Thomas Harvey (1812-1884)
Anti-slavery campaigner and philanthropist

Thomas Harvey In the austere, shaded quiet of the Quaker burial ground in New Adel Lane, the plain gravestones record only names and dates - no statues or florid verses here, where all are equal. One stone bears the name of Thomas Harvey, who during his lifetime fought against slavery, war, cruelty and deprivation. These causes took him across the world – to the West Indies, Finland, Russia, Canada – in an era when such journeys meant long months of danger and hardship. But his home, his family and his daily work were here in Leeds.

He was born in 1812 into a Quaker family in Barnsley, where his father was a linen manufacturer. The second of five children, he was educated at Barnsley Grammar School and the Quaker schools at Ackworth and York. But money ran short and at fifteen he was apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Birmingham, to train for his future. There he met fellow Quakers like the Cadburys and Joseph Sturge, the eminent anti-slavery activist. In 1836 he was invited to accompany Sturge to the British colonies of the West Indies to investigate the condition of the former slaves, freed in 1834 but still bound by the plantation owners into harsh apprenticeship schemes. He helped Sturge produce a long report which persuaded Parliament to change this abusive system.

Back in England, he moved to Leeds to set up in business as a chemist and druggist, in a shop at 13 Briggate. He sold the usual patent medicines of the time – Widow Welch’s Pills (for all female complaints); Butler’s Compound Concentrated Concoction (for every possible ailment) – but he became an expert pharmacist, publishing specialist notes for doctors on remedies and dosages, and over the years he took an increasing interest in medical and scientific advances. He later took on a partner (Harvey & Reynolds): among other developments they specialised in early photographic equipment and became the pre-eminent supplier in this new field.

In 1845 he married, and three children were born, though their first son died aged only six. Alongside his business and his family, he devoted himself to campaigning on behalf of victims of slavery and exploitation around the world, writing letters and articles in the press, addressing meetings, collecting funds. He drew attention to Britain’s shameful role in the opium trade with China. He took up the cause of people everywhere who suffered ‘the dreadful ravages of war’. In 1856 he travelled, again with Joseph Sturge, to Finland, where the British Fleet, stationed in the Baltic during the Crimean War, had caused terrible hardship, and raised money for relief. He collected too for the victims (on whatever side) of the Franco-German War and the American Civil War, publishing ‘A Plea for the Perishing’. In 1866 he visited Jamaica again to investigate conditions and help promote education for the freed slaves, and the next year undertook a gruelling journey to Russia to visit the Mennonite community who were being persecuted for their pacifism, and assist with their resettlement in Canada. It was a punishing schedule, and his health suffered.

That same year he had to endure the loss of his youngest son, seventeen, studying in London, who drowned with many others skating on the frozen Regent’s Park lake when the ice gave way. The family was stricken. He retired from his business, and with the benefit of money inherited from his brothers committed himself completely to his philanthropic work, not only around the world but also close to home. He served on the Leeds School Board; was Secretary of the Leeds Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution; supported the cause of women’s education, subscribed to the Hospital for Women and Children. He was active in the Society of Friends, a strong speaker and worker for temperance and the peace movement. In 1883 he took a leading role on the cross-faith committee which organised the visit to Leeds of the famous American evangelists Moody and Sankey, who in their fortnight’s mission here preached to many thousands with the message ‘stand up for Jesus’.

In 1884 he undertook another arduous journey to Canada on a Quaker mission, but it exhausted him. He died at his home at ‘Ashwood’, Headingley Lane, on Christmas Day. He was deeply mourned by family and friends: one wrote of him ‘he lived a beautiful life.’

Eveleigh Bradford
November 2013