The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

In Warrington’s Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel, close to the steps leading to the Priestley Gates, is an obelisk commemorating the lives of William Robson (1812-1902), his wife Anna, and their two sons, William Holbrook and Edwin. Anna is recorded as the daughter of William and Margaret Gaskell, making her Elizabeth Gaskell’s sister-in-law, while William is recorded as the son of Robert and Margaret Robson.

What the obelisk does not tell you is that William Robson was the postmaster of Warrington, a leading advocate of the abolition of slavery and holds a place in the history of Warrington.

In 1858, William travelled to America to campaign against slavery and he met, in Boston, Charles Ramond and his sister Sarah Parker Ramond, African Americans. He also met William Lloyd Garrison, one of America’s most prominent abolitionists, who further introduced him to other American abolitionists. On his return to Warrington, William gave a lecture to the Warrington Mechanics Institution in November 1858 on his travels.

Sarah Ramond was an international activist for human rights and women’s suffrage who lectured across America on the abolish of slavery. William was instrumental in persuading Sarah to travel to Warrington and on January 2nd 1859, she came to stay at William and Anna’s home in Bath Buildings, Bewsey Road in Warrington.

On 24th January, 1859, Sarah delivered her first Warrington lecture ‘Slave Trade in America’ at the Music Hall. It is recorded that when the doors opened at 7.30pm, the seats were soon filled, standing room was soon exhausted and some complaints arose as some members of the local elite were unable to obtain seats. Once the din died down, the audience was attentive – although outbreaks of noise continued as late arrivals attempted to push their way in. Robert Gaskell, secretary of the Warrington anti-slavery society and a prominent member of Cairo Street Chapel, presided and introduced Sarah. After she had completed her 90-minute lecture, the enthusiastic audience cheered and approved resolutions thanking her and denouncing slavery as anti-Christian.

After the success of the first meeting, a second was arranged at the Music Hall for 31st January 1859. A third lecture was given on the 2nd February at the assembly room at the Red Lion hotel at which Sarah was presented with a watch, inscribed with ‘Presented to S P Remond, by English women, her sisters in Warrington’. Sarah responded emotionally:

“I do not need this testimonial … I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life. I have been removed from the degradation which overhangs all persons of my complexion … and I have felt most deeply that since I have been in Warrington and in England that I have received sympathy I never was offered before. I have therefopre no need of this testimonial of sympathy but I receive it as a representative of me race with pleasure. In this spirit, I accept it and I believe I shall be faithful to that race now and forever”.

Following the success of her visit to Warrington, William organised a petition supporting the abolishing of slavery, which was to be sent to America. It was signed by 3,522 Warrington residents. William, when writing to William Lloyd Garrison, said “I may add that no address on any subject has ever been more numerously signed in this town”.

Sarah maintained regular contact with William and Ann and was recorded as a visitor in their home in the 1861 census; aged 34, with her occupation given as a Lady’s College student.

William continued to correspond with William Lloyd Garrison for many years and in August 1877, Garrison visited William at Lymn, where he then lived, and a banquet was given in his honour.

The 20th January is an official American holiday recognising the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, civil rights leader and on Sunday 19th January 2020, Bob Janis-Dillon, himself an American and Minister of Cairo Street Chapel will lead a service commemorating his life.

With thanks to our friends at Cairo Street Chapel