Buxton, Sir Thomas Fowell 1786-1845, philanthropist, was the eldest son of Thomas Fowell Buxton, of Earl's Colne, Essex, by a daughter of Osgood Hanbury, of Holfield Grange, in the same county. His mother, who was a member of the Society of Friends, was a woman of great intelligence and energy. He was born 1 April 1786, and at a very early age was sent to a school at Kingston, where he suffered severely from ill-treatment. His health gave way, and he was removed to Greenwich, and placed under the care of Dr. Burney, the brother of Madame d'Arblay. From his earliest youth he took great delight in all kinds of country sports.
At the age of fifteen he left school, and was thrown much into the society of the Gurneys, at Earlham Hall, Norwich. In October 1803 he was entered at Trinity College, Dublin. He passed all the thirteen examinations at Dublin (with a single exception) with the most distinguished success, and received the university gold medal, which is given only to men who have obtained in succession all the previous prizes. Before he had attained the age of twenty-one he was pressed to stand as a candidate for the representation of the university. He was extremely gratified by the offer, but declined it in consideration of his approaching marriage to Hannah, daughter of Mr. John Gurney, of Earlham Hall, sister to Mrs. Fry, and of the business career for which he was intended. He returned to England, and his marriage took place on 13 May 1807.
Buxton joined the well-known firm of Truman, Hanbury, & Co., brewers, of Spitalfields, in 1808. Though his business engagements were very arduous, he found time to study English literature and political economy. Nor did he neglect those philanthropic efforts which had been pressed upon him by his mother, and in which he was encouraged by William Allen. Between 1808 and 1816 he interested himself in all the charitable undertakings in the distressed district of Spitalfields, especially in those connected with education, the Bible Society, and the sufferings of the weavers. He took an energetic part in defending the Bible Society when it was the subject of a violent controversy, initiated by Dr. Marsh, afterwards bishop of Peterborough.
In 1816 almost the whole population in Spitalfields was on the verge of starvation. A meeting was called at the Mansion House, and Buxton delivered a forcible speech. He narrated the results of his personal investigations; the sum of 43,369l. was raised at this one meeting, and an extensive and well-organised system of relief was established. Buxton joined the committee of the newly formed Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline. He had previously gone through the gaol at Newgate, and the results of this and other visitations were afterwards collected and published in a volume, entitled An Inquiry whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present system of Prison Discipline (London, 1818). In the course of one year this work went through five large editions, and it had led to the formation of the Prison Discipline Society already mentioned. In the House of Commons, Sir James Mackintosh spoke highly of the book, which was translated into French, distributed over the continent, and reached India. There it indirectly led to a searching inquiry into the scandalous management of the Madras gaols.
In 1818 Buxton was returned to parliament at the head of the poll for Weymouth, and continued to represent the borough until 1837. He also devoted himself at this time to the preparation of a work on prison discipline, the foundation of a savings bank in Spitalfields, the establishment of a salt fish market in the same district, an investigation into the management of the London Hospital, and the formation of a new Bible Association. During his first session in parliament he paid close attention to the operation of the criminal laws. He seconded the motion made by Sir James Mackintosh for a committee on this subject. He sat on two select committees appointed to inquire into the penal code, and in consequence of the reports of the respective committees the government brought in a bill for consolidating and amending the prison laws then in existence. In 1820 Buxton lost his eldest son and three other children. A few months afterwards he removed from his house at Hampstead, and went to reside at Cromer Hall, Norfolk. In 1820 he supported Mackintosh's motion for abolishing the penalty of death for forgery.
In May 1824 Wilberforce, who had long led the anti-slavery party in the House of Commons, formally requested Buxton to become his successor. Buxton had been an active member of the African Institution. In 1822 he had begun his anti-slavery operations with vigour, being supported by Zachary Macaulay, Dr. Lushington, Lord Suffield, and others. In March 1823 Mr. Wilberforce issued his Appeal on behalf of the Slaves, and immediately afterwards the Anti-Slavery Society was formed. On 15 May following Buxton—feeling, after mature deliberation, that he could not decline the important charge pressed on him by Wilberforce—brought forward a resolution in the House of Commons for the gradual abolition of slavery. It was carried, with the addition of some words proposed by Canning in reference to the planters' interests. The government issued a circular to the various colonial authorities, recommending the adoption of certain reforms; but the planters indignantly rejected them, and denounced the attack upon their rights.
Buxton laboured on, fortifying himself with facts concerning slave operations, and preparing documents charged with irrefragable statistics. Public meetings were held throughout the country in denunciation of the slave trade, and on 15 April 1831, the government having declined to take up the case, Buxton brought forward his resolution for the abolition of slavery. He showed that in 1807 the number of slaves in the West Indies was 800,000, while in 1830 it was only 700,000. In other words, the slave population had suffered a decrease in twenty-three years of 100,000. The necessity for emancipation was conceded, and at the opening of the session of 1833 Lord Althorp announced that the government would introduce a measure. Eventually, on 28 Aug., the bill for the total abolition of slavery throughout the British dominions received the royal assent.
In spite of some forebodings, the colonial legislatures duly carried the Act into effect. On emancipation day, 1 Aug. 1834, a large number of friends assembled at the house of Buxton, and presented him with two handsome pieces of plate. On 22 March 1836 Buxton moved for a committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the working of the apprenticeship system. He spent much time and labour in his investigation of this question, and adduced a mass of statistical information, proving, on the one hand, that the negroes had behaved extremely well, and, on the other, that they had been harassed by vexatious by-laws and cruel punishments. The committee was granted, and subsequently the under-secretary for the colonies introduced a bill for enforcing in Jamaica measures in favour of the negroes.
In June 1837 the death of the king necessitated the dissolution of parliament, and Buxton lost his seat at Weymouth. He had refused beforehand to lend money—a gentle name for bribery—to the extent of 1,000l. Proposals were made from twenty-seven boroughs to Buxton to stand as a candidate, but he declined them all.
He now sought to deliver Africa from the slave trade, and published in 1839 The African Slave Trade and its Remedy. He recommended the concentration upon the coast of Africa of a more efficient naval force; the formation of treaties with the native chiefs; the purchase by the British government of Fernando Po, as a kind of headquarters and mart of commerce; the despatch of an expedition up the Niger for the purpose of setting on foot preliminary arrangements; and the formation of a company for the introduction of agriculture and commerce into Africa.
The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilisation of Africa was established; and the government resolved to send a frigate and two steamers to explore the Niger, and if possible to set on foot commercial relations with the tribes on its banks. Sir Edward Parry, the comptroller of steam machinery, was appointed to prepare the vessels. Meantime Buxton's health had given way, and he was ordered complete rest. Towards the close of 1839 he made a tour through Italy, where he engaged in a close investigation into the crimes of the banditti. He fully exposed the deeds of a notorious band headed by Gasparoni. He also conducted a minute examination into the state of the Roman gaols.
On his return to England, Buxton eagerly threw himself into his previous plans. A baronetcy was conferred upon him 30 July 1840. For a brief period all went well with the Niger expedition, but at length there remained no doubt of its failure; and of the three hundred and one persons who composed the expedition, forty-one perished from the African fever. Sir Fowell Buxton was almost prostrated by this failure of his plans, and his health rapidly gave way.
In January 1843 the African Civilisation Society was dissolved. At its closing meeting Sir Fowell Buxton defended himself from the charge of imprudence. The ill-fated Niger expedition ultimately proved to be far from fruitless. It gave a new impulse to the African mind, and induced the emigration from Sierra Leone, which opened the way into Yoruba and Dahomey, and placed even Central Africa within the reach of British influences. The communication established between the river Niger and England opened up an important trade in cotton and other articles.
Sir Fowell Buxton now devoted himself to the cultivation of his estates. He established model farms and extensive plantations at Runton and Trimingham, near Cromer, and executed various plans of land-improvement. An essay upon the management of these estates gained the gold medal of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1845.
In the spring of 1843 Sir Fowell, whose health was failing, was recommended to try the Bath waters. He died 19 Feb. 1845, and was buried in the ruined chancel of Overstrand church, near his family seat of Northrepps Hall, Norfolk. His benevolence, his complete devotion to whatever was practical, his humility, his affection for children, and his love of animals were well known. He was eminently a religious man. Although attached to the church of England, Sir Fowell Buxton never allowed sectarian differences to interfere with his friendships and labours. The education of the poor and their social improvement were the especial objects of his endeavours. The prince consort headed a movement for a public tribute to the memory of Sir Fowell Buxton, and it took the form of a statue by Thrupp, which is erected near the monument to Wilberforce, in the north transept of Westminster Abbey. Lady Buxton, by whom he had three sons and two daughters, died 20 March 1872.
Memoirs of Sir T. F. Buxton, Bart., edited by his son, Charles Buxton, M.P., 1872
Times, February 1845
Annual Register, 1845
the African Slave Trade, 1839
An Inquiry whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present system of Prison Discipline, 1818
Read's Sir T. F. Buxton and the Niger Expedition, 1840
The Remedy, being a Sequel to the African Slave Trade, 1840
Binney's Sir T. F. Buxton, a Study for Young Men, 1845.
Contributor: G. B. S. [George Barnett Smith]