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Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), slavery abolitionist lived at Bury St Edmunds from 1806 to 1816, and thereafter at Playford Hall, near Ipswich. He was known as the moral steam engine and was one of the leading opponents of slavery.  He first became aware of slavery at Cambridge University, when he entered a Latin essay competition on the topic ‘is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’  He knew nothing about the subject but talked to people with personal experience of slavery and the slave trade.  He won the prize, and then translated the essay into English so that it could gain a wider audience. It was published in 1786.

The Essay soon brought Clarkson into contact with others who had published or campaigned against the slave trade.  In 1787, he was one of the founders of the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Clarkson became the Committee’s researcher and for the next two years rode around the country gathering evidence against the trade.  He passed his evidence to the Abolition Committee, who arranged for the campaign to be taken to Parliament.  In 1788 a committee of the Privy Council started to take evidence on ‘the present state of the African Trade’. While William Wilberforce steered the campaign through Parliament, Clarkson continued to produce new evidence.

Brookes Slave Ship (306.362)

Brookes Slave Ship (306.362)

In 1803 a new abolition campaign was launched.  Clarkson once again toured the country gathering evidence while Wilberforce again introduced the Abolition Bill before Parliament.  After failures in 1804 and 1805, the third Bill to abolish the Slave Trade was introduced in 1807 and finally became law on 25th March 1807.  Abolishing the Slave Trade was just the first step and Clarkson and others continued the campaign to bring emancipation. Clarkson became vice president of the Anti-Slavery society, formed in 1823. Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.  He never ceased to work for anti-slavery, lending his pen to the cause of abolition in the United States. He presided at the opening session of the grand anti-slavery convention in the Freemasons Hall on 12 June 1840.

Suffolk is proud of its connections to Clarkson.  In Ipswich there is a street named after him on the London Road Estate, which was planned by Dykes and Richard Dykes Alexander in the mid-19th century. The Alexanders were prominent Quakers in the town and friends and supporters of Clarkson.  Dykes Alexander’s house at the junction of the London and Norwich Roads was to be demolished after his death as part of the development of the London Road area.  The new streets were named in honour of anti-slavery campaigners: Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) an American Quaker who was a prolific writer.  A fourth street, Woolman Street, named after John Woolman (1720-1772), an associate of Benezet’s, was planned but never built.