Thomas Clarkson

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This is a list of frequently asked questions about the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson


When was he born?

Thomas Clarkson was born at the Grammar School at the Old Grammar School, Ship Lane (now Hill Street), in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire on 28 th March 1760. His mother was Anne (nee Ward) and his father, the Reverend John Clarkson was headmaster at the school as well as curate of Walsoken and also afternoon lecturer at St Peter’s Church.

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How did he spend his childhood?

Thomas, who was the middle of three surviving children of Anne and John grew up in Wisbech living in the spacious house attached to the school until tragedy struck when Thomas was barely 6. His father died suddenly of a fever, caught whilst visiting the sick, on 31st March 1766. The children and their mother had to leave the tied accommodation to move a few streets away to 8 York Row where a relative of Anne’s owned a property they could rent. Thomas continued to attend the grammar school until he was 12 or 15 years of age when he went to London to attend St Paul’s School. He was to comment on the harshness of the discipline at this school, which was next to the great cathedral , but he was an able student and in 1779 went up to St. Johns College, Cambridge with two scholarships.

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Which University did Thomas go to?

Thomas was admitted to Cambridge University - St John’s College in 1779. He studied well and was awarded BA in 1783 and MA in 1786. William Wilberforce also went to the college but he was admitted in 1776 at age 17 and left in 1783 without honours, and before Thomas arrived.

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Was Thomas trained for the priesthood?

Thomas probably was intending to follow his father into the church. He was ordained as a deacon on June 23 rd 1783 but did not take Holy Orders. He is said to have been given the title of Domestic Chaplain to the Earl of Portmore in 1785 (1). As time went by, Thomas who at one time was addressed as Reverend and who wore priestly black, dropped the title and later refused any title except as a layman. He was often to describe himself as ‘almost a quaker’.

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What was Thomas like?

Thomas was thick-set and over six feet tall. He preferred to be dressed in sombre clothing and tended to wear black. Friends described him as a kind, generous and shy…”he took you by the hand with a fatherly smile : and he heard your questions and observations as if he were learning somewhat from you”(2). In the final years of his life his servants

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How did Thomas get involved in the abolition of the Slave Trade?

In 1785 Thomas entered a Latin essay-writing competition at Cambridge University. The subject was Anne Liceat Invitos In Servitvtem Dare? (is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?) At the time he, like many people in Britain, knew little about the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. For the next two months he read widely on the subject of slavery and the slave trade. He later described his feelings as he became immersed in the reading.


“It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night. In the daytime I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief. It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa” (3)


In June 1785 Thomas was awarded first prize for his essay which he read out in the Senate House, to generous applause. He then road down to London, still very agitated by his findings and on the old A10 at Wadesmill, Hertfordshire he stopped, got of his horse and reasoned that “if the contents of the essay were was time some person should see the calamities to their end”. He agonised for some months before realising that he would be the person (4).


In the meantime, he translated his essay into English and went to London to look for a publisher. Whilst in London he met Joseph Hancock, a Quaker friend from Wisbech, who introduced him to the members of a committee who were trying to promote opposition to slavery and the slave trade.


In June 1783, the British Quakers had been considering the problem of slavery. An unofficial sub group of this main committee had been meeting frequently and had been preparing and printing texts on the slave trade. This group comprised seven Quaker businessmen George Harrison, Samuel Hoare, James Phillips, Joseph Woods, William Dillwyn, John Lloyd and Dr. Thomas Knowles. James Phillips was a publisher and bookseller. It was to him that Thomas Clarkson was first introduced.


Clarkson soon met and became accepted by the other members of the committee. He was also introduced to people outside the Quaker circle including Granville Sharp, who was trying to establish the rights of slaves in Britain, and The Revd James Ramsey, who had lived 19 years in St. Kitts and who had written his own essay on the subject of slavery. In the summer of 1786, Thomas went to stay with Ramsey at his vicarage at Teston in Kent. It was then that he decided to commit himself to the cause. To his contemporaries Thomas became known as the ‘originator’ of the new dedicated Committee for the ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

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Who was involved with the new Committee?

The new 12 member committee, which first met on 22 May 1787, included five of the unofficial Quaker committee plus three more Quakers - Joseph Hooper, John Barton and Richard Phillips, a cousin of James, and three Anglicans - Granville Sharp , Thomas Clarkson and Philip Sansom.


Thomas Clarkson and Richard Phillips had been working throughout the winter of 1786/7 preparing for the launch of the campaign. Clarkson also started to find out hard facts to be used in evidence against the trade. This he would do during the day and in the evenings he worked from 9pm-1am with Phillips discussing his findings.


As Clarkson wrote in his History, he was “seldom engaged less than sixteen hours in the day”. Clarkson was also briefed on how to answer questions of Members of Parliament who were given copies of his essay.


By the end of the first year, the committee had expanded to 30 and included Josiah Wedgwood. William Wilberforce did not join the committee at this time but promised them support.

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Where did Thomas live during his years of campaigning?


After leaving Cambridge, Thomas seems to have spent the summer and autumn of 1785 working in Wisbech with his brother, translating and expanding his essay.


In 1786 when he first committed himself to the cause, Thomas took lodgings at the Baptist Head Coffee House in Chancery Lane, he would be near his new friend and fellow campaigner Richard Phillips whose chamber was in Lincoln’s Inn.


Thomas also returned to Wisbech in November 1787 to write his ‘Impolicy’


Whilst collecting evidence in cities and towns around the country, including Liverpool, Bristol, Bridgewater, Monmouth, Gloucester, Worcester and Chester, Thomas stayed in the houses of Quakers.


In 1794 went to the Lake District to stay with a Quaker friend Thomas Wilkinson at Yanwath, near Penrith and recover from exhaustion when he fell in love with the place. He used all of his capital to purchase a 34 acre estate, from which 14 acres would be leased and on which he had a right of common to procure stone and slate and there was woodland to crop. On the remaining 20 acres he built a house of rough cast stone, roofed in local slate, with large casement windows framing views across the water to the majestic peak of Helvellyn. Thomas married Catherine Buck in 1796 and after the abolition campaign received a disastrous defeat in Parliament, practically retired to his new cottage which he called ‘Eusemere’.


Thomas and Catherine, his wife loved their new home, which was situated near a brook that ran down to the lake. Affluent friends who visited the couple remarked that they seemed to lead a rather bohemian ‘peasant life’. Their son, who was born there grew up on ‘oatmeal porridge’ and ran about ‘without cap or hat, without shoes or stockings and with very few clothes’. Clarkson pastured sheep and Scotch bullocks and grew wheat, barley, oats, red clover, tares and turnips. He kept hens and a cock and recorded all the details of his life in a


In 1803 Catherine became ill, possibly with a liver disorder. She travelled to the Hot Wells in Bristol to see a doctor, who advised that she should not live in the cold climate of the Lake District. Her moved had died suddenly and Catherine moved to stay with her father in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Thomas stayed on at the cottage for a little longer as he was finishing the writing of a book on Quakerism, then he sold Eusemere and travelled south to be with his wife.


In 1806 the couple moved to Bury’s fashionable Horse Market, which is now St Mary's Square.  They took on the tenancy of No 5 (a plaque commemorating the residence can be seen high up on the front of the house). They lived near Catherine’s father's new brewery and St Mary's Church

In January 1816 the couple took over residency of Playford Hall in Suffolk, a property owned by the Earl of Bristol who was a life-long friend of Thomas. The Earl gave Clarkson the lease of Playford Hall  '… at a very modest rent…to express my respect for his character, and my sense of his service to the poor Africans.’ 

Thomas died at Playford Hall on 26 September 1846, aged 86. He was buried in a vault on the south side of St. Mary’s Church and now lies there alongside Catherine (d. 1856) and their only son Thomas (d. 1837). The grave is enclosed by decorative metal railings with oval inscription panels. Nearby is a granite obelisk erected in 1857 by a handful of surviving friends.

Thomas had hoped one day to return to the Lake District and wrote to Thomas Wilkinson in 1806 ‘my heart is still in Westmoreland, and I long to be among the mountains again. I do not mean to visit, but to live and die there; though now I must strain every nerve for the Total Abolition; which if once accomplished, I shall think of returning to private life’.


On his death, the poet Coleridge said of him, ‘He, if ever human being did it, listened

exclusively to his conscience and obeyed its voice.’


  1. Cambridge University records – available on ---- back
  2. Ellen Gibson Wilson – Thomas Clarkson ---- back
  3. Clarkson (1808) History - Vol. I pp 208-9 ---- back
  4. An obelisk marks the spot ---- back

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What books did Thomas write?

Works by Thomas Clarkson (source : Dictionary of National Biography)

  1. ‘An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation which was honoured with the first prize in the University of Cambridge for the year 1785, With Additions,’ London, 1786, 8vo; 2nd edition, enlarged, London, 1788, 8vo.

  2. An Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade’ In two parts. London, 1788, 8vo ; 2 nd ed. London, 1788, 8vo.

  3. ‘An Essay on the Comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition, as applied to the Slave Trade ... ‘ London, 1789,8vo.

  4. ‘Letters on the Slave Trade and the State of the Natives in those parts of Africa which are contiguous to Fort St. Louis and Goree, written at Paris in Dec. 1789 and Jan.1790,’ London,1791.

  5. ‘A Portraiture of Quakerism ...’ London, 1806, 3 vols. 8vo; 2nd ed., London, 1807, 8vo; 3rd ed., London, 1807, 8vo. Of the first edition of this work 2,500 copies were sold without any public advertisement being issued by the publisher.

  6. ‘Three Letters (one of which has appeared before) to the Planters and Slave merchants, principally on the subject of Compensation,’ London, 1807, 8vo.

  7. ‘History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament,’ London, 1808, 2 vols. 8vo; new ed., with prefatory remarks on the subsequent abolition of slavery, London, 1839, 8vo.

  8. The preface to ‘Zachary Clark's Account of the different Charities belonging to the Poor of the County of Norfolk, abridged from the returns, under Gilbert's Act, to the House of Commons in 1786; and from the Terriers in the office of the Lord Bishop of Norwich,’ Bury St. Edmunds and London, 1811, 8vo.

  9. ‘Memoirs of the Private and Public Life of William Penn’ London, 1813, 2 vols; new ed., with a preface in reply to the charges against his character made by Lord Macaulay in his 'History of England' by William Edward Forster, the wellknown statesman [q. v.], London, 1849, 8vo.

  10. ‘An Essay on the Doctrine and Practice of the Early Christians, as they relate to War,’ 2nd edition, London, 1817, 8vo. This was tract No. 3 of the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace, and passed through a number of editions.

  11. ‘Thoughts on the Necessity of improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies, with a view to their ultimate Emancipation...’ London, 1823, 8vo; 2nd ed., corrected, London ,1823, 8vo ; another ed., London, 1823, 8vo, in the preface to which it is stated that it first appeared in the 'Inquirer;' 4 th ed., corrected London, 1824,8vo.

  12. ‘The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe; or a Survey of that Bloody Commerce called the Slave Trade,’ London (1822?), 8vo. This was translated into French and Spanish.

  13. ‘Researches Antediluvian, Patriarchal, and Historical, concerning the way in which Men first acquired their Knowledge of God and Re1igion,’ &c., London and Ipswich, 1836, 8vo.

  14. ‘Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce by the Rev. W Wilberforce and the Rev. S. Wilberforce,' London, 1838, 8vo.

  15. ‘Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce by the Rev. W Wilberforce and the Rev. S. Wilberforce,' London, 1838, 8vo.

  16. ‘Not a Labourer wanted for Jamaica; to which is added an Account of the newly erected Villages by the Peasantry there and their bene ficial Results,’ London, 1842, 8vo.

  17. ‘Essay on Baptism, with some Remarks on the Doctrine of the Nicene Church, on which Puseyism is built’, London and Ipswich, 1843, 8vo.

  18. ‘Review.of the Rev. Thomas B. Freeman's "Journal of Visits to Ashanti,” &c., with Remarks on the Present Situation of Africa and its Spiritual Prospects,’ London, 1845,

  19. ‘The Grievances of our Mercantile Seamen, a National and Crying Evil,’ London and Ipswich, 1845, 12mo


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