To mark International Women’s Day I thought I would post a profile of a woman who will feature as one of my fifteen ‘paradigm shifters’ to be included in my forthcoming book “Petticoat Pioneers”.
In a way Margaret, Lady Middleton achieved nothing out of the ordinary – she was an accomplished portrait artist; she was a close friend of Dr Johnson and David Garrick; she knew an awful lot of important people; and she held dinner parties. But she was also an extremely influential figure in the abolition movement, which perhaps explains why the Moravian preacher Christian Latrobe, a family friend, once claimed that ‘the abolition of the slave trade was…. the work of a woman, even Lady Middleton.’ Later, her friend Hannah More, herself a staunch abolitionist, wrote to Margaret in 1791, saying ‘you have the first title to every prize on the whole slave subject’. Praise indeed – and that from a woman very much involved in the behind-the-scenes work to promote the abolitionist cause.
For such an influential and fiercely intelligent woman there are remarkably few details of her early life. Born Margaret Gambier some time after 1730 into a family who had come to Britain as Huguenot refugees in the 1690s, she was well-educated, clever and artistic. Her parents James Gambier and Mary Mead were evangelical Christians, who saw it as their job to improve conditions in the world around them. If there was a wrong, then it was their Christian duty to right it. The fact that Margaret was a woman, and therefore had no prospect of going to university or entering Parliament, simply strengthened her view that her skill should lie in influencing others. She could not vote, but in her middle age she certainly learned how to persuade, cajole and inspire others to vote with their conscience.
Many would argue that Margaret was the single most influential person in persuading William Wilberforce to present the abolitionist case in Parliament. Not a naturally decisive man, he suffered constantly from self-doubt and needed the encouragement from Margaret to adopt the cause as his life’s work. Wilberforce was not over-keen on allowing women to take part in the abolitionist meetings or to drum up support for petitions, writing in 1826 ‘I own I cannot relish the plan. All private exertions for such an object become their characteristic but for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture. I fear its tendency would be to mix them all in the multiform warfare of political life.’
The fact that the influence of Margaret Middleton was so effective is revealed in one of his letters to her, when he replies to her letter urging him to present a bill before Parliament with the words: ‘I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it.’
More importantly, having committed himself to the cause, Margaret was closely involved in much of the strategic planning behind the various anti-slavery bills put before Parliament.
How did this happen? Largely in conjunction with her husband, whom she had met on her uncle’s ship when he was in his mid-teens. A few years older than her, he was an impoverished servant serving under Captain Samuel Mead, who was in charge of HMS Sandwich. The fact that she fell head-over-heels for him did not endear their relationship to her parents – his prospects were far from clear, and he had yet to establish a name for himself in his chosen career i.e. the Royal Navy. She faced more parental opposition when she declined to marry a suitor of her parent’s choice, and in time her parents dis-inherited her. The couple had to wait a further twenty years, until 1761, before the 35 year old Charles Middleton was able to take a prolonged period of shore leave, and marry Margaret. She got pregnant immediately and gave birth to a daughter exactly nine months later.
In the period up until her marriage Margaret was estranged from her parents and lived with a close friend Elizabeth Bouverie, a Huguenot who owned an estate at Barham Court at Teston in Kent. Margaret and Elizabeth had been at school together, fostering a lifelong friendship. Together they had hosted parties for their artist friends and intellectuals – men like Samuel Johnson, who described Margaret as one of the wisest people he knew, and fellow artist Joshua Reynolds.
So close was the connection, and so generous was Elizabeth as host, that Margaret continued to live at Barham Court after she married. Eventually, the estate was bequeathed to Charles Middleton, but in 1761 Charles was happy to spend time ashore and to devote his energies over a twelve year period to farming and managing the Barham Court estate. He also owned a London house at Hanover Square, where he could attend to his burgeoning naval career. He was a highly political animal, becoming Comptroller of the Navy in August 1778. He was awarded a baronetcy in 1781 and three years later was elected as M.P. for Rochester.
He introduced James Ramsey, who he knew from his sailing days, to the circle of friends at Barham Court. Ramsay had served as ship’s surgeon on board HMS Arundel when it was under the command of Charles Middleton. Later he gave up being a surgeon to become an Anglican vicar and worked tirelessly on the Caribbean island of St Kitts to improve working conditions for the plantation slaves. Margaret had been involved in correspondence with Ramsay over a twenty year period. Now he was appointed secretary to Sir Charles Middleton, and given the living at Teston Church and made Rector at nearby Nettlestead.
Another visitor to the group came at the invitation of Ramsay – the indefatigable Thomas Clarkson, who became curate at Teston and went on to be a founder member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was to devote his whole life to criss-crossing the country giving lectures, interviewing sailors and collecting signatures to his anti-slavery petitions.
Another guest was John Newton – a former slaver who had himself been reduced to servitude and abject poverty by a disgruntled slave trader on an island off the coast of Sierra Leone. When he eventually escaped and returned to Britain he experienced an epiphany when the ship he was on board nearly sank off the coast of Ireland. Eventually recanting of his old ways, he became a firebrand of a preacher, and among other things went on to write the anti-slavery song ‘Amazing Grace’
In this way Barham Court became the place where all the threads of the anti-slavery movement came together. Friendships were forged, roles were worked out, and the leading lights went forth, imbued with determination to get the message across.
Ramsay had seen the appalling treatment of slaves first-hand during his time in the West Indies. What alarmed him was not just the cruelty but also the apparent indifference shown by people with whom he raised the topic. But with Margaret and her husband he found sympathetic listeners – they rebuilt his confidence, convincing him that he had a duty to speak out. They helped him draft what became an important treatise on slavery, which was published in 1784 as a book-length tract called an ‘Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies’. The preface to the tract was a lengthy letter which was in fact written by Margaret, Lady Middleton. Clarkson was to say of Ramsay’s book that it was the “first controversy ever entered into on the subject, during which, as is the case in most controversies, the cause of truth was spread’. It certainly helped light the fuse under the abolitionist cause, and inspired a generation of activists to campaign against the degrading and barbaric trade in human misery.
1788 saw the publication of another paper by Ramsay entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade’. His works were extremely influential – he had seen the horrors of slavery at first hand, and he was a mainstream Anglican clergyman whose ideas could not be dismissed out of hand.
Ramsay’s success, coupled with the generosity of the Middleton’s as hosts, and Sir Charles’s increasing importance as a reformer of the Royal Navy, meant that influential visitors were eager to attend the Middleton dinner parties. In private meetings such as these the nascent abolition movement took hold. Strategies and tactics were discussed – and it was clear that a parliamentary voice was essential. Around this time the daughter of Charles and Margaret got married – and her husband had been at St John’s College Cambridge with William Wilberforce. William was introduced to the regular gatherings at Barham Court, meeting Ramsay in 1783. He loved the Barham Court atmosphere, writing later that he found Barham Court ‘in high preservation. It has none of the grand features of your northern beauties but for the charms of softness and elegance I never beheld a superior to Barham Court’.
In 1788 Charles Middleton addressed the House of Common on the evils of the slave trade, and his wife asked whether he was prepared to spearhead the abolition campaign in Parliament. He declined, saying that William Wilberforce ‘not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue.’ In practice it was a wise choice – Middleton remained to serve as a most effective Comptroller of the Navy, introducing much needed reforms, eradicating corruption and improving the lot of the common sailor, with increased pay and better conditions. He was eventually made up to Admiral (June 1795) and was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (1805). When he retired from office he was given the title of Baron Barham of Teston. He died aged eighty-six on 17th June 1813.
And what of his wife Margaret? She died suddenly in 1792. The timing was significant because in that same year John Thornton purchased an estate in Clapham and it quickly took over from Barham Court as the centre of the abolitionist cause. The Clapham Sect carried on where the salons of Margaret, Lady Middleton had left off. But although she did not live to see her cause carried through to the Statute Book, she was hugely influential. In an era where it was not particularly fashionable to “wear your heart on your sleeve” and promote your evangelical Christian beliefs, she relentlessly used her social clout and network of contacts to further her chosen cause. Faith and philanthropy were inseparable in her mind – a combination which was to find an echo in the life of Elizabeth Fry in the decades which followed.