Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ashurst, William Henry (1792-1855)
ASHURST, WILLIAM HENRY (1792–1855), solicitor, was born in London 11 Feb. 1792. His father had led an aimless existence, under the impression — due to rumours about his infancy and his likeness to the eminent judge of the name — that he would be some day recognised as belonging to a distinguished family. William Henry's perception of his father's weakness stimulated his spirit of independence. After some education at a dame school he entered a solicitor's office, where his employer rewarded his industry by giving him his articles. He gained a good practice as a solicitor, though his marriage at the age of nineteen compelled him to increase his income by copying work at night and by writing for the press. He read much, and for a time belonged to a small sect called 'Freethinking Christians.' He ceased to be a member of any sect, though he regarded his political principles as the logical outcome of the doctrine of human brotherhood. He was much influenced by the political writings of Paine and Franklin. He was an enthusiastic radical, spending both money and labour to advance the cause. His house was one of the first to announce upon its walls that it would pay no taxes till the Reform Bill (of 1832) was passed. He was an active member of the common council, and, as under-sheriff for one year, witnessed an execution, which intensified his horror of capital punishment. In 1832 he published the 'Corporation Register,' advocating reforms in the city, and especially in the court of aldermen. He took an active part in the agitation against church rates. He refused to pay them himself. He published pamphlets in 1835, 1837, and 1839, denouncing the imprisonment of Mr. Childs at Bungay, supporting an agitation in Southwark, and attacking a petition for the imprisonment of John Thoroughgood, who had refused to pay at Chelmsford. He also conducted the well-known Braintree case to a successful result.
Ashurst supplied the funds and the labour of procuring the evidence in favour of Rowland Hill's scheme of postal reform when before the parliamentary committee. He was a warm supporter of co-operation, and for a time carried on the 'Spirit of the Age,' founded under Robert Owen's influence, till he disapproved of the spirit in which it was written. The friendship with Owen remained unbroken. Ashurst defended many men whom he believed to have been the victims of injustice or oppression, amongst others Mr. G. J. Holyoake on his imprisonment in 1842, who afterwards owed much to his friendship.
He was an outspoken advocate of the political and social equality of the sexes. He brought up his daughters in habits of independent thought and action. When asked why he had taken up the cause of women's rights, he would say that he had seen a girl tried for child-murder, who had been betrayed by a man, was convicted by men, sentenced by a man, and hanged by a man. 'It made me think.' The cause represented his strongest convictions.
The opening of Mazzini's letters in 1844 led to a friendship with Ashurst. In 1851 and 1852 Ashurst was a founder of the society of the 'Friends of Italy' and of the 'People's International League.' He cordially welcomed many of the refugees at that time. He was a warm admirer of American institutions and of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He had long been a friend of Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and other abolitionists. He paid a visit to America, and saw Garrison in his home. His health suffered from the journey, and broke down completely on the death of his wife soon after. He died on 13 Oct. 1855.