Allen book 1

GSK archives: William Allen, scientist, businessman, abolitionist

When a company is as old as GSK (300 years this year!), the archives swell with items and documents related to our corporate heritage. One of the more interesting items we’ve uncovered recently is of true historical significance.

Allen portrait
William Allen, 1770 - 1843

The transatlantic slave trade is not a topic that immediately springs to mind as being related to a pharmaceutical company, but one of GSK's early executives was a renowned advocate of the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s.

William Allen was the “Allen” of Allen and Hanburys—a GSK heritage company. He was born in 1770 and joined the company as a clerk in 1792. Within five years, he had risen to be owner and managing partner. Throughout his lifetime, Allen had many wide-ranging interests. While primarily a businessman and scientist, he also was a philanthropist, researcher, and a devout Quaker. Allen became a passionate campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade in 1791 after hearing a speech by William Wilberforce, leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade in England.  

The GSK Heritage Archive holds two of Allen's letter books that show the extent of his interest and network within the abolitionist movement. The first dates from 1811 to 1815 and contains personal copies of letters sent by and to Allen on the subject of slavery.

This letter book of is a treasure which has proven very interesting to researchers and academics, who for many years had used a photocopy of the volume housed in the GSK Heritage Archives. The original letter book had for a long time been assumed lost but was rediscovered last summer by one of our Heritage Archivists as part of a cataloging project. 

The 225 pages of the African Correspondence letter book illustrate the battle that abolitionist campaigners of the era faced. A particularly interesting correspondent is first generation free African American, John Kizell, who acted as an intermediary between the British colonial government and the people of his native island Sherbro, which is off the coast of Sierra Leone. Kizell would later be part of a group who colonized the land that became Liberia.

William Allen was the “Allen” of Allen and Hanburys—a GSK heritage company.

Allen also corresponded with Paul Cuffee, a well-known American abolitionist and son of a freed slave. Cuffee was a leader in the movement to colonize freed slaves in Sierra Leone, using his personal wealth and ships to visit and transport colonists to Africa.

The second volume, dated 1813-1840, uses a scrapbook format: each page has letters adhered that were received by Allen over a much longer period. These all appear to be responses to letters that Allen had sent first, which usually contained a pamphlet of some kind that promoted the abolition of slavery.

Allen's correspondents are still recognizable names today: Samuel Taylor Coleridge the poet, Josiah Wedgwood, son of the Wedgwood company founder, Thomas Clarkson, founder of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and also most of the European royal families of the time. He even met with Tsar Alexander I of Russia when he visited London, and even took the tsar with him to a Quaker meeting!

Allen continued to campaign against the transatlantic slave trade for the rest of his life, and also engaged in other domestic social projects such as the establishment of a self-sufficient agricultural colony, a Quaker school for girls, and a philanthropic publication.

Allen notes 1
Letter to Allen from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, including a verse of poetry, c1820
Allen notes 2
Letter to Allen from Josiah Wedgwood, Oct 1830

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