Wilberforce’s birthplace

Image

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.

Review in the ‘Journal of Ecclesiastical History’

The distinguished church historian, G. M. Ditchfield, has published a review of my book in the current issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2013), 64, pp. 652-654. He kindly describes it as an ‘excellent’ example of how family connections can illuminate the broader intellectual and political currents of an age. He has read the book very carefully (and picked up one mistake for which I’ve been kicking myself for a year – it will be corrected in the paperback!). He makes the interesting point that there is no mention of animals. The reason is that I didn’t find any cases of the Clapham children having pets, but it would be fascinating to learn more about their relationships, if any, with cats, dogs, rabbits and caged birds.

Ditchfield suggests that I might have exaggerated the gap between the lively, cheerful and cultivated Claphamites and their narrow-minded, exclusive and anti-Catholic successors. I have a feeling he may be right. The topic needs further exploration

The Jeremy Forrest story: an eighteenth-century parallel

So now it seems that the exploitative former teacher, Jeremy Forrest, plans to marry the schoolgirl he abducted, once he has served his sentence, and that has the approval of the poor child’s hitherto absentee father. There is an eighteenth-century parallel to this distressing story that I tell in both my Hannah More and my Wilberforce books. It concerns the Bristol schoolteacher, Selina Mills, her pupil, the teenage heiress, Clementina Clerke, and an unscrupulous surgeon, Richard Vining Perry. The full references to the quotations are found in my books.

At the beginning of 1790 the twenty-three year-old Selina Mills and her younger sister, Mary, took over the More sisters’ popular and successful school in Park Street, Bristol. Selina was the daughter of Thomas Mills, a Bristol bookseller, who was also a member of the Society of Friends, though she and her sisters remained in the Church of England. Thomas Mills was rising in the world but he was not wealthy enough to provide an independent income for his daughters. Teaching was the only possible career for genteel, educated young women and the Mills daughters were fortunate to have in the Mores the supreme role model of how a family of sisters could benefit from the expanding demand for girls’ schools.

On the night of 20 March 1791 the school was thrown into a panic; it had lost a pupil and was about to become the centre of a national scandal.

The story gripped public attention because it read like the plot of so many novels of the period.  It had a youthful heroine in the person of Clementina Clerke, aged fourteen years and eleven months, the heiress to a fabulous West Indian (and therefore slave-derived) fortune (more than £10,000 per annum according to the newspapers); and it had a dashing and plausible anti-hero, a Bristol surgeon, Richard Vining Perry, who came out of the same reckless, unscrupulous mould as Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace and Jane Austen’s Wickham. But there was another possible plot, one familiar to readers of the novel of sentiment, which was to be brilliantly exploited by Perry’s defence council.  According to this narrative, as a blameless young man he just happened to see Clementina on her walks with her schoolfellows;

‘their eyes met in attraction and with a kind of electric fire shook them to their souls’.

It was irresistible love, therefore, and not cold avarice that motivated the susceptible heart of the gallant surgeon.

With the connivance of a servant at the school, the pair began a clandestine correspondence and planned their elopement. This took place on 18 March when a convincing looking servant, wearing livery and driving a chaise, delivered a letter to Selina Mills, purporting to come from Clementina’s guardian and requesting that she go to see him immediately. The unsuspecting Selina and her sister Mary saw her into the carriage and within a short time she and Perry were in a fast chaise and four heading north for the famous blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green, where the relaxed Scots law allowed for the marriage of girls over the age of twelve without requiring parental consent.

By the end of the day, when Clementina had failed to return, the story of the elopement came out. Overwhelmed with guilt and terror Mary Mills and her brother set out in pursuit, guessing correctly that the couple must have gone to Gretna. They managed to encounter them in Cumberland, driving in the opposite direction, as the pair headed south on their way to London. As the coaches slowed down in order to negotiate the narrow road, Mary Mills recognized her pupil in the other carriage and called out,

‘Miss Clerke, for God’s sake, Miss Clerke, let me speak to you!’

At this Perry put his head out of the window and told her that Miss Clerke was not there – she was now Mrs Perry. He shouted at the coachmen to drive on, leaving Mary and her brother helpless, forced to trundle northwards until they could find a safe turning place.

The pursuit then moved to London where a reward of £1000 was offered for Clementina’s return. Hannah More made frantic enquiries among the thief-takers of the capital, tramping around lodging houses in search of the couple, all the time in dread of Perry, who was reputedly armed at all times with a loaded pistol.  In order to escape from the law, Clementina disguised herself as a boy and the couple fled abroad to what was then the Austrian Netherlands. Mary and James Mills caught up with them in Ghent and tried to persuade the magistrates to close the town gates to prevent their escape. But lacking authorization from Clementina’s mother, who plays an ambiguous role in this story, the authorities were unable to act. Brother and sister returned home empty-handed.

For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce the two caricatures in the British Museum collection that appeared at this time. One, shown at Holland’s Exhibition Room in Oxford Street from 25 March, displayed an engraving,

The Elopement from Bristol – or too many for the Bristol Bumbrusher’.

It depicts a chaise and four within which a young man is embracing a girl who is holding a pistol and throwing her doll out of the window, a sign that she has abandoned childhood for the frisson of sexual adventure.  In case anyone missed the double meaning, The Times published a nudge-wink paragraph:

‘A PISTOL in the hands of CLEMENTINA PERRY would be absolutely a very dreadful weapon – were that same PISTOL at all like the lady in its readiness to GO OFF!’

The second caricature

‘A Perry-lous Situation; or, the Doctor and his Friends keeping the Bumbrusher and her Myrmidons at Bay’

was published on 17 April and was also exhibited in Oxford Street.  It is a more expensive engraving as it is in colour, and shows two opposing groups confronting each other. The right hand group includes a tall young man who has his arm round the waist of a young woman. He and another man are both aiming pistols at the left-hand group, consisting of a constable, his timid assistant and a schoolmistress holding a birch rod. The schoolmistress is saying

‘Let me get her again into my hands and I’ll tickle her Toby nicely’.

The constable’s assistant says,

‘In the name of Mistress Sharp-look-out, the Schoolmistress, I command you to deliver up little Miss____’.

The girl is saying,

‘Dear Doctor, protect me from my governess’.

Poor Selina Mills, a respectable and devout young woman, had been transformed in the popular imagination into the dominatrix of a flagellant brothel.

But in the spring of 1793 the French occupation of the Austrian Netherlands forced the Perrys to return to England. Richard Perry was promptly imprisoned and was joined by his pregnant wife, their little daughter, and his mother-in-law: a touching display of family loyalty which was said to have so melted the heart of the keeper that he allowed them the free range of the prison.

With Perry’s incarceration, the novel of sentiment was about to become a court-room drama, to be played for the highest possible stakes; Selina Mills had indicted him under a statute of Henry VII for the forcible abduction of a minor (defined as someone under the age of sixteen) and for marrying her without her consent. These were capital crimes, judged to be on a par with rape. In retrospect, the charge was unwise as it could easily be refuted by a simple assertion on Clementina’s part that she had gone with Perry of her own free will. Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs Thrale, shrewdly summed up the situation. As a ‘Maiden Lady’, she noted to a friend, Miss Mills knew nothing about marriage but any married woman could have told her how unrealistic it was

‘to dream of a Woman’s bastardizing her own Babies, and hanging the Father who could scarcely have been so if there had not been some consent on her side’.

Clementina would stand by her man. She had no choice. However, Selina Mills was encouraged in her action by the More sisters and by William Wilberforce, who managed to secure a new prosecuting counsel in place of a lawyer believed to be a friend of Perry’s.

The wheels of justice rumbled on, and on Monday 14 April 1794 Perry stood trial in Bristol before the Recorder of the city, Sir Vicary Gibbs. The leading counsel for Perry was the Whig barrister Thomas Erskine, famous for his brilliant defences or radicals, most notably Thomas Paine. Perry’s trial was going to be one of his easier cases. Public opinion, or at least the noisy and masculine part of it, was on his side, and the chief prosecution witnesses were two nervous women, Selina Mills and her sister Mary, now Mrs Thatcher, both unused to the rough ways of a criminal trial. Erskine was determined to give Selina a hard time and his cross-examination, as reported in the booklet, The Trial of Richard Vining Perry, was brutal.

The case collapsed when a heavily pregnant Clementina Perry, called to give evidence at the Recorder’s insistence, asserted that she loved Perry and had gone with him willingly.  No-one suggested that she might be under pressure from her husband. Given Mrs Perry’s assertions, the Recorder instructed the jury to return a verdict of Not Guilty, and they promptly obliged. The hall resounded with the cheers of the spectators, the couple kissed, and when they entered their carriage, volunteers removed the horses from the traces and drew the couple through the streets as if they had been successful election candidates.

Selina was left bruised and shattered by her courtroom experience. Five years later she married Wilberforce’s friend, Zachary Macaulay, and in October 1800 she gave birth to the future historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay. By this time the  Perry trial had been forgotten and neither Selina’s children nor the biographers of her famous son seem to have been aware of her brief moment of notoriety.

I have been unable to trace the future fortunes of Clementina Perry née Clerke. What strikes any modern reader of her story is the lack of protection the law at the time offered to young girls. With the age of consent as low as twelve, there was no understanding that they might need protection, not merely from predators, but from their own immaturity. To us Richard Vining Perry was an obvious villain, though a fortune-hunter rather than a paedophile. To many of his contemporaries, he was a hero.

Another review forthcoming

OK, Dr Linda Wilson of the University of Gloucestershire is my pal, but she knows a great deal about the history of Evangelicalism, especially its relationship to women, so I was very pleased that she has reviewed my book for a forthcoming edition of the Evangelical Quarterly. She has many kind comments, which for copyright reasons I can’t reproduce here. What I especially liked was the way she felt she could imagine herself in the company of the men and women of the Clapham Sect.

Linda says that she wishes I could have conveyed a little more understanding of the emotional impact and deep stability that a faith can provide. On reflection, I think I did fall short a little there. This is partly because the surviving religious journals convey more of a sense of anguished struggle than of joy and perhaps I should have stressed more strongly that this is the nature of the genre. One shouldn’t take these  journals too much at face value – especially not Wilberforce’s! Who could guess his lively and ebullient personality from the self-flagellating journals and diaries he wrote so obsessively?

James Ramsay: the unknown abolitionist

James_Ramsay_by_Carl_Frederik_von_Breda

James Ramsay (1733-89), by Carl Frederik von Breda

The Independent journalist, Patrick Cockburn, has discovered that he has an ancestor who isn’t famous, yet who certainly should be. This is the Reverend James Ramsay, rector of Teston (pronounced Teeson) in Kent, a pioneer in the movement to abolish the slave trade. The standard life is F. O. Shyllon’s James Ramsay: the Unknown Abolitionist (Canongate, 1977).  I describe in my book how he had formerly been rector of the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where his experiences of what he described as a ‘nightmare of cruelty’ turned him into a passionate opponent of the slave trade and of the institution of slavery. In 1784 he wrote his Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, a ground-breaking work that for the first time drew attention to the human cost of the production of the sugar that was such a mainstay of the British diet. I treat this more fully in a blog I wrote for my friend, Norman Geras.

A few years ago, another friend, the Reverend David Williams, went to the parish of St John Capisterre on St Kitts, as a stand-in for the regular rector. He took photographs of the church and the congregation, but even more remarkably, he photocopied some baptismal and marriage registers from St John’s and also from the sister church of St Paul from 1826 and 1830. 

Ramsay 1

Ramsay 2

PICT0302By this time Ramsay was long dead (1789), the slave trade had been abolished (1807), Wilberforce had retired from Parliament (1825), and since 1823 pressure had been building up to end the institution of slavery itself. The records show that Ramsay’s successor, the Revd. J. J. Kerie, was busy baptising slaves and conducting marriages. Most of the slaves made their mark rather than signing their names, but this was perfectly valid legally. The fact that they couldn’t sign their names isn’t necessarily evidence that they were illiterate, as reading and writing were taught separately.

In baptising and marrying the slaves, Kerie was granting them an autonomy and human dignity otherwise denied them.  For this reason, many planters forbade slave marriages and baptisms.  Below is a photograph of the church – not the original building, I imagine, but its successor, attended by a lively congregation, no doubt the descendants of the slaves baptised and married by Ramsay and Kerie.

elis

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.

First academic review

I am absolutely delighted to have had a very good review in the current (20 March 2013) online issue of the Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature.  Unfortunately, it is not open-access. The reviewer, Dr Gareth Atkins of Magdalene College, Cambridge, completed a very well-regarded PhD on the Clapham Sect, so his opinion matters a great deal to me.

Of course Atkins has a few reservations and qualifications, but overall, his comments are extremely positive.  He has read the book thoroughly and perceptively. I especially like the sentence,

‘The chapter dealing with [Wilberforce’s] abortive hunt for his life in his mid-thirties…is priceless: instead of the polished orator we hear the authentic voice of a sexually frustrated bachelor, whose flirtatious indecision almost landed him in a legal suit for breach of promise.’

He ends,

‘that Stott can be sympathetic without being uncritical makes the “Saints” seem both more human and more believable, and it is this above all that makes her book such a good read.’

Well, I tried to make it readable and I’m glad Gareth enjoyed it.

Hague Biography of Wilberforce revisited

Going through my cuttings, I came across my print-out of Jane Stevenson’s review of William Hague’s William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (HarperPress 2007). It is a very fair treatment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Hague ‘is predictably good at the mechanisms of politics’ and ‘neatly conveys the career politician’s sense of debate as performance’. But she also notes that he does not handle ‘the complexities of 18th-century religion’ with ‘sympathy or insight’ and that he ‘does not attempt to grapple with the private man’.

‘What did his father’s death do to him? Or the vehement opposition of his mother to his adored aunt and uncle? Come to that, what was his mother like? Or his sister? …Neither woman’s personality is granted so much as a sentence-worth of consideration.’

I could also add that his treatment of Wilberforce’s marriage is perfunctory. Like many previous biographers, he gets Barbara Spooner’s age wrong. She was twenty-five when she married the thirty-seven-year old Wilberforce, not twenty. A small point perhaps, but these things mattered at the time.

There does not seem to be a surviving parish record for Barbara’s birth, but in a letter to his son, Samuel, dated 27 December 1827, Wilberforce reports her as having recently celebrated

her fifty-sixth birthday (Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 1, fo. 198b). Her death certificate of 1847 records her age as seventy-five; she would have been seventy-six on 26 December. She died at East Farleigh in Kent on 21 April and the dates of her birth and death are given clearly on the family tombstone, put up by her son, Robert.

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

This doesn’t detract from the things Hague does well. But his lack of interest in the personal is intriguing. Perhaps I err in the opposite direction?!

Grave of Robert Wilberforce

Robert Wilberforce's grave

Robert Wilberforce’s grave


One aspect of William Wilberforce’s life that has always intrigued scholars is his failure to pass on his evangelical beliefs to his surviving children. Samuel, the third son, became a High Churchman, bishop first of Oxford and then of Winchester. The other three sons, William, Robert Isaac, and Henry all became Roman Catholics.

Robert, possibly the most intellectually gifted of the sons, became a Catholic in 1854 and though he was twice widowed, he was allowed to take minor orders. He died at Albano  in February 1857 and was buried in the chapel of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

The grave location, looking west along the south aisle.

The grave location, looking west along the south aisle.

I have not seen his grave myself, but the historian, writer, and teacher, Guy de la Bedoyère, has kindly sent me a couple of photographs he has just taken.

For more on the Wilberforce sons, see David Newsome’s marvellous book, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning (London: John Murray, 1966).