A Brief Biography of William Wilberforce

By Tim Lambert

William Wilberforce campaigned against the slave trade. He was born on 24 August 1759 in Wilberforce House in High Street, Hull, Yorkshire. William had 3 sisters but only 1 lived to adulthood. His father, Robert was a merchant. His mother was called Elizabeth. As a child, William was educated at Hull Grammar School. Sadly his father died in 1768.

William was sent to live with an uncle, also called William Wilberforce, and his wife Hannah in London. His Aunt Hannah was strongly Evangelical. William’s mother was alarmed by Hannah’s influence on her son. (In the 18th century in polite society religious enthusiasm was viewed with disapproval). So she moved her son back to Hull. He attended Pocklington School. When he was 17 Wilberforce went to St John’s College, Cambridge. He gained a BA in 1781 and an MA in 1783. Meanwhile, he inherited very substantial amounts of money from relatives making him very wealthy.

Wilberforce the MP n Wilberforce was interested in politics and in 1780 he was elected MP for Hull. In 1784 he was elected MP for the county of Yorkshire. In 1785 Wilberforce was converted to Evangelical Christianity.

In the 1780s a movement began to outlaw the slave trade. In 1787 Wilberforce was asked to lead the parliamentary campaign against it. He agreed and in 1788 he spoke out against the trade in parliament for the first time. However, in 1791 a bill to outlaw the slave trade was defeated by 163 votes to 88. Nevertheless, Wilberforce continued to campaign and in 1796 he came close to success. A bill to abolish the slave trade was defeated by only 4 votes.

On 30 May 1797, William Wilberforce married Barbara Ann. The couple had 6 children, 2 girls, and 4 boys.

The End of the Slave Trade

On 2 January 1807 the prime minister, Lord Grenville introduced a bill to outlaw the slave trade in the House of Lords. It passed with a large majority. The House of Commons also passed the bill, by 283 votes to 16 on 23 February 1807. It received royal assent on 25 March 1807. In 1808 the British Navy established the West Africa Squadron to end the Atlantic slave trade.

However, the end of the slave trade did not mean the end of slavery. There were still many slaves in the British Empire. The Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823. Wilberforce argued that slavery should be gradually ended. However, Wilberforce held conservative views on many other issues. The radical writer William Cobbett accused him of hypocrisy for criticizing slavery while ignoring the deprivation of laborers in Britain.

Wilberforce was now old and suffered bouts of ill health. He resigned from parliament in 1825. On 26 July 1833, a bill to abolish slavery in the British Empire passed its 3rd reading in the House of Commons. Three days later on 29 July 1833, William Wilberforce died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.