Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1813-1893)
SMITH, Sir WILLIAM (1813–1893), lexicographer, born in 1813, was the eldest son of William Smith of Enfield. His parents were nonconformists. Philip Smith [q. v.] was a younger brother. After some time spent as a theological student, William adopted the law as a profession, and was articled to Mr. Parker, a well-known solicitor. While thus employed, he acquired by his own exertions so thorough a knowledge of the classics that, entering University College, he gained the first prizes in the Greek and Latin classes. He was entered at Gray's Inn on 8 May 1830, but, soon abandoning the pursuit of law, became a master at University College school under Thomas Hewitt Key [q. v.], and it was from Key that he learned many principles which he afterwards used in his classical grammars and exercise-books. He early engaged in writing on scholarly topics, and in editing Latin and Greek classics. He contributed articles to the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ and edited the ‘Apology’ and other works of Plato, and a selection from Tacitus. But it was as a collector of classical information in a lexicographical form that Smith first made a reputation. In 1842 there appeared the ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,’ which was in considerable part written by himself. For upwards of half a century this work held its own as the best of its kind which English scholarship had produced; and, a few months before his death, Smith had the satisfaction of publishing a new edition, which extends to double the size of the original book and is now accepted by all scholars as a work of authority on the subjects with which it deals. The ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography’ was finished in 1849, and that of ‘Greek and Roman Geography’ in 1857. In the compilation of these valuable works he associated with himself the chief scholars of the day. The publication of his ‘smaller’ school dictionaries of Latin and classical subjects began in 1850. In 1853, in conjunction with the publisher, John Murray (1808–1892) [q. v.], he started his ‘Principia’ series, the method of which, originated by himself, has been very widely adopted by the leading teachers of languages. A series of ‘Student's Manuals of History and Literature’ followed. He himself wrote the ‘Student's Greece’ (1854).
The greatest work in which he engaged was the ‘Bible Dictionary’ (1860–5), a subject that had been already treated lexicographically by John Kitto [q. v.]; but Smith aimed at a far higher standard of scholarship, and embraced a wider range of topics. He also edited with Archdeacon Cheetham a ‘Dictionary of Christian Antiquities’ (1875–1880), and with Dr. Wace a ‘Dictionary of Christian Biography’ (1877–87). His atlas (of which Sir George Grove was the joint editor) was finished in 1875. He produced an elaborately annotated edition of Gibbon, including the notes of Milman and Guizot, in eight volumes in 1854–5. In 1867 he became editor of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and retained the post until his death. Under his direction the reputation of the ‘Review’ was fully maintained.
Smith was a member of the commission on copyright (1875), and in 1857 was elected a member of the general committee, and on 11 March 1869 registrar of the Royal Literary Fund. From 1853 to 1869 he was classical examiner in London University, and was member of the senate from 1869. In 1870 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. at Oxford, and in 1890 at Dublin. He was also honorary LL.D. of Glasgow, and honorary Ph.D. of Leipzig, and was for many years a member of ‘The Club.’ In 1892 he reluctantly accepted the honour of knighthood. He died in London on 7 Oct. 1893. He married in 1834 Mary, daughter of James Crump of Birmingham. Smith's remarkable success as an editor of works of the most varied kind bears testimony to his quick discernment of the public need; to his ability in the choice of his assistants; to his skill as an organiser; and, above all, to the tact, judgment, and courtesy which enabled him to work with men of all degrees and of varied character in a spirit of perfect harmony and friendliness. His name will always be associated with a revival of classical teaching in this country.
[Times, 10 Oct. 1893; Athenæum, October 1893, p. 434; Annual Register, 1893, pt. ii. p. 185; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; private information.]