William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of Robert and Elizabeth (daughter of Thomas Bird). The family had long been settled in Yorkshire. William was educated in Hull and at St John's College, Cambridge and stood as Member of Parliament for his native city in 1780, becoming a close friend of William Pitt (later Prime Minister). He enthusiastically took up the cause for the abolition of slavery, after being approached by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. After nearly twenty years and against much opposition the abolition bill received the Royal assent on 25 March 1807 and became law. He also helped found the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society. In 1825 he married Barbara Ann, daughter of Isaac Spooner. Their sons were William, Robert, Samuel (who was briefly Dean of Westminster in 1845) and Henry but his two daughters pre-deceased him.
William died on 29 July 1833 and Parliament resolved that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey. His grave is next to William Pitt in the north transept and in 1840 a statue, by Samuel Joseph, was set up nearby in the north choir aisle. The inscription reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (BORN IN HULL AUGUST 24th 1759, DIED IN LONDON JULY 29th 1833;) FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY A MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, AND, FOR SIX PARLIAMENTS DURING THAT PERIOD, ONE OF THE TWO REPRESENTATIVES FOR YORKSHIRE. IN AN AGE AND COUNTRY FERTILE IN GREAT AND GOOD MEN, HE WAS AMONG THE FOREMOST OF THOSE WHO FIXED THE CHARACTER OF THEIR TIMES; BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS, TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR, HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE. EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR, AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY, WHETHER TO RELIEVE THE TEMPORAL OR THE SPIRITUAL WANTS OF HIS FELLOW-MEN, HIS NAME WILL EVER BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED WITH THOSE EXERTIONS WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE, AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE: IN THE PROSECUTION OF THESE OBJECTS HE RELIED, NOT IN VAIN, ON GOD; BUT IN THE PROGRESS HE WAS CALLED TO ENDURE GREAT OBLOQUY AND GREAT OPPOSITION: HE OUTLIVED, HOWEVER, ALL ENMITY; AND IN THE EVENING OF HIS DAYS, WITHDREW FROM PUBLIC LIFE AND PUBLIC OBSERVATION TO THE BOSOM OF HIS FAMILY. YET HE DIED NOT UNNOTICED OR FORGOTTEN BY HIS COUNTRY: THE PEERS AND COMMONS OF ENGLAND, WITH THE LORD CHANCELLOR AND THE SPEAKER AT THEIR HEAD, IN SOLEMN PROCESSION FROM THEIR RESPECTIVE HOUSES, CARRIED HIM TO HIS FITTING PLACE AMONG THE MIGHTY DEAD AROUND, HERE TO REPOSE: TILL, THROUGH THE MERITS OF JESUS CHRIST, HIS ONLY REDEEMER AND SAVIOUR, (WHOM, IN HIS LIFE AND IN HIS WRITINGS HE HAD DESIRED TO GLORIFY,) HE SHALL RISE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE JUST.
The Wilberforce family helped restore the Islip Chapel in the Abbey and a plaque, with the family arms of an eagle displayed, is in the lower Islip Chapel and reads:
"In grateful memory of three generations of the family of WILBERFORCE. William the Emancipator - who is buried in the Abbey. Samuel Dean of Westminster afterwards the great Bishop of Oxford & Winchester, Basil Canon and Archdeacon of this Collegiate Church. Their kinsmen have helped to restore this Chapel to the worship of God - 1940. Grant them O Lord Eternal Peace"
Basil was a son of Samuel and his wife Emily.He was Canon of Westminster from 1894-1916 and lies buried in the north cloister of the Abbey. The inscription on his gravestone reads:
"Charlotte the beloved wife of the Venble. Basil Wilberforce D.D. Archdeacon of Westminster. Born July 29 1841. Died May 15 1909. Peace, peace, she is not dead she doth not sleep, she hath awakened from the dream of life. The Venble. Basil Wilberforce D.D. Archdeacon of Westminster Born Feb 14 1841. Died May 13 1916. He lives, he wakes 'tis Death is dead, not he".
The quotes are from Shelley's poem Adonis, slightly altered.
Photographs of the statue and plaque can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" 2004 (entries for William and three of his sons).
"Hero for Humanity. A biography of William Wilberforce" by Kevin Belmonte, 2002
"The Life of William Wilberforce" by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, 5 volumes, London 1838.
"Basil Wilberforce. A memoir" by George W.E.Russell, 1918
Portraits of William and Samuel are at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Collections of family papers are noted on www.hmc.gov.uk/nra