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. He later 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. Wedderburn was converted to Christianity by a Wesleyan preacher. Later he became involved in the Unitarian movement.
The Unitarians drew their membership to a large extent from the scientific professions and their outlook tended to be rational and individualistic. The most important aspect of Unitarianism is the right of individuals to develop their own religious opinions. Therefore the bond between them consists more in their anti-dogmatism than in any uniformity of belief. However, Unitarians tend to believe that Jesus Christ was a human religious leader to be followed but not worshipped. Unitarians argued that Jesus is the "great exemplar which we ought to copy in order to perfect our union with God".
Unitarians believed that social evils were humanly created, not God inflicted, and therefore could be remedied by human efforts. Unitarians were strong advocates of democracy and argued that each congregation should manage itself without outside control. This included the power to select and discharge ministers.
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. As well as Wedderburn the group included Thomas Preston, John Hopper, Thomas Evans, Allen Davenport, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd.
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.
Watson was the first to be tried. However, the main prosecution witness was the government spy, John Castle. The defence council was able to show that Castle had a criminal record and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury concluded that Castle was an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment) and refused to convict Watson. As the case against Watson had failed, it was decided to release the other three men who were due to be tried for the same offence.
In 1817 Thomas Evans, considered to be the leader of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists was arrested and charged with high treason. Wedderburn responded to this by establishing the journal, The Forlorn Hope. In the first edition Wedderburn argued that the journal would "establish something in the shape of a free press". It also included an article on the imprisonment of Thomas Evans and his 20 year old son.
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 the summer of 1819 the Manchester Patriotic Union Society invited Major Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The meeting was held at St. Peter's Field on 16th August. The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting.
At about 11.00 a.m. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter's Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people at the meeting.
At 1.30 p.m. the magistrates came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". William Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders of the demonstration. The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry entered St. Peter's Field along the path cleared by the special constables. As the yeomanry moved closer to the hustings, members of the crowd began to link arms to stop them arresting Henry Hunt and the other leaders. Others attempted to close the pathway that had been created by the special constables. Some of the yeomanry now began to use their sabres to cut their way through the crowd.
When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they arrested Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, George Swift, John Saxton, John Tyas, John Moorhouse and Robert Wild. As well as the speakers and the organisers of the meeting, Birley also arrested the newspaper reporters on the hustings.
Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange reported to William Hulton at 1.50 p.m. When he asked Hulton what was happening he replied: "Good God, Sir, don't you see they are attacking the Yeomanry? Disperse them." L'Estrange now ordered Lieutenant Jolliffe and the 15th Hussars to rescue the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. By 2.00 p.m. the soldiers had cleared most of the crowd from St. Peter's Field. In the process, eleven people were killed and about 400, including 100 women, were wounded.
Wedderburn was quick to condemn the Peterloo Massacre and on the 13th September he held a special meeting on the subject at his Hopkins Street chapel. Wedderburn argued that "an act of murder had been committed by the magistrates and yeoman". The following month Wedderburn told an audience that the revolution was about to begin and that all working men "should learn to use the gun, the dagger, the cutlass and pistols".
Wedderburn also continued his campaign against slavery. He was particularly concerned with the role that the Church played in the slave system. He published a pamphlet on the subject, A Critical, Historical and Admonitory Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Wedderburn was also opposed to the idea of sending missionaries to the West Indies, arguing that they would be used "to preach passive obedience to the poor black slaves".
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.
(1) Robert Wedderburn, Axe Laid to the Root (1817)
Oh, ye Africans and relatives now in bondage to the Christians because you are innocent and poor; receive this the only tribute the offspring of an African can give, for which, I may ere long be lodged in a prison; for it is a crime now in England to speak against oppression. I am a West-Indian, a lover of liberty, and would dishonour human nature if I did not show myself a friend to the liberty of others.
Prepare for flight, for the fate of St. Domingo awaits you. Get ready your blood hounds, the allies which you employed against the Maroons. You will have need of all your strength to defend yourself against those men, who are now scheming in Europe against the blacks of St. Domingo.
(2) Robert Wedderburn, speech (4th October, 1819)
I am not such a fool to suppose nor to advise that the poor and half starved part of the population should meet the regular army of the Borough mongers in the field because they would have no chance, one party being armed & the other not, but arms are now preparing as fast as the means of paying for them will admit.
(3) Robert Wedderburn, speech (6th October, 1819)
We must all learn to use the gun, the dagger, the cutlass and pistols. We hall then be able to defy all the Yeomanry of England.
(4) Robert Wedderburn, speech in court (1820)
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.
As to my explanation of the doctrines of Christ, I must still maintain it to be particularly faithful. He was like myself, one of the lower order, and a genuine radical reformer. Being poor himself, he knew how to feel for the poor, and despised the rich for the hardness of their hearts. His principles were purely republican; he told his followers they were all brethren and equals, and inculcated a thorough contempt for all the titles, pomps, and dignities of this world.
As nature has blest me with a calm and tranquil mind, I shall be far happier in the dungeon to which you may consign me, than my persecutors, on their beds of down.
(5) Judgement on Robert Wedderburn (9th May, 1820)
The Defendant having been found guilty of uttering a blasphemous libel at the sittings after Hilary Term, appeared pursuant to a notice he had received from the Solicitors to the Treasury, to receive judgment.
The Lord Chief Justice went through the notes he had taken on the Trial, recapitulating minutely the words of the libel as stated in the indictment, and as given in evidence by each of the witnesses William Plush and Matthew Matthewson
The Defendant was then asked if he had any affidavits to put in, to which he replied in the negative, but said he had something to say to the court, and proceeded to state:
That however long the counts of the indictment against him might be; and however strongly they had been sworn to, yet he did not think he had said so much, or at least in the manner precisely as stated by the evidence.
That in consequence of his being thrown into prison, his chapel was shut up and his congregation dispersed, which circumstances had prevented him from seeking from amongst them evidence to contradict or invalidate the testimony on the part of the Crown. As for himself his memory was extremely bad, and it was impossible for him to recollect all he might have said on the occasion. Every observation he made arose spontaneous on the spur of the moment; his sermons or speeches were never the result of previous contrivance, but he did certainly remember to have spoken upon the story of the Witch of Endor.
His impression on this subject arose from the circumstance of seeing his aged grandmother, a poor black slave in the island of Jamaica, several times most cruelly flogged by order of her master, a white man and a christian, for being a witch; now as he, when a child, had frequently picked her pocket of sixpences and shillings, he was well convinced she could not possess the qualities and powers attributed to witches, or she must have detected his petty depredations. When he came to be a Christian, and read the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor, with these impressions upon his mind, that witches must be bad people, he could never bring himself to believe that such characters could work miracles and raise the dead.
The Defendant was proceeding with similar illustrations to show the origin of his scepticism, but the court considered his language was of a nature which they could not tolerate.
He then said, it might save time and prevent him wounding the ears of the court, if the paper was read that he had in his pocket, which was in the nature of a motion in arrest of judgment. He then put in a brief, which was read by one of the officers of the court as follows.
May it please your Lordships. I am well aware that the gentlemen of the bar will smile, at what they will call the vanity and presumption of a humble individual like myself, in attempting to address the court on an occasion like the present. They are welcome to smile, but I will tell them that the most brilliant efforts which the ablest of them could make, were I capable of employing them, would, be equally as useless in this place, and on this subject, as what I am now going to offer.
However humble I may be as a member of society, and whatever efforts may be made to degrade me and render me contemptible in the eyes of the world, I have nevertheless the pride, and the ambition, to flatter myself, that even my simple exertions will one day or other be of no mean importance to the cause I am embarked in, which is that of Religious Liberty and the Universal Right of Conscience.
If we would obtain the privileges to which we are entitled, neither death nor dungeons must terrify us; we must keep in mind the example of Christ and his apostles, of Penn and the primitive Quakers, who all promulgated what they considered was true and beneficial to mankind, without the slightest regard to the evil consequences which such, their bold, independent, and disinterested conduct might bring down upon themselves. What was the result? Christianity in the first instance, and Quakerism in the second, were established by the very opposition that they met with.
The early Quakers were a stern and stubborn set of men, determined both to risk and to suffer persecution in the attainment of their object; and by this means they ultimately secured, and do still enjoy, greater religious liberties than any other sect without the pale of the state religion.
(6) Erasmus Perkins, The Trial of Reverend Robert Wedderburn (1820)
Thrust into a solitary dungeon for two years, to live upon grey pease, and barley broth, merely because he differed in opinion from the State religion, and had too much honesty, and too little education to wrap his sentiments up in that cautious, decent, and guarded manner which the Solicitor-General said he could tolerate.