William Wilberforce | Ashley Karmanski

When people think of “Rogues”, and prominent people of the past, they often think of people involved in wars like Napoleon Bonaparte, or Winston Churchill. Rarely does anyone consider a man of peace, and that is why William Wilberforce is a unique character who does not get the recognition he surely deserves. 

William Wilberforce was born on the 24th August 1759 in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire. 

Wilberforce was described as a delicate, shy, sickly child, who lacked confidence and had poor eyesight. From a good family, he was sent to Hull Grammar school, and thanks to the help of the young headmaster at the school (James Milner), William began to gain confidence in himself and flourished at the school. 

Sadly, his time at the school was cut short when tragedy struck the family when his father, Roger Wilberforce, suddenly died at the age of 40. The world was a very different place to what we know now, and even more so for women with no husband, as a result, his mother could not cope, and William was sent to live with his uncle and aunty who spent most of their time in Wimbledon/ London. 

He was sent to a much more average boarding school in the borough of Putney, but did return to Wimbledon to spend the school holidays with his uncle and aunty, who he became increasingly close with. 

His uncle and aunty were both evangelical Christians and big fans of the renowned Methodist preacher of the time, George Whitefield. However, his mother was devoutly Church of England, she grew concerned about the influence his uncle and aunty had on him, and brought him back to Hull in 1771, a decision which didn’t please William at all. 

With the sad death of his grandfather and uncle within three years of each other, he was left a considerable sum of money at the age of just 17. This took away his appetite for study and left him leading the life of wat we might call a typical teenager/ student. He spent his time at parties and playing cards without a care in the world. Although, still a relatively shy person, Wilberforce grew tired of the lifestyle, and the way some of his friends behaved. 

He returned to his studies, and with the influence of his new friend, and future Prime Minister William Pitt, became very interested in politics, and decided that was where his future lay. Pitt and Wilberforce would go to the parliamentary gallery and watch debates together. 

In September 1780, at just twenty-one years old, Wilberforce ran for parliament in his home town of Kingston upon Hull. As was the custom at the time, it is said he spent around £8,000 (£1 then, is approximately £170 today) to secure the votes he needed. When he took his seat, he sat independently and said he was a “No party man”, he stuck to this principle and supported both the major parties of the time over different issues. This didn’t make a popular figure within parliament, but this didn’t concern him in the slightest. 

He took his parliamentary duties seriously, and supported any legislation that he believed would change people’s lives for the better. He did maintain his social life and was a gifted card player who also possessed a wonderful singing voice, which made him very popular in his social circles. 

Wilberforce had also become known for his exceptional talent for public speaking, in the house of commons, he had a formidable reputation, during debates, and often left older, more experienced parliamentarians speechless, and looking lost.  

In 1784, Wilberforce embarked on a tour of Europe which rekindled his religious faith. It was this tour that changed his outlook on life, and for a time, decided his future lay in the service of God, and not in politics. However, his friend, William Pitt, who recognised his talents and could normally count on Wilberforce’s’ support in the house, persuaded him otherwise. 

He later returned to parliament with a reinvigorated, fiery determination to do his best for others. He introduced a radical bill at the time, which advocated the reduction of sentences for women convicted of treason, at the time, treason included murdering your own husband, and usually resulted in the death sentence. The commons passed the bill, but the Lords rejected it.

Shortly after came an event that would change William’s life forever, and ensure his name would be immortal. He was dining with a friend, and met the reverend James Ramsay. Ramsay was a ship’s surgeon who decided to become a clergyman on the island of St Kitts (then known as St. Christopher) in the Caribbean. 

As well as being a member of the clergy, he was also a medical supervisor on the plantations. Ramsay explained to Wilberforce what he had seen over there and the conditions that the slaves were forced to work in. 

James Ramsay, having seen Wilberforce’s obvious horror and concern, asked him to meet a group of people who shared his concern. These included Hannah More, Sir Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton and Thomas Clarkson. At first, their aim was to promote greater Christian charity throughout the British empire, including the treatment of slaves.

This sparked his growing interest in humanitarian reform, and in November 1786, he received a letter from Sir Charles Middleton, urging Wilberforce to bring forward a bill in parliament for the abolition of the slave trade.

Records remaining from the time say that he felt unequal to the task, but sincerely felt it’s great importance, although he did not decline. 

Thomas Clarkson, who had become a friend of Wilberforce, and had himself been advocating for the abolition of the slave trade, starting visiting Wilberforce on a weekly basis, presenting him with first-hand evidence obtained from workers in the slave trade, and from the docks which often contained ships used for transporting slaves to and from the Caribbean. 

Although the campaign had been going on for some time, started by groups of Quakers, all parties recognised they needed credible representation within the house of commons to bring the issue into the mainstream. Wilberforce felt the cause very deeply, but was also very aware that around 80% of Britain’s overseas income came from the slave trade, and that it would be a monumental task to get the abolition bill passed by parliament. 

On the 13th March 1787, Wilberforce was invited to a dinner party in Lincolnshire by an acquaintance called Bennet Langton. Wilberforce was almost ambushed by all the attendees whose purpose was to lobby him hard in taking up their cause within the parliament. Other guests included William Windham MP, and Isaac Hawkins Browne MP. He was persuaded to bring the bill forward, on the condition, a more prominent person could not be found. 

He consulted with his friend William Pitt who urged caution, but did support the action behind closed doors. Pitt already had ambitions to be Prime Minister and did not want to risk too much at this early stage, especially on a policy that would be mostly met with discontent. 

In 1787, the society for effecting the abolition of the slave trade was formed. The aim being to make people aware of what was happening in the slave trade. The society was very successful in capturing the hearts and minds of the British public who largely got on board. Wilberforce joined the society in 1791. 

Wilberforce and his counterparts lobbied consistently for abolition, he worked so hard he was taken very ill for a short time which these days we would probably call a stress related illness. 

In 1791, he introduced the first abolition bill, but despite in-depth debate, the bill soundly defeated by almost 2:1 (163 votes to 88). Unfortunately for Wilberforce, war broke out with France and this put his agenda to the back of the queue, but his enthusiasm for the cause did not waver. 

However, in 1792, a second bill was brought forward and after contributions by prominent figures like William Pitt and Charles Fox, they were betrayed by Henry Dundas who suggested a slow reduction in the salve trade over many years which did pass the house. Dundas had previously pledged his support. Wilberforce and those on his side, felt the betrayal deeply, and would not accept this “compromise”. 

In 1795, leave was sought to bring forward a third bill, but this was defeated, public and parliamentary interest wavering due to the war with France. He then tried again in 1796, and this time, Henry Dundas, who had previously betrayed him, supported the bill. Sadly, after third reading, the bill was rejected again, it is said that many of Dundas’ supporters had taken free tickets to a new opera instead of attending the debate, and supporting the bill. 

Throughout the next few years, Wilberforce would bring more bills, but to no avail. 

William Pitt died in 1806 and Wilberforce moved to find support on the Whig benches, rather than the Tories. 

Lord Grenville, who supported the abolitionist cause was now the Prime Minister and made sure that the bill was brought once again. The previous general election had made the abolition of slavery a major issue and consequently, more anti-slavery MP’s were elected. The bill was cleverly brought to the Lords first as this was the toughest hurdle to jump. 

To much surprise, the bill passed the lords by a comfortable margin. This really gave them the breakthrough they had been after for so many years, and when the vote took place in the commons, it passed by 283 votes to 16. The bill killed most of the slave trade overnight.

MP after MP stood up and made touching tributes to Wilberforce, he sat on the benches of parliament, tears streaming down his face, no doubt tears of joy and huge relief. His life’s work had finally been realised. 

In the following years, William Wilberforce campaigned for better worker’s rights, prison reforms, restricting capital punishment, and many more noble causes. 

By 1824, his health was beginning to fail, and despite being offered a peerage, he resigned his seat in parliament and retired from public life. His Son (William) had tried different ventures and ran up huge debts, which he was forced to pay off, this left him with no choice but to rent his own home out, and left him living between friends and relatives houses for his remaining years.

In 1833, his health got progressively worse; he never recovered. In April 1833, he made what would be his final speech advocating the complete abolition of all slavery. The Whig government promptly introduced the bill for the complete abolition of slavery. On the 26th July, Wilberforce was told that the government had the necessary votes and the bill would be passed. 

Three days later, William Wilberforce died at his cousin’s house. One month later, the bill passed the house of Lords. Despite his wishes, parliament insisted he be buried in Westminster Abbey and on 3rd 1833, he was laid to rest close by his friend William Pitt. 

William Wilberforce, although not always a household name, contributed to many liberal values we hold dearly today, and this country owed him much. Rest in peace to a great man, a man of peace.

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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