Rawson / Wilson Anti-Slavery Papers

Scope and Content

The collection comprises original manuscripts of verse and prose contributions to The Bow in the Cloud; correspondence of the compiler and editor, Mary Rawson; a minute book of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society, with letters, notes, and drafts of minutes; and a transcript of miscellaneous poems concerning slavery. The collection constitutes an important source for the history of nineteenth century anti-slavery campaigns, especially of female abolitionist movements in England.

Administrative / Biographical History

Mary Anne Rawson, née Read (1801-1887), of Wincobank Hall, Sheffield, was a noted campaigner against slavery. She was the daughter of Joseph Read (1774-1837) and his wife Elizabeth, both prominent Nonconformists and philanthropists. Joseph Read controlled the company which became the Sheffield Smelting Company. Mary Anne's sister, Elizabeth Read (1803-1851), was married to William Wilson (1800-1866), and was the mother of Henry Joseph Wilson (1833-1914). Sometime in the late 1820s, Mary Anne Read married William B. Rawson, a banker of Nottingham. The marriage however was very short-lived, as William Rawson died sometime during the 1830s. Their only child, Elizabeth Rawson, died aged 33 in May 1862, at Capri.

Mary Anne Rawson was a leading member of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society. In the 1820s there was a large number of women anti-slavery activists, but the main campaigning societies (the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Anti-Slavery Society) were almost exclusively led by men. The first campaigning group formed by women was established in Birmingham in April 1825. By 1831 there were seventy-three similar women's organisations campaigning against slavery. These groups campaigned for immediate abolition of slavery, rather than the gradual abolition promoted by the main groups. The Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded at Sheffield on 21 June 1825 as the Auxiliary Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. Both Mary and her mother, Mrs Elizabeth Read, were on the founding committee. The Society later changed its name to the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society, but was also known as the Sheffield Female Society, and the Sheffield Anti-Slavery Association. In 1827 the Society was the first anti-slavery society in Britain to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves, and was quickly followed by other women's groups. However, this did not become the policy of the national Anti-Slavery Society until 1830. The Society campaigned locally and spread information by means of distribution and publication of pamphlets and reports (many are held in the JRUL's H.G. Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection). Along with many other anti-slavery societies, the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society was disbanded on 8 October 1833, after the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act.

Mary Anne Rawson continued to campaign against slavery, predominantly through means of literary emancipation propaganda. From 1826 she compiled and edited a collection of anti-slavery poetry entitled The Bow in the Cloud or The Negro's Memorial. A collection of original contributions in prose and verse. Illustrative of the evils of slavery and commemorative of its abolition in the British colonies (London: Jackson and Walford, 1834), and in 1838 she published a collection entitled Hymns for anti-slavery prayer meetings. Rawson was a committee member of the Sheffield Ladies' Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery founded in 1837. In 1838 a petition for the abolition of slavery was adopted by the committee. The Association was apparently reorganised in 1857, though its later history is unknown and it issued no more publications. Mary Anne Rawson lived until 1887.

Henry Joseph Wilson (1833-1914) was born in Nottingham, the son of William Wilson (1800-1866) and Elizabeth, née Read (1803-1851), Nonconformist radicals; his father was the chairperson of the Nottingham Anti-Slavery committee. In 1853 Wilson went to Mansfield to work as a farmer. During this period he was involved in a wide variety of religious, political and philanthropic activities; he was first president of the Mansfield Co-operative Society, a strong supporter of the temperance movement, and supported anti-slavery campaigns and the North in the American Civil War. Wilson corresponded with and collected material on provincial philanthropic societies campaigning against slavery, such as the Birmingham and Midland Freedmen's Aid Association, the Birmingham and West Bromwich Ladies' Negro's Friend Society, the Manchester Union and Emancipation Society, and the Sheffield Ladies Female Anti Slavery Society.

In 1859 Wilson married Charlotte Cowan, daughter of Liberal MP Charles Cowan. Together they campaigned against the Contagious Diseases (or CD) Acts, arguing that they would establish the state regulation of vice. Wilson was central to the formation of the Northern Counties Electoral League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and was the first secretary. In 1866, after the death of his father, Wilson joined his brother at the Sheffield Smelting Company. The success of the business enabled Wilson to pursue a career in politics, championing ultra-progressive Liberalism. From 1872 he was chairperson of the Sheffield Reform Association, which had merged with the Sheffield Liberal Association two years later and in which Wilson remained the honorary secretary. In 1885 he was elected a Liberal MP for the constituency of Holmfirth in West Riding, and remained an MP until his retirement in 1912. As an MP, Wilson supported Home Rule for Ireland, continued to campaign against acts to regulate venereal diseases, and opposed the Boer War. Wilson's son, Alexander Cowan Wilson (1866-1955), was a well-known Quaker philanthropist. Alexander Wilson moved to Manchester in 1916 where he continued in the family tradition of campaigning against slavery and conscription.

Source: M. Hewitt, 'Wilson, Henry Joseph (1833-1914)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/50958.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Presented to the John Rylands Library by Alexander Cowan Wilson in 1923. The gift was probably received in conjunction with the collection of anti-slavery pamphlets acquired by the Library from the executors of Henry Joseph Wilson.


Description compiled by Elizabeth Gow with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Henry Joseph Wilson and to catalogues produced by Sheffield Archives and the Women's Library, available on the Access to Archives website.

Other Finding Aids

English MSS 414-415 are catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928. English MSS 741-744 are catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928-1935.

Alternative Form Available

Published microfilm: Anti-slavery materials: regional records and other pamphlets, 18th-19th centuries - the collection of the John Rylands University Library, Manchester (London: World Microfilms, 1989).

Custodial History

The Mary Anne Rawson material probably passed during her lifetime to her nephew Henry Joseph Wilson. Wilson added his own papers relating to the anti-slavery movement to the collection, which then passed to his son Alexander Cowan Wilson.

Related Material

The UML holds a collection of 19th-century anti-slavery pamphlets received in 1923 from the executors of Henry Joseph Wilson, 1833-1914. The JRUL also holds the Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection (ref.: GB 133 REAS).

Sheffield University Library holds the James Montgomery Manuscripts, comprises reminiscences of James Montgomery (1771-1854), poems and manuscripts by him, printed works and illustrations (ref.: GB 200 MS 19, 25, 69, 172, 249 ). Also included are a scrapbook entitled 'Negro's album of the Sheffield Anti-Slavery Society', 1828, and material on Montgomery assembled by Mary Anne Rawson.

Sheffield Archives holds papers of the Wilson and Read families, in particular records of the Sheffield Smelting Company Limited 1760-1974 (ref.: GB 199 SSC ), political papers of Henry Joseph Wilson (ref.: GB 0199 MD 2459-2627, MD 5889-6027 ) and papers of Mary Anne Rawson (ref.: GB 199 MD 5690-5710, MD 6035-6059 ).


E.D. Mackerness, 'Mary Anne Rawson and the memorials of James Montgomery', Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, vol. 8, part 4 (1962), pp. 218 sqq.;

N.B. Lewis, 'The abolitionist movement in Sheffield 1822-33; with letters from Southey, Wordsworth, and others, from the original papers in the John Rylands Library', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 18 (1934), pp. 377-92.