Smith, George

Social reformer, born 16 February 1831 at Tunstall, the son of William Smith (1807-1872), an impoverished brick-yard worker and PM local preacher. His education amounted to two years at a dame-school before he began work in the brick-yards at seven; but, inspired by the PM work ethic, he had risen by 1857 to become manager of a brick-works at Humberstone, Leicester. Here he succeeded in making substantial profits without the use of female or child labour. In 1859 he moved to another yard at Coalville. Here he was active in WM Sunday School work, which grew under his leadership; but increasing opposition from within the school led to his joining the PMs. He became a local preacher and served on the connexional committee.The impression is that he had a difficult, stubborn and determined personality which made him many enemies.

By 1867 he was active in Leicestershire Liberal politics and continued to prosper. His concern for the plight of children working in the brick-yards found expression in The Cry of the Children from the Brickyards of England (1871) and led to the Brick and Tile Yards Act of 1871, which prohibited the employment of females under sixteen and children under ten. As a further result, Smith was sacked from his managerial post and for some years lived in poverty. By the late 1870s he was campaigning on behalf of canal children; but he had ceased to be involved in Sunday School work or local politics. He wrote Our Canal Population: a cry from the boat children, with remedy (1875), and his friend Mark Guy Pearse contributed to the campaign with his Rob Rat: a story of barge life (1879). The result was the Canal Boat Amendment Act (1884), requiring canal and boats to be registered and regularly inspected to avoid overcrowding.

Meanwhile Smith had started a campaign for improved conditions for gypsy and fairground children. Gypsy Life: being an account of our gypsies and their children, with suggestions for their improvement (1880) revealed a strong prejudice against gypsies, but had some minor legislative success in 1885. But his Movable Dwellings Bill was brought repeatedly before Parliament, only to be thwarted by political opposition and despite support from Thomas Burt and others, his campaign failed to make further progress in his lifetime. He died at Crick near Rugby on 21 June 1895.

  • Edward Hodder, George Smith (of Coalville): the story of an enthusiast (1896)
  • Adrian Bristow, George Smith, the children's friend (Chester, 1999)
  • Oxford DNB

Entry written by: DCD
Category: Person
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