WILBERFORCE, William (1759-1833)
Plaque erected in 1906 by London County Council at 111 Broomwood Road, Battersea, London, SW11 6JT, London Borough of Wandsworth
Politician, Philanthropist, Anti-Slavery Campaigner
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
On the site behind this house stood until 1904 Broomwood House (for-merly Broomfield) where WILLIAM WILBERFORCE resided during the CAMPAIGN against SLAVERY which he successfully conducted in Parliament
The politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce is commemorated with a plaque on the site of his former home at 111 Broomwood Road in Battersea. He lived at Broomwood House (which was demolished in 1904) from 1797 until 1808, during the height of his campaign against slavery.
The plaque itself is of an unusual design, composed of chocolate brown-coloured tiles arranged in a square, with a decorative border.
EARLY LIFE AND POLITICAL CAREER
William Wilberforce was born in Hull, Yorkshire, to a wealthy merchant family. Educated at Cambridge, he decided on a career in politics early in life and was elected MP for Hull at just 21 years old. At Cambridge he developed a friendship with the future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who would remain a close friend and ally throughout his life. Despite this personal allegiance, however, Wilberforce adopted an independent political stance from the outset, declaring himself ‘no party man’ – a position made possible due to his lack of financial need to obtain a government post.
He converted to evangelical Christianity in 1785, and it was in part the strength of his religious conviction that would drive his commitment to abolition and social reform in the coming years. He was a gregarious and charming character, and his ability to gain the trust and support of others enabled him to channel his spiritual earnestness into a force for political change.
THE ROAD TO ABOLITION
Wilberforce first started campaigning against slavery in 1787, after meeting the abolitionists Sir Charles and Lady Middleton and Thomas Clarkson. He brought an Abolition Bill to Parliament in 1791, but the effects of the French Revolution and the slave rebellion in San Domingo (now Haiti) made MPs reluctant to support a measure they perceived as potentially destabilising.
Wilberforce’s attempts to bring back the Abolition Bill and other reforming measures, such as the Foreign Slave Bill, were all defeated in the ensuing years. MPs agreed to a compromise of gradual abolition in 1792, but in reality it was a vote for indefinite delay. In the meantime, in 1791 Wilberforce launched the Sierra Leone Company, which aimed to resettle former slaves on the west coast of Africa and promote legitimate trade with the region.
He also called for a spiritual revival to reverse what he perceived as a national moral decline. In 1797, he published the book A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the higher and middle classes of this country contrasted with real Christianity. It proved highly influential and has been called ‘the manifesto of the evangelical party of the time’.
BROOMWOOD HOUSE AND ABOLITION VICTORY
Wilberforce had a long and close association with Clapham. He lived for a time at his friend Henry Thornton’s residence, Battersea Rise House. In 1797, the year of his marriage to Barbara Spooner, he began to use Broomfield – newly built by Thornton in the grounds of Battersea Rise House – as an ‘occasional retreat’. Over the next 11 years he spent a great deal of time at Broomfield, which was within easy reach of London and was endeared to him ‘by much happiness enjoyed in it, as well as by its own beauty’.
These years were the most active and important of Wilberforce’s life: he became the leading light of the Clapham Sect and continued to dedicate himself to abolition. After a series of further setbacks he finally saw the Slave Trade Act passed by Parliament in 1807. His influential Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, published on 31 January of that year, proved decisive in the final phase of the struggle.
However, although the Act abolished the trade of enslaved people in the British Empire, it didn’t abolish slavery itself. It wasn’t until 26 July 1833, three days before Wilberforce died, that the Slavery Abolition Act passed its third reading in the House of Commons, finally paving the way for enslaved people in the British Empire to be freed.
LATER CAREER AND CONTROVERSY
Wilberforce sat in Parliament until 1825. Alongside his continued support of the abolition movement, he also campaigned to send Christian missionaries into India. He believed that Christianity would liberate India from the ‘moral and social ignorance and degradation’ that he attributed to Hinduism. He successfully passed the bill in the Commons in 1813 after delivering one of his most compelling speeches.
Many of his contemporaries, such as William Cobbett and William Hazlitt, accused Wilberforce of hypocrisy for supporting the rights of enslaved people abroad while neglecting the improvement of conditions for workers in Britain. ‘Never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country,’ wrote Cobbett. Wilberforce didn't support the unionisation of workers, and opposed an inquiry into the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which 11 political protesters were killed.
He also for many years opposed the emancipation of the Catholic faith, and disapproved of female anti-slavery activists: ‘[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions,’ he wrote, ‘these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture’.
- Read more about William Wilberforce in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (access via UK public library card or subscription).