Thomas Swan came to Birmingham in 1828 at the invitation of the congregation of Cannon Street Baptist Church. Previously, he had been a tutor of divinity at a college in India as part of the Baptist Missionary Society. In the 1830’s, Cannon Street was the second largest Baptist Church in Britain and was a major place for the campaign against slavery going back to the eighteenth century.
The most significant of Swan’s activities was his work in supporting the total abolition of slavery in overseas countries. It has been said that nowhere outside of London was as active in opposing slavery as was Birmingham. In 1833, the British Parliament passed legislation ending slavery but it continued to be a great source of wealth to British people who owned property overseas through the ‘indenture system’ which was not far removed from slavery.
Thomas Swan was a prominent and vocal member of the Birmingham Anti Slavery Society and his close relationship with the influential social reformer, Joseph Sturge is evident through their correspondence. Much money was raised in Birmingham to provide support particularly for work in the West Indies. In 1837, together with Joseph Sturge and others working in the West Indies, including William Knibb, their first success was persuading land owners to give slaves full emancipation. However, some plantation owners then introduced an ‘apprenticeship scheme’ whereby slaves would be freed but over a period of four years.
He was important enough to attend the first Anti Slavery Convention in 1840 as part of the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society. There is a painting of this convention in the National Portrait Gallery which includes him. Following the Convention, 5,000 people heard Baptist deacons from the West Indies speak in Birmingham Town Hall. They focussed on the opportunities they now had for family life and for schooling for both boys and girls, all previously prevented by the plantation owners. In 1842, the Anti Slavery Society held its Annual General Meeting at Cannon Street Church with Thomas Swan taking part along with BMS missionaries and other key members of the movement, with mission and justice for the oppressed interwoven.
Thomas Swan remained a Minister at Cannon Street Church until his death in March 1857, regularly preaching, involving himself in the life of his community and giving his views on affairs of the time. Thousands of people turned out to see his funeral and he is buried in Key Hill Cemetery in Hockley, Birmingham. Cannon Street Church was demolished in the late 19th Century and is now centred in Handsworth.