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William Wilberforce (d.1833), abolitionist and social reformer, was born at Wilberforce House in 1759. As the Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, Wilberforce famously campaigned against the slave trade. Today’s building, conveniently located next to the quayside and high street, was originally on the site of a merchant’s house built in c.1590 for the Lister family, exporters of lead. John Lister and his son, also John, both became Mayors of Hull and the latter was knighted. The family was prestigious enough to entertain Charles I, who stayed at the house in 1639. The current structure was built in 1656. From 1709, John Thornton, a merchant of lead and cloth, owned the house. The merchant’s apprentice, William Wilberforce, the grandfather to the abolitionist, married Thornton’s daughter, and the house passed onto the Wilberforce family in 1732. Merchants of Hull tended to carry out their trade with the Baltic states and Europe, differing from Bristol and Liverpool who had a large stake in the slave trade.

The abolitionist

Wilberforce was educated at Cambridge, where he met the future Prime Minister William Pitt and entered political life. He was a talented orator and represented the abolitionist cause in Parliament, introducing Bills and campaigning for twenty years. His influence aided the passing of the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill in 1807, which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire. Slavery itself was, however, still able to continue. Wilberforce continued campaigning for the abolition of slavery until he retired from politics in 1825. He died on 29 July 1833, just three days after the act to emancipate all slaves in the British colonies passed through the House of Commons.

William wilberforce.jpg

William Wilberforce by the artist Anton Hickel. Source: Wikicommons.

The House as Museum

Wilberforce House was opened as Britain’s first slavery museum in 1906, after it was acquired by the local authority. It is Grade II listed and features permanent displays on the slave trade and its abolition, as well as exhibits relating to the social history of Hull and modern slavery. The front garden is home to a statue of Wilberforce, originally unveiled in 1884 and restored in 2011.

Wilberforce House with William Wilberforce’s statue outside. Source: Wikicommons.

Visitor information:

Wilberforce House is situated on the High Street in Hull. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sundays 1.30pm-4pm. Admission is free.

Find out more:

J. Oldfield, Chords of Freedom: Commemoration, Ritual and British Transatlantic Slavery (Manchester, 2007).

I. Rutherford, History of Wilberforce House (Hull)

P. Chrystal, Hull in 50 Buildings (Stroud, 2017)



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