Joshua Toulmin Smith

Joshua Toulmin Smith (29 May 1816 - 28 April 1869) was a British political theorist, lawyer and local historian of Birmingham. Born in Birmingham as Joshua Smith, he moved to London in 1835 and pursued a career in law, studying at Lincoln's Inn. [ "Smith, Joshua Toulmin"] , "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography"] Smith was not called to the bar until 1849, as he interrupted his legal studies to settle between 1837 and 1842 with his new wife Martha in America where he lectured on philosophy and phrenology. Joshua Smith was an incessant writer. In 1839 he gained a diploma of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Copenhagen for his work "The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century", while his interest in geology and subsequent papers led to him being offered the position of President of the newly formed Geologists' Association, which he declined. However, the main focus of his writings for many years was as a proponent of local self-government through traditional institutions, such as the parish, the vestry and the ward, a subject also taken up by his daughter Lucy Toulmin Smith. After the cholera epidemic of 1847, Smith's knowledge of law combined with his involvement in his own Highgate neighbourhood led to his demanding better sanitation and reforms advocating devolution and local responsibility. In 1851 his work "Local Self-Government and Centralisation" was published and followed in 1854 by "The Parish and its Obligations and Powers".

In 1852 Smith refused an offer to stand for the Parliamentary seat of Sheffield at the UK general election of that year. In 1854, he joined forces with the Revd M. W. Malet and W. J. Evelyn (MP for Surrey) to form the Anti-Centralisation Union, which survived until 1857. That same year, he incorporated "Toulmin" into his surname, in reference to his great-grandfather Joshua Toulmin.

In the mid-1800s the radical Local Self-Government movement was prominent among middle class professionals such as Smith who looked back to the Anglo-Saxons as an example of lifestyle and self-government. A vision of the Anglo-Saxons as symbolic of liberty, freedom and mutual responsibility was promoted and Smith pursued this argument tirelessly. [O. Anderson, "The Political Uses of History in Mid Nineteenth-Century England", Past and Present, 1967, pp. 87-99] History has proved, he argued, that "local Self-Government did exist in England and was a force to keep in check the most ambitious monarchs". [J. Toulmin Smith, Local Self-Government Un-Mystified, (London: 1857), p. 37] The evidence for this was to be found in medieval documents such as the Domesday Book (a survey of property in England compiled under the orders of William the Conqueror in 1086). In "The Parish", Smith describes the Domesday Book as "a record of the action of the institutions of Local Self-Government of a free people". [J. Toulmin Smith, The Parish: Its Powers and Obligations at Law, (London 1857), p. 486]

Smith's mistrust of Parliament led to the establishment of the "Parliamentary Remembrancer" (1857-1865), a weekly journal which recorded the actions of Parliamentary sessions for the benefit of local authorities and the general public. However, the "Remembrancer" was also used to instruct. For example, Smith gave much space and enthusiasm to a project in 1861 to reproduce Domesday Book as individual counties using a new photographic process called photozincography under the supervision of Sir Henry James at the Ordnance Survey. In the "Remembrancer" Smith promoted Domesday Book as being the story of free Englishmen in a free England and expressed a desire that every man who cared about the well-being of his country should possess a copy and be familiar with its content. He actively encouraged subscribers and accused gentlemen who did not subscribe to the photo-zincographic "Domesday" of being unpatriotic and benighted. [J. Toulmin Smith, The Parliamentary Remembrancer, vol 5 (London: 1862), p. 187]

The laborious task of conducting the "Remembrancer" combined with Smith's other responsibilities including his legal practice has been blamed for his deteriorating health. Joshua Toulmin Smith drowned in 1869 at Lancing, West Sussex.

Some letters from Joshua Toulmin Smith to the Birmingham printer William Hodgetts are housed at the University of Birmingham Special Collections department, situated in the Main Library.

Related Collections

*1285-1870: deeds, corresp and papers, chiefly concerning the Old Crown inn, Deritend are housed at Birmingham: Archives and Heritage Service.
*1836-51: corresp with George Combe are housed at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscript Collections.
*1862-67: corresp with George Holyoake are housed at the National Co-operative Archive.
*1852-61: letters from FW Newman are housed at the British Library, Manuscript Collections.
*1847-1866: letters (31) corresp with Sir Richard Owen and William Clift are housed at the Natural History museum.


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