This is a guest post by Dr Katie Carpenter, Creative Economy Engagement Fellow for the Parliamentary Archives and Royal Holloway, University of London
Religious communities, especially non-conformist groups, were active in the movement to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Quakers led the way, having established the first anti-slavery committees and delivered the first abolition petition to the House of Commons in 1783. John Wesley, the leader of the eighteenth-century Methodist revival, was also an activist for the abolition movement.
Most petitions presented to the House of Commons before 1834 have not survived. A fire in 1834 at Parliament effectively wiped out many of the records, including, as far as I knew, any petitions that were presented to the House of Commons protesting the practice of slavery in the British Empire.
As I was searching for documents related to the abolition of slavery (for the upcoming MOOC Peterloo to the Pankhursts), I turned to the records of the House of Lords. These records are also incomplete, as some records have been lost over the years, or were simply not considered important enough to have been kept for so long. However, a quick search in the Parliamentary Archives catalogue suggested that there was a list of petitions for abolition in a box of unprinted papers, presented to the Lords between 10 November and 16 November 1830, HL/PO/JO/10/8/918.
As I was searching through the pile of documents, I was surprised to find another two documents with ‘slavery’ written on the outside. These two documents were not numbered in blue pencil as each usually is, corresponding to their catalogue entry. The dates of the petitions suggested they were in the correct box.
On opening the petitions, I was intrigued to discover that these two petitions were not addressed to the Lords as I had expected. They were both addressed to the Commons.
The first of these petitions, dated 11 November 1830, was from a congregation of Wesleyan Methodists from Upper Heaton, York, with twenty-nine signatures. The petitioners wrote ‘with deepest concern the continuance of the un-Christian, inhuman, and impolitic system of slavery prevailing in so many colonies of the British Crown’.
The second petition, with 52 signatures, is dated 12 November 1830 and was also from a congregation of Wesleyan Methodists, this time from Chalford in Gloucester. It seems these petitions may have been produced together. As well as also being from a Methodist congregation, the phrasing is remarkably similar. This petition also writes ‘with the greatest concern the continuance of the inhuman, unchristian, and impolitic system of slavery prevailing in so many of the colonies of the British Crown’. This petition, however, is slightly longer than the previous. It goes on to describe slaves as subjects of the British government who should have the same rights as rights as others: ‘By our divine religion, to the natural rights of the slaves, and to those claims which may be urged in their behalf as the subjects of the same paternal Government with ourselves’.
I then moved onto the next box, of papers presented to the Lords a week later, expecting to find another list of petitions for the abolition of slavery. Instead, I found a further two petitions addressed to the Commons, again, on the topic of slavery. This time, the petitions were numbered as ‘110’, listed in the catalogue as ‘Slavery, petitions of Abolition of’. It also refers to a corresponding page in the Lords Journals, but on checking, the petitions referring to are not the same.
The first of these two petitions was from inhabitants of Runswick, Yorkshire, presented to the Commons on 2 December 1830. This petition does not specify if it is from a specific congregation, but it takes a deeply religious tone, describing slavery as a ‘foul blot on our profession of Christianity’. The petitioners stated that they ‘cannot witness the unnatural cruel bondage by which 800,000 of their fellow subjects in the West Indies are degraded, without the deepest feeling of shame and sorrow’. The begged the Commons to intervene, as it was ‘utterly in vain to hope for effectual reform from the colonist themselves’. This petition had the most signatures, with 125.
A second petition, undated, but probably also presented on the 2 December 1830, was from ‘the Dissenting Chapel Broad Oak, Chiddingly.’ As well as repeating the sentiments of the other petitions, with references to the cruelty and corruption of the slave trade. Interestingly, this petition also asked the Commons ‘to place the offspring of this degraded race on all equal footing with infants born in this island’.
These petitions demonstrate the activities of religious communities in the campaign to abolish slavery, which was finally achieved in 1833 with the Abolition Act. As they were originally presented to the Commons, their survival is unusual.
The Lords’ stamp on these petitions suggests they were deliberately filed with other Lords’ papers for some unknown reason. Exactly when this happened, or why these particular petitions were chosen, is unclear. I have been unable to find corresponding entries in Hansard or the Commons’ Journals. Fortunately, this meant these petitions were saved from the fire that destroyed others. Indeed, these finds suggest that there are perhaps more Commons petitions, believed to have been lost, lurking in the records of the House of Lords.
You can follow Katie and learn more about her discoveries @ktrcarpenter