William Wilberforce

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William Wilberforce, M.P.
William Wilberforce

Member of Parliament
for Kingston-upon-Hull
2-seat constituency
(with Lord Robert Manners, to 1782;
David Hartley, 1782–March 1784;
Samuel Thornton, from March 1784)
In office
1780 – 1784
Preceded by Lord Robert Manners
David Hartley
Succeeded by Samuel Thornton
Walter Spencer Stanhope
Constituency Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire

Member of Parliament
for Yorkshire
2-seat constituency
(with Henry Duncombe, to 1796;
Henry Lascelles, 1796–1806
Walter Ramsden Fawkes, 1806–1807
Viscount Milton, from 1807)
In office
1784 –  1812
Preceded by Henry Duncombe
Francis Ferrand Foljambe
Succeeded by Viscount Milton
Henry Lascelles
Constituency Yorkshire

Member of Parliament
for Bramber
2-seat constituency
(with John Irving)
In office
1812 – 1825
Preceded by Henry Jodrell
John Irving
Succeeded by John Irving
Arthur Gough-Calthorpe
Constituency Bramber, Sussex

Born 24 August 1759
Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire
Died 29 July 1833, aged 73
Political party Independent Tory
Spouse Barbara Spooner
Religion Anglican

William Wilberforce ( 24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was a British politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist who led the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade.

Early life

William Wilburforce was born in Hull, the son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–1768), a wealthy merchant whose father William (1690–1776) had made the family fortune through the Baltic trade and had been elected mayor of Hull on two occasions. The Wilberforces were an old Yorkshire family, the name deriving from the village of Wilberfoss, eight miles east of York. The elder William is described as a very delicate and somewhat sickly child.

William Wilberforce the younger attended Hull Grammar School and in 1768, at his father’s death, was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in St James’ Place, London and in Wimbledon, at that time a village to the south-west of London. During this time he was educated at school in Putney. It was also at this time that his aunt Hannah, sister of John Thornton and a staunch supporter of George Whitefield, influenced the young Wilberforce towards evangelical Christianity.

His mother and grandfather, concerned at these influences and his leanings towards evangelicalism (which, at that time, was regarded with suspicion by those who considered it as similar to Methodist "enthusiasm" and to be avoided by respectable Anglicans), brought him back to Hull in 1771, where he continued his education at nearby Pocklington School. He succeeded especially in English poetry and was known as a fine singer.

Wilberforce went up to St John's College, Cambridge in 1776, where he immersed himself in the social round of the students, and felt little inclination to apply himself to serious study. Amongst these surroundings, he befriended the young William Pitt, who would become a lifelong friend. Although at first shocked by the goings on around him, he later pursued a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle himself, enjoying playing cards, gambling, and late-night drinking sessions – although he refrained from doing so to excess; the extreme behaviour of some of his fellow students he found distasteful and he never engaged in their sexual excesses. He was awarded B.A. in 1781 and M.A. in 1788.

Early parliamentary career and conversion

While still at the university, having little interest in returning to be involved in the family business, Wilberforce decided to seek election to Parliament and stood in the General Election of 1780. In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one, he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull, spending as much as £9,000 on ensuring he received the necessary votes, as was the custom of the time. As an independent Tory he was an opponent of the North administration, sharing the general feeling of discontent with the government. He took part in debates regarding naval shipbuilding and smuggling, and renewed his friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the younger, with whom he frequently met in the gallery of the House of Commons, and they formed a lasting friendship, together with Edward James Eliot (later to become Pitt’s brother-in-law), another contemporary from Cambridge. In autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce and Eliot travelled to France together. They stayed in Rheims to improve their French, and were presented to the king and queen at Fontainebleau.

Pitt became prime minister in December 1783 and Wilberforce became a key supporter of his minority government. When Parliament was dissolved in spring 1784, Wilberforce was soon recognised as a Pitt supporter and candidate for the 1784 General Election. On April 6, when the Whigs were defeated, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.

In 1784 Wilberforce embarked upon a tour of Europe which would change his life and, ultimately, his whole future career. In October he travelled with his friend Isaac Milner, who had been Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge in the year that Wilberforce first went up. They went in the company of his mother and sister, to the French Riviera, where they spent some time. However, he had to return temporarily in February 1785, in order to give his support to Pitt’s parliamentary reforms. Milner accompanied him both back to England and on the return journey, and they used the time to read Philip Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion together, and later to study the New Testament. They were able to rejoin the party in Genoa, Italy, where they continued their tour to Spa, Switzerland. This is thought to have been the beginning of Wilberforce’s spiritual journey, and he began to rise early to read the Bible and pray, as well as to keep a personal private journal. He resolved to commit his future life and work wholly in the service of God. One of the people he sought guidance from was John Newton, the leading evangelical Anglican clergyman of the day and Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. All those he received advice from, including Pitt, counselled him to remain in politics.


The Clapham Sect members, with which Wilberforce was so intimately associated, began with Parliament where they became a by-word for integrity and thus earned for the nickname “the Saints”. Wilberforce himself was a persistent worker for Parliamentary Reform; he constantly protested against the corrupt system under which members were elected. He was the most regular of all MPs in his attendance in the House, and no man served on more committees than he. As time went on, he became the keeper of the nation's conscience and a speech was expected from him on almost every motion, for men believed him to be above party. Newton's hope that the example and presence of a consistent character would have an effect on his fellow-members was realized. On one occasion Sheridan, hearing a rumour that Wilberforce was about to retire from politics, stopped him and said: “Though you and I have not much agreed in our votes in the House of Commons, yet I thought the independent part you acted would render your retirement a public loss.”

Abolition campaign

In 1787, Sir Charles Middleton and Lady Middleton introduced Wilberforce at their house in Teston, Kent to the growing group campaigning against slave trade. Wilberforce, compelled by his strong Christian faith, was persuaded to become leader of the parliamentary campaign of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

After months of planning, on 12 May 1789 he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, in which he reasoned that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice. Drawing on Clarkson’s evidence, he described in detail the appalling conditions in which slaves travelled from Africa in the middle passage, and argued that abolishing the trade would also bring an improvement to the conditions of existing slaves in the West Indies. He put forward twelve propositions for abolition, largely based upon Clarkson's Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, which had been printed in large numbers and widely circulated. However, Wilberforce was opposed to extending the franchise to working class reformers, encouraged by Thomas Paine's Rights of Man to seek the vote. Wilberforce led the establishment of the Society for Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion to curb political aspiration and support for the French Revolution. In January 1790, Wilberforce succeeded in gaining approval for a Parliamentary select committee to consider the slave trade and to examine the vast quantity of evidence which he put forward.

In April 1791, Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before Parliament, Clarkson continued to travel and write. Between them, Clarkson and Wilberforce were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised public opinion as never before.

This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every subsequent session of parliament. He took every possible opportunity to bring the subject of the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793. Parliament, however, refused to pass the bill.

William Wilberforce was viewed as an enigma by some of his contemporaries: a popular but small and sickly man whose single-handed energy and determination helped to eventually overcome the powerful pro-slavery lobby in Parliament and compel the abolition of the slave trade. James Boswell (1740–1795), Samuel Johnson's official biographer (who had been present at the dinner when it had first been suggested that he take up the cause), later witnessed Wilberforce's eloquence in the House of Commons, and noted:

"I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."

War with France

The outbreak of the War with France in 1793 effectively prevented further serious consideration as the public mood was concentrated on the national crisis and the threat of invasion, although Wilberforce still persisted in his efforts to have the subject debated, and brought further motions in February 1795, February 1796 and May 1797.

In 1788 Sir William Dolben's Act had been passed which limited slave-carrying capacity on the ships which crossed the Atlantic. However, it was not until 1799 that the Slave Trade Regulation Act was passed to further reduce overcrowding on slave ships.

Public attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade began to shift, and the early years of the nineteenth century saw greater prospects for abolition. However, it was not until 1804 that Wilberforce had any real hope of moving a bill. That year, his bill did indeed pass all its stages through the House of Commons by June. Unfortunately, it was too late in the parliamentary session for it to complete its passage through the House of Lords. Wilberforce had to reintroduce it in the 1805 session, and on this occasion it was defeated on the second reading.

The final phase

Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs and the abolitionists in that party. He gave general support to the Grenville-Fox administration of February 1806 after the death of Pitt. Wilberforce and Charles James Fox thus led the campaign in the House of Commons, while Lord Grenville advocated the cause in the House of Lords.

A change of tactics, which involved introducing a bill to ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies, was suggested by maritime lawyer James Stephen in early 1806. It was a smart move, as the majority of the ships were, in fact, now flying American flags, though manned by British crews and sailing out of Liverpool. The new Foreign Slave Trade Act was quickly passed and the tactic proved successful. The new legislation effectively prohibited two-thirds of the British slave trade. This was in part enabled by Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, which had given Britain the sea power to ensure that any ban could be enforced.

The death of Fox in September 1806 was a blow to the abolitionists. Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire after Grenville called for a general election. He and Clarkson had collected a large volume of evidence against the slave trade over the previous two decades. Wilberforce spent the latter part of the year following the election writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was an apologetic essay summarizing this evidence. After it was published on 31 January 1807, it formed the basis for the final phase of the campaign.

Lord Grenville had introduced an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords, and made an impassioned speech, during which he criticized fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago," and argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy." When a final vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by the unexpectedly large margin of 41 votes to 20. Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey (now Viscount Howick) moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, who had laboured for the cause during the preceding twenty years, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16. The Slave Trade Act received royal assent on 25 March 1807.

Other campaigns

Although most remembered for his work towards the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce was also concerned with other matters of social reform. He wrote in his personal journals, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners." It was at the suggestion of Wilberforce, together with Bishop Porteus and other churchmen, that the Archbishop of Canterbury requested King George III to issue his Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787, which he saw as a remedy for what he saw as the rising tide of immorality and vice. This became the Society for Suppression of Vice in 1802, which led to the fining and imprisonment of many people, including free speech campaigners like Richard Carlile, for distributing the works of Thomas Paine and other secular reformers.

The British East India Company had been set up to give the British a share in the East Indian spice trade. In 1793, Wilberforce used the renewal of its charter to suggest the addition of clauses enabling the company to employ religious teachers with the aim of "introducing Christian light into India."

This plan was unsuccessful and the clauses were omitted, initially because of lobbying by the directors of the company, who feared their commercial interests would be damaged should the proposed legislation result in religious confrontations.

Wilberforce tried again in 1813 when the charter next came up for renewal. Using public petitions and various statistics, this time he managed to persuade the House of Commons to include the relevant clauses and the Charter Act 1813 was passed. His work thus enabled missionary work to become partly a condition of the renewed charter. (Although deeply concerned with the country, Wilberforce himself had never been to India.) Eventually, this resulted in the foundation of the Bishopric of Calcutta.

Wilberforce was also a founding member of the Church Missionary Society (since renamed Church Mission Society), as well as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). He also gave his support to local projects and was treasurer to a nearby charity school while he was living in Wimbledon.

Combination Act

Despite his role in ending the slave trade, Wilberforce was opposed to workers' rights to organise for better pay, conditions and working hours. In 1799 he drew up the Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity throughout the United Kingdom.

The National Lottery

When Wilberforce's friends reassembled at Battersea Rise after the second reading of the Bill for Abolition of slavery had passed the Commons by a huge majority, Wilberforce turned to Thornton and said, “Well, Henry! What shall we abolish now?” Thornton solemnly replied, “The Lottery, I think.” Eventually owing to the efforts of this group the Lottery did go, but Wilberforce's “reformation of manners” embraced far more than that. One has only to contrast the picture of eighteenth-century society as given at the beginning of this essay with the sobriety and high moral standards of early Victorian England to realize that a great transformation had taken place, and had taken place within an even shorter period than is usually recognized. In 1829, Francis Place, who was no friend to Evangelical religion, wrote: “I am certain I risk nothing when I assert that more good has been done to the people in the last thirty years than in the three preceding centuries; that during this period they have become wiser, better, more frugal, more honest, more respectable, more virtuous than they ever were before.” For this transformation Wesley was partly responsible, and Wilberforce and his friends built on Wesley's foundations, bringing their influence to bear in circles which the Methodists could never hope to reach.

Wilberforce was an outspoken critic of the National Lottery of his day. In 1817 he described the state lottery as 'a national sin'. As a result of the campaigning of various members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce the lottery was brought to an end by the government in 1826.

Emancipation of slaves

Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.
Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.

Wilberforce continued with his work after 1807. His concern about slavery led him to found the African Institution, which was dedicated to the improvement of the condition of slaves in the West Indies. He was also instrumental in the development of the Sierra Leone project, which was dedicated to the eventual goal of taking Christianity into west Africa. Wilberforce's position as the leading evangelical in parliament was acknowledged. He was by now the foremost member of the so-called Clapham Sect, along with his best friend and cousin Henry Thornton and Edward Eliot. Because most of the group held evangelical Christian convictions, they were dubbed "the Saints."

By 1820, after a period of poor health and a decision to limit his public activities, Wilberforce continued to labour for the eventual emancipation of all slaves. In 1821, he asked Thomas Fowell Buxton to take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons.

Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies in early 1823. In this treatise, he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery. He claimed that their total emancipation was not only morally and ethically justified, but also a matter of national duty before God.

The year 1823 also saw the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society). On 15 May 1823, Buxton moved a resolution in Parliament against slavery, a debate in which Wilberforce took an active part. Subsequent debates followed on 16 March and 11 June 1823, in which Wilberforce made his the last speeches in the Commons.

In 1824, Wilberforce suffered a serious illness which led to his resignation of his parliamentary seat. He moved to a small estate in Mill Hill, north of London, in 1826. This resulted in his health improving somewhat. In his retirement he continued his passionate support for the anti-slavery cause, to which he had given his life. He maintained an active correspondence with his extensive circle of friends.

By 1833 his health had begun to decline. He suffered a severe attack of influenza and never fully recovered. On 26 July 1833, he heard and rejoiced at the news that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day, he grew much weaker and died early on the morning of 29 July. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on 3 August 1833. The funeral was attended by many members from both Houses of Parliament, as well as many members of the public. The pall bearers included the Lord Chancellor and the Duke of Gloucester.

The Wilberforce Monument, Queen's Gardens, Hull.
The Wilberforce Monument, Queen's Gardens, Hull.

In Hull, £1,250 was raised by public subscription to fund the erection of a monument to Wilberforce. The foundation of the Wilberforce Monument was laid on 1 August 1834 in (what became) Victoria Square. The 102 foot (31 meter) Greek Doric column, topped by a statue of Wilberforce, was moved to its current site on the axis of Queen's Gardens in 1935. The Column is now used as a logo by Hull College, in whose campus the monument stands.

A statue to the memory of Wilberforce was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1840, bearing the epitaph:

"To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull, August 24th 1759, died in London, July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: the Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only redeemer and saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the resurrection of the just."


In April 1797 Wilberforce completed A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity, which he had been working on since 1793. This was an exposition of New Testament doctrine and teachings and a call for a revival of Christianity, in view of what he saw as the moral decline of the nation. It was an influential work and illustrates, far more than any other of his writings, his own personal testimony and the views which inspired him in his life's work.

After the death of Fox in September 1806, Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire. He spent the latter part of the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised the huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and Clarkson had accumulated over two decades. It was published on 31 January 1807, and formed the basis for the final phase of the abolition campaign.

In early 1823, Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. In this work, he argued that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified, and a matter of national duty before God.

Marriage and family

A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in Hull, where Wilberforce was born.
A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in Hull, where Wilberforce was born.

On 15 April 1797, he met Barbara Ann Spooner (1777–1847), eldest daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire, a banker. Within a fortnight of their first meeting William had proposed. The couple were married in Bath, Somerset on 30 May 1797 within six weeks of their first meeting. Their children were William Wilberforce (b 1798), Barbara (b 1799), Elizabeth (b 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce (b 1807).


The 17th century house in which he was born is today Wilberforce House museum in Kingston upon Hull. A sixth-form college is named after him in the east of the city, as is a building at the university.

One of the house (divisions) of Holland Park School, known as the 'socialist Eton,' is named after him.

A film titled Amazing Grace, about the life of Wilberforce and the struggle against slavery, directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd playing the role of Wilberforce, was released on 23 March 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the date the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to ban the transport of slaves by British subjects.

Wilberforce University located in Wilberforce, Ohio, is named after William Wilberforce. The university is the first one owned by black people, and is a historically black college ( HBCU).

Various churches within the Anglican Communion commemorate Wilberforce in their liturgical calendars (also known as the calendars of saints) including the Anglican Church of Canada ( 29 July) and the Episcopal Church in the United States of America ( 30 July).


  1. ^ BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, 22 February 2007
  2. ^ Sickly shrimp of a man who sank the slave ships: William Wilberforce March 25, 2007 profile by The Sunday Times
  3. ^ BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, 22 February 2007
  4. ^ Keay, John. India: A History (New York: Grove Press Books, distributed by Publishers Group West, 2000). pp. 429
  5. ^ http://www.hsus.org/about_us/celebrity_support/william_wilberforce_1.html
  6. ^ Wilberforce 2007, retrieved 21 February 2007
  7. ^ http://books.google.com/books?vid=OCLC17335538
  8. ^ BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, 22 February 2007
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