Rev Thomas Gisborne

An Advocate for Social Rights

The Rev Thomas Gisborne was born at Bridge Gate Derby on October 31st 1758 and grew up at the family’s country home of Yoxall Lodge. This privileged upbringing and his position as the eldest son meant that all the wealth and its its subsequent benefits fell to him favourably across his life, and they no doubt helped him with his education at both Harrow and St John’s College in Cambridge. Most influential of all would be the inheritance of this family home, a building that would have a great impact on his life and career and help him achieve his goals as a man of faith and an advocate for social rights.

Sir Thomas Gisborne's shared blue plaque

Sir Thomas Gisborne’s shared blue plaque

Becoming the Rev Thomas Gisborne and his life at Yoxall Lodge.
Gisborne is most commonly referred to as by his title of reverend or as an Anglican divine, and it is true that religion played a large part in his career path and subsequent accomplishments. Upon leaving Cambridge, he was offered a position as a member of parliament but he turned it down in order to take his Holy Orders. Thomas was ordained in 1783, the year he inherited Yoxall Lodge from his family and the year before he married Mary Babington. During his time back in Derbyshire he continued to serve the community, raised eight children and developed a passion for flowers and nature that was admired by experts such as the Professor of Botany at his alma mater. His collection of over 600 species of plants was later preserved by the British Museum and in his later years he became prebendary of Durham Cathedral. His work and influence can be seen in many ways but it is his publications and pamphlets that arguably show his ideas at their best.

Sir Thomas Gisborne from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sir Thomas Gisborne from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Thomas’ talent for writing and his surprisingly controversial works.
Thomas Gisborne is often referred to in memorials and biographies as a poet and, while this cannot be disputed, this does not express the diversity of his writing and the vast number of publications to his name. ‘Poems Sacred and Moral’ (1798) was a selection of the many poems that he wrote alongside his other creative psalms and hymns and the serene ‘Walks in a Forest’ (1794) showed his passion for the woodland estate around his home; however, his more influential work came in the form of his critical essays and pieces where he got to express his opinion rather than his creativity. Among his more controversial works were ‘Principles of Moral Philosophy’ (1789), An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex’ (1797) – which was referenced by none other than Jane Austin – and the 1792 work ‘ Remarks Respecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

Thomas Gisborne the activist and his friendship with William Wilberforce.
It was no coincidence that Gisborne should feel the need to speak out against the slave trade in England because, on top of being a writer and local reverend, he was also an active member of the Clapham Sect – a group of social reformers, generally within the Church of England, who used social activism to fight against the practice of slavery. One of the founding members, inspirational activist William Wilberforce, had met Thomas at Cambridge, the two students being next door neighbours, and they built a strong friendship. As the Sect grew they used Yoxall Lodge as a base for meetings and Wilberforce even came to view it as a summer residence, spending many peaceful summers working there with Gisborne in their later years.

Rev Thomas Gisborne’s death and legacy.
He died aged eighty-seven on March 24th 1846 at Yoxall Lodge and a scholarship was soon set up in his name to help prospective students at the University of Durham. In 2013, a blue plaque was unveiled at St Helen’s House in Derby in a joint memorial with William Strutt as part of a bigger trail of plaques around the city. This location may be queried by some because of Thomas’ links to the building and some would question whether a more fitting memorial would be been in the grounds of Needlewood near Yoxall Lodge. Either way, it is still a lasting tribute to the man that used his faith, talents and wealth to help the causes he was passionate about and he shall hopefully be remembered for a long time.