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Biography of William Wilberforce

Portrait of William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was an eighteenth/nineteenth century parliamentarian best known for opposing slavery.

When and Where was he Born?

24th August 1759, High Street, Hull, Yorkshire, England.

Family Background:

William Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy merchant. His grandfather was a Baltic merchant and an Alderman of the town.

Education:

Hull Grammar School for two years. Then Pocklington School in Yorkshire.  St. John’s College, Cambridge University.

Timeline of William Wilberforce:

1766: He attends Hull Grammar School at the age of seven.

1768: Death of William Wilberforce’s father. He is sent to London to be looked after and educated by his uncle in St James Place. He becomes influenced by his Aunt’s interest in the Methodist movement and John Wesley in particular. His favourite guest Preacher at his local church is the Reverend John Newton who had once been a Captain on a slave ship but who had turned to the church later. He was a fiery preacher and hymn writer (his most famous is “Amazing Grace”) and had a big effect on Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s mother is worried by all this and calls him back to Hull. He then is sent to Pocklington School in Yorkshire for the next six years and it is here that he writes his first anti-slavery letter.

1776: Wilberforce meets William Pitt at Cambridge University who was later to become Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister. During his time at Cambridge he lived an idle life playing cards and drinking and turned his back on Methodism.

1780: Influenced by William Pitt he stands for Parliament unsuccessfully on leaving University in Kingston-upon-Hull which is one of the oldest constituencies in Britain.

1784: Although he again stands for Hull he is also returned as as one of the Knights of the Shire of York and duly takes this seat in parliament and as a Tory supports the government of Pitt. He becomes increasingly interested in social problems after a holiday in the South of France when he read a religious book by the English cleric Philip Doddridge and this renewed his religious zeal. He then agrees with Lady Middleton that he should use his influence to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. The first Bill is defeated even though a large number of Members of Parliament didn’t turn up to vote as they were frightened of taking a position on the subject. Between 1783 and 1793 one port alone, Liverpool, shipped in 303,000 slaves from West Africa to the New World and overall Britain supplied over three million to the Spanish, French and British Colonies around the world.

1787: Wilberforce founds an association for the reformation of manners.

1791: Between this date and 1805 similar Bills are put before parliament and all are defeated sometimes in the Commons and sometimes by the Lords. Wilberforce becomes a figure of hate in some quarters and all sorts of false stories are spread concerning him.

1797: He marries Barbara Spooner.

1801: He founds the periodical the “Christian Observer”.

1806: The Slavery Bill is eventually passed by the House of Lords in December.

1807: The House of Commons finally passed the Bill on February 23rd with a large majority and it receives the Royal Assent in March which effectively bans the trading in slaves.

1825: William Wilberforce retires from Parliament due to ill health.

(1833): In the month after Wilberforce died the Slavery Abolition Act finally gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

When and Where Did he Die?

29th July 1833, London, England of influenza.

Age at Death:

74.

Written Works:

1797: “A Practical View of Christianity”.

Marriage:

1797 to Barbara Spooner.

Site of Grave:

North Transept, Westminster Abbey, London, England, close to the graves of Pitt, Fox and Canning

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, London
 (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

AVON:

Lived at No 9 North Parade and 36 Great Pulteney Street.

LONDON:

British Museum

YORKSHIRE:

Wilberforce House and Georgian Houses, High Street, Hull (Wilberforce’s Birthplace and also includes an exhibition and artifacts about slavery)
Statue to Wilberforce outside Hull College.
Pocklington School, Pocklington YO24. (He wrote his first anti-slavery letter there).

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