The Bristol slavers and the Wilberforce link

Pinney house 006

Charles Pinney’s house in Great George Street, Bristol, now open to the public as ‘The Georgian House’

In the wake of the film ’12 Years a Slave’, the Observer has 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 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, she 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 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. At the age of 26 she 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.

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. In her excellent Slavery Obscured: The Social History of Slavery in an English Provincial Port (Continuum, 2001), 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.

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