Expert Opinion

Historian explores the life of forgotten British antislavery orator buried in Leeds

In this blog post Dr Simon Morgan looks at the life of George Thompson, a British antislavery orator and activist who died in Leeds.

Simon, a historian of nineteenth-century Britain, with a particular interest in political culture, from the School of Cultural Studies & Humanities, has recently written the entry for Thompson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was published last month.

George Donisthorpe Thompson died in Leeds on 7 October 1878. Today, he lies in an unmarked grave in Burmantoft’s Cemetery, but in his prime Thompson was celebrated as one of the greatest orators of the day. He was a veteran of numerous progressive causes, campaigning against the notorious Corn Laws and for reform of the government of India. However, in his lifetime he was most closely associated with the international campaign to abolish slavery.

I first became interested in Thompson while writing a PhD at York University on women’s role in public life in Leeds from 1830-1860. This was an adaptation of an earlier plan to write a history of women’s contribution to the Anti-Corn Law League. Having helped to form many women’s abolitionist societies, Thompson was instrumental in bringing women into the League in large numbers: vital both for enhancing the organisation’s respectability, endangered by well-publicised dust-ups with protectionist farmers and working-class Chartists, but also its finances. Women were adept at fundraising for charitable purposes, but the fact that they felt able to enlist in large numbers to support such a dangerously political cause is testimony to Thompson’s powers of persuasion.

More recently I have gone through Thompson’s papers at the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, as part of my research for a monograph entitled Celebrities, Heroes and Champions: Popular Politics in the Age of Reform, 1815-1867, to be published by Manchester University Press. In the course of my research I began to feel that Thompson had been ill-served in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, with a short entry which barely touched on his career after his election for Tower Hamlets in 1847. Fortunately Mark Curthoys at the ODNB agreed, commissioning me to write a new, fuller entry on Thompson which went live on 6 October 2016.

Thompson was born in 1804, working as a clerk before being recruited as an itinerant lecturer in the Anti-Slavery cause in the years before the ending of slavery in the British colonies (1833). In 1834 he met the charismatic, irascible American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Shortly after, Garrison persuaded him to move his young family to America so he could campaign on behalf of its enslaved people. Tall, handsome and articulate, with a penchant for biting sarcasm, Thompson helped to found numerous abolitionist societies. However, even in the Northern states, the abolitionists were an embattled minority in the 1830s, and Thompson was frequently in danger. In October 1835 he was smuggled out of Boston in fear of his life, returning to a hero’s welcome in Britain.

Despite his other interests, which included working for the Anti-Corn Law League and the British India Society, Thompson’s connection with the cause of American abolitionism continued. In 1850-51 he embarked on another US tour. This time his status as the MP for Tower Hamlets guaranteed him a certain degree of safety, though he was just as vilified by slavery’s apologists. During the course of this tour, he presented Garrison with a handsome inscribed pocket watch to mark the twentieth anniversary of Garrison’s Liberator newspaper. This watch was recently donated by Garrison’s descendants to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in Washington DC in September 2016 by Barack Obama.

The subsequent decade was a tough one for Thompson. Mired in debt, he fled to France and then India, where he was employed as an agent of the Aborigines Protection Society, an organisation which campaigned for the rights of indigenous peoples of the empire and one of the fore-runners of Anti-Slavery International. He was in Calcutta during the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857. However, Thompson was forced by ill health to return to Britain. During the American Civil War, he lectured in the Northern cause and eventually visited the US for a third time in 1864-5. This time he was feted by loyalists, was given a public reception at the House of Representatives in front of President Lincoln and was a VIP guest at the raising of the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter, where the conflict had begun in 1861.

Thompson’s financial travails continued, despite a testimonial subscription from friends and supporters. In 1870 he settled in Leeds, where he lived at 30 Francis Street, Chapeltown. He emerged from retirement at least twice in subsequent years: once to address a Leeds meeting against the Contagious Diseases Acts (which subjected women suspected of being prostitutes to compulsory invasive medical examination), and finally to address a meeting in Leeds Town Hall in January 1876 protesting an Admiralty instruction to naval captains to return fugitive slaves.

Thompson deserves to be better known, both in Leeds and beyond. A few years ago efforts to get a plaque erected to his memory came to nothing. If his new ODNB entry brings his career and achievements to the attention of even a few more people then it will have been worthwhile.

Dr Morgan would like to thank Mark Curthoys of the ODNB for additional information and in particular for bringing the Garrison pocket-watch to his attention.

Professor Simon Morgan

Head of Subject / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Dr Simon Morgan is Head of History at Leeds Beckett University. He specialises in nineteenth-century British History, with particular reference to the histories of radical politics, gender and celebrity. 

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