Chronicler of the Anti-Slavery Campaign
Much of what we know about Shropshire’s support for the abolition of the slave trade has been gleaned from the diaries of Katherine Plymley. Over 200 of her small notebooks are held at Shropshire Archives and they provide a fascinating insight to Shropshire society and the progress of the anti-slavery campaign.
Katherine was born in 1758, the eldest child of Joseph Plymley, and his wife Diana who was related to the Corbett family. The Plymleys lived at Bank House, Longnor, a house where Katherine and her sister Ann lived all their lives. Her brother, Joseph, was archdeacon of Shropshire, in 1804 he inherited the Corbett estate and moved to Longnor Hall.
Katherine was religious and had an enquiring mind. She took an active interest in the education of her brother’s children and was a regular visitor to Longnor Hall.
As both a member of the Shropshire gentry and as archdeacon, her brother received a series of influential house guests which Katherine enjoyed meeting.
It was the visit of one such visitor which prompted the first of Katherine’s notebooks in October 1791.
“I had the honour to meet Mr Clarkson. My brother went to Shrewsbury with the expectation of meeting him and they arrived here together about 10 o’clock at night. I was prepared to see with admiration a man who had now for some years given up all his secular interests and everything the world calls pleasure, and that too at a time of life when many think of little else, that he may dedicate his whole time to the glorious object of abolishing the African Slave Trade.”Katherine Plymley diary 1, 20 Oct – 21 Oct 1791. ref 1066/1
Thomas Clarkson was a leading campaigner who had helped to form the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1778. He was a close friend and ally of William Wilberforce whose first Bill to abolish the slave trade had been defeated in April 1791. Archdeacon Plymley was Clarkson’s advocate in Shropshire and had chaired a meeting to promote the Committee’s campaign. This notice from the Shrewsbury Chronicle, records those in attendance.
Katherine notes that Clarkson was touring the country “to converse with the friends to the Abolition on the best means to be pursued in their several counties to forward this righteous cause.” They were keen to keep the issue in the public eye and Clarkson was tireless in his efforts to collect testimonies and evidence which could support their cause.
In a speech to Parliament in April 1792, William Wilberforce gave an example of the brutal treatment of slaves on board slave ships. He alleged that Captain Kimber had murdered a young female slave by flogging her for refusing to dance. “Dancing the slaves” was common practice on slave ships when captives were brought on deck for short periods of exercise during their passage. As well as the whipping, Kimber was said to have had her suspended by one leg and dropped several times on the deck. The injuries she sustained were so severe she died.
Following this announcement, Captain Kimber was brought up before the High Court of the Admiralty in June 1792. Isaac Cruikshank depicted the incident in a cartoon and the case was widely reported in the press. The court focussed on discrediting the witnesses rather than examining Kimber’s actions.
Katherine noted the details of the case
“The papers of today inform us that Capt. John Kimber, the person mentioned by Mr Wilberforce in his speech in the House, as guilty of unheard of cruelty, even in his trade, in the murder of a negro girl, and who on the fullest examination was committed to take his trial, is acquitted and the two witnesses against him committed for perjury – the Duke of Clarence was upon the bench during the trial and afterwards went to dinner with the judges – there must be some mystery here”…
“Mr Adams, who was in court during the trial, tells my brother there was not a shadow of doubt that he was guilty. The character of the witnesses was argued to be bad in order to invalidate their testimony. It is probable they are not good men, they were on board a slave ship, a bad school for morals, but that ought not to affect their testimony, when nothing appears to invalidate it.”Katherine Plymley diary 11 12 May – 28 October 1792. ref.1066/11
She makes a further reference to the case on 26th October which reveals a local connection.
“Mr Dowling and Mr Devereux the persons confined upon a charge of perjury in the trial of Captain Kimber seem generally to be considered as innocent – they were surgeon and surgeons’ mate – my brother had a letter lately from Dowling. He wished to inquire after a person of the name of Ford whose father lives in Shrewsbury – upon inquiring the father said he had heard from his son the very same account of the murder of the girl as they gave in court. That his son is now in London – I fear his being found is very uncertain”Katherine Plymley diary 11 12 May – 28 October 1792. ref.1066/11
The abolitionists had many setbacks in their campaign, but Katherine continued to document her brother’s dedicated involvement and their progress nationally. In February 1807 the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Act was finally passed. Katherine continued recording events in her notebooks, the last entry in the series is May 1827.