It was a morning in mid-March, I was walking to work across the city from The Royal Hotel in Hull to Hull College which stands at the top of Queen’s Gardens, until 1930 the city’s largest dock and now a peaceful, colourful public garden and meeting place, which regularly hosts music festivals, play days and the annual firework display.
As I arrived at the college I paused in the forecourt and read the inscriptions on the base of the Wilberforce Memorial, which stands in the college grounds, thinking to myself that I must, at some time, take some photographs which I might use for a sermon, a short address or maybe even a website reflection!
The foundations for the William Wilberforce Monument were laid on 1st August 1834, the same day as the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies. It is 102 feet high, carved out of Yorkshire millstone grit, with a 12 foot statue of Wilberforce at the top, looking out over his beloved city. On its base it bears the words, “erected by public subscription” at a cost of £1,250, equivalent to an eye-watering £90,500 today.
William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24th August 1759. The son of a wealthy merchant, he studied at Cambridge University, where he became good friends with future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In 1780 he became Member of Parliament for Hull, but his lifestyle changed completely when in 1790, encouraged by Rev'd. John Newton, he became an evangelical Christian and joined a leading group known as “The Clapham Sect”, commemorated today on a blue plaque at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common.
Wilberforce’s Christian faith prompted him to become involved in social reform, as he worked to improve factory conditions in Britain, but through the work of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce began to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in Parliament. His work was supported by the Clapham Sect who produced pamphlets, held rallies and encouraged many ordinary folk to sign petitions.
In 1807 the slave trade was finally abolished but this still did not free those who were already slaves. Following this victory Wilberforce fought a series of other actions including trying to prevent France from resuming its slave trade after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, in 1833, an Act was passed that gave freedom to all slaves in the British Empire, shortly after this Wilberforce died on 29th July 1833. As he lay dying he heard that the Bill to free all slaves in the British Colonies had passed its second reading in the Commons. “Thank God”, he said, “that I should live to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery.” He is buried near his friend William Pitt in Westminster Abbey.
William Wilberforce is still celebrated in Hull, his house has been turned into a museum telling the story of his work and last year the National Portrait Gallery loaned a portrait of Wilberforce to the city so that it could be put on public display. His monument was even renovated, again by public subscription, to celebrate “Hull City of Culture 2017”. He deserves an important place in the story of emancipation, but he shares it with many others, both black and white, men and women, in Britain and overseas, inspired by faith and fuelled by the belief, as Wilberforce put it, that, “Having seen all this you can choose to look the other way, but you can never say again, ‘I did not know’”.
As we pray today for those who still struggle for freedom, we remember the words of St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, when he says,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ.”
(Galatians 3 verse 28, WEB)
When I return to Hull, I must remember to take that photograph.
This song reminds us of those for whom following God means serving others, despite where that may take them:
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.