Supporting the cause of abolition: the role of a wife

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

Itinerant anti-slavery speakers were key to the mobilisation of public opinion in Britain in the early nineteenth century, but they could not have spent so much time on the road without the support of others. Here we introduce excerpts from two letters written by one of those speakers, George Thompson, to his wife during his travels. We thank the Special Collections Manager at John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, for permission to do this.

George Donisthorpe (‘Tim’) Thompson was born in Liverpool on 18 June 1804. Described by Morgan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as anorator, slavery abolitionist, and political reformer’, he is recognised as being ‘the most effective British anti-slavery lecturer since Thomas Clarkson’ in the run up to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Thompson first came to prominence in 1831, when the then Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, recommended him as a traveling speaker to the London Anti-Slavery Society. It was also in that year that he married Anne Erskine Lorraine (‘Jenny’) Spry, daughter of Richard, a minister in the Methodist Connexion of the Countess of Huntingdon.  They had five surviving children, three girls and two boys, the first of whom, born in 1836, they named William Lloyd Garrison, after the charismatic American abolitionist.

In the first letter, Thompson was writing to his wife from the Lincolnshire market town of Brigg at midnight on Thursday 19 April 1832. He was clearly tired.  It was his fourth lecture that week and there was to be another one, plus five more the following week – two in Barton upon Humber and three in Hull.  But though ‘quite weary and exhausted’ he was keen to let his new wife know that this did not dampen his ardour. ‘Yet have many and many a time risen from the sofa when I could hardly hold my pen, or guide it, and have written a long letter to my Jenny’.  He was therefore disgruntled to find that she had not taken the time to write to him.

Does your Tim with all his faults forget his wife Or his friends? – Do multiplied engagements Cause him to forget his Jenny? – Do over-Whelming bodily exertions cause him to forget his Jenny?  . . . tell me I conjure you why you cannot find time to assure me at the appointed time the while I am caring for you – thinking of you – wishing for you, and labouring ever to prostration for you, you are also caring for and wishing for and thinking upon your Tim.

After complaining about the ‘want of attention on the part of my wife’ he continued with his self-pitying attack:

Why did I leave the Sofa and the security of the kindest friends to go ½ a mile to the post office? – because I expected a letter from my Jenny. Why did I refuse to let a servant go – though entreated gain & again because I expected a letter from my Jenny and it was too grateful a task to be to any one.

He graciously agrees to let her failure to write to him pass, and, after a small pang of conscience, instructs her to send a letter to the local Post Office in Barton. He also reminds her that she carries the full weight of responsibility for his happiness.

I forgive you – must forgive you. perhaps you Did write and the letter mis carried . . . Write me by return to the Post Office Barton – Lincolnshire. Study well your responsibility – Believe O Jenny believe what I have so often said & written, that your conduct – rules my destiny as far as a human being can govern the fate of another – Love me – devote yourself to me – live for me and all is well. (Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection [REAS]/2/1/22 University of Manchester Library Special Collections, Letters of George Thompson to his wife, April 19, 1832)

The letter finishes with a declaration of love, and a claim that he had intended no censure. Thompson’s modus operandi was well-known in abolitionist circles. An analysis of his correspondence shows that while he was both ‘charming and charismatic, he could also be vain, brittle, and self-absorbed.’ Described as ‘tall, handsome and articulate, with a penchant for biting sarcasm’, he travelled to America with his family in 1834 to preach the abolitionist message, but so fierce was the opposition he aroused, particularly among anti-abolitionist mobs, that he had to be smuggled out of the country in October 1835, for fear of his life. Anne and the children, meanwhile, were left to make their own way home, which, in the circumstances, may well have been a diversionary tactic.

By 1838, the year of the second letter, the Thompson family had settled in Edinburgh, and though his declarations of love had disappeared the sharp tone remains. Writing to Anne from London in February, after seven years of marriage, Thompson’s demands were sartorial rather than epistolary.

I find I need not have a court dress to go to the Queen and therefore, Let me have two new Shirts – my silk stockings, a pair of dress Shoes (perhaps Mr Gregory will make me a pair). Put into a parcel and sent early to Mr Wilson[?], who will carefully pack them, with some Clothes, and send them to me. Oblige me by attending to these things.

He requested that she write to the Post Office in Hull to confirm his demands had been met: ‘Remember, every thing I ask for Is wanted by the 14th!’ (REAS/2/1/43, Letters, February 38, 1838.)

The strains of itinerant lecturing made an early impact on the Thompsons’ marriage. He was often away for considerable periods of time, and she had to deal with the fact that the money he brought in was often barely enough to support the family. William Lloyd Garrison Thompson, who died in September 1851 at the age of 15, was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Dissenters’ section of Brompton Cemetery in London.  Though Thompson appealed to female audiences and helped to establish many women’s abolitionist societies, garnering considerable support for the abolitionist cause, as these extracts reveal, he could be petty and demanding. A self-professed radical, Thompson’s youthful insistence that his wife should ‘devote’ herself to him jars with his professions of equality, which ranged from abolition to free trade, parliamentary reform, disestablishment and religious rights.

George Thompson by Charles Turner, published by and after George Evans, mezzotint, 12 November 1842, NPG D40424 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Then and now, campaigning against Modern Slavery in Hull and the Humber

Andrew Smith

Coordinator

Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and the Wilberforce Institute

a.smith9@hull.ac.uk

Times change, as does the seemingly endless tide of social and humanitarian injustice that weighs on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Brought to the forefront of the public consciousness once again and increasingly apparent this last decade is the global epidemic of modern slavery and human trafficking. Here in Hull the focus and determination to fight is as stout as it has always been.

Hull has long played a leading role in campaigning to abolish slavery, from the work of William Wilberforce who was the leading parliamentary spokesperson in the movement to abolish the slave trade (c.1759-1833), to Christian preacher and antislavery advocate Salim Charles Wilson (c.1859-1946). Our efforts in Hull have always been focused on one aim, a safer community.

But where are we today? In a somewhat fitting homage to the original Hull Anti-Slavery Committee, our efforts are channelled and coordinated in part by the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership currently based at the Wilberforce Institute next to Wilberforce House Museum on High Street in our historic old town. Today’s efforts are much more of a whole partnership response across statutory, third sector and business organisations. We still focus on the ideas of freedom, equality and social justice as our forebears did but in an updated and more contemporary way.

I have had the enormous pleasure to work in the social sector for the last ten years in my role as founder of a small local homeless charity after my own experience of losing everything. Our approach is holistic at its core, with the aim of – you guessed it – creating safer communities. Over this time, I have seen our collective approach towards at-risk adults and children change, mostly for the better, but I know you will agree that our task is harder than ever before.

It feels to me that poverty, destitution, homelessness, conflict, our fragile global economy, our unquenchable consumer greed and strained public services are making it almost effortless for organised crime groups to exploit our most vulnerable. Be it through forced or bonded labour, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, county lines, domestic servitude or forced criminality, the trade in human misery is lucrative with often seemingly minimal risks for the perpetrators. The world has shrunk there is no doubt, and in many ways our now close-knit global community is more susceptible to crisis and abuse than ever before. It is often easy to feel like we live in a tiny Tupperware microclimate of injustice and some unseen power is holding the lid down so we can’t breathe. The time has come for us get together and punch some air holes in the side, or even lift the lid.

So, what can we do? I am certain we can use the positives of our condensed world to our advantage, much like exploiters and the countless menacing organised crime groups do. Using instant methods of communication, data sharing, awareness, training, campaigning and positive social action we can strengthen our net to protect victims and make sure the trade in human suffering is no longer an attractive prospect for these criminals. In Humberside we are working closely in partnership across the whole region better than ever, certainly in my professional life, to bring together everyone who can make a difference. Local authorities, the NHS, criminal justice organisations, charities, businesses, the University of Hull, the Wilberforce Institute, places of learning and worship and local support services share a vision of keeping people safe from abuse and making the area around the Humber a hostile environment for would-be exploiters.

Looking honestly at the factors that make people vulnerable to slavery will help us understand the steps we all need to take to make our communities more resilient. If we can prevent homelessness in more cases, empower children to say no to criminal gangs, or help people understand their healthcare entitlements for example, we will stop more people being in a situation of impending risk. Many young people and vulnerable groups on the fringes of our communities are not always aware of what support mechanisms we have in place to prevent crisis; they are, simply put, slipping through the net.

Over the next few years we will continue to make unwavering strides to identify and plug these gaps in provision with meaningful and substantive solutions that will afford everyone equal access to the full range of services that keep us all safe. A community is as good as the people in it, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is no place in Humberside for this woeful and rancid crime. I know that by learning from our past, and adding a spoonful of innovation and lashings of passion, we have a recipe that will transform our region into a safe space for everyone regardless of social or economic status.

#HiddenInPlainSight campaign at the University of Hull. See https://www.hull.ac.uk/work-with-us/more/media-centre/hidden-in-plain-sight