Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: early life. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER I.: early life. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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Heyshott is a hamlet in a sequestered corner of West Sussex, not many miles from the Hampshire border. It is one of the crests that, like wooded islands, dot the great Valley of the Weald. Near at hand the red housetops of Midhurst sleep among the trees, while Chichester lies in the flats a dozen miles away, beyond the steep escarpments of the South Downs, that here are nearing their western edge. Heyshott has a high rolling upland of its own, part of the majestic wall that runs from Beachy Head almost to Portsmouth. As the traveller ascends the little neighbouring height of West Lavington, he discerns far off to the left, at the end of a dim line, the dark clump of sentinel trees at Chanctonbury, whence one may look forth over the glistening flood of the Channel, or hear the waters beat upon the shore. The country around Midhurst is sprinkled thinly with farms and modest homesteads. Patches of dark forest mingle with green spaces of common, with wide reaches of heath, with ponds flashing in the sunlight, and with the white or yellow clearing of the fallows. The swelling turf of the headland, looking northward across the Weald to the loved companion downs of Surrey, is broken by soft wooded 1804.hollows, where the shepherd finds a shelter from the noontide sun, or from the showers that are borne along in the driving flight of the south-west wind.
Here, in an old farmhouse, known as Dunford, Richard Cobden was born on June 3, 1804. He was the fourth of a family of eleven children. His ancestors were yeomen of the soil, and it is said, with every appearance of truth, that the name can be traced in the annals of the district as far back as the fourteenth century. The antiquarians of the county have found out that one Adam de Coppdene was sent to parliament by the borough of Chichester in 1314. There is talk of a manor of Cobden in the ninth of Edward IV. (1470). In 1562 there is a record of William Cobden devising lands on the downs in Westdean. Thomas Cobden of Midhurst was a contributor of twenty-five pounds to the fund raised for resisting the Spanish Armada. When hearth-money was levied in 1670, Richard Cobden, junior, is entered as paying for seven out of the seventy-six hearths of the district. In the Sussex election poll-book for 1734 a later Richard Cobden is put down as a voter for the parish of Midhurst, and four or five others are entered as freeholders in other parts of West Sussex. The best opinion seems to be that the settlement of the Cobdens at Midhurst took place sometime in the seventeenth century, and that they were lineal descendants of Sir Adam and Sir Ralph of former ages.
However all this may be, the five hundred years that intervened had nursed no great prosperity. Cobden’s grandfather and namesake was a maltster and farmer, and filled for several years the principal office of bailiff for the borough of Midhurst. When he died in 1809, he left a very modest property behind him. Dunford was sold, and William Cobden, the only son of Richard the elder, and the father of the Richard Cobden with whom we are concerned, removed to a small farm on the outskirts of1809–13 Midhurst. He was a man of soft and affectionate disposition, but wholly without the energy of affairs. He was the gentlest and kindest of men. Honest and upright himself, he was incapable of doubting the honesty and uprightness of others. He was cheated without suspecting it, and he had not force of character enough to redeem a fortune which gradually slipped away from him. Poverty oozed in with gentle swiftness, and lay about him like a dull cloak for the rest of his life. His wife, the mother of Richard Cobden, had borne the gracious maiden-name of Millicent Amber. Unlike her kindly helpless husband, she was endowed with native sense, shrewdness, and force of mind, but the bravery of women in such cases can seldom avail against the shiftlessness of men. The economic currents of the time might seem to have been all in their favour. The war and the scarcity which filled all the rest of the country with distress, rained gold upon farmers and landlords. In the five years during which William Cobden was at Guillard’s Oak, (1809–13), the average price of wheat was just short of five pounds a quarter. In spite of tithes, of war-taxes, and of tremendous poor-rates, the landowners extracted royal rents, and the farmers drove a roaring trade. To what use William Cobden put these good times, we do not know. After the harvest of 1813, the prospect of peace came, and with it a collapse of the artificial inflation of the grain markets. Insolvency and distraint became familiar words in the farm-houses that a few months before had been revelling in plenty.
William Cobden was not the man to contrive an escape from financial disaster. In 1814 the farm was sold, and they moved from home to home until at length they made a settlement at Westmeon, near Alton in Hampshire. His neighbours were as unfortunate as himself, for Cobden was able to say in later years that when he returned to his native 1814–19.
It is one of the privileges of strength to add to its own the burdens of the weak, and helpful kinsfolk are constantly found for those whom character or outer circumstance has submerged. Relatives of his own, or his wife’s, charged themselves with the maintenance of William Cobden’s dozen children. Richard, less happy than the others, was taken away from a dame’s school at Midhurst, and cheerful tending of the sheep on his father’s farm, and was sent by his mother’s brother-in-law, a merchant in London, to a school in Yorkshire. Here he remained for five years, a grim and desolate time, of which he could never afterwards endure to speak. This was twenty years before the vivid genius and racy style of Dickens had made the ferocious brutalities of Squeers and the horrors of Dotheboys Hall as universally familiar as the best-known scenes of Shakespeare. The unfortunate boy from his tenth to his fifteenth year was ill fed, ill taught, ill used; he never saw parent or friend; and once in each quarter he was allowed such singular relief to his feelings as finds official expression in the following letter (March 25, 1817):—
“You cannot tell what rapture I feel at my once more having the pleasure of addressing my Parents, and though the distance is so great, yet I have an opportunity of conveying it to you free of expense. It is now turned three years since our separation took place, and I assure you I look back with more pleasure to that period than to any other part of my life which was spent to no effectual purpose, and I beg to return you my most sincere thanks as being the means of my gaining such a sense of learning as will enable me to gain a genteel livelihood whenever I am called into the1819–25.
It was not until 1819 that this cruel and disgusting mockery of an education came to an end. Cobden was received as a clerk in his uncle’s warehouse in Old Change. It was some time before things here ran easily. Nothing is harder to manage, on either side, than the sense of an obligation conferred or received. Cobden’s uncle and aunt expected servility in the place of gratitude, and in his own phrase, “inflicted rather than bestowed their bounties.” They especially disapproved of his learning French lessons in the early hours of the morning in his bedroom, and his fondness for book-knowledge was thought of evil omen for his future as a man of business. The position became so unpleasant, that in 1822 Cobden accepted the offer of a situation in a house of business at Ghent. It promised considerable advantages, but his father would not give his approval, and Cobden after some demur fell in with his father’s wish. He remained where he was, and did not quarrel with such opportunity as he had, simply because he had missed a better, It is one of the familiar puzzles of life, that those whose want of energy has sunk their lives in failure, are often so eager to check and disparage the energy of stronger natures than their own.
William Cobden’s letters all breathe a soft domesticity which is more French than English, and the only real discomfort of his poverty to him seems to have been a weak regret that he could not have his family constantly around his hearth. Frederick, his eldest son, was in the United States for several years; his father was always gently importunate for his return. In 1824 he came home, having done nothing by his travels towards bettering fortunes that remained stubbornly unprosperous to the end 1824.
The same year which struck Cobden this distressing blow,1825.
The information to be gathered in coaches and in the commercial rooms of provincial hotels was narrow enough in some senses, but it was varied, fresh, and in real matter. To a man of Cobden’s active and independent intelligence this contact with such a diversity of interest and character was a congenial process of education. Harsh circumstance had left no other education open to him. There is something pathetic in an exclamation of one of his letters of this period, not merely because it concerns a man of Cobden’s eminence and public service, but because it is the case of thousands of less conspicuous figures. In his first journey (August—October, 1825) he was compelled to wait for half a day at Shrewsbury, for a coach to Manchester. He went to the abbey, and was greatly impressed by its venerable walls and painted glass. “Oh that I had money,” he says to his brother, in plain uncultured speech, “to be deep skilled in the mysteries of mullions and architraves, in lieu of black and purple and pin grounds! How happy I should be.” He felt as keenly as Byron himself how
1826.In his second journey he visited the birthplace of Robert Burns, and he wrote to his brother from Aberdeen (Feb. 5, 1826):—“It is a sort of gratification that I am sure you can imagine, but which I cannot describe, to feel conscious of treading upon the same spot of earth, of viewing the same surrounding objects, and of being sheltered by the same roof, as one who equally astonished and delighted the world.” He describes himself as boiling over with enthusiasm upon approaching “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk,” the bring o’ Doon, and the scene of Tan o’ Shanter’s headlong ride.1826.
The genial eye for character and the good-humoured tolerance of foibles, which so singularly distinguished Cobden in the days when he came to act with men for public objects, are conspicuous in these early letters. His hospi table observation, even in this rudimentary stage, seemed1825.
Even in Dublin itself he saw what made an impression upon him, which ten years later he tried to convey to the readers of his first pamphlet. “The river Liffey intersects the city, and ships of 200 tons may anchor nearly in the heart of Dublin; but it is here the stranger is alone disappointed; the small number of shipping betrays their limited commerce. It is melancholy to see their spacious streets (into some of which the whole tide of Cheapside might with ease move to and fro), with scarcely a vehicle through their whole extent. Whilst there is so little circulation in 1826.
If one side of Cobden’s active and flexible mind was interested by these miserable scenes, another side, as we have said, was touched by the strange whimsicalities of man. In February, 1826, he crossed from Donaghadee, on the north-east coast of Ireland, to Portpatrick.
“Our captain was named Paschal—he was a short figure, but made the most of a little matter by strutting as upright as a dart, and throwing back his head, and putting forward his little chest in an attitude of defiance. It appeared to be the ambition of our little commander to make matters on board his little dirty steam-boat wear the same air of magnitude as on board a seventy-four. I afterwards learned he had once been captain on board of a king’s ship. His orders were all given through a ponderous trumpet, although his three men could not be more than ten yards distant from him. Still he bore the air of a gentleman, and was accustomed to have the fullest deference paid him by his three seamen. On approaching near the Harbour of Port-patrick, our captain put his huge trumpet down the hole that led below, and roared out, at the risk of stunning us all, ’steward-boy, bring up a gun cartridge, and have a care you don’t take a candle into the Magazine!’ The order was obeyed, the powder was carried up, and after a huge deal of preparation and bustling to and fro on the deck, the trumpet was again poked down to a level with our ears, and the steward was again summoned to bring up a match. Soon after which we heard the report of something upon deck like the sound of a duck-gun. After that, the order was given, ‘All hands to the larboard—clear the gangway and lower the larboard steps,’ or in other words, ‘Help the passengers to step on to the pier.’”3
In the same letter he congratulates himself on having1826.
This, in fact, was the hour of one of the most widely disastrous of those financial crashes which sweep over the country from time to time like great periodic storms. The ruin of 1825 and 1826 was never forgotten by those who had intelligence enough to be alive to what was going on before their eyes. The whirlwind that shook the fabric of Scott’s prosperity to the ground, involved Cobden’s humbler fortunes in a less imposing catastrophe. His employers failed (February, 1826), as did so many thousands of others, and he was obliged to spend some time in unwelcome holiday at Westmeon.
Affairs were as straitened under his father’s roof as they had always been. The sun was not likely to be shining in that little particular spot, if the general sky were dull. The perturbations of the great ocean were felt even in that small circle, and while retail customers at their modest shop were reluctant to buy or unable to pay, the wholesale provider in London was forced to narrow his credit and call in his debts. The family stood closely to one another in the midst of a swarm of shabby embarrassments, and their neighbours looked on in friendly sympathy, impotent to help. Strangely enough, as some may think, they do not seem to 1826.
Richard Cobden, meanwhile, had found a situation in1826.
Two years afterwards, in 1828, Cobden took an important1828 step. He and two friends who were in the same trade determined to begin business on their own account. The scheme of the three friends was to go to Manchester, and there to make an arrangement with some large firm of calico-printers for selling goods on commission. More than half of the little capital was borrowed. When the scheme first occurred to Cobden, he is said to have gone to Mr. Lewis of the well-known firm in Regent Street, to have laid the plan before him, and asked for a loan. The borrower’s sanguine eloquence, advising a project that in itself was not irrational, proved successful, and Mr. Lewis’s advance was supplemented by a further sum from a private friend.
Cobden wrote many years afterwards: “I began business in partnership with two other young men, and we only mustered a thousand pounds amongst us, and more than half of it was borrowed. We all got on the Peveril of the Peak coach, and went from London to Manchester in the, at that day [September, 1828], marvellously short space of twenty hours. We were literally so ignorant of Manchester houses 1828.
This is from a letter written to express Cobden’s firm belief in the general circumstance, “that it is the character, experience, and connexions of the man wanting credit, his knowledge of his business, and opportunities of making it available in the struggle of life, that weigh with the shrewd capitalist far more than the actual command of a few thousands more or less of money in hand.” We may find reason to think that Cobden’s temperament perhaps inclined him to push this excellent truth somewhat too far. Meanwhile, the sun of kindly hope shone. The situation is familiar to all who have had their own way to make from obscurity to success, whether waiting for good fortune in1828.
Intense anxiety for the success of the undertaking was brightened by modest hopes of profits, of which a share of one third should amount to eight hundred pounds a year. And in Cobden’s case these hopes received a suffusion of generous colour from the prospect which they opened to his affectionate solicitude for his family. “I knew your heart well enough,” he wrote to his brother Frederick, “to feel that there is a large portion of it ever warmly devoted to my interests, and I should be doing injustice to mine if I did not tell you that I have not one ambitious view or hope from which you stand separated. I feel that Fortune, with her usual caprice, has in dealing with us turned her face to the least deserving, but we will correct her mistake for once, and I must insist that you from henceforth consider yourself as by right my associate in all her favours.”—(Sept. 21, 1828.)
The important thing is that all this is no mere coinage of fair words, but the expression of a deep and genuine intention which was amply and most diligently fulfilled to the very last hour of Cobden’s life.
To F. Cobden, Feb. 5, 1826.
To F. Cobden, Sept. 20, 1825.
To F. Cobden.
Letter to Mr. W. S. Lindsay, March 24, 1856.