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

Friday 23 January 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


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.

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