WHO WAS HE?
Richard Cobden was born on 3 June 1804 in the hamlet of Heyshott, West Sussex. The fourth child in what would become a family of eleven, his formative years were spent at his grandfather’s farmhouse, Dunford, where he was raised by his parents, William and Millicent. Upon his grandfather’s death in 1809, the farmhouse was sold and the family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Middlehurst. A farming family, the Cobdens and others alike, may have benefitted from the Napoleonic wars as the price and demand for wheat increased, creating a roaring trade for farmers within a war econom. However, his father was noted as being a terrible man of business, being too mild of character to compete with others and, coupled with peace upon the continent and falling prices of wheat, Richard and his siblings had a very modest upbringing. His formative schooling was quite basic, attending a localised ‘dame school’. He was also tasked with agricultural labour upon his father’s farm. He was eventually sent to a school in North Yorkshire, paid for by his uncle, and remained there unhappily for five years, until at the age of fifteen when he filled the position of clerk at one of his uncle’s warehouses in London. If there had ever been a politician that understood the plight of the poor, for many that man is Richard Cobden. Of humble origins, his unexpected rise in the world reads more like fiction than fact and furthermore, by using his position in protesting the rights of the working class – most notably in relations to the Corn Laws – he became a widely respected and renowned figure in political and social history.
THE MOST WELL-TRAVELLED MAN?
Richard Cobden has the surprising moniker of being one of the most well-travelled men of the late Georgian era. Whilst starting as a clerk in his uncle’s business he would end his time there as a commercial traveller, dealing in muslin and calico around London. In 1825, when his uncle’s business failed, he went to work for Partridge & Price (one of his uncle’s former business partners) continuing his role as a commercial traveller. During this period he travelled extensively around Scotland and Ireland, gaining first-hand experience of the social and economic conditions suffered by the poor. In 1828 Cobden and others set up their own business distributing textiles and it was in Manchester that they came into the favour of the Fort Brothers. Their enterprise proved to be fruitful and Cobden decided to settle in Manchester to directly run their outlet there, whilst his other partners handled the London interests. It was through this business venture that Cobden was able to travel further afield, and in 1833 Cobden set off to travel Europe, the United States and the Middle East – seeing more of the world than most could ever dream of.
POLITICS AND INFLUENCE
There can be no understating the influence that his early years and travelling had upon Cobden politically. Whilst travelling in 1835, Cobden wrote his first piece of influential literature : a pamphlet titled, England, Ireland and America, in which he argued for a change in Foreign Policy and an adoption of Free Trade to help improve the Britain’s economic standing. A second pamphlet titled Russia, was written in 1836 which once again challenged Britain’s current Foreign Policy and the recent wave of Russo-phobia that had swept across the UK and the continent. Education and social matters were at the forefront of his political endeavours and in 1837 he first stood as an MP for Stockport, narrowly being defeated in the election. Cobden truly made a name for himself, however, with his successful campaigning against the Corn Laws that brought about their repeal in 1846. During the campaign he was elected as MP for Stockport in 184, as the Liberal candidate, and would go on to represent the constituencies of West Riding in Yorkshire and Rochdale in parliament. Throughout his political career he was influenced heavily by non-interventionalist policy and was an advocate for peace, which he believed would derive from a Free Trade between countries. Cobden’s most successful enterprise into Free Trade was with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860, which ended trade tariffs between Britain and France and became the model from which other trade policies sprung up across Europe.
THE CORN LAWS
Cobden’s lasting legacy is undoubtedly his involvement in the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – but what were the Corn Laws and why was Cobden so passionate about repealing them? The Corn Laws came into existence in 1815 to stop the foreign import of corns and other foods into Britain in an attempt to promote and favour British producers. Prices on British crops were kept artificially high and as such the cost of living soared, creating a real problem for impoverished families and even in times of food shortages, it was far too expensive to import the cheaper foreign corn due to all the tariffs and restrictions implemented by the laws. Throughout his travels, Cobden had seen the effect that the Corn Laws had upon people and this solidified the importance of Free Trade in Cobden’s mind. In 1838, Cobden and a Quaker by the name of John Bright formed the Anti-Corn Law League. Based in Manchester, the league was extremely important in changing public opinion against the Corn Laws and essentially transformed the campaign into a middle-class morale endeavour. Although it would be Prime Minister Robert Peel who ultimately pushed the repeal through parliament, he credited Cobden in being one of the most important people within the movement.
Richard Cobden died in 1865 following a few years of ill-health. His death was greeted by widespread mourning and almost immediately committees began to form to honour the memory and legacy of the late politician. In Manchester, where Cobden had worked and lived for many years, his statue in St Ann’s Square was revealed to the public on Easter Monday, 1867. Designed by Marshall Wood, the copper and tin memorial standing around ten foot tall upon an equally sized plinth, was paid for entirely through donations. As a lasting testament to Cobden, £4,460 was donated to the fund by 837 commercial men and firms, employees from eighteen warehouses and workshops, and even a donation from a French wine grower. The memorial itself cost £2,500 and the rest of the fund was donated towards educational causes that had always been close to Cobden’s heart. Originally, the statue was placed in the centre of the square near the Royal Cotton Exchange, but later moved closer to St Ann’s Church during redevelopment of the area.