Saturday, May 3, 2014

“At all Events, he must not be permitted to publish”: The Attempted Blackmail of William Wilberforce

by Stephenie Woolterton

William Wilberforce by Charles Hodges
after John Rising (c. 1792)
Public figures in every historical era have been subjected to the abuses of strangers. Whether from motives of jealousy, vanity, envy, or maliciousness, unscrupulous individuals have resorted to using defamatory language and threats against a well-known personage. It is a horrible experience, and unfortunately it is one that resonates throughout history.

One such victim of attempted blackmail was the late 18th century British politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). He is best remembered as the tireless campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade, and the man who struggled against almost overwhelming opposition in the House of Commons from the late 1780s until the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Wilberforce was joined in his efforts to put a stop to the trade by his great friend, the then Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806), amongst others.

In 1787, just as Wilberforce was gathering evidence against the inhumane trade with the intention to bring forward his first motion for its abolition, he was confronted with attempted defamation of character. The man threatening to publish a serious libel against Wilberforce was Anthony Fearon. He was a former neighbor of Wilberforce during his time at Lauriston House in Wimbledon, Surrey. At that time, Wimbledon was still a rural, country village several miles on the outskirts of London.

Lauriston House on Southside Common
Wimbledon (early 20th c.)

Fearon began his verbal assaults against Wilberforce in the early part of 1787, however the exact date when these threats began is unknown. Certainly by the end of July 1787, Wilberforce was feeling distressed by Fearon. Not knowing where else to turn, Wilberforce confided in a fellow Member of Parliament, and mutual friend of William Pitt, Henry Addington (1757-1844).

In 1787, Wilberforce sold his residence at Lauriston House, and was staying for part of the summer at Bath. It seems he tried to meet with Addington in person on his way from London, but was unsuccessful. Although it cannot be determined precisely how long these threats were going on, on July 23, 1787, Wilberforce wrote to Addington, adding

“…a Word or two about F.[earon]. I have heard nothing of late from him [Fearon], nor indeed of him except that he is still at Wimbledon, where I fear he lives on his little Capital, & will do so till it is entirely expended; if his Reason had really been affected I think some Marks of Insanity must have appear’d & it would have been known in the Village. His violent Language & Letters therefore I impute to artifice; however it is very painful to me.” [1]

It is clear that by this point Addington knew of Fearon, as Wilberforce only uses his first initial in the letter. Wilberforce also alludes to Fearon’s family, and their pecuniary situation, asking Addington to indirectly intercede on his behalf:

“Is there no Person whom you could employ to visit them [the Fearon family] & report to you the State in which they are & their future prospects & designs.[?] I dare not advise you to write; it would be impossible to exert yourself so unguardedly as not to leave an Opening for some misinterpretation: I must not be known by F.[earon] to take any part in his Relief, because he has laid me under the necessity of conducting myself so as that if the whole affairs be ever made public, I may not seem to have entertain’d the least Suspicion of his Representations being true, or the smallest fears of his divulging the Story.” [2]

Effectively, Wilberforce wanted the matter dealt with quickly, quietly, and with the utmost discretion. He did not want Fearon to know that he was involved in essentially spying on him and paying him off. Wilberforce believed Addington could find a way to handle the situation through an intermediary:

“But I shall be very glad thro’ you to assist him in a moderate Way, tho’ even here great Caution is necessary lest the Circumstances above mentioned it might seem as if you had regarded him as an injured Man, & had therefore taken him under your Patronage.” [3]

John Cary’s 1786 map of ‘Wimbleton’ [sic]
Unfortunately, if Wilberforce believed he could end the matter so soon, he was very much mistaken. We do not have Addington’s responses, although some inferences regarding his views can be made through closely examining Wilberforce’s letters.

It appears that Addington replied to Wilberforce’s letter of July 23, 1787, as Wilberforce wrote again from Bath the following week. Addington must have suggested the name of ‘Richards’ as the person best suited to spy on Fearon.

Wilberforce wrote to Addington on July 30, 1787, informing him that,

“I approve of your Suggestion of Richards, apprehending him to be the person who took in [oe]’s little Girl when he himself first came under my Roof…Be that as it may your conceiving Richards an Agent as proper as any we can find for the Business in question makes me readily acquiesce in the Nomination. I think my name should either not be mention’d to him at all, or the true Reason why I must keep altogether behind the Curtain. It should be communicated to him [Richards], in order to keep him the more on his guard…” [4]

Wilberforce was adamant that his personal involvement was not known. Sadly, this was not enough.

On August 23, 1787, Wilberforce wrote again to Addington, as it does not appear that Addington responded to his previous letter:

“Hearing nothing from you, I am induced by the Solicitude I feel respecting F.[earon]’s Publication to trouble you with an additional Word or two on that Subject. It is desirable, were it practicable, that one should set a watch over him [Fearon] & that when he actually prepares to execute his threat & not till then, he should be prevented, for every fresh Consideration I bestow on the matter confirms & strengthens my Opinion that at all Events, he must not be permitted to publish, & yet to shew any Anxiety, before it be actually impossible to Avoid it, is the Way to subject myself to the perpetual Imposition of an unprincipled & artful Man; But I despair of finding anyone to keep guard over him on whom I may rely, & therefore perhaps the only Expedient is for me to work by some friend [Henry Addington] in whom I can repose perfect Confidence, & who from other Circumstances is suited to the Office…The Matter really interests me extremely, & I condemn myself for not having attended sufficiently to it. I ought to have reflected that from the Situation in which I now am, my appearing other[wise] would in the light of a man over-religious be prejudicial to Interests of the Chief Importance [in other words, the abolition of the slave trade].”[5]

Wilberforce recognized that whatever it was that Fearon had against him, it could be damaging to his political career. Thus, by August 1787 Wilberforce was beginning to take the matter very seriously, and to regret not doing so earlier. Several biographers of Wilberforce have mentioned this episode in passing, and have only cited the 1787 letters from Wilberforce to Addington as if there the matter drops. [6]

Nevertheless, this was certainly not the case as the threats to publish this unknown libel continued for the next few years. During a visit to Cambridge, Wilberforce wrote to Addington on May 13, 1788, indicating that the situation with Fearon, and the man hired to spy on him, was far from over:

“I am not sorry in writing to you to take up my pen when a Recollection of the approaching departure of the Post relieves me from the apprehension of finding myself seduced unravels into a long Letter; not that I have anything to say that may not be express’d in three Words, so it shall be in two: Richards. Fearon…” [7].

In this particular letter, Wilberforce directly names Fearon without the use of initials. No other information is given in the letter apart from the obvious fact that Fearon was still being closely watched, and Richards seems to have been the man hired to spy on him.

Henry Addington as Speaker of the
House of Commons by J.S. Copley
Crucially, there is one final letter from Wilberforce to Addington on the subject of Anthony Fearon dated from Bath on August 14, 1789. By that point, the threats had been going on for well over two years. Addington had recently lost one of his children, and was in a state of bereavement. Wilberforce wrote his condolences to Addington, adding

“…It may require less apology for me to trouble you again on the old Subject [Fearon] when anything will be welcomed which may divert your mind for a moment from its own melancholy Reflections. Fearon has continued to intimate to me his Design of publishing, thro’ a new Channel, & I honestly own to you that I am not a little distress’d by the Apprehension of his being wild enough to execute his Threat. My chief grounds of Concern on this Head need not to have been hinted to you in London, & in addition to it I am now extremely hurt under the fear of its operating in some Way to the Prejudice of the Scheme you know of [abolition], for the Success of which I am deeply & justly interested. Am I too vain or presumptuous when I persuade myself that it will not be in this Man’s power, artful as he is beyond all I ever met with, & I fear I must add unprincipled & desperate, to impress the World with the Belief of any thing to the disparagement of my Moral Character [?]…Now can you contrive any way of diverting this Mischievous Man from his purpose [?] It is evident that I must not shew [sic] any Symptoms of fear, but I conceive it may be possible for you to manage him by the double method of conciliation & threatening without my being suspected to be in any degree concerned…In this he [Fearon] affords a fatal Lesson to us to avoid the Beginnings of Evil…” [8]

The last line in particular sounds rather ominous. Wilberforce was clearly at the end of his tether. His entreaty to Addington, now Speaker of the House of Commons, to arrange for someone to use the tactics of bribery and threats to get Fearon to back down highlights what must have been a very desperate situation.

Fortunately for Wilberforce, Fearon never did manage to publish the unknown salacious libel. Perhaps Addington’s intermediary – the man named ‘Richards’ – succeeded in his attempts to quell Fearon. It has never come to light what information Fearon had against Wilberforce, although the threats came just prior to Wilberforce taking up the cause for the abolition of the slave trade.

Throughout the two years of documented correspondence, Wilberforce was adamant that he did not want his name associated with the efforts to spy on his former neighbor. Of interest, Lord Mornington wrote to Grenville in 1787, saying that he heard a “strange story”, a rumor “…that Wilberforce had married his sister’s maid. Can it possibly be true?” [9]. To my knowledge, there is no mention of this in any other manuscripts.

Fearon used abusive language, and wrote innumerable letters intimating that he would publish a libel. If he succeeded, it could have seriously undermined Wilberforce’s character and parliamentary career. The story could have placed all of Wilberforce’s burgeoning abolitionist efforts in jeopardy.

Whatever the nature of the libel, Wilberforce seems to have been genuinely anxious and distressed by Fearon’s repeated threats. He does not mention the names of anyone else as being in connection with the situation, although he does mention ‘Richards’ as taking in someone’s “little Girl when he himself first came under my Roof.” [11]

The letters and violent threats seem to have begun in the summer of 1787, previous to the month of July, and they continued until at least August 1789, if not later. The story ends the following year as Fearon died at Wimbledon, and was buried on August 21, 1790 at St. Mary’s parish church [10]. His age and cause of death are unknown. At this distance of time, it is highly doubtful whether we shall ever know the truth, one way or the other.

References:

1. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 23 July 1787. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1787/OZ2.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 30 July [1787]. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1787/OZ4.
5. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 23 August 1787. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1787/OZ3.
6. Hague, W. (2008) William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner. London: Harper Press, p. 211; Pollock, J. (1977) Wilberforce. Tring, Herts.: Lion Publishing, p. 71.
7. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 13 May 1788. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1788/F23.
8. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 14 August 1789. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1789/OZ6.
9. HMC, Fortescue I, p. 280; Pollock, J. (1977) Wilberforce. Tring, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, pg. 71.
10. West Surrey Family History Society. Burial record for Anthony Fearon on 21 August 1790 at St. Mary’s parish church, Wimbledon, Surrey, UK. Accessed in April 2014 via the online database: www.findmypast.co.uk.
11. William Wilberforce to Henry Addington. 30 July 1787. Devon Heritage Centre, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C/1787/OZ4.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: William Wilberforce by Charles H. Hodges, after John Rising, c. 1792. ID Number: 2006.44/37. Accessed on 21 April 2014 via: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-752027&start=6&rows=1.

Figure 2: An early 20th century photograph of William Wilberforce’s former residence Lauriston House on Southside Common, Wimbledon. Accessed on 21 April 2014 via: http://news.merton.gov.uk/2013/09/18/explore-black-history-month/.

Figure 3: Screenshot of ‘Wimbleton’ from John Cary’s 1786 London map.

Figure 4: Henry Addington as Speaker of the House of Commons by John Singleton Copley (c. 1797-1798). Accessed on 21 April 2014 via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_Singleton_Copley_-_Henry_Addington,_First_Viscount_Sidmouth.jpg.

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Stephenie Woolterton has an MSc in Social Research, and a background in Psychology. She is currently researching and writing her first book on the private life of William Pitt the Younger. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden. She blogs at: www.theprivatelifeofpitt.com and can be contacted via Twitter at: www.twitter.com/anoondayeclipse.

4 comments:

  1. What a pity we can't learn what caused Fearon's death. Fascinating article, Stephenie, thanks.

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  2. What a tangled and caddish tale!

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  3. How very interesting! I remember reading about Fearon, but you've added way more detail to the story. I don't get the feeling, from reading Wilberforce's letters, that he's afraid of some inconvenient truth being revealed - more that he's aware that the general public love a juicy scandal, and that even a hint of a slur against him could reflect badly on the abolitionist cause, which of course relies very much on the purity and high principles of its advocates. Can't help wondering what Fearon thought he had against him, though, and whether it had anything to do with that rumour Lord Mornington had heard! (Do you know what Grenville's reply was?)

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  4. Most interesting. I knew very little about this, so thanks for posting it.

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