Robert Wedderburn

(1762 – 1835/1836?)

Anti-slavery lobbyist, author and campaigner for freedom of speech

Robert Wedderburn was born in Jamaica in 1762. His father, James Wedderburn, had been born in Scotland and owned a large sugar plantation on the island. His mother, Rosanna, was a slave owned by Wedderburn. When she was pregnant, Wedderburn sold her to Lady Douglas, stipulating that the child that she bore should be free from birth. That child was Robert Wedderburn. He was brought up on the estate of Lady Douglas. He later recalled that as a child he witnessed both his mother and grandmother being whipped.

As soon as he was old enough Wedderburn left the plantation and became a sailor. He arrived in England in 1778 and soon afterwards found work as a tailor. Wedderburn was converted to Christianity by a Wesleyan preacher. Later he became involved in the Unitarian movement.

The Unitarians drew their membership to a large extent from the scientific professions and their outlook tended to be rational and individualistic. The most important aspect of Unitarianism is the right of individuals to develop their own religious opinions. Therefore the bond between them consists more in their anti-dogmatism than in any uniformity of belief. However, Unitarians tend to believe that Jesus Christ was a human religious leader to be followed but not worshipped. Unitarians argued that Jesus is the “great exemplar which we ought to copy in order to perfect our union with God”.

Unitarians believed that social evils and injustices were humanly created, not God inflicted, and therefore could be remedied by human efforts. Unitarians were strong advocates of democracy and argued that each congregation should manage itself without outside control. This included the power to select and discharge ministers.

In 1812 Robert Wedderburn met Thomas Spence, the unofficial leader of those radical reformers who advocated revolution. Spence did not believe in a centralized body and instead encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as “Spence’s Plan and Full Bellies” and “The Land is the People’s Farm”. Spence died in September 1814 he was buried by “forty disciples” who pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. This group of men formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists and continued to meet for the next six years. As well as Wedderburn the group included Thomas Preston, John Hopper, Thomas Evans, Allen Davenport, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd.

The government became very concerned about this group and employed a spy, John Castle, to join the Spencean’s and report on their activities. In October 1816 Castle reported to John Stafford, supervisor of Home Office spies, that the Spencean’s were planning to overthrow the British government.

On 2nd December 1816, the Spencean group organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields, Islington. The speakers at the meeting included Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and James Watson. The magistrates decided to disperse the meeting and while Stafford and eighty police officers were doing this, one of the men, Joseph Rhodes was stabbed. The four leaders of the Spenceans, James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston and John Hopper were arrested and charged with high treason.

Watson was the first to be tried. However, the main prosecution witness was the government spy, John Castle. The defence council was able to show that Castle had a criminal record and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury concluded that Castle was an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment) and refused to convict Watson. As the case against Watson had failed, it was decided to release the other three men who were due to be tried for the same offence.

In 1817 Thomas Evans, considered to be the leader of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists was arrested and charged with high treason. Wedderburn responded to this by establishing the journal, The Forlorn Hope. In the first edition Wedderburn argued that the journal would “establish something in the shape of a free press”. It also included an article on the imprisonment of Thomas Evans and his 20 year old son.

Government spies who infiltrated the Spenceans claimed that Wedderburn was now the leader of the group. One spy attended a meeting held at the Mulberry Tree tavern. In his report he claimed that 150 people attended the meeting. As well as making a speech Wedderburn read from the writings of William Cobbett, William Sherwin and Jonathan Wooler.

Robert Wedderburn also opened his own Unitarian chapel in Hopkins Street, Soho. Government spies were soon reporting that Wedderburn and Allen Davenport were making “violent, seditious, and bitterly anti-Christian Spencean speeches.” In 1819 it was reported that up to 200 people were paying 6d. a head to attend debates organized by Wedderburn. He also gave sermons every Sunday, or in the words of Wedderburn: “lectures every Sabbath day on Theology, Morality, Natural Philosophy and Politics by a self-taught West Indian”.

A government spy claimed that at one meeting Wedderburn argued that a slave had the right to kill his master. This resulted in Wedderburn being arrested and charged with sedition and blasphemy. He was sent to Newgate Prison but was later released when his followers raised £200 bail money.

In the summer of 1819 the Manchester Patriotic Union Society invited Major Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The meeting was held at St. Peter’s Field on 16th August. The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting.

At about 11.00 a.m. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton’s house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter’s Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people at the meeting.

At 1.30 p.m. the magistrates came to the conclusion that “the town was in great danger”. William Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders of the demonstration. The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry entered St. Peter’s Field along the path cleared by the special constables. As the yeomanry moved closer to the hustings, members of the crowd began to link arms to stop them arresting Henry Hunt and the other leaders. Others attempted to close the pathway that had been created by the special constables. Some of the yeomanry now began to use their sabres to cut their way through the crowd.

When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they arrested Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, George Swift, John Saxton, John Tyas, John Moorhouse and Robert Wild. As well as the speakers and the organisers of the meeting, Birley also arrested the newspaper reporters on the hustings.

Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange reported to William Hulton at 1.50 p.m. When he asked Hulton what was happening he replied: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry? Disperse them.” L’Estrange now ordered Lieutenant Joliffe and the 15th Hussars to rescue the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. By 2.00 p.m. the soldiers had cleared most of the crowd from St. Peter’s Field. In the process, eleven people were killed and about 400, including 100 women, were wounded.

Wedderburn was quick to condemn the Peterloo Massacre and on the 13th September he held a special meeting on the subject at his Hopkins Street chapel. Wedderburn argued that “an act of murder had been committed by the magistrates and yeoman”. The following month Wedderburn told an audience that the revolution was about to begin and that all working men “should learn to use the gun, the dagger, the cutlass and pistols”.

Wedderburn also continued his campaign against slavery. He was particularly concerned with the role that the Church played in the slave system. He published a pamphlet on the subject, A Critical, Historical and Admonitory Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Wedderburn was also opposed to the idea of sending missionaries to the West Indies, arguing that they would be used “to preach passive obedience to the poor black slaves”.

In November 1819 Wedderburn criticised radical reformers such as Henry Orator Hunt and Sir Francis Burdett. He argued that revolution rather than reform was what was needed. His vision was of simultaneous revolution of the poor in Europe and the black slaves in the West Indies. However, Wedderburn opposed the Cato Street Conspiracy and argued that the planned insurrection was premature. On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

Wedderburn was eventually charged with “blasphemous libel”. In court he told the jury: “Where, after all, is my crime? It consists merely in having spoken in the same plain and homely language which Christ and his disciples uniformly used. There seems to be a conspiracy against the poor, to keep them in ignorance and superstition; the rich may have as many copies as they like of sceptical writers; but if I find two most decided contradictions in the bible, I must not in the language of the same book assert that one or the other is a lie.” Found guilty he was sentenced to two years in Dorchester Prison.

On his release Wedderburn published The Horrors of Slavery (1824). He continued to campaign for freedom of speech and in 1831, at the age of 68, he was arrested and sent to Giltspur Street Prison. While in prison he wrote a letter to Francis Place. It was the last time Wedderburn appeared in the archives and it is not known when he died.

*Hustings: This word relates to political gatherings/platform on which the campaigners address their audience: an assembly.

Books for further reference:

The Horrors of Slavery and other Writings by Robert Wedderburn, Edited by, Iain McCalman, Published by: Edinburgh University Press, 1991

The Axe Laid to the Root: The story of Robert Wedderburn, by, Martin Hoyles, Published by: Hansib, London 2004

To find out more about Black people in Britain 1700 – 1850, see the Newsletter of the Black and Asian Studies Association website.