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date: 17 October 2021

Anti-Corn Law Leaguefree

(act. 1839–1846)

Anti-Corn Law Leaguefree

(act. 1839–1846)
  • A. C. Howe

Anti-Corn Law League (act. 1839–1846), was a politico-economic pressure group that campaigned successfully against the British corn laws that were repealed in June 1846. It was formed on 20 March 1839 after the rejection by the House of Commons of the motions introduced by C. P. Villiers on 18 February and 18 March for the reconsideration of the corn laws imposed in 1815. Delegates summoned to London by the recently formed Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association thereupon decided to create the Anti-Corn Law League as 'a permanent union' of local associations and individuals devoted to total abolition and to be based in Manchester.

The corn laws of 1815 had previously aroused considerable but intermittent protest, with anti-corn law associations formed in a number of provincial cities, including Sheffield (1831) and Dundee (1834), and in London (1836). The Sheffield poet Ebenezer Elliott had also done much to publicize the issue as had such journalists as the Scots William Tait and William Weir, as well as popularizing political economists like T. P. Thompson, author of the widely read Catechism on the Corn Laws (1827), which reached its twentieth edition in 1840. Low corn prices in the mid-1830s had limited organized protest but Villiers had taken up the issue purposefully within parliament in 1838. A run of bad harvests and rising prices together with the onset of the worst economic depression of the nineteenth century added the rising power of the Manchester commercial élite to these earlier disparate movements. The corn laws were now identified as a long-term obstacle to manufacturing prosperity, for by restricting British imports of grain they threatened to raise its price (and, some thought, the cost of wages), to limit exports of Britain's manufactured goods by denying other countries the income from grain exports to purchase British goods, and to encourage other countries to industrialize prematurely rather than to specialize in agrarian production.

With these apophthegms of classical political economy firmly in view, the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association was formed in September 1838 by leading local radicals led by the journalist Archibald Prentice, following a meeting addressed by the Benthamite John Bowring. Its provisional committee included John Bright, George Hadfield, Thomas Potter [see under Potter, Thomas Bayley], and J. B. ‘Corn Law’ Smith, a Manchester cotton merchant long identified with the issue; shortly afterwards Richard Cobden (absent earlier in Germany), Joseph Heron, and Jeremiah Garnett were among those added.

With Smith elected president, the Manchester association soon acquired the funds it needed to begin a lecturing campaign and to hold a series of meetings of delegates, while mobilizing behind its cause the Manchester chamber of commerce, despite resistance from some of its tory and whiggish members. Important local recruits included men like the prominent Unitarian cotton spinner R. H. Greg, and its council included a significant part of Manchester's mercantile community. Its executive committee, including Cobden, Prentice, and the starch manufacturer George Wilson, became in March 1839 that of the Anti-Corn Law League, while the meetings of the league's council were open to all subscribers of £50 or more, some 500 in number by 1846.

The league's initial aims were propagandist, with the focus on converting public opinion through its band of well-paid lecturers, men like the former medical student Abraham Paulton, the hardened and at times vituperative radical journalist James Acland [see under McCalmont, Frederick Haynes], and Sidney Smith, an Edinburgh lawyer and later a Liberal electoral agent, as well as working men such as the 'village politician' John Charles Buckmaster (1820–1908) and the Irishmen John Joseph Finnigan (1809–1887) and John Murray. The league held well-publicized dinners, for example those addressed in January 1840 by Daniel O'Connell, whose earlier campaign for Catholic emancipation provided a model for the league. Many politicians and reformers, local and national, landed and mercantile, were keen to identify with its cause, among them Thomas Milner Gibson, James Silk Buckingham, Thomas Gisborne, Lawrence Heyworth, and Henry Warburton. It recruited a large but unquantifiable individual membership and encouraged the formation of numerous anti-corn law associations throughout the United Kingdom, some 223 in all with an additional twenty-three operative and an unknown number of young men's anti-monopoly associations. These provided the training ground for many Victorian politicians and journalists, including P. A. Taylor the younger, Peter Rylands, and John Passmore Edwards. As the vital link connecting its parts the league created its own newspaper, the Anti-Corn Law Circular (fortnightly, 16 April 1839 – 8 April 1841), the Anti-Bread Tax Circular (fortnightly, weekly from 1 Dec 1842, 21 April 1841 – 26 Sept 1843), and The League (30 Sept 1843 – 4 July 1846). Both Cobden and Bright wrote regular unsigned articles, while also employing the pens of Paulton, John and Thomas Ballantyne, and William Cooke Taylor. The league also sought favourable publicity through the national press, and devoted large sums of money in subsidies to this end, for example, to Murdo Young (1790–1870) of The Sun. Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury, was also a valued but moderate ally.

Even so the league had difficulty in establishing itself as the leading popular campaign in several provincial cities, where it faced strong competition from local reform movements. Thus in Leeds, despite support from Samuel Smiles, the local parliamentary reform association remained popular, while in Birmingham currency reform and Joseph Sturge's Complete Suffrage Union limited support for free trade. In London too Francis Place found it difficult to mobilize support. But above all the league suffered from the opposition of Chartists to a body they believed sought only to maximize the mill owners' profits by lowering wages. Chartist opposition was especially vocal and violent in Leicester and in Manchester itself, but the counter-efforts of the young merchant Edward Watkin, aided by O'Connell's local Irish supporters, helped undermine the Chartists, whose disruptive powers rapidly waned after 1842.

Delegate meetings held in London also kept up the pressure on members of parliament as the league revived the tradition of ‘anti-parliaments’, and their claims to represent better the ‘real’ views of a disempowered people. The league also put a strong emphasis on petitioning and between 1839 and 1843 tabled 16,351 petitions, with a total of some 5.8 million signatures. Its political strategy was avowedly non-party but it canvassed the support of leading whigs including Lord Brougham and Joseph Parkes and carefully co-ordinated its efforts with Villiers, hoping to convert the whig government to the need for free trade. It also turned to the parliamentary route to repeal by seeking to elect MPs, with J. B. Smith's controversial candidature at Walsall in January 1841 doing much to create national awareness of the league's existence. But the growing strength of its extra-parliamentary movement was not reflected in its performance in the general election of 1841, with the return of the Conservative government. The poor showing of repealers in Lancashire proved a major disappointment, albeit tempered by the victory of leading activists, including Cobden at Stockport and Bowring at Bolton.

By August 1841 Cobden had rapidly overtaken J. B. Smith as the league's most effective politician locally, and was now set to replace Villiers as leader in parliament. Smith, owing to financial embarrassments, resigned as chairman in 1841 to be replaced by Wilson, who now became the league's anchor in Manchester, attending a record 1361 of its council meetings. Under Cobden's guidance the league increasingly sought to assert the moral basis for repeal as a 'craving of the middle class' rather than simply its economic appeal to its main fund-raisers, the Lancashire cotton masters. Like the anti-slavery societies, on which it was in part modelled, the league also sought to mobilize religious opinion, holding a well-publicized conference of ministers in Manchester in 1841 (replicated on a smaller scale in Wales, and later in Edinburgh). These were enthusiastically supported by such nonconformist ministers as William McKerrow, James W. Massie, and John Pye Smith, although the Revd Thomas Spencer was a rare Anglican participant.

The league also successfully recruited women to its ranks, encouraging their participation in meetings, petitions, soirées, and tea parties. Its local ladies' committee, whose members included Isabella Varley Banks and as president Catherine Cobden (1815–1877), held the first anti-corn law bazaar in Manchester in February 1842, raising almost £10,000. Many Victorian feminists were the daughters of league households: Annie Cobden-Sanderson, Jane Cobden Unwin, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, and Elizabeth Pease Nichol, as well as the educational pioneer Louisa Carbutt.

Despite this broadening of support, as the depression in the economy worsened in 1841–2, and with the tories securely in power, the league found it extremely difficult to make any impact in parliament itself, and was forced to toy with a series of desperate measures, such as a 'fiscal strike'. This led also to its being implicated in the so-called 'plug plot' (general strike) of August 1842, thought by some to have been deliberately provoked by radical leaguers in order to force the government to act on the corn laws. But the league's complicity was not proved, despite active government efforts to do so. In the wake of this adverse publicity Cobden redirected the league towards fund-raising, the organization of economic interests, and the conversion of opinion, as the prelude to an attempt to storm parliament through by-election victories. The league also undertook an extensive campaign of registering voters for parliamentary elections, adding thousands of its supporters to the electoral rolls, while seeking to exclude likely protectionist voters.

By this time too the league had achieved, for a pressure group, an unusual degree of business efficiency in its operations, applying at its corporate headquarters, Newall's Building in Manchester, the entrepreneurial techniques of the workshop of the world to the tasks of extra-parliamentary campaign management. Its success is reflected in the statistical record. For example in 1843 it distributed over 9 million tracts, delivered 650 lectures, manned 156 deputations, and placed 426,000 tracts as advertisements. Its work in this respect was greatly facilitated by the penny post, whose introduction Cobden had strongly supported. Above all, the league could draw on funds to an unprecedented level—£50,000 in 1843, £100,000 in 1844 and 1845, and £250,000 in 1845–6, sums which in real terms modern political parties would envy. While the bulk of this money came from the purses of the Lancashire cotton masters, many thousands of ordinary people contributed their mites, duly listed in the league's press.

Propaganda and widespread activity were vital to the league's successfully ‘nationalizing’ its image, as it became a genuinely British rather than simply a Manchester movement. It had earlier organized extensive lectures in Wales and Ireland but by 1843 Scotland had emerged as a major bastion of support, typified in Edinburgh by the future provost Duncan McLaren and by the Church of Scotland minister and former Chartist Patrick Brewster, while in the borders the prominent tenant farmer George Hope was a significant agricultural recruit. Cobden now had high but mistaken hopes that rural England too would prove convertible; there was a series of controversial but mostly successful meetings across southern England. The league in 1843 moved its headquarters to London, held a series of highly successful meetings at the Drury Lane Theatre, and was closely involved in the setting up of The Economist by James Wilson, whose anti-corn law arguments the league had often publicized. Significantly too in September the league-backed candidate James Pattison (1786–1849) won the City of London by-election, the prelude to its being famously acknowledged by The Times (17 Nov 1843) as a 'great fact'. Nevertheless, the league's efforts to fight every seat proved unrealistic, electioneering often led it into the murky methods of vote-winning it purported to disdain, and repeal by means of by-election victories was more aspiration than strategy. Its limits were exposed when the league's candidate William Brown was defeated in its own backyard of South Lancashire in May 1844, while its rural campaign proved counter-productive, stimulating the creation of the anti-league by the duke of Richmond and his supporters, and eliciting a barrage of hostile protectionist literature.

Against this background the league redoubled its effort within parliament, where John Bright had joined Cobden in July 1843 and proved a keen debater, successfully adding inquiry into the game laws to the league's anti-aristocratic weaponry. Villiers's annual motions for repeal, however, offered little promise of success and the league after 1844 redirected its attention to the conversion of parliament by mobilizing its potential electoral power in urban and rural England, especially in the industrialized counties. It now pursued a two-pronged attack, adding to its still vigorous registration campaign the novel tactic of creating by land purchase 40s. freehold votes, which promised to add thousands to county electorates. In parliament Cobden continued to make effective attacks on the landed interest, seeking to undermine the loyalty of tenant farmers to the corn laws and mobilizing important allies like the Hertfordshire tenant farmer Charles Higby Lattimore (1808–1889), such agricultural experts as John Morton and Joshua Trimmer, and the journalist Alexander Somerville. In London the league held a further series of successful meetings at Covent Garden, and its hugely popular bazaar in the early summer of 1845 added to the league's respectability and fashionableness, while providing a prototype for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The league's morale was high; the return to prosperity after 1843, with better harvests and low grain prices, had not led to any significant diminution of support.

Through its string of national orators, Cobden, Bright, and Henry Ashworth, the ABC of the league, supported by the powerful popular and emotional rhetoric of speakers like W. J. Fox, R. R. R. Moore, and George Thompson, and aided by influential local industrialists such as Thomas Bazley and John Brooks (1783/4–1849), 'The Yorick of the League' in Manchester, George Crawshay in Gateshead, and James Stansfeld (1792–1872) in Halifax, the league succeeded where Chartism had failed, constituting a major new ‘moral’ force in British politics. Its melodramatic presentation of the virtues of free trade and the evils of the aristocratic class-legislation held much of the nation spellbound; its exploits were commemorated in pots, busts, cakes, needlework, plate, and verse, including the poems of Horatio Smith and John Bowring's 'Lay of the League'. It had won some support from the aristocracy, especially that of William Pleydell-Bouverie, third earl of Radnor, Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, tenth Lord Kinnaird, and Henry George Francis Moreton, second earl of Ducie, and as Chartism faded it gained enthusiastic support from the working classes, including that of trade unionists and the temperance movement, with Joseph Livesey, editor of the widely read The Struggle (1842–6), a keen ally. Through leaders like Joseph Sturge and local activists such as David Whitehead the league also had close ideological as well as political ties with the burgeoning peace movement of the 1840s.

In these ways the league had moved from being the ‘mill-owners ramp’ devoted to lowering wages, as the Chartists and protectionists claimed, to becoming a vast popular movement in which millions were involved as subscribers, readers, voters, or auditors; as one such, Walter Bagehot, recalled, 'There has never, perhaps, been another time in the history of the world when excited masses of men and women hung on the words of one talking political economy' (Mr Cobden, The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, ed. N. St John-Stevas, 15 vols., 1965–86, 3.216). Likewise the German visitor J. G. Kohl celebrated the league's Manchester meetings as 'great national anniversaries', festivals dedicated to the free trade vision of the future (J. G. Kohl, England and Wales, 1844, repr. 1968, 144). This growing national impact provided the background for the league's most obvious political achievement, the belated endorsement of its cause by the whig leader Lord John Russell in his famous ‘Edinburgh letter’ of November 1845. Support for repeal had now become the essential basis for any future whig appeal to the electorate.

Despite this impressive record the league was reduced to the role of spectator in the final settlement of the corn law issue. The prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, had come to appreciate and accept the practical and intellectual cases for free trade since the 1830s. As the Irish famine pushed him towards the announcement in January 1846 of his own conversion to total but gradual (to be complete in 1849) repeal, the league could only watch the parliamentary process unfold, waiting in the wings, flush with the immense £250,000 fund raised in the winter of 1845, should Peel waver, or should the House of Lords prove recalcitrant, as it had over parliamentary reform in 1831–2.

How far Peel himself was influenced by the league is debatable. As some historians have argued, Peel's reluctance to be seen to give way to the extra-parliamentary pressure of the league may have delayed repeal; Peel's own reasoning too was largely independent of that of the league; yet in explaining why Peel decided to repeal rather than suspend the corn laws, the sheer political visibility of the league, its masterful propagandist performances, and its growing electoral power probably weighed in the balance towards resolving the issue permanently rather than allowing it to fester, with its potential to fracture class relations in Britain's new industrial society and to damage the tory hold on rural England. Peel himself famously declared that Cobden's deserved to be the name most closely associated with repeal, but in this context Cobden may be regarded as synonymous with the league itself. While parliament debated repeal Cobden was widely acclaimed as its author at home and abroad, and he successfully held in check the more radical leaguers who had wished to stand out for immediate as well as total repeal. The league continued to be soundly abused by the critics of repeal, led by Disraeli, but its dynamic now slackened. It continued to hold successful Covent Garden meetings but its earlier class animus had gone, and following the royal assent to the repeal bill on 26 June 1846 its last council meeting was held in Manchester on 2 July 1846, at which the league suspended its activities, but provided for their renewal by the executive council, should a credible protectionist threat return.

The league was therefore revived briefly in March 1852 at the time of the tory minority government, raising a £50,000 fund that was subsequently directed to investigating corruption in the election of 1852, whose outcome ensured there was no long-term protectionist resurgence. But the league did not prove, as many had feared and some had hoped, the basis for a series of further anti-aristocratic crusades; rather than providing a long-term weapon to assert middle-class power, in retrospect the league seemed, even to its leaders, 'a blundering unsystematic series of campaigns' (Cobden to A. Prentice, 13 Sept 1853, Cobden papers 21, W. Sussex RO). But the myth of the league flourished, powerfully enshrined in the tomes of Prentice and Henry Dunckley, physically embodied in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (the wooden original of 1843 was rebuilt in stone in 1856), embraced in the narrative of British history in the writings of Harriet Martineau and others, and visually commemorated in the paintings of John Rogers Herbert and Charles Allen Duval. Politically the league bequeathed to British politics the somewhat nebulous ‘Manchester school’, which remained prominent through its parliamentary exponents, above all, Cobden, Bright, and Thomas Gibson, but their 'peace-at-any-price' views, especially over the Crimean War, were increasingly disowned by many former leaguers. The Manchester school was defeated at the election of 1857, leaving its former members simply as a small but highly significant group within the wider parliamentary Liberal coalition under Palmerston and Gladstone. The ghost of the league continued to preside over its former Manchester headquarters, Newall's Building, still the core of the local Liberal party, but one whose hold over Manchester politics had been broken in 1857. Despite occasional calls for the revival of the league, it was not resuscitated.

Although historians remain divided on the impact of the league on Peel's decision to abandon the corn laws it was undoubtedly, in appearance, the most successful of nineteenth-century single-issue pressure groups, in its ability to generate enthusiasm, support, and unparalleled financial backing. Although its potential was not realized, it had shown the capacity for an extra-parliamentary middle-class organization to reshape politics so as to reflect the anti-aristocratic objectives of a determined band of entrepreneurial politicians. It remained the model for many diverse pressure groups, for example the United Kingdom Alliance, the National Educational League, the Navy League, the Tenant League in Ireland, and the National Society in Piedmont, as well as those specifically related to free trade, including the Edwardian Tariff Reform League and Free Trade Union, and in the 1950s S. W. Alexander's Anti-Dear Food League. It also inspired imitators in France, Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and the United States. The league had only temporarily reshaped the landscape of parliamentary politics but it had helped create a vibrant popular attachment to free trade within British political culture that would last well into the twentieth century.


  • Anti-Corn Law Circular (1839–41)
  • Anti-Bread Tax Circular (1841–3)
  • The League (1843–6)
  • The letters of Richard Cobden, ed. A. Howe, 1: 1815–1847 (2007)
  • H. Ashworth, Recollections of Richard Cobden … and the Anti-Corn-Law League (1876)
  • N. McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838–1846 (1958)
  • P. A. Pickering and A. Tyrrell, The people's bread: a history of the Anti-Corn Law League (2000)
  • S. J. Morgan, ‘Domestic economy and political agitation: women and the Anti-Corn Law League’, Women in British politics, 1760–1860: the power of the petticoat, ed. K. Gleadle and S. Richardson (2000), 115–33
  • N. Longmate, The breadstealers (1984)
  • A. Kadish, ed., The corn laws: the formation of popular economics in Britain, 6 vols. (1996)
  • A. Somerville, Free trade and the league, 2 vols. (1853)
  • A. Bisset, Notes on the anti-corn law struggle (1884)
  • K. J. Cameron, ‘William Weir and the origins of the “Manchester league” in Scotland, 1833–1839’, SHR, 58 (1979), 70–91
  • F. A. Montgomery, ‘Glasgow and the movement for corn law repeal’, History, 64 (1979), 363–79
  • R. Wallace, ‘The Anti-Corn Law League in Wales’, Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 13 (1986), 1–23
  • I. G. Jones, ‘The anti-corn law letters of Walter Griffith’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 28/1 (1978), 95–128
  • L. Brown, ‘The Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League’, Chartist studies, ed. A. Briggs (1959), 342–71
  • J. C. Buckmaster, ed., A village politician: the life story of John Buckley, 2nd edn (1982)
  • D. A. Hamer, The politics of electoral pressure (1977)
  • M. J. Turner, ‘The “Bonaparte of free trade” and the Anti-Corn Law League’, HJ, 41 (1998), 1011–34
  • E. Newman, ‘The Anti-Corn Law League and the Wiltshire labourer: aspects of the development of the nineteenth-century protest’, Land, labour, and agriculture, 1700–1920, ed. B. A. Holderness and M. E. Turner (1991), 91–107
  • R. F. Spall, ‘Free trade, foreign relations, and the Anti-Corn Law League’, International History Review, 10 (1988), 405–32
  • J. Prest, Politics in the age of Cobden (1977)
  • H. D. Jordan, ‘The political methods of the Anti-Corn Law League’, Political Science Quarterly, 42 (1927), 58–76


  • Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letter book, 1838–40
  • W. Sussex RO, accounts, 1843–46
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Scottish Historical Review