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Joseph Sturge

Joseph Sturge (1793-1859)

Joseph Sturge (1793 – 14 May 1859) was an English Quaker, abolitionist and activist. He founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (now Anti-Slavery International). He worked throughout his life in Radical political actions supporting pacifism, working-class rights, and the universal emancipation of slaves. In the late 1830s, he published two books about the apprenticeship system in Jamaica, which helped persuade the British Parliament to adopt an earlier full emancipation date. In Jamaica, Sturge also helped found Free Villages with the Baptists, to provide living quarters for freed slaves; one was named "Sturge Town" in his memory.


  • Early career 1
  • Campaign against indentured apprenticeship 2
  • International anti-slavery campaign 3
  • Chartism and the Peace Society 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Death and memorial 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early career

Joseph Sturge, the son of a farmer in Elberton, Gloucestershire, went to Birmingham to work in 1822. A member of the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers), he refused to deal in grain used to make alcoholic spirits, although he was a corn factor.

In rapidly expanding industrial Birmingham, Sturge was appointed an alderman in 1835. He opposed the building of the Birmingham Town Hall, to be used for performances, because of his conscientious objection to the performance of sacred oratorio. He became interested in the island of Jamaica and the conditions of its enslaved workers. He visited it several times and witnessed firsthand the horrors of slavery, as well as the abuses under an apprenticeship system designed to control the labour of all former slaves above the age of six for 12 years. He worked for emancipation and abolition with African-Caribbean and English Baptists.

In 1838, after full emancipation was authorised, Sturge laid the foundation stone to the "Emancipation School Rooms" in Birmingham. Attending were United Baptist Sunday School and Baptist ministers of the city.

In 1839 his work was honoured by a marble monument in a Baptist mission chapel in Falmouth, Jamaica. It was dedicated to "the Emancipated Sons of Africa".

Campaign against indentured apprenticeship

After legislation for the abolition of slavery in the British dominions was enacted in 1833, slave-owning planters in the West Indies lobbied to postpone freedom for adults for twelve years in a form of indenture. Enslaved children under the age of six were emancipated by the new law on 1 August 1834, but older children and adults had to serve a period of bonded labour or "indentured apprenticeship". Sturge led a campaign against this delaying mechanism.

His work to speed up adult emancipation was supported by Quaker abolitionists, including William Allen, Lord Brougham, and others. In a speech to the House of Lords, Brougham acknowledged Sturge's central role at that time in rousing British anti-slavery opinion.

In 1834 Sturge sailed to the West Indies to study apprenticeship as defined by the British Emancipation Act of 1833. He intended to open it to criticism as an intermediate stage en route to emancipation. He traveled throughout the West Indies and talked directly to apprentices, proprietors (planters), and others directly involved. Upon his return to Great Britain, he published Narrative of Events since the First of August 1834; In it he cited an African-Caribbean witness, to whom he referred as "James Williams" to protect him from reprisals.

The original statement was signed by two free African-Caribbeans and six apprentices. As was customary at the time, it was authenticated, by Rev. Dr. Thomas Price of Hackney, London, who wrote the introduction. Following another trip and further study, Sturge published The West Indies in 1837. Both books highlighted the cruelty and injustice of the system of indentured apprenticeship. Whilst in Jamaica, Sturge worked with the Baptist chapels to found Free Villages, to create homes for freed slaves when they achieved full emancipation. They planned the communities to be outside the control of planters.

As a result of Sturge's single-minded campaign, in which he publicised details of the brutality of apprenticeship to shame the British Government, a major row broke out amongst abolitionists. The more radical element were pitted against the government. Although both had the same ends in sight, Sturge and the Baptists, with mainly Nonconformist support, led a successful popular movement for immediate and full emancipation. As a consequence, the British Government moved the date for full emancipation forward to 1 August 1838. They abolished the 12-year intermediary apprenticeship scheme. For many English Nonconformists and African-Caribbean people, 1 August 1838, became recognised as the true date of abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

International anti-slavery campaign

Sturge in the painting The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon. From left to right: Vice Admiral Constantine Richard Moorsom, Sturge, John Keep (American delegate), Joseph Eaton. Top left G.K.Prince and top right, James Dean (another American).

In 1837, keen to act independently of the consensus in the Anti-Slavery Society, Sturge founded the Central Negro Emancipation Committee. More significantly, in 1839, one year after abolition in the British dominions (a time when many members of the Anti-Slavery Society considered their work to be completed), Sturge led a small group to found a new Anti-Slavery Society. They named it the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, based on the ambitious objective of achieving emancipation and an end to slavery worldwide. This society continues today as Anti-Slavery International; its work is far from achieved since slavery exists on a large scale in many countries, albeit no longer legally.

In the 19th century, the Society's first major activity was to organise the first international conference, as well as the first devoted to abolition. It was known as the World's Anti-Slavery Convention and took place in June 1840 in London. Others were held in 1843 (Brussels) and 1849 (Paris). The convention was held at the Freemasons Hall on 12 June 1840.[1] It attracted delegates from Europe, North America, and Caribbean countries, as well as the British dominions of Australia and Ireland, though no delegates from Africa attended. It included African-Caribbean delegates from Haiti and Jamaica (then representing Britain), women activists from the United States, and many Nonconformists.

Commissioned by the society and its "moral radicals", a great painting of the event was completed. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London to this day. The conference's political significance lay in the fact-finding groups it set up to report about slavery worldwide. It also created studied links between British investment and business and overseas slavery.

The conference was historically notable within the American Anti-Slavery Society and Lewis Tappan's American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The latter was ideologically congruent with Sturge's English counterpart.

In 1841 Sturge travelled in the United States with the poet John Greenleaf Whittier to examine the slavery question there. He published his findings to promote American abolition. In 1845, Sturge visited Nottingham as he was local parliamentary candidate. There he visited a Sunday School run by Samuel Fox. The idea of a school that taught not only scripture, but also basic skills such as reading and writing was taken up by Sturge. Sturge opened a similar school in about 1845.[2]

Chartism and the Peace Society

On his return to England, Sturge supported the Chartist movement. In 1842 he ran as parliamentary candidate for Nottingham, but was defeated by John Walter, the proprietor of The Times.[3]

He also contested Birmingham in 1844 as a Chartist candidate and whilst strongly supported at the Election Hustings - presumably by the non voters - he came bottom of the poll: (Spooner [Cons] 2095, Schoefield [Lib] 1735 and Sturge [Chartist] 346)[4]

He then took up the cause of peace and arbitration being pioneered by Henry Richard. He helped found the Peace Society. In addition, he was instrumental in the founding of the Morning Star in 1855 as a newspaper through which to promote the Peace Society and his other socially progressive ideas. In 1854 he and two other Quakers, Robert Charleton and Henry Pease, travelled to St Petersburg to see Tzar Nicholas I as part of an effort on the part of the Society of Friends to prevent the outbreak of the Crimean War.[5]

Personal life

Sturge married, first, in 1834, Eliza, sister of John Cropper.[6] After her death, in 1846 he married Hannah, daughter of Barnard Dickinson and they had five children.[7] Fellow Quaker Stephen Henry Hobhouse wrote a biography in 1919 titled Joseph Sturge, his life and work.[8]

Death and memorial

Sturge Memorial before and after restoration

Sturge died at Edgbaston, Birmingham. A memorial to him by sculptor John Thomas was unveiled on 4 June 1862 at Five Ways.

Blue plaque on Wheeleys Road

On 24 March 2007, the city held a civic ceremony to formally rededicate the statue. The Lord Mayor of Birmingham unveiled an interpretation board giving details of Sturge's life. On the same day, a blue plaque (historic marker) was unveiled at the site of his home in Wheeleys Road, Edgbaston.[9]


  1. ^ "The history of Anti-Slavery International", Official Website, accessed 12 July 2008
  2. ^ First Day Schools,, accessed January 2010
  3. ^  
  4. ^
  5. ^ Brock, Peter (1990). The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914. York: Sessions. pp. 266–268.  
  6. ^ British Quakers in Commerce & Industry. 1775-1920. Edward H. Milligan.2007.
  7. ^ Spartacus Educational: Joseph Sturge
  8. ^ Stephen Hobhouse (1919). Joseph Sturge, his life and work. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.  
  9. ^ Blue plaque unveiling



Further reading

  • Richard, Henry (1864), Memoirs of Joseph Sturge, London: Partridge
  • Temperley, Howard (1972), British Anti-Slavery 1733-1870, London: Longman
  • Pickering, Paul & Tyrell, Alex (2004) Contested Sites: commemoration, memorial & popular politics, pub:Ashgate
  • Tyrrell, Richard (1987), Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Victorian Britain, London: Helm
  • Claus Bernet (2010). "Joseph Sturge". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 31. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1355–1360.  

External links

  • Works by Joseph Sturge at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Joseph Sturge at Internet Archive
  • The Joseph Sturge Monument - A photo essay on the history of his statue in Birmingham.
  • The Birmingham Civic Society
  • Joseph Sturge
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