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  • Henry Charles HowellsTransatlantic Reformer
  • Henry Coggeshall Howells IV (bio)

It is uncertain why Henry Charles Howells became associated with many of the reforms of his day; undoubtedly, it was rooted in his Quaker religion and his belief in the inherent worth of all individuals. As a young man in England, he acted on his religious beliefs through his words, writings, and deeds. With his immigration to America, Henry’s positions became incendiary. Not only was he actively engaged in peace societies and the egalitarian education of his large family and others, but Henry also possessed an unyielding, almost fanatical, commitment to the antislavery cause in both England and America.

Henry Charles Howells was born in Hay, Wales, on September 23, 1784; he was the youngest son to live to adulthood of a prosperous Welsh woolen manufacturer, Thomas Howells, and his wife, Susannah Beesley Howells.1 Susannah Howells was from London, and as William Cooper Howells, Henry’s nephew, wrote, “she was a superior woman with a strong religious sentiment and a taste for poetry.”2 Both characteristics influenced Henry’s future endeavors.

Little is known of Henry’s early years, although he certainly received some formal education, given his future vocation as a writing master and school proprietor. He is first identified in London in 1805, where he married Mary Best on September 22, at Covent Garden Church.3 Henry and his wife initially [End Page 29] returned to Hay, Wales, which, during the early 1800s, was an agrarian community with a town center that probably held little appeal for Mary, a Londoner. After the birth of Mary, their first child, Henry and his family moved to Bristol, England.At the time of Henry and Mary’s arrival at Bristol, around 1809, the city had become a sizable port town on the River Avon. Trade had flourished during the prior century, and, although on the wane due to expansion of other port cities, continued to have a significant impact on the city’s growth.

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Henry Charles Howells, age 21 (Author’s collection)

During the eighteenth century, the city’s trade comprised three primary shipping routes. Those were routes to Ireland (Dublin and the southern Irish ports), the Americas (Virginia, South Carolina, and Newfoundland), and, most importantly, the West Indies. For the slave trade, Bristol engaged in a triangular trade in which ships sailed from Bristol to the west coast of Africa, to obtain black slaves to trade with the West Indies primarily for sugar, or southern American colonies for tobacco, iron, rice, skins, and naval supplies.4 From 1698, when the crown granted local merchants the right to trade in slaves, until the abolition of the trade, in 1807, over 2,100 Bristol ships engaged in slaving voyages. The city accounted for about one-fifth of the eighteenth-century British slave trade.5 The trade spawned commercial growth in wholesale operations and distribution, light industry, and the important Bristol industry of sugar refining.6

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Bristol’s population dramatically increased from approximately 67,000 in 1801 to 117,000 in 1831.7 Compared [End Page 30] to Hay, with its population of slightly over 1,000 in 1810,8 Bristol must have appeared full of opportunity to Henry while providing a more familiar sociocultural environment for Mary. Although Henry started his career simply, first as a grocer and then a brightsmith, by the age of 30, the Bristol Directory cited him as a “writing master” living at 31 St. James Place,9 a growing area just north of Bristol’s city center.

Henry, religiously, was a member of the Society of Friends (i.e., Quakers). He was a Quaker by convincement; that is, he was not born into the Society but was an adult member by choice. Henry married Mary in an Anglican church, but the Pales Quaker monthly meeting at Llandegley, in 1807, contains the registry entry for their first child’s birth. The entry cites the parents as nonmembers.10 However, by his third child, Thomas, Henry was accepted as a full member. Both his family and his belief in the Society of...


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