John Bright (1811-1889), British statesman, was born at Rochdale on the 16th of November 1811. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much-respected Quaker, who had started a cottonmill at Rochdale in 1809. The family had reached Lancashire by two migrations. Abraham Bright was a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, removed to Coventry, where his descendants remained, and where, in 1775, Jacob Bright was born. Jacob Bright was educated at the Ackworth school of the Society of Friends, and was apprenticed to a fustian manufacturer at New Mills. He married his employer's daughter, and settled with his two brothers-in-law at Rochdale in 1802, going into business for himself seven years later. His first wife died without children, and in 1809 he married Martha Wood, daughter of a tradesman of Bolton-le-Moors. She had been educated at Ackworth school, and was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John Bright was the second, but the death of his elder brother in childhood made him the eldest son.
He was a delicate child, and was sent as a day-scholar to a boarding-school near his home, kept by Mr William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth school, two years at a school at York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year he entered his father's mill, and in due time became a partner in the business. Two agitations were then going on in Rochdale - the first (in which Jacob Bright was a leader) in opposition to a local church-rate, and the second for parliamentary reform, by which Rochdale successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. In both these movements John Bright took part. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Society of Friends. His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Lord Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by "Orator" Hunt. But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that he first learned public speaking.
These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open-air meetings. In Mrs John Mills's life of her husband is an account of John Bright's first extempore speech. It was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address. On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory. In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration.
Bright took the advice, and acted on it all his life.
This "first lesson in public speaking," as Bright called it, was given in his twenty-first year, but he had not then contemplated entering on a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, and always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town. He was one of the founders of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the East, gave the society a lecture on his travels. He first met Richard Cobden in 1836 or 1837. Cobden was an alderman of the newly formed Manchester corporation, and Bright went to ask him to speak at an education meeting in Rochdale. "I found him," said Bright, "in his office in Mosley Street, introduced myself to him, and told him what I wanted." Cobden consented, and at the meeting was much struck by Bright's short speech, and urged him to speak against the Corn Laws. His first speech on the Corn Laws was made at Rochdale in 1838, and in the same year he joined the Manchester provisional committee which in 1839 founded the Anti-Corn Law League He was still only the local public man, taking part in all public movements, especially in opposition to John Feilden's proposed factory legislation, and to the Rochdale church-rate. In 1839 he built the house which he called "One Ash," and married Elizabeth, daughter of Jonathan Priestman of Newcastle-on-Tyne. In November of the same year there was a dinner at Bolton to Abraham Paulton, who had just returned from a successful Anti-Corn Law tour in Scotland. Among the speakers were Cobden and Bright, and the dinner is memorable as the first occasion on which the two future leaders appeared together on a Free Trade platform.
Bright is described by the historian of the League as "a young man then appearing for the first time in any meeting out of his own town, and giving evidence, by his energy and by his grasp of the subject, of his capacity soon to take a leading part in the great agitation." But his call had not yet come. In 1840 he led a movement against the Rochdale church-rate, speaking from a tombstone in the churchyard, where it looks down on the town in the valley below. A very happy married life at home contented him, and at the opening of the Free Trade hall in January 1840 he sat with the Rochdale deputation, undistinguished in the body of the meeting. A daughter, Helen, was born to him; but his young wife, after a long illness, died of consumption in September 1841. Three days after her death at Leamington, Cobden called to see him. "I was in the depths of grief," said Bright, when unveiling the statue of his friend at Bradford in 1877, "I might almost say of despair, for the life and sunshine of my house had been extinguished." Cobden spoke some words of condolence, but after a time he looked up and said, 'There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger.