Classic (adult) audio tour of Wilberforce House - transcript
Track 1: Entrance Hall
Welcome to Wilberforce House, Number 25, High Street. Home of Hull’s most famous son, William Wilberforce. His name is known throughout the world. He tried ten times and failed before his bill to abolish the British Slave Trade was finally passed in 1807. There were many abolitionists, but Wilberforce was the one who spoke for them all in Parliament. What an eloquent speaker he was. ‘The Nightingale of the Commons,’ some called him.
What did Wilberforce look like? Well, you will see many images of him: sketches, portraits, statues, even a waxwork figure, as you walk round. So you can compare his likenesses from young boy to old man. Here in the entrance hall is a portrait showing William at the age of 35.
As for his character? He was a statesman and politician and also a family man. He was a gentle man in every sense, but he was also a very persistent man.
Come and see for yourself inside the rooms that made up the Wilberforce family abode, and at the same time you can take a look at the exhibition that marks the bicentenary of his greatest achievement. I shall point out some of the important objects in the collection.
Remember, you can replay any part of this audio tour if you would like to listen to it again. Only play the next audio clip when you are ready to move on.
Wilberforce House is now a museum and was refurbished and then re-opened on 25 March 2007 - on the two hundredth anniversary of his Bill becoming law.
Young William would have known every nook and cranny of this house. He was born here on 24 August 1759. He grew up here and returned here to visit his dear mother, Elizabeth. His grandfather, a wealthy merchant also called William, bought the house in 1732 from the Thornton family.
William’s father, Robert Wilberforce, extended it, introducing this grand sweeping staircase a year after his son’s birth. It is said, ‘His frame from infancy was feeble, his stature small and his eyes weak.’
Face the staircase and now turn to your right and enter the room on your left.
Track 2: You are now in the “History of the House” gallery – coloured purple
This was the front parlour. This room’s display tells you all about the history of the house, from when it was built around1660. Some of the square framed panelling is from that time. Look at the huge open fireplace. It was certainly the warmest room in the house. Imagine a roaring fire on a cold winter’s evening and the family gathering together to read or sew or play parlour games: William, his mother and father, his older sisters Elizabeth, and Sally. His little sister Anne would be upstairs in the nursery. There would be a kettle boiling above the flashing flames and the servants on call to come in and serve them tea. A verse by Wilberforce’s favourite poet in later life, William Cowper, would best describe the cosy scene -
"Now stir the fire and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling loud hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column...
Let us welcome peaceful evening in."
Look to the left of the fireplace. Here’s another painting of William Wilberforce, from a year earlier. It was not everyone who could afford to have their portrait painted.
Look out of the window - did you notice the statue of Wilberforce as an old man when you came through the gateway and down the path? He has looked down on many visitors to this house. Could that be a hint of a proud smile you can see on his lips?
Now look over to the left in the skyline. Can you see the Guildhall bell tower beyond the statue and above the modern roofs? Well, William’s grandfather was Alderman of Hull for a while and it was there that he held office.
"Many times I looked out towards the civic centre of Hull from this window and from the front windows upstairs and wondered if I might myself, one day, lead a public life, like grandfather, on behalf of the people of Hull?"
William did; he won the seat as Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull, at the age of just 21, in 1780. He left home here in High St and took up official residence in London.
When you are ready, leave this room and go back into the entrance hall and cross into the introduction gallery (here you will find a large plan of the museum).
Track 3: You are now in the introduction gallery – coloured yellow
Wilberforce also represented Yorkshire as Member of Parliament from 1784-1812. He was always independent and voted with his conscience. After successfully ending the trading in slaves in 1807, he carried on campaigning, even after his retirement, for the total abolition of slavery and the emancipation of those still enslaved. This bill was finally passed on 26 July 1833.
"I thank God that I have lived to see this day. How eventful a life mine has been and how visibly I can trace the hand of God leading me. "
William Wilberforce died three days later, aged 73. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. An honour indeed for a politician who never held high office. This marble bust of Wilberforce was completed that same year.
Now continue along into the William Wilberforce displays gallery, coloured blue, and stop at the Wilberforce family Bible.
You will find the bible in a glass case on your right, just inside the doorway
Track 4: You are now in the William Wilberforce Displays gallery
This room is dedicated to his life. It was the drawing room of the house. The family entertained in here after dinner.
"Many times I was called upon to recite poetry which I had committed to memory, or sing for our guests."
William received a traditional Church of England upbringing. The object at the heart of this display was at the heart of the home, the family Bible. The Wilberforce family tree is inside, tracing the family name back to ‘Wilberfoss’ and the village of that name near York.
Once he was old enough and strong enough, William walked to and from Hull Grammar School each day with his satchel on his shoulder, down the cobbled Bishop Lane, through the teeming market place and past Holy Trinity Church, where he had been baptised. He received a classical education. His teacher, Joseph Milner, recognised in young William a shining example of elocution.
"He used to set me upon a table and made me read aloud as an example to the other boys. "
Then tragedy struck:
"My father died and for many months after my mother had a most long and dangerous fever."
William, at nearly nine years old, was sent off to London to live in the care of his father’s elder brother and his wife. He attended boarding school in Putney: a most wretched place.
"I remember the things which we had for breakfast were so nasty, that I could not swallow without sickening."
But he was happy with his Uncle William and Aunt Hannah and went with them to their local Methodist chapel. When his mother was well enough to collect him and bring him back home to Hull, William recalls sadly saying his goodbyes:
"I deeply felt the parting, for I loved them as parents."
William was then a boarder at Pocklington Grammar School and at 17, won a place at St.John’s College, Cambridge. At university, he was fond of debate and discussion and good company. When he was awarded his degree, some thought he might take up the family business, or more likely a life of leisure. You see, William had inherited a small fortune from his grandfather and his uncle. His fellow student, William Pitt, influenced him towards a career in politics.
Now proceed to the painting above the fireplace.
This portrait shows Wilberforce, aged 29. Notice the quill and the scrolls. He was about to deliver what has been described as one of the most eloquent parliamentary speeches of all time. This was, in 1789, his first proposal to abolish the British slave trade in 1789. Much of Britain’s wealth and that of her Empire depended on the acceptance of slavery. He would fight the establishment, peacefully, believing the pen to be mightier than the sword. He was a gentle man, but a very persuasive one.
"When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House, a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause... it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task."
His crusade would demand the patience of a saint! It took him 18 years to achieve his goal.
Wilberforce was wealthy and well dressed. Look at these two elegant, fashionable garments on display. They were made to measure for his slight frame. William was only 5’4” tall. Once, when he spoke in York Castle Yard, he was described as a shrimp as he stood up on a table to address a huge angry audience, but as he spoke, he quietened them and made them listen. It was said ‘he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale!’
The wealthy were the few who could afford to drink tea at that time. But how should it be sweetened? Sugar was the produce of slave labour!
Facing the Wilberforce portrait, continue into the Wilberforce library gallery to the right.
Track 6: You are now in the Wilberforce Library gallery.
This Georgian room was the family business counting house, which could be entered from the passage at the back of the rear of the building by the tradesmen. Remember this house was also a business premises, a workplace as well as a home. Can you imagine? It was full of ledgers and records with clerks busy keeping the account books balanced. Money changing hands following the delivery of furs from Russia and timber from the Baltic States, all in our back yard, on the banks of the River Hull.
Can you spot William’s diary in his own handwriting, from 1814 -1823. Can you read what he has written?
Above the fireplace is an unfinished portrait of the veteran statesman, Wilberforce. Does he look a kind and caring man? It will not surprise you to discover that Wilberforce was also an animal lover. He was a founder member of what became the RSPCA: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was indeed a gentle man.
The life-size wax figure of William Wilberforce was created at Madame Tussauds and presented to the city of Hull in 1933, to mark the centenary of his death. It shows him in his study, with a monocle and a quill close at hand and with a candle almost burned down; perhaps echoing that he was near the end of his extraordinary life.
You can see collections of poetry from which he gained inspiration, poets such as William Cowper and over near the window, a little book given as a present to his wife Barbara Spooner on their wedding day in 1797: ‘The Minstrel or The Progress of Genius’. William was 38 and Barbara was 18 years younger. She was a loving and supporting wife and together they had six children: William, Barbara, Elizabeth, Robert Isaac, Samuel and Henry. William was a doting father and enjoyed nothing more than playing with his children!
If you would like to, please go back and have a closer look at some of the things on display in these two rooms.
When you are ready make your way to the landing at the top of the staircase.
Standing on the landing at the top of the elegant stairway, look up at the superb plasterwork on the ceiling with flower garlands and scrolls, trails of vine and in pride of place, the Wilberforce family crest in the shape of a black eagle
The huge painting is the imaginary ‘Scene on the West Coast of Africa’. Take your time to study the scenes of cruelty and brutality meted out to the enslaved Africans.
Britain traded in people as if they were commodities. Wilberforce’s conscience could not let this continue unopposed.
"The Transatlantic slave trade, I tell you, is an evil trade. I will not rest until I have effected its abolition."
Now facing the top of the stairs, turn left into the Slavery and West African Cultures gallery, keep to the right. Stop at the storytelling tree.
Track 8: You are now in the West African Cultures gallery
You are now inside what would have been a large bedroom during Wilberforce ‘s time. The display is of West African culture; its religion, music, clothing customs and folklore.
Sit beneath the tree where African children would gather at the feet of their elders and listen to stories from generations past and they in turn would pass them onto their children.
Drums are used to awaken the gods.
Please take a closer look at the wonderful things on display here and find out more about this rich and vibrant culture. A culture that remained strong even in slavery.
When you are ready, continue along into the Capture and Enslavement gallery.
Track 9: You are now in the Capture and Enslavement gallery
See for yourselves the branding irons for permanently identifying human beings on the cheek or the neck or the shoulder, like farm animals, as the property of their owners.
Before you move on, you might like to have a closer look at some of the objects in here to find out more about what life was like as a slave.
When you are ready, turn right and enter the Triangular Trade gallery.
Track 10: You are now in the Triangular Trade gallery
On one side of the triangle: ammunition, guns, glass, pots, copper and cloth exported to West Africa from England by sea. On the second side: Africans enslaved against their will, degraded, denied every right and shipped across the South Atlantic to labour all hours in perpetual servitude on the plantations of the West Indies to produce our coffee, sugar, rum and tobacco which is then, on the third side, transported across the North Atlantic to Bristol, London and Liverpool as imports.
Once again, before you leave this room, why not have a closer look at the things on display here to find out more about this terrible trade.
When you are ready, continue into the middle passage gallery.
Track 11: You are now in the middle passage gallery
Measure yourself against the space allowed for each of the enslaved Africans onboard a slave ship. Slaves were kept chained in the hold of the ship with no room to turn round for 6 to 8 weeks.
"Six or seven hundred Negroes, stowed like a cargo of livestock in each ship that sails from West Africa with our blessing and for our profit across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies. They are chained together in pairs, crowded in the hold of the vessel, so close that there is not room to tread among them. They are diseased and distressed. Where is their dignity?
"These miserable wretches, loaded with chains are given a number, rather than addressed by their name, released temporarily, then forced to dance by the terror of the lash.
"More than one in seven perish in the eight week crossing. More die on shore before the day of their sale to the owners of the plantations or soon after commencing work harvesting the sugar cane.
"A human trade to satisfy Britain’s sweet tooth? I tell you, we are all equal in the eyes of God. This horrid trafficking must stop!"
Spend some time in here imagining what life was like on board a slave ship.
When you are ready, continue down the corridor and into the Auction gallery.
Track 12: You are now in the Auction gallery
"On arrival in the Caribbean, the slaves are roped together, parcelled up like so many sheep in a fold, inspected by prospective buyers, sold to the highest bidder, then branded like cattle by a flesh scorching iron rod with the initials of their new owner."
Now continue to the top of the stairs and turn right into a short corridor and stop and look out of window.
Why not take some time to reflect on the tour so far?
Track 13: The window
Look out of this window as young William must have often done, down to the private staithe and the outhouses, cellars and chambers adjacent to the River Hull; the highway of the times.
"Oh, it was a hive of activity out here, the hustle and bustle of busy trading, with the foreman shouting instructions to those unloading the ships, then the trundling of the cargoes on horse drawn wooden sledges into the warehouses, the accounting, the weighing and the storing of timber from Norway for the Hull shipyards, iron from Sweden, hemp and flax from Russia for the manufacture of ropes and canvas. Oh how I wished I could have joined in. As a boy I was confined inside by my nursemaid, considered too fragile for men’s work. Restricted to looking out, longingly."
Continue along into the Plantation Life Gallery.
Track 14: You are now in the Plantation Life gallery
You are now inside another bedroom, later used as an office. The display is of plantation life in the Caribbean. The working conditions were intolerable. Can you imagine the sweat and toil of harvesting the sugar cane in scorching heat?
Slaves were made to work for 12 to 16 hours a day with very little food. Their life expectancy was short. Slave labour!
Look at the displays, you can find the instruments of cruelty which kept the enslaved hard at work without rest.
Now go over to the life size sugar cane sculpture. Look at the plantation inventory. Each slave had a purchase price! Each slave was a commodity! Human beings viewed as profit and loss
Spend some time in here looking at the things on display and find out more about what life was like working on the sugar plantations.
When you are ready, and with the sculpture behind you, proceed into the Resistance and Rebellion gallery.
Track 15: You are now in the Resistance and Rebellion gallery.
You are once more at the front of Wilberforce House and have entered what is known as ‘The Birth Room’. Can you imagine water being boiled on the fire and towels kept warm for the delivery of the Wilberforce son and heir, their precious baby boy? The room was later the nursery when the Wilberforce children were growing up.
During the election of 1784, when he first stood as a candidate for Yorkshire rather than Hull, Wilberforce House was the target of a snowball attack by an angry mob. William rushed to his old nursery window to win over the crowd. He calmed them and reasoned with them. After his father’s death, this became William’s mother’s bed chamber. When she died in 1798, he returned from London for her funeral. He was moved to write to his dear wife Barbara:
"It was a solemn and affecting scene to me yesterday evening, to be in my mother’s room and see the bed where I was born and where my father and mother died and where she lay in her coffin."
The display in here is of resistance and rebellion. Stories of enslaved Africans, who showed spirit and bravery to escape the shackles of their owners. They were inspired by the Maroons.
The Maroons were escaped slaves who formed fugitive communities in the mountains of the Caribbean islands.
The slave owners responded with advertisements in the newspapers seeking to recover their losses!
"The Royal Gazette, Kingston, Jamaica, 8 July: ‘Run away from the subscriber: a short black fellow, about 5 feet 5 inches high, (just about my height) stout made and marked RS on both cheeks, formerly the property of Mr Richard Simmons. Reward £10!'"
If recaptured, they would endure further extreme cruelty.
If you would like to, please stay and have a closer look at the display in this room.
When you are ready, leave this gallery and continue into the abolition campaign gallery – coloured blue. Stop at the fireplace.
Track 16: You are now in the Abolition Campaign gallery
The coat of arms above the fireplace is that of the Lister family who had the house built around 1660. The Delft tiles in the hearth are from Holland, a trading partner with Hull. Take a seat by the window.
The main display is of the abolition campaign. Thomas Clarkson was at the forefront of the campaign, before Wilberforce. He set off on a fact finding mission to investigate the conditions on board the slave ships in Bristol and Liverpool docks. He and his followers organised petitions, a sugar boycott and, in his watercolour portrait, you can see he is surrounded by some of the African goods which he used to demonstrate the skills and cultures of the African people.
Also in the painting, on his mantelpiece are the busts of fellow campaigners Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce, the man who would "paint a word picture" of the horrors of the slave trade and state the case in Parliament. Wilberforce used the Liverpool slave ship model ‘Brooks’ to do this. You can see it here on display. This very model was passed round as an exhibit in the House of Commons to illustrate the miseries of the middle passage.
Can you find the Wedgewood medallions, beside the model of the ship, made and distributed by and for supporters of the abolition campaign, with the slogan of a slave pleading: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’
Oloudah Equiano, a former slave, who did manage to purchase his freedom, detailed in his autobiography, the brutality of his life as a slave. Compare his elegant appearance - unchained - with that of the enslaved. A copy of his book is open on display.
His personal contribution added weight to the abolition campaign.
Clarkson continued his pilgrimage and carried with him wherever he campaigned, a chest, like the one behind you here on display. Lift the lids on the little compartments and see for yourself the spices and seeds and plants which he believed Britain could trade with from Africa, instead of human beings, and yet still make a healthy profit.
Once again before you leave this room why not have a closer look at the objects on display in here and find out more about how Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners worked hard to end slavery.
When you are ready, continue into the “After the campaign” gallery.
Track 17: You are now in the “After the campaign” gallery
This room would have also been a bedroom, it may even have been William’s own as he grew up. The display in this room is of the years after the slave trade was abolished. Slavery itself, was still going on in the British Colonies even though the trading and transporting of enslaved Africans had been outlawed.
To appease public opinion, a policy of unpaid apprenticeships was introduced in 1834 but this was seen in reality as another form of “perpetual servitude” and was discontinued in 1838.
Slavery still existed in the United States of America.
Here on display is the book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. It brought to the attention of the wider world the evils that Wilberforce had highlighted. Following the bible, it was the second best selling book of the 19th century. Slavery was eventually abolished in the United States in 1865, after the American Civil War.
There was one last sorry chapter, regarding the family home. In order to help pay off the debts of his eldest son, also called William:
"This house in which I drew my first breath, though I cannot part with it without emotion, must with the premises be sold, and I am assured that I may hope to get £5,000 to £6,000 for the whole."
William Wilberforce died on 29 July 1833 in his London home, three days after good news raised his spirits; the announcement of the passing of the total abolition of slavery bill. He was at the last, content that he had accomplished his crusade.
Hull Corporation had the foresight to buy Wilberforce House in 1903 for the people of Hull and its visitors and turn it into a museum as a fitting memorial to this great man.
Before you leave this room, spend a few moments finding out more about what happened after the slave trade ended.
When you are ready, make your way downstairs and across the entrance hall and passage into the “Modern Slavery and Human Rights” and “Legacies of Slavery” galleries - coloured green.
Track 18: You are now in the Human Rights” and “Legacies of Slavery” galleries
These rooms would have been the servants hall and a service room.
The exhibition in these two rooms looks at modern day slavery and the fight against unfair trade - which continues to this day.
William Wilberforce dedicated his whole professional life to ending something he thought was wrong and fighting for people’s freedom. Take a good look around these galleries. Are there issues today you feel strongly about? Would you take a stance and campaign even if you were subjected to a hostile reaction?
Once you have completed the tour please return the audio guide* and then explore the gardens down towards the River Hull where an acceptable trade took place; the buying and selling of goods and not people.
Thank you for listening and for visiting Wilberforce House, the birthplace of Hull’s most illustrious son, William Wilberforce; a true gentle man.
* This audio guide is also available for those visitors who do not have their own MP3 player and who have not downloaded the tour files.
A copy of this transcript is also available as a downloadable PDF -