Free-Labour Cotton and Radical Antislavery in the Domestic Lives of British Women Quakers in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Anna Vaughan Kett

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Frustrated by the rhetoric of the anti-slavery movement and the slow pace of change, during the 1840s and 1850s activists turned to direct, consumer action to attack the ‘root of the evil.’ Following the famous Sugar Boycotts of the 1820s, large numbers of primarily female consumers on both sides of the Atlantic (many of whom were Quakers) now eschewed a wide range of slave-grown products and sought ‘free’ alternatives. As the mighty Anglo-British slave-cotton industry gained momentum, so the ‘Free Produce Movement’ focused on the pressing problem of procuring free cotton. Despite sustained attack and ridicule, adherents were convinced that buying cotton ‘not made by slaves’ could bring down slavery. Whilst on a personal level it provided a practical and appropriate means for consumers – and women to participate in anti-slavery culture, and to maintain ‘clean hands’ for all the family.
    This paper examines how the ‘cotton boycott’ became established in British Quaker women’s anti-slavery culture. Referring to specialised publication, The Slave; His Wrongs, Their Remedy, it charts the rise of the boycott and how it was framed as a ‘women’s duty’ within Evangelical, domestic culture. Then using archival materials in the Library of Religious Society of Friends in London and Clarks’ shoemaking company in Somerset, it goes on to examine how the cotton boycott operated among a small cohort of women consumers in Street, in Somerset. It focuses on the actions of Eleanor Stephens Clark, Quaker wife of the shoemaking pioneer, exploring her little-known Free Labour Cotton Depot, a small shop in the village, where from 1853 until 1858 she provided her community with free labour foods and cotton for clothing and domestic use.
    Lastly, using photographs showing the family dressed in striking free cotton outfits, a link is made to cloth sold in the Depot. It hypothesises that the unusual heavyweight hand woven gingham was made by John Wingrave, a Carlisle philanthropist and hand loom weaver and thus this paper states that the Clarks’ clothing operates as radical symbols of political belief. These were the tangible end products of Clark’s ethical actions and their message is emphatic and uncompromising; that Clark was highly successful in creating a public display of radical political belief, in the words of The Slave “Slavery is sustained by the purchase of its productions; if there were no consumers of slave produce there would be no slaves.”

    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2016
    EventRadical Histories / Histories of Radicalism - Bishopsgate Institute / Queen Mary, London, United Kingdom
    Duration: 1 Jul 20163 Jul 2016


    ConferenceRadical Histories / Histories of Radicalism
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    Internet address


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