The story of Dido Belle

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 dido and eliza 3the 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.

The Clapham Sect and the language of race: some thoughts

The Daily Telegraph of 2 June 2014 has a timely article by the conservative journalist and politician, Daniel Hannan, which argues that racial insults are unacceptable, not because of the dictates of political correctness but because of simple good manners and respect for fellow human beings. This is a point that would have been self-evident to the members of the Clapham Sect, who were careful not only to avoid racial insults but to counter the prejudice that lay behind them.

In the writings of Hannah More, we can observe a process of self-correction over racial language. Here she is at the end of 1792 when her counter-revolutionary tract, Village Politics, went to the press:

We follow the French! Why they only begun all this mischief at first, in order to be just what we are already. Why I’d sooner go to the Negers to get learning, or to the Turks to get religion, than to the French for freedom and happiness.

When she came to revise Village Politics in 1801 she altered the n-word to the then less offensive ‘negroes’. Someone must have told her that the term was unacceptable. Of course she was still disparaging African culture, but this disparagement represented her view of the current state of Africa rather than an essentialist view of African nature. Writing about the mental capacities of women in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1798), (vol. ii, pp. 30-1) she argued that

…the question must always remain as undecided as to the degree of difference between the masculine and feminine understandings, as the question between the understanding of blacks and whites; for until Africans and Europeans are put more nearly on a par in the cultivation of their minds, the shades of difference, if any there be, between their native powers can never be fairly ascertained.

Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the middle classes: the case study of Hannah More

photoI posted recently on how a study of the social backgrounds of the various members of the Clapham Sect shows the complexity of the concept of the middle class in the late Georgian period. I now want to look more closely at how the writings of Hannah More give an insight into the way the language of class was evolving and changing in the period – which is another way of warning against simplistic terminology.

The full (and very cumbersome!) title of Wilberforce’s celebrated book, published in the spring of 1797 is A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System or Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country contrasted with Real Christianity. A year later Hannah More published her most influential conduct book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune. Unlike Wilberforce, she seemed to be neglecting the middle classes, a fact which puzzled the reviewer of the ultra-conservative periodical, The Anti-Jacobin Review (vol. 4, September-November 1799, pp. 198-9). The reviewer defined this group as gentry, merchants, officers and clergymen, thus illustrating the contemporary confusion of class: the lower ranks of the landed classes were placed in the same category as men in receipt of salaries or (in the case of the clergy) tithes. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and class

The Summer Newsletter of the Kent Branch of the Jane Austen Society contains a summary of a talk given on by Professor Alan Downie on 20 March 2014 on the subject of ‘Jane Austen’s Property Plots’. In the talk Professor Downie rightly notes the error of describing Elizabeth Bennet as ‘middle class’ and in doing so highlights the common confusion on the subject of class in the late-Georgian period. The landed gentry and the upper middle classes often mixed socially and they frequently intermarried: Mr Bennet, a landowner, marries the daughter of an attorney. However, they did not belong to the same social grouping and their sources of income were different. Elizabeth Bennet’s modest fortune is derived from the rent from her father’s tenant farmers. Her uncle Gardiner (her mother’s brother) derives his from trade.

With this distinction in mind, most members of  the Clapham Sect have to be seen as firmly middle class, the exceptions being the Midlands landowners, Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Babington. On his father’s side,  William Wilberforce was the heir to a mercantile dynasty, while his mother Elizabeth (née Bird) was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. His birthplace in Hull testifies to his status. The Dutch-style house was large and comfortable and following young William’s birth, his father, Robert, put in a marble floor and a Venetian window. However, the counting house was next to the grand entrance and the back garden, which led to the waterfront, housed bulky hoists and wooden-framed cranes. Wilberforce was born above the shop, and he professed to be proud of his mercantile background. The income from trade enabled him to study at Cambridge and to stand for Parliament, first for Hull, where every vote was reputed to cost two guineas, and then for Yorkshire, where he took on the aristocratic landed interests and became the first merchant’s son to represent the county, the largest constituency in the country. Continue reading

Wilberforce and Jane Austen: some possible connections

My other half, aka Professor Philip Stott, has been diligently researching any possible links between Wilberforce and Jane Austen and his research has now been published by ‘Austentations’, the periodical of the Kent branch of the Jane Austen Society under the title ‘Did Jane Austen meet William Wilberforce?’

IMG_1654Below is a summary of his findings to date, with the addition of some of my own researches. Unless otherwise stated, the page references given are from my book. The references to Jane Austen’s letters are from Deidre Le Faye (ed.) Jane Austen’s Letters. New Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

James, Baron Gambier, friend of Wilberforce and patron Francis and Charles Austen

James, Baron Gambier, friend of Wilberforce and patron of Francis and Charles Austen (from Wikimedia Commons)

Jane Austen would certainly have known about Wilberforce. In Emma and Mansfield Park she made references to the slave trade, which was of course a hotly disputed topic in her lifetime. There is an indirect connection through the Admiralty. Wilberforce’s friend, Admiral James (Baron) Gambier (1756-1833) described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as ‘naval officer and evangelical activist, was a patron of Jane Austen’s naval brothers, Francis and Charles. On December 18, 1798, she wrote to Cassandra (Letter 14),

‘I am sorry that our dear Charles begins to feel the Dignity if Ill-usage. – My father will write to Admiral Gambier. – He must already have received so much satisfaction from his acquaintance with & Patronage of Frank, that he will be delighted I dare say to have another of the family introduced to him.’

This could have been Fanny Price writing about her beloved brother, William. Judging from a subsequent, and very exultant letter to Cassandra (Letter 16, 28 December 1798) the application worked. Continue reading

Hannah More: the gaps in the early life

Hannah More's birthplace, Fishponds

Clifton Windsor Terrace, where Hannah More died in 1833

When I was researching for  Hannah More: the First Victorian (OUP, 2003), my biography of Wilberforce’s friend and the ‘honorary man’ of the Clapham Sect,  I was stumped, as her  other biographers have been, by the difficulty of filling in the gaps in her early life. A comparison of the humble schoolmaster’s cottage where she was born (left: Hannah, her parents and four sisters were squashed into the left-hand wing) and the elegant house in Clifton where she died (right) makes it clear that she was a remarkable example of late-Georgian social mobility. The later years are well-documented, but the early life far less so.

I looked at the parish records and local newspapers, Hannah More’s letters, and of course consulted earlier secondary works. However, thanks to a meticulously researched and ground-breaking article by William Evans of the University of the West of England, I now know that a lot of what I wrote was inaccurate.

For the full article see William Evans, ‘Hannah More’s Parents’, Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 124 (2006), 113-30. This is my summary.

Hannah More’s father Jacob may be the Jacob More who was baptised in Norwich on 17 March 1699. There is no evidence that he attended Norwich Grammar School, as has frequently been asserted, but he may have been educated at a similar institution. The story that he lost money because of litigation over a large estate at Wenhaston cannot be corroborated. There was probably no such estate.

It has not been possible to corroborate the statement of More’s early biographer Henry Thompson that Jacob More was a supervisor of excise in Bristol as the records for the relevant period have nor survived. He may have held a post of which there is no longer a documentary trace, or perhaps a lower post than that of surveyor.

There is no trace in the local records of a Jacob More marrying a Mary Grace, previously believed to have been Hannah More’s mother. However in the records of St Werbergh’s church there is an entry for the marriage by licence on 2 July 1735 of Jacob More and Mary Linch.

The Gloucestershire Archives show that Jacob More was appointed master of the Fishponds school in 1743. The records show that he supplemented his meagre income by land surveying and valuing. In October 1751 Silas Blandford, land steward of the principal landowner, Norborne Berkeley, paid him for drawing a map of Kingswood. He was engaged in similar tasks in subsequent years. Hannah More always retained warm memories of Silas Blandford, whom she seems to have seen as a benevolent guardian of her family.

Jacob More’s tenure of the schoolmaster’s post at Fishponds ended in recriminations. The trustees kept poor records of the payments they made. In 1782, a time when Jacob would have long finished teaching, he was still receiving a salary and he and his wife continued to live in the schoolhouse. Jacob was meant to be paying a shilling a week to each of the two widows who lived in the other wing of the building, but he was paying it to only one. On 26 April 1783, shortly after Jacob’s death, his eldest daughter, Mary, by then a respected schoolmistress, wrote to the trustees of the school to defend her father from the charge of misappropriating the trust money. Her letter contained several inaccuracies, either innocent or intentional.

Evans has unearthed some intriguing information about Hannah More’s mother’s family. Mary Linch (Lynch) was baptised on 29 January 1718 at Stoke Gifford. The Lynches were an established family in the parish. In 1747 Mary’s sister Susannah married as her second husband  a carpenter, John Grace (so this is where the name Grace comes in!)  at Olveston, a parish five miles from Stoke Gifford, and gave birth to eight children. I note in my book Hannah More’s reference to the death of her ‘poor afflicted aunt’ in 1794. It is possible that Hannah More commissioned her memorial stone, a gesture she did not accord her parents.

These findings raise the intriguing question of why Hannah More, whether intentionally or not, obfuscated the details about her family.  By the time she was middle-aged, she was mixing with the gentry, the aristocracy, and even royalty. Perhaps she did not wish to be reminded too much that she was the daughter of a poor schoolmaster, who could not keep accounts and might even have defrauded a poor widow of the meagre sum that was owing to her.

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).

1820s A_Hindoo_Widow_Burning_Herself_with_the_Corpse_of_her_Husband

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.

Bentinck_william

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.

Hannah More’s house and grave

Barley wood

Barley Wood as it is today – much altered from Hannah More’s time.

When I was researching my life of Wilberforce’s friend, Hannah More, it was impossible for me to visit Barley Wood, her home in Wrington, Somerset from 1801 to 1828, as it was owned by a charitable institution. But it is now being renovated and put on the market and the grounds are open to the public. Here is the English Heritage description of the house, and here is an account of the walled garden. Hannah More was a passionate gardener and she would surely have been delighted to know that the garden on which she took such pains was being renovated. The urn commemorating her hero, John Locke, given her by her bluestocking friend, Elizabeth Montagu, is still there, as is an urn to her great friend, Beilby Porteus (1731-1809), bishop of London.

Hannah More’s friend, Marianne Thornton, wrote down for her great-nephew, E. M. Forster, her childhood memories of Barley Wood: ‘There never was such a house, so full of intellect and piety and active benevolence’. She remembered being sent off with a village child to buy chickens at the next farm’, being fed with strawberries and cream ‘& told to lie down on the hay whilst Charles, the Coachman, Gardener, Bailiff & Carpenter, made us a syllabub under the cow’. [quoted Anne Stott, Hannah More: the First Victorian, Oxford, 2003, p. 291]

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The More sisters’ grave, Wrington, Somerset

Nearby is Wrington church, where Hannah More and her five sisters are buried. A friend took this photograph recently. The five sisters are Mary, 1738-1813; Elizabeth (Betty), 1740-1816; Sarah (Sally), 1743-1817; Hannah, 1745-1833; and Martha (Patty), Hannah’s best-beloved sister (1750-1819). As I write in my book (p. 332),

‘Five spinsters, born into circumstances of failure and near poverty, forced to earn their livings, and succeeding triumphantly in their vocations, they had shown what it was possible for women to achieve in an environment that was at best ambivalent, and at worst hostile to women on their own. Twenty-five years after Hannah’s death, Marianne Thornton stood by the quiet grave, remembered the golden childhood summers, the anecdotes of Garrick and Johnson, the schools and clubs, the inspiring teaching, the bustling kindness, and reflected, “God has given them a better name than that of sons and daughters”.’

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.