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

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.

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

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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.

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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?!