Old Bridgwater Bridge, lithograph by John Chubb © Bridgwater Heritage Group

The Bridgwater Petition – The Tide Turns

by Jill Sudbury

On 2nd May 1785 a petition from the people of Bridgewater was presented to Parliament calling for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The petitioners stated that “they most ardently hope to see a British parliament, by the extinction of that sanguinary traffic, extend the blessings of liberty to millions beyond this realm, hold up to an enlightened world a glorious and merciful example, and stand foremost in the defence of the violated rights of human nature”. With over 1,000 signatories, it represented the views of most of the adult population of the small Somerset market town. It was also the first petition in which a town declared it was implacably opposed to slavery.

The complex tale of the abolition movement unfolds in Remi Kapo’s Torrents of Fire. Petitions were just one of the abolitionists’ many tactics aimed at undermining a trade that an increasing number of people found abhorrent. The Bridgwater petition was the first of many regional petitions to arrive at the Houses of Parliament. One of the Manchester petitions – there were several – had over 10,000 signatures, which was around 20% of the population.

But why Bridgwater? Those familiar with the West Country will know how close Bridgwater is to Bristol, a city whose wealth is inextricably woven into the sugar plantations of the West Indies and their enslaved workers. How could neighbouring communities have such opposed attitudes to slavery?

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth Henri Gascar, 1672

To understand Bridgwater’s implacable opposition to slavery, one needs to go back 100 years to the reign of James II and the short-lived but deeply bloody Monmouth rebellion. On 11th June, 1685, a small flotilla sailed into Lyme Regis harbour bearing James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, and 81 men. The illegitimate Protestant son of the recently deceased Charles II, Monmouth intended to claim what he believed to be his birthright and overthrow his Catholic uncle, James II. Within days, thousands of West Countrymen had joined his crusade. Initially, this rag-tag army bearing little more than pitchforks was successful. They soon took Somerset, and in Taunton marketplace, Monmouth was declared King. However, James II quickly rallied his troops, and on the night of 5th July, the last pitched battle on English soil took place at Sedgemoor, just north of the village of Westonzoyland on the Somerset Levels. By the morning, the rebellion was over.

Execution of the Duke of Monmouth, Tower Hill

Retribution was swift and brutal. Nine days later, Monmouth was beheaded in a botched execution at Tower Hill in London for the crime of treason. Meanwhile, James II had ordered the countryside to be scoured for rebels. A large troop of cavalry under Colonel Percy Kirke of the First Tangiers Regiment set about the task with a ferocity for which they were already infamous. Dozens were butchered before they could be brought to trial. For those captured, many still bearing the wounds of battle, there followed what have come to be known as the Bloody Assizes. These were a series of trials across southern England beginning in Winchester on 26 August, 1685, passing through Dorchester, Exeter and Taunton[1], and culminating in Wells on 23 September. They were overseen by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir George Jeffreys (1645-89), who declared his intention “to breathe death like a destroying angel and to sanguine his very ermins in blood”. Of the 1,400 rebels produced before the courts, the majority were found guilty. The statutory sentence for treason for men was to be hung, drawn and quartered,[2] and for women, to be burnt at the stake.[3] Numerous public hangings soon followed across the southwest. Many taken down before they were dead, then disembowelled and ‘quartered’, namely beheaded and the bodies divided into four, boiled in salt, dipped in pitch, and then dispatched to be displayed on gibbets and tree branches across several counties. It was said that “the trees were laden almost as thick with quarters as with leaves”. Such were the numbers, that the courts struggled to carry out the sentences. In Lyme, for example, the mayor was threatened with being executed himself if he didn’t carry out the judicial sentences in a timely fashion, including providing oxen to distribute the quarters across the district.[4] In Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, local records meticulously detail the distribution of the body parts across the two boroughs, with costs of £16-4-8 being incurred for the “Burning and Boyling the Rebells executed att this town”and “for new setting up a post with the quarters of the Rebells att Waymouth Towne-End”.[5]

Meanwhile, on his return to London, Jeffreys was rewarded by being promoted to Lord Chancellor.

The majority of those found guilty of treason, however, were sentenced to transportation and indentured servitude for a period of ten years. In part, this may reflect that at £10-15 per prisoner, this was a tidy income stream for the Crown. The sugar plantations in the West Indies were expanding rapidly, and there was an insatiable need for labour. Much of the labour was already being provided by slaves. Both Charles II and his brother James II were deeply immersed in the slave trade, having founded the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa (later known as the Royal Africa Company) in 1660 to monopolise trade along the west coast of Africa, backed by the use of the Royal Navy and Army, in their stated quest for “gold, silver, negroes and slaves”. As putrid remains rotted above countless crossroads, the men sentenced to transportation awaited their fate. Held in hastily constructed prisons, many died as typhus and smallpox swept through the cramped conditions. Some even managed to escape; in October 1685, 200 prisoners were marched in chains from Wells to the port of Weymouth for transportation, and 30 absconded. Of the 850 men thus sentenced, it is believed that just over 600 actually met this fate. Most were sent to Barbados and Jamaica, with a few being sent to the Leeward Islands and Virginia. Of the Bridgwater men, all bar one were sent to Barbados.[6]

The hardships of the journey were clearly evident from the records kept: Thomas Galhampton of Westonzoyland – died at sea; George Keel of Chilton Polden – land forfeited, died at sea; John Keel, also of Chilton Polden – died on shore before auction.

The impact across the West Country was dramatic. Many of the accused were tradesmen and skilled workers, and local economies plummeted. Numerous others remained in hiding from James II’s agents, who continued to rake the land for any who had escaped Judge Jeffrey’s court. The final indignity was having land and property forfeited, with the families of rebels frequently reduced to utter destitution. There was also a seething surge in righteous anger. The accused were not common criminals, but men of great religious conviction, and many were depicted as martyrs. This contrasted with the rapacious greed of many of the Crown’s agents and favourites, who fell upon the West Country pickings without mercy or justice.

Daniel Defoe (National Maritime Museum, London) Artist unknown

A small number of rebels managed to bribe their way out of trouble, often paying considerable sums for their freedom. Amongst them was a young Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Defoe’s identity as a nonconformist defined him, and flowed robustly through his prolific writings. His life story also highlights the very considerable risks and indignities endured by those who refused to bow to the edicts of the established church; it is unsurprising that fear and paranoia trailed him until the day he died. Like much of his life, the details of his involvement in the Rebellion are veiled in mystery.[7] Defoe was born into a prominent family of Presbyterian dissenters in 1660, the year that saw the restoration of the British monarchy. In 1662, there followed the Act of Uniformity, which required all churchmen to follow the liturgical ritual of the Common Book of Prayer. This included Presbyterians, Calvinists and Baptists. Later, this would also include Quakers, Methodists and Unitarians. For those who refused, the social and legal consequences were considerable. It forbad admittance to universities and many schools, and they were unable to hold official office or vote. Defoe received part of his education at a dissenting academy in Newington Green, London, run by the gifted educator, Charles Morton.[8] A number of his classmates at Morton’s academy were executed for their part in the Monmouth Rebellion. Defoe never confirmed that he took part, but in May 1687, his name appeared on a list of Royal pardons.

Another rebel who was able to buy his freedom was Roger Hoar, a wealthy Bridgwater man. Shortly before his execution, his family presented the deeds of the house, and he was reprieved, unlike 11 of his fellow townsmen who were executed. A few years later, he became the mayor of Bridgwater.[9]

The reign of James II was shortlived. In the dog days of 1688, he was overthrown in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. William of Orange ascended the throne jointly with his wife, Mary II, and James II was allowed to escaped into permanent exile. Their Royal Highnesses’ chief pamphleteer was none other than Daniel Defoe.

In 1691, a pardon was issued to those who had been transported. However, for those who still survived on the plantations, it was of little use. Their new owners were reluctant to release them, and paying for the return passage was beyond the means of most, particularly as most had had their family’s assets sequestered. Less than a quarter were able to return. The testimonies of those who were able to make their way home had a deep effect on their communities. Most were oral testimonies, but amongst this small group of returnees was John Coad, who wrote an account of his experiences entitled A Memorandum of the Wonderful Providences of God to a Poor Unworthy Creature During the Time of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion. He describes his hellish voyage to Jamaica held in a small space below deck “where we could not lay ourselves down without lying one upon another”. Of the 99 prisoners embarked, 22 of them died “in a prison of crying and dying”. Upon arrival, the work in the sugar plantations was brutal. Survivors gave testimonies of the brutal treatment and hard labour in circumstances almost inseparable from their African counterparts.

Bridgwater’s economic history has been characterised by cycles of stagnation and affluence. Although the port was never large, it was significant, and was one of the 15 English headports for customs purposes. Its ships not only plied coastal and some international trade routes, but also serviced the communities and industries along the River Parrott all of the way to Taunton. By the mid-18th century, the catastrophes of civil insurrection had faded, and prosperity had returned. Merchants flourished, and new townhouses were built along its main thoroughfares. Bridgwater also continued to be politically Whig, and religiously nonconformist.

Nationally, the 1780s saw a rapid growth in the abolitionist movement, and in the tactics deployed. Somerset was already fertile ground following the terrors of the Monmouth Rebellion, but it took a particular confluence of local political figures to drive this petition through to fruition. Amongst the nonconformist denominations represented in the town were the Quakers. Also known as the Society of Friends, they had begun campaigning against slavery as early as 1657. Although denied the vote, they were a very active and financially-established community. Their implacable opposition to slavery was well-known. The first petition calling for the abolition of slavery was submitted in 1783 by the London Society of Friends following their annual meeting. It is perhaps not too much to surmise that Quaker members of the Bridgwater community had discussed this new tactic.

Charles James Fox by Samuel Cotes,  c.1800

Within the Bridgwater community, several highly industrious figures emerge. Amongst them were three determined and very different men. The first was John Chubb (1746-1818), the scion of a successful family mercantile business that he had entered at his father’s insistence. He was an ardent Whig on the local council, and a talented amateur artist, whose drawings and paintings continue to provide an animated view of late-18th century Bridgwater life. [10] He was a close friend of a second man, the MP, Charles James Fox (1749-1806). Fox was an ardent abolitionist and thorn in the side of William Pitt the Younger, whose father had similarly irritated the Elder Pitt. Fox had entered the Commons at just 19 years of age, his father having bought him the seat of Midhurst in West Sussex. A colourful and clever character, his parliamentary career spanned 38 years until his death, during which he developed into a powerfully radical thinker and a superb orator. A friendship grew between Chubb, the local councillor, and the nationally prominent figure of Fox, with Chubb secretly riding over to the nearby village of Ashcott to meet his friend at the Pipers Coaching Inn.

The third man, the Mayor, was an altogether more ambiguous figure. William Tuckett had seen slavery at first hand in St Kitts, where he had been appointed Stamp Act distributor whilst still in his 20s. The tax, used to pay for the Seven Years War, was deeply unpopular, and he had soon fled back to Bridgwater. There, he was variously a solicitor, the Stamp Duty distributor for Somerset and mayor. However, whilst he publicly supported the Bridgwater petition, he had returned from St Kitts suspiciously wealthy, a wealth that could only have come either directly or indirectly through slavery. However, whether through political expediency or genuine belief, when he was approached with the idea for the petition by John Chubb and George White, a local clergyman, his response was favourable.

Whilst the local council was fervently Whig, the two MPs representing Bridgwater were Tory, their votes being drawn on the gentry living in the countryside who had the most to gain from the new business in the West Indies. With such a non-conformist population, few in Bridgwater would have even been eligible to vote. The petition was presented by the Honourable Anne Poulett (1711-85) and Admiral Alexander Hood, later Lord Bridport (1726-1814). The former’s unusual Christian name reflected his family’s devotion to the royal family, and particular to Queen Anne, who had been his baptismal sponsor. Unlike his name, however, his parliamentary career was unremarkable – the petition remains his sole source of fame, and he died two months after it was lodged. His co-petitioner, Admiral Alexander Hood, later Lord Bridport, had an equally lacklustre parliamentary record. He was from a well-known naval family, and had seen considerable action at sea, including the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary War. Parliament was suggested as a suitable retirement, but aside from speaking four times in the House, each time about naval matters, and presenting the petition, he appears to have been large absent and returned to the sea after little more than a year. One can only presume that the petition was not presented with much enthusiasm. It was decreed that the petition should “lie on the table”, parliamentary jargon for not being worthy of debate. The two MPs reported back to the signatories that,

… there did not appear the least disposition to pay any further attention to it. Every one, almost, says that the abolition of the slave-trade must throw the West Indian islands into convulsions, and soon complete their utter ruin. Thus, they will not trust Providence for its protection in so pious an undertaking.

Despite the petition’s apparent lack of success, a strong sense of social justice continued to resonate in Bridgwater. The town’s vehement opposition to slavery never flagged, and visiting abolitionists were always guaranteed an enthusiastic audience. Amongst the visitors was Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), one of the driving forces behind the abolition of slavery. After enduring a rain-soaked journey on horseback from Bristol, he met with Chubb, Tuckett and White. Later, he recorded that he had “… called a meeting but found that people already supported abolition.” Whilst the British involvement in the slave trade finally ceased in 1833, it continued to practised elsewhere as a grave in the Bristol Road cemetery reminds us. It marks the final repose of William Jolley Nicholls (1843-1921), a local stonemason who had emigrated to America as a child of 11. His memorial tells us that he was a “Veteran of the American Civil War for the Abolition of Slavery 1861-1865”.[11]


[1] The trials at Taunton were held in the Great Hall at Taunton Castle, is now home to The Museum of Somerset, which has a very atmospheric display telling the story of the Bloody Assizes.

[2] This punishment for high treason entered the statute books in England in 1352, and remained until 1870. The last time it was carried out was in 1820 following the Cato Street Conspiracy.

[3] Amongst the first to be sentenced to death was Dame Alice Lyle, an elderly noblewoman who had harboured two rebels. Her sentence was transmuted to public beheading, and on 2 September, 1685, she was executed in Winchester market place, the last woman in England to be beheaded by judicial sentence.

[4] http://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=177206&p=1164802

[5] http://nicholaswillmott.tripod.com/id40.htm

[6] https://www.bridgwatertowncouncil.gov.uk/history/17th-century/monmouth-rebellion/

[7] His familiarity with the minutiae of Monmouth’s arrival in England would certainly suggest he had been there. For a brisk overview of the evidence, see http://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=177206&p=1164804.

[8] The Oxford Dictionary of English Biography notes that under Morton’s enlightened leadership, the academy was “probably the most impressive of the dissenting academies [prior to 1685], enrolling as many as fifty pupils at a time”. As life as a dissenter became increasingly difficult, Morton emigrated to New England in 1686, where he became the first vice-president of Harvard College, the oldest college within Harvard University.

[9] https://www.bridgwatertowncouncil.gov.uk/history/17th-century/monmouth-rebellion/

[10] A portfolio of 360 drawings has survived, and is now held by Blake Museum, Bridgewater: www.bridgwaterheritage.org.uk. On the site you can see their digitised a study of Chubb and Charles James Fox.

[11] Sadly the grave is now in some disrepair: http://www.experiencesomerset.co.uk/another-notable-bridgwater-naval-man

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