The Clapham Women: Feminine Support for Public Reformers in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Clapham Women:

Feminine Support for Public Reformers in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain




Armstrong State University


In the small village of Clapham in Surrey, England a group of friends bound together by their common evangelical beliefs had a significant impact on the face of nineteenth-century Britain. Later generations dubbed this circle of friends the Clapham Sect. Moral and religious piety characterized the lives of the Claphamites. William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament and champion of abolition, Henry Thornton, a wealthy banker, member of Parliament, and close friend of Wilberforce, James Stephen, an affluent lawyer aiding Wilberforce in his fight for abolition, and Zachary Macaulay, also key in the fight to abolish slavery, were all core members of this so-called sect. While abolition was their chief and best-known cause, they championed social, moral, and evangelical reforms as well, such as education and aid for the poor, missionary work, bible societies, Sunday schools, and other such causes. These men were upstanding public figures who fought for these causes in the political and public realm. This tight knit community of friends bound together by their religious fervor sought to be “living messengers proclaiming and illustrating”[1] the message and morals they believed should govern society.



Hannah More. By H.W. Pickersgill
1821. Source: National Portrait
Gallery, London

The scholarship published on this topic has generally dealt solely with the men and their great influence on British society, while neglecting to tell the story of the women of Clapham. The question then becomes who are the women of Clapham and what and how did they contribute and support the causes for which the men were publically agitating. As mentioned above, Wilberforce, Thornton, Stephen, and Macaulay made up the core group of Clapham. While these men championed causes in the public sphere, the women of Clapham provided support and participated in discussions at home.[2] The women of Clapham included Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, Marianne Sykes Thornton, Sarah Wilberforce Stephen, Selena Mills Macaulay, and Hannah More. Each of these women, save for Hannah More, are associated with the sect by marriage. Historian Anne Stott, describes More, the lone single woman of the group, as “the honorary man of Clapham, the only woman to be attached in her own right rather than through kinship or marriage.”[3] While More did not reside in Clapham, she visited often and shared deep friendships with Wilberforce, Thornton, and Macaulay.[4] Based on an evangelical view of womanhood, it seemed to be somewhat acceptable for single women, such as Hannah More, to actively participate in the public realm, while her counter parts, the married women of Clapham, were confined to the domestic sphere. It is within these confines that the wives of Clapham actively participated in the perpetuation of their husbands’ causes and evangelical family values.



Thomas Gisborne, another member of the Clapham Sect, wrote several books detailing his understanding of Christianity, moral philosophy, and gender roles. In his work An Enquiry into the duties of the female sex, Gisborne specifically looks into the role of women from an evangelical point of view. Single women were to spend their time actively seeking education, but only to an extent, and dedicate themselves to other domestic duties that would exercise benevolence and bring enjoyment such as “to give delight in the affectionate intercourse of domestic society;…to smooth the bed of sickness…and to promote useful institutions…for the instruction of children”.[5]


It was the single woman’s duty to look after the poor. Gisborne put the responsibility of educating and looking after the “welfare of the wretched and ignorant” on women, deeming it within the domestic realm: “In the discharge of the domestic offices of kindness, and in the exercise of charitable and friendly regard to the neighboring poor, women in general are exemplary.”[6] This definition of womanhood allowed for single women to step outside of the domestic realm, while still maintaining the boundaries of the feminine sphere. While that may seem paradoxical, later in the century half a million women would venture into the slums to bring aid and educate the poor. By the end of the century womanhood would be redefined and the “New Woman” would emerge at the fin de siècle. 


Again, in regards to this evangelical idea of single womanhood, it is easy to understand why More’s public and active participation in the Abolition movement as well as her mission and education work was widely accepted among her peers. As mentioned earlier, Stott, More’s biographer calls her “the honorary man of Clapham.”[7] It is worthwhile to note that More was the only woman attached to this circle of reformers and activists by her own means. After a six year engagement to Mr. William Turner, with no commitment or wedding date in sight, More broke off the engagement. As a result of this jilted romance, she “set herself against marriage and resolved on a literary career.”[8] It is also interesting to note that none of the five More girls marry. While More’s opinion on marriage is hard to trace, Stott offers her analysis of More’s reaction to the marriage of Selina Mills to Zachary Macaulay: “It [marriage] was a breaking of the fellowship, a rift in the warm solidarity they had built up against a world all too ready to mock and despise single women. To desert the sisterhood for the sexual and emotional demands of a man and the constrained lifestyle of a married woman was the ultimate betrayal.”[9] Mills was like a sister to More. Mills was first a pupil, then later worked as a teacher in the More’s schools. More was initially betrayed by Mills’ marriage. Stott’s analysis of More’s reaction is telling of the values of the time. While within evangelical circles, there was a lifestyle prescribed that allowed single women to be in a more public position than as a married woman. It should also be noted that in Gisborne’s work An Enquiry many more pages are devoted to the discussion of married women’s duties and roles. This suggests that even within evangelical circles singleness was not as accepted.


More set herself against marriage to pursue her literary career and live as an independent woman. Soon after her broken engagement, More began to make her way in the literary world and realized she could earn money from writing. She, unlike the wives of Clapham, had established herself early on in the public sphere not as an activist, but as a writer. She gained her literary credibility in the theater, and then later used it to support Wilberforce’s abolition campaign. She wrote a poem entitled “Slavery: A Poem in which she eloquently presented the physical and emotional horrors that the Atlantic Slave Trade had on those being sold into slavery. Her poem also presents the moral and philosophical ramifications the slave trade had on British society.[10]


After More moved out of London and away from the upper echelons of society, she found herself spiritually. She became one of the most revered evangelical women of her time. As for her philanthropic work, More, along with her sister, sought to educate the poor academically, and more importantly, spiritually. She viewed herself as a missionary to the poor in England’s rural populace. William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton largely funded her endeavors. While considering More’s close friendship with both Wilberforce and Thornton, it is not surprising that they gave such support for her endeavors. It was in these early days of the nineteenth century that foundations were laid for women to emerge as a major force advocating for reform and participating in philanthropic work in the public sphere. Without these small public steps, the pants wearing, bicycle riding, publically active “New Woman” of the late nineteenth century would have little to build upon. While Hannah More was not a slum traveler of the late nineteenth century, she set a precedent for women philanthropists to build upon during the following years.


Barbara Wilberforce
by John Russell, no date

In the late 1780s and 90s, the social ideal for women of the middle and upper classes was to get married, have a family, and become devoted wholly to their husband and children. Society expected women to stay within the confines of the domestic sphere, while it was the men’s duty to enter the public sphere. At this point in the nineteenth century the ideal middle-class woman was to be “the angel of the house.” Wolffe states in The Expansion of Evangelicalism that Evangelicalism purported and solidified this idea of womanhood in which marriage was  “[a] genuine partnership… [of] spiritual equality…[though] one in which roles were different and the wife’s fulfillment was to be found not in autonomous achievements but in raising a family and supporting her husband’s endeavors.”[11] Gisborne makes clear the evangelical view of marriage, using the Bible as his basis, is that wives are to submit to their husbands, while husbands are to love their wives. He explains that the wife’s place is in the domestic sphere: “Home is the center round which the influence of every married woman is accumulated. It is there that she will naturally be known and respected the most; it is there, at least, that she may be more known and more respected than she can be in any other place.”[12] Gisborne explains the duties of married women as their husbands’ helpmates and refuge from the public sphere.[13] Wilberforce echoes Gisborne’s views on married women’s role in 1815 in his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes, contrasted with Real Christianity. He explains a wife’s role as a spiritual beacon to guide a husband’s heart as it is tossed about by the worldly influences he encounters in the public sphere: “Doubtless, this more favourable disposition to Religion in the female sex, was graciously designed also to make women doubly valuable in the wedded state…that when the husband should return to his family, worn and harassed by worldly cares or professional labours, the wife habitually preserving a warmer and more unimpaired spirit of devotion, than is perhaps consistent with being immersed in the bustle of life, might revive his languid piety…”[14] Taking this evangelical definition of married womanhood into consideration it is easy to see why very little research has been done on the Clapham wives. It is safe to assume that Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, Marianne Sykes Thornton, Sarah Wilberforce Stephen, and Selina Mills Macaulay shared the same evangelical values as their husbands. They supported their husbands’ causes by supporting their husbands in the domestic realm and instilling these values in their children.


The Clapham Sect was a major force in calling for moral reform and in promoting evangelical family values within society. By upholding these evangelical values, these women served as role models of the ideal evangelical family. Stott explains the unavoidable overlap of the public and private spheres in these women’s lives: “Inevitably, the men of Clapham Sect, engaged as they were with their parliamentary and professional concerns…gave them [their wives] news of their activities and, in varying degrees drew them into their public concerns.”[15] They upheld these domestic ideals of womanhood that would be challenged later in the century. Most of the wives desired a more private and domestic life, while others such as Marianne Thornton sought a life of “active duties.”[16] Barbara Wilberforce, Sarah Stephen and Selina Macaulay took on a much more domestic role than that of Mrs. Thornton. Stott says of Mrs. Wilberforce, “Barbara had married the man, not the cause”.[17] While that is not to say she or the other women disregarded the causes of their husbands, it is important to note that they did not see the importance of taking an active role in their husbands’ causes. They saw their roles in the private domestic sphere, focused on running their homes and educating their children. On the other hand, while not putting off her domestic duties, Mrs. Thornton believed “such a limited view of [her husbands’] interests was incomprehensible.”[18] The wives of Clapham cannot be characterized by one general stereotype. For some, pleasure was found in the domestic private realm, while others chose to be a more public figure within the domestic sphere.


Mrs. Thornton was well educated and from a young age took an active role in intellectual discussions with her brothers.[19] Henry Thornton, a prominent Claphamite, married Marianne Sykes in 1796.[20] In her marriage, Mrs. Thornton took on the role of the help-mate to her husband. E. M. Forster, Mrs. Thornton’s great grandson, described her as “the moon to [Mr. Thornton’s] sun.”[21] A contemporary describes her character as “formed for influence.” [22] Forster notes Mr. Thornton’s affection and gratitude for Mrs. Thornton presence in his life.[23] As the wife of a Parliament member, Mrs. Thornton was given slightly more opportunity to step outside of the domestic sphere. An active role in politics, such as canvassing, was outside of the realm of appropriate female activities. Aside from canvassing, Stott explains that Mrs. Thornton played an important role in Mr. Thornton’s campaign of 1802.[24] Forster quotes Mrs. Thornton’s description of a political nomination meeting. While she may not have been actively participating in the vote, she was present to support her husband in his political campaigns.


Mrs. Thornton was very much aware of the societal restrictions placed on women and was sure not to overstep or challenge those boundaries. As a result of her status as an MP’s wife she participated in a flag ceremony as part of a “nationwide ritual in which elite women presented flags…for the volunteer militia units”.[25] Over ninety women took part in this event at which Mrs. Thornton made a speech. Stott analyzes this event in Mrs. Thornton’s life: “After handing over the colours, Marianne ‘made a speech, much to my husband’s satisfaction, & that was enough for me.’ The emphasis shows her nerves at such a public action, and also perhaps an anxiety that it might be seen as unfeminine self-promotion; but her husband’s approval showed that she had not transgressed the canons of propriety.”[26] This, like any other public appearance of the sorts, might cause Mrs. Thornton or any of the other Clapham wives anxiety over its social appropriateness. It is important to note that Mrs. Thornton, as the most public of the Clapham wives, never meant to challenge the societal boundaries of the time.


Though Forster focuses on Mrs. Thornton’s role as a mother, Mrs. Thornton not only tended to the needs of her own family, but also looked after her friends and opened her home to friends and acquaintances alike. Barbara Wilberforce fell ill while on vacation with the Thornton’s. Mrs. Thornton sent her daughter home ahead of her, so that she could stay and take care of Mrs. Wilberforce.[27] Mrs. Thornton also took delight in hosting “interesting visitors”. As part of the campaign for abolition, the Claphamite men established the Sierra Leone Company. With their hand in this freed slave colony and particularly as a result of Zachary Macaulay’s work there, “little black boys would wander over Clapham Common and be beckoned into houses by the delighted inhabitants.”[28] Stott clarifies further that Mr. Thornton asked his wife to take on the task of educating the African girls.[29] While Mrs. Thornton did not publically campaign for the abolition of the slave trade by welcoming these Africans into her house as equals, she made a bold statement supporting the cause her husband was fighting for. Mrs. Thornton did not challenge the evangelical values of womanhood. She used her influence as a mother, wife and homemaker to create a domestic environment of “affections, comfort, piety, integrity, intelligence, public activity, [and] private benevolence.”[30]


Sarah Wilberforce Clarke, William Wilberforce’s sister, married James Stephen in 1800. They were both previously married and had suffered the loss of their spouse. In The Memoir of the late James Stephen compiled by his son George Stephen he recollects that Mrs. Sarah Stephen believed that charity was the real spirit of Christianity. Her stepson, George Stephen, explains her role as educator to her daughters and nieces, imparting lessons of proper feminine etiquette and conversation. “In matters of mere accomplishment, such as drawing, music or dancing, she was too uninformed to teach others; but in conversation or drawing-room intercourse of all kinds she was fluent and refined. She perfectly understood the difference between attractive freedom and unbecoming license, and to enable the girls to understand it like herself, she compelled them habitually to join in the conversation of the dinner table at home”.[31] Mrs. Stephen was, like the rest of the Clapham sect, from the upper middle class, though her stepson describes her as “consistent and self-denying to a most singular extent.”[32] She had about 400 pounds a year to live on, yet she devoted all but ten pounds to the poor every year. Mrs. Stephen “often paraded Clapham in rags and tatters, and dressed literally ‘unfit to be seen’.”[33] Mrs. Stephen saw this as part of her Christian duty to support the poor. In John Colquhoun’s book Wilberforce: his friends and his times, Mr. Stephen is quoted on the death of his wife in 1816 as saying “One star differeth from another star in glory; and if love, humility, piety and patience are paths to the peerage of heaven, her patent was secure.”[34] It is quite obvious Mr. Stephen held his wife in high esteem, priding her on her love, humility, piety and patience. While upholding evangelical domestic values, Mrs. Stephen used her influence in her home and neighborhood to educate her children and support the poor with the means that she had.


Zachary Macaulay married Selina Mills in 1799. They were introduced through their mutual friend Hannah More, though she did not condone their marriage, as discussed earlier, later made amends and stayed close friends with the Macaulay family. It is evident through correspondence that Mrs. Macaulay took her role as mother very seriously. In a letter to her husband on July 8, 1807 she says, “God grant our new house may prove, as you say, a house of piety and prayer. I assure you that it is my most sincere desire and prayer to be enabled to second all your [Mr. Macaulay’s] pious wishes for the dear children”.[35] It is evident that Mrs. Macaulay not only wants to support her husband in the rearing of their children but also shares his religious fervor. In a letter to his wife on their anniversary in 1816, Mr. Macaulay’s affection, devotion and reverence for his wife is displayed: “This is the seventeenth anniversary of our wedding-day – an event which brings in the retrospect no painful regrets but what arise from a sense of one’s own defects, and which has been to me a source of great and growing happiness…Accept, my dear Selina, my heartfelt acknowledgements of all your undeviating care and kindness, and forbearance and devotion, and rest assured of the undiminished warmth of my attachment, and of my increasing regard and affection.”[36] Again, as seen with both Mr. Thornton and Mr. Stephen, Mr. Macaulay has a deep respect and admiration for his wife. Stott notes Mrs. Macaulay’s daughter description of her mother as “completely wrapped up in her husband & children & really disliking society.”[37] Stott continues, justifying Mrs. Macaulay’s exclusive domestic seclusion, “For her, home was not a place of restriction and confinement, but of happiness and fulfillment.” This is an important point to make in regards to the Clapham wives, as none of them felt confined or restricted by the evangelical ideals of womanhood. None of them fought or challenged these ideals. They however, found joy in being a mother and their husband’s helpmates whether at home or standing beside them at public rallies. Though it is difficult to find accounts of the Mrs. Macaulay’s role as a domestic supporter of Mr. Macaulay’s public endeavors, it is clear that Mrs. Macualay, like the other wives of Clapham sought to uphold the evangelical ideal of womanhood in the domestic realm.


As displayed above in the examples of Sarah Stephen, Marianne Thornton, and Selina Macaulay it is difficult to track the day-to-day activities the Clapham wives engaged in to support their husbands within the domestic sphere. This lends to the assumption that they were upholding their domestic duties as evangelical wives not venturing into the public domain of the men. Abolition was the foremost cause the Claphamite men fought for. During their fight for abolition of the slave trade, public support grew and abstention from slave grown sugar became a popular way for women to make a public statement within the private sphere. Clare Midgley, arguably the authority on women’s involvement 19th century anti-slavery campaigns, says “Abstention was seen from the first as a particularly female concern, and it provided women with another important opportunity to actively participate in the abolition campaign.”[38] While it is not clearly documented that the Clapham wives participated in the abstention of sugar, it is plausible that they supported their husbands’ public campaign for abolition by taking part in this domestic protest.


Another way, in which women of the time were using their roles in the private, domestic sphere for a public cause was through fashion and household items. Josiah Wedgwood created a cameo showing “a kneeling black slave with the motto ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ ” that became highly popular among women.[39] This image became popular on hairpins, bracelets and other fashion items of the time. Women could then wear this image as a symbol of their protest against the slave trade. Midgley states, “The extent of female support for the abstention campaign is difficult to gauge.”[40] Again this is a difficult thing to trace, though it is conceivable that the wives of Clapham took part in supporting their husbands’ campaign for abolition by wearing Wedgwood’s slave medallion and displaying other anti-slavery ornaments within their homes.


The nineteenth century brought a wave of reform and activism to Britain. Activists advocated for everything from abolition to education reforms. The Clapham Sect had a heavy hand in the abolition of the slave trade and also sought to bring moral and evangelical reforms to Britain. Many of their reform tactics, like the domestic protest of sugar abstention, served as models for reform to come later in the century. The members of this group were held up as examples of religious piety and morality in their society. While the men fought publically for these reforms, the Claphamite women upheld the evangelical definition of womanhood and supported these causes within the domestic sphere. Hannah More, as the only single woman in the Clapham Sect, was given more opportunity to step into the public sphere as a result of her singleness. Society encouraged single women to educate themselves and use their time for the benefit of others.  It was acceptable for them to enter the public sphere by using their feminine qualities to aid and educate the poor both spiritually and academically. While many of the Clapham wives sought shelter in the private domestic realm, Mrs. Thornton embraced the somewhat public opportunity she had as a wife of an MP. Mrs. Thornton leveraged this opportunity to support her husband’s causes, without overstepping the societal boundaries of womanhood. Mrs. Wilberforce, Mrs. Stephen, and Mrs. Macaulay served their husbands more privately in educating their children and maintaining a stable household. The women of Clapham each supported the men’s public campaigns in different ways, from Hannah More’s literature and Mrs. Thornton’s public appearance along her husband’s political campaign to Mrs. Stephen’s and Mrs. Macaulay’s attention to education, childbearing and homemaking. Without these women upholding their domestic duties, the men could not have been successful in their campaigns for abolition and moral reform. Though the women of Clapham stayed within the confines of the evangelical definition of womanhood, they used their influence as women, wives, teachers, and homemakers to support the Claphamite causes within the domestic sphere.



About the author

Melissa Gibbs is a senior at Armstrong State University. She will graduate with a History major and a French minor. After graduation Melissa will pursue a Master degree in European History. She loves to travel and hopes to one day teach abroad.


Recommended citation

Melissa Gibbs, “The Clapham Women: Feminine Support for Public Reformers in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 1 (Jan. 2013).




[1]Stephen Tomkins, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain, (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010), 536.

[2]John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More and Chalmers and Finney (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 12.

[3]Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 192.

[4]William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More, vol 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1841). George Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1876. A. M. Wilberforce, Private Papers of William Wilberforce (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897). Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, vol 2 (Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1841).            

[5]Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (London: Luke Hansard for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1806), 233.

[6]Ibid., 234.

[7]Stott,Hannah More, 5.

[8]Ibid., 22.

[9]Ibid., 197.

[10]Hannah More, Slavery: A Poem (London, 1778).

[11]Wolffe, 151.

[12]Gisborne, 305–306.

[13]Ibid., 260–280.

[14]William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religions System of Professed Christians: In the Higher and Middle Classes, Contrasted with Real Christianity (Boston: N. Willis, 1815), 216.

[15]Anne Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 136. Only in April of 2012, did historian Anne Stott publish her book Wilberforce: Family and Friends in which she explores the realm of the Claphamite women.

[16]Ibid., 138.

[17]Ibid., 136.

[18]Stott, Wilberforce, 138.

[19]Colquhoun, 298.

[20]Ibid., 300.

[21]E.M. Forster, Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 14.

[22]Colquhoun, 298.

[23]Forster, 18.

[24]Stott, Wilberforce, 140.

[25]Ibid., 140.


[27]Colquhoun, 45.

[28]Ibid., 53.

[29]Stott, Wilberforce, 140.

[30]Forster, 20.

[31]George Stephen, A Memoir of the Late James Stephen, One of the Masters in the High Court of Chancery, in Relation to Slave Emancipation (Brighton: G.H. Orford, 1875), 30.

[32]Ibid., 28

[33]Ibid., 29

[34]John Campbell Colquhoun, William Wilberforce: His Friends and His Time (London: Longmans, Grean, Reader and Dyer, 1866), 190.

[35]Viscountess Knutsford, Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay (London: Edward Arnold, 1900), 278.

[36]Ibid., 331.

[37]Stott, Wilberforce, 141.

[38]Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1870 (London: Routledge, 1992), 35.

[39]Ibid., 37.

[40]Midgley, 38.

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