These two men were leading members of the Anti-Corn Law League founded in 1839 in Manchester. They sought the repeal of the Corn Laws that had become a bone of contention in British Politics from 1814.

The Corn Laws were of medieval origin, designed to ensure that Britain grew enough grain for her population. They used import duties to prevent the undercutting of domestic production by cheap imports, together with export bounties to ensure that grain was not shipped abroad when the domestic price was high. By the end of the eighteenth century, demand for grain by Britain’s population increasingly outstripped supply. Export bounties became irrelevant and were abolished in 1814. The subsequent Corn Law debates – the source of consistent controversy from 1814 to 1846, when the Corn Laws were finally repealed – produced major popular disturbances and political conflict. The Laws were seen as serving the interests of landowners, sustaining artificially high prices and protecting them from foreign competition. It was an issue that the political economist David Ricardo took a strong free-market position on, seeing it as an artificial and inappropriate interference in the free flow of goods and the determination of market price. From the early 1820s there were those in government or opposition who could see the force of Ricardo’s case but, in part because of the power of the landowning group in Parliament, it required a particular conjunction of interests to secure their repeal.

Although they came to be seen as protecting the wealthy, the initial issue in relation to the Corn Laws at the end of the Napoleonic Wars was simply one of trying to ensure that there was enough 'corn' (which encompassed rye, wheat, oats, malt and barley) to feed the population. This was to be done by setting a price for each crop, below which grain could not be imported – thus guaranteeing a return on agricultural investment to landowners, and ensuring there were sufficient incentives for domestic production. Underlying that ambition was not just the pressure of the landowners, who called for much higher prices, but also a concern about the need for self-sufficiency in time of war – a serious issue during Napoleon’s blockade of Britain. Also, heavy imports of grain were a drain on gold reserves and threatened the government’s attempts to stabilise the economy and reduce rates of taxation and debt. The 1815 Act allowed overseas grain to be paid for and stored in British warehouses as a way of trying to curtail fluctuations in price. While there was government sympathy with removing the Corn Laws and leaving the price to the international market, high levels of rural distress (resulting from bad harvests and the exhaustion of poor land brought into cultivation to meet demand) gave additional reasons to make concessions to the agricultural sector – even at the cost of higher food prices for all. In the 1822 Act, Lord Liverpool allowed an increase in the price at which imports could be allowed, but also added a clause that allowed the government to let cheaper grain in or to release wheat from warehouses, when prices started to rise, so that the effective price remained lower than landowners demanded. In the second half of the 1820s, unrest in manufacturing towns was increasingly driven not by machinery, but by high food prices, leading to further agitation against the Corn Laws. In a series of changes in government, plans for a reformed Corn Law went through a number of iterations, with these settling on a sliding tariff that responded to domestic prices. Effectively, these measures sought a way of ensuring the food supply while protecting domestic production, with increasing tensions between the landowning classes and liberal Tories who supported free trade. It was increasingly clear to government that domestic production would never be adequate, and that meant that they had strong reasons to make Britain an attractive market for foreign production. There was a preference for colonial production, but government also looked to avoid stimulating a retreat from production in its customary European provisioners.

The Corn Laws chart a succession of conflicts within British Society – between town and country, rich and poor, landowner and labourer – all revolving around questions of the adequacy of supply, the price of provision, the incentives for production, and the extent of self-sufficiency that was really practical. It engaged the new political economy of Thomas Malthus and Ricardo on the side of the free market, against a protectionist policy promoted by Whigs who were keen to retain (although they eventually lost) the support of the landowners. Also, the issue rose and fell both with respect to good and bad harvests, but also with respect to the fortunes of the manufacturing districts; when manufacturing areas faced downturns conflicts focused sharply on the price of provisions and their artificial inflation.

In 1839 a national Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester, generating 225 affiliated associations by 1845. Led by Richard Cobden (a merchant) and John Bright (a manufacturer), it produced a press onslaught on the policy and, indeed, an entire ‘theatre’ of opposition activity, which coupled protest and entertainment. The movement also strongly identified free trade with peace, giving it a sense of moral crusade. When Melbourne tried substantially to reduce duties in 1841, his administration was defeated and the conservatives won a sizable majority at the election that followed. The subsequent Peel administration – seeing reform as inevitable and necessary – reduced tariffs and in 1845 sought to suspend the Corn Laws, which led his supporters to force him to resign. When Russell (also a reformer) was unable to form a government, Peel returned to office and forced through the legislation with support from Liberals and Radicals. The 1846 Act introduced dramatically lower duties and, crucially, stipulated that from 1849 all special duties were to cease, and all foreign corn to be admitted at a duty of 1s. per quarter, and all foreign meal and flour at a duty of 4½d. per cwt.—the same nominal duties conceded to grain and flour produced by British territories abroad from 1846. The argument was over.