The Bristol slavers and the Wilberforce link

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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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Wilberforce and the oppression of women

The New Statesman of 28 December 2013 poses an important question: ‘Why has there never been a successful prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK?’ This is not the only issue on which the law has been slow to act. Distressing cases have come to light of so-called ‘honour killings’ and forced marriages, where the authorities have been painfully dilatory. Even more horrific acts are taking place in the wider world. A teenager is shot and left for dead for campaigning for girls’ education. A child bride dies of internal injuries. Women are being stoned to death for adultery or for grotesquely trivial reasons. Yet until recently, misplaced cultural sensitivities have prevented the highlighting of these terrible events. Would Wilberforce have felt so constrained? The answer is a definite no. He was no feminist. There is no evidence that he had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and if he had, I’m sure the book would have horrified him. He accepted without question St Paul’s prescription that wives should obey their husbands and should not usurp authority over men. He was even opposed to too much female activism in the cause of anti-slavery, thinking it unfeminine for women to join Anti-Slavery Societies.

‘For ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.’ (quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, p. 226)

However, as I have argued in an earlier post, he went out of his way to ensure that his long-suffering daughter-in-law was protected from the extravagance of her profligate husband.

When it came to what we would call the developing world, Wilberforce was more enlightened and perceptive. In particular, he recognised the importance of the education of women in emerging economies. Writing about the former French colony of Haiti, he stated that he wished to press on its king

‘that the female sex is undervalued and ill-treated in all uncivilized countries; that they are the formers of the rising generation, and should therefore be treated for their high office’. (Stott, p. 202)

In my book I give two instances of Wilberforce’s indignation at two particularly gross examples of the ill-treatment of women. The first occurred in the parliamentary debate of 2 April 1792 when he told the Commons about a young slave girl who was being transported across the Atlantic on the terrible ‘middle passage’. The girl was menstruating and trying to conceal her condition, but when the captain discovered it, he beat her, tied her up by her leg and beat her again. (Isaac Cruikshank published a semi-pornographic caricature of this incident, which for copyright reasons I am unable to reproduce, but it can be viewed here.) She lost consciousness and died three days later. Pressed by a shocked House of Commons to name the guilty man, Wilberforce used the rules of parliamentary privilege to name Captain John Kimber. This was a courageous action on his part. Kimber was a thug and he threatened Wilberforce with extremely unpleasant consequences if he did not withdraw his accusation. For a while he was in real fear of his life, particularly after Kimber had been acquitted after a perfunctory trial before the High Court of the Admiralty. When Kimber paid him an unfriendly visit two years later, Wilberforce described him as ‘very savage looking’ (quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, p. 201).

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A depiction of a sati from the 1820s

The second occasion has perhaps more contemporary resonance. In 1813 Parliament was debating the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, and Wilberforce used this opportunity to insert a clause that would open up British India to missionary work. In his speech of 22 June he launched a virulent attack on Hinduism that reads shockingly in today’s more tolerant climate. A key part of the speech was an attack on sati (widow-burning). The practice had been in decline under the Muslim Mughal rulers, he argued, but it had increased in the area of the East India Company so that in a comparatively small area around Calcutta 130 widows had been burned within the space of six months. In the printed record of the debates he insisted on the insertion of a particularly gruesome account of a sati, in which a woman died in slow agony on a small fire, ‘her legs hanging out while her body was in flames’. It was strong stuff, hard to read even two hundred years later.

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Lord William Bentinck (1773-1839)

In 1829 the Governor-General of India, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, was to abolish sati, largely because of pressure from Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals. Lord William was the brother-in-law of one of his closest friends, Lady Olivia Sparrow, and he had joined the predominantly Evangelical Bible Society under the influence of his wife’s family. Wilberforce always followed his career with great interest. In February 1830, before the news of the abolition of sati had reached England, he wrote to Lady Olivia expressing the hope that the Governor had been able to abolish the ‘enormity’ of widow-burning, and rid India of a ‘foul Blot’ (British Library, Egerton MS 1964, fo. 137b). Through his campaigning and his personal connections, he had managed to bring about a change in the law, though of course this does not mean that the practice ceased.

In his dislike of so much female activism, Wilberforce revealed himself as a cultural conservative. (I will follow up the complexities of his position in a later blog.) But with his acute sense of female vulnerability, he believed that women needed the protection of Parliament, especially in the parts of the world he considered ‘uncivilized’.  His horrifying anecdotes of the abused slave girl and the burned widow leave little doubt that, confronted with the type of abuses occurring in our own day, he would have denounced them eloquently, and what is more, done everything within his power to eradicate them.

Profligate Sons: a tale of two Williams

I have just finished reading Nicola Phillips’ brilliant new book, The Profligate Son, a Georgian morality tale about a young man, William Jackson, and his decline into criminality. His extraordinary story includes spells in the notorious Newgate prison, trial for fraud, transportation to Australia, and finally death in his  thirties from alcoholic poisoning.  It is an utterly engrossing but also deeply depressing read. You can read a review here.

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Phillips rightly points out that a profligate son was every Georgian father’s nightmare. This was certainly the case with William Wilberforce, who fretted ceaselessly over his four sons, and in particular his eldest, William junior, born in 1798, making him seven years younger than William Jackson. From quite early on it was clear that the boy lacked the ability to concentrate and survived by his wits and by a certain superficial charm. Wilberforce was full of anxiety about his ‘volatility’, a word he applied to himself as well. His problem was that he recognised in his son what he saw as his own great faults – a tendency to idleness and an inability to concentrate. Because he believed that he had wasted his time at school and university, he was desperate for his son to overcome the character weaknesses he believed they both shared.

The two Williams had similar school experiences. Young Wilberforce was educated at home and then sent away to be educated by clergymen, a common practice at the time, well described by George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss.  In 1808 William Jackson was sent to a school run by the Revd. John Owen in Fulham. Owen was a noted Evangelical, a friend of Wilberforce’s, and the Secretary of the Bible Society that had been founded four years earlier. By an interesting coincidence, his daughter, Mary, was to marry Wilberforce junior in 1820. I have written about Mary here. The young couple had no money and relied on Wilberforce to help them out.

A year earlier Wilberforce had reluctantly withdrawn his son from Trinity College, Cambridge, on the grounds that he was doing no work and had got in with the wrong set. By this time William Jackson was in New South Wales, where he had been transported in 1814. His voyage was terrible but once in Australia he was (in my opinion) luckier than he deserved. The senior chaplain was a Revd. Samuel Marsden, like John Owen, a friend of Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce who had prevailed upon William Pitt the Younger to found a chaplaincy in New South Wales. In 1809 he had met Marsden on one of his visits to England, and he saw him as ‘a special instrument of Providence’. (R. I. and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1838) iii. 401) Knowing Marsden’s reputation for humanity, William Jackson hoped that the chaplain would be of use to him, but by this time the young man was beyond help. He continued his career of running up debts and swindling, and died in 1828 ‘alone on the street where he fell, a pathetic figure with no friends or family to comfort him or mourn his passing’ (Phillips, 270).

‘I have done with you forever’, an embittered elder Jackson had written to his son in 1813, in the last letter he ever wrote him. William Wilberforce was a much more affectionate father, and his relationship with his son was far less catastrophic, but it was a troubled one, nevertheless. In 1830 William’s dairy business collapsed. The elder Wilberforce had sunk a great deal of money into this unwise venture and his son’s financial failure meant that he and his long-suffering wife had to leave their new home at Highwood Hill in Middlesex. For the last two years he and Barbara had no fixed abode, and were forced to rely on the hospitality of their sons, Robert and Samuel. As for William junior – he and his wife left England for Geneva in order to avoid their creditors, a widely acknowledged, if not honourable practice, which Parliament tacitly condoned (Phillips, 83).

In 1833, shortly before his death, William Wilberforce drew up his will. Like the elder William Jackson, he was a firm believer in primogeniture, and did not disinherit his eldest son. But he was concerned to make special provision for William’s wife, Mary. She was to have an annuity of £500

‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce and without being in anywise subject to his debts, control, interference or engagements’ (Stott, 261).

This was the conventional legal wording, but behind the formulae lay a deep distrust of his son and an anxiety to protect his daughter-in-law from the worst effects of his extravagance.

Wilberforce junior returned to England in 1834, after his father’s death, and settled in Markington, the family’s home in Yorkshire. In the general election of 1841 he unsuccessfully contested first Taunton and then Bradford as a Tory. He continued to be an embarrassment to his brothers, who appealed, without success, to various leading politicians to give him a comfortable post – abroad! (See David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning, London: John Murray, 1966, 247). In 1851 the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay came across him on a walking holiday and found him ‘looking like the prince of all blackguards, as he is’ (quoted Stott, 268).  In 1863 he followed his brothers Robert and Henry in becoming a Roman Catholic.  He survived into a patriarchal old age, dying in 1879, a comfortably off, if not respected, Yorkshire gentleman. The Catholic chapel he had built in the grounds still survives.

If the elder William Wilberforce had known the terrible story of the Jacksons, he might have concluded that his eldest son was not so bad after all. However, it is clear from his diaries and letters that young William was a grievous disappointment to him and his wife. For all the great achievements of his distinguished life, he believed that in this, the most important area of all, he had failed.

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.

Wilberforce’s birthplace

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My photograph of Wilberforce’s birthplace, 25 High Street, Hull

Today – 25 August – is the anniversary of the birth of William Wilberforce in 1759. He was born at 25 High Street Hull (now an excellent museum) the son of a prosperous merchant, Robert Wilberforce, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bird, the daughter of a silk manufacturer. William was their third child, and first (and only) son. He had two elder sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah (Sally), and another sister, Ann, was to follow in 1768. Elizabeth and Ann both died in childhood. The two remaining siblings, Sally and William, remained extremely close, and Wilberforce was devastated when Sally died in 1816.

Wilberforce’s birthplace was a substantial seventeenth-century merchant’s house, built of red bricks in the Dutch style. It was a prime location at the heart of Hull’s commercial district. A narrow back garden ran down to the river Hull and to the family’s staith, a private wharf that was characteristic of the Hull mercantile community. Robert Wilberforce refurbished the interior, putting in a Venetian window and an elegant staircase, but the counting house was situated to the left of the main entrance. The house and its embellishments are excellent examples of the self-confidence of the Hull mercantile community, their aspirations to gentry status but also their lack of embarrassment about the sources of their wealth.

Wilberforce never forgot that he came of mercantile stock and was immensely proud when, in the general election of 1784, he was able to take on the local aristocrats and be elected Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, the largest constituency in the country. Yet, as I argue in my book, he was ambivalent about his origins. Towards the end of his life, he spent a great deal of money buying a house that would confirm his status as a landed gentleman. This proved a disastrous move and the collapse of his finances forced him to leave it in somewhat discreditable circumstances at the beginning of 1831.

William Wilberforce junior

Between 17 July and 4 November 2001 The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, hosted an exhibition devoted to the painter, John Linnell. The exhibition reveals a fascinating link to Wilberforce’s eldest son, William Wilberforce, junior (1798-1879), whose disastrous financial speculations were to force his parents to leave their home in 1831.

In 1824 Linnell painted a portrait for  Wilberforce junior of his wife, Mary (née Owen), whom he had married in 1820. If you scroll down to 53, you will see the following information;

‘A dispute arose on the terms of the commission leading Wilberforce to write to Linnell in a letter dated 22nd July (MS3307-2000) that, “I am not now prepared to pay you for yr. picture & I shall therefore again request you to send for it immediately …” Linnell replied the same day (MS3312-2000) reminding Wilberforce of the terms that had been agreed and adding he considered the contract binding. An entry in Linnell’s journal for 4th August, the date given on the sketch, records a meeting with Wilberforce at which he received payment for the painting. Thus Wilberforce obviously backed down and it seems the sketch must refer to this.’

There is also an amusing sketch by Charles Heathcote Tatham: The Finale of William Wilberforce junr. which depicts the young man being hanged.

The  portrait of ‘Mrs Wilberforce junior’ (watercolour and gouache over graphite on scored Mrs William Wilberforce and child, by John Linnell, 1824gesso ground) is in the Paul Mellon Collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and is in the public domain. (Unfortunately, it is wrongly described as being a portrait of Mary’s mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Wilberforce.) The child is her son, William, born on 6 December 1821. In August 1824 Mary gave birth to another son, Robert, who was to die at the age of sixteen months. The portrait was presumably done in the early stages of her pregnancy or after the birth of her child. The background may represent Hampstead Heath, as both Linnell and the young Wilberforces were living in Hampstead at the time.

In his dispute with the painter, William junior was acting in character. He was  thoroughly untrustworthy and unreliable, inheriting his father’s inability to manage money, but completely lacking his strong moral compass. It is painful to read the elder Wilberforce’s grief-stricken diary entries about his anxieties for his son. After a disastrous venture into dairy-farming, Wilberforce junior ran up debts in excess of £50,000 (over £3 million in modern money). In 1831 he and Mary left for Switzerland, where he remained until his debts were settled.

The Wilberforce family never seem to have thought much of daughter-in-law, Mary. However, Wilberforce was clearly concerned for her welfare. In his will he left her an annuity of £500 ‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce’. This was the legal phraseology that protected married women’s property rights in the days before the Married Woman’s Property Acts. Wilberforce wasn’t a feminist, but he was clearly well aware of the vulnerability of women.

Review in History Today

I was delighted to get a very favourable review in the November issue of History Today.  See here. The reviewer, Dr Ian Bradley, is a noted expert on the Clapham Sect so his positive comments are extremely welcome.  i’m delighted to say that he agrees with my argument that ‘Wilberforce’s spirituality was both distinctively evangelical and part of the same late-Enlightenment culture that created Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther’. It is equally gratifying when he writes that the book captures the Clapham legacy ‘beautifully and sensitively’.