Slavery on the Brink

WISBECH IS A TOWN in northern Cambridgeshire, close to its border with Norfolk. It calls itself ‘The Capital of the Fens’. The River Nene runs through the town. One bank of the river, lined with many fine Georgian buildings is called the North Brink. The opposite bank is known as South Brink. At the eastern end of the Brinks, they are joined by the Town Bridge which crosses the Nene. Near the South Brink end of the bridge, there is a Victorian Gothic memorial.

The base of the memorial is square and contains three portraits in bas-relief. One is of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who is best-known for his work in the abolition of the slave trade, another shows a kneeling African man in chains, and the third depicts Granville Sharp (1735-1813), who was an abolitionist and the founder of the first settlement of freed African slaves in Sierra Leone. A statue standing above the base under a gothic revival canopy is a portrait of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech.

Clarkson, who deserves to be as well known as Wilberforce, studied at St John’s College Cambridge, where he wrote an essay in Latin, which asked the question whether it was lawful to make slaves of others against their will. This set him on the road to campaigning against slavery. He was active in this endeavour and helped Wilberforce to get the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passed by Parliament. This legislation did not abolish the slave trade outside the British Empire, but it did encourage British action to discourage other nations from practising it. It was Clarkson who encouraged Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, to introduce the first Bill against the trade. Clarkson collected much evidence about the horrific nature of the slave trade and used it as evidence in his many publications and public speaking events. Clarkson live for 13 years after The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. He focussed his later anti-slavery campaigns on, amongst other things, trying to put an end to slavery in the deep south of the USA.

The memorial to Clarkson in Wisbech was put up 1880-81. It was created to a design adapted from one originally proposed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). Though not nearly as grand nor as ornate, the memorial has a slight similarity to a slimmed down version of The Albert Memorial in London. I was pleased to see this statue of Clarkson because last year when visiting Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, we saw a monument to him that records the spot where, while walking from Cambridge to London, he had his revelation that his life should be dedicated to combatting slavery.

The abolitionist’s country home: Wilberforce in north London

THE RIDGEWAY IN MILL HILL, with spectacular views over north London and the nearby countryside from each side of it, is a pleasant place to wander. St Pauls Church is a simple Gothic revival edifice. It stands across the road from the famous Mill Hill School (established in 1807) and one of a line of three war memorials separated from each other by a few yards. The church has a plaque attached to it that informs the viewer that it was built by the anti-slave trade activist and politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), consecrated in 1833, and became a parish church in 1926.

While we were looking at the plaque, a man (a cleric) arrived by car, unlocked the church, and invited us inside. We asked him about Wilberforce and his connections with Mill Hill. He told us that the great abolitionist had lived in Mill Hill and was for a short while the neighbour of his friend Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), who is best known for his ‘founding’ of Singapore. Our new acquaintance explained that Raffles’ widow, his second wife, was buried in the churchyard of St Pauls (Mill Hill), but not the great man himself. Raffles, who was an abolitionist, was disliked by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of the parish of Hendon in which Mill Hill lay, who was sympathetic to slavery because his family had profited from slavery in Jamaica. Williams insisted that Raffles be buried outside the parish church rather than within it. Until 1914, the whereabouts of Raffle’s remains were unknown until they were stumbled upon by accident in a vault whilst the ground was being dug up to build an extension to the church. In contrast, his one-time neighbour, Wilberforce was interred in Westminster Abbey.

As an aside, but one which is important for me who has an interest in double-headed eagles, the Raffles coat-of-arms includes one of these imaginary creatures.

Returning to Wilberforce and Raffles, our informant told us that they were neighbours at Highwood Park (on Highwood Hill), 1100 yards northwest of St Pauls. William Hague, politician, and author of a biography of William Wilberforce (first published in 2008), wrote that the abolitionist moved into his new home in Mill Hill on the 16th of June 1826. Wilberforce wrote:

“I shall be a little zemindar, one hundred and forty acres of land, cottages of my own, etc.”

By ‘zemindar’, he was referring to ‘zamindar’, the Hindustani word meaning ‘landowner’. Wilberforce’s neighbour, Raffles, was already installed at Highwood Park when the abolitionist moved next door. Raffles wrote of his home there (quoted in “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne [publ. 1876]):

“A happy retirement … a house small but compact … Wilberforce takes possession tomorrow of the next-door house so that we be next-door neighbours and divided the hill between us.”

Sadly, Raffles died on the 5th of July 1826, shortly after his friend Wilberforce moved on to Highwood Hill.

Before moving to Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived for some time in Kensington Gore, which runs along the south side of Kensington Gardens. His home from 1808 to 1821 was Gore House, built in the 1750s and set in three acres of grounds. It had interiors designed by Robert Adam, but sadly it was demolished and eventually replaced by the Royal Albert Hall, which occupies the site of the house and its grounds. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford quoted Wilberforce as having written of Gore House:

“We are just one mile from the turnpike at Hyde Park Corner, having about three acres of pleasure-ground around our house, or rather behind it, and several old trees, walnut and mulberry, of thick foliage. I can sit and read under their shade with as much admiration of the beauties of nature as if I were down in Yorkshire, or anywhere else 200 miles from the great city.”

Highwood Hill on the edge of London would have provided the ageing Wilberforce with what he had enjoyed at Gore House but without being so close to the heart of London.

Prior to moving into Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived in Marden Hall in Surrey and at ‘The Chestnuts’ on Honeycroft Hill in Uxbridge. Unfortunate circumstances led to Wilberforce having to leave Mill Hill prematurely. These included financial difficulties arising from falling income from his land in Yorkshire and losses incurred by his son William. By the end of 1830, Wilberforce and his wife decided that they had to move out of their home on Highfield Hill. They moved to Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, and then later to East Farleigh in Kent.

Wilberforce felt that there was one disadvantage of Mill Hill when he moved there in 1826. The problem was that the nearest church, the parish church at Hendon, was three miles away. William Hague explains what happened next. Here is a summary of what he wrote. In Spring 1828, Wilberforce spent two months in London during which he approached the Church Commissioners regarding establishing a new church near his home in Mill Hill. At first, his plans for the church were welcomed by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of Hendon, who was, as already noted, unfriendly to the anti-slavery movement. However, once the construction of the chapel, the present St Pauls on the Ridgeway, began, Williams reacted vigorously against the idea.  Hague is not certain what caused this change of heart on Williams’ part. One reason might have been that there was an Act of Parliament that allowed the founder of a new church to select and appoint its vicar. Another was that Williams was known not to like the Evangelicals, which included Wilberforce and other promoters of the abolition of slavery.

Despite the difficulties raised by the Vicar of Hendon, the chapel was built, but remained a chapel rather than a parish church until 1926. We liked the simple architecture of the spacious church, but this view was not shared by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and his co-author Bridget Cherry, who wrote:

“A typical cheap church of its date in the Commissioners’ style…”

The church contains some attractive stained-glass windows. That above the high altar at the eastern edge of the church is a copy, in painted glass, of “Dead Christ and Three Marys” by Annibale Carracci (1557-1602). It was created by Charles Muss (1779-1824) and WG Hodgson and dated 1809. Muss was an enamel painter to King George IV. Three other remarkable windows were created more recently (www.stpaulschurchmillhill.co.uk/jubilee-window.php). One of them, illustrated above, depicts chains and alludes to Wilberforce and slavery; another commemorates the Middlesex Regiment, which used to have some barracks in Mill Hill; and the third celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

We drove to Highwood Hill to see what, if anything, is left of the houses occupied by Raffles and his neighbour Wilberforce. Highwood House, built soon after 1817 and much altered since, was hidden from view behind dense vegetation and by a building close to the road. Just east of this across the narrow Nan Clarks Lane, there is a decaying wooden signboard to which a metal commemorative plaque is affixed, which faces the main road, Highwood Hill (the A5109). The plaque bears the words:

“Site of Hendon Park residence of William Wilberforce from 1826 to 1831.”

Behind the sign, there is a newish wooden fence, the boundary of a small estate of large residential houses. Hendon park was:

“… a substantial brick building in 1756 … was rebuilt and stuccoed in the early 19th century … it had fallen into neglect by 1951 and had been replaced by three houses and Crown Close by 1961 …” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp21-23).

We left Mill Hill, having learnt much about two men, whose connection with the place we were previously unaware. There is far more to Mill Hill than this and I hope to write about other aspects of this lovely part of London in the future.

Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.

The slave owner who helped abolish slavery

BLOG HOLL LATE 246

SEATED IN A CHAIR ON A STONE PLINTH, surrounded by a small pond and often with a pigeon on his head or shoulder, Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (‘Lord Holland’; 1773-1840) gazes benevolently towards the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by German bombs during WW2. The fine cast metal statue was sculpted by George Frederic Watts (1817-1914) with technical assistance from Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890). I have walked past this statue innumerable times and never given it much of a thought apart from being amused when I have seen pigeons resting on the crown of Holland’s head. A friend of ours pointed out that the sculptor has included, unusually, a depiction of Holland’s wedding ring, a memorial to his marriage which was to prove very interesting with regard to his political activities. Today, the 20th of June, I walked past it yet again, but with the recent interest in statues and their subjects’ relationships with the slave trade, I wondered whether Lord Holland had any connection with it. What I have discovered is somewhat surprising.

 

Lord Holland was the nephew of the Whig statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806). According to the British History Online website:
“On the death of his uncle … Lord Holland was introduced into the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal; but the strength of the Whig portion of the Government had then departed, and the only measure worthy of notice in which his lordship co-operated after his accession to office was the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.”
This suggests that Holland was an abolitionist.

 

However, things are never so simple. When visiting Florence (Italy) in 1793, he fell in love with Elizabeth Vassall, wife of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet. She and Webster divorced and then Elizabeth married Lord Holland. The “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography” (‘DNB’) records that in 1800
“… Holland assumed the additional name of Vassall to safeguard his children’s right to his wife’s West Indian fortune.”
When her first husband died in 1800, Lord Holland became the owner of the Vassall plantations in Jamaica. By accident, the abolitionist became an owner of slaves.

 

According to a website published by the Portobello Carnival Film Festival 2008:
“By all accounts, the Hollands were humane and improving proprietors who supported anti-slavery measures against their own financial interests. It can even be argued that he was more use to the abolitionist movement as a slave owner than he would have been as a mere politician. Nevertheless, in perhaps the defining local paradox, the finest hour of Holland House as the international salon of liberal politics was financed by the profits of slave labour.”
The site continues by pointing out that after his uncle died, Lord Holland:
“… was on the committee that framed his uncle’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Meanwhile Lady Holland founded the area’s multi-cultural tradition by employing Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and Italian servants – in order to enhance the foreign image of her political salon.”

 

VE Chancellor wrote in his article “Slave‐owner and anti‐slaver: Henry Richard Vassall Fox, 3rd Lord Holland, 1800–1840” that Holland regarded a slave:
“…not as mere chattel, but as an individual with feelings and abilities no less than those of other men …”.
However:
“… he justified the continuing history of slavery in the British Empire in Whiggish terms of the right to property and the need to obtain the consent of those who owned slaves before Abolition could be achieved…”
So, it seems that Holland, an avowed Abolitionist and ‘accidental’ owner of slaves, was placed in a difficult position. Chancellor records that the great Abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) regarded Holland as:
“… a ‘most zealous partisan’ of slave trade abolition …”,
And the DNB relates:
“Holland himself was an equally keen supporter of the abolition of slavery in 1833, despite its adverse effect on his West Indian income.”
Holland gave his full support for the Slave Trade Abolition Bill when it passed through the House of Lords. The passing of the Bill was accompanied by sizable tax relief to sugar producers in the West Indies. Lord Holland benefitted from these, as the University College London ‘Legacies of Slave Ownership’ website notes:
“Lord Holland, awarded part of the compensation for under three awards for the enslaved people on his estates in Jamaica…”
Chancellor wrote that Holland, who had benefitted financially from the tax relief concessions:
“… learnt the lesson that those called on to make sacrifices in a good cause do so the more willingly when potential loss is compensated.”

 

So, now returning to the statue covered with bird droppings in Holland Park, what are we to think? No doubt, Lord Holland became an owner of slaves, but by an accident caused by one of Cupid’s arrows. Had he married someone else, he might not have become the inheritor of Caribbean plantations with slaves. If William Wilberforce was happy to regard him as a bona-fide Abolitionist, that is for me a favourable contemporary character reference for Lord Holland. Some, including me, looking at his statue with hindsight, might ask why he, an avowed Abolitionist, did not emancipate his slaves as soon as they came into his possession. I am willing to believe that the answer to this is far from simple.

[For reference to Chancellor, see: https://www.tandfonline.com/d…/abs/10.1080/01440398008574816]