William Wilberforce’s schooldays

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Hull Grammar School

This is my photograph of Hull Grammar School, where Wilberforce was educated from 1767 to 1768. The statue is of another old boy, the poet Andrew Marvell. Wilberforce began his schooling there at the age of seven. It was a short walk over the cobbles from his home on the High Street, and as he went home for lunch, he would have made this walk four times a day. It was a common custom in the north of England in the mid-eighteenth century for the sons of merchants and even of gentlemen to attend a local grammar school rather than be sent away from home. Young William was lucky in his father’s choice of school, as shortly after his arrival a new headmaster was appointed. This was Joseph Milner, recently down from Cambridge, and on his appointment he brought in his seventeen-year-old brother, Isaac, to be usher (assistant master). The Milner brothers were the sons of a Yorkshire weaver and their story provides a fascinating insight into eighteenth-century social mobility. Isaac went on to be Dean of Carlisle and President of Queens’ College, Cambridge. The brothers ensured that the school provided an excellent education for the boys. As well as the traditional Latin, they introduced Geography, Algebra, and English Grammar to the curriculum, and the adult Wilberforce was always grateful for the opportunities it provided. From the start he stood out among the other pupils, so much so that Isaac Milner put him on a table to read to the other boys; Milner later claimed that the had done this because of his pupil’s beautiful reading voice, but Wilberforce deflated this somewhat by stating that it was because he was so small.

With the death of his father, Robert, in 1768, Wilberforce left Hull Grammar School and went to live with his aunt and uncle, William and Sarah Wilberforce, at Wimbledon. Here, his schooling took a turn for the worse. He was sent away to an establishment run by a Mr Chalmers at Putney, later described by Wilberforce as ‘a most wretched little place’. The teaching was mediocre and the food unpleasant. It is surprising that the Wilberforces, who were a very wealthy couple, could not have found a more suitable school for their much-loved nephew, but they did not expect him to go to university, and they were providing him with the education they thought appropriate for a future merchant.

In 1771, just after his twelfth birthday, William was back in Hull. His horrified mother had discovered that the Wimbledon Wilberforces were Methodists, and she hastily removed him from them in order to rescue him from the ‘contagion’. As I argue in my book, the emotional effects on William were profound and long-lasting. He was not sent back to Hull Grammar School as Joseph Milner had also become infected with Methodism. Instead he was sent to a school in Pocklington (which still exists), run by the rather unfortunately named Kingsman Baskett, a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge. Three of his schoolboy essays survive from that period – these are discussed in the book. After his haphazard education at Cambridge, he worked hard enough to gain a place at St John’s, where he went up as a fellow-commoner in the autumn of 1776. The sociable young man was determined to enjoy himself and do as little work as possible.

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