William Wilberforce – Life, Career & Death

William Wilberforce was a politician and humanitarian campaigner whose work helped to abolish the slave trade in the UK. It was through his dedication to the cause, along with his determination to overcome the many obstacles that lay before him, that made William a great historical Yorkshireman.

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Growing Up

William Wilberforce

William was born in 1759 on the High Street of Hull which is now known as the “Old Town”. He was first educated at the city’s grammar school before moving to live with his aunt and uncle in London after his dad died when he was 9.

While he was in London, William attended boarding school in Putney for two years. During his time in the capital, William became interested in Christianity which resulted in him being moved back to Hull when he was 12 as his mum and grandad were Church of England. He then attended Pocklington School.

At the age of 17, William went to St John’s College in Cambridge. During his time here, his grandad and uncle died leaving him a healthy fortune.

William quickly became bored of his education and felt that there wasn’t a need for it. Instead he decided to drink and gamble, fully adopting the student lifestyle. Despite this, William passed his exams and got a bachelors and masters in art.

During his time at St John’s, William met the future Prime Minister William Pitt. The two became good friends and would watch The House of Commons debates together from the public gallery.

After graduating from university, William came to the realisation that he wanted to make a change in the world. He decided to use some of his wealth to better effect and run for Parliament in 1780.


An Independent Candidate

William won a seat in his native Kingston upon Hull as an independent candidate. This meant that he wasn’t tied to a particular party which gave him the freedom to vote with his conscience rather than it being forced.

Although this was beneficial in the fact that he could make up his own mind as to who he voted for, it also came with its own negatives. If William wanted to propose any new legislation he would have to find the support from the other parties in order for it to be passed.

Tour of Europe

In 1784, William decided to go on a tour of Europe and travel to its many towns and cities. This trip would ultimately change his life and help him to re-discover his Christian faith.

Gone were the days of drinking and gambling, instead William dedicated himself to a path which followed God. He would go on to use his position to initially try and pass laws on social reform, factory conditions and public health, and then later on in his career, slavery.

International Slave Trade

At the time, Great Britain was heavily involved with the International slave trade. Although there were never any plantations on these shores like in the USA, the UK grew rich from the business by sending sales supplies to Africa such as copper, cloth, guns, and ammunition.

These materials would then be traded for African slaves who were shipped to the Caribbean and America. The money raised through selling them to plantation owners would be used to buy products such as sugar, cotton, and rum to be brought back to Britain for consumption.

Raising a Motion

In 1787, William met the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and joined his movement, “The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”. William and Thomas would meet regularly to read and discuss issues surrounding slavery include their terrible conditions and lack of human rights.

In the same year, William had a discussion with his old friend William Pitt who was currently the Prime Minister at the time. Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to raise a motion in Parliament to abolish slavery.

William spoke passionately about the issue in the House of Commons in 1789:

“I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain for having suffered this horrible trade to be carried on under their authority.”

Despite his speech causing much discussion, the motion was defeated by 163 votes to 88. The problem was that too many MP’s, along with the establishment at the time, had a stake in the slave trade.

Great wealth was being created for the country and the people in the corridors of power throughout the 1790’s. As a result, these people were not going to get rid of slave trade easily.

Another Abolishment Law

Undeterred, William tried again to instigate another abolishment law in 1792. It was decided under the influence of Home Secretary Henry Dundas that abolition should be “a gradual process over several years”.

Although this may have appeared as progress in the movement, it was instead giving a reason to delay the abolition. Many saw this idea as a way of delaying the decision forever while seeking to appease the reformers in the process.

In 1793, war was declared on France. Any suggestions of disrupting the slave trade, which was an important source of income during these times of conflict, were talked down and dismissed as rebellious talk.

The previously vocal abolition society stopped meeting and Thomas Clarkson retired to the Lake District in 1795. William continued in Parliament unsuccessfully attempting to introduce new anti-slavery bills with little success.

Slowly Changing Attitudes

Despite these setbacks, people were starting to adopt a different attitude. During the war, Napoleon’s France re-introduced slavery to their African colonies and so, from a British point of view, the abolition of the trade was being seen as anti-French.

A more invigorated Thomas Clarkson re-joined the fold in 1804. The society began to hold meetings again with the original members along with some new ones.

Within the same year a new bill was introduced. This was passed in the Commons but ran out of time in the session to be voted on by the House of Lords.

In 1805 a second Commons vote followed however despite its previous success, it ended with the bill being rejected again. Strangely, even the Prime Minister William Pitt voted against it despite supporting Wilberforce through the process.

A different tactic was needed which led to a new bill being proposed, this time introducing the new law which meant that British Citizens couldn’t be involved with aiding the French slave trade. This made sense to many MP’s as it seemed silly to help a nation of which they were at war with.

The movement to abolish slavery was given a further boost when William Pitt died and Lord Grenville became the new Prime Minister. He was in favour of abolishing slavery and the issue had been one of the biggest reasons why he was voted into power.

Members of the military turned in favour of abolishing the trade too after witnessing the horrors of slavery during their service in the Napoleonic war. Furthermore, the 1806 Act of Union allowed 100 pro-abolition Irish MP’s into the House of Commons too.

Together with William, Lord Grenville promised to set the wheels in motion in order for the 1807 bill to be launched and passed first in the House of Lords and then the Commons, the opposite way round to normal laws. This worked and The Slave Trade Act 1807 received Royal assent in March of that year.

William Wilberforce

The Slave Trade Act 1807

The new act didn’t abolish slavery altogether as it didn’t free the people who were already slaves. However, it did prevent their flow across the Atlantic by making it illegal for British ships to carry slaves on them. As a result the trade stopped altogether in the colonies.

Abolishing & Reducing Trades

Despite William’s failing health in his later years, he still led the campaign to abolish slavery altogether. He was joined by his many followers which included religious groups, women, and like-minded politicians.

Throughout 1807 and 1832, a raft of European countries signed agreements with Britain to abolish or reduce their trades. The countries that got involved were Sweden, Portugal, The Netherlands, Spain, and notably France.

Enforcing the ban was a difficult job. The Royal Navy patrolled the seas fining captains £100 per slave aboard their boats which resulted in some slaves being thrown overboard if they saw an approaching Navy ship.

Anti-Slavery Society

During the 1820’s, William continued his work to fully abolish slavery worldwide. Due to his age and ill health, he took more of a political back seat and became a figurehead for the emancipation cause.

William left the majority of the work to his friend and fellow MP Thomas Fowell Buxton. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was set up as a follow on from the original 1787 group.

Three years later in 1826, William resigned his seat in the Commons due to failing health. Despite this, he continued to chair meetings, lead petitions, and make speeches on the subject while Thomas continued to promote the campaign inside the House of Parliament.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

The 1832 Reform Act enabled more people to vote and as slavery was becoming a national issue, more pro abolitionist MP’s were voted into power. This paved the way for the 1844 Slavery Abolition Act which ended slavery in the British Empire and emancipated 800,000 African slaves, mainly in the West Indies, and all children under six.

The Death of William Wilberforce

A frail William was told of the guaranteed passing of the bill in both houses and became ecstatic. Three days later, William died.

William Wilberforce is buried and honoured at Westminster Abbey near his friend and adversary William Pitt. On the day of his funeral, Parliament stopped working as a mark of respect to him, his dedication, and his work.

William Wilberforce’s Legacy

William’s achievements have been celebrated in many ways. These include a statue in his hometown of Hull as well as the house in which he was born converted into a slavery museum.

In 2006, a film was created called “Amazing Grace” based on his life and work. It commemorates two hundred years since the passing of the Slave Trade Act.

William Wilberforce showed the character of a true Yorkshireman. His grit, determination, and ability to take on the Southern-based establishment proved to be life changing to everyone in the world.