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Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton - Anti-Slavery Campaigner

As part of Black History Month 2020, Martin Crowther, Heritage Engagement Officer explores the life of prominent anti-slavery campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton who was born in Castle Hedingham and spent his childhood at nearby Earl’s Colne.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Early life

Although living at Earl’s Colne, Thomas Buxton’s mother Anna, was in Castle Hedingham, when he was born on 1 April 1786. His father (also called Thomas Fowell Buxton) was a wealthy landowner who rose to become High Sheriff of Essex, until his untimely death in

1792, leaving three daughters and two sons under the age of seven. His mother was the daughter of a Quaker brewer, and through her influence he became good friends with the Gurney family of Earlham Hall, Norwich. He was especially close to Joseph John Gurney, and his sisters - including the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and Hannah, whom he married in 1807.

Social reformer

Despite being a member of the Church of England, Buxton attended meetings of the Friends (Quakers) with the Gurneys, and became actively involved in social reform. As a young man, working at his uncles’ brewery in Spitalfields, he raised money for London weavers being forced into poverty by the factory system. He also provided funds for Elizabeth Fry's prison reform work and joined her Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners. He was elected MP for Weymouth in 1818.

Anti-slavery campaigner

Although Britain’s infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade had been abolished in 1807, slavery was still legal in the colonies, where nearly a million slaves, including small children, were working and dying in barbaric conditions on plantations in Africa and the Caribbean. In 1823, Thomas Buxton helped found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (later the Anti-Slavery Society). In May of that year he introduced a resolution to Parliament, condemning the state of slavery as repugnant to the principles of the British constitution and of the Christian religion and demanding its abolition throughout the British colonies. He also pressured the government to improve the treatment of slaves. Thomas Buxton took over as leader of the abolitionist movement in the House of Commons after William Wilberforce retired in 1825.

"The slave sees the mother of his children stripped naked and flogged unmercifully; he sees his children sent to market to be sold at the best price they will fetch. He sees in himself, not a man but a thing, an implement of husbandry, a machine to produce sugar, a beast of burden."

Extract from Thomas Buxton’s Address to the House of Commons on Slavery, 15 May 1823

Slaves cutting the sugar cane - Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate IV - British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I would give the negro all that I could give home with security; I would do everything possible to mitigate and sweeten his lot; and to his children I would give unqualified emancipation… Do you ask compensation for him who has yielded the whip? Then I ask compensation for him who has smarted under its lash!

Extract from an anti-slavery speech by Thomas Buxton to the House of Commons in 1827, at the end of which he was loudly cheered.

The 1833 petition and his daughter Priscilla

In 1833 he presented a petition to end slavery to the House of Commons bearing the signatures of more than 187,000 women. This was largely the work of his daughter Priscilla Buxton (an important abolitionist campaigner in her own right) and of the London Female Anti-Slavery Society of which she was co-secretary. At this time, women were not allowed either to join the Anti-Slavery Society, or enter the House of Commons chamber. Priscilla was only able to hear her father speak in Parliament by listening to him through a ventilation shaft! Women could raise petitions however. The 1833 anti-slavery petition which took two people to carry it, was the largest ever abolitionist petition, and was disgracefully, laughed at by some in Parliament.

The interior of the House of Commons in 1834, the year the majority of slaves in the British Empire were freed. The previous year a petition to end slavery had been presented by Thomas Buxton, though it was largely the work of his daughter Priscilla and the London Female Anti-Slavery Society.

Only a year later however, on 1 August 1834, the majority of slaves in the British Empire were legally freed. A day of double-celebration for Pricilla and her new husband, the Scottish politician Andrew Johnson, who got married that day.

A strong influence on David Livingstone

Among those influenced by Thomas Buxton's arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through legitimate trade and the spread of Christianity, was the explorer David Livingstone, who became a missionary in Africa and fought the slave trade all his life.

Thomas Buxton also campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment, and to restrict the number of crimes for which the death sentence could be given, helping to reduce it down from over 200 to just eight. He also argued for the suppression of lotteries, for the abolition of the practice of burning widows in India, and was the first chairman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Thomas and Hannah Buxton had eleven children. Tragically, four of them died of whooping cough over a five-week period around April 1820. Another died of consumption, with only three surviving to adulthood.

In 1840 Thomas Buxton was created a baronet. He died in 1845. Following his death, tributes were paid in England and around the world. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert headed a campaign to erect a monument in his memory. Donations flooded in, including from the West Indies and Africa.

A statue by Frederick Thrupp was erected near the monument to William Wilberforce in Westminster Abbey, and a bust by the sculptor John Bell unveiled in St George's Church, Sierra Leone.

The shackles of slavery, which Thomas Buxton, his daughter Priscilla and so many others fought to abolish, represented in Castle Hedingham’s new community mosaic. Photo: Anne Nelson.

The Voices from the Pews mosaic

We are now proud to honour Thomas Buxton in Castle Hedingham, the place of his birth, where he is one of the historic characters represented in an exciting new mosaic, created by members of 6 local community groups between autumn 2019 and spring 2020.

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