SMITH, William (1756-1835), of Eagle House, Clapham Common, Surr. and Parndon, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



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. by Martha, da. of William Adams of London, coh. of her cos. Anne, Viscountess Cobham. educ. French’s sch., Ware 1764-9; Daventry acad. 1769-72. m. 12 Jan. 1781, Frances, da. of John Coape of Oxton, Notts., 5s. 5da. suc. uncle James Adams 1779; fa. 1798; uncle Benjamin Smith 1803.

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 the dissenting deputies 1805-32.


Smith was a well-to-do dissenting merchant family’s hostage to public life.1 He did not flourish in private business as a wholesale grocer. He had been in his father’s counting house five years when he became a partner in 1777, but withdrew in 1781 until he succeeded his father as head of the firm 17 years later. A Millbank distillery (Cook and Tate’s) in which he was a partner was destroyed by fire in 1806 and his main partnership, with his cousin Joseph Travers, foundered in 1813. He formed a new partnership with his younger son and other cousins, but it faced bankruptcy in 1819 and was liquidated in 1823. His house in Park Street (where he moved from Clapham in 1794) and his Essex seat (with its fine library) were then sold and he spent the remainder of his life in reduced circumstances. His money had nevertheless served its purpose in subsidizing his public life and in enabling him to become a collector of the old masters of painting.

Unexpectedly defeated at Sudbury in 1790, Smith had to buy his way into Parliament at the first opening, on the Phillipps interest at Camelford: he later admitted that ‘perhaps the manner of his election would not be sanctioned by the public approbation’. He had supported government in his first Parliament; moreover, he ‘supported the measures of Mr Pitt, so long as he believed that minister to be the sincere advocate of reform, and of liberal principles’.2 His objectives in public life were not at the outset a party matter: parliamentary reform, emancipation of religious dissenters from civil disabilities and the abolition of the slave trade. Pitt’s abandonment of the first two ensured Smith’s gradual conversion to Fox: his enthusiasm for the French revolution, which derived from a visit to Paris with Benjamin Vaughan* before he resumed his seat and was followed closely by his conversion to unitarianism, the most outlawed form of religious dissent, proved portentous. He continued to collaborate with Wilberforce in advocating the abolition of the slave trade, and his speeches of 4 Feb., 19 Apr. 1791, 9 Mar., 4, 25 Apr., 1 May 1792, 26 Feb., 14, 22 May 1793, 7, 25 Feb. 1794, 26 Feb. 1795, 18 Feb., 1 Mar., 11 Apr. and 11 May 1796, bore witness to his zeal. In the second of these he pledged himself ‘never to desist from the pursuit, until the end should be completely attained’. He described it in 1792 as ‘the matter which of all public objects lies nearest to my heart’ and wished for immediate results. His support for the removal of dissenters’ civil liberties extended to Roman Catholics and he defended their relief bill, 1 Mar., 8 Apr. 1791, and favoured the repeal of the Test Act with regard to Scotland. Still sitting on the government side, he called for more decency in debate following the clashes over the Quebec bill, 12 May 1791, complained about the Duke of York’s marriage grant, 7 Mar., and attested to the demoralizing effect of lotteries on the lower classes, 4 Apr. 1792. Having, as he put it in 1797, ‘generally attended almost every meeting for parliamentary reform for the last two and twenty years’ (he had been a member of the Society for Constitutional Information and a Friend of the Revolution), he joined the Friends of the People (and subsequently the Friends of the Liberty of the Press). Moreover, he vindicated their aims in the House, 30 Apr. 1792. His political seesaw began to tip on 11 May 1792, when he cordially supported Fox’s motion to remove penal statutes concerning religious belief. He then rebuked Edmund Burke for his cavalier treatment of dissenters. (He had been chosen a dissenting deputy in the previous December.) On 21 May he complained of the bigotry of the ‘Church and King’ mob at Birmingham, which he had visited to investigate the matter, claiming that they were incited from the pulpit to hostile acts against dissenters. On 22 May 1792 he joined Fox in opposing the sugar bill: he had himself given up sugar.3 On 2 Aug. 1792 he was chairman of the public meeting for a subscription for Poland.

The prospect of war with revolutionary France and the failure of his personal bid to mediate between Pitt and a French agent, Maret, in November 1792 completed Smith’s conversion to Fox. On 13 Dec. 1792 he defended the French from the imputation of wishing to subvert the English constitution and the dissenters from charges of disaffection. From that day forward he voted steadily with Fox, though he did not join the Whig Club until 2 Jan. 1796. On 18 Feb. 1793 he made it clear that he was a pacifist on principle. He defended petitions for parliamentary reform, 21 Feb., 6 May. On 18 June, advocating negotiation with France, he pointed out that the cruelty of the French revolutionaries had been equalled in past ages by monarchs: perhaps this was the origin of his nickname, ‘King Killer’ Smith. He interceded for the unitarian minister Thomas Fyshe Palmer, sentenced to transportation, 24 Feb. 1794, and opposed the landing of foreign troops in England, 10 Feb., 14 Mar. He deplored the excesses of war, 17 Mar., doubting whether it was necessary in the first place, and deprecated the enlistment of émigrés, 14, 17 Apr. He was even at pains to point out that the Catholic officers relief bill was not endorsed by protestant dissenters. That he was a pacifist and not a revolutionary was underlined, though in a fashion calculated to give him a jacobinical reputation, 3 May 1794, when he was questioned by the Privy Council as to his communications with a Francophile radical agent William Jackson, to whom he had written discounting fear of a French invasion of England. This was the occasion of the flight abroad of his less prudent friend Benjamin Vaughan. Smith was one of the Friends of Freedom who celebrated the fiasco of the first treason trials. Subsequently he was a witness (28 Jan. 1796) in the trial for treason of William Stone. On 26 Jan. 1795 he seconded Grey’s motion for a peace bid and on 5 Feb. was teller against the loan to the Emperor, on whose credit he threw doubt then and on 23 Feb: he noted, moreover (28 May, 3 June) that the loan was not on terms advantageous to the Emperor. He was an opponent of the erection of barracks, 20 Feb. His attitude to the problem of the Prince of Wales’s debts was ambivalent, 14 May, but he preferred recourse to the civil list, 5 June, unless complete satisfaction could be given to the public on the subject. On 31 May he chaired the meeting of the Friends of the People that adopted Philip Francis’s plan for parliamentary reform, privately admitting that it would be some time before public opinion swallowed it. He himself deprecated universal suffrage, short parliaments and the payment of Members, whom he regarded as conscientious representatives of the people, not delegates.4

Smith was a prominent critic, in and out of the House, of the legislation against sedition in November 1795.5 He regarded it as a veto upon discussion of parliamentary reform, 3 Dec. He was still of the opinion that the war might cost England too dear; and he was still hostile to barracks, 4 Dec. 1795 (and again 8 Apr. 1796). On 4 Dec. 1795 he presented a petition against the favouritism shown by government to Boyd & Co: after exposing the negotiation for the war loan, 7 Dec., he obtained a committee of inquiry into it, 15 Dec. On 22 Feb. 1796, having chaired the open committee, he produced 40 resolutions protesting at the lack of fair and open competition for the contract, which encouraged the favoured contractors to make large profits, assisted by government influence. The first resolution was negatived by 171 votes to 23 and the rest without a division. On 19 Apr. 1796 Smith complained that the terms of the loan then submitted to the committee of ways and means were excessive. He was a critic of taxes on inheritance, 8 Dec. 1795, 22 Mar., 9 May 1796, and ridiculed the hat tax as impracticable, 28 Apr. On the same day he argued that ministers should not refuse to provide figures of the military lives lost during the war.

In 1796 Smith regained his seat for Sudbury, proclaiming to the electors his wish for peace and his hostility to coercion at home. He added that a change of government was the best way to obtain these objects. (The address was sent to Pitt, with its most provocative statements underlined, by an alarmist.6) By now, he was launched as one of the opposition hosts of London at 6 Park Street and engaged in rebuilding Parndon, his country seat. On 8 and 14 Dec. 1796 he supported Fox’s aspersions on the imperial loan, and on 16 Dec. the cause of Lafayette. He deplored the stoppage of cash payments by the Bank by order of council and saw no reason why government should be indemnified for it, 28 Feb., 1, 9, 22, Mar., 16 May 1797. In common hall he spoke in favour of the removal of ministers. He supported Fox’s Irish motion, 23 Mar. He resumed his support of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, 6 Apr., 15, 18 May. He pointed out the inefficacy of the imperial loan, 1 and 2 May. On 26 May, a week after attending the Crown and Anchor meeting in its favour, he was teller for parliamentary reform, after a speech in which he alleged that a third of the House were placemen and the whole of the Scottish contingent at ministers’ beck and call.

Smith did not secede with Fox. On 31 May 1797 he was in the House impugning the claims to patriotism of subscribers to public loans, who stood to profit by them, and insisting that interested parties should be prevented from voting on the question. On 2 June he stood by ministers against the naval mutineers, but next day found fault with their bill to prevent sedition in the forces. He objected to the newspaper duties bill, 14 June 1797. On 27 June he carried a clause enabling protestant dissenters, as well as Roman Catholics, to serve as militia and supplementary cavalry officers without violation of their consciences. On 3 Jan. 1798 he opposed the assessed taxes, which would be wasted on the war effort, and two days later opposed the exemption of the royal family from them. That session he made his personal mark in a bid to mitigate the evils of the slave trade, 3, 30 Apr., carrying two motions to limit the number of slaves carried per ship and to guarantee a minimum space to each slave carried, 10 May. If enacted, as an anti-abolitionist Member observed, these would have amounted to ‘a virtual abolition of the trade’, but then and next session they were frustrated (14 Mar. 1799). On 14 June 1798 he supported Sheridan’s motion for inquiry into the Irish rebellion.

Smith and Tierney were the only prominent members of the opposition who attended regularly against the income tax bill, 14-31 Dec. 1798.7 Smith denounced it, 14 Dec., as ‘cruel, oppressive and indiscriminating’: he quoted Adam Smith against it. He went on to criticize it in detail and on 31 Dec. complained of a misrepresentation of himself in the press as a merchant worth £15,000 p.a. and a seceder who attended only when his own interests were at stake. That day he obtained tax relief for schoolmasters from an exhausted chancellor. He spoke briefly against the Irish union, 7 Feb. 1799. He condemned the treatment of prisoners at Coldbath Fields, 21 May 1799. On 12 Feb. 1800 he stated that he favoured open competition for the civil service. He was a teller for peace negotiations, 17 Feb., claiming that the allied coalitions had proved worthless and that it did not matter which regime was in power in France. He particularly objected to the restoration of the French monarchy, 28 Feb., with reference to its record of hostility to England and its Catholic basis; though he assured the English Catholics (3 Mar.) that this was not a dig at them and on 24 June spoke up for Catholic émigré orders in England. On 17 Apr. he tried to obstruct the income tax amendment bill, repeatedly criticizing it in detail (20-30 May) and in principle (5 June). On 9 July he supported Western’s motion underlining the necessity for peace: he regarded the conduct of the war as a series of disasters, 27 Nov.

Remaining in opposition during Addington’s ministry, Smith handled him more gently than he had Pitt and had much less to say in debate. He supported the Bank forgery bill, 30 Apr. 1801, and the ministry’s efforts to equalize taxation as between Britain and Ireland, 1, 14 May 1801, but was a critic of the indemnity bill, 5 June. Fox, writing to Smith on 15 Nov. 1801, supposed that he shared his indifference to Addington.8 He welcomed the peace treaty, but could not support the ministerial amendment to Windham’s motion against it, 14 May 1802. Ten days later he was at loggerheads with Windham over bull-baiting, which he thought a ‘savage amusement’. They were opponents at the ensuing election, when Smith was invited to contest Norwich, and in a ‘triumph of Jacobinism and money’ in which the London out-vote and the dissenting interest were serviceable to him, carried the day. The blessings of peace was his most popular theme. Later that year he visited Paris. On 4 Mar. 1803 he was in favour of inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances. On 23 May he moved the adjournment of the debate on the resumption of hostilities with France and the next day was teller against it, after reproaching Windham bitterly for the language he had used about Fox. He remained convinced that the property tax was ‘fundamentally bad’, 20 June: he opposed the property tax 5, 13 July, once more quoting Adam Smith against it and boasting of concessions he had wrung from the chancellor. He opposed Sunday exercises by the militia, 20 July, though he was something of an alarmist at that time, prepared to accept Pitt’s ideas on home defence and to hold ‘amicable conferences’ with Windham. He opposed the vote of thanks to the volunteers proposed by Sheridan, 10 Aug. 1803. He seems shortly before this to have discussed a coalition of parties with Fox. The latter, who thought the moment inopportune, had included Smith in a conciliabulum of leading Whigs in May as ‘a man who likes consultation’. He was therefore surprised at Smith’s cool reaction to his announcement to him (through St. Andrew St. Andrew St. John*, 22 Feb. 1804) of co-operation with the Grenvillites (since Pitt remained aloof) against Addington: he felt sure that Smith would not contemplate an alliance with Addington and ‘you had expressed your wish for a junction, even with Pitt’ (12 Mar.). Smith had in fact urged Fox to coalesce with Pitt, or not at all, until Fox pointed out that Catholic relief was an insurmountable obstacle.9 He did not join the combined attack on Addington until 10 Apr., though he seems to have committed himself to it thereafter.

He was steady in his opposition to Pitt’s second ministry: though they retained a common interest in the abolition of the slave trade, which Smith again advocated, 30 May, 7, 12, 27 June 1804. He joined the attack on the lord advocate of Scotland, 22 June 1804; on the salt duty, 7 Mar. 1805 (on behalf of the herring fisheries); was for leniency towards the printer of the Oracle for breach of privilege, 26 Apr.; voted but did not speak against Melville; advocated Catholic relief, 14 May; thought Pitt had not cleared himself in the matter of his dealings with Boyd & Co., 14 June; opposed the allied subsidy, 21 June, and the Duke of Atholl’s claims to compensation, 21 June, 1 July 1805. He spoke against public honours for Pitt or payment of his debts, 27 Jan., 3 Feb. 1806.

Smith was precluded from office when his friends came to power in 1806 and he several times expressed disagreement with them. He supported Hamilton’s motion for information on Indian affairs, 21 Apr. 1806, and called on the House to give a fair hearing to James Paull when he launched his attack on Lord Wellesley’s Indian administration, 23 Apr., though he soon found out that he could not support Paull’s procedure (28 Apr.). Consistency obliged him to oppose the property tax, 25 Apr., 7, 12, 15, 28 May, and he disliked the iron duty, 28 Apr., 9 May. He approved the tax on private brewers, 19 May, and was disappointed when it was given up, 6 June. Having voted for the repeal of the Additional Force Act (30 Apr.), he defended Windham’s training bill, 24 June, and saw no harm in extending it to school children, 4 July. On 2 July, anticipating Fox’s death, he wrote to Viscount Howick, urging him to take the lead and to ‘sacrifice to popularity more than you have ever hitherto done’.10 At the ensuing election he was defeated at Norwich. He admitted that his indifference to the Norwich paving bill, which was the issue of the moment, had damaged his prospects, as he was treated as an outsider and ousted by a resident, whose friends saw to it that Smith was not returned in second place.11 Lord Holland suggested that Smith might offer for Middlesex, an idea prompted by Lord William Russell*.12 Nothing came of this, or of a more plausible offer of government preference at Beverley, where there was supposed to be an opening on the death of General Vyse: the report of his death was based on a ludicrous mistake and Smith travelled to Yorkshire for nothing. Beverley, he thought, would have proved expensive and his only regret at being out of Parliament was his missing the successful conclusion of the campaign for abolition of the slave trade, which he had been encouraging and was now obliged to observe from the gallery. In his last speech on the subject (10 June 1806), he had made it clear that he did not expect the emancipation of the slaves to follow abolition. As it was, he put pressure on Howick not to mutilate the abolition bill. When Spencer Perceval became chancellor in March 1807, it was suggested to Smith that he might like to contest the ensuing by-election at Northampton, where the dissenting interest was strong, but he disliked the probable expense in a constituency where he was little known.13

In 1807 Smith thought of contesting Worcester, but was on the road to Bridport, another dissenters’ haven for which he had been invited to stand, when he was recalled to Norwich.14 His victory there was a prelude to the aggressive and self-confident manner in which he behaved in the ensuing Parliament. He concurred in the re-election of the Speaker, 22 June 1807. He wanted his say in phrasing the amendment to the address, and in the debate on it, 26 June, claimed that his constituents had shown, in returning him, what they thought of the ‘No Popery’ outcry. He favoured inquiry into the toll of the lives of British troops in the West Indies, 30 June. On 6 July he was heard ‘with impatience’ when he castigated Croker’s maiden speech.15 He wished a select committee other than the finance committee to investigate placeholders and pensioners, 7 July. He supported the grant to the Catholic College at Maynooth, 15 July. He was in favour of popular education in principle, 21 July, 4 Aug. He tried to delay the Irish insurrection bill, 27 July, and next day opposed the militia transfer bill. He opposed the assessed taxes bill, 7 Aug., and the same day called for more effective home defence. He advocated peace negotiations, 22 Jan. 1808, and opposed the vote of thanks for the confiscation of the Danish fleet, 28 Jan. (Privately, he did not think the step so unjustifiable and took no further action on it.) On 29 Feb. he was teller for Whitbread’s resolution in favour of peace negotiations. He was a critic of the orders in council, 18 Feb., 4 Mar., of the Swedish subsidy, 16 Mar., and (the same day) of the embargo on the quinine trade, which added to the ‘barbarism’ of war. He supported the offices in reversion bill, 11 Apr., and opposed the Scottish judicial pensions, 4 May. He found the dissenters reluctant to support the Irish Catholic petition of that session,16 but ridiculed Duigenan’s appointment as an Irish privy councillor, 5, 11 May. He defended, from personal knowledge, John Palmer’s* claims to compensation, 12 May (also on 25 June 1812 and 14 July 1813). He opposed the life annuity plan as a ‘moral poison’, 13 May 1808. He supported Romilly’s efforts to reform the penal code, 18 May 1808, 9 Feb. 1810. He called for the exemption from the militia bill requirements of Baptist ministers who earned their living otherwise, 18 May 1808; deprecated the multiplication of oaths in the same bill, 30 May; and on 8 June, with acknowledged boldness for a dissenter, gave his anti-episcopalian views on the Anglican curates residence bill.

Smith’s brewing interest was occasionally a cause of his contributions to debate. On 14 Dec. 1801 he had got up to deny that distillation from wheat was current practice. In 1804 and 1805 he had something to say on the corn bill. In 1806, as stated, he supported the tax on private brewing. In May 1808 he was a critic of the preference for sugar distillation, which he believed would do no practical good to the beleaguered West India planters, while it would damage the British agricultural interest. He attacked the corn distillery prohibition bill, 23 Feb. 1809, and again, 13 Feb. 1810, 11 Mar., 9 Apr. and 14 June 1811.

In the session of 1809 Smith was a critic of foreign policy at the outset (20 Jan.) and called for another bid for peace, although he had toasted the Spanish resistance to Buonaparte and had approved the rejection of the last negotiation. He took a prominent part in the investigation of the charges against the Duke of York in February, complaining privately of the effect on the House of Mrs Clarke’s figure and manner,17 and publicly that witnesses had not been put on oath. On 10 Mar., reviewing the evidence, he concluded that Wardle ‘deserved well of his country’ in making the charges and that ‘the most severe sentence would be the most popular’. Rather than support Perceval’s address on the subject he would never set foot in the House again. He supported and was teller for the charge of corruption against Castlereagh, 25 Apr., and attended the Crown and Anchor meeting for reform, 1 May, but was rebuked, as a mere Whig advocating patience, for his pains. Three days later, forgetting his audience in a speech in the House in favour of Curwen’s reform bill, he was heard to proceed, ‘And now, gentlemen’: the ‘roar of laughter’ that ensued ‘continued for several minutes’. He went on to support Madocks’s motion against ministerial corruption, 11 May, and was disappointed when Curwen’s bill was mutilated by Perceval. He wished to see Members disqualified for a whole Parliament if corruptly elected and to forestall all claims for compensation by the owners of pocket boroughs. He concluded that the bill, as passed, ‘would narrow the entrance into that House between the Treasury and the popular boroughs’, 9 June. On 12 June he voted with the rump of disappointed reformers against the title of the bill. He favoured the abolition of sinecures, 8 June. On foreign policy his line was his own. He drew the House’s attention to the plight of Sicily, 27 Feb. 1809, and on 31 May approved the extension of credit to Austria, in view of Buonaparte’s aggression. He warned at the same time that the abuse of the application of the droits of Admiralty was poisoning relations with the United States, as had the orders in council previously.

Smith supported the inquiry into the Scheldt expedition, 26 Jan. 1810. On 2 Feb. he made a fool of himself by a self-appointed bid to substitute Davies Giddy* for the inexperienced Lushington as chairman of committees: the Speaker pointed out that he could not properly do so.18 He was a critic of extravagance at Woolwich and Waltham Abbey on the army estimates, 10 and 14 Mar. The Whigs listed him as one of their ‘thick and thin’ supporters. He objected to any punishment of Sir Francis Burdett, 5 Apr., and favoured the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr. He was for the reception of the Westminster, London livery and Sheffield petitions on Burdett’s behalf, 17 Apr., 8 May, 13 June, but voted against the reception of the Middlesex petition, thinking it offensive, 3 May. He saw no reason why officers of the crown should be exempted from the regulation of sinecures, 17 May. Speaking on behalf of Brand’s motion for parliamentary reform, 21 May, he pointed out the anomaly that 70 Members were returned by peers, who were not supposed to influence the House in any way. On 14 June he was a critic of sinecurists whose emoluments were swollen by war, giving them a vested interest in it.

Smith took the opportunity, during the Regency debates, 31 Dec. 1810, to contrast his present support for an unrestricted Regency with the contrary line he had taken in 1788. He disapproved of Perceval’s mode of proceeding on the question, 15 Jan. 1811. He opposed the grant of commercial credit to distressed merchants without further investigation, 11, 18 Mar. He was a critic of Bank profits, and, on the bullion report, 14 May, called for the resumption of cash payments at parliamentary discretion. He supported the Catholic relief petition, 31 May, claiming that religious liberty should be extended to all sectaries as a matter of right. He opposed the reinstatement of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief of the army, 6 June. While eschewing the extra-parliamentary agitation of the Friends of Constitutional Reform, he defended the Kent reform petition, as well as tithe reform, 11 June. On 25 June he called for a revision of the property tax to alleviate the burden on the poorer classes. He opposed the bank-note bill, 17 July, and argued for the exclusion of Bank directors from voting on it: on 26 Mar. 1812, still hostile, he described it as a prelude to national bankruptcy.

On 6 Aug. 1811 Smith wrote to William Adam* that his prospects at the next election at Norwich might depend on the Whigs being brought into office by the Regent. He was not disposed to purchase a seat, nor, owing to his ‘age, and standing ... to enter the lists against any new adventurer on the political stage at any accidental opening’. He concluded: ‘Retirement, therefore, or retaining my present seat, seem to me almost my only alternatives’.19 He was as active as usual in the session of 1812. On 18 Jan. he complained of the familiarity between police and criminals in the metropolis, which he thought warranted investigation. He was a scathing critic of the abuses countenanced by the inferior ecclesiastical courts, 23 Jan. On 27 Jan. he was involuntarily counted in the majority for the King’s household bill, after being shut in. He could not support a select committee on the civil list, unless it was armed with adequate powers of investigation, 10 Feb. A critic of flogging in the army, he could not support Burdett’s motion of 13 Mar. because of the manner in which it was introduced. An analogy made in this debate was his pretext for reiterating his view of 1806 that the emancipation of slaves was not at present practicable. He opposed the annuities proposed for the royal princesses, 23 Mar., 17 Apr., as ‘inopportune’. On 23 Apr. he presented the metropolitan dissenting ministers’ petition for religious liberty. As a friend of Dr Milner, the Catholic agent, he had hoped for a more distinct expression of support from the dissenters, but they were pressing him to attend to the amendment of Lord Sidmouth’s bill requiring the due licensing of dissenting preachers. On 24 Apr., after reference to his own handicap as a practising dissenter, he supported Catholic relief. (He did so again on 22 June, brushing aside the clamour for guarantees.) It was Smith at whose feet Spencer Perceval fell when he was assassinated, 11 May 1812, and who identified him, after thinking at first that the victim was Wilberforce. He was distressed at the House’s giving way to its feelings in the matter of compensation for Perceval’s family, and as much so when they started computing compensation in terms of the cost of his children’s education, so abstained on the vote, 14 May. After voting for a stronger administration, 21 May, he endeavoured to calm the excitement of the House during the interregnum, 2, 5 June. He was a critic of the preservation of the public peace bill, 10, 14, 20 July. When Castlereagh secured a bill to remove the majority of remaining disabilities for protestant dissenters, 20 July, he described it as the best measure of its kind to date.

Smith’s anxieties about Norwich were dispelled at the election of 1812, when he headed the poll with ease. He remained an active Member in the ensuing Parliament. At the outset, he pointed out the rising cost of warfare against a background of currency depreciation, 1 Dec. He still objected to making bank-notes legal tender, 1 Dec. On 25 Feb. 1813, after presenting two metropolitan dissenters’ petitions, he pledged himself to support the same religious liberty for Catholics as he wished for Protestants. He expressed sympathy for the plight of the Princess of Wales, 5 Mar. He was a critic of enlistment for life in the army, 8 Mar. He doubted if the sinecure offices bill would satisfy the public, 29 Mar. On 5 May he was given leave for a bill to relieve Unitarians from the penalties of the statutes against them of William III’s reign. He opposed the leather tax as harmful to the trade and to the poor consumer, 18, 20 May. He favoured American loyalist claims, 20 May. He was active in the debates on the renewal of the East India Company charter, both as an opponent of the Company monopoly in trade and government, which he regarded as inadequate for the welfare of the Indian masses, and as a propagandist for Christian missionary activity: his religious toleration did not extend to Hindu practices, 28 June 1813. He did not succeed in a bid to exclude the secret ballot from Company proceedings, 13 July. He favoured the disfranchisement of Helston in favour of a more populous district elsewhere, 30 June. On 14 July he supported Wilberforce’s call for pressure on Portugal to abandon the slave trade.

Smith stated himself to be well disposed to the militia volunteering bill, 18 Nov. 1813, in anticipation of peace, but wished this justification to be inserted in the preamble. He called for a delay on the East Indian sugar duties in view of the uneasy competition with West Indian sugar and the need for comparison between the two regions as markets for British manufactured goods. He was opposed to the public ‘decollation’, but not to the private dissection, of capital offenders, 25 Apr. 1814. He favoured revision of the antiquated apprenticeship laws, though his constituents had petitioned against it, 27 Apr. 13 May. He congratulated the House on the swing of opinion, even among those most involved, towards the international abolition of the slave trade, 2 May. He was a champion of Norwegian independence, 27 Apr., 12 May, 30 July. The alteration of the Corn Laws was a delicate question for Smith, but he did not shirk it. He proposed delay, 13 May 1814; then, seconding the motion for a select committee on 20 May, admitted that he was at present opposed to any further protection. This view was endorsed by 12,000 of his constituents in a petition he presented on 6 June, but he would not commit himself entirely. He was at this time a champion of the English distillers against the Irish (1, 20, 24, 30 June). On 17 May 1814 he introduced a bill to prevent child stealing. On 15 June he described some of the abuses which made the madhouse bill desirable. He called for regulation of the abuses in the courts of justice caused by the fees system, 28 June 1814, 21 Feb. 1815. He was an admirer of Castlereagh as a peacemaker; he refused to support Horner’s motion censuring Castlereagh for neglect of the international abolition of the slave trade, 27 June, and two days later paid fulsome tribute to his diplomatic achievements. He hoped, however, for military retrenchment, 4, 11 July 1814, and criticized the civil list, 14 July. He suggested, 17 Feb. 1815, that if ministers lifted the tax burden (as they had said they would), the need for further protection to the agricultural interest would be diminished: but on 28 Feb. he opposed the alteration of the Corn Laws, in the consumer’s interest, and on 6, 8 and 10 Mar., without instruction, he claimed, from his constituents, he again called for delay and opposed alteration. He queried the assumption that nine-tenths of the French favoured a Bourbon restoration, 7 Apr. 1815, being sure that Buonaparte was their favourite. Retrenchment was now his theme: of the civil list, 14 Apr. 1815, of the property tax, in which he concurred with his constituents, 19, 20, 21 Apr., and of the naval estimates, 24 Apr. If the property tax were retained for more than a year, it would need ‘extensive pruning’, 1 May. He opposed the transfer of Genoa, 27 Apr. 1815, and the subsidizing of Holland, 12 June, and accepted the abandonment of Norwegian independence only on the understanding that the Norwegians were satisfied with their new rulers, 13 June. On 18 May 1815 he introduced a bill to prevent embezzlement of the property of the poor (i.e. common or waste lands). He welcomed regulation of child labour in cotton mills, 6 June. He was a spokesman for the chapel exemption bill, 16 June. He was invariably a friend of public support for the British Museum, which fostered ‘mental improvement’, 21 June 1815. He was in favour of the purchase of an estate for the Duke of Wellington, 23 June. He continued to inveigh against the foreign slave trade, 5 May, 5, 12 July. Despite this, Lady Shelley reported that as his dinner guest, 16 Aug. 1815, he ‘toadied Castlereagh considerably ... He abused Whitbread—so much for political friendships!’20

Smith’s contributions to debate for several years past had become so frequent that the House must occasionally have grown weary of him. This would be a rational inference from the sententious tone he frequently adopted, but it is supported by evidence that he overstepped the limit of their endurance; as when on 9 June 1815 he opposed the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant by reference to the moral superiority of the Duke of Kent over his brother. On 18 Mar. 1816 (after presenting a petition from Norwich to the effect on 26 Feb.) he was not satisfied with denouncing the property tax but went on to attack Pitt’s record as a financier, which sentenced the House to the even greater tedium of a defence of Pitt by George Rose. On 9 May he seconded Althorp’s motion against the leather tax, but agreed, during the debate, to support the amendment to it. On 30 May he brought in his postponed motion to expose the abuse of extents-in-aid whereby the crown ‘gave to one creditor what belonged jointly to all’: but he failed to carry a committee of inquiry by 65 votes to 56 and Ponsonby, his leader, who thought he had a good case, could not rescue it. (Smith obtained a select committee on the subject on 10 June 1817.) On 25 June 1816 he called for national victory monuments to be useful and not merely decorative.

Smith’s efforts in debate in the session of 1817 were no happier. On 29 Jan. he complained of the discourtesy of the Lords in keeping the Commons waiting for a conference. He had scruples about a petition for reform from Norwich which he was asked to present, 4 Feb., as he could not say its language was unobjectionable, having made it clear to his constituents that he disliked visionary plans of reform. After involving the House in a tedious debate he saw his scruples swallowed up in the House’s rejection of the petition. He supported economical reform at the Admiralty, 17 Feb. 1817, and opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, which he tried to obstruct, 28 Feb. He claimed that the seditious meetings bill seemed to be designed to prevent meetings to promote parliamentary reform, 10 Mar., and complained of the publicity given to the notion that Norwich was a hot-bed of sedition, 14 Mar. In the same debate he attacked the poet laureate Southey as a political turncoat: but Southey had a friend to defend him in Charles Williams Wynn and the episode did not redound to Smith’s credit. He voiced his objections to the salt duties, 25 Apr. He presented the petition for Catholic relief from the Warwickshire and Staffordshire Catholics, 28 Apr. He called for a Game Law reform which would discourage poaching, a habit that usually led to worse thieving, 5 May. The same day, justifying his vote for sinecure reform in 1812, he said that he had then swallowed the notion of compensation, to achieve ‘by a smaller evil ... a greater good’. He thought the House should not insist on its privileges so strongly in view of the glare of publicity that now attended its proceedings, 7 May. He was in favour of the employment of the poor in public works, even if their cost was thereby increased, 21 May. Opposing the renewal of the suspension of habeas corpus, 5 June, he exonerated Norwich from accusations of sedition and suggested that only disaffected districts should be involved. He called for the reform of burgage boroughs, 11, 18 June. On 9 July he suggested that, to lower taxation, the interest on the national debt be reduced by the application of the sinking fund to it.

Smith put up a defence for William Hone, the prosecuted radical bookseller, 3, 4, Feb. 1818. On 10 Feb. he defended a petition for shorter hours in cotton factories, testifying that the operatives were prepared to accept lower wages accordingly. He subsequently applauded the cotton factories regulation bill, 27 Apr., because it discouraged both child labour and trade unions. He welcomed the Anglo-Spanish treaty against the slave trade, 11 Feb. 1818: he had feared, 9 July 1817, that Spain would not be won over. On 1 June he likewise approved the Anglo-Dutch treaty. On 5 Mar. 1818 he produced evidence damaging to the character of Oliver, the government informer. He opposed the indemnity bill, 13 Mar. On the same day he was a spokesman for the brewers against the charges of price rigging, monopoly and adulteration. He was a critic of the royal dukes’ marriage grants, 15 Apr. Of the legal system he remarked that it was too tender towards property, too little so towards liberty and life, 30 Apr. He advocated gradual reform of the Poor Laws, 7 May. (On 9 Feb. 1819 he was placed on the Poor Law committee.) He favoured the repeal of the Septennial Act, 19 May 1818, but disliked Burdett’s reform motion, 2 June: he preferred ‘rational and discreet reform’. The ill treatment of slaves in the West Indies was a subject that exercised him (and his fellow abolitionists) that session, 22 Apr., 20 May, 3 June.

Smith presided over a Whig triumph at Norwich in the election of 1818. He signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the party. In the ensuing Parliament the House did not hear his voice so regularly, though his attendance did not fall off. On 19 Feb. 1819 he was a spokesman for the neglected claims to compensation of American loyalists. He looked forward to the international abolition of the slave trade, 22 Feb. Defending a Catholic relief petition, 4 Mar., he reminded Dr Phillimore that protestant, as well as Catholic dissenters, were denied office: he himself was precluded from it. A frequent visitor to Scotland since 1786 and a commissioner for Highland improvements since 1803, he was a champion of the Caledonian canal grant, 22 Mar. 1819. Of the reform of the corrupt borough of Barnstaple he said, 2 Apr., that ‘he was happy to take whatever he could get’. His constituents petitioned for two gaol deliveries a year, which he approved, 2 Feb. 1819, and on their behalf he opposed the poor settlement bill, though he was at first in favour of it, 10 May. On 1 July he was obliged to withdraw a bill he had sponsored to allow dissenters (particularly Unitarians) their own marriage ceremonies. In the last session he opposed repressive legislation: he failed to obtain an adjournment of the debate on the seditious meetings bill, 7 Dec.; approved an inquiry into distress in industrial areas, 9 Dec., and, 13 Dec., complained that ministers were curtailing liberty without justification. He also criticized the newspaper stamp duties bill, 20 Dec., and the blasphemous libel bill, 21 Dec. Of the latter he remarked that Christianity was not in need of the support of the civil power and that it smacked of the doctrine that knowledge was the ‘exclusive privilege of a few’.

Smith remained in Parliament until he had secured the removal of the dissenters’ disabilities as citizens. He died 31 May 1835.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Based on B. Aspinall, ‘William Smith MP 1756-1835’ (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis, 1962) and R. W. Davis, Dissent in Politics 1780-1830 (1971), which draw on the William Smith mss in Camb. Univ. Lib.
  • 2. W. P. Courtney, Parl. Rep. Cornw. 352; J. Stacy, Norf. Tour, ii. 1014.
  • 3. Life of Wilberforce (1838), i. 338.
  • 4. Wyvill, Pol. Pprs. v. 269.
  • 5. Oracle, 21 Nov. 1795; Morning Chron. 1 Dec. 1795.
  • 6. Morning Chron. 3 June 1796; PRO 30/8/234, f. 84.
  • 7. PRO 30/9/32, f. 321.
  • 8. Add. 47569, f. 111.
  • 9. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 22 July 1803; Add. 37906, f. 79; 47565, f. 85; 47569, f. 168; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW 7/2/161/2, 3.
  • 10. Grey mss.
  • 11. Ibid. Smith to Howick, 9 Oct.; Add. 51573, Smith to Holland, 29 Oct. [1806].
  • 12. Add. 51544, Holland to Howick [1 Nov.]; 51681, Russell to Holland, 2 o’clock [1806].
  • 13. Grey mss, Ld. Grenville to Howick, Tues. night [18 Nov.]; Add. 51573, Smith to Lady Holland, Sunday [Nov.], to Holland, 7 Dec. [1806]; HMC Fortescue, x. 464; Grey mss, Grenville to Howick, Tues. night [18 Nov. 1806], Smith to same [9 Mar. 1807], Howick to Lady Holland, n.d.
  • 14. Add. 51573, Smith to Lady Holland, Sunday; Mon. [4 May 1807].
  • 15. Grey mss, Smith to Howick [23 June]; Add. 51593, Sharp to Holland [6 July 1807].
  • 16. Wyvill mss 7/2/199/25.
  • 17. Add. 51573, Smith to Holland, 19 Feb. [1809].
  • 18. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 3 Feb. 1810; Kent AO, Harris mss C67/57.
  • 19. Blair Adam mss.
  • 20. Diary of Lady Shelley, i. 134.