THOMAS FOWELL BUXTON (1786-1845)
Reformer and politician
Thomas Fowell Buxton was descended from a line of land owning merchants. His grand-father Isaac married Sarah Fowell of Fowelscombe, Devon, and from then on the eldest son took the name ‘Fowell’. The first of that name married Anna Hanbury, the daughter of a Quaker Brewer; setting up home in Earl’s Colne, Essex On the 1st April 1786, they were staying in Castle Hedingham, so that is where the reformer was born.
The first Thomas Fowell Buxton was a reasonably wealthy gentleman who enjoyed field sports. He was very popular in his neighbourhood and extremely generous in his hospitality so when appointed High Sheriff of the county he used his office to relieve the miseries of the prisoners under his care. It is likely that he was influenced in religious affairs by his Quaker wife. He died in 1792, leaving three sons and two daughters under seven.
Someone who knew Fowell Buxton as a child said “He never was a child; he was a man when in petticoats.” At four years old he was sent to a school in Kingston where he was ill treated, he was then moved to one in Greenwich when he was six, but studying was not at the forefront of his mind. He preferred being at home with his mother at Earl’s Colne. He describes his mother as being, “a woman of very vigorous mind, and possessing many of the generous virtues in a very high degree. She was large-minded about everything; disinterested almost to an excess; careless of difficulty, labour, danger, or expense, in the prosecution of any great object …”
Although his mother was a Quaker, he was brought up in the Church of England faith of his father. She brought up the boys in an unusual way, giving them the freedom to go wherever they pleased and do anything they wished. Fowell almost assumed the position of master of the house, but his mother’s rule was law. Fowell describes himself as a boy, “of a daring, violent, domineering temper”. However, his mother said “Never mind, he is self-willed now – you will see it turn out well in the end”. A long time later he wrote to his mother, “I constantly feel, especially in action and exertion for others, the effects of principles early planted by you in my mind.” One such principle was the hatred of slavery and the slave trade.
“…and I became at ten years old almost as much the master of the family as I am of this family at the present moment. My mother, a woman of great talents and great energy, perpetually inculcated on my brothers and sisters that they were to obey me, and I was rather encouraged to play the little tyrant. She treated me as an equal, conversed with me, and led me to form and express my opinions without reserve. This system had obvious and great disadvantages, but it was followed by some few incidental benefits. Throughout life I have acted and thought for myself; and to this kind of habitual decision I am indebted for all the success I have met with.”
Like his father, Fowell had a life-long love of field sports, particularly shooting. This love partly came from his ‘guide, philosopher and friend’, the gamekeeper, Abraham. At the age of fifteen he had plenty of opportunity to shoot, because, after eight fairly fruitless years at his school in Greenwich, he persuaded his mother to allow him to live at home. What might have happened to this young man had he been allowed to continue in this way is open to question, but God had a plan.
Fowell had previously met a boy of his own age, John Gurney, who lived with his father and ten siblings at Earlham Hall, just outside Norwich. In the autumn of 1801 he was invited to stay at Earlham. This seems to have been a turning point in the future reformer’s life. The Gurneys were a Quaker family, although at this time all but Elizabeth seem to have been only token Christians. Their mother was probably a more committed Quaker, but she died in 1792 when her youngest child was only 15 months old, so for nearly ten years the eldest sibling, Catherine, had been the mother of the household. For fifty years this amazing woman, who never married, dedicated her life to her siblings. With input from her father, she helped create one of the most extraordinary families ever seen in England. Apart from Daniel, the youngest, the other ten all became passionate born again Christians who did incredible things to extend the Kingdom of God. One of them was Elizabeth, who as Elizabeth Fry was a great reformer of the prisons and a Quaker minister; another, Joseph was also a reformer and Quaker minister; a third, Samuel, was a brilliant businessman who gave away approximately £20,000 pa to good causes, (which would be about £13 million per annum based on average earnings in 1856); a fourth was a saintly Quaker minister; and a fifth married Buxton.
An unusual aspect of the Gurney family was that they were all enthusiastically involved in self-education. All the children were full of energy in whatever they were involved in, be it learning or playing. They all had to keep daily journals, and you can see in them their constant desire to improve themselves. This could be looked at negatively, but all of them succeeded in improving themselves and did great things for God. The one thing that all visitors to Earlham Hall noticed was the love they received there. The journals of all these young people and the letters they wrote to one another abound in love. It is wonderful to read how they poured love out on one another.
By the time of Fowell’s arrival, Elizabeth (Betsy) had already married and left home. Rachel and Hannah had been to stay with their sister to help with the birth of her first child. On returning to Earlham Hall with their sister and the new addition to the family, they were greeted on the steps of the Hall by their siblings and a young man (Fowell) who they had not met before. On seeing Hannah spring out of the carriage with the new baby in her arms, Fowell decided that she would be his wife.
The Gurney family included Fowell as one of their own. Their way of life seemed to draw out of Fowell all his latent giftings. He received a stimulus, not only through studying with them, but through forming disciplines in study that he never had before. The unconditional love that he was shown could not but have helped form his character not to mention the young love he had for Hannah.
After a few months he returned home and in the autumn of 1802 he was sent to someone who prepared students for university, the plan being that he should go to Trinity, Dublin, as it was expected that he would inherit a large estate in Ireland. The old Fowell found himself bottom of the class, but the new Fowell studied hard in the holidays, giving up casual reading and shooting to became first in his class the following term. In a letter to his son, several years later, he wrote, “…I considered every hour as precious, and I made everything bend to my determination not to be behind any of my companions.” What an excellent attitude to life; something we could all learn from.
After a year of study Fowell visited Earlham Hall again. He wrote to his mother, “We are most completely happy here, everything goes on well, and you need not fear that I am losing my time, for being with the Gurneys makes me ten times more industrious than anything else would.” He left for Trinity College in October 1803.
At University he came second in his first exam and from then on he came top, which was an extraordinary achievement considering his lack of learning up until he was sixteen. Fowell knew the reason for this change; years later he wrote, “I know no blessing of a temporal nature for which I ought to render so many thanks as my connexion with the Earlham family. It has given a colour to my life. Its influence was most positive and pregnant with good, at that critical period between school and manhood. They were eager for improvement, I caught the infection. I was resolved to please them, and in the College of Dublin, at a distance from all my friends, and all control, their influence, and the desire to please them, kept me hard at my books, and sweetened the toil they gave. The distinctions I gained at College (little valuable as distinctions, but valuable because habits of industry, perseverance, and reflection were necessary to obtain them), these boyish distinctions were exclusively the result of the animating passion in my mind, to carry back to them the prizes which they prompted and enabled me to win.”
In his third year Fowell was admitted to the prestigious Historical Society where he gave his first speech. This caused a sensation in the University. Six people spoke in all and Fowell received 85 out of 92 votes which was a record in the history of the Society. His uncommon success at University gave him a lot of self-confidence. He wrote, “I was, and have always been, conscious that though others hadgreat talents, mine were moderate; that what I wanted in ability I must make up by perseverance; in short, that I must work hard to win, but withal a sense that by working hard I could win. This conviction that I could do nothing without labour, but that I could do anything, or almost anything which others did, by dint of vigorous application; this, coupled with a resolved mind, a kind of plodding, dogged determination, over which difficulties had little influence, and with considerable industry and perseverance these have been the talents committed to my trust.” His hard work, single-mindedness and the Christian teachings of his mother meant that he kept away from the society of men with looser morals who were prevalent in the University.
Fowell’s relationship with Hannah was going well, although the family thought that it needed a little help. Rachel wrote this charming letter to her sister Betsy (Quakers wrote using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), “Earlham, 16th March, 1805. Had thee been with us, thee would have felt the same interest about Fowell and Hannah which has prevailed amongst us sisters. I had told Fowell how great a satisfaction openness would be to us all; for considering the situation that both himself and Hannah had for some time been placed in, it had become a serious anxiety to us, especially to my father. So on Thursday, as soon as the family was dispersed, Kitty and I settled them together in the dressing-room. They both looked a little miserable on the occasion, but we stayed with them a minute or two, and laughed at the extreme difficulty they both seemed to feel in speaking, and then shut the door upon them.
“Great was our anxiety, but we recovered our composure when we found an hour and a half had elapsed, and no effort made by either to disengage themselves, and we were almost surprised as well as comforted to see them walk off into the garden arm in arm, off into the park, and into the meadows beyond the pond, as if they wished to get out of everybody’s way. I should think they walked at least an hour. The weather was beautiful, calm and sunshiny, and truly symbolical of the happy events of the morning. They at length joined the others, and I heartily wish thee could have seen the sunshine that prevailed on every countenance when they came in. Fowell looked like a person who had been condemned to be hanged and had gained a reprieve; Hannah quite easy and cheerful, as if her mind had cast off all its burdens. Anna (Fowell’s sister) cried for joy. All the others looked almost as relieved as Hannah. Fowell and Anna went off together, and then we all sat with Hannah on the sofa in Chenda’s room to hear her history.
“She said that after they were left alone, almost all the difficulty vanished, and they felt at once at ease with each other, and by degrees very much unfolded the state of each other’s minds. Fowell fully expressed to her the strength of attachment to her, which by his own account has long been the principal object of his heart. He also particularly told her what a preservation it had been to him against all the excesses common in a college life, and how afraid he had felt of being unable to gain her affection. She told him, in her turn, how much she had of late felt upon the subject, and those doubts that have arisen from his youth, but also told him what confidence and comfort his virtuous principles had afforded her. She says that when they had once broken down these barriers, they felt really happy together and even enjoyed being alone, both when they spoke and when they were silent.”
In those times it was unusual for such a wealthy family to approve the relationship. Fowell had hoped to inherit a substantial property in Ireland, but his mother had recently lost the case in court, so Fowell was no longer such a good catch. Indeed, John Gurney, who wanted to marry the daughter of a local family, was refused, because he was not rich enough. However, he was much loved by the family, many of whom would write to him. Rachel wrote to him at Dublin. “14th May, 1805 I cannot easily tell you how heartily we all rejoice in your successes at college, and it is delightful to know how much value you set on our approbation. You have it, my dear brother, in full measure, and, with it, the heartfelt love of our family circle. You and Anna have so much increased the happiness of our family, and are become so like members of it, that I do not know how we should bear the loss of either of you. I love you partly for Hannah’s sake, but I can truly say that I now love her also for yours, as well as so dearly for her own. I hope that, from your wish to marry, you may not do anything prematurely. I heartily wish you may stay at college till you are of age, and then, if there should be any opening in your circumstances, we should none of us be sorry to let you take Hannah away from us, though I can assure you we do not undervalue her at home.”
At the end of his time at University he had the honour of being asked to be the Member of Parliament for the University. As a foreigner without wealth or influence, this was an exceptional offer. However, much to everyone’s surprise, after considering it for a day he declined the invitation, because he intended to get married. The marriage was solemnised at the Quaker Meeting House at Tasborough. Rachel Gurney’s journal describes the day, “Earlham, May 7, 1807. — We all rose in good time, the weather mild and summerlike; our bride composed and cheerful. Many collected to read as usual before breakfast, and after it we dispersed till it was time to equip ourselves in bridal array. The house was overrun with bridesmaids in muslin cloaks and chip hats. We led our sweet bride to the stairs, where our men joined us, and we had all a pleasant drive to Tasborough. To me the Meeting was solemn in its beginning, and striking from such a circle of brothers and sisters so united in affection; it might well recall a verse in the Psalms, ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’ Our dear couple spoke with much feeling, and Fowell with his usual dignity. Preparing for dinner took up the rest of the morning, and nothing could be prettier than the train of bridesmaids dressed alike in white, with small nosegays, except the bride, who looked lovely, who was still more white, and was distinguished by one beautiful rose. At dinner were my father’s fifteen children and four grandchildren. Afterwards the whole party dispersed in different parts of the house. Hannah sat with Elizabeth in her room. At tea all reassembled. Our dearest Fowell was most affectionate and sweet to us all; I think there was scarcely ever such a brother admitted to a family.”
Hannah was much missed by those at Earlham Hall; her sister wrote, “… The servants have been much affected by your going. Thee hath the satisfaction, dear Hannah, of knowing that the love of the whole household attends thee, Judd was quite enthusiastic in her lamentations, saying ‘thee wert a lady she could live and die with.’” Because of the extraordinary love and closeness amongst the siblings, it was their custom that when one of the sisters were married, an unmarried sister went to live with the newly-weds for a few months, so that the parting from loved ones was not so great. In Hannah’s case her sister Priscilla went to live with them.
Buxton’s next goal was to find a job. He spent a year looking for a business opportunity, writing at the time that he was prepared to work twelve hours a day for £100 per year. Eventually he spoke to two of his uncles and he was employed in their business, Trueman’s Brewery in Spitalfields, with the promise of a partnership in three years. It is not really a surprise that he had this offer; after all, Buxton was a relation, he had proved that he was brilliant at University, he was a great speaker and he was a very good looking and imposing man at 6ft 4ins.
In the three years before becoming a partner, Buxton worked hard. At the same time he practiced his public speaking at a debating club because he had hopes of being in Parliament one day. He was also involved in charitable works around the area, particularly to do with education, the Bible Society and the state of the weavers. He worked in this with his brother-in-law, Samuel Hoare, the banker who had married Louisa Gurney and who would work with him for many years to come.
In 1811 Buxton became a partner in the business, a strange business really considering his religious ties, but it paid well and enabled him to do the other work he was called to do. He re-organised the administration of the Brewery and ensured that no work be done on a Sunday. Once the business was organised satisfactorily he was able to move into a more supervisory role, freeing himself up to do other things.
In 1812 Buxton made his first public speech on behalf of the Norfolk Bible Society. Joseph Gurney, who was to be very close to Buxton over the coming years, wrote about this. “There are many who can still remember the remarkable effect produced, in one of the earliest public meetings of the Norfolk and Norwich Auxiliary Bible Society, more than thirty years ago, by one of his speeches, distinguished for its acuteness and good sense, as well as for the Christian temper in which it was delivered. His commanding person, his benevolent and highly intellectual expression of countenance, his full-toned voice, together with his manly yet playful eloquence, electrified the assembly, and many were those on that day who rejoiced that so noble and just a cause had obtained so strenuous and able an advocate.”
Although Buxton had become influenced by Christian teaching he had not given his life to the Lord. Friends recommended that he go to hear Josiah Pratt at Wheeler Street Chapel, Spitalfields. He wrote to Pratt thirty years later, “Whatever I have done in my life for Africa, the seeds of it were sown in my heart in Wheeler Street Chapel.” In 1813 he had a severe illness from which he nearly died. Through this illness he somehow came to a certain conviction that ‘His Redeemer liveth.’ He considered the illness a blessing because it took him to the feet of Jesus.
1816 found England in a dreadful economic situation, and there were fewer places in a worse situation than Spitalfields where the weavers were starving. A meeting was held at the Mansion House to discuss the problem. Buxton and Samuel Hoare went to see the situation for themselves and were much affected by the despair they saw. There was a public meeting on the subject, with Buxton as one of the speakers. “I could detain you till midnight with the scenes we have witnessed. From these rough minutes which I hold in my hand, taken on the spot, in the very houses of the poor, drawn not from the fictions of a warm imagination, but from scenes of actual life from the sad realities before us, I could disclose to you a faithful though a faint picture of such desperate calamity and unutterable ruin, that the heart must be stony indeed that did not sicken at the sight. First, I would lead you to the roof of a house hardly deserving the name of a garret; there sat three human beings, each seventy years of age with the ghastly lineaments of famine; a few bricks were their only chair and their only table; a little of our soup their only provision; a little straw and some shreds of an old coat their only bed! Next, I would show you a family of nine; the father disabled, the mother sickly, their furniture, their bed, their looms, every article of present use, the very implements of future labour, had been surrendered to the demands of hunger! I will not exhaust your feelings by further recitals of what has met our eyes…”
To Buxton’s great surprise his speech received national attention; congratulations came from all sides. One letter was from William Wilberforce, which was prophetic; “My dear Sir, I must in three words express the real pleasure with which I have both read and heard of your successful effort on Tuesday last, in behalf of the hungry and the naked… But I cannot claim the merit of being influenced only by regard for the Spitalfields sufferers, in the pleasure I have received from your performances at the meeting. It is partly a selfish feeling, for I anticipate the success of the efforts which I trust you will one day make in other instances, in an assembly in which I trust we shall be fellow-labourers, both in the motives by which we are actuated, and in the objects to which our exertions will be directed.” This meeting raised £43,369 and the Prince of Wales was so impacted that he gave £5,000.
Buxton was eager to use his gifts and energies to war against the evils around him. He prayed incessantly that God would use him as an instrument to spread His Kingdom, and use him to do good to mankind. His next interest was the prison system. This interest was clearly prompted by the work his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Fry, was involved in. However, before he could get very involved his closest sibling, his only surviving brother, Charles, died. A little later, in 1817 he wrote ‘An Inquiry whether Crime be Produced or Prevented by our present System of Prison Discipline.’ The book was an unexpected success, with six editions in the first year and it was translated into French. Wilberforce sent him a letter, congratulating him and encouraging him to get into Parliament to work with him.
Buxton decide that sphere in which he could best serve his Master was Parliament, so he stood for Weymouth (where his mother lived with her second husband) in the 1818 election and won the seat. One of the reasons he was able to achieve what he did was his single-mindedness, his determination to finish what he started out to do. He sometimes listed what he would do during a year. At the beginning of 1818 he set out to:
– Write a pamphlet on prison discipline.
– Establish a Savings Bank in Spitalfields.
– Recommence the sale of salt-fish in Spitalfields.
– Attend to the London Hospital, and endeavour to make the clergyman perform his duties, or to get him suspended.
– Establish a new Bible Association.
At the end of the year he reviewed his progress on the five subjects, all of which he had worked on. The pamphlet he wrote opened the subject up to more inquiry, but he worried about the success of it going to his head. Perhaps it would benefit all of us if we focused at the start of the year on what God has called us to do in the year ahead.
The following year Buxton was involved in debates on judicial punishment. A speech he made on the subject was very well received. His dear friend Samuel Hoare was watching and said afterwards, “I am sure, if I had been received in the House as he was, I should not have recovered from the elevating effect of it for twenty years.” Buxton was on two select committees, one of which was to look into the possibility of reducing the penalties for crime. He wanted to abolish the death penalty except for murder, but he was on his own in going so far. There were hundreds of crimes which resulted in the death penalty, including forgery and theft. The other committee was on improving the state of the prisons. The resulting Prison Bill was the first step in a significant improvement of the prisons, but nothing much was going to happen in the near future on sentencing.
The start of 1820 found Buxton focusing on amending the criminal code; amending the prisons; finding out how many widows were burned with their husbands in India and then stop it; and establishing a fund to establish Sunday Schools in Spitalfields. He successfully defended his seat in the election of that year, although he was wondering if he should stand on account of his desire to spend time with his eight children.
So far everything had gone really well for Buxton: family, work and being an MP. He was blessed in every way, but he was about to undergo a great trial. He hurried home after the election to find his eldest son (10 years old) ill with an inflammatory disease from which he died in just a few days. He wrote in his journal, “…I have just been out walking, viewing this splendid starry night; what immeasurable mightiness does the firmament display! And when we consider that for all these innumerable worlds there is one Arbiter, one Sovereign Director, can we say aught else than ‘ Thy will be done?’ Cannot He who rules the universe decide what is best for the children he has lent me? May I yield to that will!” The poor man had more to yield to. His three youngest children, who already had hooping cough, now contracted measles and within five weeks of the death of his son, they also died.
Now that he did not have to spend much time in the Brewery, he gave up his country house in Hampstead and moved to Cromer, on the north coast of Norfolk. Hannah’s sister Priscilla, in the last stages of consumption, came to live with them. Priscilla was a Quaker minister, a great preacher and a woman of great godliness; Buxton held her in high esteem.
He comments in his letters about working very hard. He did not mind working hard in business as that did not seem to tire him. He writes of one week, on Thursday he worked at the Brewery; on Friday, Cape of Good Hope Slave Trade; Saturday, Lord Lansdowne’s; Monday, Prison Bill; Tuesday, Brougham’s Bill on Education; Wednesday, a speech to the children at Spitalfields; Thursday, the Brewery and home. At this time Buxton took up the fight for the women of India who were burned on the funeral pyres of their husbands – Sutee. The area of Madras appears to have been the only part of India which still carried out this barbaric practice, but the Government was slow to move on it. He also continued the fight for a change in the death penalty, making an impressive speech in the Commons. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the death penalty for forgery was maintained by a majority of six. It was not until 1826 that Peel undertook the remodeling of the whole of the Penal Code. At that time there were 230 crimes which carried the death penalty.
The evening after his speech (May 24th 1821) Buxton received this letter from William Wilberforce. “My dear Buxton, it is now more than thirty-three years since, after having given notice in the House of Commons that I should bring forward, for the first time, the question concerning the Slave Trade, it pleased God to visit me with a severe indisposition, by which indeed I was so exhausted that the ablest physician in London of that day declared that I had no stamina to last above a very few weeks. On this I went to Mr. Pitt and begged of him a promise, which he kindly and readily gave me, to take upon himself the conduct of that great cause.
“I thank God I am now free from any indisposition; but from my time of life, and much more from the state of my constitution, and my inability to bear inclemencies of weather and irregularities, which close attendance on the House of Commons often requires, I am reminded, but too intelligibly, of my being in such a state that I ought not to look confidently to my being able to carry through any business of importance in the House of Commons.
“Now for many, many years I have been longing to bring forward that great subject, the condition of the negro slaves in our Trans-Atlantic colonies, and the best means of providing for their moral and social improvement and ultimately for their advancement to the rank of a free peasantry: a cause this, recommended to me, or rather enforced on me, by every consideration of religion, justice, and humanity.
“Under this impression I have been waiting, with no little solicitude for a proper time and suitable circumstances of the country, for introducing this great business; and latterly, for some Member of Parliament, who, if I were to retire or to be laid by, would be an eligible leader in this holy enterprise.
“I have for some time been viewing you in this connection; and after what passed last night I can no longer forbear resorting to you, as I formerly did to Pitt, and earnestly conjuring you to take most seriously into consideration the expediency of your devoting yourself to this blessed service, so far as will be consistent with the due discharge of the obligations you have already contracted, and in part so admirably fulfilled, to war against the abuses of our Criminal law, both in its structure and its administration. Let me then entreat you to form an alliance with me, that may truly be termed holy, and if I should be unable to commence the war (certainly not to be declared this session); and still more, if, when commenced, I should (as certainly would, I fear, be the case) be unable to finish it, do I entreat that you would continue to prosecute it. Your assurance to this effect would give me the greatest pleasure–pleasure is a bad term let me rather say, peace and consolation; for alas! my friend, I feel but too deeply how little I have been duly assiduous and faithful in employing the talents committed to my stewardship; and in forming a partnership of this sort with you I cannot doubt that I should be doing an act highly pleasing to God, and beneficial to my fellow creatures…”
This proposed cause was not new to Buxton; he was brought up as a child knowing the wrongs of slavery; his sister even refused to put sugar in her tea because of it. It was a subject that he had often mentioned in speeches and one that was often mentioned to him. Another significant influence on him was his dear sister-in-law, Priscilla. He wrote in a letter dated 22nd October 1821, “Two or three days before Priscilla Gurney died, she sent for me, as desiring to speak to me about something of importance. The moment she began to speak she was seized with a convulsion of coughing, which continued for a long time, racking her feeble frame. She still seemed determined to persevere, but, at length, finding all strength exhausted, she pressed my hand and said, ‘ The poor, dear slaves!’ I could not but understand her meaning, for during her illness she had repeatedly urged me to make their cause and condition the first object of my life, feeling nothing so heavy on her heart as their sufferings.” It had taken Wilberforce 27 years of struggle to get the abolition of the Slave Trade, so the expectation was a similar fight to abolish slavery; no small undertaking. He considered the proposal for about 18 months, studying it from all sides, and finally he decided to pick up the baton.
In October 1822 a plan was drawn up with Wilberforce, Macaulay, Dr Lushington and Lord Suffield at Cromer Hall. They formed the Anti-Slavery Society to collect evidence and spread information, of which Buxton was the Vice-President. On May 15th Buxton made a formal resolution to Parliament, “That the state of slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British Constitution and of the Christian Religion; and that it ought to be gradually abolished throughout the British Colonies with as much expedition as may be found consistent with due regard to the well-being of all concerned.”
I am not going to give a detailed report on the years of struggle over the issue of slavery, just the highlights. A much more detailed account may be found in Buxton’s Memoirs.
The Pro Slavery lobby was very strong in Parliament, with 50 MPs solidly behind them. There was a long debate on the issue and Buxton subsequently had many interviews with the Colonial Secretary, Canning. The result was that the Government sent letters to the various colonial authorities, recommending that they adopt the following:
1. To provide the means of religious instruction and Christian education for the slave population.
2. To put an end to markets and to labour on the Sunday, and, instead of Sunday, to allow the negroes equivalent time on other days for the cultivation of their provision grounds.
3. To protect the slaves by law in the acquisition and possession of property, and in its transmission by bequest or otherwise.
4. To legalise the marriages of slaves, and to protect them in the enjoyment of their connubial rights.
5. To prevent the separation of families by sale or otherwise.
6. To restrain generally the power, and to prevent the abuse, of arbitrary punishment at the will of the master.
7. To abolish the degrading corporal punishment of females.
8. To admit the testimony of slaves in courts of justice.
9. To prevent the seizure of slaves detached from the estate or plantation to which they belonged.
10. To remove all the existing obstructions to manumission, and to grant to the slave the power of redeeming himself and his wife and children at a fair price.
11. To abolish the use of the driving whip in the field, either as an emblem of authority, or as a stimulus to labour.
12. To establish Savings Banks for the use of the slaves.
Although, on the face of it, the agreement of the Government on so many points was great; the key issue of slave ownership was not dealt with and these were only recommendations.
The West Indian planters were enraged by the recommendations and rejected them out of hand. The Government did nothing to enforce the reforms. The recommendations caused some trouble amongst the slaves because some thought that they were going to be freed. On Guyana they rose up, and after two overseers were killed they were subdued with 100 being killed. A scapegoat was found in the person of a missionary called Smith. He was accused of stirring up the slaves, put in prison, tried illegally and sentenced to hang, but he died in prison. Buxton and the abolitionists were blamed for the insurrection and they were ridiculed and abused, inside and outside Parliament.
Over the next two years the Abolitionists gathered information to refute what was being said about the poor missionary. The truth of the calumny against Smith was revealed and public opinion started to turn. The Slavery issue was one of the first to be affected by public opinion. In March 1826 Buxton presented a petition from London to the House with 72,000 signatures. Then the Government announced that they were going to give the colonial authorities another year to voluntarily carry out their recommendations.
During days off Buxton could usually be found with his friend Samuel Hoare; either at Ham House, (near West Ham) or at Cromer Hall. He loved to ride and shoot, so much of his spare time was spent in these pursuits. He was always keen to promote the wellbeing of his poorer neighbours; their sufferings really touched him and he always wanted to help. He and Samuel Hoare set up Bible and missionary Societies in Cromer, both regularly attending the annual meetings. He was known for his generosity and he would always try to give of himself to those around him. A guest at Cromer wrote “I wish I could describe the impression made upon me by the extraordinary power of interesting and stimulating others which was possessed by Fowell Buxton.” Another characteristic of his was his even temper. One of is supporters at Weymouth wrote, “It must be well known to every one conversant with contested elections, that nothing can try the temper more, from the unwarrantable liberty of the press and the unfair means, both in word and deed, used on such occasions; yet though I have followed the late Sir Fowell through all his hard, long, and severe contests in this borough, I never knew him once lose his temper, once give a harsh reply, or use an unkind word to any one; nothing ever disturbed the even tenor of his way.”
There were many ship wrecks along the Cromer coast, so whenever he heard any rumour of a ship in trouble, he and Hoare would go down to the shore to give any help they could. On one instance, at grave personal risk to his own life, he saved the life of a drowning sailor.
A great deal of his time was taken up writing letters. It was the only way to communicate from a distance. Even though Buxton had seven secretaries at one time, the time taken to dictate the reams of letters necessary for his Parliamentary and private business must have been enormous.
Later in 1826 there was another election. Due to his personal popularity he topped the poll despite the vote nationally going against his party. During the year he studied the question of the slave trade existing in Mauritius. The slaves were treated cruelly and the authorities knew what was going on. He wrote later, “…It is, I think, but justice to myself to admit that the object was a worthy one; that I had embraced it from a sense of duty; that my mind was imbued with deep affliction and indignation at the wrongs to which the negro was exposed. I spared no pains and no sacrifices, in order to do justice to my cause; and the anxiety and labour which I endured preyed upon my health… On Saturday, May 19th, I took a survey of the case of cruelty to the negroes, and for two or three hours I was distressed beyond measure, and as much exasperated as distressed, by that scene of cruelty and horrid oppression. I never in my life was so much moved by anything, and I was so exhausted by the excitement that I could not that day renew my exertions…” From these comments can be seen why he found Parliamentary work more tiring than that in the Brewery. He found the accounts so awful that they caused him considerable stress and indeed illness. This period of his life wore him out, and is probably the main reason why he died before he was 60. It is difficult to understand why such a powerfully built, fit man could be laid so low. My belief is that the Lord gave him a spiritual burden for the slaves, and when given such a burden, unless you are careful you can let it take over your whole being, which can make you ill. However, if you hand the burden on to Jesus, then you can do what you are called to do without it crushing you. He recovered from the sickness which his Mauritian exertions brought about, but he was unable to put his motion to the House, so the issue was dropped for the year.
Good news came the following year with the appointment of a new Governor General for India and the consequent immediate abolishment of Suttee. In the autumn he had to leave Cromer Hall as the owner was going to pull it down and build a new one, so he moved to the nearby Northrepps Hall where he was to live until he died.
The year for the Colonial Assemblies to comply with the eight bills recommended by the Government was over and none, except Nevis, complied. The Government though was still keen to encourage rather than enforce, so they sent letters to the Assemblies urging them in strong terms to carry out the required improvement in the condition of their slaves. These letters were ignored.
While there was a pause in the West Indies and Mauritius projects, Buxton took on the plight of the Hottentots, who were the natives of the Cape Province of South Africa. The Hottentots did not even have the rights of slaves to be owned by one man; they were at the mercy of anyone who chose to oppress them. The tribes were public property and anyone could seize as many as they wanted for their own use. They were brutalized and their numbers had decreased substantially. Buxton mastered the subject and gave notice of a motion to Parliament. He did not even have to speak; the Government accepted the point and the Hottentots were free.
Not much could be done in 1829 because all anyone could talk about was the Catholic Emancipation Act. Buxton was healthy again by 1830, but sadly it was a year in which his mother and his second son, Richard died. He took up the cause of slavery again. He now understood that his original thought of changing the condition of slaves so that they could be trained to be good citizens before being freed, would not work. Clearly the planters were not going to allow this to happen, so the Abolitionists decided to start calling for the entire abolition of slavery on the shortest timescale possible. By now the ludicrous accusations of the planters towards the Abolitionists had shown them up for what they were, and the public was turning against them.
In 1831 Buxton turned towards the argument that the decrease in numbers of slaves showed that they were being treated badly. He proved that in the previous ten years the population of slaves in the 14 sugar growing colonies had decreased by 45,800. He then proved that the number of former slaves living in freedom had grown during the same period. In fact, when the slave trade was abolished in 1807 there were 800,000 slaves in the West Indies, but in 1830 there were 700,000.
A new election strengthened the Abolitionist party in Parliament. Buxton warned the Government that he was going to push for ‘the extinction of slavery’, but the big issue of the day was the Reform Act which was causing, not unnaturally, much contention in Parliament. There was quite a lot of unrest around the country and the Government realised that the electoral system had to change. The Government did not agree with Buxton and tried to water down his measure, but he would not be moved. All the pressure that could be brought to bear on him, was. Friends from all over the House asked him not to put forward the motion as they feared it would disrupt the Reform Act. They pointed out that the differences between his motion and the Government’s was very small; not worth fighting about. However, Buxton would not be persuaded, even though he stood almost alone. He forced the vote in the Commons, but the watered down Government motion won.
Over the coming weeks the committees of the Commons and the Lords met. The general consensus was that they established two points: firstly, that slavery was an evil for which there was no remedy but abolition; secondly that its abolition could be done safely. Buxton wrote a letter to his daughter in September 1832, quoting something Macaulay had told him, “You know how entirely everybody disapproved of your course in your motion, and thought you very wrong, very hard-hearted, and very headstrong; but two or three days after the debate, Lord Althorp said to me, ‘That division of Buxton’s has settled the slavery question. If he can get ninety to vote with him when he is wrong, and when most of those really interested in the subject vote against him, he can command a majority when he is right. The question is settled: the Government sees it, and they will take it up.’”
Buxton went to listen to the King’s speech in the Lords, expecting to hear that the emancipation of the slaves was on the Government’s agenda, but it wasn’t. He rushed back to the Commons and gave notice of a motion for the abolition of slavery. Two days later he wrote to Joseph Gurney, “You may suppose that I was affronted and vexed at the silence of the King’s speech. I instantly gave notice of a motion, and last night, as you will see by the papers, I asked the Government what their intentions were. They replied that they would undertake the question, and introduce ‘a safe and satisfactory measure.’ I feel excessively relieved and delighted, and not a little thankful for this great mercy.”
On the 14th May 1833 the Government produced its measure for the abolition of slavery. Buxton worked out some figures which showed that the slaves in total were only worth £5 million, but the Government offered £20 million as compensation to the planters. The Government also laid down that slavery would be abolished on the 1st August 1834, the former slaves would be apprenticed for twelve years to guarantee labour and a quarter of their time would be free. On the 28th August the Bill received the royal assent. Sadly, William Wilberforce did not live to see the Bill come into law as he died on the 29th July. However, he lived long enough to know that the Bill would be passed.
Buxton describes the scene at Wilberforce’s funeral. “…On Saturday was his funeral. We were a long time in the Abbey, standing near the grave, before the funeral came in the coffin followed by a large, unarranged, but very serious troop of men, including the royal dukes, many bishops, the members of Government, many peers, and crowds of M.P.s of all sorts of parties. I can never forget the scene, as I stood on the steps of Lord Mansfield’s monument, the open grave, and the remarkable group around it…The coffin of Wilberforce is placed between those of Pitt and Canning. He had all the distinction man could give, yet it seemed a feeble tribute to one who had obtained something so infinitely beyond…”
There was great fear among some that there would be violence in the changeover. On the 10th September Buxton received a bundle of papers which he knew was the information he was waiting for on the changeover. He took the papers into the wood with him, wanting nobody to see how he would react emotionally on reading them. He was overjoyed and thankful to God that all the letters described the admirable conduct of the slaves on the great day of freedom. Each island found different problems, but overall sugar production immediately went up, and crime declined, marriages went up and education and religion increased substantially.
From 1834 to 1837 Buxton looked into the way native peoples were treated in the colonies. He brought the subject into Parliament and a committee was formed of which he was the chairman. The Government gave considerable weight to the report that came out of the committee, and his work resulted in natives being treated more fairly. This was to be his last success as an MP.
In June 1837 the king died, Parliament was dissolved and an election held. Buxton strongly felt that he was not going to succeed this time. The Tory party used bribery and corruption in the constituency for the first time. Buxton would have none of it, leaving the result to God’s will. His defeat was a shock to both sides of the political spectrum. He was later offered no less than 27 opportunities to become an MP again, but he preferred to take the opportunity of being free from the pressures of Parliament and rest.
Buxton had been pondering the problem of Africa for a couple of years. He realised that even though there was no slavery in the British Empire, there was in other parts of the world, so Africans were still being sold into slavery. There was not only a demand for slaves, there was also the desire to supply from Africa because the trade brought in much needed cash. An idea began to form in his mind that a way to stop the supply was to use the resources of Africa to provide the cash. In 1838 he set his mind to address the problem, a challenge he would work on until his death.
His task was to prove the evils of Africa and demonstrate the continent’s potential. With others he often worked 12 hours a day to get the information he required. He wrote in August 1838 that the slave trade was double what it was when Wilberforce first began fighting it fifty years earlier, despite England no longer being involved. There is no doubt that Buxton was deeply affected by the accounts that he read of slavery, and this gave him a real urgency for change. He saw change as possible and he saw that it could come out of Africa’s soil. He saw the mineral and agricultural wealth of the continent, realising that they could prosper through trade. He recognised the problem of the climate in Africa, coming to the conclusion that because of the climate projects should be run by Africans.
The Government discussed his scheme in 1838, accepting his theories and asking him to expand and publish his book so as to stir up the public. However, he was asked to hold back on the practical suggestions until they had decided what to do. His proposals were to: impede the slave trade to America; establish commerce; teach cultivation of the land and educate the people. All types, in and out of Government, recognised the truth of what Buxton and others were saying. The Government decided to send an expedition up the Niger River to try out Buxton’s theories.
While the expedition was being prepared (three ships were built especially for the trip) Buxton finished his book ‘The Slave Trade and its Remedy’, working long hours to accomplish it. After that he went down to Italy on the popular Continental Tour, looking at and reporting on the state of the prisons and taking every opportunity he could to go shooting.
On his return to England, in May 1840, the Queen offered Buxton a baronetcy, which he accepted after hearing that none of his friends had suggested the honour. By that time the Niger expedition was ready. It consisted of three iron steamers, the Albert, the Wilberforce and the Soudan. The leaders, who were empowered to make treaties locally to abolish the Slave Trade, planned to establish an agricultural settlement (a farm) along the banks of the Niger. Buxton was extremely concerned for the safety of the volunteers going on the expedition, being particularly concerned about the climate. Everything was done to ensure the mission was a success, even to sending along some new invention that was supposed to purify the air.
By this time Buxton was worn out. He had already been warned by another doctor that his workload could not be sustained without severe consequences but now his doctor told him that he could live or die for Africa; if he chose the former, he needed to rest in the country. Although tired he was very excited at the anticipated results of the expedition, which had sailed in April 1841.
Everything went well with the expedition until September. The model farm was established and all looked favourable until a malignant fever broke out in the ships. Despite all precautions, they just did not understand the dangers of the climate. Captain Trotter, the leader of the expedition, sent two of the ships out of the area so that the sick could have a better chance of recovering while the ‘Albert’ pressed on. A treaty had already been made with the local leader and some weeks later they found that a law against slavery had been made in the region. They reached Egga, 320 miles inland. Though they had accomplished their mission regarding two of the three kingdoms they were sent to, by the 4th October the sickness had spread, so they returned to the sea.
Forty-one out of 301 (including 108 Africans) on the expedition died of the fever. The reports from those who went to Africa indicate that it was nothing but the climate which prevented the complete success of the mission. The leaders of the mission reported to the Government that they believed that the part of Africa they visited was suitable for missionaries and teachers to work.
The news of the loss was of course dreadful for Buxton. His health was such that he was unable to conduct any form of work. He was only 55, but he was coming to the end of his life. The horrors of slavery which he had read about in depth were with him all the time, but he still believed that his hopes for Africa could be achieved in another way. There was encouraging news from the West Indies and some about Africa.
The last three years of Buxton’s life were taken up mainly with domestic pleasures. Amongst these was the development of a small estate he had bought in Trimingham and another at Runton. One of his friends told him, “Your plantations (woods which he planted) will some day be the pride of the country, if England stands.” Buxton replied, “England stand! I will never believe that any country will fall which has abolished slavery as England has done.”
Buxton’s final months were spent in spreading all the love he had for his friends and family and praying that the Lord would deliver ‘poor Africa.’ Towards the end of November 1843 he began to suffer distressing symptoms, but he remained cheerful and full of thanksgiving to God. His family was in a happy state and a real blessing to him as he became dependant on them. Even in a feeble state of health he would get up at 4 or 5 am to spend a considerable time in fervent prayer. He also still maintained a close interest in the villagers, providing help if any were suffering.
On the 19th February 1845 Thomas Fowell Buxton died with his family around him. His friend and brother-in-law, J J Gurney wrote, “Never was death more still, solemn and gentle, than on this occasion…Such an expression of intellectual power and refinement, of love of God and man, I think I have never seen before in any human countenance.” He was buried in Overstrand Church, near Cromer. On the day of his funeral people came through lanes and across fields from every direction. There were far too many for the church to contain.
A few weeks after his death some friends formed a committee for erecting a testimonial to his memory. Prince Albert sent £50, nobody else was allowed to contribute more than two guineas. Many of the most distinguished names in the nation contributed, people from all sides of the political and religious spectrum. 50,000 people from the West Indies and Africa contributed to what became a statue of the wonderful man which stands in Westminster Abbey, between Wilberforce’s memorial and grave.
Buxton’s greatest achievement was of course the abolition of slavery which probably cost him his life. His singleness of purpose led him to work tirelessly to achieve the goal which the Lord set out for him. Although he was disappointed in the failure of the Niger expedition; even that would bring fruit in years to come. He had a vision for Africa which was accurate, but just a little before its time. I do not believe he would have been able to achieve what he did had be not been a passionate lover of the Lord. He received guidance and strength from above.
For me though it was who he was rather than what he did that amazed me. Buxton was a great example of a Christian. One of his sons wrote, “I cannot help being struck with the exquisite tenderness of heart which my father always displays; his unwillingness to debar us from pleasure, the zeal with which he will make any sacrifice or take any trouble to gratify us, is most surprising.”
One of Buxton’s main secretaries wrote, “The qualities which struck me most in Sir Fowell Buxton were his perseverance, benevolence, disregard of outside appearances, his entire devotion to what was practical, and, perhaps beyond all, his humility.” His humility and his love for his fellow man set him apart. The love he showed to his staff, the villagers, friends, family and strangers was unconditional and constant; he was an example to every Christian.
Dr Guthrie, the leading minister of his day in Scotland said this, “I have been reading Fowell Buxton’s life, of late; a most interesting narrative of one of the noblest specimens of human nature, and Divine grace which the world ever saw”. He said it all.
This biography has been taken from, ‘The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton’ by his son Charles Buxton. You can find it on the web at http://www.archive.org/details/memoirsofsirthom00buxtuoft, and you can find another biography, ‘Buxton the Liberator’ by R H Mottram at http://www.archive.org/details/buxtonliberator00mottuoft.