Guide to the William Wilberforce Letters, 1782-1837

Collection Overview

Unpublished letters of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) - philanthropist, member of the House of Commons after 1780, and leader of the movement in England for the abolition of the slave trade - written to Thomas Harrison, a close friend and a member of the Duke of Gloucester's West India Committee. The content of the letters relates almost entirely to business matters and events involved in Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade; a campaign in which Thomas Harrison seems to have served as one of Wilberforce's valuable assistants. Other prominent leaders of the movement, whose names occur throughout the letters, were James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay, and Thomas Clarkson. In addition, in his letter of Aug. 11, 1817, Wilberforce praised the Duke of Gloucester for his many services.

Approximately one-half of the letters in the collection were written by Wilberforce in 1814 or 1815. Most of the more interesting of the letters will be found in this group. In one letter of Aug. 10, 1814, Wilberforce wrote Harrison that he had been able to persuade Thomas Clarkson not to attend the Congress of Vienna. Perhaps, wrote Wilberforce, Clarkson might be able to further the cause of the abolitionists; but if he failed, the blame would be on his [Clarkson's] shoulders, and not Castlereagh's. Articles appeared in The Edinburgh Review during 1814 which questioned William Pitt's motives in supporting the abolitionists. Wilberforce (Oct. 22, 1814) wrote Harrison concerning his relations with the younger Pitt (d. 1806), and stated that his belief was that Pitt had been a "sincere friend" of the abolition movement. Other letters for 1814 mention such things as the West India Committee and its membership, including the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Grey, Marquis Lansdowne, and Lord Grenville (Mar. 20 and Apr. 20), and the planned composition and distribution of pamphlets describing the evils of the slave trade and advocating its abolition (Apr. 26 and Oct. 3). The letter of Apr. 26 suggests the establishment of a special board, sanctioned by the King, to see to the composition of such works.

Wilberforce was in touch with men in high government positions in England. In 1815, he gained permission to interview Lord Bathhurst (letter of May 23, 1815); and Lord Liverpool took Wilberforce into confidence and informed him when the Portuguese consented to abolish the slave trade north of the line (letter of Feb. 11, 1815). That Wilberforce took core to ascertain the views of prominent government officials and members of Parliament regarding the abolition issue is best seen in his letter to Harrison of Dec. 14, 1815, in which he expressed his desire that Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham and others speak to their political friends, and that the Duke of Gloucester sound out Lords Grenville, Lansdowne, and Holland. The problem at hand at this time was whether or not the general principle of abolition could be enforced. Wilberforce was then of the opinion that it could not.

There are a few interesting bits of information in the letters after 1815. In 1817, Wilberforce was bothered by the hostile pamphlets of one of his opponents. Joseph Marryatt. Wilberforce wrote to Harrison concerning this matter on Aug. 4, 1817, and discussed the urgency of having one of James Stephen's speeches in answer to Marryatt printed and distributed as soon as possible. Wilberforce recognized the need for much printed material to educate the peoples of all countries, and especially the "unprincipled Frenchmen" (letter of Aug. S. 1821), in support of abolition of the slave brace. In this connection, Wilberforce was excited over the use that could be made of the information regarding slave ships provided by Sir George Collier (letter of Aug. 15, 1821).

The collection contains five undated letters.

95 items added 5-15-56.

The majority of these letters are written by Wilberforce to his close friend John Scandrett Harford, Jr. of Blaise Castle (near Bristol, England). The slave trade is occasionally mentioned. One letter of Oct. 12, 1814,speaks of French publications which favor abolition and mentions Chateaubriand, Humboldt, Sismondi, and Madame de Staƫl. It also tells of the Duke of Wellington, the King of France (Louis XVIII), Prince Talleyrand, and the English Prince Regent (later George IV) as being favorable to abolition. A letter of Nov. 23, 1814, continues to speak of abolition in the light of world events, and Wellington and Tallevrand's correspondence with him. One fragment of a strong letter, dated 1815, gives a graphic account of two slave ships. This letter also asks Harford to try to interest the Roman Catholic Church in banning the slave trade. Wilberforce also mentions trying to interest Sir Thomas Acland and Lord Castlereagh in making an attempt to interest the Pope in the abolition of the slave trade.

The other letters speak of many things, some are fairly personal, giving advice and reminiscing; some tell of his family and friends.

A May 13 [1812?] letter speaks of Dr. Samuel Johnson. A Sept. 8, 1812, letter asks Harford (during his bridal tour of Ireland) to try to ascertain the comparative moral effects of the Catholic and Protestant religions on the peasant and servant classes of Ireland. A Feb. 7, 1827, letter from Chas. Forster to Harford tells of the efforts of the Church of England clergy to convert the Roman Catholics in Ireland.

These letters often mention charities, especially the Bible Society. A May 2, 1821, letter speaks of investigating and learning about colleges. Wilberforce speaks of the "experiment" in education being conducted by Harford. This is leading up to Harford's giving land and helping found St. David's College in South Wales in 1822. A Nov. 9, 1827, letter speaks of St. David's College.

Attached to a letter of Oct. 16 [1819?] is an interesting pamphlet which gives the pertinent facts about the "House of Protection for the Maintenance and Instruction of Girls of good character."

A July 9, 1816,letter speaks of Zachary Macaulay; and a May 7, 1817,letter tells of a Macaulay letter falling into the hands of the pamphleteer Joseph Marryatt. Wilberforce also speaks bitterly of Marryatt's attack on himself.

Mrs. Harford is a daughter of Richard Hart Davis, and sister of Hart Davis.

An August 10, 1819, letter speaks of Richard Hart Davis' going to Mauritius Island in an official capacity.

An April 14, 1819, letter tells of Wilberforce's failing eyesight and his need to employ a reader and a secretary. Almost every letter after this date mentions his poor eyesight and his failing health. As a consequence of his wretched health, Wilberforce sends a letter of resignation to Parliament. Mrs. Wilberforce writes (Feb. 5, 1825) to Mrs. Harford telling of this, and asking her not to mention the resignation until it is official. She also mentions telling Hannah More.

Hannah More is often spoken of in these letters, as she was the friend of both the Wilberforce and Harford families, A Sept. 11, 1821, letter speaks of her illness and of the encouraging letters she continually receives from the United States. Letters of Aug. 10, 1819; Sept. 4, 1819; Dec. 5, 1825; Oct. 18, 1828; Nov. 15, 1828; and Aug. 3, 1829, mention Hannah More in reference to proposed visits in her home. An Oct. 15, 1830, letter mentions her in connection with an anti-slavery meeting. A Mar. 26, 1832, letter tells of sending her the account of the death of her god-daughter, Elizabeth (Wilberforce) James.

A Mar. 29, 1833, letter from Clara [Dicey] Clarke speaks of Hannah More. An April 2, 1833, letter speaks of Hannah More as being in a pitiable condition.

A Jan. 23, 1830 letter talks of an economic panic among the farmers and of Hart Davis' reaction to it. The letter also speaks of Lord Llverpool's letter to the Bank of England.

A Sent. 6, 1831 letter reminisces about the Dean of Carlisle and speaks of an Alexander Knox letter he wants.

Wilberforce very often gives news of his children, especially after 1820. He was very proud of Samuel, who later became Bishop of Oxford and of Winchester; Henry William, who later became a Roman Catholic Journalist and author; and Robert Isaac, who became Archdeacon of West Riding. In letters of Feb. 21, 1832 and Mar. 26, 1832 Wilberforce tells of Robert Isaac's engagement to Agnes Everilda, the daughter of Francis Wrangham. Wilberforce's two daughters, Barbara and Elizabeth, died before he did.

Touching letters of Feb. 24, 1831, Mar. 25, 1831, and Sept. 6, 1831 tell of Wilberforce's son, Wllllam, losing so much of his father's money through a dairy farm, that Wilberforce had to economize in order to keep up his children's heavy allowances. Wilberforce rented his home and let most of his servants go, only keeping a "man and maid and reader." He spend his last few years in staking the waters" at Bath, and in visiting his children and his friends. His health grew much worse and he died in 1833.

The Dictionary of National Biography states that John Scandrett Harford, Jr. used his recollections and Wilberforce's letters to write his reminiscences of William Wilberforce.

27 items added, 10-15-57.

These are mostly personal and business letters by William Wilberforce, Names mentioned include J. M. Hodson; Edwin Pearsen; John Pearson, William Pitt (1759-1806) in letter of Oct. 19, 1804; Samuel Roberts; Robert Smith, 1st Baron Carrington (1752-1838), and his younger brother, Samuel Smith (1754-1834); Lady Olivia B. Sparrow; and Walter Spencer Stanhope. Subjects mentioned include personal and business affairs and the medical use of cadavers (letter of May 17, 1823).

1 item added 10-10-58:

Letter of Sept. 2, 1812, written at Landgate in Folkstone, is a request to have inserted in the newspaper a denial that there was any arrangement between Henry Lascelles relative to the election in the county.

1 item added, 7-31-58:

Letter of July 13, 1848, by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and brother of William, to a Mr. Bell, thanking him for forwarding a Dr. Black's letter. (Transferred to Samuel Wilberforce MSS., 7-20_61)

5 items added, 7-29-61.

This addition has four letters to Wilberforce and the translation of a short prayer. On Sept. 18, 1787, George Montagu, Fourth Duke of Manchester, notes the inception of Wilberforce's plan to reform manners. The Duke also discusses the need to reform the severe penal code, and he argues that capital punishment should be rarely used.

On Oct. 30, 1817, Sir James Mackintosh, philosopher, eulogized Wilberforce's effort against the slave trade. He attributes his failure to speak on this subject recently in the House of Commons to the attack of a malady which has bothered him since his return from India. This illness affects him mentally. Also included are notes from Sir Humphry Davy and George Whitfield and the translation of a short prayer which may be in Wilberforce's handwriting.

10 items added, 8-23-61.

This addition consists of miscellaneous letters which were written by William Wilberforce between 1788 and 1828. Among these items is one of Sept. 22, 1803, in which Wilberforce criticizes the preaching of William Jay, a prominent dissenting clergyman. On Aug. 5, 1813, Wilberforce compliments William Frederick, Second Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, on his activity as President of the African Institution. In a letter of Apr. 13, 1825, he argues for the repeal of the disabilities against Roman Catholics. Five letters are addressed to the following persons:

  • Butler, Charles (Apr. 13, 1825);
  • Canning, George (Dec. 4, 1819?);
  • Cunningham, John (Jan. 26, 1828);
  • Ellis, George James Welbore Agar-, First Baron Dover (June 12);
  • Harrison, Thomas (Aug. 5, 1813).

403 items added, 8-11-66.

Most of these letters were addressed to Wilberforce, and the correspondents are numerous. Among the letters are series from Hannah More, William Pitt, Lord Brougham, Spencer Perceval, Thomas Chalmers, George Canning, and John Bowdler (d. 1815). All correspondents are listed in the Autograph File.

The letters are so numerous, rich, and varied in content that a prose description of them is unsuitable. Therefore, a selective index of topics and persons has been compiled. It occasionally includes addressees. This index does not include the manuscripts cataloged before 1966.

Most of the letters were formerly bound in two volumes, one of which was arranged chronologically and the other alphabetically. In both volumes the letters were not in complete order, and there were many undated items. There were apparently one or more other volumes, for loose manuscripts in this accession and in earlier ones still were mounted on the paper used for binding. The difficulty of reference, cataloging, and photoduplication of the manuscripts resulted in their removal from the volumes and their inclusion with the other manuscripts in chronological sequence.

The compiler of the volumes is uncertain. A note on the last page of the Duchess of Gordon's letter of July 13, 1788, suggests that one of Wilberforce's sons put the volumes together. The cover of one of the volumes had a book plate of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, the third son of William and one of his biographers. This cover is filed at the end of the undated letters.

Numerous letters have been published, but often incompletely and sometimes inaccurately. Many of them, however, probably are unpublished.

2 volumes added, 12-9-66.

These two volumes record Wilberforce's account with the London banking house of Smith, Payne, and Smiths during 1829-1833. The transactions are itemized sufficiently to provide details about his and expenditures, including investments and benevolences.

1 item added and included in index, 11-1-67.

1 item added and included in index, 11-10-67.

2 items added and included in index, 9-15-70.

1 item added and included in index, 9-23-81.

Descriptive Summary

Collection Number
William Wilberforce Letters
Wilberforce, William, 1759-1833
1.5 Linear Feet, 606 Items
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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Subject Headings

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], William Wilberforce Letters, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.


The William Wilberforce Papers were acquired by Duke University 1955-1981.

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Processed by: Duke University. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library Staff

Encoded by Stephen Douglas Miller