William Smith (1756 – 1835) was a leading independent British politician, sitting as Member of Parliament (MP) for more than one constituency. He was an English Dissenter and was instrumental in bringing political rights to that religious minority. He was a friend and close associate of William Wilberforce and a member of the Clapham Sect of social reformers, and was in the forefront of many of their campaigns for social justice, prison reform, and philanthropic endeavour, most notably the abolition of slavery. He was the maternal grandfather of pioneer nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale.
William Smith was born on 22 September 1756 at Clapham (then a village to the south of London), the son of Samuel Smith. Brought up by parents who worshipped at an Independent chapel, he was educated at the dissenting academy at Daventry until 1772, where he began to come under the influence of Unitarians. He went into the family grocery business, and by 1777 had become a partner. Smith had a long career as a social and political reformer, joining the Society for Constitutional Information in 1782.
On 12 September 1781, he married Frances Coape (1758 – 1840), daughter of John and Hannah Coape, both Dissenters. Their daughter, Frances Smith, married William Nightingale and was the mother of Florence Nightingale. According to Cambridge University Library records, William and Frances had four other daughters: Joanna Maria (1791–1884), Julia, Anne and Patty. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, they also had five sons. One of them was Benjamin Smith, the Whig politician who fathered Barbara Bodichon, founder of Girton College, and the explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith.
The Smiths continued to live near the family business and moved into Eagle House on Clapham Common.
Election as M.P.
William Smith was elected in 1784 as Member of Parliament for Sudbury in Suffolk. He was active in his support for the Whigs while in opposition. In 1790, he lost his seat at Sudbury, and in the following January, he was elected as M.P. for Camelford. In 1796, he was once again returned for Sudbury, but in 1802 accepted the invitation of radicals to stand for Norwich, although he was defeated in the election of 1806, which was fought on a local issue. The Whig party were, however, elected and formed the next government under Lord Grenville. Smith was returned again in 1807 and 1812 and became a popular and outspoken radical Member of Parliament for Norwich, which was known for being a gathering place for dissenters and radicals of all kinds.
William Smith held strong dissenting Christian convictions – he was a Unitarian, and was thus prevented from attaining the Great Offices of State. (The doctrine of Unitarians was to deny the truth of the Trinity, a central tenet of the Church of England.) [See yesterday’s post on the Doctrine of the Trinity Act for more details on the unitarians.] He nevertheless played a leading role in most of the great contemporary Parliamentary issues, including the Dissenters’ demands for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (for the first time since the 1730s).
Although the campaigners were unsuccessful in 1787, they tried again in 1789. When Charles Fox introduced a bill for the relief of Nontrinitarianism in May 1792, Smith supported the Unitarian Society, publicly declaring his commitment to the Unitarian cause. The same year he became one of the founding members of the Friends of the People Society. In 1813, Smith challenged the established church, and was responsible for championing the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813, known as ‘Mr William Smith’s Bill,’ which, for the first time, made it legal to practice Unitarianism. He was a member of the Essex Street Chapel.
In June 1787, Smith was one of the first to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, becoming a vocal advocate for the cause. In 1790, he supported William Wilberforce in the slave trade debate in April. While he had been out of Parliament, he had given his support to Abolitionism by writing a pamphlet entitled A Letter to William Wilberforce (1807), in which he cogently and convincingly summarized the abolitionists’ arguments.
Once the trade had been halted, he turned his attention to freeing those who were already slaves. In 1823, with Zachary Macaulay, he helped found the London Society for the Abolition of Slavery in our Colonies, thereby launching the next phase of the campaign to eradicate slavery.
In the beginning, at least, William Smith was sympathetic to the revolutionary movement in France. He visited Paris in 1790, where he attended the 14 July celebrations, and later recorded his reactions to the momentous events he witnessed. In April 1791, he publicly supported the aims and principles of the newly formed Unitarian Society, including support for the recently won liberty of the French. Smith was swiftly gaining a reputation as a radical, even a Jacobin. Because he had business contacts and friends in Paris, he was more than once asked to act as a go-between for the government. In 1792, he arranged several meetings between William Pitt and Maret, Napoleon’s foreign minister, in a desperate attempt to avoid war.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1806 as “a Gentleman well versed in various branches of Natural Knowledge.”
Smith’s final major contribution to British politics was to finally successfully see through Parliament the repeal of the Test Acts in 1828. He died on 31 May 1835 in London.