Jonathan Schofield on the accidental aptness of the sea of flowers and the man

As the flowers circled him and then spread to the north filling St Ann’s Square, Richard Cobden had to understandably fade into the background.

Yet his presence is appropriate. Every city needs a Cobden (1804-1865). Born in Sussex, raised in Yorkshire, he came to Manchester to sell and print cotton goods but found politics and the hunting down of injustice far more appealing. This meant he was often in financial trouble. Never the greatest of businessmen, he and his family, including five daughters, owed a great deal to the assistance of friends and supporters. 

During an extraordinarily active political and campaigning life in this city, he engineered the Charter of Incorporation which gave Manchester its first modern council, he supported a national system of secular education, he was the radical Liberal MP for Stockport, he campaigned against the Opium Wars and campaigned generally for peace. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, this stance led to incredible personal abuse when he, and his close friend and political ally John Bright, were vilified as anti-patriotic in the type of language we might associate with Twitter trolling. His anti-war stance lost him his Stockport seat. 

His association with John Bright was long and productive. It is principally remembered for the leadership of the Anti-Corn Law League. This was formed in 1839 to batter down the unjust protectionism of the land-owning classes. The victory, when gained, was the first major triumph of the mercantile middle classes in Britain against the Establishment. It signaled the rise of a new order.

It is apt then that a man of peace should stand amidst the flowers of mourning that mark a futile act of aggression

170601 Richard Cobden St Anns Square Img 0826
Cobden, a man of peace and virtue, stands tall amongst tributes in St Ann's Square

The main meeting chamber of the Anti-Corn Law League was the Free Trade Hall, on Peter Street, which rebuilt in stone in 1856 and largely destroyed in WWII, is now the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel. After their victory, Cobden and Bright led the Free Trade Movement, or the Manchester School.

The Manchester School has often been as condemned as Cobden was during the Crimean War. For the left it represents a cold and careless economy of capitalism and therefore its philosophy and ambitions must be wrong. For conservatives the movement seemed to threaten the established relationship between the propertied and the poor, whilst threatening the concept of the nation state.

Both notions are wide of the mark. In Cobden’s version of the doctrine, free trade would ensure world peace no less. Inevitably this would result in higher living standards for everybody with the ultimate goal of ending conflicts between individuals, groups and nations. In this way and with these freedoms the human spirit would be raised up.

Cobden speaking in Manchester in 1846 said that with free trade, “I believe the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great navies, for those materials that are used for the destruction of rewards of Labour, will die away.”

It is apt then that a man of peace should stand amidst the flowers of mourning that mark a futile act of aggression. Cobden also said, “Arbitration is more just, rational and humane than resort to the sword.” When he died, his great friend John Bright called him “the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quit or tenanted a human form.”

The statue of Richard Cobden was placed in St Ann’s Square in 1867. The money for the work was raised by public subscription. The bronze was sculpted by Marshall Wood