Serendipity explains much of the Clapham Sect’s success.
The Clapham Sect (c.1790-1833) achieved many significant reforms, including the abolition of the English Slave Trade. The sect’s members became a strategic band of like-minded friends when several decided to reside in adjoining homes in Clapham, a borough just outside London. The catalyst for this move was the revival of what Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797) called “a silly fairy tale.”
Walpole was an English playwright who, in 1754, received a portrait of the second wife of Duke Francesco de Medici from his friend Horace Mann. In planning a frame for the portrait, Walpole accidentally stumbled upon an old Venetian coat of arms with a fleur-de-lis added to a blue ball denoting a forgotten alliance by marriage between two great Italian families, the Medicis and Capellos. This unexpected discovery moved Walpole to express his delight with a new word: serendipity.
“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” From where did Walpole draw this word? “I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’… as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of …”
Walpole went on to say a wealth of wisdom is available to those who are ready to see the unforeseen. Serendipity became the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. But it requires proximity, friends and neighbors travelling together, making discoveries.
This idea of serendipity was very much in vogue at the time of the Clapham Sect. One of its members, James Stephens supposedly said, “Seek a neighbour before you seek a house.” In other words, if the Clapham Sect was to discover ways to reform British society and abolish the slave trade, they had to live near one another (the word neighbor literally means “near one). So many of the Clapham Sect’s members pulled up stakes and moved to Clapham to be near one another, to live as neighbors.
The result is their neighborhood operated as “a meeting which never adjourned.” Henry Thornton (who donated over six-sevenths of his income over his lifetime) said, “Few men have been blessed with worthier and better friends than it has been my lot to be.” Those who couldn’t afford to build or buy homes in Clapham often lived in their Clapham colleagues’ homes. The front doors were usually left unlocked. Indeed, “they dwelt in one another’s houses almost as a matter of course,” writes Ernest Howse.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other; they can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” Seeking to be a neighbor before seeking to buy a house overcomes a bit of that.
I recognize relocating is not always easy, not always possible. But it is worth remembering that much of the Clapham Sect’s success lie in collaboration, and that required proximity, living as neighbors so that serendipity was more likely to happen. It yields unexpectedly delightful ways to make the world a better place.
 As given by W.S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Yale edition, in the book by Theodore G. Remer, ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). LCC 65-10112