History's HEROES? 1786 - 1845

Thomas Fowell Buxton

His world
  • More than a country gentleman

    House of CommonsThomas Fowell Buxton was a country gentleman and there was nothing he liked better than spending his time shooting and fishing. However, he also wanted to do more to help people and those causes he believed in. Therefore, he entered parliament.

    A Time of Great Change
    The Industrial Revolution was in full swing when Thomas lived. Society in Britain was undergoing a huge number of changes. For centuries, England had been governed by the landed aristocracy. This small group of families controlled parliament through their great wealth and influence and, from their country houses they held authority over their local communities. During the Industrial Revolution this power began to be undermined.

    The Son of a Country Gentlemen
    Like most sons of country gentlemen, Thomas learned to hunt and shoot and at an early age was sent away to school to be privately educated. Like most well-educated sons of country gentlemen (Thomas had graduated from Dublin University with honour), he needed a career to suit his family status. Many gentlemen in Thomas's situation went into law, some, like Thomas, into business and a large number also went into parliament.

    His Connection with Weymouth
    As a child Thomas would sometimes spend holidays with his grandmother at her country house, Bellfield, overlooking Weymouth Bay, a house he was later to inherit (although he never lived there as it was occupied by his uncle). In the spring of 1818 Thomas, then a successful businessman and landowner, offered himself as a candidate for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis. He had been encouraged by a letter from William Wilberforce urging him to become a Member of Parliament by telling him that good men (like Thomas) were much needed there.

    The Whigs and the Tories
    In the early 19th century parliament consisted of a two party system between the Whigs and the Tories. The Tories believed in God, King and Country. They supported the monarchy. Many were rich landowners. The Whigs' origins lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule by kings. Their policies were seen as more liberal and radical. In reality the groupings were quite loose. Throughout the early part of the 19th century parliament was dominated by the Tories until the 1830s, when the Whigs won four elections in a decade. 

    A Man of Conscience
    Thomas Fowell Buxton was elected as Member for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis on 29th June 1818. He was well respected in parliament as an earnest and thoughtful politician. Although Thomas was elected as a Whig, he was not a 'party man'. Leading politicians could not count on him for his vote in all issues. Far from it: he studied all the issues in great depth, made up his own mind and voted the way his conscience told him.  This was far from typical. Most country gentlemen who entered parliament voted to protect their own wealth and self-interests.  Of his career Thomas once said "There are plenty of people with more talents, but a great lack of those who truly love a good cause for its own sake, and whom no price would detach from it."

    Parliamentary Achievements
    In parliament, Thomas Fowell Buxton devoted himself to several causes: abolition, the rights of colonised peoples, prisoners and those condemned to die. His greatest successes were the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act and his role in bringing about a reduction in the number of crimes that carried the death penalty.  

    The Old Electoral System
    In the early 1820s, the electoral system was virtually the same as that of the late 1580s. The boundaries of parliamentary constituencies (areas which elected an MP) had not been changed for centuries. This meant that some constituencies, which had once contained large communities, now had very few people living in them - in a few cases, no people at all. These constituencies, known as 'Pocket Boroughs', still 'elected' MPs, but had really become the private property of the local landowner.  In other constituencies, known as 'Rotten Boroughs', there were only a few voters (some had as few as 10), who generally could be bribed - and would expect to enjoy a 'bounty' at election time! The Industrial Revolution had seen the creation of major new cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. These industrial towns had little or no political representation, whilst the Rotten Boroughs sometimes each returned two MPs to the House of Commons.

    Voting and the Need for Change
    Voting was only open to landowners, meaning that almost 95% of the population had no say at all. Voting was by show of hands, and powerful landowners could see who had voted for them, leaving people open to the threat of abuse and intimidation. By the 1820s more and more people were demanding the vote, and there were calls for a secret ballot, where voters could cast their vote anonymously. This pressure finally resulted in a Reform Bill being presented to parliament.

    Riots and Threats of Revolution
    The presentation of the first Reform Bill in March 1831 was defeated in the House of Commons, and so it had to be substantially revised. Earl Grey of the Whigs called a general election, which saw the Whig majority increase substantially. Twice in 1831 the Whig majority in the House of Commons passed a Reform Bill only for it to be defeated by the Tory-dominated House of Lords, causing riots and dissatisfaction on the streets. In March 1832 Prime Minister Grey, realising the likelihood of another rejection, asked King William to create another 50 Whig peers to ensure its passage. The king refused, at which point Grey resigned from his post as Prime Minister. Lord Wellington was asked to form a new Tory ministry. However, it had no support, and so after a week without government, King William asked Grey to come back, and the Tory peers abstained from voting on the Bill. This ensured that on June 7th, 1832 the Great Reform Act became law.

    Support from Abolitionists
    Many Abolitionists supported the Great Reform Act, as they had come to believe that only political reform and the removing of those with vested interests in protecting the slave trade would result in its abolition. In the years preceding the Bill, Abolition had been a hot election issue, with those in support of slavery named on posters. Indeed when, in 1832, Thomas had MPs to vote on the issue, many were angered that he may have endangered their chances for re-election.

    Limitations of the Great Reform Act
    Many people were disappointed with the 1832 Reform Bill. To get the Bill through, many changes had had to be made. Voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10. There were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas and, as a result, only one in seven adult males had the vote. There were still inequalities in the constituencies: whereas 35 constituencies had fewer than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000 electors. 

    Effects of the Reform Act
    After the Great Reform Act of 1832, parliamentary seats were not quite so safe, and real elections began to take place up and down the country. 'Modern politics' was taking shape, and the days of the independent, country MP were numbered. Thomas himself, however, was a popular MP and found himself re-elected to the new parliament. 

    Dirty Tricks
    We sometimes think that politics is a dirty business today, but dirty tricks and unfair election campaigning was much more widespread during the 19th century. Thomas himself was a victim of this. For many years the seats at Weymouth had been very hotly, and not always fairly, contested. For example, in June 1826, Thomas had found himself involved in a very stormy election. No Whig voter reached the table without a violent struggle and rough treatment. Polling was extended and mobs attacked the Weymouth town hall. The election lasted 16 days. Although Thomas himself was popular and his own election was secure, the other Whig candidate was defeated and the Tories came to power locally. Subsequent elections were less stormy but no less dirty in their tactics.

    The 1837 Election 
    In November 1837 when Thomas finally lost his seat, the local Tories  kept pubs open and got people drunk; they used threats and violence and even paid for votes. When Thomas was told that if he wished to secure the election it would be necessary to open public houses and to 'lend money' (a gentle name for bribery) to the extent of £1,000, he declined saying: "It might or it might not be my duty to get into parliament, but it could not be my duty to corrupt the electors by beer and bank notes".

    Leaving Parliament
    In total, Thomas was elected to parliament seven times. When he lost his seat he was so respected that 27 other constituencies offered him the chance to stand as a candidate. He declined them all. He spent his last years focusing on his estates, the brewing business and plans to find alternative trade for Africa other than slavery.

    Later Reform Acts
    Further Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884 extended the electorate and removed many of the inconsistencies regarding constituencies. However, it was not until 1918 that most of the adult population (men over 21, women over 30) obtained the vote and not until 1928 that universal suffrage for the adult population (over 21) was achieved.

  • Fighting for the poor and oppressed 

    As the Industrial Revolution gained pace and the British Empire expanded the middle and upper classes became increasingly aware of the plight of many people less fortunate than themselves. A significant number began to work actively to improve conditions for the oppressed, both at home and overseas.   

    Campaigning for Those in Need
    Thomas became a campaigner for social reform even before he entered parliament, and was involved in many other campaigns besides abolition. He became friends with other well-known philanthropists and used painstaking and detailed research to build up cases for reform. The movements in which Thomas was involved reflected some of the main concerns of the time.

    Poverty and the Spitalfields Weavers
    The Industrial Revolution had seen rapid expansion of towns and cities, and rapidly increasing poverty. The weavers of Spitalfields had for a long time been living on the brink of starvation. The development of weaving machines in factories, to do the work more quickly and cheaply, had taken away much of their livelihood. The winter of 1816 set in early with great severity. The silk trade was almost stagnant and they were plunged into absolute poverty. This was made worse by the constant influx into this parish of the poorest class of London people, who could not find lodging elsewhere. A Soup Society had long been established, but the level of distress far exceeded what it could provide.

    Alleviating their Suffering
    Thomas and his brother-in-law Samuel Hoare started to explore how they could assist in relieving the sufferings of the Spitalfields poor. It was decided to hold a meeting on the subject at the Mansion House: a building where influential people met. Thomas made an impassioned speech, which attracted great attention and was widely reported in the newspapers. In total the Spitalfields Benevolent Society raised £43,367. During his speech Thomas described the conditions.  He said:
    "I could show you a family of nine; the father disabled - the mother sickly - their furniture, their bed, their looms - every article of present use, the very implements of future labour, had been surrendered to the demands of hunger - picking out scraps amongst the refuse".

    Capital Punishment and Prison Conditions
    As people crowded into the cities and poverty increased, so did levels of crime. In an attempt to control this, the government of the day had imposed very harsh penalties: 230 crimes carried the death sentence. One day, while Thomas was walking past Newgate with Samuel Hoare, conversation turned to the work of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Fry. Thomas was soon moved to make his own investigations, and he became passionate about informing the public about the horrors of the prison system and the negative effects of capital punishment. In 1816 the Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline was formed. Thomas was on the committee and in 1818 he published one of his most influential books, "An Enquiry, whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present system of Prison Discipline".  

    Reform in Parliament
    Penal law and prison conditions formed the subject of Thomas's first parliamentary speech and throughout his parliamentary career he promoted reform of the penal code and, in particular, the reduction of the number of offences that carried the death penalty. In 1819 two parliamentary committees were formed, one to inquire into the state of prison discipline, the other to look at the criminal laws. Thomas served on both committees.

    Capital Punishment
    Thomas also supported the work of Mr Peel in remodelling the penal code. In 1830, in support of a Bill to consolidate the forgery laws, Thomas dictated a petition which was sent to all the principal towns in the UK. He obtained the signatures of firms that represented over 1,000 bankers against the death sentence for forgery. The Bill was thrown out in the Lords but over the years the number of crimes that carried the death sentence was gradually reduced, so that when Thomas left parliament it numbered only eight. Thomas once said: "To inflict death needlessly can be called by no other name than that of legal murder."

    Sati or Suttee
    Expansion of the British Empire brought those who worked abroad into contact with people from many other cultures and religions, with their own beliefs and practices. Mostly these were tolerated so that governing and keeping control of such vast and diverse populations was easier and more productive. However, by the 1820s one subject that was of particular concern to some officials in India was that of Sati, or Suttee: the burning of Indian women on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

    Thomas's Involvement
    Thomas became concerned about the subject of Sati around 1820, after research he had carried out showed that many of the 2,366 widows committed to the flames, far from volunteering, had often been forced to comply by superstitious priests or relatives, or they did so under pressure. When Lord William Bentinck was appointed governor-general of India, Thomas went to discuss with him the subject of Sati. Soon after Bentinck reached India the practice was stopped.

    The Rights of Indigenous Peoples
    Another major concern of Thomas's was the treatment of non-Western peoples under British rule. When the Dutch settled at the Cape in 1652, the indigenous people, the Khoi were left free, in theory. The Dutch imported slaves from their colonies but, over time, many Khoi lost their cattle and economic independence and also became labourers for whites. Growing white prejudice and the desire to restrict privileges meant that by the end of the 18th century, most people of 'colour' were treated little better than the enslaved population.

    Restrictions and Enforcements
    White settlers in the interior, who could not afford slaves, devised many ways to secure cheap labour. Anyone not working for a white person could, if they left their village boundaries, be apprehended as a 'vagrant' and sentenced to work for that person.  Some employers gave tobacco or liquor to their employees, ensuring they would be in debt to them and had to contract another term. This debt of bondage could go on indefinitely. With the British occupation of the Cape in the 1790s, missionaries, many already involved in the anti-slavery movement, arrived.  They led the fight to stop the exploitation, but the British colonial officials wanted to avoid trouble from the white settlers and were reluctant to take action.

    The Fiftieth Ordinance
    Thomas Fowell Buxton became absorbed by British dealings with the indigenous peoples of South Africa and the effects of Western colonisation on the land-rights and way of life of the indigenous residents. In 1828 he presented the case of the Khoi people to parliament. Thanks largely to Thomas's work in parliament, these people were given the same rights before the law as Europeans. This law, passed in 1828, was known as the Fiftieth Ordinance. It gave the native population in Cape Colony the rights to own property, to demand wages for their labour and to no longer be seized if they left their village boundaries.  

    The Cape Frontier Wars
    One of the most prolonged struggles by African peoples against European intrusion was that of the Xhosa. The wars started in 1779 and ended in 1879. In 1834, Thomas put forward the case of the Xhosa bushpeople, whose cattle and land were being seized during one of the many Cape Wars. He showed that the cause of the war was the commando raids by the white settlers rather than aggression by the Xhosa. In 1835 the parliamentary committee found that land had been taken unjustly from the Xhosa people. It was agreed to place protectors for the aborigines in every colony where the English came into contact with them.

    Annexation of the Xhosa Land
    The peace did not last and the Cape Frontier Wars ended with the annexation of the Xhosa's land and the incorporation of the Xhosa people into the Cape Colony. However, the Xhosa also acquired political and legal rights under the Fiftieth Ordinance, as had the former slaves freed after the 1834 Act. In South Africa, this non-racial policy was unique to the Cape Colony.

  • Towards total abolition

    Slave shipThomas Fowell Buxton himself played a part in the rise of modern politics by participating in the Abolition movement: the first 'modern' political campaign in British history. This involved informing people, educating them, mobilising opinion and putting pressure on MPs and governments. This was new, and it was modern, and this shy, retiring country gentleman was getting his hands dirty. He spoke at rallies, wrote books, collected data, lobbied ministers - all the activities that modern pressure groups are familiar with. 

    The 1807 Act
    The slave trade started in Elizabethan times but was perfected during the course of the 18th century. Between 1,700 and 1,807 British merchants transported nearly 3 million Africans across the Atlantic, to work in the plantations of the British colonies in appalling conditions. The late 18th century had seen the development of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Britain's first mass movement. After a 20 year struggle, and many setbacks, in 1807 the slave trade had finally been abolished throughout the British colonies. 

    Enforcing the Act
    After 1807 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade gave way to the African Institution, whose principal aim was to ensure that the new legislation was enforced and to persuade other countries to follow Britain's example. This proved difficult and despite the efforts of the African Institution and British ministers, the Congresses of Paris (1814) and Vienna (1815) both failed to reach specific agreement with other countries.  

    The Need for Further Action
    The decision to attack the trade rather than slavery itself had been essentially tactical. Those involved in the movement knew that they would not have been successful had they pushed for total abolition. The hope was that by stopping the trade, slavery would eventually decline. This was not the case and British slavery in the colonies continued: illegal trading vessels and those of foreign countries still carried many Africans across the Atlantic. Furthermore reports from the West Indies suggested that conditions on the plantations were deteriorating. The situation now called for more direct action through an attack on the institution of slavery itself.

    Taking over Responsibility in Parliament
    In 1821 an elderly Wilberforce retired and he asked Thomas to take over responsibility for the parliamentary leadership of the anti-slavery movement. It was only after long and deliberate consideration that Thomas accepted a year and half later. He felt deeply the weight of this responsibility. However, once he had made up his mind he wasted no time in launching a campaign for the gradual and total abolition of slavery, revitalising an organisation that had lost focus and direction.

    The Anti-Slavery Society
    In 1823 some of the leading members of the African Institution, including Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Zachary Macaulay, organised a new body: the Anti-Slavery Society. Its early ambitions were modest, calling for the adoption of measures to improve conditions for the enslaved in the West Indies, together with a plan for gradual emancipation leading ultimately to complete freedom. Like the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Anti-Slavery Society was a national organisation with a network of local and regional committees.  

    Thomas began his parliamentary campaign in 1823, by introducing a motion in the House of Commons for the gradual abolition of slavery. He undertook extensive research to support his recommendations. His speech stated that "The object at which we aim is the extinction of slavery. Not, however, the rapid termination of that state...by slow degrees, and in the course of years". In parliament there were fears over the economic consequences of sudden abolition and also a powerful pro-slavery lobby. However, parliament voted in favour of an ‘amelioration regime' to improve conditions, with a view to planning for eventual abolition.

    Resistance from Planters
    Improvement could not be made without the co-operation of the planters and they resisted doing this. The slave owners adopted a defiant stance, claiming that their liberties were being infringed. The defiance of the planters along with an increasing number of slave uprisings, demonstrated the need for more urgent action.

    Rousing Public Support
    In 1827 steady progress was being made regarding the popular mood against slavery. The planters obstinacy had seen sympathy for them wane. Between 1828 and 1830 parliament was deluged by over 5,000 petitions calling for the gradual abolition of slavery. But progress in the Commons was painfully slow. For nine years government had tried ‘gentle' means under the amelioration regime of 1823 to improve conditions for enslaved people but they were as bad, if not worse, than ever.

    The Need for more Urgent Action
    Thomas now had evidence that the harsh conditions and punishment were causing the enslaved to die at an increasing rate. It was time to take more radical action. In May 1830, at a crowded and animated meeting assembled in Freemasons Hall, Thomas rose to make his resolution that "No proper or practicable means should be left unattempted for effecting at the earliest period the entire abolition of slavery throughout the British Dominions". From this time immediate emancipation became the avowed object of the Anti-slavery party.        

    The Government's Stance
    A powerful West Indian lobby remained in parliament and a number of members in the Houses of Commons and Lords retained colonial property. Thomas did not believe that rapid emancipation would result in the calamities that they were saying. The main threat he saw was war and major uprisings as the slaves fought to free themselves. Yet the government still wished to defer emancipation until "A progressive improvement should have been made in the character of the slave population by the temperate enforcement of ameliorating measures".

    Forcing the Issue
    Thomas decided the only way forward was to force the issue, if necessary by splitting parliament (that is by forcing a vote). The government tried hard to stop him bringing about his resolution but he resisted all efforts. On Thursday May 24th, despite enormous pressure he moved "for a committee to consider and report on the best means of abolishing the state of slavery throughout the British Dominions, with due regard to the safety of all concerned". Throughout the evening he was under great pressure to soften down his resolution by his friends in the House as well as his foes.

    Splitting Parliament
    Many knew that Abolition would become a hot election topic and to vote against the resolution could result in the loss of their seats. Lord Althrop proposed an amendment but Thomas refused and when the question was put to the House and the speaker said "I think the noes have it". Thomas replied. "No sir". The speaker then said "the Noes must go forth", and those that disagreed with the resolution trooped out. A sizeable minority were left in the House but the vote was lost. Despite this a committee was set up and from this time the Abolition issue could not be ignored.

    Agency Committee and Parliamentary Reform
    In 1831 some of the Anti-Slavery Society's younger and more radical elements organised the Agency Committee, which took abolition out into the country. The group was committed to the unconditional and immediate abolition of slavery. The Agency Committee was ideally placed to exploit the struggle over the reform ofpParliament and to win over those able to vote for the first time after the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. Its efforts paid off. The first reformed parliament was clearly sympathetic to Abolition.

    Towards an Abolition Act
    For Thomas the fight within parliament continued. Subjected to external pressures and facing a revolt by newly elected MPs, the government finally agreed to a debate on Abolition. Thousands of petitions and meetings were organised across the country and, when the debate was postponed, protesters marched from Exeter Hall to Downing Street. The debate finally began on the May 14th, 1833. Thomas was unhappy with some of the clauses - that freed slaves would have to work as 'apprentices' for their former masters for 12 years and that compensation should be paid to the planters of £20million pounds. However he decided not to split the House and endanger the Bill but to try to modify it later.

    The Anti-Slavery Society Splits
    Many of the more radical elements were upset that he did not oppose this clauses. Every day he received letters of censure.  In 1833 the Agency Committee formally separated from the parent body. Thomas's plan had always been to use the £20million compensation as a means for bargaining to remove the apprenticeship clause. During the final debate in parliament Thomas proposed that the apprenticeship be reduced to one year, the resolution failed but the period was shortened.

    The 1833 Act
    The Bill received Royal Assent on the 28th August 1833. Slavery was officially abolished throughout the British dominions from 1st August 1834, although everyone over the age of six was required to serve an apprenticeship of four years in the case of domestics and six years in the case of field hands. By way of compensation the West Indian planters received £20 million.   

    The Apprenticeship System
    The Abolitionists, including Thomas, then worked to remove the apprenticeship system. In 1836 Thomas moved for a committee to look at the working of the apprenticeship system, emphasising the good conduct of ex-slaves and the poor conduct of planters, who were still enforcing punishments. The Abolitionists were finally successful and slavery really came to an end when apprenticeship was terminated on 1st August 1838.   

    Promoting a New Trade with Africa
    With the abolition of slavery in the British Dominions, Thomas set about trying to counter the trade in enslaved humans by other Europeans. He developed the ideas of Thomas Clarkson who felt it was more profitable to develop trading links with African countries than to enslave their inhabitants. In Buxton's own lifetime, these ideas resulted in tragedy but they would later inspire others. 

  • A man of principle at a time of double standards 

    ChurchThe rise of Evangelical Christianity was one of the great social trends of Thomas Fowell Buxton's day, and had been going on since the last third of the 18th century. Early 18th century Christianity had been formal and hostile to 'enthusiasm'.

    Religion and Commitment
    The ministry of John Wesley and others had changed all that, bringing back a deep sense of commitment to many people's religion. It was these people (not just the Methodists but also many members of the Church of England, like Thomas and, of course, the Quakers and others) who pushed for the end of the slave trade, of slavery, of ghastly conditions in prisons, of the death penalty for more than 200 crimes and much more.

    The Evangelical Movement
    This movement was so successful that, in Thomas Fowell Buxton's day, Evangelicalism became the religion of upper- and middle-class society in Britain. Its triumph arrived with the coming of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the throne. The Royal court, from then on, set a moral tone which the rest of society tried to follow. However, here also lay the seeds of its downfall. People could not live up to the standards expected, leading to a reputation for hypocrisy, which the Victorians have had ever since. This was founded upon the widely-felt pressure to follow a high standard of morality in public whilst privately not being able to, or wanting to, do so.

    A Man of Principle
    Thomas, however, was a devout and sincere Christian. Thomas's father was an Anglican and his mother a Quaker. Thomas maintained close links with the Quakers, through his wife Hannah Gurney, whose family had an important influence on his spiritual life.  Although he remained a member of the Church of England, he attended several Quaker meetings with close relatives. Thomas was first drawn to the subject of religion whilst travelling in Scotland as a young man and began to find pleasure in reading the scriptures. His religious beliefs had a significant impact on his desire to help people and to see justice for those oppressed.

    The Niger Expedition
    Thomas Buxton's religious beliefs were at the core of his attempt to eradicate slavery by promoting an alternative trade with Africa.  In later years he devoted himself to organising an expedition to the Niger River area of Africa to open up trade.

    Aims of the Expedition
    His idea was for "the deliverance of Africa by calling forth her own resources". He aimed to achieve this by impeding the traffic in slaves by forming treaties with the African Princes for trades other than slavery; establishing commerce by setting up factories and sending out trading ships; teaching ‘civilization' by obtaining, by treaty, lands for cultivation and setting up a model farm; imparting education by reviving African institutions; looking for African agents and employing mainly Africans rather than Europeans in the company. Christian teachers would also follow to spread the word around Africa.

    The first meeting of The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa was held at the end of July 1840; considerable funds were raised. A few days afterwards the government announced they would send a frigate and two steamers built specially for the purpose, to explore the Niger, and, if positive, to set on foot commercial relations with the tribes on its banks. Three ships were equipped. The crew included surgeons, scientists, botanists, geographers and agriculturalists. The ships set sail during March and April 1841.

    Failure of the Expedition
    The expedition had some initial success in talks with African rulers but before any agreements could be signed fever hit the ships in September 1841 and many of the men died. The anti-malarial qualities of quinine, which later paved the way for the European conquest in Africa, were not widely known at this time. Those that survived were recalled home to England. The failure of the expedition hit Thomas hard and may have contributed to his illness and death.

    Christianity and Civilisation
    The Niger expedition aimed to bring Christianity and civilisation to the Africans. By 'civilisation', Buxton and his contemporaries meant 'western civilisation'. It seems odd, if not downright arrogant, to us today that Europeans thought that the only true civilisation was western civilisation, but we have to remember that, before peoples in different parts of the world came into close contact with one another in the 20th century, everyone thought that way. The Chinese regarded all other peoples as barbarians; Indians deemed all non-Indians as untouchables. To regard people of other cultures as equals is a lesson the peoples of the world have been learning, painfully, over the past 100 years or so. 

    Equality and Christianity
    Unlike many others, however, Thomas believed that Europeans and Africans were, as human beings, equals, since they were equal in the sight of God. This led him to champion the idea that, in the spreading of Christianity, Africa should be served by black missionaries, not white. This was part of his broader idea that blacks and whites should deal with each other on an equal footing, in all fields - political, commercial and religious. 

    Christianity and Slavery
    As for religion, why should Christians like Thomas want to impose their faith on people of other cultures who had their own religions? The answer is that they did not. One of the key beliefs of Evangelical Christianity is that you must sincerely trust God. True faith cannot be imposed. This is a major reason why Thomas and other Abolitionists were so appalled by the slave trade - with the brutal European slave traders claiming to be Christians, wouldn't the Africans utterly reject Christianity?

    Spreading the Faith
    While not aiming to impose their religion, however, Thomas Fowell Buxton and others did wish to bring them the message of Christianity. Why was this? Because they sincerely believed, like many other Christians before, that faith in Jesus Christ brought great happiness in this world and salvation from everlasting death in the next. They wanted as many people as possible, of all races and cultures, to share in what they saw as a life-giving faith. At that time the idea of different faiths living side by side in one community was not part of the British culture and the views of Thomas Fowell Buxton, for the time, were actually considered quite liberal and radical.

    Later Consequences
    The ideas of Thomas Fowell Buxton were later taken up by David Livingstone, and were a powerful motivation in his missionary work and in his struggle to end the Arab-dominated slave trade in East Africa.  Missionaries in Africa were crucially important in this effort, none more so than David Livingstone.  These efforts led in a straight line to the conquest of Africa by Britain and other European powers in the later 19th century, a consequence never intended or foreseen by people like Thomas Fowell Buxton. Missionaries must take much of the responsibility for this, but at the time they were sincerely trying to improve the lot of hundreds of thousands of their fellow human beings.

  • Hard work and sound business sense

    Truman BreweryAs well as being a campaigner and MP, Thomas Fowell Buxton was also a businessman. It is often thought that the landed aristocracy looked down on business. This was certainly true in other countries, but had not been so in England at least since Tudor times. Modern scholars think that this is an important reason why the Industrial Revolution started here and not elsewhere in Europe. 

    Involvement in Business
    Many prominent landowners were involved in business, such as the Strutts and their great textile mills in Belper, Derbyshire, and the Barings and their bank. Even the grandest aristocrats of them all, the Dukes, were sometimes involved in commerce - the Duke of Devonshire, for example, was involved in many companies. The history of Thomas Fowell Buxton's family (on his mother's side) shows that, generation after generation, they continued to be involved in their brewing company while at the same time being significant landowners.

    Quaker Involvement in Business
    Thomas' mother was a Quaker (member of the Society of Friends). Barred, in the early years, from attending university or sitting in Parliament, many Quaker families had gone into business or banking. They became known for their honesty and the quality of their work. These included well known families such as the Barclays, the Lloyds and the Cadburys.

    The Brewing Trade
    Brewing, in particular, was a respectable industry for an aristocrat, or indeed a Christian family to be involved in. This may seem odd to us, but this was in the days before many people had access to clean water, and beer was seen as a necessity, in a way that is not the case today. In fact, evangelical Christians in particular had become involved in the beer industry.

    Beer - a Healthy Alternative to Gin!
    The mid-18th century, had seen a huge rise in the consumption of cheap spirits, especially gin, with terrible social consequences. Christian businessmen saw beer as a way of giving people the drink they needed without destroying their lives. Thomas was typical of his type, combining shrewd business sense with deep concern for his fellow man.

    Thomas's Involvement with the Brewing Industry
    Thomas had attended Dublin University because he was expected to inherit considerable land in Ireland. When another claimant came forward, Thomas had to make his own fortune. He decided to establish himself in business. In 1808 his uncle Mr Sampson Hanbury of Truman brewery, in Spitafields, offered Thomas a situation in that establishment with a prospect of becoming a partner after a probationary period. Whilst carrying out his three year apprenticeship, he also studied English literature and political economy. In 1811 he was admitted as a partner in the brewery. He introduced new systems and improved the profitability of the business to the point where it no longer needed his direct attention, at which time he was free to concentrate on his parliamentary career.

    Businessmen and Philanthropy
    In the 18th century, life in the factories and businesses of London and other major cities was very hard for the ordinary workers. They were expected to work long hours for low wages. However, there were a number of businessmen who were very concerned about the conditions their workers lived and worked in. Well-known names such as the Frys, the Cadburys and the Wedgewoods had a reputation for caring for the welfare of their workers, even to the point of building entire towns for them. Bournville, near Birmingham, was built by the Cadburys as a town for their workers which had good facilities and well-built houses; Port Sunlight near Liverpool was another, built by the Lever brothers for their workers. 

    Thomas Fowell Buxton - Business Ethic
    Thomas had a similar ethic. He expected his employees to work hard but treated them with respect. He looked after their welfare, paid them adequately, and made sure they had access to medical care when they needed it. He also provided a schoolmaster for the men working at the brewery, and insisted they learn to read and write to keep their jobs. His brewery gained a national reputation for the good way in which it treated its workers - a reputation which would not have harmed sales!


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