1793 – 1859
Son of Quaker farmer Joseph Sturge and his wife Mary, he was born at Elberton, Gloucestershire, the fourth of twelve children. He attended Sidcot School until he was fourteen, when he joined his father on the land. When he refused to serve in the militia, his sheep were confiscated to pay the fine. In 1818 he moved to Bewdley, Worcestershire and began trading in corn.
In 1822 Joseph moved to Birmingham to join his brother Charles in a grain importing business. The firm became one of the largest in Britain, and the brothers became wealthy. They invested in the developing railway network and Joseph joined the board of the London and Birmingham Railway.
In 1834 he married Eliza the only daughter of James Cropper the railway investor and philanthropist. They had two children, Joseph and Sophia.
Joseph devoted much of his time and wealth to philanthropy and social concerns. Slave ownership was due to be outlawed in 1833, and he and his sister Sophia were strongly against the policy of gradual emancipation of former slaves, rather than freeing them immediately and completely. Joseph helped set up a committee of the Anti-Slavery Society to campaign for this. The government then decided to compensate the slave owners, while doing nothing for former slaves apart from setting up a temporary system of unpaid apprenticeship. This seemed deeply unfair, and Sturge visited the West Indies during 1836 and 1837 to see the apprenticeship scheme in action for himself. He published his highly critical findings in ‘The West Indies in 1837’. He then gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons and travelled around Britain gathering support. Due to his efforts the scheme was terminated in 1838.
Sturge and his friends sent large sums of money to Jamaica for schools and a scheme for settling former slaves in free townships. He and his friend William Allen helped found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and organised anti-slavery conventions in 1840 and 1843. With John Greenleaf Whittier he travelled through the United States observing the dreadful conditions of the slaves there. On his return he published ‘A Visit to the United States in 1841’ He also bought an estate on the island of Montserrat to prove the economic viability of free labour.
Both Charles and Joseph held themselves responsible for the way in which their wealth was created. This led them to give up, with considerable adverse financial implications, the malt and barley part of their business, as these items were used in the production of alcohol. Joseph was one of the first English Friends to join the total-abstinence temperance movement of the 1830’s. Joseph was also a leader in the agitation against the opium trade in the 1850s.
In the later part of the 1840s Sturge was one of the leaders of a movement for ‘people diplomacy’. The aim was to influence public opinion in favour of arbitration as a means of avoiding war. Peace conferences were organized with his assistance in Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.
He was also involved in two abortive attempts to avert international conflict. He visited Schleswig-Holstein and Copenhagen in 1850 trying to get their governments to submit their dispute to arbitration. He also led of the Quaker delegation that visited the Russian Tsar Nicholas I in St Petersburg in 1854, trying to avert the Crimean War. He helped alleviate its consequences however, by arranging relief for famine-stricken Finland after the destruction caused by the British fleet.
Sturge always did what he thought was right and ought to be done. This made him respected but he was not popular. He unsuccessfully contested parliamentary elections at Nottingham in 1842, Birmingham in 1844 and Leeds in 1847 on platforms such as ‘complete suffrage’, meaning votes for every adult man.
Joseph was instrumental in the foundation of an adult school in Severn Street Birmingham. Evening classes were offered in arithmetic, geography and grammar. He worked with a fellow Quaker William White to revive the adult school movement. They made a conscious effort to retain the participants by including libraries, sick funds and saving schemes.
He died in 1859 and is buried at Bull Street Meeting House, Birmingham. His children continued his philanthropic work.