Cobden: a plinth among men

With fierce debates swirling around our heads about historic statues, Daniel Snowman considers that of Richard Cobden

Thursday, 20th January — By Daniel Snowman

Statue Of Richard Cobden

The statue of Richard Cobden in Camden Town

I THINK I’ve known since school days roughly who “Cobden and Bright” were. Just as I’ve (kind of) known about Francis Drake, Guy Fawkes, Newton, Nelson and Gladstone. Weren’t Cobden and Bright mid-Victorian advocates of free trade? Based, I remember learning, in newly industrialising Manchester (remember the Free Trade Hall)?

Well, yes. But it was when I moved into the Camden area some years ago and kept passing that statue of Cobden just up from Mornington Crescent station on my way home that I found myself wanting to learn more about him.

The results of my passing curiosity led to some hugely “relevant” thoughts about the ways we think about the past today. For a start, I had a good look at the plaque beneath the statue. It says it is of “COBDEN” (no first name) and was erected by public subscription to which the principal contributor was the Emperor of France, Napoleon III.

In 1868, three years after Cobden’s death, the statue was presented to “the Vestry of St Pancras”. Why? And why here? The nearest Cobden ever came to living in the Camden area was when in 1848 he moved with the family to Westbourne Terrace in Paddington for some years.

Cobden, an inveterate traveller, had been finding the damp climate of Manchester disagreeable and his new abode, he wrote enthusiastically to a friend, was “near the Great Western Station, Paddington, the highest part, as well as the driest, of the metropolis”.

Today, when there is widespread, often sceptical questioning about historic statues and the personalities and the political purposes they embody, Cobden raises interesting issues.

As Britain emerges from Brexit, it is worth noting that the statue memorialises a man whose fundamental belief lay in helping enhance peace and goodwill between nations by doing all he could to encourage free trade between them. Especially with Britain’s nearest neighbour (and long-term enemy) France, just 40-odd years after the death of Napoleon and by then ruled by his highly nationalistic and somewhat autocratic nephew and namesake.

Earlier in his career, Cobden and his colleague John Bright had led a campaign to abolish the Corn Laws (taxes on imported grain). But Cobden’s latter years were almost totally devoted to the development, and eventual achievement, of a free trade treaty with the old enemy across the Channel.

You may love or hate Cobden for his passionate internationalism. And many a British patriot poured obloquy upon a man who (for example) opposed British participation in the Crimean War.

But he was at heart a committed pacifist and humanist, outraged by the brutality and bloodshed the British had committed across the world, not least in the slave trade.

For the time being, at least, I suspect the statue of this modest, highly moral Victorian visionary is safe up there, surrounded by admiring pigeons, atop his tall plinth in Camden Town.

• The historian Daniel Snowman is author of more than a dozen books, most recently his memoir: Just Passing Through: Interactions with the World, 1938-2021

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