Born in Sussex in 1804, the fourth of 11 children of a small farmer, he spent his early life in extreme poverty and when his father was forced to sell the farm, he ended up for five years in a bleak, Dickensian-style Yorkshire school.
Cobden, however, was clearly cut out for great things. He joined his uncle's London warehouse at 15, prospered as a clerk and then commercial traveller, and within nine years managed to set up in the calico business with two friends, between them investing £1,000.
By 1831, they were printing their own calicoes in Lancashire and a year later Cobden came North to settle in Manchester himself.
By 1836, the original investment was worth £80,000 and Cobden was already indulging his desire to travel. Between 1833 and 1837 he toured widely in Europe, Russia, America and Egypt, and what he saw prompted him to warn in print of the growing economic power of the United States. His pamphlet England, Ireland and America also advocated free trade.
In 1837 he failed in his bid to become MP for Stockport, but the same year joined Manchester Chamber of Commerce and supported the movement that led to the city achieving an elected council. The following year he was elected an alderman and, with Archibald Prentice, started a Manchester branch of the newly-formed Anti-Corn Law Association.
By 1839 Cobden had formed a new, national Anti-Corn Law League and the campaign that followed was, as Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel acknowledged, influential in the eventual repeal
He suffered a childhood of poverty, and became a campaigner for free trade.
However, in concentrating on the campaign he had neglected his business and he was now deeply in debt.He was rescued by friends who raised a large subscription for him and he used the money to buy the farmhouse where he was born.
To recover his health he began travelling again, and in his absence he was elected MP for both Stockport and the West Riding - he chose the Yorkshire constituency when he returned.
His popularity faded when he opposed the Crimean War and he lost the 1857 General Election. Two years later he had been forgiven and was elected MP for Rochdale but he refused a post in Palmerston's government on principle.
Cobden had long been an advocate of free trade, believing it was vital if the major powers were to avoid war, and at the request of Chancellor William Gladstone he brokered a trade treaty with France.
He was passionate in favour of the North in the American Civil War, but did not live to see the Union victory, dying of bronchitis in April, 1865. He is buried at Lavington, Sussex.