Herbert Smith was born in Norfolk in 1800 and moved to Southampton aged two after the death of his father. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School and Caius College, Cambridge. He was ordained a deacon in 1828, and appointed curate of East Stratton in the parish of Micheldever in the same year.

Smith’s volatile nature and uncompromising attitude led him into conflict with his clerical superiors and his patron Thomas Baring (of the banking family) and his tenure at East Stratton was a turbulent one. He was dismissed from his post in 1834, and effectively estranged from the organised church for the rest of his life.

In 1837 he became chaplain to the New Forest Workhouse, a position which allowed him to see the inequities of the New Poor Law at first hand. His solution was the formation of the National Almshouses Society in 1838, the intended purpose of which was to construct almshouse for the deserving poor, paid for by a mixture of private charity and government grants. Smith chose a site near to St James’s Church in Shirley for his first almshouse, which was built by local architect William Hinves and completed in 1841. Although the facility was situated in South Stoneham parish, the inmates were to come from the New Forest, their accommodation paid for by the transference of their poor relief. Unfortunately, the anticipated charitable funding was never realised and the Poor Law Commission refused to sanction the transference of funds between unions. The scheme soon ran into financial difficulties. The almshouses were taken over by the Southampton Union for a short time and used to house the aged. They were closed down in 1843. The hard work and financial uncertainty took its toll on Smith, and he suffered a mental breakdown in mid 1842.

He lived at Marchwood barracks (of which he was chaplain) while employed as chaplain to the New Forest Workhouse, but when this appointment ended in the mid-1840s he moved his family in to the now disused almshouse in Shirley which he renamed Norfolk House. He continued his charitable work in the town and became involved in a wide range of social and political causes, including the temperance movement (he opened a coffee house for the poor in Southampton), education of the poor, emigration of labourers and Chartism.

Denied a place in the organised church, his religious activities were restricted to the fringes of church life. In 1855, styling himself ‘Clergyman of Freemantle’, he began to erect a mission church, dedicated to St Stephen. It was never completed.

His family life at Norfolk House was not a happy one. In 1858-59 he argued violently with his brother-in-law, John Chamberlayne, who was then living with them. This feud led to a court case during which the judge questioned Herbert’s mental stability. His wife Cassandra had been placed in lunatic asylum earlier in the decade and the break-up his family may have been contributed to his decision to leave Southampton and move to Winchester in c.1859.

He returned to Southampton in 1873, lodging at Portland Terrace. He died there in 1876.

Further reading:

‘The Eccentric and Reverend Mr. Smith: the Reverend Herbert Smith 1800-1876’, by Richard Preston in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no. 12, Summer 2007, p 9-22. (HS/h)


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