Posted by: robbedlyric | February 15, 2012

William Wilberforce in the Lake District

It’s been an important week for the interns at Dove Cottage. This week all ten of us have successfully taken our first guided tours round the Cottage! Apparently it is unheard of for everyone to have taken a tour so quickly. Well done 2012 Interns!!

Also this week I was lucky enough to help out at one of the very special events held in Dove Cottage. The event “A Morning in Dove Cottage” consists of a talk given by a local expert followed by tea and toast in the Wordsworth’s kitchen. I was there to help set up, pour tea and toast bread on the open fire in the kitchen range but I was also able to listen to the talk by David Matthews on William Wilberforce and his connections to the Lake District and the Wordsworth family.

I have to confess that I knew very little about Wilberforce as a man and still less that he had connections to the Lake District. Wilberforce first visited the Lakes in 1799 with some college friends from Cambridge. They were in search of the picturesque and were some of the very first tourists to find it in the English Lakes. Wilberforce was so struck with the beauty of the Lakes that when, as a young M.P. in the 1780’s, he required a summer retreat in order to relax and improve on his learning, something which he had neglected somewhat at university, he came to the Lake District.

For eight years during the 1780’s he rented his “summer house” Rayrigg Hall on the shores of Windermere. From here he explored the area, often on foot. Like Wordsworth he was a great walker and liked to explore the fells and think on the political questions and causes of the day. He also liked to go boating on Windermere.

It was during this period that Wilberforce first came into contact with one of the Wordsworth family; surprisingly it was Dorothy not William who first made his acquaintance. Wilberforce had been at Cambridge with one of the Wordsworth’s Cookson uncles and in the winter of 1789 he arrived at the home of William Cookson to spend Christmas with his friend’s family. Dorothy was living with the Cookson’s and she and Wilberforce struck up a friendship. Wilberforce was so impressed with Dorothy’s charity to the areas poor that he gave her 10 guineas to distribute as she wished. There was even some talk that Wilberforce might propose. Dorothy, however, was not so sure writing to her friend Jane;

“My heart is perfectly disengaged… Mr. W. would, were he ever to marry, look for a Lady possessed of many more accomplishments than I can boast.”

William Wordsworth did not meet Wilberforce in person until 1815 when a party at George Beaumont’s house bought them together however they may have corresponded prior to this and Wilberforce was amongst those whom Wordsworth and Coleridge sent a presentation copy of the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads to.  The two William’s must have struck up a rapport when they did finally meet for in 1818 the Wilberforce family descended on the Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount for a visit which lasted several months. Despite his failing health Wilberforce was still the life and soul of the party organising boat trips and entertaining friends at dinner parties. Dorothy’s affections for Wilberforce were renewed, she said of him; “though shattered in constitution and feeble in body he is as lively and animated as in the days of his youth.” She was not however impressed with his wife, Barbara, saying she was shy, whiny and self-righteous.

Wilberforce was a man of great energy, during his life he was president or leading member of some sixty nine organisations or causes including the abolition of slavery, penal code and prison reform (alongside Elizabeth Fry), poor relief reform (with Hannah More), the R.S.P.C.A., the Samaritans and the Sierra Leone Company. However he was also a man of sensibility known for his depth of feeling and love of nature. The poet Robert Southey said of him; “I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one.” He had been known to break off conversations to walk around the garden and on one occasion was left standing, weeping over a pressed flower he had found in his hymn book at church.

The Lake District was a place of deep significance for Wilberforce and he had strong links with the area despite not spending that much time here. I was very impressed with David Matthews talk; he currently lives in Rayrigg House and was extremely knowledgeable about William Wilberforce and his connections to the area. The next “Morning in Dove Cottage” is the 21st February and is about the village of Grasmere at the time the Wordsworth’s lived in the area.

Finally yesterday evening we all (the interns) went to Grasmere Player’s Valentine’s Night held in the Tithe Barn in the village. The night was lovely with romantic and amusing songs and readings. Some of us sang as part of the Glee Club and those of us who didn’t were very impressed. The highlight of the evening was “Baby its Cold Outside”! We all had a great night. Thank you Grasmere Player’s for having us!

Further Reading on Wilberforce

Hague, William, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (Harper Perennial, 2008)

Piper, John, Amazing grace in the life of William Wilberforce (IVP, 2007)

Amazing Grace (2007)

Wilberforce, William (1823), An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies.


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