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Richard Cobden

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 Richard Cobden [1804-1865]

"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 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.

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Engraving depicting Dunford Farm
courtesy- National Library of Australia - click for more old images of Dunford

ichard Cobden was born in a old farmhouse called Dunford, in the small village of Heyshott near Midhurst, Sussex on the 3rd June 1804, the fourth of eleven children.
Close by was Bex Mill which just two years earlier, his grandfather, also named Richard, had sold to James Monk and Jabez Shotter, shopkeepers of Midhurst. They paid him £539 10s, and also paid off his £800 mortgage, making a total purchase price of £1,339 10s. He was a Maltster and farmer and had for many years been the bailiff at Midhurst. His ancestors had lived in the district for centuries, with a lineage traceable back to at least 1314.
He died in 1809 when young Richard was five years old and as a result Dunford was sold off and the family moved to a smaller farm at Guillards Oak on the outskirts of Midhurst.
In 1814 this small farm was sold and the family moved from home to home until settling in Westmeon, near Alton, in Hampshire, where his father, William, ran a small shop. During this upheaval many of the children were cared

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Richard Cobden
1864 Signed letter of reference from Richard Cobden to Charles Robinson
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John Bright
John Bright
1811 - 1889
Letter addressed to Richard Cobden - 1850's 
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West Lavington
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April 1861 - in house collection

for by other members of the family. Richard was taken from the Dames School he attended in Midhurst and was sent by his uncle to Bowes Hall School in Teesdale, Yorkshire which he described as Dickens' "Dotheboys Hall" in reality. A similar school nearby in Bowes attained notoriety as the model for Dickens Dotheboys hall in Nicholas Nickelby. The legacy of Cobdens schooldays was serious injury to his feet due to frostbite, he required special boots for the remainder of his life...more

He received very little formal schooling and at the age of 15 became a clerk in his uncles textile business.
A year later he began work as a commercial traveller. After developing knowledge of the cotton trade, Cobden decided to start his own business. In 1828 he joined with two other young men [Sheriff and Gillet] to start a company selling calico prints in London. The business was an immediate and by 1832 Richard Cobden was living in an affluent part of Manchester.
After 8 years he and his partners had turned a £1,000 investment into £80,000.

photo ref cobden38
Bowes Hall

Cobden had made enough money to spend time travelling. Between 1833 and 1837 he visited France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, America, Egypt, Greece and Russia. Cobden collected information about these countries and in 1835 published his book, England, Ireland and America.
In this book Cobden warned that in the future Britain would find it difficult to compete with the emerging economic power of America. Cobden was also extremely critical of the way that Ireland was being ruled. In the book Cobden also advocated a policy of free trade, low taxation, reduced military spending and an improvement in our system of education.
In 1837 Richard Cobden became a member of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and joined Thomas Potter and John Shuttleworth in the agitation that resulted in Manchester achieving a democratically elected local council. In 1838 Cobden was one if the first men to be elected as a Manchester Alderman.
In October 1837, Joseph Hume, Francis Place and John Roebuck formed the Anti-Corn Law Association in London. The following year Cobden joined with Archibald Prentice to establish a branch of this organisation in Manchester. He became involved in the political row over the Corn Laws, which he bitterly opposed as propping up the wealthy country landowners at the expense of the poor whose bread was made unnecessarily very expensive. After becoming MP for Stockport in 1841 he continued his campaign in the House of Commons.
The Corn Laws were a way of regulating the import and export of grain, which allowed the price to be kept artificially high when supplies were short. However, feelings against them built up after the Napoleonic Wars which had created serious shortages, and this was followed by a series of bad harvests which enabled landowners to rake in the money from high prices for the corn grown on their lands while the poor went hungry. In 1839 Cobden and the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association presented a petition to Parliament. With four-fifths of all MPs representing rural constituencies it soon became clear to Cobden that petitions in themselves would not achieve the repeal of the Corn Laws.
In March 1839 Cobden was instrumental in establishing a new centralised Anti-Corn Law League. Now able to organise a national campaign in favour of reform he recruited a number of talented speakers to the movement, the most important of which was John Bright, who at that time was one of Britain's best known orators.
In 1840 he married Miss Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady.
In 1841 General Election he became the MP for Stockport. Although continuing to tour the country making speeches against the Corn Laws, he was now in a position to constantly remind the British government that reform was needed and after 5 years of ceaseless effort had the supreme satisfaction of seeing the corn laws repealed in January 1846.
The failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845 and the mass starvation that followed, had forced Sir Robert Peel and his Conservative government to reconsider the wisdom of the Corn Laws. Irish nationalists such as Daniel O'Connell had also became involved in the campaign. Peel was slowly won over and a new Corn Law was passed reducing the duty on oats, barley and wheat to the insignificant sum of one shilling per quarter. Cobdens parliamentary speeches were clear, quiet and persuasive. He was the only man ever to beat Peel in debate in parliament.
Richard Cobden was now a national hero but so committed to the cause of free trade that he became bankrupt. A public subscription of £80,000 was raised in recognition of his services and in 1847 he used the money to buy back his childhood home and farm at Dunford for £3,500, that his father had been forced to sell.
Cobden did not hold Cabinet office although in 1860 he was responsible for arranging a commercial treaty with France. He was throughout his career associated in politics with John Bright. Both were members of the peace society and opposed the Crimean war. Both were pledged to abolish slavery and spoke out strongly in favour of the north during the American Civil War. By 1845 the League was the best organised political group in Britain speaking to very large audiences all over the country.
In 1856 at school in Germany, his eldest child & only son, Richard aged 15, died, from Scarlet fever, to Cobdens "inexpressible grief"

Cobden had suffered from bronchial problems for many years. He left Midhurst on March 21 1865 travelling to London to speak in the House of Commons, and caught a cold. He recovered for a short period after his arrival in London; but on the 29th suffered a relapse, and on April 2, 1865 he died peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street of an acute attack of bronchitis.
He 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.

Part of a report in Heyshott village newsletter May 2004
Richard Cobden had 10 brothers and sisters. His schooling started in Midhurst, but after his father had to sell Dunford farm due to financial losses, an uncle paid for his education for 5 years at Bowes hall in Yorkshire.
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Old postcard of Dunford, Cobdens home for the last 15 years of his life.

Old postcard of Oatscroft, Catherine Cobden died here 8 April 1877

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The plaque on Cobdens pew in Heyshott Church click image to enlarge
photo- Pam Hadley, 2007

In 1848, some success in his calico printing business in North Lancashire and a generous testimonial from his supporters following the repeal of the Corn Laws, enabled him to buy back Dunford and 140 acres of land for £3,500. On his first visit, he picked a leaf from a rose growing against 'the house were I was born'. Today this is preserved between sheets of plastic in the British Library. "We shall shine in roses" he wrote to his wife who was in London awaiting the birth of their third daughter, Jane. [Jane lived in Heyshott well into her 90's and is remembered by some in the village, in particular Bertha Moreton, who worked for her at Oatscroft and Betty Lovejoy who knew her well.]

In time the growing family decided to live at Dunford full time and by 1854 they were in the splendid Italianate villa, which we know today.
In 1856 tragedy struck when Richard and Kates first born and only son died suddenly of scarlet fever at his school in Germany. Kate never fully recovered her health and Richards already fragile health - he had suffered repeated chest infections - was further damaged.
However he remained in active public life and, in April 1865, he was in London to speak in parliament, when he took ill and suddenly died. Gladstone led the funeral procession of some 3 to 4 thousand persons to West Lavington church. He and John Bright, Cobdens life long friend and political associate, led the pall bearers. The Rev. Caleb Collins took the service and Gladstone said "I have never seen in public life a character more truly simple, noble and unselfish".
As the Daily Telegraphs obituary put it "He brought untaxed bread into the poor mans home". He never held high office - he declined cabinet posts - yet he was respected by Emperor, President, Pasha and Tsar.

We, in Heyshott remember him, with gratitude, too. He supported closely, the Rev. Caleb Collins in the substantial restoration, completed for Easter 1860, of our beloved church and he and his family endowed our village hall, club and school.
Heyshott | Heyshott Church

It is easy to forget that the battle for free trade in agriculture has already once been fought and won. When the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, out went a system under which foreign imports of wheat were prohibitively taxed whenever the price of domestic wheat fell below 80 shillings per quarter. No longer did the poor have to pay artificially high prices for their bread in order to enrich the farming interest.
The intellectual force behind the anti-Corn Law campaign was Richard Cobden, who, following the repeal, found himself the subject of worldwide celebrity. He was granted audiences with the Pope and the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and even lectured the Tsar's finance minister on the workings of the free market.
However, although Cobden was feted as the hero of capitalists everywhere, he was despised by the farming class into which he had himself been born. His grandfather had been a yeoman farmer and the owner of a water mill, Bex Mill, near Midhurst in Sussex. Cobden's treachery to his class was noted by farmers who, at an Anti-Corn Law League rally in Rye in 1843, waved placards warning the audience not to be deceived by the fact that Cobden was descended from a Sussex farming family.
Rose Gibbs - Dec 2001

readers query
"Having spent many years working in Brussels I have always been surprised in conversations with European friends how highly they put the free trade reformer Richard Cobden on the list of Great Britons. I'm surprised because he seems less highly regarded in the land of his birth"


page top | Heyshott | Vintage Trail Link
click for portraits   Cobden
Left & above-
Illustrations from an article in the Illustrated London News
printed immediately after Cobdens death in 1865.
Original in house

related or associated :-
Heyshott index - - Midhurst index
Millicent Amber
Vintage Trail link - - Vintage Trail index
This section is ongoing and changes or additions are expected to be made. If you wish to add to, or comment on, the section content please email us. Anyone wishing to contact contributors may do so by emailing us - your message and email address will be passed on.

03 June 1804
02 April 1865
Millicent, nee Amber
Catherine Williams
married May 1840
died 8 April 1877
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The Hungry Forties
Vintage Trail Link
Heyshott Church
The Corn Laws
County archives
West Sussex Record Office has custody of a substantial part of the archives of Richard Cobden.

Statue of Cobden in St. Anns Square, Manchester
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Dunford House is now a conference and training centre for the YMCA
Dunford House
Heyshott, GU29 0DG
01730 812381

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More on
corn laws
There are three
communities named after
Richard Cobden

Cobden Illinois USA
Cobden Australia
Cobden Canada


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A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League 
in Exeter Hall in 1846. - 
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Obelisk, Cocking Causeway - 
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macmillan cancer fund
Cobden is the organ grinder
Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell and other leading politicians dance to his tune
Punch, 1846.

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