William Wilberforce

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Telling the story

 William Wilberforce

This brief life of William Wilberforce is told in five episodes:
The honest MP
A new purpose
The campaigning years
Chains and charity

Also read a special feature about the history of the slave trade, and see our who’s who of those who were involved in the abolitionist cause.

For the full story of the life of William Wilberforce, see our further reading section – click here.

The honest MP

When William Wilberforce was at school, his teacher made him stand on the desk to read his essays so everyone could hear his eloquence. And he wrote a letter to the newspaper protesting against slavery.

 Wilberforce MP

Here was his whole career as an MP in embryo. He was one of the greatest orators in the age of orators, and he dedicated 45 years to fighting slavery and the slave trade.

William was 10 when his father died and his mother sent him from Hull to Wimbledon to live with his aunt. She was a kind friend to him, and brought him up in her evangelical Christianity. His mother disapproved strongly enough to take him home and made sure his new religion wore off.

Being from a wealthy trading family, William had enough money never to have to work, and became MP for Hull in 1780, aged 21. But he had strong principles, and in an age of political corruption, where MPs used parliament to make their fortune, he did not let wealthy sponsors buy his seat and votes. He was the most fiercely independent politician of his time, considering his only duties to be to public service and personal conscience.

He was a very close friend of William Pitt the Younger, who became the most important prime minister of the age when he was 24, in 1784. That year, Wilberforce astonished the country by winning the seat for Yorkshire, the most prestigious, powerful and protected in the country, not through the purses of leading nobles, but merely on the strength of his personality.

A new purpose

Wilberforce’s life took a new turn when he travelled to Nice with the teacher who had stood him on the desk 15 years before, Isaac Milner. He had not realised that Milner believed in the same evangelical religion as his aunt, and in the course of two holidays together, Milner reconverted him.

 American slave auction poster

Wilberforce shut himself away from his friends for months, while he studied the Bible and religious books. He gave up dancing, the theatre and high society parties, and more positively he determined to put his life to better use than he had before.

When he emerged from his cocoon, it was Pitt who suggested a way to do it: to take charge of getting a law passed to ban the slave trade. Some 40,000 slaves were taken from Africa every year by the British alone, crammed into ships like sardines, often with only two feet of headroom, and taken to the Americas. Some protesters had taken a lead – such as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson – but they needed someone to drive a bill through parliament.

Wilberforce, with the help of other abolitionists, spent two years researching the evils of the trade and helping a government inquiry. The result was a three and a half hour speech to the House of Commons, in 1789, detailing the horrors that had been uncovered and demanding an end to the trade.

MPs agreed it was “one of the ablest and most eloquent speeches that was ever heard in that or any other place.” It was backed by the first nationwide petition campaign ever. But there was a powerful slavery lobby in parliament, and the House of Commons decided to have its own two-year inquiry before going any further.

The campaigning years

 Plan of slave ship Brookes

Wilberforce continued the research, and when he brought the bill to the House of Commons a second time in 1791, he had more evidence than ever, but faced as much opposition. The bill to abolish the slave trade was passed – but only after a minister had inserted the word “gradually” into it, making it meaningless.

Wilberforce presented the bill again the following year, with an even bigger pile of petitions. But the French revolution was in full flight, Britain was at war with France, and there were slave revolts in the colonies – all of which combined to scare many MPs off abolition.

The cause of abolition now seemed hopeless, and one by one many of the other campaigners dropped away; but Wilberforce simply kept campaigning year after year. He brought no fewer than 11 abolition bills before parliament between 1789 and 1805, and all were defeated.

Then two things changed. Britain and Ireland merged in 1801 to create the United Kingdom. This brought 100 Irish MPs into parliament, most of whom opposed slavery. Also, the conquest of new Caribbean islands opened up new sugar plantations, bringing sugar prices crashing down and making existing slave owners happier to restrict slave imports.

The abolition bill was finally passed on 23 February 1807, by 283 votes to 16. Wilberforce sat in tears as MPs fought to pay tribute to his work and gave him three cheers – something unknown in parliamentary history.


 House of Commons, C 18th

The passing of the bill was a triumph, but not an end. Having outlawed the slave trade, Wilberforce and his friends spent many years fighting to get the law effectively enforced. They also had to persuade other slaving nations such as France and Spain to abolish the traffic, too, otherwise the slaves would simply be taken by someone else.

Wilberforce was driven into many other campaigns and causes by his Christian conscience. He supported better conditions for factory workers and chimney sweeps. He opposed bull baiting and was a founder member of the RSPCA. He backed free schools, hospitals and medical dispensaries. He was a founder of the Bible Society, and of the Church Missionary Society, which fought successfully to get missionaries allowed into British India. He personally gave up to £3,000 a year to people in need – equivalent to £150,000 today.

He and his evangelical activist friends became known as the Clapham Sect, as several of them lived together in Clapham, south London, and campaigned from there.

Wilberforce is criticized for caring only about slaves overseas, and not the exploitation of British workers under his nose. While this is clearly not true, his charity was counter-balanced by support for repressive legislation, such as allowing imprisonment without trial in wartime, and banning trade unions.

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About this module

Read about the life and work of William Wilberforce, who played a key role in the struggle to abolish the slave trade, 200 years ago. 2007 saw the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, which was achieved through the work of Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the time.

These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.

Categories: Lives, Biographical,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Telling the story

arrow The slave trade

arrow Who's who

arrow Slavery today

arrow Quotes

arrow Links

arrow Further reading

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