Granville Sharp (1735-1813), who campaigned for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, was born at Durham, the ninth son of the Reverend Thomas Sharp (1693-1758) and his wife Judith (Wheler) (d.1757). His grandfather, John Sharp, had been archbishop of York and preached the sermon at the coronation of Queen Anne in 1701.
He died unmarried on 6th July 1813 and his tomb is in Fulham churchyard.
In 1765 Sharp encountered an enslaved man, Jonathan Strong, who had been beaten up by his owner. Sharp’s brother William, a London surgeon, had tended Strong’s injuries and arranged his admission to St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
The brothers found Strong a job, and when he was later seized and imprisoned in an attempt to re-enslave him Granville Sharp took legal action to secure Strong’s freedom. Inspired by these events Sharp began to study the law and published several works denying the legality of slave ownership.
He took up the cases of several other enslaved people, notably that of James Somerset who, in 1772, was the subject of an important legal judgement which was popularly interpreted to have ruled that any enslaved person who set foot in England was immediately free. The case is referred to in the inscription on Sharp’s memorial. In 1787 Sharp became one of the twelve founder members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, working with William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.
A memorial tablet, by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, was erected for him in the south transept of Westminster Abbey. Either side of a portrait relief is a praying slave in chains and a lion with a lamb. The inscription reads:
Sacred to the memory of Granville Sharp, ninth son of Dr Thomas Sharp, Prebendary of the cathedrals and collegiate churches of York, Durham and Southwell, and grandson of Dr John Sharp, Archbishop of York. Born and educated in the bosom of the Church of England, he ever cherished for her institutions the most unshaken regard, while his whole soul was in harmony with the sacred strain 'Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace good will towards men' on which his life presented one beautiful comment of glowing piety, and unwearied beneficence. Freed by competence from the necessity, and by content from the desire, of lucrative occupation, he was incessant in his labours to improve the condition of mankind. Founding public happiness on public virtue, he aimed to rescue his native country from the guilt and inconsistency of employing the arm of freedom to rivet the fetters of bondage, and established for the Negro race, in the person of Somerset, the long disputed rights of human nature. Having, in this glorious cause, triumphed over the combined resistance of interest, prejudice, and pride, he took his post among the foremost of the honourable band associated to deliver Africa from the rapacity of Europe by the abolition of the slave trade; nor was death permitted to interrupt his career of usefulness till he had witnessed that Act of the British Parliament by which 'The Abolition' was decreed. In his private relations he was equally exemplary, and having exhibited through life a model of disinterested virtue, he resigned his pious spirit into the hands of his Creator in the exercise of charity, and faith, and hope on the sixth day of July, A.D. 1813, in the 78th year of his age. Reader, if, on perusing this tribute to a private individual, thou should'st be disposed to suspect it as partial, or to censure it as diffuse, know that it is not panegyric, but history. Erected by the African Institution of London, A.D. 1816.
Somerset in the inscription refers to the legal judgment of 1772 in the case of James Somerset, that any slave who came to England was immediately made free.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
A portrait of the Sharp family is at the National Portrait Gallery, London