Anti Slavery lobbyist and 19th C. British working class hero
Robert Wedderburn was instrumental in achieving the freedom of the press in Britain in the 19th century. He, with many other working class radicals spent time in prison for publishing opinions, on religious and other matters, which challenged the ideas of the ruling class
Robert Wedderburn was born in Jamaica in 1762. His father, James Wedderburn, had been born in Scotland and owned a large sugar plantation on the island. His mother, Rosanna, was a slave owned by Wedderburn. When she was pregnant, Wedderburn sold her to Lady Douglas, stipulating that the child that she bore should be free from birth. That child was Robert Wedderburn. He was brought up on the estate of Lady Douglas. Wedderburn recalled that as a child he witnessed both his mother and grandmother being whipped. As soon as he was old enough, Wedderburn left the plantation and became a sailor. He arrived in England in 1778 and soon afterwards found work as a tailor.
In 1812 Robert Wedderburn met Thomas Spence, the unofficial leader of those radical reformers who advocated revolution. Spence did not believe in a centralized body and instead encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as "Spence's Plan and Full Bellies" and "The Land is the People's Farm".
When Spence died in September 1814 he was buried by "forty disciples" who pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. This group of men formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists and continued to meet for the next six years.
The government became very concerned about this group and employed a spy, John Castle, to join the Spenceans and report on their activities. In October 1816 Castle reported to John Stafford, supervisor of Home Office spies, that the Spenceans were planning to overthrow the British government.
On 2nd December 1816, the Spencean group organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields Islington. The speakers at the meeting included Henry 'Orator' Hunt and James Watson. The magistrates decided to disperse the meeting and while Stafford and eighty police officers were doing this, one of the men, Joseph Rhodes was stabbed. The four leaders of the Spenceans, James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston and John Hopper were arrested and charged with high treason.
Government spies who infiltrated the Spenceans claimed that Wedderburn was now the leader of the group. One spy attended a meeting held at the Mulberry Tree tavern. In his report he claimed that 150 people attended the meeting. As well as making a speech Wedderburn read from the writings of William Cobbett, William Sherwin and Jonathan Wooler.
Robert Wedderburn also opened his own Unitarian chapel in Hopkins Street, Soho. Government spies were soon reporting that Wedderburn and Allen Davenport were making "violent, seditious, and bitterly anti-Christian Spencean speeches." In 1819 it was reported that up to 200 people were paying 6d. a head to attend debates organized by Wedderburn. He also gave sermons every Sunday, or in the words of Wedderburn: "lectures every Sabbath day on Theology, Morality, Natural Philosophy and Politics by a self-taught West Indian".
A government spy claimed that at one meeting Wedderburn argued that a slave had the right to kill his master. This resulted in Wedderburn being arrested and charged with sedition and blasphemy. He was sent to Newgate Prison but was later released when his followers raised £200 bail money.
In November 1819 Wedderburn criticised radical reformers such as Henry Orator Hunt and Sir Francis Burdett. He argued that revolution rather than reform was what was needed. His vision was of simultaneous revolution of the poor in Europe and the black slaves in the West Indies. However, Wedderburn opposed the Cato Street Conspiracy and argued that the planned insurrection was premature. On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
Wedderburn was eventually charged with "blasphemous libel". In court he told the jury: "Where, after all, is my crime? It consists merely in having spoken in the same plain and homely language which Christ and his disciples uniformly used. There seems to be a conspiracy against the poor, to keep them in ignorance and superstition; the rich may have as many copies as they like of sceptical writers; but if I find two most decided contradictions in the bible, I must not in the language of the same book assert that one or the other is a lie." Found guilty he was sentenced to two years in Dorchester Prison.
On his release Wedderburn published The Horrors of Slavery (1824). He continued to campaign for freedom of speech and in 1831, at the age of 68, he was arrested and sent to Giltspur Street Prison. While in prison he wrote a letter to Francis Place. It was the last time Wedderburn appeared in the archives and it is not known when he died.