Ellen Wilson: Historian and author of ground-breaking works on the abolition of the British slave trade

The historian Ellen Wilson wrote a series of important books that laid the foundations for much of the scholarly discussion that took place in 2007 on the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade. Based in York in later life, she had earlier worked as a journalist in the American mid-west during the Second World War.

Of Cornish and Irish stock, she was born Ellen Gibson in Wisconsin in 1919, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1941 in history andjournalism. Beginning on a small local newspaper, she moved to the Milwaukee Journal's state desk in 1943(the first woman to do so), and specialised in welfare reporting. In 1950 she was awarded a Reid fellowship to enable her to study the new welfare state, and the emerging new towns in Britain. This interest led to her appointment as a public-relations officer for the new John Kennedy administration in Washington in the early 1960s. It was there that she met Henry S. Wilson, the English historian of Africa. Following their marriage, she moved with him first to Aberystwyth and then to York.

In Britain she turned her research and writing skills in a new direction, making a new name for herself as the author of a series of important books. Initially her work was published in the New Shell Guides, to Britain and then to England. But her major and perhaps most durable impact came from three historical studies. The first was The Loyal Blacks (1976), on the remarkable story of freed slaves who sided with the British during and after the American War of Independence. This pioneering study enabled later historians (notably Simon Schama in his 2005 Rough Crossings) to give the subject wider currency.

Her study of John Clarkson's expedition to take some of those freed slaves "back to Africa"; (John Clarkson and the African Adventure, 1980) was another innovative book, rooted in exhaustive research and written in Wilson's compelling narrative style. It too opened up an area of interest explored by more recent scholars. The qualities of her biography of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (1989) were not fully and publicly appreciated until 2007, when the bicentenary of abolition in 1807 generated remarkable widespread attention to the British abolition of the slave trade. Scholars' serious engagement with the nature and narrative of British abolition revealed how much had been learned from Wilson's earlier work.

In all those books, she proved herself an exemplary scholar, and a writer who could satisfy specialist and general reader alike. But she was also a writer who could turn her hand to a range of topics, from West African cookery to the local history of her own part of Yorkshire. Friends and colleagues will remember her fondly for the grace and warmth of her friendly social entertainment, the elegance of her various Yorkshire homes – and for that breath of fresh American air she brought to the crustier corners of local life. Her last days were brightened by the thrill and the promise brought by the election of Barack Obama, bringing back memories of her earlier career in Washington under JFK.

James Walvin

Ellen Gibson, historian: born Eau Claire, Wisconsin 13 November 1919; married 1964 Henry S. Wilson; died York 4 December 2008.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer with SQL and .Net skills

£27000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable and dynamic softw...

SQL Data Migration Specialist / Architect

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice