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The abolitionist movement

On 22 May 1787 twelve men met in the upper room of a Quaker print shop in George Yard, just off Lombard Street to calculate how to bring down the slave trade.  The group known as’ The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ was led by Thomas Clarkson, the 27 year old son of a vicar and other prominent campaigners including Granville Sharpe and William Wilberforce -  nine were Quakers, including one American; three were Anglicans. 


Clarkson had come to abolitionist views at Cambridge University while researching and concluded that in order to bring about any change, ordinary people needed to learn of the true scale of the suffering which commerce in human cargo caused. 


It was an art image -- a diagram of the slave ship “Brooke” -- which eventually helped to awaken the public to the barbarity of the slave trade. The diagram instructed the crew of the ship in loading ‘cargo’ so as to maximise space and profit.  The image showed the decks loaded with 454 slaves, the maximum ‘legal’ limit although it was known that the same ship had carried more than 700 at a time to maximize profit. This shocking image of men and women packed side by side and the effect of imagining the airless decks running with blood pus and human waste spoke clearly of the horror of the ships. 


When Clarkson received the diagram via former slave turned abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, he promptly printed 7000 copies in James Philips’ print shop in Lombard Street and by the end of 1788 the Brooke’s diagram was displayed in homes, businesses and reproduced in newspapers all over Britain. 


The impact of this torpedo shaped diagram for the cause of abolition was incalculable. The Brooke’s poster remains one of the most widely reproduced graphics of all time, and it helped to revolutionize modern advocacy. In 2012, the Brooke’s Diagram was listed in Scott Christianson’s 100 Diagrams that Changed the World. Even Clarkson was surprised at its effectiveness. He wrote: ‘It made an instantaneous impression of horror on all who saw it.’[i]


St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street


In the same year as the Brooke’s diagram was being printed, down the street at St Mary Woolnoth, the Rector, John Newton published his pamphlet, 'Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade'. In his pamphlet Newton revealed his own past as a slave trader, condemning the trade, and expressing regret at his part in it.  Later that year he was called as a witness by the parliamentary select committee for examining the slave trade. With his first-hand experience he provided detailed evidence of the conditions and treatment to which men and women were subjected. His experience, position and reputation as a clergyman, made his contribution to the success of the abolition movement extremely valuable. 


The other key contribution to the abolitionist movement that happened ion Lombard Street was the meetings between William Wilberforce and John Newton at St Mary Woolnoth. In 1785 - 6 William Wilberforce, the English member of parliament approached Newton for advice and Newton acted as a mentor and encouraged him to use political means to do God's work. In Wilberforce's case, this would prove to be the campaign for abolition.


In the last days of Newton’s life his mobility, eyesight and even his memory deserted him. He said that he remembered two things: “That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great saviour.”


John Newton died in December 1807, shortly after the Abolition Act passed into law. He was buried beside his wife in the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth, but the building of the Underground station at Bank led to both bodies being re-interred at Olney in 1893.

Read more about John Newton and Amazing Grace.

Abolitionist movement timeline


1785-6  William Wilberforce asks for advice from John Newton in the midst of his evangelical conversion and joins the abolitionist movement.


1787  First meeting of The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade at James Philips’ print shop in George Yard, Lombard Street


1788  Newton revealed his slave trading past in ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’


1788  Brooke slave ship diagram printed at the Philips’ print shop in George Yard, 7000 distributed


1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 entered statute books, making the slave trade illegal


1833  Slavery Abolition Act 1833 gave freedom to all slaves in the British empire

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