Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Allen, William (1770-1843)

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ALLEN, WILLIAM (1770–1843), man of science and philanthropist, was born 29 Aug. 1770. His father, a silk manufacturer, was a member of the Society of Friends. Allen imbibed in childhood the religious principles of his parents, and adhered to them through life. After going to a school at Rochester he was employed in his father's business; but his taste for chemistry induced him to enter J. G. Bevan's chemical establishment at Plough Court. On Bevan's retirement in 1795 he took the business and opened a laboratory at Plaistow. His position enabled him to make many scientific experiments, and he associated with some friends of similar tastes (including Astley Cooper) in the ‘Askesian Society.’ He gave lectures to his fellow-members at Plough Court; became Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1801, and of the Royal Society in 1807. He was appointed lecturer at Guy's Hospital in 1802, and lectured there till 1826. At the request of his friend Humphry Davy he also lectured at the Royal Institution. His attention, however, was drawn from science to the philanthropic movements of his time. He had been interested from boyhood in the agitation against the slave trade. Clarkson became his friend in 1794, and he was on intimate terms with both Clarkson and Wilberforce through life. On the abolition of the slave trade he became an active member of the African Institution, and shared in the agitation for the abolition of slavery. He was equally active in promoting education. He was a member of the committee formed in 1808 for the support of Lancaster, which in 1814 became the British and Foreign School Society. Allen was its treasurer and steady supporter. The Lancaster and Bell controversy was one of the topics of the ‘Philanthropist,’ a quarterly journal which he started in 1811 and maintained until 1817, and in which many other schemes of social improvement were discussed. James Mill was his chief contributor, and their friendly relations were undisturbed by radical religious differences. A full account of this review is given in Bain's ‘Life of James Mill’ (pp. 82, 112, 125, 144, 158, 161). In 1814, Allen, with Bentham, Robert Owen, and four other partners, bought the New Lanark Mills from Owen's previous partners in order to carry out the well-known scheme for social improvement. Owen declares that Allen was bustling and ambitious, though he admits him to have been anxious to do good in his own way. Differences arose as to the management, and Allen succeeded in obtaining an agreement in 1824 by virtue of which some bible instruction was to be given in the schools, and singing and drawing lessons to be no longer supplied by the company. Allen had been not unnaturally alarmed at Owen's avowed infidelity, and Owen after this withdrew from the management and gave up his partnership in 1829, Allen retaining his interest until 1835. Owen considered Allen to be narrow-minded, and thought that intercourse with great men had rather turned the worthy quaker's head. The Duke of Kent was interested both in Owen's and Lancaster's schemes; his affairs had become embarrassed, and Allen undertook to act as trustee for his estates, the duke consenting to live upon a fixed allowance till his debts were discharged. Allen continued to act until the duke's death and a final settlement of his affairs. When the allied sovereigns visited England in 1814, the Emperor Alexander was introduced to Allen as a model quaker; attended a meeting and visited Friends' houses; and a personal friendship arose, the emperor feeling, it seems, respect for Allen's character and sympathy with his religious sentiments. In August 1818 Allen left England, travelled through Sweden and Finland to Russia, saw Alexander at St. Petersburg, travelled to Moscow and Odessa, reached Constantinople in July 1819, and returned by the Greek islands, Italy, and France to England in February 1820. In 1822 he went to Vienna to see Alexander again, chiefly in order to secure his influence in obtaining a declaration from the powers that the slave trade should be piracy. The emperor and quaker parted, after affectionate interviews, with prayers and embraces. Allen made other journeys to the Continent in 1816, 1832, and 1833, examining schools, prisons, and social institutions, and having interviews with statesmen and rulers, including the Crown Prince of Prussia, the King of Bavaria, and the King and Queen of Spain, to inculcate his views of desirable reforms. At home he took an interest in numerous philanthropic undertakings; he promoted schools and district visiting societies; agitated for the abolition of capital punishment and the protection of the Greeks; corresponded with the Duke of Wellington and other political leaders; and was an active member of Friends' meetings. His chief interest in later years seems to have been in an ‘agricultural colony’ with industrial schools, which he helped to found at Lindfield in Sussex. He frequently stayed there to superintend its working, and died there 30 Dec 1843.

Allen was married in 1796 to Mary Hamilton, who died ten months later, leaving an infant daughter, who in 1822 married Cornelius Hanbury, and died in 1823 after the birth of a son; secondly, in 1806, to Charlotte Hanbury, who died in 1816; and thirdly, in 1827, to Grizell Birkbeck, who died in 1835. His father died in 1800; his mother, to whom he was tenderly attached, survived till 1830.

[Life of William Allen, chiefly a collection of diaries and correspondence, 3 vols. 1847; Life by James Sherman (chiefly abridged from the preceding), 1851; Eclectic Review for April 1848; Bain's Life of James Mill; Sargant's Life of R. Owen; Owen's Life of Himself and New Existence of Man, part v. 1854.]

L. S.