My book, Wilberforce: Family and Friends (Oxford University Press), was published on 15 March, 2012. The purpose of this blog is to provide updates, along with additional resources, corrections, and links to critical reviews. I will also be posting on other subjects relevant to the period. The book is now available at Amazon.com, AmazonUK and at Oxford University Press. I can be contacted on Twitter at @annemstott.
An article by the Cambridge historian, Amy Erickson [‘Mistress and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal (September 2014)] casts interesting light on the evolution of the terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, both of them derived from ‘Mistress’. Dr Erickson points out that until the eighteenth century neither term was an indication of marital status. ‘Miss’ was only applied to girls, never to adult women, and upon adulthood a ‘Miss’ became a ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status. A ‘Mrs’ was a woman of some status who possessed capital, whether economic or social. However, during the nineteenth century the term ‘Mrs’ became (with a few exceptions) one that solely designated a married woman. Thus the unmarried bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was invariably known as ‘Mrs’ whereas her younger (also unmarried) contemporary Hannah More was described as ‘Miss’. Within a generation the usage had changed.
Erickson goes on to argue that at the end of the eighteenth century a married woman lost her identity and was only known by her husband’s name,a designation that has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ style. The earliest example she has found is the dreadful Mrs John Dashwood (née Fanny Ferrars) in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen fans will also be aware of a slightly later example: that of Emma Woodhouse’s sister, Isabella, who has married George Knightley’s brother and has thus become ‘Mrs John Knightley’.
A study of the usage of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ among the women of the Clapham Sect does not invalidate Erickson’s argument, but it slightly challenges the chronology. In March 1796 the Yorkshire merchant’s daughter, Marianne Sykes, married the Claphamite Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s second cousin. A year later, when she was due to give birth, Hannah More wrote to Wilberforce that she was ‘anxiously watching every post in hopes it will bring me word that Mrs H. Thornton’s trial is safely over’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Oxford, 2012, p. 86) This suggests that the ‘Mrs Man’ designation was in force as early as 1797 and was common enough to be used without comment.
There were three Thornton brothers living around Clapham Common. Elizabeth was the wife of Samuel, the eldest of the brothers, a governor of the Bank of England. The Bank possesses a painting entitled Mrs Samuel Thornton Presenting Colours to the Bank Volunteers at Marylebone Cricket Club, depicting an event that took place in September 1799. As has been shown, her sister-in-law, Marianne, was Mrs Henry Thornton, and her other sister-in-law, Maria, the wife of Robert Thornton was Mrs Robert Thornton. Her nieces and nephews called her ‘Aunt Robert’. (My copyeditor was so startled by this that he asked me if I had made a mistake – yet it is a usage that should be familiar to readers of Victorian novels! It persisted into the twentieth century. I remember an elderly Quaker telling me that an aunt by marriage was always known as ‘Aunt George Stacey’. )
When Barbara Spooner married William Wilberforce in 1797 she did not become ‘Mrs William Wilberforce’ but ‘Mrs Wilberforce’ because her husband did not have a father or an elder bother. However, when their son, William Wilberforce junior, married Mary Owen in 1820, she became ‘Mrs William Wilberforce’. Rather than regarding this as a loss of identity, she seems to have felt that the name gave her enhanced status. In a rather catty letter to Hannah More, Marianne Thornton the younger wrote that she had greatly improved and gained
‘freedom from all the nonsense wh. the first dazzling effect of becoming Mrs William Wilberforce had upon her manner’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce, p. 220)
In discussing Hannah More, Erickson notes that she only ever published under her name alone or as Miss Hannah More, but that nineteenth-century engravings of her portrait are titled ‘Mrs Hannah More’. This implies that it was a posthumous nomenclature. In fact, however, she seems to have been referred to as ‘Mrs’ from about the year 1800, when she was fifty-five. The scurrilous publications at the time of the Blagdon Controversy, published in 1801 and 1802, have titles like The Controversy between Mrs Hannah More and the Curate of Blagdon. The younger Marianne Thornton addressed her in her letters as ‘my dearest Mrs H. M.’ She was therefore designated as ‘Mrs’ in her own lifetime, a mark perhaps of the high status she had achieved, even at a time when the term was using its original connotation.
The Clapham Sect therefore, followed contemporary usage when referring to women. If there were some confusions and inconsistencies, these simply reflect the changes taking place as terms that had previously reflected a woman’s position in society were coming to denote her marital status.
Princess Charlotte Augusta
The news of the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge has been widely welcomed, especially by those of us who particularly wanted a girl. This little girl will be the first princess born under the revised rules which mean that she will not lose her place in the succession to a younger brother (should she have one). The birth has also aroused interest in former Princess Charlottes, most notably Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, later still, George IV) and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. They were probably the most unsuited couple in the whole long, and frequently troubled history of royal marriages, and Charlotte was the unfortunate product of this misalliance. For her short and troubled life see here, and here, and here.
From the start the child was the focus of intense interest, particularly when the irrevocable breakdown of her parents’ marriage became public knowledge. This meant that unless the prince was able to divorce his wayward wife and marry again, there would be no more legitimate children, no son to displace Charlotte. From an early age therefore, the heiress presumptive to the throne was seen as a future queen.
Hannah More and the Princess
Perhaps Hannah More had Charlotte’s likely future in mind as early as the spring of 1799 when she and her friend, Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, called on the three-year-old princess, who was then in the care of her governess, Lady Elgin, at Carlton House, the London home of the Prince of Wales. Hannah More, who was always fond of children, was enchanted by the child. Charlotte, she wrote,
‘had great delight in opening drawers, uncovering the furniture, curtains, lustres &c to show me…For the Bishop of London’e entertainment and mine, the Princess was made to exhibit all her learning and accomplishments…Her understanding is so forward that they really might begin to teach her many things. It is perhaps the highest praise to say that she is exactly like the child of a private gentleman, wild and natural, but sensible, lively, and civil.’ (William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs Hannah More, 2nd end. 1834, p. 105.)
Five years later the picture had darkened, and the royal family was locked into a dispute about Charlotte’s education. Her grandfather, George III was insisting that her education ‘cannot be that of a female, but she, being the presumptive heir of the Crown must have one of a more extended nature’. He proposed that she should live at Windsor with him rather than with her father. But to complicate matters, 1804 was the year in which the king experienced his third attack of madness, and, even without this disaster, his relationship with his son was poisonous. Charlotte’s father and grandfather were therefore locked into a dispute about her education. The dispute was resolved at the end of the year when it was agreed that Charlotte should spend half the year at Windsor with her grandfather, and the other half at Warwick House in London, a rather gloomy building that adjoined Carlton House. The great casualty of this arrangement was Lady Elgin, who was replaced by the more assertive Lady de Clifford, and poor Charlotte was deprived of the woman who had been her substitute mother. The Bishop of Exeter, John Fisher, was appointed preceptor, with overall responsibility for Charlotte’s education. Continue reading
As the Scottish referendum draws near it’s worth looking at the Clapham Sect within a British, and particularly Scottish, context.
The Union of Parliaments of 1707 had created the United Kingdom. Scottish MPs now sat in the British parliament. Following this, as Linda Colley has shown, there was a conscious attempt to create a British identity, seen, for example in the creation of the British Museum and in the words of Rule Britannia’, written by the Scotsman, James Thomson. Some Scots took the opportunities opened up by the Union make their fortunes in the Empire, others to practise at the English bar. The most celebrated of these lawyers was the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who in 1772 gave the important anti-slavery ruling in the famous Somerset case.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Union, the eighteenth century saw a flowering of Scottish cultural life. The Scottish Enlightenment was a movement of European importance and had a huge influence on abolitionist thought. Teston, in Kent, described by Hannah More as ‘the Runneymede of the negroes’ was the home of the Scots Member of Parliament and naval administrator, Sir Charles Middleton. He appointed as rector another Scotsman, James Ramsay, whose ground-breaking accounts of the treatment of slaves in the West Indies drew attention for the first time to the human cost of cheap sugar. In his books Ramsay took issue with his fellow Scotsman, David Hume, on the intellectual capacity and the cultural achievements of Africans, exposing in a devastating fashion the racism that lay behind so much Enlightenment thought. In his great abolitionist speech of 1789 Wilberforce built on Ramsay’s arguments and introduced Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator, imagining him observing the treatment of the slaves on the terrible Middle Passage and judging it accordingly. Continue reading
Today – 29 August – marks the anniversary of the birth of John Locke, who was born at Wrington in Somerset in 1632. The village is rightly proud of this connection.
The members of the Clapham Sect were profoundly influenced by the dominant intellectual trends of the British Enlightenment. I have already written about how Wilberforce’s reading of Adam Smith and the other thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment formed the basis of many of his arguments for abolition. It is equally important to recognise that Locke’s philosophical views helped form the Claphamites’ views on education.
Of all Wilberforce’s friends, Hannah More was the greatest enthusiast for Locke, whom she described in her conduct book Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) as ‘the great Author'; he needed no other introduction. When she moved to Wrington in 1786 she was delighted to be living in his birthplace. She told Horace Walpole,
‘He did not intend to have been born here, but his mother was on a visit when she produced this bright idea, and so bequeathed me something to boast of.’
Like so many other propertied people in late Georgian Britain, the members of the Clapham Sect made seaside holidays a high priority. Where George III set the fashion, with his annual holidays at Weymouth, polite society followed suit. The medical authorities, still in the grip of the ancient miasma theory (as they would be until far into the nineteenth century) extolled the blessings of sea air and sea bathing. That is why Thomas Babington took his wife, Jean, to the pretty Devon resort of Sidmouth in 1796. She had been ill and it was thought that the mild, relaxing air would improve her health. His brother-in-law, Zachary Macaulay, came to prefer the more bracing air of Broadstairs in Kent. William Wilberforce was such a strong believer in the health-giving benefits of fresh air that in September 1807 he arranged for his wife, Barbara, to go to Brighton for her confinement, and he was convinced that the sea breezes eased her childbirth and speeded her recovery. (Normally he held this louche resort, popularised by the Prince of Wales and his set, in deep suspicion.) Continue reading
There is a strange scene in the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace, in which Wilberforce, ground down by the apparent hopelessness of his cause, is considering giving up the battle for the abolition of the slave trade. However, he is held to his campaign by the encouragement of his wife who talks him out of his depression, promising that their next child will be a daughter, and that they will call her Emma. This is peculiar in two ways. Firstly, to the best of our knowledge, Barbara Wilberforce was no particular enthusiast for abolition; she had married the man, not his cause and would probably not have been sorry if he had retreated into private life. Secondly, the Wilberforces were very conventional in the naming of their children. ‘Emma’ was not a family name and it is most unlikely that they would have given it to one of their daughters.
These are the children of William and Barbara Ann Wilberforce:
William (named after his father)
Barbara (named after her mother)
Elizabeth (named after her paternal grandmother)
Robert Isaac (named after his two grandfathers, Robert Wilberforce and Isaac Spooner)
Samuel (the future ‘Soapy Sam’, bishop of Oxford; named after Samuel Thornton, the banker and Member of Parliament and Wilberforce’s second cousin)
Henry (named after Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton’s younger brother)
If they had had another daughter, it is a reasonable guess that they would have followed convention and named her Sarah, after Wilberforce’s beloved sister. If another daughter had followed, she would have probably been named Ann; it was Barbara’s second name, as well as being the name of her sister, and of a little sister of Wilberforce’s, who had died in childhood and to whom he had been deeply attached. Continue reading
The London Times of Saturday 7 July has a two-page spread inspired by the story of Dido Belle the mixed-race niece of the eminent judge, Lord Mansfield, portrayed here next to her cousin, Elizabeth. The piece is by Paula Byrne, whose book, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, forms the basis of the rather pedestrian and frequently inaccurate film based on her life. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Byrne’s book, but it is clear that she has told an important and hitherto little-known story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to life.
There are a couple of small inaccuracies in the Times piece. Wilberforce’s friend, Lady Middleton, who is said to have been one of those who inspired him to take up the cause of abolition, is wrongly described as Lady Margaret Middleton. That would make her the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, rather than the wife of a knight (her husband was the MP, Sir Charles Middleton), and would make her rather grander socially than she actually was. These distinctions are important for understanding late-eighteenth-century society. Without grasping them we cannot, for example, understand the nuances of Jane Austen’s novels.
The second concerns Wilberforce directly. As I report in my book (pp. 199-201) on 2 April 1792 he spoke in Parliament about the plight on a slave ship of
a young girl of fifteen, of extreme modesty, who finding herself in a situation incident to her sex, was extremely anxious to conceal it.
But the ship’s captain, courageously named by Wilberforce as John Kimber, beat her, tied her up by the legs, then beat her again. The tortures continued until she died. This shocking narrative inspired Isaac Cruikshank to produce a grotesque and semi-pornographic caricature, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade’. For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce it here, but it can easily be found through a google search.
Byrne describes this unnamed young woman as pregnant, and writes that it was her courageous refusal to dance that cost her her life. Yet a careful look at Wilberforce’s exact words suggests that she was menstruating and embarrassed about her condition. He would not have balked at the word’ pregnant’ but would have felt very constrained in talking about menstruation to an all-male House of Commons. The point of the story is, of course, its savage cruelty and its poignancy lies in the fact that this young girl remains nameless, so perhaps the exact nature of her condition doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we owe it to her to be as accurate as possible. Deprived of dignity on that terrible ship, she deserves an account of her death that is as truthful as possible.
There is an interesting take on the film here. The article notes a couple of distortions in the film and pays proper tribute to the veteran abolitionist, Granville Sharp, a man Wilberforce revered greatly.