Letters from Richard Cobden

Scope and Content

This collection consists of eleven autograph letters from Richard Cobden: five to Thomas Hunter, a fellow member and financial backer of the Anti-Corn Law League and six to Edmund Potter (1802–1883), calico printer and politician (Liberal MP for Carlisle 1861-1874), who was also a member of the Anti-Corn Law League. To Cobden, they were his closest friends and "privy council". They all had strong connections to the textile trade and the Liberal political circle in Manchester.

Cobden discusses a variety of personal and political matters in the letters. These letters to his closest friends, most marked "private", were written with free and unabashed insight into Cobden's inner feelings and opinions. The Corn Laws and free trade (linked by Cobden to peace between nations) figure most prominently, as well as Cobden's feelings upon his political prominence. Cobden also talks about other prominent politicians (such as Peel and Russell); parliamentary elections; educational reform; his journey to the continent to advocate free trade in 1846 and later involvement in the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty in 1860; diplomatic relations; the 'Durham Letter' affair over Catholic emancipation in 1851; and the industrial strikes at Preston in 1853.

Administrative / Biographical History

Richard Cobden was born in Heyshott, Sussex, on 3 June 1804, the son of William Cobden (1775-1833) and his wife Millicent (1775-1825). He was educated at Bowes Hall, in Teesdale, Yorkshire. Upon leaving school, he became a clerk at the warehousing business of his uncle in London before becoming a commercial traveller for the firm. After the collapse of the business, Cobden joined with his uncle's partner, later setting up his own business in Watling Street in 1828. In 1831, the firm began to print calico in Lancashire; this venture was successful and Cobden moved to Manchester in the following year.

Cobden was intelligent, having read and travelled widely. During the 1830s, he became involved in politics, becoming a prominent political figure in Manchester. Between 1839 and 1846, Cobden campaigned fiercely against the Corn Laws, being a leading member of the Anti-Corn Law League. In 1841, Cobden became MP for Stockport, which enabled him to fight for the cause in Parliament. The campaign was successful, but it impacted Cobden's physical and financial health: a public subscription was raised for him by well-wishers.

In the following years, Cobden persisted in advocating free trade, which he related strongly to peace among nations. In 1846, he travelled to the continent to promote free trade to foreign governments. The following year, Cobden was appointed MP for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He fought for peace after the 1848 revolutions and became involved in British foreign policy around the time of the Crimean War (1854). In 1857, he lost his seat in the West Riding elections.

After travelling abroad to America, Cobden returned as MP for Rochdale and, in 1860, helped negotiate the Anglo-French commercial treaty. He continued to be publicly and politically active until his death on 2 April 1865 in London.

Richard Cobden married Catherine Williams (1815-1877) in May 1840: they had six children.


These letters have been arranged in chronological order, following documentation provided by the seller.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

These letters were purchased from Bernard Quaritch Ltd., Antiquarian Booksellers, London, by The John Rylands University Library in 1997.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Collection and Research Support Manager (Archives and Manuscripts), John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The letters are accompanied by a note saying "Mr Cobden's letters belonging to Mr Edmund Potter, handed in to Miss Cobden for the purpose of being copied or used in the proposed biography of Mr Cobden [by John Morley], Dec 28. 1877", signed R. Potter". Their intermediate archival history is unknown.

Related Material

The John Rylands Library also holds a letter from Richard Cobden in the Neild Family Papers (GB 133 Eng MS 868) and there is also one letter from Richard Cobden in The Richard Crozier Collection (GB 133 CRO).

Material relating to Richard Cobden can be found in West Sussex Record Office (correspondence and family papers, including a copy of the letter catalogued here as Eng MS 1396/2); British Library Manuscript Collections (correspondence, diaries and papers); The National Archives (correspondence); Manchester Archives and Local Studies (correspondence and papers); Hertfordshire Records Office; West Yorkshire Archives Service; Cambridge University Library (Samuel Smiles MSS); and Oxford University, Bodleian Library (correspondence).

Further correspondence (1833-1865) can be found in the University of California Library, Los Angeles, Special Collections Department.


Norman McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League 1838-1846 (Oxon: Routledge, 1958).

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com [accessed 18 Jan 2011]).

The University of East Anglia, Cobden's Biography (http://www.uea.ac.uk/his/research/cobdenproject/biography [accessed 18 Jan 2011]).

Some of the letters in this collection have also been published: Eng MS 1396/2 is printed in full in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London, 1881), vol. I, pp. 366-370; Eng MS 1396/4 is substantially printed in the same publication (vol. I, pp. 372-373); and Eng MS 1396/7 is partly printed in the same publication (vol. II, pp. 89-90).