D and I finished reading Wilberforce by John Pollock with only a couple of hours to go before the book group meeting last Thursday. As D said it was like climbing a mountain, ‘a hard slog at first and when you get half way you wonder why you are reading it and whether you should give up but as you’ve got so far decide to carry on. When you reach the top you see that it was all worthwhile.’
It’s an achievement and also somewhat of a relief to complete the book. We both found it hard to get into and probably wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t for the book group. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many references to the people of the time, both in politics and society in general, that without some background in the period you begin to flounder and the eyes glaze over. Other members of the group had found the same. But if you like reading historical and biographical books don’t let this put you off. There are fascinating insights into family life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, references to the French Revolution and its effect in England, visits to Yorkshire, the Lake District, Buxton (to take the water and endure the ‘horrible treatment of Skin Rotations‘ – a massage bath lying on a flat dish of copper), and to Bath, to mention but a few.
The main cause and aim of Wilberforce’s life was the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself. He also wanted to remake England by reforming the morals, attitudes and fashions of the nation. The majority of the book is made up of the account of the twenty years struggle to end the slave trade through legislation, culminating in the passing of the Act of Abolition in March 1807. This made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. In America also an Act of Congress outlawed the slave trade.
Wilberforce’s character gradually reveals itself throughout the book in extracts from his letters, diary entries, and contemporary accounts of him by friends, supporters and opponents. I particularly liked Marianne Thornton’s memory of him:
He was as restless and volatile as a child himself and during the long and grave discussions that went on between him and my father and others, he was most thankful to refresh himself by throwing a ball or a bunch of flowers at me, or opening the glass door and going off with me for a race on the lawn ‘˜to warm his feet’. I knew one of my first lessons was that I must never disturb Papa when he was talking or reading, but no such prohibition existed with Mr Wilberforce. His love for, and enjoyment in, all children was remarkable.
The Wilberforce household at Broomfield in Clapham was ‘a rather eccentric home‘, with its unkempt shrubberies and domestic servants who ‘were deserving rather than efficient, nor would he cast off the useless or infirm until they found suitable berths.‘ The servants adored Wilberforce. Guests had to fend for themselves in ‘Yorkshire‘ way at dinner -Barbara (Wilberforce’s wife) would
see that Wilberforce’s plate had plenty and he was too short-sighted to notice the others; then Dean Milner’s stentorian voice (so Marianne Thornton recalls) would be heard roaring ‘There was nothing on earth to eat‘; and desiring the servants to bring some bread and butter, he would add ‘and bring plenty without limit’, while Mr W would join in with ‘Thank you, thank you kindly, Milner, for seeing to these things. Mrs Wilberforce is not strong enough to meddle much in domestic matters.’
Wilberforce was an excellent orator, good company, and irresistibly happy according to his friends’ accounts. He was involved in so many other causes, including agricultural improvements, medical aid for the poor, education in charity and Sunday Schools, improving living conditions for the poor, campaigning against the use of boys as chimney sweeps, distributing Bibles through the British and Foreign Bible Society, improving conditions for prisoners, education for the deaf and training for young men who would make good clergymen, etc, etc. As Pollock says ‘Good causes attached themselves to Wilberforce like pins to a magnet.’
Wilberforce was converted to Christianity in 1785. At first he felt he was not ‘in the true sense of the word a Christian‘, because he was still behaving as a man of the world. Pollack writes that Wilberforce ‘began to sicken of the profligacy and selfish luxury of the rich, of the hours they wasted in eating.’ He thought he must withdraw from the world, but after correspondence and talks with Pitt and later with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace‘ and many other hymns) he remained in politics. He introduced family prayers in his household, and took ‘the Sacrament regularly. On Sundays he went to church twice, and would neither travel nor discuss politics except in gravest emergency.’ He tried to introduce a new spirit of tolerance ‘ it was his ‘endeavour to promote the essentials of Christianity, softening prejudices, healing divisions, and striving to substitute a rational and honest zeal for fundamentals, in place of a hot party spirit.’
He was buried on 3 August 1833 in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of Londoners mourned.
Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers supported the Pall. Members of both Houses walked in the procession.
‘The attendance was very great’, recorded a Member in his diary that night. ‘The funeral itself with the exception of the Choir of the Abbey perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.