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date: 26 October 2021

Cobden Clubfree

(act. 1866–1982)

Cobden Clubfree

(act. 1866–1982)
  • A. C. Howe

Cobden Club (act. 1866–1982), was a group of exponents and adherents of the ideas of Richard Cobden that originated in Thomas Bayley Potter's proposal, in correspondence with John Stuart Mill in 1864, for a political science association in imitation of the successful Social Science Association set up in 1857. The idea, it seems, had Cobden's blessing, and following his death in April 1865, at the suggestion of Thorold Rogers, it took his name. The club was formed in May 1866, devoted to the worldwide diffusion of the principles linked with Cobden, summarized in its motto 'Peace, free trade and goodwill among nations'. Potter, who succeeded Cobden as MP for Rochdale, was indefatigable in organizing the club, whose early activists included economists like Rogers, James Caird, and Henry Fawcett, and industrialists such as Sir Thomas Bazley and Hugh Mason. W. E. Gladstone gave his imprimatur by chairing the foundation dinner in July 1866, regular committee meetings began in February 1867, and by March 350 members had been recruited at home and abroad.

The club was not a social club and had only a meeting room and small library in the Reform Club and later the National Liberal Club, but its annual dinners became important political occasions with widely reported speeches by leading Liberals and free traders from Britain and abroad. Such 'mere annual orgies' were despised by some, and under the intellectual direction of Sir Louis Mallet the club acted primarily as a body for political and economic education. Winners of its university prizes included such future luminaries as the economists Joseph Shield Nicholson and A. C. Pigou, the civil servant Charles Troup, and Jesse Watkin, the first female lecturer at the University of Melbourne. In its early years the club published a series of weighty works, including those on local taxation and land tenure designed to shape Liberal policy-making along Cobdenite lines, as well as numerous popular and influential pamphlets like those by the corn merchant and horticulturist Augustus Mongredien. The promotion of free trade abroad was central to the club, and among its early leading figures Sir Robert Morier aided Mallet's attempts to use the club as a forcing-house for commercial diplomacy (a ‘private’ Foreign Office).

The bulk of the members of the 'church of Cobden' were drawn from across the Liberal Party, with many landowners as well as provincial businessmen who still admired the hero of the Anti-Corn Law League (although John Bright remained sceptically aloof), lawyers and university liberals like G. C. Brodrick, and civil servants such as T. H. Farrer and Robert Giffen. At its peak in the early 1880s it had about 1000 members and its activities undoubtedly assisted in rooting Cobdenite ideas at the centre of the British Liberal Party.

This educational function was to become a more overtly propagandist one in the later 1870s as the free trade verities of the club came under increasing attack abroad and at home. In particular the club focused its attention on countering the revival of protectionism in the shape of the fair-trade movement, producing and distributing a huge volume of electoral material designed to inform the electorate of the merits of free trade in the 1880 election. In 1884–5 it took the campaign to the countryside, with its sights on the new rural electorate; the agricultural labourers' leader Joseph Arch was recruited as an author of Cobden Club tracts. Early ‘Lib–Lab’ MPs, such as Thomas Burt, were elected members. In this way the club cemented in British politics the close association between free trade and working-class prosperity. Even so this important public defence of free trade concealed growing tensions within the club between those such as Mallet who identified Cobden with the individualist doctrines of free exchange and private property, and those who saw in his last utterances justification for more radical policies of land reform and direct taxation. The election of the French socialist Clemenceau as an honorary member in 1883 led to an important secession, with several members joining the recently formed Liberty and Property Defence League. The controversial issue of home rule for Ireland further weakened the club in 1886, opening it to the charge that it was now the Gladstone Club, or the more hostile criticism that it was the Thomas Bayley Potter Club, 'for the glorification and social advancement of the respectable member for Rochdale' (The World, 18 July 1887).

Nevertheless the enthusiasm of Potter kept the club together and it continued its production of numerous tracts addressing topical issues, now extending to the food taxes in Ceylon or the sugar bounties, and held celebratory meetings, addressed by Gladstone in 1890 and by Leonard Courtney on the jubilee of the repeal of the corn laws in 1896. Even after Potter's death in 1898, and against the unfavourable tide of liberal imperialism, its secretaries, including Harold Cox (1899–1903) and (George) Herbert Perris (1903–5), maintained its propagandist functions. Indeed, the club was to enjoy a new lease of life in the early twentieth century with Joseph Chamberlain's attack on free trade and on the 'anti-national' leanings of the club, which was now linked by tariff reformers with rootless cosmopolitanism. But the tariff reform challenge revitalized the club (400 members, including Bertrand Russell, joined in 1903–4) and it played an important role in orchestrating working-class support for free trade in Edwardian Britain. It also co-ordinated the widespread centenary celebrations for its eponymous hero in 1904. The club produced a series of important tracts defending the Cobdenite legacy, even if it was now the junior partner to the Free Trade Union set up by the Liberal Party in 1903. Above all, it organized the International Free Trade Congress held in London in 1908, an event mooted since the 1860s but now successfully attesting to the continuing importance of Cobdenite ideas within the pre-1914 global political community.

This international mission to propagate free trade and peace had always been central to the club's raison d'être and from the start it elected numerous honorary members whose ranks were to include the Nobel prizewinner Frédéric Passy, the American social Darwinian W. G. Sumner, and the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, although Potter's idiosyncratic attempt to elect Bismarck was prevented. In India the club was held out as a model for the Congress movement in the 1880s while in New South Wales its members, including Sir Henry Parkes (hailed by Potter as 'the Australian Cobden') and George Reid, were among the stalwart defenders of free trade against the rising tide of colonial protectionism; in Italy Potter was almost embarrassed by the seriousness with which the club's efforts were greeted. But the club's activities abroad probably excited more suspicion than admiration, especially in Germany and the United States where it was widely regarded as part of a conspiracy to undermine domestic tariffs in the interests of British business. Bismarck identified the club as an enemy of the Reich, while in America at least one anti-Cobden Club was formed (in Philadephia). In 1906 The Nation (New York) recalled that twenty years ago 'no presidential election passed without the dread that from the overflowing coffers of the Cobden Club “British gold” in enormous quantities would be provided to swamp our prosperity and republic together' (The Nation, 23 April 1906, 156). The reality was more mundane but this adverse reputation extended to fiction, as illustrated by Joseph Conrad's colonial merchant Willie Dunster, a 'large bilious creature … an economist and a sentimentalist, facile to tears, and a member of the Cobden Club' (The Planter of Malata, Within these Tides, 1915).

Despite its symbolic importance in the global imagination, by 1914 the club's funds and its membership were dwindling although it still recruited important progressive writers such as John Mackinnon Robertson and F. J. Shaw, while the civil servant Reginald Earle Welby was an active chairman. Not surprisingly the First World War, the antithesis of the club's purpose and meaning, seriously weakened the club's appeal, although it participated in several post-war international free-trade congresses, continued its literary efforts, including The World Free Trader (1924–6, 1929), and as late as the 1920s saw the formation of a Magyar Cobden Club. The doctrinaire enthusiasm of men like F. W. Hirst and the family loyalty of Thomas Fisher Unwin and others of the Unwin dynasty ensured that the club stayed alive as a literary outlet for the tortured soul of Cobdenism in the age of total war. The club re-emerged in 1946 to celebrate the centenary of the repeal of the corn laws. Thereafter, having joined forces in the early 1950s with the Free Trade Union, it retained a vestigial existence, associated with various cheap food and anti-European pressure groups of the right in the later twentieth century. Its last dinner was held in 1982, when Sir Richard Body (b. 1927), a Eurosceptic MP, presided. Latterly, the name the Cobden Club has been appropriated by the fashionable social club located in the former Kensal Road Working-Men's Cobden Club, one of a number of Cobden Clubs created in London and the provinces. In Cobden's Sussex the Heyshott Cobden Club still contributes to village life.


  • Cobden Club minute books and other records, W. Sussex RO, Cobden papers
  • Cobden Club, pamphlets, leaflets, essays, reports of annual dinners, printed membership lists
  • [C. J. L. Brock], A history of the Cobden Club by its members (1939)
  • A. Howe, Free trade and liberal England, 1846–1946 (1997)
  • T. B. Potter, letters, Man. CL
  • H. Maine, ‘The church of Cobden’, Pall Mall Gazette (10 Jan 1872)
  • Der Cobden-Club (Berlin, 1881)
  • J. H. Patton, Our tariff: why levied and why continued … also a sketch of the Cobden Club (New York, 1887)
  • private information (2005) [Sir Richard Body]
  • Cobden Club records, priv. coll.


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Manchester Central Library
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private collection
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West Sussex Record Office, Chichester