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Who was Thomas Clarkson? The ‘moral steam engine’ who fought with Wilberforce to end the slave trade

PUBLISHED: 19:00 10 June 2020

A bas-relief of Thomas Clarkson inside Playford Church Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A bas-relief of Thomas Clarkson inside Playford Church Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Difficult questions are being asked about Britain’s slave trading past, in light of the huge global Black Lives Matters protests which followed the death of George Floyd in the US.

Clarkson Street is named after the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson Picture: SIMON PARKERClarkson Street is named after the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson Picture: SIMON PARKER

Difficult questions are being asked about Britain’s past slave trading past, in light of the huge global Black Lives Matters protests which followed the death of George Floyd in the US.

While some decry the destruction of statues of slave traders, there are other figures from that period who achieved more and are recognised less: including Thomas Clarkson.

Clarkson was a prominent figure within the movement to end slavery in Britain.

Wisbech-born but spending decades of his life in Suffolk, Clarkson was best described by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a “moral steam engine” and the “giant with one idea”.

The Thomas Clarkson Memorial in Playford Church Picture: Lucy TaylorThe Thomas Clarkson Memorial in Playford Church Picture: Lucy Taylor

This idea, that humans should not buy and sell each other was one to which he dedicated his life.

Clarkson highlighted the dreadful conditions facing slaves often travelling thousands of miles to do so.

Vivienne Aldous, a history lecturer at the University of Suffolk, said it was Clarkson’s incessant work to spread his message that made him stand out.

“He was a fantastic conveyor of the message. That was his power, he got the message out there.

Thomas Clarkson is buried with his family in Playford Picture: Lucy TaylorThomas Clarkson is buried with his family in Playford Picture: Lucy Taylor

“However, there were occasions when he was set upon by thugs.”

Despite living in Suffolk for a long time, details about Clarkson’s life aren’t always well-known here.

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A road in Ipswich, Clarkson Street is named after the abolitionist.

Workers take down a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay Picture: Yui Mok/PA WireWorkers take down a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Clarkson and William Wilberforce are also recognised by the Church of England for their abolition work every July 30.

A plaque was also dedicated to him at Westminster Abbey.

In Playford, Clarkson is perhaps known better; his grave in Playford Church is also marked with an obelisk which records him as Thomas Clarkson, a friend of slaves.

Local historian Brian Seward said that much of the recognition only came in 1996, the 150th anniversary of his death and in 2007, 200 years after slavery was abolished.

Thomas  Clarkson remembered  in Playford Church Picture: Lucy TaylorThomas Clarkson remembered in Playford Church Picture: Lucy Taylor

Even now Mr Seward said Clarkson still tends to be overlooked in favour of Wilberforce.

“I spoke to the Wilberforce family,” said Mr Seward.

“They wrote a letter saying that he deserved at least equal recognition.”

“He is worth commemorating,” said Mrs Aldous.

Playford Church, where Thomas Clarkson is remembered Picture: LUCY TAYLORPlayford Church, where Thomas Clarkson is remembered Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

She added that it was important to recognise that while Clarkson’s contributions have in the past been overlooked in favour of William Wilberforce, both were part of a much bigger team fighting the injustice.

This included former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, who was taken from his native Nigeria as a child, and who worked to pay for his own freedom.

Phanuel Mutumburi, Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality’s business and operations director, said: “ISCRE certainly believes that more people in Suffolk should be aware of the contribution made by Thomas Clarkson to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, given his associations with our county.

“But we also think that the contributions of hundreds, if not thousands, of Suffolk residents, of all backgrounds both in the past and today, towards making the county a fairer and more decent place to live and work, need to be better understood and appreciated as well.”


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