Catherine Buck

Catherine Buck

Catherine Buck, the daughter of William Buck, a prosperous yarnmaker at Bury St Edmunds, and his wife Sarah Corsbie, was born in 1772. According to one friend she had "dark bright eyes twinkling in her delicate mobile face which smiled all over." Ellen Gibson Wilson argues that: "She was a vivacious young woman, a gifted conversationalist... She was popular in West Suffolk ballrooms but prized as much for her wit as her beauty."

Henry Crabb Robinson, was one of her close friends when she was a young woman. He later recalled that she had a strong interest in politics and loved to discuss the main issues of the day: "Her excellence lay rather in felicity of expression than in originality of thought. She was the most eloquent woman I have ever known, with the exception of Madame de Stael. She had a quick apprehension of every kind of beauty, and made her own whatever she learned." The Buck family held progressive political opinions and were members of the Society for the Abolition of Slave Trade. Catherine, who was also a supporter of the French Revolution.

Catherine met Thomas Clarkson in 1792. Clarkson was 32 and Catherine was only 20. After a five year courtship they married at St. Mary's Church at Bury St Edmunds on 21st January 1796. The couple moved to Clarkson's small estate at Eusemere on Ullswater. He renounced his Anglican orders, but although most of his political friends were Quakers, he decided against joining the Society of Friends. However, he attending the Penrith Quaker Meeting House and his wife, who in the past had been a free-thinker, read the works of George Fox. A friend commented: "She is become a religionist and a believer. Her faith receives little or no aid from written revelation - but God has spoken to her heart in a most sublime and mystical manner. In short she is of a species of Quaker."

In his book, The Great White Lie (1973), Jack Gratus argues that: "Clarkson... a large, rugged man, he was impatient and aggressive in manner with little sense of humour. He spoke as he wrote, ploddingly and pedantically, and both his readers and his acquaintances found he could be boring. His wife, in contrast, was a brilliant conversationalist and an excellent hostess."

In March 1796, the proposal by William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade was defeated in the House of Commons by only four votes. At least a dozen abolitionist MPs were out of town or at the new comic opera in London. Wilberforce wrote in his diary: "Enough at the Opera to have carried it. I am permanently hurt about the Slave Trade." Clarkson commented: "To have all our endeavours blasted by the vote of a single night is both vexatious and discouraging." It was a terrible blow to Clarkson and he decided to take a rest from campaigning against the slave trade.

On their farm Clarkson grew wheat, oats, barley, red clover and turnips and pastured sheep and cows. He sold his produce at Penrith market. He became fascinated with farming. He wrote in his journal: "The bud and the blossom, the rising and the falling leaf, the blade of corn and the ear, the seed-time and the harvest, the sun that warms and ripens, the cloud that cools, and emits the fruitful shower, these and a hundred objects afford daily food for the religious growth of the mind."

On 19th October 1796, Catherine gave birth to a son, named Thomas. Clarkson wrote to his father-in-law: "I have but just time to inform you that my dearest Catherine was this morning delivered of a fine boy and that both she and the infant are well." One friend commented that the boy grew up on "oatmeal porridge and ran about without cap or hat, without shoes or stockings and with very few clothes."

In November 1799 William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the Clarksons at Eusemere. The following month the Wordsworths moved into the Town End cottage at Grasmere. The two couples regularly visited each other. Catherine was quick to see Wordsworth's talent. She wrote: "I am fully convinced that Wordsworth's genius is equal to the production of something very great, and I have no doubt that he will produce something that posterity will not willingly let die, if he lives ten or twenty years longer."

Robert Southey was also a regular visitor to the Clarkson's home. He later wrote that Clarkson was a "man who so nobly came forward about the Slave Trade to the ruin of his health - or rather state of mind - and to the deep injury of his fortune...It agitates him to talk about the subject (slave trade) - but when he does - he agitates every one who hears him." Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented: "He has never more than one thought in his brain at a time, let it be great or small. I have called him the moral steam-engine, or the Giant with one idea."

In 1803 Catherine was taken ill with a liver disorder. According to Ellen Gibson Wilson: "Her suffering was intense and friends wondered that she did not die of pain alone." Her doctor told her that she should not live in the colder climate of the Lake District. As a result the Clarkson's moved to Bury St Edmunds.

Katherine Plymley, one of Clarkson's friends, commented: "She (Catherine) is very sensible, truly modest and unassuming, plain in her person but with so good an expression that conversing with her we soon cease to think her plain... He is strongly attached to her, very anxious about her health and attends himself to all her medicines."

Thomas Clarkson arranged for their young son to be educated at the local King Edward VI Grammar School. Clarkson refused to send him to public school as Clarkson believed that these schools "harden the heart and corrupt the morals" and was convinced that one of the main reasons why for many years Parliament had refused to outlaw the slave trade was because most members had been to public school.

In 1809 Catherine was visited by Dorothy Wordsworth. She stayed eight weeks: "Though the neighbourhood is not very interesting we have had very pleasant walks. Mrs Clarkson does not walk. She rides upon a pony and I walk by her side... We pass our time very pleasantly - chiefly amongst ourselves, for Mrs Clarkson does not keep much company though she has a large acquaintance."

On 9th March 1837 Catherine's son, was thrown out of his gig and killed instantly. She wrote to Henry Crabb Robinson: "It is true that under the infliction of so sudden and so sharp a blow I was at first incapable of receiving consolation from any earthly source." At the inquest it was discovered that a woman "not of good character" had been with him in the gig. A sum of £7 was distributed to keep this information out of the newspapers.

Catherine Clarkson died in 1856.