Rushton, Edward (1756-1814)

Rushton was a poet, slavery abolitionist and co-founder of the first school for the blind in the country. Born in John Street, Liverpool, Edward was the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler. Apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping company by the age of eleven, Edward was promoted to second mate around five years later after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm out in the Mersey Estuary – back to port. 

While on a slaver bound for Dominica in 1773, Rushton grew so appalled by the sadistic treatment of the captives he remonstrated with the captain to the point of being charged with mutiny. As the only member of the crew willing to tend to their suffering, Rushton contracted the highly contagious ophthalmia, which left him blind. 

Rushton’s Aunt took him in shortly after his return - his father having now remarried a woman antagonised by Edward’s presence. The injustices Rushton observed at sea led to the publication of his first book-length work, The Dismembered Empire (1782), a denunciation of British rulers and merchants in the framework of the American War of Independence. Furthermore, in the same year as he published a poetry volume on the tragic neglect of Thomas Chatterton, his disgust at the slave trade was given further voice in The West Indian Eclogues (1787). A decade later he wrote to his former hero George Washington, pointing up the hypocrisy of retaining slaves while fighting for freedom: ‘In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot’. A similar letter was dispatched to Thomas Paine, but neither he nor Washington tendered a reply. Nonetheless, Rushton’s bold reputation prompted Thomas Clarkson to credit his contribution to the abolitionist cause upon visiting Liverpool. 

After his marriage around 1784 to Isabella Rain, Rushton went on to become editor of the Liverpool Herald. This career was soon cut short after he reproached brutal press-gang practice in several articles, and rebuffed his partner’s suggestion of a retraction. This episode in Rushton’s life inspired the poem Will Clewine (1806).

When he became a bookseller at 44 Paradise Street, Rushton’s outspoken political convictions deterred potential custom, but not to the extent of preventing him from living out his life in relative comfort, and giving his children a sound education. In the late 1780s Rushton became a member of a literary and philosophical society – thought to have been the forerunner of William Roscoe and James Currie’s ill-fated radical Debating Society – where the idea of raising funds to offer care for local blind paupers came into effect. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind opened in 1791. Rushton published a collection of poems in 1806, and the following year an operation by the Manchester surgeon Benjamin Gibson restored his sight, enabling him to see his wife and children for the first time.

Rushton died of paralysis on 22 November 1814 at his home on Paradise Street, just a few years after the death of his wife and one of his daughters. The eldest of his four children, also Edward, became a prominent social reformer in Liverpool’s political landscape, advocating Catholic emancipation and prison reform.

 

Pub.

The Dismembered Empire (1782); West Indian Eclogues (1787), Will Clewline (1806), Poems (1806), W. Shepherd, ed (1824) Edward Rushton - Poems and other writings - with a sketch of a life of the Author’ (a second edition of the 1806 work, featuring other writings such as his letter to Washington and an 'Essay on the Causes of the Dissimilarity of Colour in the Human Species').

 

Ref.

Anon (1833) Sketches of Obscure Poets London: Cochrane. pp56-71 (online at Google Books);

Burke, T (2001) “‘Humanity is Now the Pop’lar Cry’: Labouring-Class Poets and the Liverpool Slave Trade, 1787-1789’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 42.1 pp245-63;

Burke, T (2003) ‘Edward Rushton (1756-1814)’, Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1800. 3 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto. III, pp9-37;

Clarkson, T (1808) The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. London. I, pp292-414;

Dykes, E.B (1942) The Negro in English Romantic Thought. Washington D.C: Associated Publishers;

Hunter, B (2002) Forgotten Hero: The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. Liverpool: Living History Library;

Magnuson, P (2000) ‘Coleridge’s Discursive “Monody on the Death of Chatterton”’, Romanticism on the Net 17;

Martin, C.G (1966) ‘Coleridge, Edward Rushton, and the Cancelled Note to the “Monody on the Death of Chatterton”’, Review of English Studies 17. pp391-492;

Richardson, A, ed, Verse, vol. IV of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period, eds Kitson, P & Lee D (1999) 8 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto;

Royden, M (2001) ‘Edward Rushton - life and times of an 18th Century Radical and the foundation of the Blind School in Liverpool’ [http://www.btinternet.com/~m.royden/mrlhp/local/rushton/rushton.htm];

Royden, M (2006) ‘Rushton, Edward (1756-1814)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24286];

Sypher, W (1942) Guinea’s Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the XVIIIth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press;

Thornton, R.D (1963) James Currie, the Entire Stranger, and Robert Burns. Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd.

Email Tim Burke