Leeds Beckett University - City Campus,
The Letters of Richard Cobden (1804-1865) Online: An exploration in active citizenship
What can the correspondence of a Victorian politician tell us about active citizenship in modern Britain? This is the question that a new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities will be attempting to answer.
The Victorians were avid letter writers, helped by Rowland Hill’s introduction of the penny post in 1839 which made the mail cheaper and more reliable. One of the most prolific was radical Liberal politician Richard Cobden.
Over 7,500 of Cobden’s letters still survive, mostly in the British Library and the Cobden papers at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. There are also substantial collections in the Manchester Archives, the University of California Los Angeles, and the National Library of Wales and around a hundred archives and libraries worldwide.
In 2002, I got my first full-time academic job as the Research Officer of the Letters of Richard Cobden Project led by Tony Howe at the London School of Economics. Funded by the AHRC’s Resource Enhancement Fund, our remit was to publish a fully annotated edition of the letters.
Over the next 13 years Tony and I, with the help of Gordon Bannerman (my successor as RO), published a four-volume selected edition of the letters with Oxford University Press. However, around 5,500 letters still remained – transcribed but unpublished.
Twenty years after the project began, we have been awarded a grant of £70,000 under the AHRC’s Follow-on funding scheme to make the remaining letters available as an open access online resource.
The funding scheme is based around impact and engagement. The project will achieve this by producing teaching resources around the letters, by creating a ‘virtual exhibition’ to which we hope as many as possible of the archives and libraries containing Cobden material will contribute, and by hosting a ‘real world’ exhibition on Cobden at the Manchester Central Library in spring 2023.
To achieve this, we will be working with a range of partners including Lawnswood School in Leeds, Cheadle Hulme High School in Greater Manchester, Archives+ in Manchester and the History of Parliament Project. To the original project team of myself (now Principal Investigator) and Tony Howe, we have added Leeds Beckett lecturer Dr Helen Dampier, who brings a wealth of experience of digitisation and public engagement from her previous projects on Olive Schreiner and Emily Hobhouse.
The theme of the new project is ‘active citizenship’. Cobden’s life provides an excellent example of this. Those who have heard of him will know Cobden as the leading figure of the Anti-Corn Law League. However, this was only one part of Cobden’s public career, which included the promotion of universal education for the masses, the establishment of an elected municipal council in Manchester, the freedom of the press and electoral reform. He spent most of the period 1841-1865 as a Member of Parliament, gaining a reputation as the most influential backbencher of the century.
He was also internationally respected with global interests, being a leading member of the international peace movement, chief negotiator of a commercial treaty with France in 1860, and a constant critic of British imperial activity, particularly in India and China.
That said, the project does not pretend to hold Cobden up as a paragon of virtue or example of a ‘great man’. What is important, however, is Cobden’s grasp of the levers of legitimate political influence and his ability to use these to effect positive change in his society.
In our present era of great social, ecological and economic challenges, the next generation of active citizens need to master these tools in their turn. This is the lesson that we hope can be drawn from Cobden’s extraordinary correspondence.
Top image: Richard Cobden, circa 1860 - 1865, courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration
Professor Simon Morgan
Dr Simon Morgan is Head of History at Leeds Beckett University. He specialises in nineteenth-century British History, with particular reference to the histories of radical politics, gender and celebrity.