SMITH, William (1756-1835), of Parndon, Essex and 6 Park Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1784 - 1790
8 Jan. 1791 - 1796
1796 - 1802
1802 - 1806
1807 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 22 Sept. 1756, o.s. of Samuel Smith, wholesale grocer, of Cannon Street, London and Clapham Common, Surr. and Martha, da. of William Adams of London, coh. of her cos. Anne, Viscountess Cobham. educ. French’s sch., Ware, Herts. 1764-9; Daventry acad. Northants 1769-72. m. 12 Jan. 1781, Frances, da. of John Coape of Oxton, Notts., 5s. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. uncle James Adams 1779; fa. 1798; uncle Benjamin Smith 1803. d. 31 May 1835.

Offices Held

Dir. London Assurance 1803, Albion Insurance Co. 1811, British Herring Fishing Co. 1812; dep. gov. Soc. for British Fisheries 1817.

Commr. Highland roads and bridges 1803-18.

Chairman of Dissenting deputies 1805-32.


In 1820, when Smith, the Dissenters’ parliamentary spokesman, secured his fifth but first unopposed return for Norwich, he was 63, his mercantile fortune was spent and his wholesale grocery firm bankrupt. Sales of his library, paintings, and Parndon and Park Street residences failed to prevent his financial decline and consequent dependence on his family; namely his sons-in-law W.E. Nightingale, George Nicholson and John Carter* and his eldest son Benjamin Smith†, who, before the firm was wound up in 1823, made a fortune managing Cooke’s distillery at Millbank.1 To his friends, the Liverpool banker William Roscoe†, who faced similar financial ruin, and William Wilberforce*, Smith intimated that his ‘Necessarian’ outlook and Unitarian beliefs sustained him in adversity, as they had done through the long campaigns for religious equality and the abolition of slavery in which, as chairman of the Dissenting Deputies of the Three Denominations (Baptists, Independents and Presbyterians) and a founder member of the London Society for the Abolition of Slavery, he remained a major figure. He was the only individual who belonged to the United Committee for repeal of the Test Acts in both 1786-90 and 1827-8.2 A former supporter of Pitt, then Fox, he had been against going to war with revolutionary France and abhorred all violence. A ‘consistent Whig’, he shared their commitment to retrenchment, relieving distress and checking corruption, and backed Tierney for the Commons leadership in 1818. He did not support the radicals’ demands for universal suffrage and short parliaments, but, as a committed reformer (he was a founder member in 1792 of the Society of the Friends of the People), he acknowledged their ‘honest intentions’ and was prepared to act with them on moral issues.3 A stout, robust man, convinced of the educative merits of debate, he indefatigably spoke, presented petitions and requested official papers on the Dissenters’ concerns and other issues, his prowess as a clear and erudite public speaker marred only by predictability and repetition.4 Frequently acting as a teller, he supported measures for the better treatment of animals, children and felons, repeal of the usury laws, chancery reform and the abolition of military flogging throughout this period and divided steadily against the aliens bill.

On 5 May 1820 Smith criticized the Liverpool ministry for failing to keep their 1816 promise to inquire into the civil list and, as subsequently, ordered accounts of extents-in-aid to scrutinize for signs of revenue abuse. Becoming convinced that their deployment encouraged Irish unrest, he vainly attempted to introduce corrective legislation, 24 Apr. 1822.5 He compared reductions in the standing army to parliamentary reform as ‘one of those points, the advantage of which was always admitted, though the time for adopting it never arrived’, 14 June 1820.6 He condoned government spending on the British Museum, 26 May, the astronomer Herschel’s pension, 5 July, and Westminster Abbey, 11 July, but opposed lavish expenditure on the household and the grants to the royal dukes, 3 July. As a minority teller with Hume the next day for economies in revenue collection, he criticized the way in which country bankers had become receivers of land tax, prompting a sharp response from the chancellor of the exchequer Vansittart.7 (He voted for annual parliamentary scrutiny of revenue collection costs, 12 Mar. 1822.) Drawing on his experience as a Cornish Member, he spoke in favour of transferring the franchise of corrupt Grampound to Leeds, 19 May 1820, advocated a scot and lot franchise there, 2 Mar. 1821, and endorsed resolutions pronouncing Grantham guilty of electoral corruption, 12 July 1820.8 He voted to disfranchise civil officers of the ordnance, 12 Apr., for parliamentary reform, 18 Apr., 9, 10 May 1821, 25 Apr. 1822, 20 Feb., 24 Apr., 2 June 1823, 13, 27 Apr. 1826, and Scottish burgh reform, 20 Feb. 1822, and was a minority teller for information on Inverness burgh elections, 26 Mar. 1823. He complained when endorsing the City corporation’s reform petition, 17 May 1824, that he was ‘denied a London vote’ despite his ‘considerable freehold’, and spoke, 14 Mar., and voted to denounce electoral bribery, 26 May 1826.9

Smith backed the London merchants’ distress petition suggesting lower taxes and a dual currency as remedial measures, 8 May 1820. He supported inquiry into agricultural distress, although he expected ‘nothing’ from it, 31 May, and criticized Holme Sumner’s attempts to vet membership of the select committee, 1 June. He doubted the efficacy of Littleton’s labourers’ wages bill, 1 June. To prevent the newly established Unitarian Association and their spokesman Matthew Wood* from usurping his role as the denomination’s legislator and pressing prematurely for Test Act repeal, Smith pre-empted them by announcing a Unitarian marriage bill, 6 June, backed by petitions from London and the provinces, 6, 13 June; but he postponed it, 7 July.10 He informed Lord Holland that the Dissenting Deputies’ petition for repeal of the Test Acts which he presented, 13 July 1820, was the ‘harbinger of the motion which ... I suppose I shall be desired to make next year’.11 His kinsmen had waived their compensation entitlement for Savannah property captured in the American War, but Smith continued to represent the loyalists, supported their claims, 19 June 1820, 21 Mar., and was a majority teller when these were conceded, 6 June 1821. He also protested when difficulties in payment arose, 28 Mar. 1822.12 On behalf of the London distillers, he resolutely opposed the admission of Irish spirits under the excess of spirits bill, 6, 10, 12 July 1820 (and again, 7 May 1821).13 He voiced the concerns of the Protestant British and Foreign Schools Society, of which he was vice-president, over the minutiae of the Whig lawyer Henry Brougham’s education bill, which, by applying the Test Acts, made employment as schoolmasters exclusive to practising Anglicans, 11 July, but otherwise he considered the scheme, which he also discussed in correspondence with Brougham, well suited to rural areas.14 Alarmed at the investigation into Queen Caroline’s conduct, he saw no inconsistency in voting for compromise, 22 June, and to kill inquiry by adjournment, 26 June 1820. He supported the parliamentary campaign on the 1821 queen’s behalf and presented and endorsed the radical Norwich petition, 26 Jan.15 Now based in London, he had moved his family ‘back into trade’ in Philpot Lane in December 1820; and another move, to rented property in Seymour Street, Portman Square, followed in 1823.16

Smith opposed the proposed redundancy payments for Scottish admiralty court officials, 15 Feb. 1821. He voted to repeal the additional malt duty, 21 Mar., 3 Apr., and against appointing a select committee to consider it in Scotland, to which he was nevertheless appointed, 12 Apr. He voted to restore official salaries to their 1797 levels, 30 Mar., and divided steadily against the army estimates, irritating ministers and delighting opposition with his sharp criticism of the £922 award for the ‘superfluous’ deputy quartermaster-general in Scotland, 11 Apr.17 He voted to reduce the admiralty office grant, 4 May, but approved expenditure on Millbank penitentiary, 31 May, prisons, 4 June, criminal lunatics, the Bow Street police and St. Paul’s Cathedral, 28 June. He opposed the lottery, 1 June, and the £3,000 salary for the governor of the slave colony of Sierra Leone, 28 June, on moral grounds. Excepting the Clarences’ arrears, he now condoned the grants for the royal dukes, 8, 18, 29 June, but hoped to see the ostentatious coronation ‘dispensed with’, 29 June. He voted for the radical Whig Grey Bennet’s abortive placemen bill, 30 May, and in protest against the appointment of Thomas Frankland Lewis* as an Irish revenue commissioner, 15 June, which he criticized as an abuse of crown patronage, 18 June.18 He objected to ‘purchasing from the colonies articles inferior to those which might be had nearer home’, preferred the Norwegian to the Canadian or Russian trade, and voted to amend the timber duties accordingly, 16 Apr. He presented mercantile petitions from Norwich for repeal of the tax on foreign wool, 16 May, and against the proposed increases in tobacco duties, 18, 22 June 1821, and represented their interests throughout this period.19

Smith confined to procedural points his support for the campaigns on behalf of the radicals Thomas Davison, arbitrarily fined by Justice William Best† for contempt of court, 23 Feb., and Nathan Broadhurst, 7 Mar., and deliberately distanced himself from Henry Hunt’s* friends before voting to receive the report on his conditions of detention at Ilchester, 21 June 1821.20 Alluding to the case of the radical bookseller William Hone (whom he had defended in 1818), he maintained that John Bull’s libel against Grey Bennet, in which the foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh* was implicated, was ‘personal rather than political’, 9 May, and moved to have the printer, Weaver, taken into custody and reprimanded, 11 May, but this was superseded by an amendment consigning him to Newgate, 11 May. He presented the Protestant Dissenters of London and Westminster’s petition for a reduction in the number capital offences and voted accordingly, 23 May 1821 (and again 4 June 1822, 21 May, 25 June 1823).21 He urged reform of the courts of law in England, 9 May, and Newfoundland, 28 May, and was a minority teller for inquiring into the administration of justice in Tobago, 6 June 1821. Presenting the Unitarian Association’s petition for amendment of the marriage laws, 8 June, he attributed the delay to his bill to ‘pressure of public business’ and assured Joseph Phillimore, whose clandestine marriage bill also languished, that the Unitarians would ‘accept relief in whatever way the legislature will concede it’.22 He steered the 1821 Westminster Improvement Act successfully through the Commons and presented the Fishmongers’ Company’s petition for repeal of the Elizabethan statutes prohibiting the development of the north bank of the Thames, 1 May 1821.23

Smith voted to amend the address, 5 Feb., against the government’s coercive measures for Ireland, 7, 8 Feb., the dismissal of Sir Robert Wilson* from the army, 13 Feb., and for inquiry into the assault on Robert Waithman* for attempting to force the queen’s funeral procession through the City, 28 Feb. 1822. He divided for more extensive tax reductions, 21 Feb., and was a minority teller with Hume, whose political leadership he praised, against the ordnance estimates, 27 Feb. He was granted further discussion of the government’s navigation bill, 25 Feb., and, dissatisfied with its details, he explained when endorsing a hostile petition from London’s silk merchants, 23 May, that he was ‘favourable to the principle of free trade’ but considered the current tax burden on shipping too great to make it competitive. He suggested retaining the barilla duty, on which the Scottish trade depended, on humanitarian grounds, although ‘the first principles of political economy were at stake’, 29 July.24 He complained at the inconvenience to Members of prisoners such as Hunt using up their franks, 1 Mar.,25 but voted for remission of his sentence on account of ill-treatment, 24 Apr. He voted to repeal the salt duties, 28 Feb., 28 June, and warned that their retention would ruin the fisheries, 11, 17 June.26 He did not oppose the introduction of the naval and military pensions bill, 11 Mar., but he divided against it, 3 May, 3, 26 June, having urged that pensions be financed ‘from the sinking fund without disguise’ or ‘any increase of establishments’, 1, 24 May.27 He sanctioned spending on civil and commercial improvements in Canada as a means of fostering its development 13 Mar., but divided against the Canada bill, 18 July. He queried the alterations made in the commercial credit bill, 17 Apr. He condemned the colonial trade bill as ill-conceived and criticized its details, but conceded (to taunts from the planters in the House) that something similar would have to be carried before further progress towards the abolition of slavery was possible, 1 Apr., 17 May.28 He voted against the excise bill, 27 June, and seconded Edmond Wodehouse’s unsuccessful amendment to have part of it repealed, 2 July. He divided against the royal burghs accounts bill, 19 July, although he had wanted to see its powers for acting against corrupt magistrates and the attendant £500 penalty extended to England and Wales, 17 June. He opposed the lotteries bill as previously, 1, 24 July, but condoned public expenditure on the arts, 17 July 1822.29

Smith, who had supported a similar motion, 9 Feb. 1821, was a minority teller for inquiry into the duties of the India board under the presidency of the Grenvillite Charles Williams Wynn*, 14 Mar. 1822. He divided for inquiries into the government of the Ionian Isles, 14 May, and the dealings of the lord advocate with the Scottish press, 25 June (and again, 3 June 1823). He voted against the Irish constables bill, 7 June, to condemn the growing influence of the crown, 24 June, and for the production of papers on Colombian independence, 23 July 1822. He advocated government intervention to create employment for the Irish poor, 17 May, and testified to the success of similar initiatives by the London Companies of Drapers and Grocers as absentee landlords. He supported the Irish insurrection bill as ‘a measure of mercy’ and part of a long-term plan to remove ‘the vestiges of centuries of Irish misgovernment’, but foresaw little hope of tranquillity ‘until he saw corn used, not as food for the still, but as food for man’, 15 July. He presented several petitions backing his Unitarian marriage bill, 3 Apr., 21 May, and claimed that its sole objective was to grant English Unitarians equal privileges with Jews, Quakers and Scottish and Irish Dissenters, 17 Apr.30 Government and the established church opposed it and, heeding the advice of Stephen Lushington* and his friends, he pre-empted its defeat by withdrawing it, 10 June, and securing leave for a new bill, which he brought in and had printed, 10 July.31 Supporting Wilberforce, he ordered returns, 10 June, and seconded his successful motion for an address regretting the European powers’ failure to implement their 1815 agreement prohibiting the trade in slaves, 27 June.32 He described abolition as ‘a sign of a Christian state’, denounced the concept of the slave as property and condemned the trade at the Cape, 25 July, and in Trinidad, 5 Aug. 1822.33

Smith voted for large tax reductions, 28 Feb., 17, 18 Mar., and spoke against the national debt reduction bill, 6, 17 Mar. 1823. He quibbled over the estimates, pressed for reform of the pension system, 17 Mar., and divided against the military and naval pensions bill, 14, 18 Apr. He raised ‘no immediate objection’ to the passage of the merchant vessels apprenticeship bill, despite his long-standing opposition to impressment, 18 Apr.34 He expressed support for equalization of the duties on East and West Indian sugars, which Huskisson as president of the board of trade was not prepared to concede, 3 Mar., and presented a favourable petition from Norfolk and divided for inquiry, 22 May.35 He voted in a minority of eight against considering the warehousing bill, 21 Mar. He also suggested postponing the silk manufacture bill, which threatened the London and Norwich trades, to permit further inquiry, 21 Mar., and voted to recommit it, 9 June, although he conceded that certain clauses were beneficial, 9, 11 June. Convinced that state subsidies and tithe abuse contributed to the unpopularity of the established church in Ireland, Smith voted for inquiry, 4 Mar., 21 Apr., and was a minority teller against the award for churches and glebe houses, 11 Apr., 1 July. He voted for inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and against renewing the Irish Insurrection Act, 12 May, 24 June, when he also complained that government measures ‘were calculated solely to throw dust in the eyes of the public’ and that tranquillity was impossible while ‘six million people were denied the rights of the constitution, while one million ate up all the patronage, the honours and power of the country’. He voted for the Scottish juries bill, 20 June, and to amend the East India mutiny bill by transferring the trial of capital offences to the civil courts, 11 July. Despite his private disgust at the radical bookseller Richard Carlile’s publications, he maintained that the blasphemous petition from ‘ministers of the Christian religion for free discussion’ should be received, as it was ‘impossible to ‘establish a safe test of opinion for the penal guidance of society’, 1 July.36 He ordered detailed returns of duties and drawbacks on the soft soap used in the Norwich worsted industry, 20 Feb.,37 and presented his constituents’ petitions for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Act, 15 May, and the combination laws, 30 June. He failed in his attempt to have a clause added to the Scottish distilleries bill, freeing distillers from their obligation to give 12 months’ notice before trading in England, 8 July. He was at Zachary Macaulay’s house on 13 Jan. 1823, when the anti-slavery lobby agreed their tactics for the session, and was instrumental in establishing the London Society for the Abolition of Slavery.38 He presented and endorsed abolitionist petitions, 27 Mar., 5 May, 30 June, 11 July,39 expressed dissatisfaction with the vague time scale and inadequate enforcement strategy proposed in Canning’s resolutions, 15 May, and joined Thomas Fowell Buxton* and Wilberforce in their negotiations with him.40 On the slave trade consolidation bill, 5 July, he approved Lushington’s abortive clause restricting slave transfers between the colonies and called for action against slave maltreatment in Demerara and Trinidad. He backed Wilberforce’s motion for a select committee to examine the condition of the Honduras slaves, 11 July 1823, and, when it failed, ordered information on the slave populations of all British colonies.41

On the address, 4 Feb. 1824, Smith sought Canning’s assurance that the country ‘would not be a party to any arrangement which did not protect the Greeks’. Before voting to repeal the window tax, 2 Mar, and the assessed taxes, 10 May, he again criticized tax gathering costs and complained that the ‘sinking fund had become a nickname for a thing that had gone into general disrepute’ and would be better used for funding tax reductions. He voted, 15 Mar., and presented a petition from Norwich against the beer duties, 21 May.42 He endorsed spending on the British Museum as previously, 1, 29 Mar., but voted against the grants for Windsor Castle, 5 Apr., and new churches, 9, 12 Apr., 14 June. He said that his opposition to the latter derived from his experience of the growth of urban Dissent and, citing the case of Norwich, whose redundant churches did not signify ‘insufficiency, nor want of activity in the clergymen’, he cautioned against assuming that buildings alone would boost church attendance, 9 Apr. He supported investigation of the disrepair of Londonderry Cathedral, 10 May. He voted for inquiry into the Irish church, 6 May, and against the Irish insurrection bill, 14, 18 June. He recommended granting diplomatic recognition to the ‘independent’ South American states ‘sooner rather than later’ on commercial and humanitarian grounds, 21 June. As in subsequent years, he presented and endorsed Norwich petitions for repeal of the duty on coastwise coal, 20 Feb., 29 Mar.43 He approved the removal of protective tariffs on wool and silk, 5, 18 Mar., but endorsed the Norwich trade’s petitions for concessions on stock-in-hand 19, 26 Mar. He presented a petition from Portsea for repeal of the combination laws, 19 Mar.44 He introduced the successful Thames Tunnel bill as chairman of the attendant company, 22 Mar.,45 opposed the St. Katharine’s Docks bill, 2 Apr., and was a majority teller with Wood for the coal exchange debt bill, 9 June. Smith shared Buxton’s disappointment with Canning’s anti-slavery resolutions and assisted in the parliamentary campaign designed to expose the government’s vacillation on the matter, 15, 16 Mar., and discredit the planters’ claims that the Anti-Slavery Society sought the precipitate emancipation of all slaves, 15 June 1824.46 He warned that the West India Company bill, against which he was a minority teller, 10 May, would worsen the slaves’ plight, as the profitability of the Company would be paramount, and presented petitions, 1 June, and voted in condemnation of the indictment in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June.47 Defending Hume, who as the presenter of a petition for the freedom of discussion was charged with cant and religious hypocrisy, Smith reiterated his opinion that ‘religion must stand upon truth’, which ‘could only be discovered by discussion’, and his tenet that ‘prosecutions for religion’s sake were ineffectual’, 3 June. He interpreted the Carlile case as a question of ‘whether an individual was to be subjected to excessive imprisonment for non-payment of a fine, when his incapacity to pay it was evident’, 11 June 1824, and again, 2 June 1825.48 He was prepared to tolerate the whipping of vagrants, 3 June, but not impressment, 10 June 1824. As requested, on 24 June 1824 he reluctantly presented and endorsed the petitions which launched the Dissenters’ premature campaign for repeal of the Test Acts, from which the Protestant Association held aloof.49 During the recess he came to realize that the campaign could not succeed without the Association’s support, and he also lobbied on behalf of the persecuted Swiss Protestants.50

Smith had divided for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, and expressed support for the English Catholics qualification bill provided Protestant Dissenters were not disadvantaged thereby, 28 May, 30 June 1823.51 He divided against the Irish unlawful societies bill, 15, 18, 21, 25 Feb., and for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 10 May, pairing for it, 21 Apr. 1825. Unnerved by Brougham’s references to the Dissenters’ differences on the issue, 18 Apr., he tried to demonstrate that with the exception of the Methodists’, their petitions were predominantly pro-Catholic, 18, 19 Apr., and presented and endorsed favourable ones from Unitarian congregations, 9 May. He saw ‘no inconsistency’ in voting for the Irish franchise bill that day.52 Briefed by Brougham, he warned the Dissenting deputies at their general meeting, 27 May, that their parliamentary friends were against ‘touching’ the Dissenters’ question at present.53 Having secured the backing of Lushington and the bishops, Smith saw his Dissenters’ marriage bill, announced, 11 Feb., through the Commons, 23 Feb., 25 Mar., 6 May. However, his confidence that ‘the legislature need attend only to the civil part of the business’, as ‘amply sufficient guards’ were provided for ‘accurate registration’ and against clandestine marriages, proved to be misplaced; and, as predicted on 25 Mar. by Peel, the home secretary, to whom he had sent a book and printed sermon for guidance, he failed to prevent the bill being overloaded with amendments by Dissenters and high churchmen, and it was killed off in the Lords, 3 June.54 He expressed reservations lest the Unitarians’ petition against oath-taking should inadvertently jeopardize his plans, 21 June, and attributed it to their exclusion from the provisions of the Toleration Act. He defended government spending on the rehabilitation of slaves and the commission for suppression of the trade, 11 Mar., and wanted the Canadian wastelands bill be ‘framed so as not to injure or prejudice the native Indians’, 15 Mar. He repeatedly criticized Members for ‘lauding and condemning architecture as if they knew all its rules’ and joined in the clamour for a select committee on public buildings, 21, 28 Mar.55 He inveighed to the last against the ‘monopolistic’ West India Company bill, which the abolitionists tried to wreck, condemning it as a private measure whose sole object was ‘to bolster up a losing concern’ and delay the abolition of slavery, 29 Mar., 16 May. By contrast, he praised the Mauritius trade bill as an experiment in self-sufficiency, 3 June. He advocated government intervention to put a stop to the ‘abominable idolatry’ of suttee, 6 June.56 Convinced of the evils of spirit drinking among the poor and of its association with crime, he castigated ministers for lowering the retail duties on spirits, 22 Apr. 1825. He voted for revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr., which Norwich had petitioned for, 26 Apr., and to repeal the beer duties, 5 May.57 On the 20th he divided against the Leith docks bill and voted to make puisne judges immovable. He acknowledged the administrative failings of the 1819 Factory Act and, backing Hobhouse’s bill to amend it, he compared the Manchester children’s plight unfavourably with that of West Indian slaves, 6, 16, 31 May.58 On tithe reform, he admitted the shortcomings of the London bill, 17 May, and supported that for St. Olave’s, 6 June.59 He divided against subsidizing Irish emigration to Canada, 13 June, and for inquiry into the Irish church, 14 June. He criticized the distillery bill as unfair to Irish, Scottish and English distillers, claimed they would lose £100,000 by it and wished to see rum excluded from its provisions, 13 June. Clauses which he proposed exempting millers and other occasional distillers from its remit were withdrawn, 20 June.60 He advocated paying compensation to Lecesne and Escoffery, 16 June. He protested strongly at the expulsion of the Wesleyan missionary Shrewsbury from Barbados and denounced the legislature there for failing to protect church property, 23 June. He endorsed Whitmore’s proposals for establishing an independent stipendiary magistracy and jury trial under the combination of workmen bill, 27, 29 June 1825.61

Smith disputed Alexander Baring’s argument that government had a duty to relieve individual merchants in the aftermath of the 1825-6 banking crisis, and called instead for ‘substantial and immediate’ measures to combat widespread distress, 14 Feb. 1826. He praised the Bank of England’s initiatives to assist the country banks, 8 Mar.62 He gave his customary speech as a minority teller for the abolition of bear-baiting, dog-fighting and cruel sports, 21 Feb., and was directed that day to assist with the cattle ill-treatment bill; but he opposed legislation against the improper treatment of dogs, to whom the law of misdemeanours already applied, 21 Apr. Endorsing the 72,000-signature London anti-slavery petition, 1 Mar., he singled out the recalcitrant legislature of Jamaica for censure, 1 Mar., spoke and voted in condemnation of the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., and presented anti-slavery petitions, 6, 7, 18, 21 Mar., when, goaded by the planters, he again denied that abolitionists sought the immediate emancipation of all slaves.63 He spoke similarly, 20 Apr., when, clashing with Baring and the colonial under-secretary Wilmot Horton, he read out a list of charges of cruelty to slaves in Demerara and Berbice. He obtained returns of the government’s slave holdings in Mauritius, 23 Mar., and was named to the select committee on the trade there, 9 May. 64 He voted for inquiry into the petition of James Silk Buckingham† concerning the liberty of the press in India, 9 May. He set out the grievances outlined in the Protestant Dissenters of London and Westminster’s petition against the Test Acts, 18 May, and explained that legislation had been shelved that session, in favour of memorials and petitions.65 Smith voted for reductions in the army estimates, 3 Mar., and called for free access to the Angerstein sculptures in Westminster Abbey, 16 Mar. He was in a minority of six against the grant for Irish charities, 23 Mar., and voted against approving Huskisson’s official salary, 7 Apr. Maintaining that the ‘state ought to suffer every class of persons to educate their children as they thought proper’, he sympathized with Irish Catholics’ demands for state funding for their schools, 14 Apr. He was a minority teller against the Irish church rates bill, 21 Apr. Norwich, where his unstinting support for the proposed assize transfer from Thetford and the recently defeated Norwich and Lowestoft navigation bill pleased both parties, returned him unopposed at the general election in June with the home secretary’s brother Jonathan Peel, an ardent anti-Catholic. His son Benjamin paid Smith’s £1,500 bill.66 Writing to the Quaker leader Joseph John Gurney, 8 July 1826, Wilberforce rejoiced in Smith’s re-election, but he was

quite grieved ... to hear that he was to come into Norfolk this very week to take the chair in what is termed an Unitarian meeting. Indeed he mentioned it to me ... I had indulged a hope that he was rather retiring from his Unitarian opinions and this proof to the contrary has given me real pain.67

Smith succeeded in reviving the committee on standing orders, 24 Nov., expressed qualified support for the resolutions on private bills, 28 Nov. 1826, and was instrumental in securing the enactment of the Norwich and Lowestoft navigation port bill early in the new Parliament.68 His defence of the Deist preacher Robert Taylor, a member of the Norwich Unitarian dynasty, for ‘fairly’ stating ‘that he denied the truth of the Gospels, but ... firmly acknowledged the existence of God’, 29 Nov., turned the London Evangelicals against him, weakening his influence within the Anti-Slavery Society and spawning an unsuccessful campaign to remove him as chairman of the Dissenting Deputies.69 He advocated printing a rabid anti-Catholic petition from a Leicester parish, 2 Mar., but divided as hitherto for relief, 6 Mar. 1827.70 When pressed by John Bowring of the Unitarian Association and others, he spoke out against the annual indemnity bill as a ‘stalking horse ... for absurd oaths’, without which the Test Acts would long ago have been abolished, 23 Mar. He spoke against the duke of Clarence’s annuity bill, 16 Feb., 16 Mar., the army estimates, 20 Feb., and military flogging, 26 Feb. He supported inquiries into the allegations against Leicester corporation and county polls, 15 Mar.71 After securing returns of exports and imports to and from the East and West Indies and Mauritius, 16 Mar., he criticized the ‘unreasonable’ protection which the annual duties bill gave to the East Indian sugar industry, 23 Mar., and later speculated that it was connected to the clandestine slave trade at Mauritius, 15 May.72 He voted on humanitarian grounds for the spring guns bill, 23 Mar., and information on the magistrates’ treatment of the Lisburn Orange marchers, 29 Mar. He voted to postpone the committee of supply until the ministerial uncertainty caused by Lord Liverpool’s stroke was resolved, 30 Mar., and to inquire into the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 5 Apr. During Canning’s ministry, he divided for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May, for Lord Althorp’s bill limiting election expenses, and also the Canadian waterways grant, 12 June. He presented contentious petitions for wage regulation, which he described as the ‘worst remedy possible’, though he conceded its palliative merits, from the distressed weavers and manufacturers of Norwich, 30 May.73 He recommended awarding coloured freemen in the West Indies the legal rights and privileges of British subjects, 12 June.74 The Dissenters’ petitioning campaign for repeal of the Test Acts was already under way when Brougham warned them that Canning would put Catholics first, 3 May; but Smith, as chairman, persuaded the newly formed United Committee of the 24 Dissenting Deputies and their allies to delay legislating for it until 1828. Leaving Russell to gloss over disagreements over tactics among their ranks, 7 June, he emphasized the Dissenters’ forbearance, on bringing up their petitions, 7, 13, 22, 29 June,75 and used their moderation to good effect in the negotiations which secured ministerial backing for his Dissenters’ marriages bill, which the Commons passed, 19 June 1827; it foundered in the Lords.76

After Canning’s death in August, Smith wanted to postpone the repeal bill until a Whig administration favourable to it was appointed, but the Dissenting Deputies overruled his suggestion and, by arrangement with Russell, petitioning was set in motion directly the United Committee and the Protestant Society launched their joint campaign, 16 Jan. 1828.77 Lobbied in turn by the Catholic Association, Smith used the opportunity afforded by presenting a pro-Catholic petition from Kilmainham to deny newspaper reports of collusion between the Catholics and the Dissenters, 6 Feb., adding that while the Dissenters acknowledged their disunity on the Catholic question, they agreed that ‘civil and religious rights ought to be the same’ and that ‘no man should be deprived of the former by reason of the latter’. He closed with a personal plea for the swift passage of Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Test Acts. He sought and presented petitions for the latter, 15, 21, 22, 25, 26 Feb., and was a majority teller that day when their motion for considering it was carried, despite the Wellington ministry’s opposition. He drafted the resolutions on which the repeal bill was based, and presented and endorsed favourable petitions, 14, 17, 18 Mar., when, knowing that the United Society objected to the ‘Christian’ declaration that he had negotiated as a security with Sir Thomas Acland*, Lord Lansdowne, the home secretary Peel and Russell, he explained that he had agreed to it solely to ease the bill’s passage through the Lords.78 He consulted Lansdowne and Wellington during its progress there, and stifled the Norwich Quaker banker Hudson Gurney’s objections to their amendments, 2 May, accusing him of ‘wasting his ingenuity’. At the celebration dinner at London’s Freemasons’ Tavern, 18 June 1828, the duke of Sussex hailed him as ‘one of those friends I would trust in the dark’, the United Society paid tribute to his political realism and Smith expressed relief that he was ‘not in office’ and therefore ‘not in the situation of wanting a political keeper of my conscience’.79 He informed Lord Holland that the Dissenters would press for Jewish emancipation to atone for the ‘Christian’ declaration, identified church rates, ‘not tithes ... nonsense’, as their only real remaining grievance and called for an end to

fastidiously dwelling on the comparative trifles of difference that yet remain - treating the remaining prejudices of the clergy with moderation, as what must speedily yield to more familiar intercourse - not ostentatiously complaining of our want of a complete parochial registry, but leaving that to be settled, as I believe it will be, in a new arrangement for the whole kingdom upon the subject, which I know to be in exceedingly good hands (the legal commission) and likely to be brought forward ere long. On the Unitarian marriages I have had several conversations with both the duke of Wellington and the bishop of London, and am thoroughly convinced of the good dispositions of both ... There are two or three other inconsiderable matters, paying turnpikes when going to meeting, assessment of chapels to parochial rates, which should be adverted to when occasion offers, but in fact are not purely Dissenters’ objects, applying for the most part to all chapels not parochial.80

Repeating that there was ‘no union between Catholics and Dissenters’, he presented petitions, 25, 29 Apr., and voted for Catholic relief, 12 May. He reminded the House of the Quakers and Moravians’ objections to oath-taking, 5 May, divided for inquiry into the Irish church, 24 June, and presented and endorsed petitions against the additional churches bill, 26 June, 8 July 1828, when he again called for toleration for Taylor.

Smith had discussed parliamentary tactics on slavery with Buxton, Lushington and Macaulay in October 1827, and he joined Buxton in criticizing the colonial under-secretary Wilmot Horton, 5 Mar. 1828.81 He presented and endorsed anti-slavery petitions, 23 May, 3, 9 June, 17, 25 July, and supported the former colonial secretary Huskisson’s request for a copy of his letter of 22 Sept. 1827 to the governor of Jamaica, disclosing much of its content, 1 July. Advocating reform, he peppered his speeches for Davies’s abortive borough polls bill with references to Norwich, whose eight-man booths and one-day polls he praised, 21 Feb., 31 Mar., 15 May, and he supported the voters’ registration bill, 19 June, and the corporate funds bill, 10 July. His examination of an East Retford witness was criticized as ‘unduly harsh’, 7 Mar. He divided against sluicing the franchise there, 21 Mar. He voted for more efficient collection of customs penalties, 1 May, and information on civil list pensions, 20 May. He presented Norwich petitions against the friendly societies bill, 30 Apr., and for the appointment of a committee to regulate wages, which, in view of the weavers’ extreme distress, he moved for despite his personal reservations, knowing it would not be granted, 1 May. He presented various Norwich mercantile petitions, 20 May. He welcomed Peel’s initiative on lunatic asylums, 19 Feb., and called for harsher penalties for cruelty to children under the offences against the person bill, 5 May, but withdrew his proposed amendment making the maltreatment of children and apprentices punishable by a four-year prison term, 6 June. He voted the same day to postpone the grant to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the colonies. Before voting for army reductions, 13 June, he explained that he did so purely on account of the state of the country and not ‘to cast a censure upon, or to take a part in any systematic opposition’ to the ministry, whose strength he praised. He cast critical votes on the cost of the Buckingham House refurbishment, 23 June, and ordnance expenditure, 4, 7 July 1828.

When Peel and Wellington conceded Catholic emancipation in 1829 Smith delegated the task of opposing the massive Norwich anti-Catholic petition to Hudson Gurney and excused the absence of a similar pro-emancipation petition as ‘unnecessary’, 19 Feb. Most Unitarian pro-Catholic petitions were forwarded to him for presentation, and he also presented that of the Dissenting Deputies, 6 Mar., when, controversially, he justified their decision to sign on behalf of their congregations by stating that the ‘lower class of people cannot judge properly of this question’. As in 1825 and 1827, he exaggerated the Dissenters’ pro-Catholic sympathies and tried to mask their differences by glossing over differences between the provinces and the metropolis and attributing anti-Catholic petitions to Calvinist and Wesleyan influences, 17 Mar.82 He divided for emancipation, 30 Mar. He attributed his decision not to oppose the army estimates that year to recent improvements in management, 13 Mar. He voted to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, and for Lord Blandford’s reform proposals, 2 June. He gave steady support to the labourers’ wages bill, 25 Mar., 4, 12 May, and the anatomy bill, 8, 19 May, when he also endorsed proposals to amend the 1819 Factory Act. Dismissing a similar motion brought on by John Stuart Wortley as ‘ill-conceived’, he ordered returns to show the high mortality and administrative costs in Sierra Leone, 2 June, and he refused to sanction Otway Cave’s resolution for freeing the children of all slaves born after 1830, 4 June. He requested a breakdown by colony of the entire slave population, 5 June 1829, and commented on the ecclesiastical courts bill that day. His financial affairs remained in disarray, partly on account of his attempt to recoup earlier losses by assuming the chairmanship of the ill-fated Thames Tunnel Company, whose operations were suspended amid charges of gross mismanagement after the tunnel collapsed for the second time, 12 Jan. 1828. Acrimonious exchanges followed between Smith and the engineer Brunel, whom he dismissed, and, after failing to secure adequate additional funding for the scheme from government and private sources, he relinquished his directorship in 1830.83

Smith dismissed Knatchbull’s amendment condemning the omission of distress from the 1830 address as a ploy by the disaffected Ultras and divided with government against it, 4 Feb. He cautioned against forcing a division on reform, 5 Feb. He voted to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., 5 Mar., and registered his ‘disgust’ with the disfranchisement bill by voting to introduce the ballot there, 15 Mar. He voted for Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., to consider Newark’s petition criticizing the electoral interference of the duke of Newcastle, 1 Mar., and for Russell’s general reform proposals, 28 May. He suggested restricting the estimates, 19 Feb., and called for various economies, 9, 29 Mar., 14 June, including a £22,000 reduction in the public buildings grant, 3 May. He called for thorough investigation of the West India trade, 23 Feb. He divided for information on British involvement in Portugal, 10 Mar., and with the revived Whig opposition on the management of crown lands, 30 Mar., and for abolition of the Irish lord lieutenancy, 11 May. Dissenting from the motion for inquiry into privy councillors’ emoluments, 14 May, he embarrassed its mover, Sir James Graham, by explaining that he would continue to vote with government whenever, as now, a question calculated to threaten their existence was raised, and against them on issues tending to increase public expenditure. He presented petitions, 25 Mar., 13 May, and voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May: ‘a question of political expediency’ which the Church of England was strong enough to survive. As he had intimated during the Ellenborough, 6 Apr., and Muskett proceedings, 28 Apr., he voted to reform the divorce laws, 3 June. He presented petitions, 6 Apr., 11 June, and voted for the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 7 June, and was a minority teller against accepting the Lords’ amendments, 13 July. Backed by a Norwich petition, he called for inquiry into the employment of climbing boys, 11 June. He warned that intervention was needed if the evils of the truck system (the subject of his altercation on 16 Mar. with Hume) were to be checked, 23 June, and objected to considering it as a question of political economy rather than as a moral issue, 1 July. He supported the London distillers’ campaign against altering the spirit duties, 10 Mar., 7 Apr., and endorsed Scottish petitions for continuing the fishery bounties, 27 Apr., but recommended that they be reduced by 75 per cent, 28 May. He presented the Norwich publicans’ petition against the sale of beer bill, 11 May, opposed it on their behalf, 3 June, and voted to restrict on-consumption, 21 June, 1 July. He explained that day that he had initially favoured the measure but now dreaded the ‘evil’ and demoralizing consequences of ‘deluging the country with small public houses’. Even so, he conceded that he might ultimately vote for the bill to safeguard a £3,000,000 reduction in taxes. He voted against increasing recognizances under the libel laws, 9 July. According to his daughter Julia, Smith’s prime concern had become the abolition of slavery, for which he pressed, 14, 15 June, 1, 13 July, when, ‘not knowing what opportunity I might have of further expressing my opinions upon this subject’, he spoke at length and was a minority teller for Brougham’s inquiry motion.84 He again defended the abolitionists’ objectives when petitions were presented, 16, 20 July 1830. The repeal of the Test Acts in 1828 after a 40-year campaign and the near success in 1827 of his Dissenters’ (Unitarian) marriage bill formed a fitting climax to Smith’s parliamentary career. Speculation that he would stand again at Norwich at the 1830 general election proved false and he retired, heartened by the growing support for parliamentary reform and the emancipation of slaves.85

Out of Parliament, Smith welcomed Althorp’s appointment as the Grey ministry’s chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House in November 1830, remained active in the anti-slavery movement and campaigned for a suitable memorial to Wilberforce (d. 1833) when abolition was achieved.86 As in 1792, he organized support for the Poles, following the 1830 Russian invasion, and chaired their London committee. He resigned as chairman of the Dissenting Deputies in 1832.87 He travelled in France with his wife and unmarried daughters in 1834 and died in May 1835 at Benjamin’s house in Blandford Square, their home since 1830. Obituarists noted Smith’s connections with the Clapham sect, his quarrels with Sir Walter Scott and the poet Robert Southey* and the political foresight and high moral principles he had shown as a tireless spokesman for the Dissenters and the Anti-Slavery Society.88 By his will, dated 14 May 1833 and proved under £5,000 (the sum for which his life was insured), he bequeathed everything to his wife. Paintings auctioned after his death realized £276.89 Benjamin Smith (1783-1860) became Liberal Member for Sudbury, 1835-7, and Norwich, 1838-47.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


Smith’s life is reviewed in the unpublished recollections of his daughter Julia Smith (1799-1883) in CUL, William Smith mss Add. 7621/15. See also R.W. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 1780-1830 (1971).

  • 1. Hants RO, Calthorpe mss 26M62/F/C219; William Smith mss Add. 7621/29, 36, 37; Davis, 189-90; HP Commons, 1754-90, iii. 452-3; HP Commons, 1790-1820, v. 206.
  • 2. William Smith mss Add. 7621/601; Brougham mss, Smith to Brougham [1830]; Davis, 96-97; Committee for Repeal of Test and Corporation Acts ed. T.W. Davis (London Rec. Soc. xiv), p. xix.
  • 3. William Smith mss Add. 7621/31, 149; Norf. Chron. 11 Mar. 1820; HP Commons, 1790-1820, v. 206-14.
  • 4. William Smith mss Add. 7621/149; Davis, 195; J. Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biog. (1849), ii. 297, 323.
  • 5. The Times, 6 May 1820, 23 June, 4 July 1821, 9, 22 Feb., 25 Apr., 22 June 1822, 12 Feb. 1823.
  • 6. Ibid. 15 June 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 5, 6 July 1820.
  • 8. Ibid. 13 July 1820.
  • 9. Ibid. 15 Mar. 1826.
  • 10. Ibid. 7, 14 June, 8 July 1820; R.W. Davis, ‘The Strategy of Dissent in the Repeal Campaign, 1820-1828’, JMH, xxxviii (1966), 379.
  • 11. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 216; The Times, 14 July; Add. 51573, Smith to Holland, 14, 16 July 1820.
  • 12. The Times, 22 Mar. 1821, 29 Mar. 1822.
  • 13. Ibid. 7, 11, 13 July 1820.
  • 14. Ibid. 12 July 1820; Brougham mss, Brougham to Smith, 31 July 1820; Northants. RO, Gotch mss GK 1206.
  • 15. Norf. Chron. 13, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 16. William Smith mss Add. 7621/15.
  • 17. The Times, 6 Mar., 12 Apr. 1821.
  • 18. Ibid. 16, 19 June 1821.
  • 19. Ibid. 8, 17 May, 19 June 1821.
  • 20. Ibid. 24 Feb., 22 June 1821.
  • 21. Ibid. 24 May 1821.
  • 22. Ibid. 9 June 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 166.
  • 23. The Times, 18 Apr., 2 May 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 274, 281, 320, 425.
  • 24. The Times, 26 Feb., 24 May, 30 July 1822.
  • 25. Ibid. 2 Mar. 1822.
  • 26. Ibid. 12, 18 June 1822.
  • 27. Ibid. 12 Mar., 2 May 1822.
  • 28. Ibid. 18 May 1822.
  • 29. Ibid. 2, 18 July 1822.
  • 30. Ibid. 4, 18 Apr. 1822.
  • 31. Ibid. 22 May, 11 June, 11 July 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 179, 196, 332, 412.
  • 32. The Times, 11, 28 June 1822.
  • 33. Ibid. 26 July, 6 Aug. 1822.
  • 34. Ibid. 18 Mar., 19 Apr. 1823.
  • 35. Ibid. 4 Mar., 23 May 1823.
  • 36. Ibid. 1, 2 July 1823.
  • 37. Ibid. 21 Feb. 1823.
  • 38. Davis, 252.
  • 39. The Times, 28 Mar., 6 May, 1, 12 July 1823.
  • 40. Buxton Mems. 133.
  • 41. The Times, 12 July 1823.
  • 42. Ibid. 22 May 1824.
  • 43. Ibid. 21 Feb., 30 Mar. 1824.
  • 44. Ibid. 6, 19, 20 Mar. 1824.
  • 45. Ibid. 16, 23 Mar. 1824.
  • 46. Buxton Mems. 145; The Times, 5, 11, 16, 31 Mar. 1824.
  • 47. The Times, 2 June 1824.
  • 48. Ibid. 3 June 1825.
  • 49. Ibid. 18 June 1824; Davis, 220.
  • 50. Add. 40370, f. 35; William Smith mss Add. 7621/142.
  • 51. The Times, 1 July 1823.
  • 52. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 220, The Times, 10 May 1825.
  • 53. Brougham mss, Brougham to Smith, 26 May 1825; Davis, Dissent in Politics, 235.
  • 54. CJ, lxxx. 105, 119, 266, 381; LJ, lvii. 979; The Times, 12, 24 Feb., 26 Mar. 1825; Add. 40375, f. 152.
  • 55. The Times, 12, 22, 29 Mar. 1825.
  • 56. Ibid. 17 May, 4, 6 June 1825.
  • 57. Ibid. 27 Apr. 1825.
  • 58. Ibid. 1 June 1825.
  • 59. Ibid. 7 June 1825.
  • 60. Ibid. 14, 21 June 1825.
  • 61. Ibid. 28, 30 June 1825.
  • 62. Ibid. 9 Mar. 1826.
  • 63. Ibid. 2, 3, 7, 8, 19, 22, 24 Mar. 1826.
  • 64. Ibid. 10 May 1826.
  • 65. Ibid. 19 May 1826.
  • 66. William Smith mss Add. 7621/143; Add. 40386, f. 269; 40387, ff. 17, 54, 56, 78, 248; Lansdowne mss, Empson to Lansdowne [9 Aug. 1830].
  • 67. Soc. of Friends Lib. Gurney mss Temp 434/1/423.
  • 68. The Times, 25 Nov. 1826.
  • 69. Ibid. 30 Nov. 1826; Davis, 208.
  • 70. The Times, 3 Mar. 1827.
  • 71. Ibid. 16 Mar. 1827.
  • 72. Ibid. 17, 24 Mar. 1827.
  • 73. Ibid. 31 May 1827.
  • 74. Ibid. 13 June 1827.
  • 75. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 237-40; The Times, 24 Mar., 8, 14, 23, 30 June; Brougham mss, Brougham to Smith, 3 May 1827.
  • 76. The Times, 9, 11, 31 May, 20, 22 June 1827; Wellington mss WP1/917/1; CJ, lxxxii. 442, 447, 552, 583; LJ, 427, 439, 450, 455, 466.
  • 77. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 241-3; Wellington mss WP1/917/1.
  • 78. Committee for Repeal of Test ... Acts, pp. xxii-iv, 202, 217, 220-1, 228, 230-48.
  • 79. William Smith mss Add. 7621/31; Davis, Dissent in Politics, 246-7; Report of Speeches and Proceedings at a Dinner to Celebrate the Passage of the Repeal of the Test Acts (1828).
  • 80. Add. 51573, Smith to Holland [1828].
  • 81. Brougham mss, Buxton to Brougham, 3 Oct. 1827; Buxton Mems. 203.
  • 82. Davis, JMH, xxxviii. 391-3.
  • 83. The Times, 3 Mar. 1825, 22 Aug., 22 Nov., 22 Dec. 1827, 14, 30 Jan., 18 Feb., 4 July 1828, 1 July 1829; Wellington mss WP1/1026/15, 18; 1107/14, 20; William Smith mss Add. 7621/505; L.T.C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1970), 42-43, 47, 50-58, 62-65.
  • 84. William Smith mss Add. 7621/15.
  • 85. Norwich Mercury, 10, 17 July; Norf. Chron. 17 July 1830.
  • 86. Add. 40880, f. 284; William Smith mss Add. 7621/141, 144; Buxton Mems. 329; Brougham mss, Smith to Brougham, 31 July, 13 Aug. 1834.
  • 87. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 250-1.
  • 88. Gent. Mag. (1835), ii. 204-5; William Smith mss Add. 7621/148.
  • 89. PROB 11/1848/389; IR26/1400/341; William Smith mss Add. 7621/32.