William Smith and the Font

By Angi Lowrie – Research Volunteer

The font is situated in a niche in the narthex or porch area of the building, to the right as one enters from the main entrance from Ship Street. The floor beneath it is tiled in a geometric pattern in shades of gold and brown. These tiles resemble those originally installed on the rererdos behind the altar, now replaced by oak panelling. The reredos tiles were attributed to the company of Maws of London, and these in the niche may also be by this manufacturer. The font is unusual in that the bowl is circular in shape, rather than the more traditional octagonal. It is carved from fine pure white marble. Marble of this quality was often imported from Carrera in Italy. 

Sadly it bears no visible makers mark, and so far its provenance is uncertain. However, it is a piece of very fine workmanship. The circular bowl has a very smooth flat surround, and beneath the bowl there is beautifully carved decoration in the form of vine leaves and bunches of grapes.

The bowl is supported by a carved column again decorated with leaves, which stands upon a plain white, rectangular marble plinth. Around three sides of the plinth we find the memorial to William Smith. The inscription reads as follows:-

To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Smith of West Brighton who entered into rest on February 4 1887.’

It seems that William Smith must have been quite an important and wealthy resident of Brighton to have such an impressive memorial.

He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 19 May 1801. His father was Robert Smith (1771 – 1851) who was a coffee planter. Robert would have worked on a coffee plantation in Jamaica. At the time the whole of the island was taken over by coffee plantations. The owners were mainly absentee British landlords. Until slavery was officially abolished in 1833, these plantations would have been dependent upon slave labour to produce their goods.

By 1833 William has moved to Liverpool. He has met a Yorkshire woman named Anne Frances Haigh and fallen in love, and they married in the Parish of Huddersfield on 24 July 1833. 

William was aged 32 and Anne was 22. Anne was born 14 August 1811 in Halifax to Hannah Haigh (1780 – 1846) and John Haigh (1779 – 21 April 1826) of Edgerton Hill, Huddersfield. Anne was baptised at St John the Baptist Church in Halifax on 20 April 1812. William and Anne’s first son was born in 1834 and named Haigh Smith, but he died in 1836.

The following year on 27 October 1837 Anne gave birth to another son named Francis William(s), but he lived for only two weeks, dying on 9 November 1837. Saddest of all, Anne herself survived for only two days after giving birth, dying on 29 October in Everton, Liverpool. Presumably there were complications related to childbirth. She was just 26 years old.

This must have been a very difficult time for William, losing both of his sons and his wife in the space of less than two years.

William does not seem to appear in the UK censuses of 1841, 1851, or 1861.He may have decided to return to his family in Jamaica after the trauma of losing his family, or he may have moved elsewhere to concentrate on his work as a merchant.

In the UK Census of 1871 William is living in London at 17 Victoria Street, Grosvenor Mansions, St Margaret’s, Westminster. He lives at this address with a lodger, William D Gardiner, also a widower, aged 40, who is described as a ‘Barrister-in-Practice’ from London. There are also two servants – Rachel Mary Allum, who is aged 39 and described as ‘Housekeeper Domestic’ who hails from Stradbroke in Suffolk, and Caroline Flude, aged 19, from Camberwell, Surrey who is a ‘Servant Domestic’. ‘Domestic’ refers to the fact that they both live-in at the property.

On 27th September of that same year, 1871, William Smith, Esquire, of the Parish of Saint Margaret Westminster, appeared personally to pray for a licence for the solemnisation of marriage in the new Parish Church of St Mary, Paddington, in the County of Middlesex, between himself and a spinster of the age of twenty one or above called – Rachel Mary Allum. Her residence is given as within the Parish of St Mary’s Paddington.

The wedding of William and his former housekeeper Rachel took place at St Mary’s Church, Paddington, the following month, on 4th October 1871. William was aged 69, described as a widowed merchant, and Rachel was aged 39. Her father was Francis Allum, described as a farmer.

In the UK Census of 1881, William and Rachel are living together in Hove in some considerable style. His occupation is given as ‘Retired Merchant’. Their address is 5 Fourth Avenue. This is the reason that his memorial places him in ‘West Brighton’. This was not simply another way to say ‘Hove, Actually’ – it was the name of a newly developed area of housing for the well-to-do called The West Brighton Estate. This was built on land purchased from one of the principle land owners in Brighton, the Stanford family. Despite the name, it was definitely within the boundary of Hove. 

William died on 4 February 1887 at 29 The Drive, West Brighton (Hove)  in a house called ‘Sans Souci’ (meaning ‘carefree; or ‘without worry’). He was 85 years old. He left personal estate (resworn September 1887) of  £44,086,15s.10d.(This translates to over £4 million today)

His widow Rachel Mary continued to live at Sans Souci until her death there on 8 October 1900, when she would have been aged about 70. It is not clear when or why the Smiths chose to move from their new home in Fourth Avenue to Sans Souci. It is possible that rather than a family home it was some sort of residential care home for the elderly, as William would have been over 80 years old at the time. 

It would seem that Rachel commissioned the beautiful memorial font for Holy Trinity Church. There were no children to remember them. It is not clear yet what connection the couple had with the church. 

William and Rachel were both buried in Hove Cemetery. They are commemorated there with an impressive tomb in the form of a white marble altar supported by red marble columns  topped with a recumbent figure. Judy Middleton in her book ‘Hove Cemetery 2002 (Revised 2018)’ describes it thus:- 

‘’This must be the most comfortable – looking monument in Hove Cemetery. William Smith strikes a patrician pose as he enjoys a long sleep’’

The inscriptions are as follows:-

In Memoriam William Smith who fell asleep on the 4th February 1887 in his 86th year

Also Rachel Mary widow of William Smith who fell asleep on 4th October 1900 in her 71st year.

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