My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Saturday 29 December 2018

William’s Family

William Smith Williams was born in 1800 and was baptised the following year. His brother, Richard, had been born in the final year of the eighteenth century. Their parents, Richard and Mary, had married at St Dunstan, Stepney in 1791. Richard was in business as a wax and tallow chandler at 408 The Strand. The family had come from Wheatley near Oxford where they were fellmongers, quite possibly providing skins for Oxford Colleges.

Tragedy struck, with the brothers losing their parents in their teenage years. They emerge back onto the record in 1817 for William as be becomes apprenticed to publishers, Taylor & Hessey. Richard appears on the baptism register of his daughter, Mary Eliza, in 1819 when he is described as a surgeon's instrument maker. He went on to manage Weiss & Co, Surgical Instrument Makers, at 62 The Strand until retirement. Richard had married also a Mary and they had two further children, William and my grandfather Alfred Hamlyn Williams.

William Smith Williams married Margaret Hill in 1826 and they went on to have four sons: Frank, Robert, Richard and Thornton and four daughters: Ellen, Fanny, Louisa and Anna. They were each talented in their own way. I have written what is known of them in my biography of William Smith Williams.
Richard Williams

There was a family 'myth' that we were related to Oliver Cromwell, whose great-grandfather, Richard, had been born Williams but later changed his name to that of his maternal uncle, Thomas Cromwell.

Thursday 15 November 2018

The Society of Arts 22 December 1847

On 22 December 1847 at the House of the Society of Arts at 8 John Adam Street, WSW gave his paper On Lithography. It was very well received.

I imagine the conversation. “Is this the man who has published Currer Bell’s Jane Eyre?” Indeed it was he and the firm he worked for, Smith, Elder&Co.

Forty years earlier he had lived with father, mother and brother (my great grandfather) at 408 The Strand. WSW’s brother managed the surgical instruments business of Weiss & Co at 62 The Strand which backs on to the RSA. Would Richard Williams have been there to hear his brother’s paper on 22 December 1847?

So I can imagine WSW going up the stairs of the RSA to the Great Room to the audience awaiting his paper, only there wouldn’t be the portrait or the list of Society Presidents for it wasn’t awarded its Royal Charter until 1848.

Friday 31 August 2018

Charlotte Bronte's Devotee? - a first draft

I mark 31 August 2018 as the day I sent off a first draft of my biography of William Smith Williams.

It has been a labour of love, a quest for the man behind Charlotte Brontë’s description of him: 'a faded Tom Dixon.' (He could hardly have been less so).

I was helped in my search by the genealogical work carried out by Mr Norman Penty and written up in his booklet, The Discovery of Charlotte Brontë William Smith Williams 1800-1875 – a Genealogical Quest. In 2006 Mr Penty contacted me and told me of the family tree that he had painstakingly researched. He contacted me because my name appears in the tree as the great grand son of WSW’s brother. The other huge source of help was from the late Margaret Smith’s edition of the letters of Charlotte Brontë. I visited the Brontë archive at Haworth, the Ruskin archive at Lancaster and the Smith Elder archive in Edinburgh, discovering in each place true gems. I researched extensively on line and in libraries. WSW's descendants in New Zealand and Australia provided a much need family perspective.

I found a true nineteenth century Renaissance man as at home with art as with literature, and with politics as with science. The question mark in the suggested title is deliberate. He is known as Charlotte Brontë’s mentor, a task he carried out with devotion. However, whilst she may have been the most prominent, she was very far from the only writer to whom WSW devoted his energies and very particular skills. 

The draft is divided into twelve chapters:

1 Childhood
2 Apprenticeship
3 The Hullmandel Years
4 The House of Smith, Elder & Co
5 The Bronte Years – Jane Eyre
6 The Bronte Years – Friendship
7 The Bronte Years – Art and Tragedy
8 The Bronte Years – Shirley, The Cornhill Parcels and Education
9 The Bronte Years – Villette, A Cooling Relationship
10 The Cornhill and Other Authors
11 The Ruskin Years

12 Home Life and Legacy

I now begin my search for a suitable publisher.

Monday 18 June 2018

William and Kensal Green Cemetery

William Smith Williams was buried in the magnificent Kensal Green Cemetery. His obituary in the Publishers Circular told of him having many friends, some of whom stood round his grave at his burial on 20 September 1875.

The obituary in the Athenaeum, for which he wrote for many years, said that 'literary taste was excellent and he had great powers of discernment. His judgement and opinion regarding works was very highly valued, especially among young authors. His kind smile and gentle manner charmed all those who had the pleasure of knowing him'.

His grave plot was purchased in 1864 by his daughter in law Emily Williams, nee Epps, a celebrated artist. It may be been her with his many children who survived him who paid for the memorial, the lettering on which may be by AC Gill.

Members of the London and South East Branch of the Bronte Society realised that the stone was being eroded and the inscription would soon no longer be visible and so they commissioned a plaque to be placed beside it. They were kind enough to ask me, as his great great nephew, to unveil it which I did on 20 January 2018.

It is a fitting memorial to an unassuming but significant man of literature.

It would be interesting to know what he would have thought of it, for in 1843 he wrote a piece for the Athenaeum on memorials, which included this:

This is not a poetical age; fitting emblems are few, and not very intelligible: a flower snapped from the stork is almost the only graceful and expressive emblem of youth and innocence. In the Kensal Green Cemetery is a tomb with a dead lamb sculpted on it, which, besides looking unsightly, awakens ideas of the shambles; and we remember to have seen a dead bird which at once carries you to the poulterer’s. The broken column is not so bad but these, and all similar emblems, are anything but hopeful. The Greeks symbolised the soul by a butterfly; we, in this material age, typify the soul in a bodily form. If it will wish to express the changes the mortal part of us undergoes after death, our scientific notions might suggest a retort and receiver. Not being a poetical people, we are, therefore, incompetent either to invent or understand symbols, and it would best to avoid them altogether.

William Smith Williams was buried in the same grave as his son Robert. The remains of his daughter Ellen and his wife would join his in 1882 and 1888. The adjacent grave would contain the remains of his son in law, Lowes Dickinson, and his daughter Fanny Emily. His legacy would last longer than than of many of those in his rather remarkable circle.

Friday 20 April 2018

Charlotte Bronte's First Devotee

The title of this post is my current working title for my biography of William Smith Williams, with the strap line: Who was this man, William Smith Williams, who discovered and nurtured Charlotte Bronte?

The name, William Smith Williams, will strike a chord with readers of Bronte biographies. He was the reader at Smith Elder & Co who first spotted Charlotte’s genius. He then nurtured her talent, as is evident from the one hundred or so letters she wrote to him in the course of her short career.

But who was he? Whence had he come and whither did he go? A passage from a letter his nephew, Robert Hill, wrote on his death urges exploration: ‘There were complementary notices of his death in nearly all the papers. Nobody could have been more universally beloved or respected than he was.’

I read the obituaries and they were indeed full of praise and affection for this quiet man. The Athenaeum wrote: ‘His literally taste was excellent, and he had great powers of discernment. His judgement and his opinion regarding the works was very highly valued, more especially by young authors.’ One sentence, in the Publishers Circular, in particular caught my attention: ‘The truth is that Mr Williams’ previous education had fitted him to be a judge of good work, and he was singularly fair and unbiased.’ I had to discover what this ‘previous education’ may have been.

My researches are bearing fruit and I hope will appear in an article for Bronte Studies and will be part of a biography which I am seeking to publish.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

William and Australia

Ellen and Margaret Williams, with thanks to Cheryl Pivac
In the early 1850s William's eldest son, William Frank (known as Frank), emigrated to New South Wales with some guidance from Elizabeth Gaskell then a friend of Charlotte Bronte. He married in Sydney in 1855 and he and his wife Ellen had a son and a daughter. There is reason to believe that Frank died before his father (1875).

Norman Penty, who did so much research into William's family tree, traced Frank's progeny to Mark Wasson and Stephen and Kent Warner who live in Sydney. If anyone knows them, I would love to make contact.

The only other Australian connection I have come across is that William read Catherine Spence's Clara Morison but declined it with a letter similar to that he sent to Charlotte Bronte on reading The Professor.


Thank you so much, Australian cousins, for getting in touch. The picture in filling in a fascinating way.

Sunday 14 January 2018

William and Kentish Town

William moved from Paddington to Harmood Road in Kentish Town at about the time of the Great Reform Act of 1832.

They lived first at 25 and then at 31. I visited there on Saturday, only to find that those numbers now attached to modern town houses. I had hoped to see number 31 a step up in the world for the Williams family. Happily over the road the original late Georgian houses remain and are wonderful.
I mentioned the Great Reform Act because it extended the franchise to included those owning houses worth more than £10 per annum. Did the Harmood Road properties cross the qualification threshold? I haven't yet traced William to the electoral register, but I will keep looking.

He would have been very much in favour of the Act and would have been looking forward to further reforms in the coming decade.

He was at the time working for the pioneering lithographer, Charles Hulmandell, but also in touch with influential periodicals such as the Examiner, Athenaeum and Spectator. In due course he would become a contributor of articles on art, theatre and literature.