William Wilberforce - the man (part 2)

Portrait of Wilberforce

University Days


Wilberforce entered St John's College, at Cambridge University in 1776, aged 17. He was a popular and lively student who did not work very hard at first. Wilberforce said he was introduced to, 'As licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives. I lived among them for some time, though I never relished their society.'

William often went to the theatre, was a keen dancer and had a good singing voice. At University, Wilberforce's friends included William Cookson, (uncle of the poet William Wordsworth), and Edward Christian, (brother of Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny on HMS Bounty). At University Wilberforce met his lifelong friend, William Pitt, the future Prime Minister. Their friendship grew when they began attending the gallery of the House of Commons to watch politicians debating. When Wilberforce graduated he was keen to develop a career in politics.

A Career in Politics


Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull in 1780 and then as MP for Yorkshire in 1784. Yorkshire was one of the largest constituencies in Britain. Wilberforce held office in Parliament for over 40 years, and held office as MP for Hull with Lord Manners. James Boswell, the writer, saw Wilberforce speak in York during a political debate and called him a 'shrimp' due to his small size. When Wilberforce spoke however Boswell said, 'It was as if the shrimp had become a whale.' Wilberforce was known for his pleasant speaking voice in Parliament, and was nicknames the Nightingale of the Commons.

The 1807 Yorkshire election was a bitterly fought election between Lascelles, Wilberforce and Milton. 19th century political life was lively and there were many cartoon pamphlets ridiculing their characters. Wilberforce became involved in many social campaigns during his career, including being a founding member of the charity, The Society for The Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comfort of the Poor in 1796, helping to set up the Bible Society and attending the first meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now known as the RSPCA) in 1824. However the two he is mainly remembered for is the campaign for the reformation of manners to stamp out drunkenness and licentiousness; and the abolition of Slavery.