Political victory by pair of underdogs lives on in Sarnia streets

Tom St. Amand

If, as author Philip Wylie suggests, “Our history is every human history,” then Sarnia’s street names provide a rich connection to the past.

Tom St. Amand

Take, for example, Cobden Street and Bright Street.

Richard Cobden and John Bright were not brilliant generals or members of royalty. Nor were they particularly affluent or powerful men.

But what these two free trade advocates accomplished together was significant: they took on British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in Victorian England and won, a feat that so impressed Malcolm Cameron, one of Sarnia’s founders, that he named two of Sarnia’s oldest streets after them.

And the victory that made these two reformers famous involved food—specifically the price of food.

Richard Cobden

In Sarnia today, food prices might make us groan and grumble, but in 19th century England purchasing the basics was for some a matter of life or death.

The unreasonably high cost of grain was reprehensible to Cobden and Bright and they laid the blame squarely on the government.

Since 1815, the British government had imposed Corn Laws, which were restrictions and tariffs on imported grain. The ripple effect was immediate. Since grain was very costly to import, the powerful British landowners could keep their grain prices high; consequently, the lower and middle classes either went hungry or spent what money they earned on food and nothing else.

Some who couldn’t afford the landowners’ prices starved to death.

The Corn Laws were, Cobden said, “morally wrong and economically disastrous.” Their mission was to get them repealed.

John Bright

The politically shrewd Richard Cobden was a brilliant organizer and strategist who established the Anti-Corn League in 1839. Founded with only seven members in Manchester, it eventually mushroomed into a national organization. In 1841, Cobden entered Parliament, thus allowing him to conduct his political campaign by mobilizing public opinion and by directly confronting Sir Robert Peel. He was the only man ever to beat Peel in debate in Parliament.

John Bright, a fellow MP who joined the movement at Cobden’s bidding, was an emotional speaker, considered by some to be the public voice of the Anti-Corn-Law League. He was a superb orator whose eloquence drew large crowds and whose impassioned words painted a grim picture of the poverty and the distress the Corn Laws created.

In parliament, their colleagues considered them “a lethal combination.”

When the potato crop failed in Ireland in 1845 and mass starvation ensued, Peel and his Conservative government reconsidered the wisdom of the Corn Laws. A year later, the government controversially repealed the tariffs. In parliament, Peel paid Cobden high praise, singling him out as the man who, above all others, should be associated with the government’s reversal.

After a seven-year struggle, the Anti-Corn Law League had won and Cobden and Bright secured their place in history.

And, in 1853, when Malcolm Cameron honoured the two reformers by giving us Cobden Street and Bright Street, they became part of Sarnia’s history.

Tom St. Amand is a retired high school teacher in Sarnia