IN March 1824 Captain Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake, MP, presented parliament with a petition from his Amersham constituency for the abolition of colonial slavery. This was an unusual occurrence as Squire Drake was not known for challenging the status quo.

He had a poor attendance record in the House of Commons. When he turned up to vote, he invariably voted with the traditional Tory establishment, such as against Catholic relief and against Irish enfranchisement.

The British government had abolished the slave trade in 1807, however over 700,000 slaves remained in horrendous conditions in the colonies. Mass petitions were a key strategy of the rejuvenated anti-slavery movement. 777 petitions were presented to parliament in 1823, but between 1828 and 1830, 5000 petitions were presented, including another one from Amersham.

The Amersham petitions are important evidence of our local anti-slavery movement. This was a grass roots organization particularly strong amongst the Quaker community and other non-conformist church groups. Women’s societies would have held tea parties and sewing circles to raise funds and discuss slavery. The anti-slavery network campaigned to inform people of the realities of slavery. This was to counteract the powerful pro-slavery lobby, whose propaganda presented a rose-tinted vision of life in the colonies; of well-fed slaves working cheerfully for benevolent Plantation owners. An early example of fake news!

Inspiring women were particularly important in the abolitionist movement. Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker from Leicester initiated a boycott of West Indian sugar and wrote influential pamphlets which sold thousands of copies. At a time when women had no voice in politics, she threatened to withdraw funding for the Anti-Slavery Society if the leadership, particularly William Wilberforce, did not drop its gradualist approach and demand immediate abolition. This was a serious threat as the network of ladies’ associations supplied over a fifth of all donations to central funds.

William Wilberforce’s sister, Sarah, was married to his friend, James Stephen, a successful barrister, and passionate abolitionist. At the age of 61, after his wife’s death, Stephen bought a country house in Great Missenden. The name “Wilberforce’s walk” was given to the terrace here to commemorate the visits of his brother-in-law.

Stephen, originally from Poole, had become committed to the cause after witnessing the brutality of slavery whilst working as a lawyer in the Caribbean. On first arriving, he saw the unjust trial of two slaves who were then burnt alive. He swore to devote his life to abolition. He was able to provide Wilberforce with eye-witness accounts of events in Barbados and St Kitts before returning to London with his young family to continue the campaign there.

James’ eldest son, William, was the vicar of Bledlow for nearly 60 years. Two other sons became active campaigners. James Jnr was a civil servant in the Colonial Office and helped draft the abolition bills. He was later knighted. George took over his father’s position as solicitor to the Society. He also inherited his father’s passionate nature and was opposed to the older generation’s strategy of gradualism, and of persuading parliamentarians. Inspired by Elizabeth Heyrick, he campaigned for immediate abolition and formed a small working group, funded by wealthy Quakers, to instigate more direct action. He employed agents to address public meetings and to encourage publicity in the press. The ensuing agitation played a key role in changing public opinion, and the government’s position. George Stephen was also knighted for his services.

George’s memoirs, Anti-Slavery Recollections are still in print, although his contemporaries criticised him taking all the credit for the campaign’s success! George and his wife, Henrietta had a country house at Princes Risborough before following their eldest son, James Wilberforce to Australia in 1855.

Following James Stephen’s death in 1832, the Missenden house was sold. In the sale particulars it was described as “a compact modern little freehold villa, with stabling, coach house garden, orchard, lawn and pastureland of about 14 acres, facing south, overlooking the village, near the Church”.

In Missenden Stephen had a great influence on the young Reverend Benjamin Godwin. He was the Baptist Minister there, from 1814 to 1822, when money problems forced him to take up a new position in Bradford.

Godwin, born in Bath, was unhappy as an apprentice cobbler and ran away to sea at the age of 15. He was later press-ganged into the British Navy, where he fought in the Napoleonic Wars. After leaving the Navy he became a Baptist Minister and teacher, initially in Dartmouth, before moving to Great Missenden with his wife, Betsy, and infant son.

In Bradford, the Godwins became active in the anti-slavery movement and invited James Stephen to give a lecture series. Godwin commissioned a young Quaker artist, Thomas Richmond to illustrate the talk with panels showing the horrors of slavery and the benefits of the egalitarian and multiracial world that would result from its abolition.

These lectures were so successful that Godwin was invited to tour the north and the texts were summarised in local papers and an illustrated booklet. This eventually became a bestselling book. In 1833, this success inspired George Stephen’s Agency to employ lecturers to tour the country, in a military style campaign. This was another tactic later adopted by the suffragist movement.

By 1833 parliament was more democratic following the Reform Bill of the previous year which had abolished ‘rotten boroughs’ such as Amersham. The landowning class no longer held power. The Whigs, the only party to consider slave emancipation, had a majority in the Commons of 250 seats. With public opinion strongly in favour, the government was finally persuaded to act to abolish slavery in the British colonies.

More information can be found at A future article will tell the story of the black abolitionists who toured Bucks in the 1850s to campaign against slavery in America. Please get in touch if you can help identify James Stephen’s house in Great Missenden or can contribute further to our research at