Footprints of Faith

Walks for schools through culture, history and belief in Cambridge

Human Rights Walk Background Information

Stop 1 | Stop 2 | Stop 3 | Stop 4 | Stop 5 | Stop 6

1.  The Round Church

Historical Figures: Anna Maria Vassa (1793–1797) and her father Olaudah Equiano – also known as Gustavus Vassa (1745–1797)

Background information for teachers:

Anna Maria Vassa was a child with an unusual background. Her mother, Susannah, came from Soham and had never travelled outside Cambridgeshire before her marriage, but her father, Olaudah Equiano, came from what is now Nigeria in Africa, where he was captured as an 11 year old child and enslaved. He was sold to a series of masters in Africa and treated with varying degrees of cruelty, before being loaded onto a slave ship and taken to Virginia across the notorious Middle Passage. He eventually bought his freedom, after many years of working as a slave and travelling the world on a British naval vessel. He had learnt to speak English, and on coming to England as a free man became a leading figure in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. His book The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African Written by Himself was published in 1789, and there were nine editions before his death. Equiano travelled round Britain making speeches and publicising his cause. He was supported by the Clarkson and Peckard families, and, as an agent of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, was a friend of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp. His book gives evocative first-hand descriptions of the life and conditions of Africans enslaved by fellow Africans and sold to the British, and was powerful ammunition in the case against slavery.

Equiano probably met Susannah Cullen whilst he was travelling to promote his book and his cause. They were married in St Andrew’s Soham, and he immediately took her off on a book tour around Scotland. They settled back in Soham, where they had two daughters who were both baptised at St Andrew’s.

Sadly, Susannah’s heath was weak, and she never recovered from the birth of her younger daughter Joanna. She died when Anna Maria was 2 and Joanna just a few months old. The girls appear to have been brought up by their maternal grandmother Ann Cullen, probably in Chesterton. Olaudah continued to travel, and he died aged 51 in London when Anna Maria was 4. She died in Cambridge during a measles epidemic a few months later.  She was buried at St Andrew’s Church, Chesterton, where a memorial stone on the outside of the church bear a poem probably composed by Martha Peckard, wife of the University Vice-chancellor Peter Peckard. Anna Maria’s sister Joanna survived, and eventually married a preacher. She inherited a substantial fortune from her father, who was referred to as a ‘gentleman’ on his death.


2. St John’s College

Historical Figures: Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846) and William Wilberforce (1759–1833)

Background information for teachers:

It took a campaign of over 30 years for the slave trade to be abolished, and it was to be another 26 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British colonies.

The campaign was begun by a group of Quakers in the 1760’s, but did not begin to attract public interest until the late 1780’s. There were too many vested interests in the ‘Triangular Trade’, especially in the great ports of Liverpool, London, and Bristol, for the wealthy to be willing to act against their own financial gain. When public interest was aroused, their support did not carry any great weight, as only 5% of the population could vote. In 1787 the Evangelical Anglicans Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp joined the leading Quakers to establish the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They decided to concentrate their efforts on the abolition of the actual slave trade, in the hope that without a continuous supply of slaves the problem of slavery would solve itself. They managed to persuade the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, to fight their cause in Parliament. Evidence was gathered; pamphlets were published and circulated; speeches were made around the country; Olaudah Equiano travelled round the country promoting his book and drawing the experiences of slaves to public attention; anti-slavery societies sprang up in every county of the country; 400,000 people boycotted the use of sugar grown by slaves; hundreds of petitions with thousands of signatures swamped Parliament, and Wilberforce led repeated campaigns in the House. In 1792 the campaign seemed on the brink of success. Parliament had resolved by 320 votes to 85 that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished. But in 1793, England found herself at war with France, and such extraneous business was put on hold until 1805. Finally, in 1807, Parliament passed an Act abolishing the slave trade, but slavery itself was not legislated against until 1833.

Thomas Clarkson studied mathematics at St John’s College and was thinking of becoming a priest, when he entered a Latin essay competition in 1785. The title was set by the University Vice-chancellor, Peter Peckard: “Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?”. Clarkson knew nothing of the issues, but was soon appalled and challenged by what he discovered. His research for the essay included meeting and interviewing people who had experienced the slave trade and slavery. He won the competition, and an English translation of his essay was published in 1786. It had an immediate impact and brought him into contact with others in sympathy with the cause. As a member of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Clarkson took on the task of collecting every possible source of evidence against the trade. The information he gathered was used to provide statistics and examples to win over the sympathies of the public, and was the basis for Wilberforce’s speeches and proposals to Parliament. Clarkson travelled round the country gathering and disseminating information. In 7 years he rode 35,000 miles and interviewed 20,000 sailors. He put himself in great personal danger; in 1787 in Liverpool he was attacked and nearly killed by a gang of sailors who had been paid to assassinate him.

Clarkson was adept at summarizing a large amount of information and wrote in a very clear style. He was also good at producing a balanced view based on evidence. He realised that 20% of British seamen died whilst sailing the Middle Passage, and showed that the trade was uneconomic as well as immoral. He understood the value of propaganda and visual images. As well as recording eye-witness accounts, Clarkson also gathered physical evidence. He built up a collection of equipment for restraint, such as leg shackles, handcuffs and manacles and instruments of punishment and torture such as thumbscrews, branding irons and instruments for forcing jaws open. He displayed these at public meetings, and engravings of them were included in campaign literature; the visual impact often being more forceful than words. He also travelled with a large wooden chest full of articles produced in Africa, such as finely woven cloths and intricate carvings, to show the high level of craftsmanship and culture that was being destroyed by British slavers.

Clarkson collapsed of exhaustion in 1794, and retired to the country. But when the things got moving again in 1804, he got back on his horse to gather support for the new Parliamentary campaign. His campaigning continued to the end of his life. Once the slave trade and had been abolished in British lands, he turned his attention to the trade involving other European countries, and to slavery itself. When the 1833 Act had been passed, he concentrated on the United States of America. In 1823 he formed what is now the Anti-Slavery Society, and still campaigns against slavery in today’s world.

William Wilberforce was a rather wild student at St John’s College. He inherited a fortune from his grandfather and uncle, and realised he didn’t need to work for a living. He was persuaded by his friend and fellow student, William Pitt the Younger, to enter politics and became MP for Hull in 1780. He continued to lead a partying life-style before being converted to Christian evangelism in 1785. After much thought, he decided to continue his political career and use it to promote Christianity and Christian ethics. In 1790 he joined the Clapham Sect and became interested in education, the suppression of vice and conditions in prisons. He was also instrumental in influencing Christian missions to India, and closely involved in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. After being persuaded to take on the cause of the abolition of the slave trade, he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in Parliament. He headed up the parliamentary campaign for 26 years until the 1807 Act was passed, and continued to campaign against slavery until his strength gave way. He retired from politics due to ill health in 1825, but continued to attend meetings and express sympathy with the cause. It was on his death-bed in 1833 that he heard the news that the passage of an Act abolishing slavery from British lands was finally assured.


3. Great St Mary

Historical Figure: Peter Peckard (1718–1797)

Background information for teachers:

Peter Peckard was born in Lincolnshire and went to Corpus Christi College Oxford at the age of16. He trained as a clergyman; becoming an army chaplain before settling down to parish life in Cambridgeshire. He married Martha Ferrar in 1752. Her ancestors were the famous founders of the religious community at Little Gidding, and her inheritance of the Ferrar Papers inspired Peckard to write a life of Nicholas Ferrar. He went on to become Master of Magdalene College Cambridge in 1781, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1784, and Dean of Peterborough in 1792.

Peckard always had a liberal outlook on life, but he was converted to the cause of abolition of slavery on hearing about the Zong incident of 1783, in which 133 sick slaves on the British slave ship Zong were thrown overboard chained and alive as the captain sought to make an insurance claim to cover the costs of the journey. 60 slaves had died and many had become ill. Since no claims could be made for slaves who had died of disease, Captain Collingwood attempted to argue that the vessel was short of water, and the slaves had to be sacrificed to save the crew and the rest of the slave cargo. In fact, he chose the sickest slaves, who he did not think would survive the journey. Olaudah Equiano brought the incident to the attention of the abolitionist Granville Sharp, who publicised it. Shockingly, the court case with the insurance company rested on whether Collingwood’s actions were necessary to preserve property, rather than on the morality of throwing humans to their death.

Peckard became one of the earliest abolitionists. He preached sermons in the University Church of Great St Mary in Cambridge (notably in 1784, 1788 and 1790), and set the title of the essay that was to inspire Thomas Clarkson. His treatise of 1788, Am I not a man and a brother? probably inspired Josiah Wedgewood’s abolitionist emblem of a kneeling slave. Peckard became a supporter of Olaudah Equiano; subscribing to The Interesting Narrative, and writing a letter of introduction which Equiano used in his promotional material. Peckard’s wife Martha paid for and probably wrote the poem on Equiano’s daughter Anna Maria’s memorial. Women played a vital role in the campaign against slavery. Although they were not allowed to vote, they worked hard to disseminate information and raise funds. Jewellery, such as brooches and bracelets, was decorated Josiah Wedgewood’s emblem and worn with pride; dinner plates and tea-services bore the same device, and used to display their sympathies with the cause.

Peckard continued to preach and publish pamphlets against slavery to the end of his life, but he didn’t live to see his work bear legislative fruit.

Excerpts from Peckard’s sermons:

“this vile traffick of the British man-merchant” (1788)

Slavery is “radically, absolutely and essentially Evil, loaded with all possible malignity and totally destitute of any Real Good” (1788)

“What a contradiction to these gracious intentions is the whole of our conduct respecting the innocent and unoffending nations of Africa! if we consider the treatment they receive from us ; first by being torn from their country and their friends by the violence of hardhearted ruffians, then doomed to chains and excruciating misery, and if they survive these calamities, in being sold for Slaves to merciless masters, not less cruel than the ruffians who forced them from their native land. Is this our Gospel of Peace and Liberty?” Peter Peckard, Sermon against Slavery, preached before the University (1790)


4. Senate House

Historical Figure: Philippa Fawcett (1868–1948)

Background Information for teachers:

Philippa Garrett Fawcett was the daughter of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett and Henry Fawcett who had a varied career as MP, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone’s government – despite the fact that he had been blinded by his father in a shooting accident when he was 25. Philippa was also the niece of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first English woman doctor, and the grand daughter of Louise Dunnell Garrett, an evangelical Christian. After showing early promise as a mathematician, Philippa went to Newnham College, which had been co-founded by her mother. As a student she was very shy and modest. She played hockey, joined the debating society, worked 6 hours per day at her mathematical studies and attended additional physics lectures.

She was the first woman to obtain the top score in the Mathematical Tripos exams. Women were unable to take degrees at Cambridge, but since 1881 they had been able to sit the Tripos exams. Traditionally, the exam results were announced by being read in rank order, with the top male score gaining the title of Senior Wrangler. The recipient of the lowest score was presented with a wooden spoon by his fellow students during the graduation ceremony (which had been lowered on strings from the Gallery). It had become customary for the list of women’s results to be read immediately afterward the men, with each woman being told her position relative to the male rankings. Previously, the highest ranked woman had come between the seventh and eighth men. Philippa’s result  was announced as being ‘placed above the Senior Wrangler’, which she achieved with a margin of 13%. Her achievement was received with great enthusiasm:

The deafening cheers of the throng of undergraduates redoubled as Miss Fawcett left the Senate House by the side of the Principal. On her arrival at the College she was enthusiastically greeted by a crowd of fellow-students, and carried in triumph into Clough Hall. Flowers, letters, and telegrams poured in upon her throughout the day. The College was profusely decorated with flags. In the evening the whole College dined in Clough Hall. After dinner toasts were proposed: the healths drunk were those of the Principal, Miss Fawcett, her Coach (Mr Hobson) and Senior and Junior Optimes. At 9.30 p.m. the College gardens were illuminated, and a bonfire was lighted on the hockey-ground, round which Miss Fawcett was three times carried amid shouts of triumph and strains of “For she’s a jolly good fellow.” (Recorded in the North Hall Diary of Newnham College)

Philippa’s achievement inspired a discussion about women’s rights which fuelled the suffrage movement.

She was awarded the Marion Kennedy Scholarship which allowed her to research maths for a year, and then became a college lecturer at Newnham for 10 years. After leaving Cambridge, Philippa continued her interest in educational provision. She went to South Africa to set up schools in the wake of the Boer War (1902-5), before returning to England to take a position in the administration of education in the London County Council.

Philippa died aged 80, in 1848, one month after women were granted permission to receive degrees at Cambridge.


5. Kings College

Historical Figure: Charles Simeon (1759–1836)

Background information for teachers:

Charles Simeon was born into a wealthy family, attended Eton, and then came up to King’s College. He was baptised as a child, but his family were not great church-goers. When he arrived at King’s he discovered that students had to receive Holy Communion three times before they could graduate. Up until this point his main interest had been with horses, games and fashion. He said that he thought Satan was as fit to receive Holy Communion as he was. Unable to enter into the matter lightly, he began to read the Bible and devotional books to try to sort out his conscience. During Holy Week in 1779 he had a transformational experience which culminated in a personal encounter with God in King’s Chapel on Easter morning, after which he became and evangelical Christian. On graduating, he took Holy Orders, worked as a curate at St Edward King and Martyr in Cambridge, and was then granted the living of Holy Trinity church in Cambridge. His appointment was unpopular with the congregation at Holy Trinity, who had hoped that their curate would be promoted to the living. They wanted a preacher who would entertain them rather than tell them to repent and believe. The position at Holy Trinity carried with it a lectureship, and this was also unpopular with some members of the University who felt uncomfortable with Simeon’s overt evangelism.

Simeon turned to God in the face of this opposition. His rooms were in the Gibbs building at King’s, and had a staircase leading to the roof. He prayed for four hours a day, rising at 4am every morning, and often going up amongst the drainpipes on the roof above his rooms to seek solitude. He is said to have once throw a guinea into the River Cam from King’s bridge as a self-imposed punishment after failing to rise at the set time.

For the first few years of his incumbency Simeon faced hostile opposition. He was insulted in the streets and was even pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables as he walked past the market from King’s to Holy Trinity. Students caused disturbances whilst he was lecturing and even threw stones that broke the windows of the building. University members set lecture courses to clash with his. The churchwardens locked the doors of the church to keep him out, and then locked the doors of the rented boxed pews so that there was nowhere to sit to hear him preach. When Simeon brought chairs into the aisles these were tossed out into the graveyard. When Simeon tried to visit his parishioners many refused to open their doors to him.

Despite these set-backs, Simeon did not give up. Gradually he won round his congregation and the university students with a steady ministry of prayer and witness. Despite doors being shut in his face, Simeon continued to visit his parishioners. He taught the children in their homes and heard their catechisms. He pioneered the establishment of pastoral lay visitors to share his workload and enable more visits. He was very concerned about the poverty he encountered on his visits, and gave a substantial part of his income to help families who had lost their bread-winner. During the bread famine of 1788 he paid for bread so that families in Cambridge and 24 surrounding villages could buy it at a subsidised level of half the market price. In total, he helped to keep 7,000 people from starving to death. Every Monday during that harsh winter he rode his horse around the villages, checking that the bakers were selling bread at the subsidised price. Simeon’s account book survives, and shows that during his ministry he gave over a third of his income to charities; especially those that supported widows, orphans, hospitals and schools.

Simeon invited students to his rooms in the Gibbs building at King’s on Friday and Sunday evenings for “conversation parties” during which he taught them to preach and led question and answer sessions. It is estimated that when he died, one third of Anglican ministers in England had been taught by him. The black Wedgewood teapot that he used to serve tea is still on display in the vestry at Holy Trinity, as is his trademark black umbrella (thought to be the first to be used in Cambridge) and a set of silhouettes of him striking various poses whilst preaching.

Simeon stayed at Holy Trinity for 54 years until his death. He was famed for his preaching and produced hundreds of sermons. He published the Horae Homileticae, a commentary giving outlines for sermons on all 66 books of the Bibles. In 1807 his voice gave way and he found it very difficult to preach for the next 13 years. He continued despite failing health, and his full speech was amazingly restored to him at the age of 60, so he could go on to preach vigorously for 17 more years.

In 1817 Simeon used a legacy from his brother to establish the Simeon Trust. Its work continues to this day with the purpose of acquiring church patronage and supporting evangelical clergy in Church of England parishes. He founded the Church Missionary Society and the University and College Christian Fellowship, which also continue their work today. Simeon influenced Henry Martyn (famed for his missionary activities) and William Wilberforce.

Simeon encouraged his student William Leeke to set up the Jesus Lane Sunday School to educate poor children; 220 children turned up to the first session.


6. St Bene’t’s

Historical Figure: Thomas Hobson (1544–1630) – buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of St Bene’t’s and owned a hostelry just outside St Catherine’s College.

Background information for teachers:

Thomas Hobson started life towards the lower end of the social spectrum. His father worked as a carrier. When he was 24 Thomas inherited his father’s cart and 4 horses, which he used to transport mail, goods and passengers (and sometimes live fish for the royal household) to London. He obviously had good business acumen, because he soon expanded his enterprises to renting out houses. He bought a hostelry called The George, which was situated just outside the gates of St Catherine’s College (possibly on the site of Sam Smiley’s). Here he stabled 40 horses, which, when not needed for his carrier service, he hired out to students and academics. The phrase “Hobson’s Choice” meaning no choice, is derived from the fact that he refused to allow his more popular horses to be over-used, and made customers hire the horse nearest the entrance. This produced the comic effect of mismatched horses and riders. It also meant that the rich could not just buy what they wanted, and everyone was treated equally.

The foul state of the King’s Ditch meant that plague and fever were rife in Cambridge. Hobson was a major contributor to the construction of the supply of fresh clean water into Cambridge in 1614, named Hobson’s Conduit or Hobson’s Brook. The pump, now situated at the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street, was originally in the market square. Some of the channels along which the water passed can still be seen running along Trumpington Street, past The Fitzwilliam Museum and Pembroke College, as can the brook running along Brookside and the Botanic Gardens. Stephen Perse (founder of the school for poor boys on Free School Lane) also contributed to the scheme.

Hobson bought and transformed Anglesey Priory (now Anglesey Abbey) into a country retreat, and also lived towards the end of his life in Chesterton Hall (now converted into flats, with the Elizabeth Way roundabout built over its garden). He did not forsake his connection with his early years and working life in the middle of Cambridge, and presented St Bene’t’s Church with a grand 1617 Black Letter version of the new King James Bible. He died aged 86, and was buried in the chancel at St Bene’t’s. The renowned Thomas Fuller preached the sermon at his funeral. Hobson appeared in Fuller’s Worthies of England, published in 1662, and was also the subject of 2 epigrams by Milton. In his will Hobson bequeathed land so that the income could be used to maintain the supply of water to the public in the market place. 

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