Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Joshua Toulmin
SMITH, JOSHUA TOULMIN, who after 1854 was always known as Toulmin Smith (1816–1869), publicist and constitutional lawyer, born on 29 May 1816 at Birmingham, was eldest son of William Hawkes Smith (1786–1840), of that town, an economic and educational reformer. His great-grandmother was sister to Job Orton [q. v.], and his great-grandfather Dr. Joshua Toulmin [q. v.] Joshua was educated at home and at a private school at Hale, Cheshire, kept by Charles Wallace. An eager student of literature and philosophy, he was at first destined for the unitarian ministry, but that vocation was abandoned in favour of the law, and at sixteen he was articled to a local solicitor. Removing in 1835 to London, he was entered at Lincoln's Inn with a view to the bar. Meanwhile he showed a precocious literary activity. At seventeen he wrote an ‘Introduction to the Latin Language’ for a class at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, and in 1836 produced a work on ‘Philosophy among the Ancients.’
Marrying in 1837 Martha, daughter of William Jones Kendall of Wakefield, he went to the United States, first settling at Detroit, then at Utica, and afterwards in Boston. At Boston he lectured, chiefly on phrenology and on philosophy. Attracted by Rafn's publication at Copenhagen of the narratives of early Icelandic voyages to America, he published in 1839 ‘The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century,’ a study from the originals, which he was the first to introduce to English readers; the work gained him the diploma of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Copenhagen. Several other minor publications, educational and historical, occupied his pen till, in 1842, he returned to England, and, settling at Highgate, near London, resumed his legal studies, and was called to the bar in 1849. At this period he found recreation in the pursuit of geology. Especially directing his attention to the upper chalk, he printed a series of papers (Ann. and Mag. of Natural History, August 1847–May 1848, issued as a volume 1848) on ‘The Ventriculidæ of the Chalk.’ The monograph, which was illustrated by his own pencil, was based on laborious microscopic investigations; it established the true character, hitherto imperfectly known, of the class of fossils of which it treated, and still remains a chief authority on the subject. This work drew round him the leading geologists of the day. When the Geologists' Association was formed Toulmin Smith was invited to be president, but, beyond delivering the inaugural address (11 Jan. 1859), he took little active part in its proceedings.
Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1847, when the dreaded approach of cholera roused attention to matters of health, Smith became leader of effective action in his own neighbourhood at Highgate; and his inquiries into the former law and practice on the subject of local responsibilities were the beginning of efforts extending over many years, with considerable success in spite of difficulties, to raise the sanitary condition and municipal life of the suburban parish where he lived. He watched the course of public legislation, and brought his researches into constitutional law, joined to his local experience, to bear upon it by weighty speech and untiring pen. He strongly opposed the Public Health Act of 1848, an opposition which subsequent events justified. Reform of the corporation of London, the sewerage and administration of the metropolis, highway boards, the maintenance of public footpaths, the functions of the coroner's court, the volunteer movement, parish rights and duties, and the church-rate question are some of the subjects on which his research and action between 1850 and 1860 were incessant. In 1851 appeared his ‘Local Self-Government and Centralization,’ a deduction of English constitutional principles from the national records; and in 1854 ‘The Parish: its Obligations and Powers: its Officers and their Duties,’ by the second edition of which (1857) he is perhaps best known.
Meanwhile his sympathy was strongly drawn to the Hungarians in their gallant struggle for liberty in 1848–9, and among other aids to their cause he published ‘Parallels between … England and Hungary’ (1849), in which he compared the fundamental institutions of the two countries. Through many years, and to his own detriment, he continued a firm friend to Hungary, successfully defended Kossuth in the suit as to paper money brought against him by the Austrian government in 1861, issued two important pamphlets on the then political position of the country, and was the only person who dared to publish in England the full text of Deák's speeches (Parliamentary Remembrancer, vol. iv.).
Smith declined an invitation to stand as candidate for parliament for Sheffield in 1852. In 1854 he, with Mr. W. J. Evelyn, M.P. for Surrey, and the Rev. M. W. Malet, formed the Anti-Centralisation Union, and wrote the thirteen papers issued during the three years of its existence. He then took a wider means of instructing the public on the attempts and methods of modern legislators, by the establishment of the ‘Parliamentary Remembrancer’ (1857–1865), a weekly record of action in parliament, with valuable historical commentaries and illustrations. The great labour entailed by this periodical—which he conducted single-handed, only helped by his family—added to his other undertakings and his practice at the parliamentary bar, finally broke down his health. He was drowned while bathing at Lancing, Sussex, on 28 April 1869, and was buried in Hornsey churchyard. His wife survived him with two sons and three daughters. The great aim of Smith's life was to spread a knowledge of the historic principles of local government and true democratic liberty, and of the means of adapting them to modern needs. Besides the works mentioned he published: ‘Laws of England relating to Public Health,’ 1848; ‘Government by Commissions Illegal and Pernicious,’ 1849; ‘The Law of Nuisances,’ 1855, which went through four editions, the last in 1867; ‘Memorials of Old Birmingham,’ two vols. viz. ‘The Old Crown House,’ 1863, and ‘Men and Names,’ 1864; and edited several acts of parliament. His historical work on ‘English Gilds,’ which has exercised a wide influence, was completed after his death (Early Engl. Text Soc. 1870).[Regist. and Magazine of Biography, 1869, ii. 88; family papers; personal recollections.]