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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

William Wilberforce  from The Life of William Wilberforce  by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce (1839)
William Wilberforce
from The Life of William Wilberforce
by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce (1839)







Profile

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 - 29 July 1833) was a highly influential politician who was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade.

Family background
 
William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of Robert Wilberforce and Elizabeth Bird. His father was a merchant, as was his grandfather, who had amassed considerable wealth through trade with the Baltic.

When his father died prematurely in 1768, Wilberforce was sent to London to live with his aunt and uncle, William and Hannah Wilberforce. However, when his grandfather and mother realised that he was being influenced by Hannah’s Methodist beliefs, Wilberforce was taken back to Hull, where his predilection for evangelicalism was temporarily quashed.

Friendship with Pitt

St John's College, Cambridge  from Memorials of Cambridge  by Charles Henry Cooper (1861)
St John's College, Cambridge
from Memorials of Cambridge
by Charles Henry Cooper (1861)
Wilberforce went up to St John’s College, Cambridge in October 1776 where he obtained a BA in 1781 and an MA in 1788. Whilst at Cambridge, he became friends with William Pitt the younger, who was also intent upon a career in politics. Wilberforce entered Parliament in 1780, just a few months before Pitt, who entered the following January.

William Pitt  from Memoirs of George IV  by Robert Huish (1831)
William Pitt
from Memoirs of George IV
by Robert Huish (1831)
Pitt often stayed at Wilberforce’s house in Wimbledon. They were members of the same clubs, in particular, Goostree’s, a Pall Mall club where around twenty-five Cambridge contemporaries, whom Wilberforce referred to as “The Gang”, met regularly. Pitt and Wilberforce travelled together to France in the autumn of 1783 with another friend, Edward Eliot. Their relationship was strained from time to time by political differences, but they remained friends until Pitt’s death in 1806.

Conversion

In 1785, after travelling extensively with Isaac Milner, later Dean of Carlisle, Wilberforce had a Christian conversion experience. He considered giving up politics, but was persuaded not to by the urging of both his good friend, Pitt, and the evangelical ex-slave master, John Newton. Wilberforce demonstrated an ability to combine spiritual earnestness with charm and tact whilst his Christian principles gave him integrity and perseverance.

What was Wilberforce like?

Wilberforce was known to his friends as Wilber; none of his friends called him William. He was short in stature and, in later years, he developed a curvature of the spine which caused him to become bent over. Although he suffered from weak eyes, he did not wear spectacles; as a man of fashion, he used only an eye-glass on a riband. His conversation was witty and he had a good singing voice. However, he was not a good time keeper, was inclined to be lazy, and gained a reputation for being the noisiest member in the House.
William Wilberforce aged 20 from The Life of William Wilberforce by RI & S Wilberforce (1839)
William Wilberforce aged 20
from The Life of William Wilberforce
by RI & S Wilberforce (1839)
Marriage and family life

On 15 April 1797, whilst in Bath, Wilberforce met Barbara Ann Spooner, the daughter of a Birmingham banker. He proposed within a fortnight and the couple were married at Walcot Church in Bath on 30 May. Wilberforce was a devoted husband and father to his six children: William (1798), Barbara (1799), Elizabeth (1801), Robert (1802), Samuel (1805), and Henry (1807). Sadly, both his daughters died before him and his eldest son caused him much grief and financial loss. The younger sons, however, took orders, which delighted their father.

Ill health and opium

Wilberforce suffered from ill health throughout much of his life and often travelled to Bath to recuperate. He was prone to stress-related illness, probably ulcerative colitis, and to combat a bout of this illness in February 1788, he started to use opium; he regularly used this to combat his intestinal disorders for the rest of his life.

A fitting farewell

Following a further period of illness, Wilberforce resigned from politics in 1825. He died in London on 29 July 1833. Such was the esteem in which Wilberforce was held that, despite his own desire for a quiet funeral, many eminent persons requested permission from his family for him to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

The funeral was held on 3 August, attended by thousands of mourners, including many distinguished persons from both houses. The pall bearers included the Duke of Gloucester; the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham; and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Manners-Sutton, later, Viscount Canterbury. 

North end of transept in Westminster Abbey  from The Pictorial Handbook of London (1854)
North end of transept in Westminster Abbey
from The Pictorial Handbook of London (1854)
Read more about Wilberforce's political career

Sources used include:
Cooper, Charles Henry, Memorials of Cambridge (1861, William Metcalfe)
Huish, Robert, Memoirs of George IV (1830, Thomas Kelly) 
Pollock, John, Wilberforce (Constable, 1977; Kingsway, 2007, Eastbourne)
Price, Thomas, Memoir of William Wilberforce (1836, Light & Stearns, Boston)
Weale, John, The Pictorial Handbook of London (1854, Henry G Bohn)
Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel, The Life of William Wilberforce (1839, John Murray)

2 comments:

  1. The movie Amazing Grace features Wilberforce. The chronology is sometimes hard to follow and there are errors of fact in the movie( Royal Dukes and peers in the same house as MPS) and Wilberforce looks too healthy and handsome... but stil it is one of the few movies I bought and sometimes watch. Wilberforce is indeed one who exemplifies courage and perseverance.
    Peole who study the 18th century say that the depiction of Pitt the younger in the movie Amazing Grace is amazing, Despite the historical errors and confusing chronology ( the movie flips over 15 years in seconds sometimes) I think Amazing Grace does give an insight into some amazing people.

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  2. Just found this movie and sought more information immediately to marvel at the long arduous journey that those, like Wilberforce, took on to abolishing slavery.

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