Britain's forgotten hero

How has it happened that the man who did more than any other to bring about the abolition of slavery

"How do you spell his surname?" asked the woman at my local bookshop, when I asked if they had a biography of William Wilberforce. The bloke in Foyles had heard of him, but didn't have any books about him. Nor did Borders or Waterstone's. I was amazed. Wilberforce was once a familiar national figure, like Elizabeth Fry or Florence Nightingale. Now I couldn't buy a book about him. How had the man who saw off the slave trade become so obscure? He is still famous in West Africa and the Caribbean. In the United States there's a university named after him, so why isn't he a national hero in Britain, like Nelson or Wellington? I went to Wilberforce's birthplace to see if the people of Hull had also forgotten how to spell his name.

There I found a shop that actually stocked a few books about Wilberforce and, as I mugged up on his early years, I realised why he has become anonymous. He doesn't have the credentials that make someone newsworthy now adays. He wasn't a rebel. He wasn't remotely rock'n'roll. He was straight, white, wealthy and conservative. His crusade against the slave trade was driven by his devout Christianity. Today he would probably be written off as a religious crank. Yet here was one place in Britain that remained devoted to his memory: his similarly unfashionable and idiosyncratic home town. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and Hull is doing its utmost to put Wilberforce back on the map.

Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759 in a handsome brick house on the high street. Somehow it survived the Blitz, and it is still in remarkably good condition. When I visited, it was closed for refurbishment in preparation for next year's bicentennial (it will be reopened in March by the prime minister of Barbados), but the curators gave me a private tour.

Most historic houses give no biographical insights at all (Shakespeare's birthplace, for instance, tells you nothing about his personality, or his plays), but Wilberforce's home tells you a good deal about the familial influences that shaped him. It is the house of a hard-working businessman, not an idle aristocrat. From Will iam's nursery window, you can see the wharves that provided his father with a livelihood. Wil berforce was no pampered member of the landed gentry. His roots were urban. His family was well off, but lived over the shop.

From the age of seven, William went to the local grammar school (now also a museum), walking to school through the streets of Hull. Eighteenth-century Hull was a bustling sea- port ("extraordinarily populous", wrote Daniel Defoe), with 12,000 inhabitants crammed into its medieval alleys. The narrow street outside the Wilberforce front door thronged with sailors, press-gangs and prostitutes.

It is not surprising that Hull's most famous son should have rocked the establishment of his day. Hull has always been nonconformist and anti-establishment. Its white phone boxes are a modern symbol of this individuality, but the roots of its rebellious spirit go far back. The city famously shut its gates on Charles I in 1642, igniting the English civil war, and when Charles II became king, Hull responded by electing the poet Andrew Marvell, a staunch republican, as its MP. A century later, its electorate made a similarly contrary choice, electing the callow 21-year-old Wilberforce, who devoted his parliamentary career to demolishing one of the cornerstones of British commerce. It was the equivalent of a modern backbencher attempting to dismantle the arms trade.

But it was not just Hull's historic quirks that made it such a solid platform for Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade. Even more important was its position on the map. Unlike the thriving slave ports of Bristol and Liverpool, Hull was on the wrong side of the country to reap the benefit from this lucrative business. Facing east, its trading links were with the Baltic ports, rather than the imperial colonies of West Africa and the West Indies. It had little to lose from abolition.

The rights of men

Two hundred years later, the ancient brick of Hull's old town is still strangely reminiscent of Hanseatic ports such as Wismar, Rostock and Gdansk. From these free ports, Hull acquired an appetite for autonomy. Yet the city's opposition to slavery ran deeper than self-interest.

"Hull people have always stood up for their beliefs," says Vanessa Salter, the city's keeper of social history. "They've always been proudly independent, believing in their own opinions." Wilberforce's immediate predecessor as MP for Hull was the eccentric Whig reformer David Hartley, the first MP to put the case for abolition before the Commons, in 1776, moving a resolution that "the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men".

When Wilberforce died in 1833, aged 73, the inhabitants of Hull erected a gigantic Doric column with a statue of Wilberforce on top. Renowned in his lifetime for spurning every opportunity for self-aggrandisement, he probably would have hated it, yet the day the foundation stone was laid was a virtual carnival in Hull. Most of the shops were shut, the ships in the harbour were strewn with flags and a huge crowd gathered at the base of this new monument, near the site of the old city gate whose closure had sparked the civil war. The statue stood there until 1935, when it was moved to Queen's Gardens.

Wilberforce's work ranged far and wide, reaching beyond abolition. He provided education for deaf children and free medicine for the poor. He restricted the use of child labour. He even helped to found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Yet although these reforms were far closer to home, the people of Hull were in no doubt about Wilberforce's greatest triumph. "Not all the bloodstained wreaths of Napoleon, not all the laurels which graced the brow of a Wellington, not all the wreaths worn by distinguished statesmen," declared a local dignitary in 1812, "were equal to the honour which Mr Wilberforce had obtained by the abolition of the slave trade."

A few years before he died, Wilberforce was forced to sell the family home to bail out his feckless eldest son, and for 70 years it remained in private hands (American pilgrims who found their way there were apparently given short shrift). In 1906, however, a far-sighted councillor called John Brown persuaded the council to buy it and turn it into a museum. The Wilberforce house became Britain's first slavery museum.

A Wilberforce Lecture has been given there every year since 1995 by champions of human rights such as Desmond Tutu. But the local memorial that would please Wilberforce most would surely be Hull's partnership with Freetown. The capital of Sierra Leone was the point of return for slaves rescued from foreign slave ships by the British navy, and the cities have been twinned since 1982. The people of Hull have given 57,000 books to Sierra Leone. Wilberforce may even be far more famous in Sierra Leone than he is in Britain.

This month, the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation receives its first students. The research centre, set up by Hull University and the city council, will offer postgraduate degrees in slavery studies.

Will next year's bicentennial inspire a revival, not just of Wilberforce's reputation but of anti-slavery ideals, and not just in Hull? Certainly there has never been a greater need for such a figurehead. When the British slave trade was abolished, there were a million slaves in the British empire. Today, Unesco believes there are 27 million slaves worldwide, bought and sold at an average price of £60.

A film about the life and work of Wilberforce is due out in 2007 (Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce) and a new biography, by William Hague, is also due to be published soon. Let's hope that the film and book prompt many more people to visit his maverick home town. It still has the power to give you a palpable sense of the forces which made both William Wilberforce and the seaport that really did change the world.