive works in Canada. He was deeply impressed with the folly of such a project, and he was seized with a strong desire to go up to London and deliver his sentiments on the subject.

He left home on 21 March and caught a chill. He recovered a little for a few days after his arrival in London; but on the 29th there was a relapse, and on 2 April 1865 he expired peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street…

He was buried at West Lavington church, on 7 April. His grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were William Gladstone, John Bright, Thomas Milner Gibson, Charles Villiers and a host besides from all parts of the country.

In 1866 the Cobden Club was founded in London, to promote free trade economics, and it became a centre for political propaganda on those lines; and prizes were instituted in his name at Oxford and Cambridge.

Cobden had married in 1840 Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady, and left five surviving daughters. Of these, one married the publisher Fisher Unwin and was known as Mrs Cobden Unwin; Ellen was the first of the painter Walter Sickert’s three wives; and Anne married the bookbinder T J Sanderson and he added her surname to his. They afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father’s political interest. His only son died, to Cobden’s inexpressible grief, at the age of fifteen, in 1856.


Any views or advice in this site should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment, especially if you know you have a specific health complaint