Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1756-1835)

SMITH, WILLIAM (1756–1835), politician, only son of Samuel Smith, of Clapham Common, a merchant of London, and his wife, Martha Adams, was born on 22 Sept. 1756. His family belonged to the Isle of Wight, and had owned a small estate there since the reign of James I. He was educated at the college of Daventry, and early acquired a taste for literature and art, which was exhibited in after life in his fine library and collection of pictures. On 2 April in the general election of 1784 he was elected M.P. for Sudbury in Suffolk, and sat till the dissolution in June 1790. He was not re-elected, but obtained a seat for Camelford, Cornwall, on 8 Jan. 1791, on the vacancy caused by the death of Sir Samuel Hannay, and sat till 1796. In the next parliament he was elected on 25 May 1796 for Sudbury, but after the dissolution on 29 June 1802 he was elected on 5 July 1802 for Norwich. He did not obtain a seat in the next parliament, which sat from 15 Dec. 1806 to 29 April 1807, but on 4 May 1807 he was again elected for Norwich, and re-elected in the four successive parliaments of 1812, 1818, 1820, and 1826, retiring from parliamentary life at the dissolution of 24 July 1830. He had been brought up in the principles of the revolution of 1688, and adhered to them throughout life. His father and uncle were ground landlords of a great part of the city of Savannah, but sympathised so strongly with the Americans that they made no claim for the loss of their property after the declaration of American independence. The first important debate in which Smith took part (Parl. History, vol. xxv. 824) was that on Mr. Beaufoy's motion in 1787 for a repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. He spoke at great length on the same subject in 1789, when he was answered by Lord North; in 1790 on Fox's motion on the same subject; on 1 March 1791 he spoke last in a great debate in which Burke, Fox, and Pitt spoke on a motion for leave to bring in a bill for the relief of catholic dissenters, and twice on the same bill in April 1791. In 1792 he attacked Burke on Fox's motion for the repeal of certain penal statutes respecting religious opinions, and again attacked him on the address of thanks on 13 Dec. 1792, but often afterwards quoted him and spoke of him with respect. He took part in almost every discussion on religious disabilities till the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, when he was vice-chairman at the banquet on 8 May 1828 held to celebrate the repeal, under the presidency of the Duke of Sussex. In a speech made in 1790 in defence of Dr. Priestley, he stated that he was himself a unitarian dissenter, and in 1792, in another debate on religious disabilities, ‘that as long as his name was William he would stand up for his principles.’ His position as chairman of the deputies of the three denominations and as the chief advocate of their interests in parliament, and the frequent length of his speeches, were satirised in a political poem of the time:

    At length, when the candles burn low in their sockets,
    Up gets William Smith with both hands in his pockets,
    On a course of morality fearlessly enters,
    With all the opinions of all the Dissenters.

On 26 May 1788 he supported the motion of Sir William Dolben on the African slave bill, and in 1789 spoke in favour of William Wilberforce's resolution on the slave trade. In 1791 he spoke at great length in the same cause, giving much varied information on slavery, and the speech seems to have produced some effect on Pitt. He frequently used classical quotations, and on this occasion quoted Macrobius, perhaps the only instance in which that author has been mentioned in the House of Commons. He continued to support Wilberforce's motions till the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. He supported Mr. Grey's motion of parliamentary reform in 1792, and again in May 1797, then stating that he had attended every meeting on the subject for twenty-two years, and voted for similar resolutions to the end of his parliamentary career. In the debates on Fox's resolution against war with France, on 18 Feb. 1793, and in all debates connected with the revolution in France, he spoke and voted with the new whigs, and he was elected a member of the Whig Club, from which Burke and Windham had retired, on 12 Jan. 1796. He had been mentioned as a proper person to represent the city of London, and justified this opinion by attention to finance and other commercial questions. On 3 Feb. 1797 he made a report on a proposed loan, and on 22 Feb., after a very long speech, moved forty resolutions in favour of open competition for government loans. His first resolution was put and received twenty-three votes in the affirmative, and 171 noes. On 10 May 1805 he opposed the corn regulation bill, and in 1806 discussed the pig-iron bill. He supported in 1802 Mr. Dent's bill to prevent bull-baiting with a quotation from Ovid, but agreed with Windham on 29 Jan. 1806 in opposing the proposed funeral honours to Pitt. He voted for the impeachment of Lord Melville, and spoke in favour of the dismissal of the Duke of York from the command of the army. In 1817 he expressed some indignation at the difference between the views of Robert Southey, as laureate and writer in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and as author of ‘Wat Tyler,’ an early effort which had just been printed without Southey's permission. Southey retorted in ‘A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P.’ Smith was made a commissioner of highland roads and bridges, and in that capacity travelled through the highlands in the first years of this century, and was hospitably entertained by the chiefs at Castle Grant, Dunvegan, and elsewhere. It added to his popularity that his father had been kind to Flora Macdonald [q. v.] when she was in the Tower, sending her tea and other luxuries.

Smith was a patron of Opie and of Cotman, and Reynolds sometimes dined at his house. He was the second purchaser of the picture of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, now in the collection of the Duke of Westminster, and he possessed two fine Rembrandts. He knew Dr. Richard Brocklesby [q. v.], and met Dr. Johnson at his house. Samuel Rogers begins his recollections with an account of a dinner at William Smith's on 19 March 1796, where the company consisted of Charles James Fox, Dr. Parr, Tierney John Courtenay, Sir Francis Baring, Dr. Aikin, Sir James Mackintosh, and Sir Philip Francis. Rogers presented Mrs. Smith in 1792 with a handsome copy of the ‘Pleasures of Memory.’ Fox, Priestley, Dr. John Moore, Gilbert Wakefield, Sir James Mackintosh, Thomas Clarkson, and Zachary Macaulay were frequent visitors at his house; Wilberforce was his friend and associate throughout life, and his portrait is drawn by the skilful hand of Sir James Stephen in his famous essay on the Clapham sect. He lived in Aldermanbury when he began public life, and afterwards at Clapham Common. During the parliament of 1812 he bought a house and estate at Parndon in Essex, while his town house was for many years before and after that time in Park Street, Westminster. He died on 31 May 1835 at the house of his eldest son, Benjamin, 5 Blandford Square, a district demolished in 1897 for the Great Central railway. Sir James Stephen says: ‘When he had nearly completed fourscore years, he could still gratefully acknowledge that he had no remembrance of any bodily pain or illness, and that of the very numerous family of which he was the head, every member still lived to support and to gladden his old age; and yet, if he had gone mourning all his days, he could scarcely have acquired a more tender pity for the miserable, or have laboured more habitually for their relief.’ He married, on 12 Jan. 1781, Frances Coape, and had five sons and five daughters, of whom the youngest died at sixty-nine, two lived to more than seventy-five, six to more than eighty, and one to more than ninety.

His portrait and that of his wife by Opie are at Scalands, Sussex, and there is a full-length portrait, painted by H. Thompson, R.A., for his constituents, in St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich; both have been engraved. His family also possess a painting representing him as a boy talking to his father.

Benjamin Smith (1783–1860), his eldest son, was born on 28 April 1783, married Anne Longden, and died on 16 April 1860. He contested Norwich at the election of July 1837, when Sir William Scarlett and Lord Douro were successful. Scarlett's election was declared void, and he became member on 14 May 1838. At the next election, on 28 June 1841, Smith was returned with Lord Douro, and continued to sit until the dissolution in 1847. He was an active supporter of the liberal party and of the repeal of the corn laws. He was a patron of William Hunt, the watercolour-painter. He was painted playing chess with his son William Leigh Smith, at whose house of Crowham, Sussex, the picture is preserved.

[Short Memoir, privately printed, Hastings, 1835; Parliamentary History and Hansard's Debates; Wilberforce's Life of William Wilberforce, 1838; Recollections by Samuel Rogers, 2nd ed. 1859; Sir James Stephen's Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography; Dowden's Southey, 1879; Whig Club Rulers List, London, 1799; family papers and information.]

N. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.254
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
149 i 42-46 Smith, William (1756-1835): omit He was probably . . . Portraits, p. 413).
ii 36 for a dissenter read a Unitarian dissenter