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Is Thomas Clarkson a forgotten hero?

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This enquiry uses the life of Thomas Clarkson (who is buried just a few miles from our school) to explore the issue of slavery. Pupils explore why Thomas Clarkson became so passionate about abolishing slavery and how he managed to achieve his aim of ending slavery in the British Empire. Centering this enquiry around a powerful story and focusing on one individual allows pupils to connect more closely with the learning experience.

This enquiry allows pupils to explore the role of the individual in history. They assess the contribution Clarkson made to the anti-slavery campaign by weighing his contribution against that of other factors and other individuals.

It also incorporates a strong citizenship dimension by exploring current issues surrounding slavery and involving pupils in running a campaign for a statue of Clarkson to be erected in the local area.

Learning Aims (History driven)

To help pupils understand:

• The origins of slavery and its links to the development of the British Empire.

• How the slave trade worked, who benefited and its impact on Africa.

• The conditions slaves had to endure on the slave ships and on the plantations.

• The key factors that led to the abolition of slavery.

• The role of the individual in history.

• That slavery remains an important issue at the start of the 21st century.

To develop pupils’ ability to:

• Appreciate what motivated people living in the past.

• Cross-reference written and visual sources.

• Select and deploy information carefully in order to (i) inform and (ii) persuade an audience.

• Write causal explanations.

• Engage in controversial debates and improve their speaking and listening skills.

• Use ICT effectively – both (i) as a research tool to keep up-to-date with current issues and (ii) to organize and communicate their ideas creatively.

• Run an effective ‘political’ campaign.

Strategy driven ‘Initiative Overload’

• Promoting Citizenship

• Literacy Across the Curriculum (Speaking & Listening, Editing & Redrafting, Writing for audience/purpose, Reading for meaning)

• ICT Across the Curriculum

• Assessment for Learning (Modeling, Marking, Target setting)

• Engagement, Motivation – pupils connecting with the learning experience

• Working creatively and collaboratively

• Learning Styles (VAK)

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSON 1: What changed Thomas Clarkson’s life? (Initial Stimulus Material & Outline)

(1a) What is the link between Thomas Clarkson and Bob Marley?

Meet pupils at the door. They are told to enter and sit down in silence and to try and solve the puzzle on the board. As they enter play ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley and have the lyrics on their desks. Pupils have to work out the connection between the song and a picture of Thomas Clarkson (include a brief early history – local man, son of a school teacher who in the 1780s was studying at university with the intention of entering the church.) Explain that you will display clues one by one until they work out the connection. Start with more obscure clues, gradually making it easier for pupils to spot the link (eg - packet of cigarettes - a bag of sugar – pictures of a speculum oris, thumb screw, iron handcuffs, leg shackles, slave ship etc).


The aim here is to break up the pattern of the school day. Create an environment where pupils are knocked out of the comfortable pattern of everyday life in school. Things are going to be a bit different in this lesson, this is important, this will make you think …

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

(1b) What made Thomas Clarkson so angry?

Explain what links Clarkson to slavery (enters an essay writing competition at Cambridge on topic of slavery that changes his life – so appalled with what he finds out that he devotes the rest of his life to ending slavery – travels thousands of miles, enduring attempts on his life, illness and bankruptcy).

Provide an overview of the history of the slave trade and how it operated. Use powerful visual and written sources. Also a film clip (eg – 10 min from Amistad, and/or Roots, Geldof’s visit to Cape Coast Castle)


The prime consideration at this stage of the enquiry (1a & 1b) is to get pupils really interested in the subject matter. For the rest of the enquiry to work pupils must ‘care’ about the topic. Powerful source material is therefore essential at this stage of the enquiry.

It is also important to challenge commonly held misconceptions and to set Britain’s role in the slave trade in its broader historical context (eg – Slavery had existed for centuries, Britain not the only country involved, role of some African tribes).

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSONS 2 & 3: What did Thomas Clarkson find out? (Research skills)

(i) Recap – Pupils sequence 5 or 6 visual images that show different stages of the slave trade (eg – capture, slave forts, slave ships, auction, plantations). In groups pupils then have to write a caption (max 50 words) for each source.

(ii) Set up main task – Fill in the Clarkson story – helps form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade – his role is to travel the country researching slavery, finding witnesses and organising a national campaign.

(iii) Know your enemy: What arguments were used to defend the slave trade?

Explore who benefited from the trade and what arguments supporters of the trade put forward to defend it. Use these arguments to structure the activity that follows (ie – pupils in role as Clarkson finding evidence that challenges these arguments).

(iv) The Clarkson Challenge: Can you find evidence to defeat those who defended the trade?

Explain to pupils that they will follow Clarkson’s journey around the country and learn more about the slave trade through his eyes. They will need to keep detailed notes as at the end of the journey they will have to deliver a speech, write a pamphlet and design a logo for the campaign. Provide a structure for note-taking, explore different strategies and model the skill.


Use of visual sources aids recall.

Extension Activity – Continuing to work as a group pupils have to write a 100 word explanation of how the slave trade worked. This requires them to edit their work and decide on what information is essential in order for their explanation to make sense.

Structure through key investigative questions. Ideally these should be generated by the pupils from section (iii) – this provides a sense of ownership. However, it is important that the following themes are covered:

What was the impact upon Africa?

How were slaves captured and sold?

What were conditions like on the slave ships?

What was life like on the plantations?

Encourage pupils to experiment with note-taking (eg – Use Mind Map).

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSON 4: How to win support and influence people. Explore what makes an effective campaign and the key elements within it. Pupils have to produce: a pamphlet (writing to inform), logo and speech (writing to persuade).

Model through speeches and logos produced at the time (eg – the speeches of Wilberforce and Pitt, Wedgewood’s famous logo).


Explore the importance of oracy, literacy techniques, writing for purpose/audience etc.

Keep the written sources lengthy. Explore the arguments put forward and the techniques used (eg – loaded language). Discuss how these speeches would have been read – where would pupils place ‘emphasis’ and how.

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSON 5: Was William Wilberforce the real hero of the abolition of slavery? Why has Clarkson’s contribution been overlooked?

Provide an overview (timeline) of campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery in the colonies. Concentrate on key dates and turning points. Use this to introduce the key question – Who deserves the credit? Explain that the ‘traditional interpretation’ is that Wilberforce played the dominant role.

Explore ‘Where does this interpretation come from?’ – identifying the origins in the biography of Wilberforce written by his sons in 1838 and the influence it has exerted over subsequent historical accounts.

Raise questions about the validity of this view. Encourage critical thinking - What does William Wilberforce’s biography tell us about the sons who wrote it? Pupils can identify other key individuals who played an important role from the timeline.


The aim here is to help pupils connect with quite difficult content (ie – the complex interaction of causes that led to slavery being abolished in the British Empire) by focusing initially on the controversy caused by WWs biography. This provides a way into exploring other factors. It gives pupils something to test and rally against. The motivation of pupils increases if they sense injustice!

At this stage pupils’ main sense of outrage will be that Clarkson’s contribution is often overlooked. They should be more engaged in the debate/controversy having spent the previous two lessons in role as Clarkson, following in his footsteps.

Additional layers of complexity can then be added in the following lesson(s) (ie – how other individuals/groups are also often omitted from the story) …

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSONS 6-7: How should the story of the anti-slavery movement be told? How important was Clarkson’s contribution compared to other factors?

Explore Clarkson’s role in more detail.

Pupils weigh this contribution against other factors:

- The role of other individuals/campaigners (Sharp, Equiano, Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho, Phyllis Wheatley, Anthony Benezet)

- Religious Groups (The Society of Friends, Quakers, Methodists)

- Politicians/MPs (Pitt, Fox, Granville, Thomas Fowell Buxton)

- Slave Revolts (Case Studies: Haiti, Jamaica)

- Political & Economic factors

Small groups of pupils can be directed to become ‘experts’ on a particular individual/case study. Their task is to prepare a 2 minute class presentation in which they prove the importance of the factor they have researched. This is a good opportunity to model how to ‘prove’ rather than simply ‘say’ – ie – the use of causal connectives (this led to/meant that/resulted in … without …).

Class presentations should naturally lead into a debate about the relative importance of key factors/individuals. A whole class debate could take the form of a world cup draw, boxing match, big brother competition or balloon debate.


This approach provides an opportunity to explore the role of the individual in history – in particular how the actions of individuals need to be placed in their broader historical context and judged carefully against other factors. We were very keen for pupils to see that Clarkson had not single-handedly achieved his aims and that other campaigners and socio/economic factors also played an important role.

Writing frames could be provided to help lower attainers. However, we have found that the modeling of writing style is more important – ie – moving pupils from (i) ‘saying’/describing what an individual did to (ii) ‘proving’ that what this individual did was important. The modeling of causal connectives is therefore crucial. One way of demonstrating this is through active demonstration - pupils on their knees (knowledge tellers) are dragged to their feet by the connective rope and become knowledge transformers. Actions are clearly linked to consequences.

The placing of a speaking and listening activity before an extended writing task is deliberate. It enables pupils to clarify their ideas and form a firm argument before they start the writing process. This is also one of the reasons for the active learning activity that starts the next lesson …

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSON 8: Writing causal explanations: Is it right to single out one individual?

Active learning – Play ‘The Strongest Link’.

Pupils in same groups as previous lesson. They brainstorm links between their individual/factor and other factors. Plan on paper first then use different colour wire to demonstrate the link between their factor and another table’s factor (red = strong link and is worth double points, use different colour wire for tentative links). They must be able to explain the link(s) they make. A different person in their group must take responsibility for being able to explain each link they make. Award points for quality of explanations, award bonus points if a group spots a link that another group has missed.

Build this understanding into the piece of extended writing that follows:

‘Thomas Clarkson played the key role in ending slavery in the British Empire.’ To what extent do you agree?

Provide two clear targets for the piece of writing (and subsequent self, peer and teacher assessment):

1. Pupils must ‘prove’ rather than ‘say’

2. Pupils should explain links


For teachers who are worried about classroom management issues (or health and safety!) this activity works effectively on a whiteboard with pupils coming up to the front to draw and explain links.

This task provides the ideal opportunity for summative, formative and diagnostic assessment. The writing task allows teachers to assess understanding from the previous four lessons. Marking/Feedback can be focused on the two targets opposite. Self and peer assessment should be encouraged.

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

LESSON 9: A never ending story: What would Clarkson be angry about today?

Pupils use web sites to research whether slavery ended in 1833 and if it still exists today.

(i) Their first task is to produce a timeline charting the key laws that have been introduced in an attempt to stop slavery in other parts of the world. (For example – slavery prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.)

(ii) Their last task is to produce a Mind Map outlining the types of slavery that exist today (for example – bonded labour, forced labour, child labour) and providing specific case studies that prove that the issue has not gone away. The Anti-Slavery International web-site (http://www.antislavery.org/) is an excellent source of information for this research task.


The end to this enquiry is very important. It links the past with the present, enabling pupils to spot long-term trends.

It is crucial for pupils to see that the ‘story’ story does not end in 1833 and that the anti-slavery campaign has as much relevance in the modern world as it did in Clarkson’s day. The commonly held misconception is that slavery is part of our history rather than our present. The reality is slavery continues TODAY despite the fact that it is banned in most of the countries where it is practiced.

Teaching and Learning Activities/Resources

Extension: How should Thomas Clarkson be remembered? (Running an Active Citizenship Campaign)

Explore how Clarkson has been remembered since his death.

Move on to - How should Thomas Clarkson be remembered?

Having established that Thomas Clarkson played an important yet largely forgotten role in the campaign to abolish slavery, pupils work in groups, running a campaign designed to:

• Raise the profile of Clarkson in the local area

• Petition for a statue (or a form of commemoration of their own choosing) to be erected locally in his memory.

This campaign incorporates pupils:

• Involving the local media and local people in their campaign.

• Planning and producing a PowerPoint presentation – which is then performed to members of the local community

• Designing a newspaper front page and lead article

• Writing letters to their local council and local MP

• Producing a web site

• Keeping a video diary of their campaign

• Reflecting on the effectiveness of their methods


This activity gives pupils a real insight into how to run a ‘campaign’. In particular the important role that local councils and the media play in the decision making process.

It encourages pupils to:

• Use ICT creatively to inform, entertain and most importantly persuade an audience to support a particular point of view.

• Work creatively and collaboratively on a significant end product.

In terms of promoting citizenship, pupils gain an insight into:

• The role of the local council in the decision making process.

• The role of the local media in raising public awareness of key issues.

For more resources on Thomas Clarkson and examples of pupils’ work see:


Go to: ‘Subjects’

Then – click on ‘History’



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