In Surrey’s social circles, Abolition seems to have been popular. Many people expressed an opinion on the subject in the lead-up to the Emancipation Act (1833), and religious groups often encouraged their members to take the strongest stances. Quaker weekly meetings would be encouraged to circulate the minutes of monthly and yearly meetings denouncing slavery and threatening action against any of its members who ignored the Society’s intolerant stance on slave ownership.
Judging by the quarterly meeting minutes of the Surrey and Sussex Quakers, the position on slavery was discussed and reiterated at many meetings, and copies of the minutes of the yearly meetings (meetings on a national scale ), were circulated widely (e.g. Godalming monthly meeting’s copy of the 1784 meeting, SHC Ref. G124/9/5).
A newspaper cutting from the daily newspaper, the Morning Herald (5th March 1826 – SHC Ref. G52/12/15) describes an Anti-Slavery meeting, the previous week, at The Spread Eagle, an Epsom pub. The meeting discussed the poor working conditions of slaves, the national feeling of ‘moral guilt’, the apathy of the British people on the matter and it resolved to petition parliament to free slaves in British colonies and ‘the whole community had been agreed on the great question, the only point of difference being the mode of removing the horrible stain from the English character’.
That last statement came from John Ivatt Briscoe, lord of the manor for Epsom, who lived at Fox Hills, Chertsey. He made a parliamentary career for himself as a Whig MP (Whig MPs were central to the Westminster West India lobby), and held a seat three times during the period 1830-70. He warned that any immediate hasty action to emancipate the slaves would be disastrous and needed much thought.
Briscoe was a beneficiary of Lower Berney’s Estate, a slave plantation in Barbados, home to 136 slaves. He benefitted from the labour of slaves, but that did not mean he could not imagine slavery coming to an end. Like many, he was cautious of the uproar the immediate emancipation of slaves would bring about. Generally, the position of plantation owners on the Abolition question is unpredictable.
Sussex MP and abolitionist Charles James Fox married a West Indian heiress with a fortune of £80,000, so his scruples did not entirely prevent him from associating himself with West Indian planters. In fact, planters and abolitionists not only occupied the same social circles but mixed and agreed on many points. The moral and social divides between planters and abolitionists are easy to exaggerate.
The Epsom meeting turned into a debate about the duties levied on the East Indian sugar imports and the possibility of alleviating them, with the result that competition would be fairer, and other sources of sugar would be favoured over the immoral slave-driving West Indies plantations.
There was one dissenter among the crowd, local resident Henry Hunt, who argued that the poor in Britain itself were treated no better than the slaves; Surrey planters could accuse local magistrates of the same evils with which they had been associated.
Guildford Anti-Slavery Committee
Though the Epsom meeting was not a regular event, it shows that Abolition really was a subject for debate for the ordinary Surrey resident at the local public house or, in the case of the Guildford Anti-Slavery Committee, at home. Surrey History Centre holds a volume containing the ‘Minutes of the proceedings of the Guildford Anti Slavery Committee’ covering the first meeting in February 1824 to the last entry, in December 1831, where it finalises the details for a lecture in the Town Hall the following year by local M.P. Henry Drummond (SHC Ref. G21/9). The book contains complete lists of the attendants of every meeting and the venue, usually held at a member’s household.
A draft of the petition sent by the committee to Parliament also exists and it presents the committee’s moral position as a point of national pride:
‘Your petitioners are amply affected by the existence of that horrid and merciless system of oppression by which many hundreds of thousands of the human race, in our West Indian colonies, are held in a state of bondage, degrading to our common nature, offensive to the liberal spirit of our laws, and most repugnant to the genius of the Christian religion… Great Britain stood forward to extend the hand of mercy to the suffering captives of Africa when she formerly & for ever abolished the Slave Trade, washing her hands of their blood, and by her example, recommending to the nations legalising the abominable traffic, to let the oppressed go free.’
The Guildford petition also suggests equalising the tolls levied on both West Indian (Caribbean) and East Indian sugar imports, just as Henry Hunt suggested in Epsom, and many others had suggested before. A more competitive market (and the cheaper sugar that goes with it), would always be a popular change. Neither side of the debate, economic nor religious, was reserved for the lofty discussions in Parliament; many people had a deep interest in the question of the West Indies, without having first-hand experience of the place and the plight of the slaves.
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
Minute-book of the Guildford Anti-Slavery Committee, 1824-31 (SHC Ref. G21/9).
Copy of the Minutes of the Society of Friends’ yearly meeting, 1784, belonging to Godalming monthly meeting (SHC Ref. G124/9/5).
Press cutting: Morning Herald, 5th March 1826 (SHC Ref. G52/12/1-8).