How Tory was Wilberforce?

The House of Commons in Wilberforce's day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

The House of Commons in Wilberforce’s day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson


Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers cited are from my book. For copyright reasons I am unable to quote directly from the Wilberforce MS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, but the quotations are to be found in the book, fully referenced.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne is the latest Conservative to claim the credit of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery for his party. This is repeated so often than it is almost becoming an established ‘fact’. The reality is that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by a  coalition government, and slavery itself was abolished in 1833 by a Whig administration. Alongside this false claim goes the assumption that William Wilberforce was a Tory.  I am going to suggest here that this is a problematic identification that risks misunderstanding both the man and the politics of his age.

For most of the eighteenth century the Tory label had disreputable overtones because of its association with Stuart absolutism and treasonable Jacobitism, and as a result, by 1800, all but ‘a very few self-conscious Neanderthals…thought of themselves as Whigs’. (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1867, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 195). This was the position when Wilberforce entered parliament as member for Hull in 1780 and when he was elected MP for Yorkshire in 1784. As a young member, he was determined, as he later told his sons, to attach himself to no party, but to be independent. This meant that, though he was firmly opposed to the American War, he did not align himself with the radical opposition, who were already appropriating and redefining the name ‘Whig’. However, though he refused to adopt a party label, he was in practice, part of the set of ambitious young men that gathered round William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and in 1785 he broke off a holiday in order to return to Westminster to vote for Pitt’s modest (and unsuccessful) bill for parliamentary reform. Pitt has been retrospectively seen as a Tory, though he always thought of himself as a Whig: the point being that party labelling was fluid and imprecise in this period. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the Brontës: some links

The recent commemorations of the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth have led me to read Claire Harman’s excellent biography. There is a good review here. However, though Harman’s book opens up many new insights into Charlotte Brontë, her treatment of religion is sketchy and sometimes a little misleading. This has drawn me back to Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ground-breaking Life of Charlotte Brontë (Penguin edition 1975), and to my own researches on the Clapham Sect.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë  memorably satirises the dark side of Evangelicalism – the Revd. Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocritical tyranny and the ghoulish religious tracts designed to terrify children into submission to a baleful and vindictive god. Her portrayal of another Evangelical clergyman, St John Rivers, is more nuanced – unlike Brocklehurst he is a good man – but we are left in no doubt that Jane was right to reject his harsh Calvinism and his cold determination to mould her into his own creature.

I here trace three connections between the Brontë family and the Clapham Sect. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the other Princess Charlotte

NPG 51; Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe. Public domain

Princess Charlotte Augusta

The news of the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge has been widely welcomed, especially by those of us who particularly wanted a girl. This little girl will be the first princess born under the revised rules which mean that she will not lose her place in the succession to a younger brother (should she have one). The birth has also aroused interest in former Princess Charlottes, most notably Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, later still, George IV) and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. They were probably the most unsuited couple in the whole long, and frequently troubled history of royal marriages, and Charlotte was the unfortunate product of this misalliance. For her short and troubled life see here, and here, and here.

Charlotte1806

Charlotte in 1806, aged eight; after Sir Thomas Lawrence. Public domain.

From the start the child was the focus of intense interest, particularly when the irrevocable breakdown of her parents’ marriage became public knowledge. This meant that unless the prince was able to divorce his wayward wife and marry again, there would be no more legitimate children, no son to displace Charlotte. From an early age therefore, the heiress presumptive to the throne was seen as a future queen.

Hannah More and the Princess

Perhaps Hannah More had Charlotte’s likely future in mind as early as the spring of 1799 when she and her friend, Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, called on the three-year-old princess, who was then in the care of her governess, Lady Elgin, at Carlton House, the London home of the Prince of Wales. Hannah More, who was always fond of children, was enchanted by the child. Charlotte, she wrote,

‘had great delight in opening drawers, uncovering the furniture, curtains, lustres &c to show me…For the Bishop of London’e entertainment and mine, the Princess was made to exhibit all her learning and accomplishments…Her understanding is so forward that they really might begin to teach her many things. It is perhaps the highest praise to say that she is exactly like the child of a private gentleman, wild and natural, but sensible, lively, and civil.’ (William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs Hannah More, 2nd end. 1834, p. 105.)

Five years later the picture had darkened, and the royal family was locked into a dispute about Charlotte’s education. Her grandfather, George III, was insisting that her education ‘cannot be that of a female, but she, being the presumptive heir of the Crown must have one of a more extended nature’. He proposed that she should live at Windsor with him rather than with her father. But to complicate matters, 1804 was the year in which the king experienced his third attack of madness, and, even without this disaster, his relationship with his son was poisonous. Charlotte’s father and grandfather were therefore locked into a dispute about her education. The dispute was resolved at the end of the year when it was agreed that Charlotte should spend half the year at Windsor with her grandfather, and the other half at Warwick House in London, a rather gloomy building that adjoined Carlton House. The great casualty of this arrangement was Lady Elgin, who was replaced by the more assertive Lady de Clifford, and poor Charlotte was deprived of the woman who had been her substitute mother. The Bishop of Exeter, John Fisher, was appointed preceptor, with overall responsibility for Charlotte’s education. Continue reading

‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs Man’ (updated)

Mrs William Wilberforce, née Mary Owen (John Linnell, 1824)

An article by the Cambridge historian, Amy Erickson [‘Mistress and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal (September 2014)] casts interesting light on the evolution of the  terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, both of them derived from ‘Mistress’. Dr Erickson points out that until the eighteenth century neither term was an indication of marital status. ‘Miss’ was only applied to girls, never to adult women, and upon adulthood a ‘Miss’ became a ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status. A ‘Mrs’ was a woman of some status who possessed capital, whether economic or social. However, during the nineteenth century the term ‘Mrs’ became (with a few exceptions) one that solely designated a married woman. Thus the unmarried bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was invariably known as ‘Mrs’ whereas her younger (also unmarried) contemporary Hannah More was described as ‘Miss’. Within a generation the usage had changed.

Erickson goes on to argue that at the end of the eighteenth century a married woman lost her identity and was only known by her husband’s name,a designation that has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ style. The earliest example she has found is the dreadful Mrs John Dashwood (née Fanny Ferrars) in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen fans will also be aware of a slightly later example: that of Emma Woodhouse’s sister, Isabella, who has married George Knightley’s brother and has thus become ‘Mrs John Knightley’.

A study of the usage of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ among the women of the Clapham Sect does not invalidate Erickson’s argument, but it slightly challenges the chronology. In March 1796 the Yorkshire merchant’s daughter, Marianne Sykes, married the Claphamite Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s second cousin. A year later, when she was due to give birth, Hannah More wrote to Wilberforce that she was ‘anxiously watching every post in hopes it will bring me word that Mrs H. Thornton’s trial is safely over’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Oxford, 2012, p. 86) This suggests that the ‘Mrs Man’ designation was in force as early as 1797 and was common enough to be used without comment. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the naming of children

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Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire and her daughter, another Georgiana, illustrates the eighteenth-century practice of naming children after their parents

There is a strange scene in the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace, in which Wilberforce, ground down by the apparent hopelessness of his cause, is considering giving up the battle for the abolition of the slave trade. However, he is held to his campaign by the encouragement of his wife who talks him out of his depression, promising that their next child will be a daughter, and that they will call her Emma. This is peculiar in two ways. Firstly, to the best of our knowledge, Barbara Wilberforce was no particular enthusiast for abolition; she had married the man, not his cause and would probably not have been sorry if he had retreated into private life. Secondly, the Wilberforces were very conventional in the naming of their children. ‘Emma’ was not a family name and it is most unlikely that they would have given it to one of their daughters.

These are the children of William and Barbara Ann Wilberforce:

William (named after his father)
Barbara (named after her mother)
Elizabeth (named after her paternal grandmother)
Robert Isaac (named after his two grandfathers, Robert Wilberforce and Isaac Spooner)
Samuel (the future ‘Soapy Sam’, bishop of Oxford; named after Samuel Thornton, the banker and Member of Parliament and Wilberforce’s second cousin)
Henry (named after Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton’s younger brother)

If they had had another daughter, it is a reasonable guess that they would have followed convention and named her Sarah, after Wilberforce’s beloved sister. If another daughter had followed, she would have probably been named Ann; it was Barbara’s second name, as well as being the name of her sister, and of a little sister of Wilberforce’s, who had died in childhood and to whom he had been deeply attached. Continue reading

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