Letters from Richard Cobden to François Barthélemy Arlès-Dufour

Item author: Richard Cobden
Item date: 1855 - 1861
Grant Value: £600
Item cost: £1,000
Item date acquired: 2019
Item institution: West Sussex Record Office
Town/City: Chichester
County: West Sussex

These three letters from Richard Cobden to François Barthélemy Arlès-Dufour provide an important insight into both Cobden’s political views and his family life and will be of great interest to 19th-century political historians, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the Cobden Archive held by West Sussex Record Office.

Arlès-Dufour was a French silk merchant, leading exponent of Saint-Simonianism, and a friend and frequent correspondent of Richard Cobden. He collaborated with Cobden over the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, a free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and France signed in 1860.

The letters, dated 12 Jan 1855, 12 Nov 1861, and 2 Mar 1865, were written at a particularly volatile time in European and American politics and reflect Cobden’s views on a wide range of subjects. In the letters, Cobden discusses the Suez Canal, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the longevity of British politicians.

In the first letter, dated 12 Jan 1855, he writes of the Suez Canal that ‘Mr Robt Stephenson, one of our most distinguished civil engineers, reported unfavourably of the scheme’. In the same letter he reflects on the Crimean War writing: ‘I am very much disgusted with the present state of public affairs’ and his concerns for what will become of ‘Turkey & the Turks’.

The second letter sounds a more personal note with a reference to the birth of Cobden’s youngest daughter, Lucy. He writes: ‘It is very odd in one’s old age to be again in the midst of cradles & baby-linen, & the paraphernalia of the nursery… But what a sense of renewed life there is in the presence of these young beings.’ He then turns to America and free trade stating that ‘Events are deplorable enough certainly in America. I want to see a great reform in international law come out of this civil war….Here is something for us to do in 1862!

In Cobden’s third letter, written just a month before his death, he complains about the longevity of politicians such as Lord Russell, Gladstone, and Lord Palmerston, suggesting enforced retirement at the age of 70. Touching again on the American Civil War he writes ‘I do not believe in the prospect of a violent foreign policy on the part of the American government so long as Lincoln is at the head’.

WSRO already holds correspondence between Cobden and Arlès-Dufour but the bulk of Cobden letters to Arlès-Dufour are still in private hands in France. The acquisition of these three letters therefore enriches the existing archive and provides invaluable additional material for future research.

WSRO is extremely grateful to FNL for making this purchase possible (Acc. 19582).  A previous grant in 2015 enabled the purchase of correspondence between Richard Cobden and Charles Pelhem Villiers and Michael Corr van der Maeren. Both of these grants have provided WSRO with the opportunity to continue to develop a significant political archive.

The letters
The letters. Courtesy of West Sussex Record Office.