John Woolman

Quaker minister and anti-slavery campaigner

Plaque: Littlegarth, Marygate Lane, York

IN the year 1772, a man in his early 50s limped on foot into York. John Woolman was a Quaker minister, anti-slavery campaigner and civil rights pioneer who had been brought up in the American colonies and who, because he didn’t like the way coachmen mistreated their horses, insisted on travelling around England on foot.

Woolman toured the country speaking out against slavery and other forms of cruelty. On arrival in Thirsk, he said he was next going to York. Asked where after that, he replied: “I don’t know. York looks like home to me.”

That proved prophetic. When he arrived in York he was put up by a Quaker family, the Tukes, in their Castlegate home. Unbeknown to him, however, he was suffering from smallpox. He died just three weeks after arriving in the city and is buried in the former Quaker burial ground in the gardens of a house in Marygate Lane, Bishophill.

Woolman spent three short weeks of his life in York, yet his name appears on a bronze York Civic Trust plaque put up at the site of the former Quaker burial ground.

So why is York so keen to lay claim to Woolman - a man who spent just a few days in the city, and who wasn't even British? Because he was one of the greatest of all the abolitionists, and a fierce champion of human rights and human freedoms, that's why.

Born in 1720, one of the 13 children of the Quaker Samuel Woolman, in Burlington County, New Jersey, throughout his life Woolman campaigned and wrote about the horrors of slavery.

He began his crusade aged 21, when he was keeping the books for a shopkeeper who asked him to sign a bill of sale for a female slave. Woolman pointed out that slave-keeping was a ‘practice inconsistent with the Christian religion’ - and the next time he was asked to sign a bill of sale for a slave he refused.

Woolman married and had two children, one of whom died young. He also set up his own tailoring business. But he came to feel that this stood in the way of his higher calling, to speak out against slavery.

In the 1740s he set out on a series of 'religious journeys', usually on foot, to Quaker communities throughout the American colonies, sewing the seeds for the beginning of the abolitionist movement.

By the end of the decade, it is thought that he had travelled 4,000 miles on foot. But his journey was just beginning.

In 1754 he published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes - a document which was to prove hugely influential. "No other antislavery document had... received such extensive circulation in any language anywhere," wrote T.E. Drake, in his 1950 book Quakers and Slavery in America.

On August 26, 1758, he made an impassioned plea - at the yearly meeting of the Philadelphia Society of Friends - for all Quakers to abolish the practice of holding slaves. That very day the Quakers began the process of freeing their slaves.

In May 1772, Woolman - who was known for his all-white dress of 'white hat, coarse raw linen shirt, coat without cuffs, white yarn stockings and shoes of uncured leather' - decided to bring his anti-slavery message across the Atlantic. He embarked on a ship, travelling in steerage because that was how his 'fellow creatures', black slaves, had been forced to make the crossing.

He arrived first in London, where he made a 'powerful impression' on Quakers there, then embarked on that journey on foot around the country which was to end with his death in York.

Later Victorian thinkers rated Woolman as among the most important of the abolitionists. Philosopher AN Whitehead described him as ‘that Apostle of Human Freedom’, while essayist Charles Lamb said Woolman’s Journal was the only American book he’d read twice. Little wonder York was keen to claim him as an honorary son of the city.

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