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Thomas Clarkson 1839
Thomas Clarkson and Suffolk
By Clive Paine
Thomas Clarkson, the man most responsible for the abolition of the slave trade, was an East Anglian. He was born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire in 1760, where his father was a clergyman and School Master.
His links with Suffolk began when, at one of his meetings, he met William Buck who was a wealthy yarn-maker from Bury St Edmunds. He had a vivacious and talented daughter, Catherine and both were members of Whiting Street Independent Church (now United Reformed Church) in Bury.
St Mary's Square, Bury St Edmunds
On 21 January 1796 Thomas and Catherine were married at St Marys Church, Bury. They moved to the Lake District, where Thomas had been living since 1794. Here they became great friends of the poets William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1806, the Clarksons took up residence in the Bury's fashionable Horse Market, which is now St Mary's Square. Her father's new brewery (the future Green King) was nearby as was St Mary's Church. They rented No. 5 until their move to Playford near Ipswich in January 1816.
It was here that they were living when the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed and here where Thomas wrote ‘The History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade’ which was published in 1808. Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge were frequent visitors.
At an Anti-Slavery Meeting in 1814 at Bury, Thomas was hailed as ‘…our townsman Thomas Clarkson, who by his unwearied exertions had procured the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.
The high regard in which he was held in Suffolk is reflected in the words and actions of the Earl of Bristol who, in 1813, 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.’ It was at Playford that Thomas was to spend the rest of his life.
There is little evidence to show Thomas playing any part in town or village affairs at Bury or Playford. His obituary mentions supporting the poor and schools around Playford, but it was Catherine who actually gave the practical help.
At Playford, Clarkson continued his work and writing for the total abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In 1821 he gave sanctuary to the deposed Queen and Princess of Haiti, following the death of King Henri Christophe I.
He was living at Playford when slavery was finally abolished in 1833. The inhabitants of Ipswich sent him ‘…cordial congratulations on the auspicious termination of slavery in the British Colonies …a struggle of 30 years… (in which) you have been ever mindful of the sacred cause of the negroes’ freedom.’
Clarkson graves, Playford
Thomas died at Playford Hall on 26 September 1846, aged 86. His grave and those of Catherine (d. 1856) and their only son Thomas (d. 1837) are enclosed by decorative metal railings with oval inscription panels. Inside the chancel is a relief profile of Thomas, erected by his daughter-in-law Mary in the 1870’s. In the churchyard is a granite obelisk erected in 1857 by a handful of surviving friends.
At Ipswich in the 1850’s streets were named after Clarkson, Wilberforce and the American Quaker Anthony Benezet.
Clive Paine works at the Bury Records Office - part of Suffolk County Council's county-wide Records Office.
last updated: 11/04/2008 at 14:11