Professor John Oldfield
Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Dr Judith Spicksley
Lecturer in Economic History
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
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 an ‘orator, 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.