Reading William Wilberforce’s diaries for the first time

17 June 2015

Mark Smith, Fellow and Director of Studies in Local History has been awarded a John Fell Fund grant to produce a transcription of the diaries and journals of William Wilberforce.

‘William Wilberforce is one of the few figures in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain who can safely be described as iconic,’ says Mark Smith, ‘he was an influential figure in the social, political and cultural life of his own times and his legacy especially as an emblem of socially engaged voluntary activity is still evident in the number of modern organisations (for example in anti-trafficking)  that have taken their inspiration and sometimes their name from him.’

WHM112034 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) Aged 29 (oil on canvas) by Rising, John (1753-1817) oil on canvas 220x130 © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK English, out of copyright

Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) Aged 29 (oil on canvas) by Rising, John (1753-1817)
oil on canvas © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK English, out of copyright

Wilberforce’s diaries and journals have been available in the Bodleian for over thirty years but have been little used by historians and biographers because of difficulties in reading the handwritten text. The grant from the John Fell Fund will cover the costs of a preliminary transcription of a portion of the diaries and journals as an essential foundation ahead of an application for major project funding from the AHRC.

‘Creating an edition of these diaries is not feasible on a reasonable timescale for a lone scholar,’ says Dr Smith, ‘but I have now assembled a team who will work together on the project. Professor John Wolffe of the Open University and Professor John Coffey of Leicester University have agreed to participate.’

Mark Smiths goes on to explain, ‘The ultimate aim of the project is the production of a modern scholarly edition, in print and online, of all the surviving diaries. This will provide a key resource of interest not only to a wide range of historians but to scholars of literature, to social scientists and practitioners interested in philanthropy and the social role of voluntary organisations and also (because of the fame of Wilberforce) to a wider public especially in Britain and the USA. It will allow for the first time the creation of a rounded picture of Wilberforce and his influence in creating an empire of voluntary associations.’

This initial transcription phase will serve to provide evidence that the project is practicable; it will also give a clear idea of any additional resources required for the remainder of the project. The hope is that a full edition of the diaries might be submitted for publication by December 2020.