Richard Cobden (1804-1865) – the great reformer and free trade advocate

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“The manliest and gentlest spirit that ever tenanted a human form.” In these words did his friend John Bright [1811-89] pay tribute to the memory of  Richard Cobden. The consummation of Cobden’s life work in bringing about the abolition of the corn laws, which made bread expensive and the adoption of free trade, exercised an influence on the industrial and commercial progress of Britain during the later 19th century which it would indeed be difficult to exaggerate.

Richard Cobden was born at Dunford farmhouse in Heyshott on 3rd June 1804. It was a time in history when the world was poised for massive changes that would shake every aspect of people’s lives. Because of his hard work, skills and vision Cobden had a great deal to do in bringing these changes about, and seeing people’s lives made better.

It was the time of the Industrial Revolution, when gifted inventors and businessmen in the north of England harnessed the power of steam to mass produce high quality goods at prices no other country could match. These men saw that the new Industrial Age could lead to more jobs and greater wealth and freedom for most people.dunford farm2

Cobden too believed in this new age, but also had a vision that the massive increase in trade that was bound to develop would lead to greater international understanding, peace and friendship. However, for all this to happen industry had to be recognised as a new way of life for Britain, and all trade barriers between countries had to come down.

Traditional country landowners, especially those in the south of England, still saw farming as the source of British jobs, wealth and stability. They saw little reason to change, especially if changing laws would interfere with agricultural prosperity. The Corn Laws of 1815 were trade barriers designed to keep cheaper foreign corn out of Britain, so English farmers could get a high price for home produce. Farmers maintained they needed high prices to pay good wages, to pay off debts incurred during recent expensive modernisation to farming techniques. Increased food production from modernised farms had kept Britain fed during the recent Napoleonic Wars.

However, the reality of the Corn Laws was that wages were still very low; many folk were near to starvation, and northern factories could not export to their potential because other countries had erected trade barriers to match the Corn Laws. For the northern industrial boom to happen, and the new age to begin, the Corn Laws had to go.

Richard Cobden and friends formed the Anti Corn Law League in 1839. They pressured the landowner-controlled parliament with brilliant speeches all over the country, produced millions of pamphlets and posters, and became MPs themselves, facing their enemies in the House of Commons.

Progress was slow, but the laws were finally abolished in 1846 after the potato famine in Ireland had shown their dreadful shortcomings. No corn had been available for relief to the starving, and of course none could be imported. The League’s words of warning proved accurate; thousands of Irish starved unnecessarily because of the hated Corn Laws.

With the repeal of the Corn Laws Cobden and the Industrialists had won. They were hailed by many as heroes, and thanked by those who could now, at last, afford the cheap bread available. Britain did go on to become the world leader in trade and, to some extent, Cobden’s vision of greater wealth, freedom and international friendship plays a part in our lives today.

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. In 1848 Cobden moved his family from Manchester to Paddington, London. In 1847 he also repurchased the old family home at Dunford in the parish of Heyshott and in 1852/3 rebuilt the house which he then lived in until his death on 2nd April 1865.

Cobden’s only son Dick aged only 15 suddenly died from scarlet fever in 1856. Cobden’s wife Kate was grief stricken and requested he be buried at West Lavington because from Dunford House she could see the tower of West Lavington Church and this is why, when Richard Cobden died, he was also buried in West Lavington Churchyard.

 

Richard was a regular worshipper at Heyshott Church and there is a plaque in the front row of the pews at St James church in Heyshott where he used to sit for worship, and above that, there is a memorial on the church wall noting his achievement repealing the Corn Laws by forming the Anti Corn Law League.

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During the time Richard was living in Dunford House he was still a vigorous political campaigner, advocating the extending of the vote, first to every householder, and eventually to supporting universal manhood suffrage. (His daughters, Jane and Anne, were later to support the suffragettes’ campaign to achieve votes for women). Richard opposed the opium trade in China, campaigning also for universal elementary education, religious liberty, and the reduction of armaments in Europe.

cobden's grave 2He was buried at West Lavington church, on April 7 close to his birthplace on the farm, which he had purchased, and where he spent some of the last years of his active and benevolent life. His coffin was conveyed down to Dunford, accompanied by a 20-carriage train carrying mourners. The grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were Gladstone, Bright, 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.

Richard Cobden left 5 daughters, of whom Mrs Cobden-Unwin [wife of the publisher Mr Fisher Unwin], Mrs Walter Sickert [wife of the painter] and Mrs. T. J. Cobden-Sanderson [wife of the well-known artist in bookbinding], afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father’s political interest.

 You can find out more about the life and work of Richard Cobden here.