The Birmingham Civic Society



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Rev Thomas Swan

( 1795  - 1857)

Delegates, including Rev Thomas Swan to the 1840 convention in London were united by the common goal of ending slavery in their time. Exhilarated by the legal abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1838, British abolitionists in particular believed that Britain, at the threshold of a new decade, was primed to lead an attack on slavery throughout the world. It may be hard to tell from painter Benjamin Haydon’s famous (and famously staid) portrait of the Convention, but those who came to Exeter Hall were zealous activists intent on stopping human bondage.

Baptist Minister and Social Reformer

During the first half of the 19th Century, issues such as the slave trade were being hotly debated in Birmingham yet the rich contribution to the anti-slavery movement made by the Baptist Minister, Thomas Swan has been largely forgotten.

As part of our research into the history of our house, we were intrigued to find out that a Baptist Minister called Rev Thomas Swan lived here. We know through baptismal records that two of his children were born in George Street in 1833 and Broad Street in 1835 while a book he published gives his address as George Street in 1834. An article in the Birmingham Journal for August 1839 describes his address in April of that year as Yew Tree Road and this is confirmed in the Birmingham Rate Book for December 1839. Census information for 1841, states that he lived here with his wife and 6 children plus a servant. He is listed as resident in the Trade Directories from 1845 to 1850. He moved from our house sometime before the 1851 Census took place. Incidentally, he is one of two Baptist Ministers who resided at this address, the second being Rev William Landels who was here from 1851 to 1855.  William Landels has been described as one of the foremost religious speakers of his time with congregations of around 1,000 people in Birmingham at Cannon Street Baptist Church.

Thomas Swan came to the City in 1828 at the invitation of the congregation of Cannon Street Baptist Church. Previously, he had been a tutor of divinity at a college in India as part of the Baptist Missionary Society.  In the 1830’s, Cannon Street was the second largest Baptist Church in Britain and was a major place for the campaign against slavery going back to the eighteenth century.

The most significant of Swan’s activities was his work in supporting the total abolition of slavery in overseas countries. It has been said that nowhere outside of London was as active in opposing slavery as was Birmingham.  In 1833, the British Parliament passed legislation ending slavery but it continued to be a great source of wealth to British people who owned property overseas through the ‘indenture system’ which was not far removed from slavery.

Thomas Swan was a prominent and vocal member of the Birmingham Anti Slavery Society and his close relationship with the influential social reformer, Joseph Sturge who lived nearby in Wheeley’s Road, is evident through their correspondence.  Much money was raised in Birmingham to provide support particularly for work in the West Indies. In 1837, together with Joseph Sturge and others working in the West Indies, including William Knibb, their first success was persuading land owners to give slaves full emancipation. However, some plantation owners then introduced an ‘apprenticeship scheme’ whereby slaves would be freed but over a period of four years.

During this period, large gatherings took place at the Town Hall and in 1837, Thomas Swan summed up the proceedings by stating that:

".... But the sons of Birmingham will not be silent – they will speak out - & from them the sound will go out to the ends of the earth – it will enter the houses of parliament – it will be heard in the Islands of the West ….

…. yes, to the men of Birmingham, in a great degree, Britain is indebted for the Reform Bill !!! & they will not rest as long as slavery continues in any part of the world …. "

The interplay between Baptist church life and the Anti Slavery movement was enormous. As Thomas Swan told the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), Annual General Meeting in 1839:

 ‘It was said that in Birmingham all the missionary meetings were anti-slavery meetings – was not at all agreeable to some people.’

Birmingham City archives have some records of Thomas Swan which include an extract of an antislavery lecture, dated around 1840. He was important enough to attend the first Anti Slavery Convention in 1840 as part of the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society. There is a painting of this convention in the National Portrait Gallery which includes him. Following the Convention, 5,000 people heard Baptist deacons from the West Indies speak in Birmingham Town Hall. They focused on the opportunities they now had for family life and for schooling for both boys and girls, all previously prevented by the plantation owners. In 1842, the Anti Slavery Society held its Annual General Meeting at Cannon street Church with Thomas Swan taking part along with BMS missionaries  and other key members of the movement, with mission and justice for the oppressed interwoven.

Thomas Swan remained a Minister at Cannon Street Church until his death in March 1857, regularly preaching, involving himself in the life of his community and giving his views on affairs of the time. Thousands of people turned out to see his funeral and he is buried in Key Hill Cemetery in Hockley, Birmingham (Grave No:  Section E.309). It opened in 1836, as a non-denominational cemetery, and is the oldest Birmingham cemetery, not being in a churchyard.

Cannon Street Church was demolished in the late 19th Century and is now centred in Handsworth.

Thomas Swan made a substantial contribution towards fighting the injustices of slavery and the indenture system through the dissemination of his ideas and beliefs. He recognised the need to support those given their freedom to have a better life in the West Indies. At a time of increasing intolerance, we feel that it is an opportune moment to celebrate the important role of a Birmingham resident who helped ensure major social reform took place.


Bill and Lorraine Graham