“The Father and Mother of Cobden”                    

William Cobden 1775-1833                                Millicent Amber 1775-1825                                  Paternal great-great grandparents of Valdis Muriel Skidmore


William Cobden was born at Heyshott near Midhurst, Sussex in the old farmhouse Dunford. His father Richard Cobden (1737-1809) was a farmer and maltster (aka “Maltster Cobden”) who also owned Bex Mill in Heyshott and held the position of bailiff and chief magistrate at Midhurst. William’s mother was Sarah Lane (b. 1740 in Pullborough, Sussex and died before 1809). William had three older sisters, one older brother and one younger sister. There were places in Midhurst called Cobden’s Lane and Cobden’s Farm, the family being farmers there since before the Norman Conquest.

Heyshott, West Sussex taken from Heyshott Down.                           Source: westsussex.info

Marriage to Millicent

On July 24th 1798 William married Millicent Amber at St. Thomas’ Church Portsmouth. Millicent was the third of twelve children of John Amber (b.1752) and Mary Pullen (b.c1747). John was a leather dresser from Midhurst and he married Mary in Midhurst in 1773.

William and Millicent produced eleven children: Frederick (1799); Emma (1800-36); Millicent (1802); Richard* (1804-1865), became a successful manufacturer, M.P. , leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, proponent of free-trade and international peace; Jane (1806); Charles (1808); Priscilla (1809); Miles (1812); Henry Andrews (1813-58 who emigrated to Australia); Mary (1815); and Sarah (1817).

Move to West Meon

Unlike his father, William was not a gifted businessman and when he took over Dunford farm after his father’s death in 1809 economic conditions for agriculture were not favourable. Consequently the farm failed, he sold the property and moved to a smaller farm at nearby Gullard’s Oak. Conditions  did not improve and by 1814,  after several more moves, the family finally settled at West Meon in Hampshire as tenants of Mary Ann and George Vining Rogers. The Cobden family had experienced much poverty over this time.

A famous son

It is due to the achievements of their son Richard that we know anything about William and Millicent Cobden. Richard wrote many letters to his family that have been preserved. Richard was also able to buy back the Dunford property and build the large house that is still there today (now a conference centre). Richard’s manufacturing success was in Manchester and it is in that city’s library where we can find the two portraits (above left), one of William and the other of Millicent, painted in 1814 (artist unknown). There are also portraits of Richard and pictures of Dunford House in the collection.

The biographer of Richard Cobden, John Morley, in 1881 described William Cobden as:

“ a man of soft and affectionate disposition, but without the energy of affairs. He was the gentlest and kindest of men. He was cheated without suspecting it, and he had not the force of character enough to redeem a fortune which gradually slipped away from him.”

But Morley describes Millicent Cobden as “endowed with native sense, shrewdness and force of mind.” As she predeceased William by 8 years, he would have missed her support in his later years. On the 20th of July 1824, the year preceding Millicent’s death, Richard writes to his sister Emma in West Meon. In the letter he refers to his mother:

“Tell Father that Mother is now looking well and since Fred is arrived she begins to fatten as she has nothing on her mind to distress her and especially as you are doing better now she is away than when she was at home – she cannot think of returning to disturb your prosperity…”

West Meon memorial

Millicent Cobden died at the age of 50 on July 19th 1825. In Morley’s “The Life of Richard Cobden”, he states that Millicent had been looking after a neighbour’s child who was ill with typhoid and had contracted the fatal disease herself. William Cobden died aged 58 on June 15th 1833. They are both buried in the churchyard at West Meon, their burials commemorated with decorative headstones. In Arthur Mee’s “The King’s England” (1939) he entitles his essay on West Meon “The Father and Mother of Cobden”. In it he writes:

“…the churchyard hides in the grass three** headstones bearing well known names. On two of the stones, standing side by side and made beautiful with decoration, are the names of William and Millicent Cobden.

These two peaceful sleepers had a son whom they christened Richard, born to them when living in Sussex in 1804 in the old home at Heyshott…”

(In the same essay the Cobden’s landlord, George Vining Rogers, is mentioned.)

The Hampshire Chronicle of July 25th 1825 writes:

“On Tuesday died, at Westmeon, Mrs. Cobden, wife of Mr. William Cobden, of that place. Mrs. Cobden had superintended a respectable drapery and millinery business for many years past, and was highly respected by all who knew her. Her remains were interred yesterday evening, attended by a numerous offspring of eleven children, who had been brought up almost entirely by her meritorious and anxious perseverance."

St John the Evangelist Churchyard at West Meon where William and Millicent Cobden are buried.                                                                                                      Source: picable.com

An “infamous” son

William and Millicent’s youngest son Henry Andrews Cobden was the cause of some family scandal. Henry and Frances Baddeley had a son out of wedlock who was brought up by Frances’ parents. Henry and Frances married at St. Pancras, London in 1839 and migrated to Australia. His brother Richard wrote, in a letter to a friend:

“My brother Henry has clandestinely gone to South Australia and taken a wife with him from a very low and disreputable station - he has committed suicide morally forever - My conscience acquits me of blame, except that I did too much for him, and spent money in vain upon one so unworthy...”

Henry and Frances settled at Molong, New South Wales, had three sons and Henry earned a living as a storekeeper and innkeeper at Davy’s Plains. When he died in 1858, the eulogies reveal a well respected citizen, whatever his famous brother thought of him. The Moreton Bay Courier of September 18th 1858 writes:

“...he was respected for his intelligence, sound common sense, and liberality of spirit, and beloved for his generosity of disposition and goodness of heart.”

On hearing of his brother’s early death, Richard, back in England, showed pity on his three nephews in Australia (Frances had died two years earlier) and offered financial assistance for the eldest boy’s education.

* The town of Cobden in Western Victoria was named after him, and the town of Bright in Victoria after his close associate John Bright.

**The other headstone referred to was that of Thomas Lord, founder of Lord’s Cricket Ground

Click here to continue to Emma Cobden and John Blyth Rogers' story