Wilberforce was born on July 24 1759, in Hull, the only son of Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. His grandfather, had made the family fortune in the maritime trade with Baltic countries, and had twice been elected mayor of Hull.
Wilberforce was a small, sickly and delicate child with poor eyesight. In 1767, he began attending Hull Grammar School, which at the time was headed by a young, dynamic headmaster, Joseph Milner, who was to become a lifelong friend. Wilberforce profited from the supportive atmosphere at the school, until the death of his father in 1768 caused changes in his living arrangements.