Day One Publications
London, 1817. The Italian statesman Count Pecchio was present for the start of a new session of Parliament. As he watched, one event fastened itself upon his memory: the arrival of William Wilberforce. ‘When Mr. Wilberforce passes through the crowd,’ Pecchio observed, ‘every one contemplates this little old man, worn with age, and his head sunk upon his shoulders, as a sacred relic; as the Washington of humanity.’
Wilberforce had led the twenty year fight to end the British slave trade. It was a victory known the world over. He had persevered despite death threats, chronic illness and the long war against Napoleon’s France. Yet Wilberforce was no dour, stodgy icon. Rather, friends and family were hard put to adequately describe his winsome personality. Historian Sir James Mackintosh perhaps said it best: ‘I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points.’ Mackintosh was commenting three years before Wilberforce’s death. He had, along with so many others, witnessed Wilberforce’s unceasing charitable interests. A conservative estimate puts the number of these at seventy. Educational reform, better working conditions in factories, legislation for the poor and public health initiatives – these and many more had been the focus of his parliamentary life.
Mackintosh had also known the character of the man – as at ease with children as with statesmen – and whose natural eloquence was described by Prime Minister William Pitt as ‘the greatest I have ever known.’
Wilberforce’s last victory came two days before his death. At long last, slavery itself would be abolished throughout Britain’s colonies. His legacy lives on today. Colleges and universities bear his name. For kings, presidents and many others, his life remains a beacon – representative of a persistent and genuine commitment to principled leadership.
What makes for a great social reformer? Wilberforce’s youth, at times troubled, was marked by contrasts. He found a boyhood hero and knew heart-rending losses. Yet all the while, as he later said, ‘a gracious hand leads us in ways that we know not’
William Wilberforce could proudly trace his ancestry back to the 12th century. Under King Henry II, Ilgerus de Wilberfoss had served in the Scottish wars, and successive generations resided in the township of Wilberfoss, eight miles east of York, from which the family had taken its surname. A branch of the family moved to Beverley around the middle of the 16th century, and some years later, at the opening of the great rebellion against Charles I that led to the English Civil War, a William Wilberfoss served as mayor of Beverley. The same office was filled twice in the city of Hull in the north of England, by his great-grandson, also named William Wilberfoss, or, as he fixed its spelling, Wilberforce. Alderman Wilberforce, as he was known, had inherited a sizable family fortune derived from the Baltic trade. He was also heir to a considerable landed property. The younger of his two sons, Robert, served as a partner in the family merchant house in Hull. It was here that Robert’s son William, the future reformer, was born on 24 August 1759.
1759 is a year now remembered as Britain’s annus mirabilis, or year of wonders. It had been a year of victories during the conflict with France known as the Seven Years’ War. Battles had been won on land at Quebec and Minden, and at sea off Lagos and at Quiberon Bay. Forces under the leadership of General Wolfe and Admiral Hawke had achieved victories that seemed to verge on the miraculous.
Culturally speaking, this was the year in which the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time, and in which the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, was born. It was also the year which witnessed the birth of William Pitt the Younger, later to become Prime Minister. In the years to follow, Pitt and Wilberforce would develop a deep and lasting friendship, one of great significance for Britain.
The Wilberforce family lived in a red-brick Jacobean mansion located on High Street, Hull. Although Wilberforce’s grandfather, the Alderman, owned land in the regions around Hull and the estate of Markington near Harrogate, the family had no great country house. The High Street mansion was the centre of family life. Finely cooked meals were served in the elegant oak panelled dining room, and guests would pass through a handsome archway that allowed passage from the front to the rear of the residence; there were attractive walled gardens in the front and rear of the house for a boy to play in.
Midway down the archway on the right, was the main entry into the mansion. Upon entering, the visitor immediately saw a wide, grand and graceful staircase that led to the home’s most prominent rooms. Overhead was a beautiful Wedgwood blue ceiling, with white bas relief sculpted edgings. Just below this ceiling was the great black eagle that served as the family crest. Exquisite taste and refined gentility were the lasting impressions that all this conveyed. Here lived a family that had attained prominence and wealth.
And it was from here that young Wilberforce, starting at the age of eight, would walk to the Hull Grammar School. It was a school of distinction, numbering among its former students the 17th century poet and politician Andrew Marvel. As an only son and future heir to his father’s substantial fortune, Wilberforce’s education was undertaken with care. His relationship with his father in particular was close. William attended the Hull Grammar School as a day-boy for two years. Though small, he took an active part in sports, and showed signs of having a first-rate mind. Even at such a young age, his elocution so impressed his seventeen year old tutor, Isaac Milner, that he was made to stand on a table and asked to read aloud, as an example to his fellow students. Holidays were special times, too. He would then visit Alderman Wilberforce in Ferriby, a village seven miles distant, along the River Humber.
Tragically, in the summer of 1768, just before his ninth birthday, Wilberforce’s father died. It was the second death of a loved one in a year, the first being that of his eldest sister Elizabeth, aged fourteen. His mother, also named Elizabeth, was expecting another child, and following the death of her husband Robert, she became gravely ill; fearing the worst, it was decided (very likely by the Alderman) that Wilberforce would go to live with his father’s elder brother, another William, who lived in London at St. James’s Place.
A touching account of Wilberforce’s boyhood sensitivity has survived. It dates from about the time of his father’s death. A family friend who frequently stayed at the High Street mansion, and was once taken ill whilst there, observed that, ‘An unusual thoughtfulness for others marked his youngest childhood. I shall never forget how he would steal into my sickroom, taking off his shoes lest he should disturb me, and with an anxious face look through my curtains to learn if I was better.’
Uncle William and his wife Hannah were childless, and so they lavished love on their grieving nephew and made him their heir. Wilberforce developed a particular fondness for their country home in Wimbledon at Lauriston House. When he came of age some years later, their Queen Anne-style villa was bequeathed to him. It was an elegant home, situated on five and half acres on the south side of Wimbledon Common and within easy walking distance of Rushmere Pond. Architecturally, it was distinguished by tall windows on both of the main floors. Inside, the staircase walls and ceiling were graced with murals painted by the noted Russian artist Angelica Kauffman. It was an altogether welcoming place. Sadly, the villa no longer exists, but its handsome coach house remains. A blue plaque has been placed there in Wilberforce’s memory.
Standards for private education often varied widely in the late 1700s, and the school in Putney at which Wilberforce was now placed was said to have been ‘of the meanest character.’ It left a vivid impression on young William:
‘Mr. Chalmers the master, himself a Scotchman, had an usher of the same nation, whose red beard—for he scarcely shaved once a month—I shall never forget. They taught writing, French, arithmetic, and Latin... with Greek we did not much meddle. It was frequented chiefly by the sons of merchants, and they taught therefore everything and nothing. Here I continued some time as a parlour boarder: I was sent at first amongst the lodgers, and I can remember even now the nauseous food with which we were supplied, and which I could not eat without sickness.’
Wilberforce remained two years at this school. Holidays were spent at Lauriston House, with occasional visits to Nottingham and Hull. His time at the Putney school left him with no bonds of lasting affection, but the faith of his aunt and uncle did. Both had been deeply influenced by the popular evangelical preacher, George Whitefield.
This was the period of English history that has become known as the Great Awakening. A spiritual revival was sweeping across the land, fuelled by the preaching of men like George Whitefield and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and in Wales, Howell Harris. There is little doubt that this widespread revival of true Christian faith not only held back England from the revolution and anarchy that plagued France towards the end of the century, but prepared the ground for the two great causes that Wilberforce would later take up as his life’s work.
All the available evidence suggests that Wilberforce never met the great evangelist, Whitefield, but he grew close to someone who had been greatly influenced by Whitefield, and who would have a great influence on his life: the former slave-ship captain, turned parson, John Newton. It was Newton’s practice regularly to visit the Wilberforce home to conduct what he called ‘parlour preaching.’ During one series of parlour sermons, Newton is known to have expounded John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to William and Hannah Wilberforce and their guests.
Young William listened at length to stories of Newton’s days at sea, and he was deeply drawn to the warm character of the former captain. Newton’s kindness, along with the love and attention he received from his uncle and aunt, had its effect upon the young Wilberforce. His letters home to his recovering mother began to show a distinctly religious tone. But his mother and grandfather would have none of that. ‘If Billy turns Methodist, he shan’t have a sixpence of mine,’ his grandfather declared. His mother, meanwhile, was dispatched to Wimbledon to bring her boy home. Wilberforce remembered, ‘I deeply felt the parting, for I loved them as parents. Indeed, I was almost heartbroken at the separation.’ He wrote to his uncle: ‘I can never forget you as long as I live.’
When mother and son returned to Hull, she and the Alderman set about scrubbing his soul clean of Methodism, which was considered in polite society to be nothing more that excessive enthusiasm. Newton’s parlour sermons were replaced with a constant round of visits to the neighbouring gentry. Wilberforce recalled that the theatre, balls, great suppers and card-parties were the delight of the principal families in the town. The usual dinner hour was two o’clock, and at six they met for sumptuous suppers. This kind of life was at first distressing to him. His religious impressions continued for a considerable time after his return to Hull but since, as he put it, ‘no pains were spared to stifle them’, they slowly ebbed away. Gradually, distress gave way to acceptance, and acceptance gave way to a great interest in all that was held out before him. It could hardly have been otherwise, for he was ‘everywhere invited and caressed.’
Wilberforce had also been placed, soon after his return to Hull, with the Rev. Kingsman Baskett, master of the endowed grammar school of Pocklington. Baskett had formerly been a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and was described as ‘a man of easy and polished manners – an elegant though not profound scholar.’ As grandson to one of the principal inhabitants of Hull, Wilberforce was treated at Pocklington with unusual liberality. He boarded in the master’s house and generally led a life of idleness and pleasure.
Nevertheles, signs of the man he would later become were not wholly absent. He was said to have inherited his mother’s intellectual gifts. Despite his lack of discipline, he cultivated a taste for literature, and committed passages of English poetry to memory. His favourite poem was The Minstrel by James Beattie, which he learned by heart during his morning walks. Poetry and walks would always provide him with much pleasure and encouragement. Wilberforce also proved to be a good writer. And though, as one classmate remembered, he seldom began writing his compositions till the eleventh hour, he always excelled the other boys.
Kingsman Baskett’s ties to St. John’s College very likely proved the deciding factor in Elizabeth Wilberforce’s decision to send her son there. Since she and the Alderman cherished hopes that William would further increase the family fortune and its prestige, it would be no bad thing that he turned out more or less like Baskett: a man of easy and polished manners – an elegant though not profound scholar. Such a man would certainly retain the family’s eminence among the great families of Hull, and perhaps he might even obtain a position in Parliament. Either way, Elizabeth was leaving nothing to chance. She had decided upon St. John’s, and St. John’s it would be. But if Elizabeth Wilberforce thought her son safely on course for the future that she and the Alderman planned for him, events would soon prove that he was very nearly diverted from it.
By the time he went up to university in October 1776 William was a thorough religious sceptic. He had no strong sense of moral principles to guide his course, and by the death of his uncle he had been left ‘the master of an independent fortune.’ This would prove fateful. ‘On the very first night of my arrival’, he recalled, ‘I was introduced to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives. I lived amongst them for some time.’ Wilberforce’s first days at St. John’s College, Cambridge, were spent by his own admission, in ‘shapeless idleness.’ He gambled, drank and danced the nights away.
On the other hand, during that first year at St. John’s, Wilberforce confessed that he was often horror-struck at the conduct of his companions. He resolved to shake off his connexion with them and decided to spend more time among the Fellows of the college, perhaps owing in part to the friendship he shared with Kingsman Baskett. The kind of life he had known at Pocklington was more familiar, and very likely a good deal more comfortable because it was a known quantity. There was something about the lives of his early, dissolute friends that was unsettling. Though drawn to it at first, he now instinctively shied away from it. This decision separated Wilberforce from friends who might have encouraged him to become a rake, but it was not an about-face. Rather, it was a decision to resume the kind of holding pattern he had done at Pocklington: a bit more polish to his manners, and occasional forays into English literature, or the Greek and Roman classics, as his fancy dictated.
The Fellows at Cambridge did nothing to discourage this tendency. Wilberforce recalled, ‘Their object seemed to be to make and keep me idle. If ever I appeared studious, they would say to me, “Why in the world should a man of your fortune trouble himself with fagging [tedious study]?”’ Wilberforce could later claim, ‘I acquitted myself well in the college examinations; but mathematics, which my mind greatly needed, I almost entirely neglected, and was told that I was too clever to require them. Whilst my companions were reading hard and attending lectures, card parties and idle amusements consumed my time. The tutors would often say within my hearing, that “they were mere saps, but that I did all by talent.” This was poison to a mind constituted like mine.’
Wilberforce was also ambitious, keenly so, and this was a further reason why he applied himself to reading literature and the Greek and Roman classics. His sense of ambition was fired also in the last year or so of his time at Cambridge by newer friendships he made with young men like William Pitt, the son of Lord Chatham who was the former prime minister known as the ‘Great Commoner’. Other friends were sons of the nobility or of members of Parliament. Gradually, Wilberforce began to see himself taking a place in the House of Commons with them. It was not unthinkable, since one of his cousins had already secured election to Parliament, and William thought it a great thing. He now made sure he applied himself enough to his studies so as to avoid being disgraced should he embark on a career in public life. If he chose this path, he had no need to work to gain a substantial income. Inherited wealth had seen to that.
So, by the time Wilberforce concluded his studies at St. John’s, he had decided what he wanted. He would not be a partner in his family’s merchant house. Quite another course beckoned: a career in politics.
Hull is a city with a rich and varied heritage. For centuries, it has been a maritime centre and her citizens have served Britain and the world. The 17th century poet and politician Andrew Marvell had ties to Holy Trinity Church, where his father served as lecturer, and to the Hull Grammar School, where he was educated. And of course, Hull was the birthplace of William Wilberforce. Just across from Wilberforce Drive is the grand memorial column that the citizens of Hull raised to his memory.
Any visit to Hull should begin with a tour through the Wilberforce House Museum, located at 23 High Street.
There one can see the room in which Wilberforce was born, the handsome oak-panelled dining room in which he and his family entertained guests, many works of art and historical displays that bring the story of this peerless reformer to life.
There are other places in Hull that make a visit memorable as well. Other museums include the Hull and East Riding Museum (on 36 High Street) website: http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums/hulleast/index.php which features natural history and archaeological displays.
The Maritime Museum (in Queen Victoria Square), with its noted collection of paintings, artefacts and models. Website: http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums/maritime/index.php
The Streetlife Transport Museum (also on High Street), which houses a new motor car gallery, carriage gallery, a larger street-scene with several new shops, and a hands-on interactive exhibition area. website: http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums/streetlife/index.php
To experience Hull’s maritime culture as it is now, one should visit the Hull Marina, situated amidst a picturesque setting on the Humber estuary (adjacent to Albert Dock and just upstream of the River Hull). Website: http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/visithull/hull_marina.php
The Hull town centre is only a short walk across the road. It features many shops and stores, as well as restaurants, cafés and licensed premises providing food.
Cambridge was a place endeared to Wilberforce for the years he spent there as an undergraduate at St John's College (1776–80). Founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, its alumni include not only Wilberforce, but the classicist Roger Ascham, the poet William Wordsworth, the physicist Paul Dirac and the athlete Christopher Brasher. Cambridge was also endeared to Wilberforce for the friendships he forged there, most notably with his friend and spiritual mentor Isaac Milner, who moved from Hull Grammar School and was now President of Queen’s College, and Charles Simeon, the evangelical clergyman who served Holy Trinity Church for over fifty years. It was Simeon who famously had carved on the inside of the church pulpit, where only the preacher could see, the words ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’
Cambridge is a place rich in Christian history. The Round Church, the second most visited site in Cambridge, is dedicated to the presentation and preservation of the Christian heritage of Cambridge. Visitors there can view a specially produced video, Saints & Scholars, see compelling wall displays, and join guided tours of the city and university. No visit to Cambridge is complete without a tour of the Round Church.
Whilst visiting the Round Church, the visitor is only a street or two away from many fine shops, restaurants and cafés. The same is true for those wishing to have an overnight stay – there are many hotels (covering a range of accommodation prices) within easy walking distance of the Round Church. For website information on shops, restaurants and cafés, see: http://www.cambridgeshirechamber.co.uk/