s William Wilberforce - the man (part 1) - Hull Museums Collections

William Wilberforce - the man (part 1)

Portrait of Wilberforce

Wilberforce's family originally came from Wilberfoss, a small village near York. His grandfather, also called William Wilberforce, was born in 1690. He moved to Hull to work for John Thornton, a Hull merchant, who traded in the Baltic with countries like Russia and Sweden. John Thornton lived in 25 High Street and William married his daughter Sarah Thornton in 1711.

William Wilberforce's grandfather bought his merchant house from the Thornton family in 1732, which is how it became known as Wilberforce House today. William Wilberforce's father, Robert Wilberforce, was born in 1729 and he took over the merchant business. Robert married Elizabeth Bird in 1755 and they had 4 children. William was their third child, but their first son. This was a cause for celebration as the first son inherited the family estate and business

William Wilberforce - The Early Years

William Wilberforce was born in Wilberforce House on the 24th August 1759. William was christened at Holy Trinity Church in Hull in September 1759. Not much is known about Wilberforce's birth except that he was a small weak baby. It was said his sons Robert and Samuel that 'His frame from infancy was feeble, his stature small, his eyes weak'. As a child William lived the life of a wealthy merchant's son in Hull. Hull was a busy port and William would have seen many different cargoes being loaded and shipped around the World.

There is no evidence that Hull was involved in the slave trade or had slave ships visiting the port. However, the people of Hull used the products of slavery such as sugar, coffee and rum, in their daily life. In 1766, at the age of seven, William went to Hull Grammar School as a dayboy, for a traditional classical education, studying Latin and Ancient Greek. Joseph Milner was the new headmaster, and his younger brother Isaac was later to be an usher. Isaac was to become a lifelong friend of Wilberforce and had a strong influence on him becoming a Christian. After his father died in 1768, William was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Hannah and William Wilberforce.


It was at their London home in St James Place that William first learnt about the Methodist religion at the age of nine. At the time Methodism was a new religious movement and his immediate family were unhappy with this influence on William, his grandfather saying 'If Billy turns Methodist he shall not have a sixpence of mine'. In 1771, aged 12, William's mother brought him back to Hull, and he was sent to Pocklington School near Wilberfoss, as a boarder until 1776.