So we have come back to the present day to think about the future. What next?
Mary Anne Rawson said “Prayer without action is a mockery”. At a time when women did not even have the right to speak in public, she and other women were actively campaigning on a one to one basis, talking to people, challenging views, explaining why they should not buy sugar grown in the colonies. She felt that to spend time and energy on ampaigning for equal rights for women was a distraction when she was committed to drawing attention to the plight of the truly disenfranchised, those trapped in slavery despite new laws prohibiting both the trade and also the ownership of slaves in the British colonies.
We can see now that the suffrage movement was essential and the status of many women around the world has improved and with it the life chances of their children. But slavery continues. When she was 76 Mary Anne was still campaigning and today across the world others carry on that fight.
October 18th has now been designated Anti-Slavery Day. What can you do to raise awareness and support those for whom the future seems without hope?
If you want to know more the Truth Uncovered website https://www.truthuncovered.eu/is a good place to start (If the link doesn’t work for you please copy and paste it into your web browser).
Jennifer Vernon-Edwards from BBC Radio Sheffield will be broadcasting her report on Mary Anne Rawson tomorrow morning, Saturday 3rd August on the Breakfast Show, from 7 – 9am. She is pictured here, sitting in the Chain Chair, one of the fascinating Enchanted Chairs opposite the Chapel that sweep the sitter back into Wincobank’s past. Each chair is different and you may see reminders of Wincobank’s ancient woodland, the local brickworks, the steelworks, farmland fencing, a forge or, as in this case, the cruel chains of the Slave Trade.
On our own journey to find out about the Chapel’s history and that of its founder, we have been astounded to discover that whole family who lived at Wincobank Hall in 1840 seem to have been present at the very first meeting of what is now Anti-Slavery International. The Chain Chair links us in more ways than one to the tireless campaigning of Mary Anne Rawson, her Read siblings and her elder sister’s family – the Wilsons, who were to continue to play an important part in Sheffield life into recent times. Sure, Wilberforce visited, but he wasn’t the only one doing the work. Wincobank was once a hub of political struggle for universal freedom and equal rights. Now we take it all for granted – even though the battle is not yet won. Jennnifer’s report will be broadcast on Radio Sheffield Breakfast Show in two parts, starting on Saturday 3rd August. LIsten in between 7 and 9am and learn more.
Thursday 26th June found us in the University of Sheffield’s Special Collections Reading Room – just a couple of volunteers from the chapel, some Friends of Wincobank Hill, two representatives from Montgomery Hall and a video camera – watch this space. We had come to find out more about the link between Mary-Anne Rawson and Sheffield’s Victorian hero James Montgomery, and specifically their work together in the campaign against slavery. What we found made us stop and think hard.
This beautifully illustrated and printed album, the equivalent of the modern day coffee table book, seems at first to give a sweetened picture of slavery as something distant, overseas and, with a little help from good British Christians, easy to recover from. However, opening the pages and reading on, we found the most shocking contemporary newspaper accounts accompanied by first hand statements of barbaric treatment and inhumane policy. That such a tastefully designed book could contain such small print dynamite suggests a very clever strategy to change attitudes by infiltrating the drawing rooms of the rich and powerful.
We discovered that our Mary-Anne had held James Montgomery in high esteem as both a friend of the family and as a role model. He was well known at the time as a radical newspaper editor, poet and writer of many popular hymns including Angels from the Realms of Glory. Early in his career he had been suspected of being sympathetic towards the French Revolution, convicted of seditious libel and had served two terms of imprisonment in York Castle. Mary-Anne’s father, Joseph Read had considered his trial unjust and believed that he had been sentenced as an example to others. He paid Montgomery’s legal fees, just one of the acts of generosity which was to lead to his own economic ruin.
Mary-Anne was herself a skilled writer and editor, collecting from far and wide literary and financial contributions to the causes she supported . We were both moved and impressed by her Memorial to Montgomery – a huge handwritten journal, the size of a family Bible, filled with recollections and anecdotes about her own family and their esteemed friend. Interspersed with the most delicate of drawing and watercolours, it brings alive the lively and passionate woman who we better know as the elderly lady in the lace bonnet with whose photograph hangs on the wall in Upper Wincobank Chapel. She writes in the front cover that the Memorial is only intended for the family, but after coming into the possession of her nephew Liberal MP Henry Joseph Wilson, and passing down several generations of the Wilson family it was finally placed, with other papers, at the University of Sheffield, in an act of public generosity for which we are indebted.
We had previously learned a lot about the philanthropic work of Mary Ann Rawson and other members of the Read family from a presentation by Sheffield Hallam University’s Dr Alison Twells, based on her book “The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850”. In particular, we were intrigued to discover that Mary Ann had been present at the first British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Convention in London, 1840. This fact is evidenced by her appearance in this monumental painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon, painted in 1841. Mrs Rawson is one of only a handful of women in a sea of men. She can be seen in the second row on the very right hand edge of the painting. Her face, prettily framed in the white lace of her bonnet, shines with a strange luminosity. She is leaning forward in eagerness, listening to the speaker Thomas Clarkson, whose eyes are fixed on the solitary black man in the foreground, the liberated slave Henry Beckford.
We learned from the detailed notes on the touch screen computers that although thanks in part to the efforts of William Wilberforce the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had been passed in 1807 and campaigners had achieved the emancipation of slaves in British colonies by 1833, this small, mainly Quaker group were determined to fight on for worldwide abolition.
The painting seems to have been created as a testimony to those who persisted in the campaign. The faces appear to have been painted afterwards and added in. Although to us Mary Anne Rawson is clearly recognisable from photographs in her later years, she is not identified in the NPG’s Who’s Who diagram although her name appears in the list of sitters on their website. We feel this ommission should be rectified so that she can take her proper place in history. We will be preparing a case to put to the NPG.