Forgotten Hero:The Life and Times of Edward Rushton

Forgotten Hero:The Life and Times of Edward Rushton By BILL HUNTER Published by: LIVING HISTORY LIBRARY, 28 Canning Street, Liverpool, L8 7NP PRICE £6

EDWARD RUSHTON (1756-1814) was “Liverpool’s blind poet, revolutionary republican and anti-slavery fighter”. Yet he remains “a forgotten hero”. Bill Hunter. first heard of him through a good friend, a delegate to the Liverpool Trades Council from the League of the Blind, who used to tell tales about his time at the blind school in the 1920s. The children still talked about the man who founded the school in 1791 - Edward Rushton. 

In the introduction to the book, Bill says: “The more I found out about him, the more he fascinated me, and the more I saw him as a hero of his time. I discovered an amazing life: the life of a man who deserves an acknowledgement he has not received. He fought against slavery. He staunchly defended the French Revolution, and supported the uprising of the slaves of St. Domingo (Haiti), which won independence from the French. He made a stand for Irish freedom. He was a revolutionary republican and denounced the oppression of the common people throughout the world. He was a passionate supporter of seamen and spoke up against the press gangs that kidnapped seamen off the street for the navy. Yet, despite this, he has become a forgotten hero.” In his book Bill explains Rushton in the context of the times he lived in - the development of the industrial revolution with its particular impact on Liverpool through the building of canals and the increased use of the port - the poverty and exploitation of the workers and their revolt against this; like the Liverpool seamen’s revolt of 1775. These were the times when the British Empire was being built, and Liverpool was a city “built on the slave trade”. Rushton was an apprentice seafarer at the age of 11. He was blinded at the age of 18 or 19 after insisting on taking food and water to slaves who had been locked in the hold of the ship because they had a contagious eye disease. 

Rushton, “the unwavering abolitionist”, pays somebody to read to him. He takes an active part in campaigns to support the French Revolution (but not Napoleon) and to support the American Revolution (but writing a historic letter to George Washington criticising him for being the owner of slaves). Rushton was intensely concerned with Ireland, and he actively campaigned for parliamentary reform. But he is “forgotten” because of his uncompromising and combative approach, unlike the wealthy men, Rosco and Rathbone who became wellknown for their stand on abolition of the slave trade, but remained friends of the slave merchants. When George Washington returned his letter without answer, Rushton suggested to Thomas Paine, author of the “Rights of Man” that they jointly campaign against American slavery. “Paine was unsympathetic. Rushton concluded that Tom Paine cared valiantly for the freedom of the white man but not of the Negro. 

After 30 years, Rushton discovers that an operation might restore sight in one eye. There was no anaesthetic in those days, and the surgeon usually tied the patient to the operating table. Rushton’s refusal to be tied down is characteristic. The sight returns; he sees his wife and son for the first time. In 120 pages, Bill Hunter has given us a concrete, vivid and enthralling account of Edward Rushton, his life and times, with plenty of historic pictures and a good number of Rushton’s poems. 

Dot Gibson 

Workers International Press February 2002 No: 35