Who We Are

Our history

William Henry Ashurst and Abolition efforts in the 1800s

From the time he founded his firm in 1822, William Henry Ashurst was active against injustice and oppression. His pro bono efforts supported the great Reform Bill which led to much needed improvements in electoral representation; his successful pro bono efforts to argue in favour of Rowland Hill's proposed penny post saw letters become more widely affordable.

He believed strongly in equality for all and is described as having encouraged his daughters to have independent thoughts and action at a time when women's rights were widely derided.

William's anti-slavery endeavours took place at a time when efforts had commenced to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and secure emancipation. Within a year of Ashurst starting his firm, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions formed. From 1828 to 1833 the Society organised petitions against colonial slavery, signed by over 1.5 million Britons. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the British West Indies with an "apprenticeship" transition period of four to six years. Continued efforts by abolitionists saw apprenticeships end and with them, the formal abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, on 1 August 1838.

As told in our First Women publication, William attended the Anti-Slavery Convention organised by this Society's successor, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, accompanied by his daughters, Elizabeth and Matilda and two of his Ashurst associates. Today, that same Society still exists in London as the oldest known human rights organisation: Anti-Slavery International.

The Ashurst family engaged in on-going correspondence with a number of the American abolitionists who had travelled to the Convention as part of efforts to push for the global abolition of slavery. One of those attendees was William Lloyd Garrison - editor of The Liberator, an influential American anti-slavery newsletter which Garrison published weekly from 1831 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. William Ashurst became the London correspondent of Garrison's newsletter and travelled to meet Garrison and other abolitionists in 1853. Following William's death in 1855, Garrison paid tribute to him in the 18 January 1856 edition of The Liberator, with his own eulogy accompanying a reprint of that printed in the Reasoner:

"Our widely honoured and revered friend, William H Ashurst, Esq., an eminent Solicitor of London, and the supporter of the cause of freedom at home and throughout the world, has been removed to the spirit land, after long protracted bodily suffering. His loss is as universal as the globe. He was a truly noble man - noble in his integrity, his modesty, his sympathy with outlawed liberty, his catholic nature, his sense of justice, his reverence for the right, his independent and comprehensive mind, his generous benevolence, his moral firmness and intrepidity, and in all his aims and labors for the advancement of his race."

Researching our History: The Legacies of British Slave-ownership Database

The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act saw Parliament abolish slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape through emancipation, an apprenticeship system and a grant of £20 million compensation payable to slave owners, with each enslaved man, woman and child assigned a monetary value for which they would receive compensation through a formally recorded process. Information from those compensation records was pulled into a Legacies database from 2009 through the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project, now maintained by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College, London which focuses on the impact of British slavery. The database identifies all slave-owners in the British colonies at the time slavery ended and all the estates in the British Caribbean colonies. The Centre has since gone on to track the previous ownership of every estate identified in the first phase further back in history, resulting in the addition of more estates and slave-owners.This research shows that around 46,000 Britons received compensation or around 10% of the population at the time. Slave-owners were from aristocracy and gentry down to sections of the then middle class varying in age and gender- owners also included clergymen, widows and single women who were left slaves as property, in trust. In addition to slave-owners, the database also identifies people who were representatives of slave-owners i.e. as executors or trustees.

Ashurst's early years of operations included the passing of the 1833 Act and the subsequent compensation claim process. In looking at the positive legacies created by the Ashurst family, we also wanted to understand whether William - as a solicitor providing executor / trustee duties - had any connection to or received income from, the compensation process.

Our research

Our Modern Slavery Pro Bono Manager and our Pro Bono Trainee familiarised themselves with the Legacies database in order to carry out searches on William Henry Ashurst and identify any connection to compensation claims. We found no results for William (as at November 2019; reviewed again in June 2020 after additional records were uploaded).

Having ascertained no connection to William, we took the decision to also review the two other partners whose names were later added to the firm's letterhead and remained there until 2003: Ashurst Morris Crisp. We found no results in the database connecting to Sir Frank Crisp (1843 to 1919). The database generated a number of hits for people named John Morris (1823 to 1905) and so our team then worked through each entry to ascertain whether this might be Ashurst's John Morris, comparing known facts about his full name, date of birth & death, career progression, parents, spouse and children against each entry to rule out all but one of the results.

The final result relates to a John Morris listed in a bankruptcy that commenced prior to the birth of Ashurst's John Morris; where "John Morris" is listed as an assignee at a point when Ashurst's John Morris would have been aged 12-13 years old. "Assignee in bankruptcy" usually refers to a person appointed by the creditors as a body empowered to administer the assets of a bankrupt individual or firm on behalf of creditors [6. Geo IV c. 16] and our research indicates that a 12-13 year old would lack the capacity to undertake this role in 1836. Ashurst's John Morris was the son of George Morris which would also preclude any assignment from a father to a son carrying the same name. Based on this we are confident that the John Morris referenced in this final listing is not Ashurst's John Morris, although we continue to research into "surviving assignees" to confirm definitively.


Our research leaves us confident that William Henry Ashurst, Sir Frank Crisp and John Morris are not referenced in database results to date. We recognise that the Centre's research efforts are on-going and will continue to review the database each year to understand our history.

Past and Present: Acknowledging our legacy through four initiatives

  • Elizabeth Anne Ashurst Bardonneau (1813-1850)

    Elizabeth Ashurst attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention with William Ashurst in 1840.

    Read more
  • Caroline Ashurst Stansfield (1816-1885)

    In addition to supporting the abolition of slavery, Caroline Ashurst was involved in efforts to reform and repeal a range of laws

    Read more
  • Matilda Ashurst Biggs (1817-1866)

    Matilda Ashurst attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention with William Ashurst in 1840 and is described by his daughter as having been "roused to white heat" over the treatment of female campaigners at the Convention.

    Read more
  • Emilie Ashurst Venturi (1820-1893)

    Emilie Ashurst helped to organise the first mass petition in favour of votes for women in 1866 which was submitted to Parliament by John Stuart Mill.

    Read more