Born on 16 July 1827 into a Wesleyan Methodist family at Doddington, Shropshire, he was the son of William Smith (1798-1879), an iron founder, builder and property developer. In 1853 he joined his father’s business and by 1858 was managing the foundry. In 1860 he moved the business to Mill Street and Castle Street, Whitchurch. The London Gazette of 4 December 1860 listed a ‘patent applied for’ by Robert Thursfield Smith and Thomas Suckley, Agricultural Implement makers of Whitchurch, for ‘an improved apparatus for smutting and screening grain and distributing other granular substances’. In the 1871 Census Robert is recorded as an ‘Iron-founder, Civil Engineer, and Timber Merchant employing sixty men’, and by 1879 he had built a foundry in Talbot Street close to the railway. He died at Whitchurch on 12 March 1907.
Robert and his wife were members of and great supporters of the Wesleyan Chapel in Whitchurch (1810-1879) (now the Whitchurch Heritage Centre). They were heavily involved in raising funds for St. John’s Wesleyan Church, Whitchurch. Mrs Sarah Smith (nee Savage, 1832-1894) raised over £1,000 by organising a 4-day bazaar. The Church was opened on 24th April 1879.
Robert had a passionate interest in the Wesley family and Methodist history and amassed one of the largest collections of Methodist manuscripts, including 60 John Wesley letters, his Georgia Journal and a large library of Wesley Hymns and other Methodist books. Part of his collection consisting of 858 items dated from 1735 to 1898 was purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in 1903. The collection was gifted to the John Rylands Library, Manchester in 1908 and became the foundation of the largest and world-famous collection of Methodist manuscripts, printed books and memorabilia.
Several members of the Smith family are mentioned in the stained-glass windows in St John’s Methodist Church, Whitcurch.