How a meeting on a tree stump near Croydon led to the abolition of slavery in Britain

By - Monday 12th September, 2016

Jonny Rose reveals the connections between Croydon and one of the nation’s greatest philanthropists

William Wilberforce.
Photo by Mira66, used under Creative Commons licence.

Many thanks to Sean Creighton for highlighting Croydon’s shameful involvement in the transatlantic slave trade in these very (virtual) pages. Readers interested in Croydon’s dark history can find more on the topic at the Croydon Citizen here, here, and here.

Which neatly brings me to some of my favourite groups from modern history, the Clapham Sect: a network of wealthy and influential evangelical Anglicans, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (among many other causes) and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group lived and operated from just over the Croydon border in nearby Clapham.

William Wilberforce: the evangelical campaigner

Although the Clapham Sect had many members, perhaps the figure best known to Citizen readers will be William Wilberforce, a gifted speaker and parliamentarian who, at the age of 24, found himself elected to one of the most powerful seats in the House of Commons.

Six months into his parliamentary career, young Wilberforce found himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis that had grown out of conversations he had with Isaac Milner. Milner, an evangelical Anglican with a gift for winsomely articulating the intellectual heart of Christianity, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and later the president of Queen’s College in Cambridge.

Wilberforce returned to London in the fall of 1785, full of doubts about his future. His conversations with Milner had convinced him of the truth of Christianity, but he did not see how, or if, a Christian could serve God in politics. He was in the midst of what he would later describe as his “Great Change”, or his embrace of evangelical Christianity.

Wilberforce developed a strong conviction that it was the responsibility of every believer to make the world a better place

Not knowing where else to turn, Wilberforce sought out John Newton, the former slave-ship captain turned Anglican parson whom we remember today as the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Wilberforce had known Newton as a boy, but Wilberforce’s family – alarmed by his growing attachment to someone they considered a religious fanatic – took him away from Newton’s influence.

Yet the seed of the gospel planted in Wilberforce’s heart by Newton never completely withered. When Wilberforce needed someone to turn to, he knew that he should seek out Newton. It was an inspired choice: Newton helped Wilberforce to see that he could serve God in politics and make a difference there, just as biblical figures such as Daniel and Joseph had done in Old Testament times.

Wilberforce developed a strong conviction that it was the responsibility of every believer to make the world a better place. He abhorred what he called “shapeless idleness” and he became deeply concerned with fostering moral and cultural renewal in Britain. Necessarily, this led him to challenge the great evils of the age. Wilberforce wrote in his diary on 28th October 1787 that God had set before him two great objectives: the suppression of the slave trade and the work of moral reform.

The Clapham Sect and the campaign for the abolition of slavery

In 1788, Wilberforce met with future prime minister William Pitt the Younger “near Croydon” (Hayes, to be precise) in the grounds of Holwood House, at a tree stump now known as ‘Wilberforce Oak’, and informed him of his intentions.

In 1789, Wilberforce introduced to parliament his first bill to abolish the slave trade. Over the next decade the bill was blocked with arguments ranging from the economic cost to families ruined by the abolition of their trade to suggestions that abolition would lead slaves to revolt and massacre their masters. It would not be until 1807 that the British slave trade would be abolished.

It took twenty years further of campaigning before Wilberforce would see the ultimate fruit of his labour: three days before he died, he learned that parliament would pass the legislation abolishing slavery throughout the entire British Empire.

Just imagine the chutzpah that it would take to take on the social and economic norms that permeated British society

In that same time, Wilberforce led or was a member of over seventy different benevolent societies. He helped to found the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hospitals for the poor, the Royal Institution, and the National Gallery. He was active in educational reform, prison reform, the promotion of public health initiatives and advocating shorter working hours and improved conditions in factories.

It easy now to use the comfortable, undemanding distance of hindsight to relegate Wilberforce’s efforts to simply a line in history. But just imagine the chutzpah that it would take to mount an almost single-handed campaign against a social and economic norm that permeated every aspect of British society.

Despite our moral self-delusions and posturing on social media, very few of us have either the will- or brainpower to challenge the great structural injustices of our time in any kind of effective way, or the backbone to be socially vilified for holding unpopular views that we believe to be right. Wilberforce did – and whilst his story is not one that finds its loci perfectly situated within Croydon, it’s certainly one that the borough has, ultimately, benefitted from.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Sean Creighton

    Thanks for this. As with all people who make a major contribution Wilberforce had both commendable characteristics and faults. He was a flawed Parliamentary strategist being outmanoeuvred by Pitt’s Home Secretary Dundas. The abolition of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade in 1807 only came about because of a short-lived administration led by anti-slavery supporters like Charles Grey. Emancipation only happened because Grey (as Prime Minister Earl Grey) achieved the passing the Reform Act ion 1832 which meant more anti-slavery MPs were elected; but his Government feel a few weeks later. Wilberforce’s role was over egged by Thomas Clarkson’s history of the campaigns – yet it was he whose prodigious efforts around the country helped build the mass abolition movement and the research case against the slave trade. Wilberforce was fearful of the radical ideas sparked by the French Revolution. The Corresponding Societies campaigned for both Parliamentary reform and anti-slavery. Wilberforce shut down the national campaign because of this. He supported Pitt’s repressive legislation limiting the rights of free speech and assembly, and was instrumental in the passing of the Combination Act banning the formation of trades unions. Yes we should acknowledge Wilberforce’s Parliamentary figure-head role, but within the context of the more dubious aspects of his views.