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Saturday 20 March 2010


My eighteenth century Delap and Halliday ancestors never knew personally those in my Gurney tree. But if they had, they would have been sworn enemies. It is quite possible that the former would have been aware of the latter, and particularly of the activities of my 5x great aunt Martha Gurney. While they were enjoying the fruits of their use and abuse of slaves on a sugar plantation in Antigua, aunt Martha was campaigning for a boycott of the products which earned them those fruits.

An Address to the People of Great Britain,
on the Consumption of West India Produce
written by William Fox, published by Martha Gurney in 1791

She was a remarkable woman, a bookseller and printer of whom her biographer Timothy Whelan writes, “No British woman played a more prominent part in raising the consciousness of the English people against the slave trade.” Her pamphlet An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Propriety of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum (written by William Fox in 1791) sold more than 200,000 copies in Britain and America and was the best selling pamphlet of the eighteenth century. With public debate on the topic at its height, the publication ran to about 30 impressions or reprints, and drew 20 further pamphlets responding to its contents either for or against.

Report on Remarkable Trials
(including those of 32 prisoners "capitally convicted")
published by Joseph and Martha Gurney

She published fourteen such anti-slavery pamphlets and another 25 transcriptions of state trials and other proceedings – one of the benefits of being the sister of Joseph Gurney, official shorthand writer to the Old Bailey and the House of Commons, who had privileged access to such events. Joseph was also able to bring first hand knowledge of the debate over slavery which raged in parliament in 1791 and 1792.

Medallion of the logo of the Society for Effecting 
the Abolition of Slavery, produced in 1787 by the manufacturer 
and abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood; 
it became a fashionable accessory in polite society

Joseph, also a bookseller, had subscribed to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery since its founding by Quakers in 1787, and Martha published her first anti-slavery leaflet the following year. It was A Sermon on the African Slave Trade, by James Dore the minister at Maze Pond Baptist Church of which all her family were members.

Joseph introduced Martha to William Fox, another bookseller and like Joseph a member of the Humane Society. In 1782 she moved her printshop from its premises in Bell Yard of the Strand, a few hundred yards north to Fox’s place in Holborn, and it was from here that they collaborated on their campaigning publications. They became close friends personally and professionally, and when Fox died in 1794, she remained there until her death.

Plan of the slave ship Brookes, 1789,
licensed to carry 450 slaves, but often taking over 600

It is not really any surprise that Martha espoused the abolitionist cause. She came from a long line of radical religious dissenters. Nevertheless, her willingness to nail her colours so explicitly to the mast was brave – the pamphlets all carried her name as publisher when many of their authors remained anonymous (including Fox on that 1791 Address). In her shop, her nephew Brodie Gurney remembered 40 years later, she openly displayed on a wall the now-famous drawing of the sardine-like packing of slaves on the slave ship Brookes, which was commissioned by the Abolition Committee in 1789.

Trading in slaves became illegal in Britain in 1807. Having slaves however did not. In 1823 a new Anti-Slavery Society was formed, which soon called for a new boycott of West Indian produce. In 1830 Martha and William’s 1791 pamphlet was reprinted and at last in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed – a landmark of humanity which Martha Gurney can take some small credit for having helped to build.


  1. What a fascinating juxtaposition - the anti-slavery lobbiest and the plantation owners. I love the formidable women in your tree. More stories about them please!

  2. Any chance of putting a diagram of some of your family tree somewhere? I get horribly confused, despite my insider knowledge :-)

  3. Yes, I wondered about a simplified diagram of some sort - not sure how to express it while still preserving the anonymity of living descendents!


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