October 28 1787, Manchester Collegiate Church
‘When I went into the church it was so full that I could scarcely get to my place; for notice had been publicly given, though I knew nothing of it, that such a discourse would be delivered. I was surprised also to find a great crowd of black people standing around the pulpit, there might be forty or fifty of them.’
As Thomas Clarkson rode into Manchester, having barely escaped with his life in Liverpool, he was amazed by the strength of the anti-slavery feeling in the city. Local businessmen and dissenters, the Thomases Walker, Cooper, Phillips and Bayley seized the opportunity, presented by the unexpected arrival of the full-time agitator for the anti-slavery movement to move the campaign forward. Clarkson did not know them, but they persuaded him to lecture from the pulpit the next day, despite his reluctance. He was rewarded with a packed audience in what is Manchester Collegiate Church, now the Cathedral. These men, whilst strangers to Clarkson, were not to each other nor to political agitation. They were dissenters, with links to non-conformist churches throughout the region and predominantly, but not exclusively, Unitarian members of the Cross Street Chapel and members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society which fellow abolitionist Thomas Percival had founded in 1781.
The Peculiarities of Manchester
Dissenters were a large and expanding group in Lancashire and Cheshire. They were united by their repeated and unsuccessful attempts to achieve their right of representation in most offices of local and national government by agitating for the repeal of the seventeenth century Test and Corporation Acts. Discrimination against dissenters extended to education as well as government. Barred from attending Oxbridge, the dissenters had set up their own college, the Warrington Academy, which had established an excellent academic reputation. It moved to Manchester in 1786 and was to attract men like William Gaskell and James Martineau to the city.
Bayley, Cooper, Walker and Phillips had a wide range of political and social interests. They were adept at skilful manipulation of petitioning, advertising, and promotion which they extended to a national agitation. These were not single issue agitators. Anti-slavery interplayed with other causes such as political reform, women’s rights, factory legislation, economic libertarianism. If something was required they would make it happen; be it a new infirmary, a new gaol, public health or factory reform, or campaigns to repeal a tax or the Test Acts. If a newspaper would not print their letters they would set up their own – The Manchester Mercury.
The Manchester population of 1787 had doubled in 15 years and was to triple by 1800. Steam power and technology were transforming working practices into the factory system. The city was to expand even faster and, as the hub of the textile economy of Lancashire, attracted people from all over the country like a magnet. Though a city of strangers, they had a shared experience as pioneers in the first industrial city the world had seen. Manchester’s unemployed, workers, artisans and the middle class all shared one characteristic; they had no political representation in Parliament, a punishment for supporting the Parliamentarians in the civil war, and were governed by an antiquated manorial system. Despite repeated attempts to gain municipal status they did not succeed until 1839
Whereas the Manchester economy was based on textiles and the produce of human slavery, Liverpool, only 30 miles away and the slaving hub of the British Empire, was very directly involved with the plantation economy and had close connections to the fourth and fifth largest British slave ports, Lancaster and Whitehaven. Its trade was based directly on the profits of human cargo and most of its inhabitants and its political representatives were vehemently pro-slavery. Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, Liverpool’s abolitionists such as Unitarian William Roscoe and Quakers William Rathbone and James Curry maintained a low profile. Edward Rushton, the blind poet, revolutionary radical and campaigner against press gangs was an exception.
There must have been daily reminders to the people of the north-west of the realities of slavery. Liverpool and slave port Lancaster had established black communities. There were Africans working as servants throughout the plantation-financed mansions of the north-west but their stories have vanished or passed into myth. Clarkson’s ‘great crowd of black people standing around the pulpit’ have a brief, if anonymous, visibility in the history of abolition.
Manchester made mass petitioning the principle weapon of the abolitionists. Walker had developed his organisational skills when he organised a petition of 10,000 people against the fustian tax within 24 hours. He used this experience in the anti-slavery movement. Manchester petitions were characteristically democratic in nature, involving a large number of the inhabitants of the city in meetings and petitioning. The 1788 anti-slavery petition was signed by over 10,000 and the 1792 petition contained almost 20,000 signatures out of a population of 65,000. There were counter petitions, of course, but the abolitionists were by far the most successful in their popular appeal.
In 1787 Cooper published a series of letters attacking the trade which was distributed with Walker’s Manchester Chronicle. All the vivid and violent details of slavery were set before the newspaper reader. The ‘unrestrained commerce of the sailors with the female slaves during the voyage,’ ‘he ….roast[ed] his slave alive’, ‘they frequently geld them or chop off half a foot.’
Cooper drew heavily on the works of Clarkson, Benezet and Ramsayn and referred extensively to John Wesley who had been in Manchester during the summer. He made an inter-dominational appeal to the Clergy of Manchester including The Establishment, the Quakers, Methodists and Arian and Calvinist Presbyterians ‘to contribute their Mite to the Parliamentary application, a cause of Benevolence and Religion’ and to ‘complete what was left undone by our American brethren.’ If the readers had not been shocked by the cruelty and injustice to their fellow creatures then they are reminded that, ‘As Englishmen, the blood of the murdered African is upon us, and upon our children, and in some day of retribution he will feel it.’ He appealed to the inhabitants of Manchester, ‘who have purchased and enjoyed such public reputation for their spirited exertions against public oppression.’ Cooper was also an architect of the abstinence campaign, setting out the economic argument that a boycott of slave-grown sugar could end the slave trade. The national campaign gained the support of around 300,000 families across all classes, and enabled women the means to be political active.
Advertising and boycott
The Manchester abolitionists used advertising extensively to publicise their petition in every national newspaper and implemented a letter-writing campaign to all magistrates in the country, sparking a national agitation. Although the women of Manchester were excluded from petitioning on this as on every other political issue, they advertised in the Manchester Mercury in 1787 for subscribers to the Anti-Slavery Society and were to provide a quarter of the subscriptions which supported the national campaign. Amongst the first names listed were the wives of Thomases Bayley, Cooper and Walker.
The Unitarians, even more so than the Quakers, encouraged women to be free thinking. One of its esteemed teachers at the Warrington Academy, the educationalist, scientist and Unitarian, Dr Joseph Priestley, had argued that women should be given the ‘highest [education] of which they are capable…the learned and the modern languages… mathematics and philosophy. Certainly, the minds of women are capable of the same improvement and the same furniture as men.’ Although such enlightened emphasis on the potential of women did not extend to admitting women to the Academy it did develop an independent minded spirit in Unitarian women, and egalitarianism within family.
As the second anti-slavery petition was organised awareness of women’s exclusion from petitioning and the committees of voluntary societies came to be regarded as an injustice. Methodists such as Samuel Bradburn argued in 1792 that women should be allowed to petition.
Whilst the dissenters agitated for constitutional reform, the Anglican counter campaign took on institutional form in the loyalist Church and King Club in 1790, the first established in the country. Its aim was ‘to reprobate the wild theories and seditious doctrines respecting the Rights of Man, which have been lately promulgated by the enemies of our most excellent constitution in church and state.’ In response Walker and Cooper founded the Manchester Constitutional Society which became synonymous with reform, radicalism and the Rights of Man.
But, if the coincidence of non-conformism’s benevolence, concerns for justice, constitutional reform, humanity, economic liberty and belief in the Rights of Man had all worked in favour of the abolition movement before, they were about to turn it into a pariah. As the terror in France began abolitionists were linked to Jacobinism and vilified. In the House of Commons Thomas Cooper and James Watt were attacked as Jacobins for representing the Manchester Constitutional Society in France. Walker’s house was surrounded by King and Country mobs and the Unitarian chapels were attacked. Anti-abolitionists were denounced as disloyal throughout the country but in Manchester condemnation was particularly virulent. Cooper, along with the Manchester Herald printers, fled the country whilst Walker found himself on trial for high treason. The last meeting of the Manchester Anti-slavery Committee was held on 17 April 1792.
The Two Acts of 1795 effectively outlawed public meetings and crushed the popular movement until 1804 when revived agitation helped achieve abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. The anti-slavery agitators and radicals were exiled, jailed or dropped into the background, fearful for their property or disenchanted with revolution. Thomas Clarkson moved to Eusemere, a house in Pooley Bridge where he and his wife Catherine frequently entertained William and Dorothy Wordsworth -William was inspired to compose the famous “Daffodils” as he walked back to Grasmere by Ullswater – only Liverpool abolitionist Edward Rushton was still outspoken as he wrote to George Washington in February 1797:
‘You took arms in defence of the rights of men. – Your Negroes are men. Where then are the rights of your Negroes?… Shame! Shame! That men should be deemed the property of men: or that the name Washington should be found among the list of such proprietors.’.