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.
The pulling down of the statue of the Bristol slave-trader/philanthropist (yes, he was both), Edward Colston, and its unceremonious dumping in the harbour has opened up many questions, and, whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular act, it has highlighted the city’s deep involvement in the slave trade. This was revealed some years ago when, in the wake of the film ’12 Years a Slave’, the Observer published a timely article about Britain’s economic ties to the slave trade and slavery. The article focuses on Bristol in particular, where the historian Madge Dresser has done such valuable work, and one of the families it names is that of John Pinney. What isn’t so well-known is the link between the Pinney and Wilberforce families. This precipitated a particularly traumatic family crisis in 1827, which I set out in detail in chapter 14 of my Wilberforce: Family and Friends.
By the late 1820s William and Barbara Wilberforce were spending a considerable amount of time in Bath. They went there for his health, but for Barbara it was also a pleasant opportunity to revive memories of her girlhood. She and her husband had met there in the spring of 1797 and had married within six weeks of their meeting. On their trips to Bath the couple were accompanied by their only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1801. Elizabeth was a lively, intelligent girl, but she often experienced poor health and was prone to depression, which might have been an unconscious reaction to her constrained life-style. While the lives of her four brothers were expanding, hers seemed to be going nowhere.
In Bath, the Wilberforces became friendly with two widowed sisters, Elizabeth Baillie and Mary Ames. Mary Ames had married into a well-known Bristol banking family, and her late husband had been a partner with her younger brother Charles Pinney in the firm of Pinney, Ames & Co. The sisters occupied themselves with good works and seemed an exemplary pair to the Wilberforces.
Who was Charles Pinney? He was the third son of the Bristol merchant, John Pinney, who was the owner of a substantial slave estate in Nevis. Charles had been born in 1793 in the house in Great George Street now open to the public as the Georgian House. He had inherited his father’s business skills and when John Pinney died in 1818 he inherited the Bristol house, the Nevis property – and the slaves. Some time in the mid-1820s he met the Wilberforces probably through their common friend, John Scandrett Harford, the owner of the nearby Blaise Castle.
In April 1827, while the Wilberforces were lodging at no 3 Queen Square Wilberforce was approached by Pinney, who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. With what seems like astonishing naivety, Wilberforce responded sympathetically. In his letter to Pinney he discussed the possible marriage settlement but made no mention of his prospective son-in-law’s substantial interests in the West Indies or in the fact that he was also involved in granting mortgages to planters in need of funds. This was worse even than being a slave-holder living on his own plantation, as he was involved in slavery at a distance and had no control over the working conditions of the slaves.
The day after Wilberforce in effect agreed to the marriage, he received a blistering letter from his fiery abolitionist brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf) which distressed him so much that he became ill. Suddenly the marriage did not seem such a good idea. Barbara suggested that the family travel to Rothley Temple in Leicestershire to consult the family oracle, the evangelical landowner, Thomas Babington. A week later they set off. Of course in theory the choice rested with Elizabeth, who, at the age of 26 had the legal right to make her own decision. But what could she do? After listening to Babington, Elizabeth broke off the relationship. As her mother put it in an apologetic letter to Mary Ames, she could not destroy her father’s peace of mind. Wilberforce noted with relief in his diary that she did not seem too troubled by her decision, but the next day he had to report that she had been confined to her room all day with a headache. The crisis was over – but not without its casualties. Elizabeth’s thoughts on the subject have not survived, but it must have been an extremely distressing time for her. Her brother, Robert, compared her ending of her engagement to Aeneas’s sacrifice of Dido – perhaps not a comparison that would have occurred to Elizabeth herself.
In a somewhat petulant and ungracious letter, Charles Pinney accepted that the engagement was over. However, he continued to see himself as a wronged man. Madge Dresser suggests that his courtship of Elizabeth was self-interested, as he was a member of the West India Association, which was in the midst of conducting a transatlantic campaign to undermine the emancipation programme. In the general election of 1830 he was to help defeat the anti-slavery candidate, Edward Protheroe. In the following year he became mayor of Bristol and married the daughter of a Wiltshire landowner. This proved a bad year for him, as he lost control of the city during the Bristol riots and was tried (and acquitted) for neglect of duty. When slavery was abolished in 1834 he claimed about £36,000 as his share of compensation.
There was no happy ending for Elizabeth. Following the example of her godmother, Hannah More, she immersed herself in philanthropy, visiting the cottages of poor people and possibly undermining her own health in the process. In January 1831 she married a clergyman, the Rev John James of Lydney, and went to live in his poor Yorkshire mining parish at Rawmarsh. By this time she was already suffering from a hacking cough. In October she gave birth to a baby daughter, Barbara. She then went rapidly downhill and died in the Isle of Wight in March 1832.
The sad story of Elizabeth’s abortive courtship tells us a number of things. It shows us Wilberforce’s declining mental powers – he was to die six years later – that led him to take his eye off the ball and sanction a marriage that would have disgraced him in the anti-slavery community. It also shows the close links between abolitionists and the slave-holding community. In the tight-knit society of late-Georgian Britain it was not possible for these two communities to live discrete lives apart from each other. They were bound to come into contact socially and to get on with each other as best they could.
Princess Charlotte Augusta
The news of the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge was 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 her younger brother, Prince Louis. The birth 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. For the latest biography of Charlotte, see Anne Stott, The Lost Queen. The Life and Tragedy of the Prince Regent’s Daughter, published by Pen&Sword (2020).
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
In a previous post I wrote about the links between the Clapham sect and the Brontës, partly inspired by my reading of Claire Harman’s biography. Her earlier biography of Fanny Burney opens up a new connection.
In the summer of 1812 Fanny Burney, or Madame d’Arblay as she was known following her marriage in 1793 to a French émigré, was back in England, having been immured in France since the resumption of hostilities in the spring of 1803. She had made the journey furtively with her son Alex, leaving her husband behind, and she was exhausted and disorientated. In the previous year she had undergone a gruesome mastectomy, and she was still recovering from the trauma of the lengthy and probing operation she had endured, of course without anaesthetics. After an absence of ten years, she found England a strange country – even the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar had come as a shock. She needed a holiday, and she went to stay with her brother Charles at Sandgate in Kent. It was there that she met Wilberforce. Continue reading
Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers cited are from my book. For copyright reasons I am unable to quote directly from the Wilberforce MS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, but the quotations are to be found in the book, fully referenced.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne is the latest Conservative to claim the credit of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery for his party. This is repeated so often than it is almost becoming an established ‘fact’. The reality is that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by a coalition government, and slavery itself was abolished in 1833 by a Whig administration. Alongside this false claim goes the assumption that William Wilberforce was a Tory. I am going to suggest here that this is a problematic identification that risks misunderstanding both the man and the politics of his age.
For most of the eighteenth century the Tory label had disreputable overtones because of its association with Stuart absolutism and treasonable Jacobitism, and as a result, by 1800, all but ‘a very few self-conscious Neanderthals…thought of themselves as Whigs’. (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1867, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 195). This was the position when Wilberforce entered parliament as member for Hull in 1780 and when he was elected MP for Yorkshire in 1784. As a young member, he was determined, as he later told his sons, to attach himself to no party, but to be independent. This meant that, though he was firmly opposed to the American War, he did not align himself with the radical opposition, who were already appropriating and redefining the name ‘Whig’. However, though he refused to adopt a party label, he was in practice, part of the set of ambitious young men that gathered round William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and in 1785 he broke off a holiday in order to return to Westminster to vote for Pitt’s modest (and unsuccessful) bill for parliamentary reform. Pitt has been retrospectively seen as a Tory, though he always thought of himself as a Whig: the point being that party labelling was fluid and imprecise in this period. Continue reading
Claire Harman’s excellent biography is one of the standard accounts of the life of Charlotte Brontê. You can read a good review here. However, though the book opens up many new insights into Charlotte Brontë, her treatment of religion is sketchy and sometimes a little misleading. This has drawn me back to Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ground-breaking Life of Charlotte Brontë (Penguin edition 1975), and to my own researches on the Clapham Sect.
In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë memorably satirises the dark side of Evangelicalism – the Revd. Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocritical tyranny and the ghoulish religious tracts designed to terrify children into submission to a baleful and vindictive god. Her portrayal of another Evangelical clergyman, St John Rivers, is more nuanced – unlike Brocklehurst he is a good man – but we are left in no doubt that Jane was right to reject his harsh Calvinism and his cold determination to mould her into his own creature – today we might call this a form of grooming.
I here trace three connections between the Brontë family and the Clapham Sect. Continue reading
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. 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