William Wilberforce may have been ‘sent out of the way’ to Pocklington in 1771 as a boarder at Pocklington School in order to distance him from the influence of his Methodist uncle and aunt in Wimbledon. But his family nevertheless had long standing links with both the school and the town going back centuries.
The Wilberforce family originated up the road in Wilberfoss - with the spellings of the family name as Wilberfoss, Wilberfos, Wilberfosse, Wylberforce and Wilberforce being practically interchangeable throughout much of the middle ages.
Over twenty generations of the family lived in the village of Wilberfoss, between the 13th and 18th centuries, living the comfortable life of minor gentry. Christopher Wilberfoss reputedly built St Johns church in the village in 1445, while William de Wilberfosse turned down the chance of a knighthood from Henry VII, preferring to pay a fine for refusing the offer, rather than accept the greater costs and responsibilities of becoming ‘Sir William’. The family gradually extended their estates in Wilberfoss, and by the 16th century they also owned substantial property in Pocklington.
However, in the mid-16th century one branch of the family graduated to Beverley, and started to favour the Wilberforce spelling, while another retained the estates at Wilberfoss and continued to title themselves as Wilberfoss.
The Pocklington-Wilberfoss link became particularly strong through family and business ties with Pocklington’s leading family the Dolmans (or Dowmans).
A few years later John Dolman founded Pocklington School in 1514, his niece, Dorothy, married Henry Wilberfosse of Wilberfoss. In 1555 the school was threatened with closure, but was saved by the founder’s nephew, Thomas Dolman, who went on to extend his estates by accumulating property from the Beverley Wilberfoss family which started to dispose of its lands in the Pocklington area.
Tudor transactions record that Thomas Doweman bought ‘Land in Pocklynton’ from a William Wylberforce in 1554, then four years later Thomas Dowman added more ‘Lands in Poklington’ from William Wilberforce and his wife Ann. And they were soon negotiating again as in 1564 Thomas Doweman purchased a ‘Watermill with land in Pokelington’ from William Wilberfosse and Ann his wife (though the spellings are different the two parties were the same).
The Wilberforce-Pocklington School connection continued, and though the school’s records are sketchy for the first century of its existence (when many sons of local squires and landowners were educated there), record-keeping improved from 1650 onwards, in which year the Pocklington School Admissions Register details in Latin the arrival of another of William Wilberforce’s ancestors – “Robertus Wilberfosse filius Rogeri Wilberfosse de Wilberfosse Generosi annos natus quadnordecim admissus est.” (Robert Wilberfosse son of Roger Wilberfosse of Wilberfosse, Gentleman).
The Wilberfoss family continued to play a leading role in the life of the village of Wilberfoss until the end of the 17th century when they started to sell off their lands and move away. Other members of the family have their marriages and deaths recorded in the Pocklington parish registers, including one who was crushed in the worst storm in the history of the British Isles in 1703 - the Pocklington registers recording: ‘A great storm. 12 of his Majesties Shippes sunk, 8,000 seamen drowned. Mr Wilberfosse was killed at Meltonby by the fall of a tree.’
The Wilberfoss’s sold the remains of their Wilberfoss estate around 1710, but odd members of the family remained in and around Pocklington up until the end of the 19th century when George Wilberfoss was manager of the York & East Riding Bank in Pocklington and treasurer of Pocklington rugby club.
William Wilberforce, the MP and emancipator, clearly enjoyed his five years at Pocklington School, where he lived with the headmaster of the time, impressively named the Reverend Kingsman Baskett, in the headmaster’s house on West Green. He had originally been sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Wimbledon as a nine year-old boy after the death of his father. But when his letters home increasingly reflected the religious views of his uncle and aunt and their Methodist associates, his alarmed mother and grandfather ordered him back to East Yorkshire and placed him at Pocklington (his grandfather threatened to disinherit him unless he conformed with their wishes).
Initially he was unhappy at being uprooted from Wimbledon, but he soon settled into Pocklington School life and became a popular young man, who was praised for his singing and his writings (though he had a tendency to leave work until the very last minute), and he sent his first letter to the press about the evils of slavery from Pocklington at the age of 14.
He left Pocklington School to go to Cambridge University in 1776, and became MP for Hull at the age of 21 in 1780. Though his long political career meant he had to live in London, he nevertheless, retained his Yorkshire roots, visiting home at regular intervals and supporting Yorkshire causes, and after one trip back to Pocklington in 1795 he wrote of being “pleased to see old scenes”.
And while he had fond memories of Pocklington, the townsfolk obviously also held him in high regard. He switched from being MP for Hull to representing Yorkshire, and stood for re-election to become MP for Yorkshire in 1807.
Only around a hundred of Pocklington’s 1,500 inhabitants of the time were entitled to vote, but they supported Wilberforce by a big majority. Of the 91 Pocklington freeholders that voted, 82 cast their votes for Wilberforce, with his rivals, Mr Lascelles and Lord Milton getting 19 and 21 Pocklington votes respectively (freeholders could use two votes at the time if they wished). The Pocklington majority was not, however, reflected in the Yorkshire election overall which was a close run thing with Wilberforce polling 11,806, Milton 11,177, and Lascelles 10,989.
He had spearheaded the campaign to abolish slavery from around 1785 onwards, but his efforts were knocked back numerous times before his persistence started to gain the campaign more success, and with it increasing personal accolades and respect for Wilberforce. He had always been popular, and on one occasion was called “the wittiest man in England.”
The Slave Trade Act was finally passed in March 1807, giving Wilberforce further acclaim, though there was still much work to do eradicate the remaining vestiges of slavery.
Wilberforce’s deteriorating health restricted both his travelling and political activities in his later years. But he continued with his efforts against slavery, and he heard that the bill to give slaves their freedom had been passed by the House of Commons shortly before he died in July 1833 (he is buried in Westminster Abbey) – though it did not officially become the Slavery Abolition Act until a few weeks after his death.