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March 2008 Meeting Report

The Clarksons of Wisbech

Jim Wilson again kindly agreed to take notes for the fascinating talk given by Maureen James at the Society’s March meeting on the crucially important role played by the Clarksons of Wisbech, on the abolition of the vile slave trade.

Thomas Clarkson, the eldest son of Rev John Clarkson, attended the Grammar School in Wisbech, where his father was the headmaster, and in addition was curate of Walsoken. Thomas had a younger brother, John, and a sister. Their father spent time visiting the sick, but unfortunately by doing so he caught a fever and died suddenly on 31st March 1766. This meant the family had to leave their house attached to the school and move into another nearby property, which their mother Anne could rent.

Thomas was a good student and was able to go to St Paul’s School in London. However, he did not like the strict discipline imposed, but was later awarded two scholarships that enabled him to go up to St. Johns College, Cambridge. He proved his academic ability there and may have been planning to take Holy Orders but, although ordained as a deacon, and appointed a Domestic Chaplain he did not pursue his religious studies further.

His involvement with the abolition of the Slave Trade was sparked off by an essay-writing competition held at Cambridge University. The subject set was ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ Thomas had his eyes opened to the horrors of slavery as a result of the research necessary to write this essay, and when submitted to the examiners, it won the first prize. That was June 1785, and the essay was read out-loud at the Senate House in Cambridge, receiving much warm applause.

His growing involvement with the abolition of slavery led him to London, where became a member of a new committee set up to campaign against the Slave Trade. This committee included a number of Quakers and Anglicans, and comprised 12 members.

One incident that stood out amongst others was the action of the captain of the slave ship, the Zong. He believed the ship was running short of supplies and ordered that 130 slaves should be cast overboard to ease the demand on his apparently dwindling provisions. He was also able to make a claim for insurance. This act caused a public outcry and added fuel to the call for the abolition of slavery.

Thomas Clarkson undertook the task of gathering evidence to support the campaign. This research took him to many towns and ports and whilst on these journeys he generally stayed in the houses of Quakers. He was developing an affinity with the ideals of Quakerism, although he never actually became one.

Thomas investigated the effects of the Slave Trade on the crews of the slave ships as well as the appalling conditions that slaves were forced to endure, who were kept manacled in cramped and airless conditions and many died whilst en route to their destination.

One argument used by Clarkson against the trade was that the Africans, if left in their own country, had a productive culture of their own and were capable of high quality workmanship. As evidence for this he produced ‘The Clarkson Chest’, which contained examples of finely woven fabrics and products such as bags, hats and other colourful and useful items.

Clarkson also wrote and published widely on topics relating to the slave trade. He gained the support of William Wilberforce and Josiah Wedgwood but all this activity undermined his health. Whilst recovering from exhaustion he visited the Lake District and settled down there with his wife Anne, where they lived an apparently rather bohemian life until in 1803. His wife became ill and they were advised to leave the cold and damp area. So in 1806, they came to live in Bury St. Edmunds and then in 1816 took over the residency of Playford Hall in Suffolk. This was owned by the Earl of Bristol, a long-standing friend of Thomas, and was in recognition of his ‘service to the poor Africans’. It was here that Thomas died in 1846, aged 86.

John Clarkson was Thomas’s younger brother who was also involved in the anti-slavery campaign. He became a ship’s captain and sailed a ship to Nova Scotia to relieve freed slaves and take them to Sierra Leone. There were 1200 freed slaves in Nova Scotia who were black loyalists, which meant that they were freed from slavery at the end of military service for the British during the War of American Independence.

John Clarkson arrived in Sierra Leone and found himself appointed as Governor. Sierra Leone was the site of a settlement intended for occupation by freed slaves who had proved their loyalty to the crown. The name of Clarkson is still remembered there today.

Maureen James showed many interesting photographs and at the end of the meeting the Society members had a large number of questions to put to her.

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The Sawston Community Archive Group (SCAG) now has a strong nucleus of members drawn from the Society. Our mission (as they now say), is to create a digital archive of anything relating to Sawston, under the auspices of the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network (CCAN) and are intending to hold an open evening at the OWL in April. For further information please visit our web site: or contact Bruce Milner on 01223 570596 for further information.

On Thursday, April 10th Mathew Hall from the CCAN will speak to the Society about this exciting new online archiving project and how local people can contribute.

On Thursday, May 8th, the subject of the meeting will be “The Sherriffs of Cambridge” and will be given by Elizabeth Stazicker. As usual, both these meetings will be at 7.30pm at the Chapelfields Way Community Centre.

Our archivist, Bryan Howe is at the Sawston Heritage Centre in the Sawston Parish Council Office, Link Road on Monday mornings. Bryan is very amenable to arranging an alternative time to view the archives, if necessary, just ring him on 833963 to arrange a mutually convenient time.

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