Liberty Matters

Manchester or Midhurst?

One aspect of Cobden’s success was his ability to present himself equally effectively as the Manchester Manufacturer or the Sussex Yeoman Farmer. This dual identity enabled him to be all things to all men: the cotton merchant campaigning for free trade or the rural agriculturalist urging land reform.
In his earliest pamphlets, Cobden wrote anonymously as A Manchester Manufacturer, using these credentials to speak authoritatively on aspects of economic and foreign policy. As the “Manchester School,” he worked effectively with radical business leaders, including John Bright, Archibald Prentice, Edward Miall, and J. B. Smith. The term “Manchester School” was actually coined by Cobden’s arch enemy, Benjamin Disraeli, who in a mocking speech to Parliament in 1846 accused the repealers of a naïve belief that other nations would sign up to commercial free-trade treaties :
I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a very important question—does he believe that he can fight hostile tariffs with free imports? That is the point. ["Hear!"] "Hear, hear," from the disciples of the school of Manchester! A most consistent cheer! They have always maintained they can; and if their principles are right, as they believe they are—as I believe they are not—I can easily understand, that their premises being assumed, they may arrive at that conclusion. They believe they can fight hostile tariffs with free imports, and they tell us very justly, “Let us take care of our imports, and every thing else will take care of itself.”[95]
According to William Dyer Grampp, who wrote a key monograph, The Manchester School of Economics, Cobden was pleased with the nomenclature and apparently liked to term himself and John Bright as “professors” of the school.[96] Manchester too remained loyal to Cobden and the Manchester School. The Free Trade Hall was built on land donated by Cobden in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester between 1853 and 1856. Its name keeping the policy firmly in the minds of the population of the city. A statue to Cobden was also erected in St Ann’s Square, Manchester funded by public subscription. The surplus was given to educational causes including funding a Chair of Political Economy at Owens College (later the University of Manchester). The statue was unveiled in 1867 with great pomp, attended by leading northern Liberals, although a notable absence was John Bright. Among the banners and artefacts there were two imitations loaves of bread: a larger one inscribed with the message ‘Free Trade’ and a smaller one entitled ‘Protection’.
However, as Cobden’s political interests moved away from repeal towards issues such as land reform, he drew on his early boyhood experience living on (and losing) the family farm at Heyshott in Sussex. Anthony Howe demonstrates how his move back to rural Sussex in 1850 enlightened him to the backwardness and feudal nature of rural society, citing this letter written by Cobden to Brougham:
I have frequently asked myself, whilst perambulating the Duke of Richmond’s villages, -- in what do these peasants differ from their Saxon forefathers? -- The range of their ideas is about the same; bounded by their daily occupations, which have not much varied in a thousand years. – Their knowledge of the world does not extend much beyond their own parish. -- No light penetrates their mind beyond their hamlets.[97]
However, Anthony Taylor argues that Cobden was reinvented as a great land-reform crusader by his brother-in-law, James Thorold Rogers, in the years after his death.[98] This reworking of Cobden’s identity as a Sussex yeoman rather than a Manchester businessman was aided by Cobden’s daughters. An article in the Daily Chronicle in 1904 based on conversations with Annie Cobden-Sanderson and Kate Cobden Fisher emphasizes that he was first and foremost a friend and advocate of the rural peasantry:
One of Cobden’s most striking characteristics was his antagonism to the feudal class as it survived in his day. He believed that the only class which possessed sufficient wealth and influence to counteract the feudal spirit was the great manufacturers and merchants of England. Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson supplied an interesting gloss on this point. “It was,” she said, “living in the country and knowing so much of the lives of the people there that made him understand what feudalism meant.”[99]
Kate Fisher recollected,
He came into the country rather for rest. He loved the country. He was always particularly fond of the South Downs, and he loved all the life of Nature. He liked to watch how the crops were coming on and to visit the farmyard – he loved all the animals; and then he was always glad to talk to the labourers at their work on the farm or on the roads; indeed he was interested in everybody around him or whom he met.The country, of course, was much more Conservative then than it is now; but there was an old tenant farmer who had such a great admiration for my father -- both for himself and for what he had done in giving the people cheap bread -- that, after my father’s death, he had a little obelisk erected to his memory, which is still standing in West Lavington. It was a brave thing at that time for a man to do who was only a tenant farmer….[100]
In 1880, Cobden’s daughter Jane donated a cottage to Heyshott village to establish a Cobden Club, one of the first rural working men’s clubs in England. The Cobden Club Hall moved to a new building in the twentieth century and the original was converted to a private cottage. His daughters then, were instrumental in re-inventing their father as the champion of rural labourers, to keep his legacy relevant for future generations.
Cobden was a consummate politician and propagandist. His ability to flip identities from urban industrialist to rural landowner was surely part of his success.
[95.] Benjamin Disraeli, speech to the House of Commons, 20 February 1846, emphasis added. <>
[96.] William Dyer Grampp, The Manchester School of Economics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960). </titles/2128#Grampp_1445_21>. Note: Grampp wrongly states that Disraeli’s speech was delivered in 1848.
[97.] Cited in Howe, p. 84. Howe, A. “The ‘Manchester School’ and the Landlords: The Failure of Land Reform in Early Victorian Britain,” 74-91 in Cragoe and Readman.
[98.] See, Taylor, A. “Richard Cobden, J. E. Thorold Rogers and Henry George,” 146-66 in Cragoe and Readman . 
[99.] Typescript of interview between Annie Cobden Sanderson and the Daily Chronicle, 1904. Cobden-Sanderson MS, Add. MS 6041.
[100.] Typescript of interview between Kate Cobden Fisher and the Daily Chronicle, 1904. Cobden-Sanderson MS, Add. MS 6041.