Smith, George (1831-1895) (DNB00)

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SMITH, GEORGE (1831–1895), of Coalville, philanthropist, born at Clayhills, Tunstall, Staffordshire, on 16 Feb. 1831, was the son of William Smith (1807–1872), brickmaker, by his wife, Hannah Hollins (Grosart, Hanani, or Memories of William Smith, 1874, with portrait). At nine years of age George commenced working at his father's trade, carrying about forty pounds weight of clay or bricks on his head. The labour lasted thirteen hours daily, and to it was sometimes added night-work at the kilns. He managed to obtain some education, and saved his earnings to buy books. In this manner, while still a young man, he raised himself above the level of his associates. While manager of large brick and tile works at Humberstone in Staffordshire in 1855, he visited Coalville in Leicestershire in 1857, where he discovered several valuable seams of clay. His imprudence in revealing his discovery prematurely prevented his reaping the full benefit of it; but in the capacity of manager he succeeded in forming a large business there.

During this time he persistently advocated the necessity of legislation on behalf of the brickmakers. He lectured on the degradation, immorality, and ignorance of the workmen, and on the cruelties to which the children were subjected. In one instance a boy weighing fifty-three pounds had to carry a load of forty-four pounds of clay upon his head. In 1863 he obtained the support of Robert Baker, C.B., an inspector of factories, and from that time his efforts were unceasing. He created a powerful impression at several of the social science congresses, particularly those of 1870 and 1872. In 1871 he published ‘The Cry of the Children’ (London, 8vo, 6th edit. 1879), which roused the interest of Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh earl of Shaftesbury [q. v.], and of Anthony John Mundella. In the same year an act (34 & 35 Vict. cap. 104) was passed, providing for the inspection of brickyards and the regulation of juvenile and female labour therein. In recognition of his services Smith received a purse of sovereigns, accompanied by an address at a meeting presided over by Lord Shaftesbury. He had, however, roused considerable ill will within the trade, and towards the close of 1872 he lost his position of manager at Coalville.

In 1873 Smith turned his attention to the conditions of life of the one hundred thousand men, women, and children living on canals and navigable rivers. He found drunkenness and immorality alarmingly rife among them. In 1874 Mr. John Morley admitted an article by him on the subject to the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ and in the following year he published ‘Our Canal Population: a Cry from the Boat Cabins,’ London, 8vo. In 1876 he failed to dissuade Lord Sandon, in his first Education Bill, from applying the two-mile limit to children living in canal boats, but in the following year, in consequence of his representations, George Sclater-Booth (afterwards lord Basing) [q. v.] introduced the Canal Boats Bill, which came into force on 1 Jan. 1878. This act enforced the registration of all canal boats under the name of a place where there was a school for the children to attend, as provided by the elementary education acts. It also regulated the sanitary conditions of life on board. The act, however, left too much to the discretion of local authorities to insure any great amelioration of the condition of the canal population. In 1881 a bill to amend its provisions and render it more workable was blocked by Sir Edward Watkin and others, but it was passed in 1884. By its provisions the local authorities were required to make annual reports to the local government board, and the board to parliament. The local authorities were instructed to enforce the attendance of the children at the schools, and a inspector of canal boats was appointed.

For several years Smith had sought to draw attention to the condition of the gipsy children, and after the passing of the Canal Boats Amendment Act he gave all his time to that subject. In 1880 he published ‘Gipsy Life: being an Account of our Gipsies and their Children,’ London, 8vo, a work containing much information on the history of the race in England. A Moveable Dwellings Bill, framed in accordance with Smith's views, was several times introduced into parliament by Messrs. Charles Isaac Elton, Thomas Burt, and Matthew Fowler. It provided for the registration of travelling vans and for the regulation of the sanitary condition of the dwellers. The education of the children presented such difficulties that it was left for further consideration. Despite Smith's enthusiastic energy, the opposition the bill encountered was too determined to permit its passage.

After his dismissal from his post at Coalville in 1872, Smith passed thirteen years in great poverty. In 1885 he received a grant from the royal bounty fund, with which he purchased a house at Crick, near Rugby. In 1886 he formed the ‘George Smith of Coalville Society’ at Rugby, the members of which were to assist in furthering his philanthropic works. Smith died at Crick on 21 June 1895. He was twice married, first to Mary Mayfield, by whom he had three children, and, secondly, to Mary Ann Lehman.

Besides the works mentioned, Smith's most important publications were: 1. ‘Canal Adventures by Moonlight,’ London, 1881, 8vo. 2. ‘I've been a Gipsying, or Rambles among our Gipsies and their Children,’ London, 1883, 8vo. 3. ‘Gypsy Children; or a Stroll in Gypsydom,’ London, 1889, 8vo; new edit. 1891. 4. ‘An Open Letter to my Friends; or Sorrows and Joys at Bosvil, Leek,’ 1892, 8vo.

[Hodder's George Smith of Coalville, the Story of an Enthusiast, 1896, with portrait; George Smith of Coalville: a Chapter in Philanthropy, 1880, with portrait; Times, 24 June 1895; Graphic, 1879 p. 508 with portrait, 1895 p. 778 with portrait; Illustrated London News, 1895, p. 798, with portrait; Biograph, May 1879, pp. 316–38; Fortnightly Review, February, 1875, pp. 233–42.]

E. I. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.253
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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41 ii 32-33 Smith, George (1831-1895): for The board school inspectors read The local authorities