23 May 2014

Holy Trinity Church: The base of "The Clapham Sect"

Fig. 1: Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common (my photo)
I recently visited Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in south-west London. Between about 1790 and 1830, a group of like-minded, wealthy, and politically influential Anglican social reformers met and worshipped at Holy Trinity. They were mostly residents of the Clapham area, and had villas nearby the church. Although these men were not called by any particular phrase at the time, the grouping later became referred to as "The Clapham Sect" or "The Clapham Saints" in homage to their place of residence, meetings, and worship. At the centre of this network of men was William Wilberforce, a friend of the Prime Minister William Pitt, as well as a philanthropist and staunch advocate for the abolition of the slave trade. 

Fig. 2: Blue plaque to William Wilberforce on the front of Holy Trinity Church (my photo)
William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton were two such men who had villas nearby. Pitt and Wilberforce's mutual friend, Edward James Eliot, also rented Broomfield Lodge in Clapham, and supported the abolitionist cause until his premature death in 1797.

Fig. 3: Broomfield Lodge, Clapham (1904)
What amazes me as a social historian is that this place of such historical importance is still standing after over two centuries. Both the interior and exterior of Holy Trinity remains predominantly Georgian in appearance and structure. The old plaque on the side of the church dedicated to The Clapham Sect has damage due to Zeppelin bombs during World War One, but otherwise the building retains a distinctly 18th century feel. 


Fig. 4: The Clapham Sect plaque on the side of Holy Trinity Church (my photo)
Simply being inside the church brings home its historical significance. One can imagine the campaigners gathering together to meet at their respective properties, and to worship with one another at Holy Trinity on a Sunday morning. After over a generation of hard work and repeated efforts in the House of Commons, the Slave Trade Act was finally passed in 1807 - a year after the death of William Pitt. It was followed, in 1833, by the Slavery Abolition Act. 
Fig. 5: The interior of Holy Trinity (my photo)
The far-reaching, global impact of a relatively small parish church on the fringes of Clapham Common cannot be overstated.


Image Credits:

Figure 1: Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common (my photo)

Figure 2: Blue plaque to William Wilberforce on the front of Holy Trinity Church (my photo)

Figure 3: Broomfield Lodge, Clapham Common (1904). Image Source.

Figure 4: The Clapham Sect plaque on the side of Holy Trinity (my photo)

Figure 5: The interior of Holy Trinity (my photo)

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