Anti-slavery campaigners take action

Robert Blakey was a life-long opponent of slavery.

Saturday, 25th February 2017, 3:05 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:48 am

He said: “In 1815 I visited Glasgow for a few days. I had a letter of introduction to a cousin of my Uncle Coxon’s, a Mr Mather, one of the wealthy and active merchants in the city. He was engaged in the West India trade — importing sugar, rum, &c....

“I dined with him, and had the pleasure of meeting on the occasion with Professor George Jarden, of the Glasgow University.

“The next morning Mr Mather took me to the ‘Tontine’, then the only newsroom in the city. Here a regular row broke out among the members, and after a scene of uproar and confusion rarely witnessed, a gentlemanly man in appearance was forcibly ejected from the room.

“On making inquiries I found he was accused of writing some letters published in the only opposition paper then in the city. The suspected writer had made some rather pointed and severe strictures on the slave trade.

"This was a mortal sin in the eyes of the merchants of the city, which owed at this time most of its wealth to this infamous traffic.

“I have written against the trade in human flesh for upwards of 60 years, and from the first I have uniformly maintained that the trade should be made piracy, and every person engaged in it brought to condign punishment.”

Fifteen years later, on June 26, 1830, George IV died and was succeeded by his brother William.

King George was detested by most of the population for his reactionary views and for the way he had treated his estranged wife, Queen Caroline. William IV, by contrast, was seen as an affable, jolly old sailor.

Meanwhile, in Paris, three days of rioting in July brought down the Bourbon monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orléans.

It breathed new life into the reformers of Great Britain, and at the general election following the King’s death, which took place at the same time as the revolution in France, the great question was that of the reform of Parliament.

In November the Duke of Wellington’s Tory Government collapsed in disarray, and William appointed Earl Grey as Prime Minister.

Rather oddly, however, the issue that gripped the country then was not reform as such, but the abolition of slavery.

Anti-slavery societies sprang up all over the country, their main purpose being to petition Parliament.

The Morpeth Anti-Slavery Society began with a public meeting on November 1 in the Independent (i.e. Congregational) Chapel, when Dr Hedley, a Roman Catholic, was called to the chair.

A petition was put on display in William Creighton’s shop during the week, and then in the Catholic, Methodist and Independent chapels on Sunday, being carried from one to another.

Mr Creighton was a surgeon so it seems odd that he should have a shop and that he was also the agent for an insurance company. I think he was probably an apothecary. Apothecaries could only charge for medicine, not for treatment, hence the shop, and many of them practised as surgeons as well.

William Woodman was the acting secretary. In a letter to Viscount Howick, an MP and the eldest son of the new Prime Minister, he said: "All religious distinction appeared to be entirely forgotten in the universal wish to put an end to slavery. The Catholic gentleman who presided being surrounded by almost every denomination of Christians."

He sent the petition to William Ord Esq, one of the two MPs for Morpeth, to present in the House.

Ord wrote back: “Sir, I have had the honor of receiving your letter and the petition of the inhabitants of Morpeth on the subject of Negro Slavery. I presented the latter to the House of Commons yesterday. With the general objects of your petition I most cordially concur... provided some regard is paid to the rights of property and to the probable happiness and wellbeing of the Negros themselves. I should be disposed to leave the mode of accomplishing this to the wisdom of Parliament.”

Lord Howick was not enthusiastic.

Writing from Berkeley Square, he said: “Sir, I have to apologise for having been prevented from sooner answering your letter of the 3d and at the same time to request you to convey my thanks to the society recently formed at Morpeth for the honour they have done me, and to state that it is not in my power to become one of their vice presidents. I am as adverse as anyone to the system of slavery, and shall always be ready to support in my place in Parliament any well considered scheme for putting an end to it, but as I doubt whether the societies which are now forming are calculated to promote the temperate discussion of the question, I have resolved not to belong to any of them.

“I am, Sir, Yr Obedt Servt, Howick.”

The Society was set up on November 22, the same day, in fact, that Earl Grey became Prime Minister, with Lord Morpeth as President, four distinguished Vice-Presidents, Dr Hedley as Treasurer, William Woodman as Secretary, and a committee consisting of Luke Smyth Esq. RN, Henry Smith, Edward Watson, William Creighton, John Nicholson, George Hood and William Henry Robertson, with George McKay, Peter Watson and Ralph Walker co-opted.

It does not seem to have outlived its first meeting, and indeed, once it had petitioned Parliament, it’s hard to see what else it could do.

Parliament abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire in 1833. Lord Howick then resigned from the Whig government because it decided to emancipate the slaves gradually by means of so-called Negro apprenticeships, instead of all at once.

Rather surprisingly, Robert Blakey's name does not appear on the petition. This must have been due to absence or illness because in March 1838 he signed another petition from Morpeth, against Negro apprenticeships.