BUXTON, Sir Thomas Fowell (1786–1845)
Plaque erected in 2007 by English Heritage at The Directors’ House, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, Shoreditch, London, E1 6QL, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
Sir THOMAS FOWELL BUXTON 1786–1845 Anti–Slavery Campaigner lived and worked here
The anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton was at the head of the anti-slavery movement in 1834 when abolition was secured. He is commemorated at the Directors’ House, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London, his main home from 1808 until 1815.
Buxton went to school in Greenwich, where his schoolmates nicknamed him ‘Elephant’ Buxton on account of his size – his adult height was 6 feet 4 inches. After his university education at Trinity College, Dublin, he married Hannah Gurney in 1807, and the following year at his uncle’s invitation joined the Spitalfields-based brewery of Truman, Hanbury and Company.
Thanks to his good business sense, Buxton was offered a partnership in 1811, when the firm became known as Truman, Hanbury and Buxton. He remained an active, and largely resident, director until 1818, doing much to raise the educational standards of the workforce. It was during his active directorship that the works went over to steam power.
Inspired by the Quakers – both Buxton’s mother and his wife, Hannah, were members of the Society of Friends – he also took an active role in local charitable and philanthropic concerns. In 1816 he delivered a forceful speech at a Mansion House meeting for the relief of distressed weavers in Spitalfields, which helped to raise the then enormous sum of £43,000. It also brought him to the attention of William Wilberforce.
Buxton was elected Member of Parliament for Weymouth in 1818 and from 1819 took an increasingly prominent role in the parliamentary campaign against slavery. The ageing William Wilberforce chose him to lead it from 1823, and from then on Buxton introduced many motions to the Commons for the gradual abolition of slavery. In that role he faced fierce hostility from those who had invested in the trade in enslaved people, as well as criticism from some anti-slavery campaigners impatient with his tactics and his willingness to compromise over the issue of financial compensation for slave owners.
Buxton’s persistence paid off when the level of support for his private bill in 1832 prompted Lord Grey’s government to take up the measure. The abolition of slavery in British dominions was given royal assent in August 1833, and the law came into force on 1 August 1834.
Buxton took an interest in prison reform, following the lead of his sister-in-law Elizabeth Fry. In 1818 he published An inquiry: whether crime and misery are produced or prevented by our present system of prison discipline, based on his visits to Newgate prison. He also worked to end suttee, the old Hindu practice of the self-immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and to soften the penal code at home, under which the death penalty still applied for many minor crimes.
Although Buxton lost his parliamentary seat in 1837 he continued to work against slavery. That same year he founded the Aborigines’ Protection Society, to ensure the well-being and rights of indigenous peoples subject to colonial powers. He campaigned for legislation against the trade in enslaved people in other countries’ spheres of interest and worked to ensure that the British Navy enforced the ban on slavery in the British Empire. His book The African Slave Trade (1839) presented evidence that the worldwide trade in enslaved people had actually increased since 1807, and its sequel, The Remedy (1840), advocated the promotion of legitimate commerce as a means of ending African involvement in the traffic of indentured labour.
Buxton was made a baronet in 1840. He died in 1845, reputedly worn out by the collapse of a British expedition to Niger which he had helped plan in support of his aims. A statue of him stands in Westminster Abbey near the monument to Wilberforce, and the Buxton Memorial Fountain, commissioned by his son Charles as a memorial to the emancipation of slaves, stands in Victoria Tower Gardens, Millbank.
The Directors’ House
In March 1806 Buxton told his wife-to-be, Hannah, that ‘Uncle Sampson has offered to lend me a house in Brick Lane for 7 years, it is a very nice house and will save the rent of another’. The couple moved into the Directors’ House, part of the Old Truman Brewery, two years later, and it was their main residence until 1815. Buxton continued to stay there occasionally in later years after he and his family moved (initially to Hampstead and then to Norfolk).
It was at the brewery on 4 June 1831 that Buxton entertained 23 members of Lord Grey’s cabinet, then in the process of enacting parliamentary reform, and soon to agree to abolish slavery. After a dinner of steaks and porter, high spirits overcame Henry Brougham, the Lord Chancellor – a long-time colleague of Buxton’s in the anti-slavery movement – who mounted a brewery horse and rode it around the yard.
The Directors’ House, built in about 1740, has a ten-bay frontage facing on to Brick Lane and forms an integral part of the Old Truman Brewery buildings. This was also known as the Black Eagle Brewery, the sign of which still hangs above the door.