The Wilberforce Oak


ONE sunny Sunday morning about 15 years ago, I went for a walk with the dog and as we ambled along a wooded path I found myself at a crossroads of history.  

We had set out from our home in Bromley, Kent, to a beauty spot known as Keston Ponds, where a variety of fish share their home with sundry wildfowl.  

Crossing a road, we followed a public footpath through the greenery of the Holwood House estate – and after half a mile or so, found an ancient stone seat with a carved oval plaque behind a wire fence.  

Reading the inscription on the plaque, I was intrigued to learn that in this shady enclave beneath an oak tree, one of most significant moments in the advance of civilisation took place.  

In 1787, MP William Wilberforce sat there with his friend, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and vouchsafed to him that he was about to launch his great enterprise . . . the abolition of the slave trade.   

The plaque, erected in 1862, contains a quotation from Wilberforce’s 1787 diary which records the moment: ‘I well remember after a conversation with Mr Pitt in the open air at the root of an old tree at Holwood, just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston, I resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade.’    

The tree, known as the Wilberforce Oak, fell down many years ago, but the stump remains behind another fence.  

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association says here of the Wilberforce Seat: ‘William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a close friend of William Pitt. They were at Cambridge together and both entered Parliament in 1780. Pitt purchased the Holwood estate at Keston in 1784 and built the house on it.  

‘Wilberforce was a frequent visitor there and used to sit under the Wilberforce Oak, as it is known, on the stone bench that now bears the inscription from his diary and commemorates his role in the abolition of slavery. The bench presumably was under the oak tree at that time looking out over the valley below, whereas now it is set back, a little way away from the remains of the tree.  

‘From 1787 Wilberforce was prominent in the movement to abolish both slavery and the slave trade that fed it. His belief in abolition arose from his evangelical Christianity, to which he converted in 1784-1785. In 1787 he helped found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, or the Anti-Slavery Society as it was known.  

‘In 1807 a Bill to abolish slavery in the British West Indies became law. Later, from 1821, he urged the emancipation of all slaves, as those who were in slavery before the 1807 act were not freed under it.  

‘In 1823 he helped to found, and became vice-president of, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions, again known as the Anti-Slavery Society. He left the Commons in 1825 and the slavery Abolition Act he had worked for was passed just after his death in 1833. William Pitt the Younger was born in 1759 in Hayes in Kent. He was Prime Minister 1783-1801 and 1804-1806.’  

When I read of Wilberforce’s gentle humanity, with Pitt listening to him sympathetically in such a quintessentially English setting, the thought of that woodland meeting which did so much to change the world still brings a tear to my eye. Fittingly, the two friends who sat on the bench that day in 1787 still rest together, buried side by side in Westminster Abbey.

The Hulk

THE scene is the Daily Mail newsroom in Manchester, one night in the early 1980s before computer technology took over. With deadline rapidly approaching, the chief sub-editor is anxious to dispatch the main front-page story, or splash, to the printers. This process is achieved by placing the bundle of paper into a plastic drum which is then inserted into a pneumatic tube that wings it downstairs. Only the messengers are allowed to do this – a journalist who transgressed union rules would have caused an instant walkout.

‘Copy, please,’ says the chief sub, whose name is Roger. The nearest messenger looks up, looks away, lights a cigarette, yawns and stays put. ‘Copy, please!’ Roger repeats. Again, no action. This is too much to bear.

‘Look, it’s two minutes to deadline and we have to shift this copy,’ he says. ‘Now get off your arse and do your job, you lazy cunt!’

At this point the messenger, a lanky youth by the name of Carl, shuffles slowly to his feet, snatches the copy from Roger and dispatches it printerwards. Nothing more is thought of the incident, not by Roger anyway.

Over the next few months, Carl begins to change shape. Muscles grow and his body widens. The word is that he is working out in the gym, and has also taken a day job as a coalman to increase his strength.

At two o’clock one morning, after finishing his shift, Roger leaves the office and heads down an alley towards his car when a large and menacing shape appears before him. Hello, Carl.

‘You called me a cunt,’ he growls. ‘And now I’m going to kill you.’

Thankfully, Roger is light on his feet. He skips to one side and, gazelle-like, legs it off into the night. The following day he takes the messengers’ shop steward, known as the father of the chapel, for a pint and tells him it is unacceptable to have his life threatened thus. The FoC agrees and assures him he will have no further trouble but, just to be on the safe side, Roger makes sure he uses a different exit every night from then on. The moral being, be careful who you call a cunt.

Old jokes’ home

A teenage girl brings her new boyfriend home to meet her parents. They are appalled by his mohawk, tattoos, piercings and absence of  manners.

Later, the girl’s mother says: ‘Sorry, love, but he doesn’t seem to be a very nice boy.’

‘Come on, Mum,’ she replies. ‘If he wasn’t nice, would he be doing 500 hours of community service?’

A PS from PG

I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves

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