Benjamin Leigh Smith was born on 12 March 1828 at Whatlington, East Sussex, a son of Benjamin Smith (1783–1860). The family into which he was born carried a strong independent line of thought and adherence to often unpopular views from one generation to the next. William Smith, our subject's grandfather, was a staunch supporter of William Wilberforce and his advocacy of the abolition of slavery. William also supported the views of the American rebels and refused to seek compensation for the loss of family estates in Savannah after the Declaration of Independence. William's son Benjamin, a friend of Thackeray and Member of Parliament for Norwich, 1834–37, was a radical politician and advocate of the repeal of the corn laws. Benjamin senior, a convinced Unitarian, had strong views on the education of his children, and when very young they were taught in what, even now, might be regarded as a progressive manner. A committee, headed by Smith and Lord Brougham, gave funds for the Westminster Infant School which provided elementary education for about 100 poor children in the neighbourhood. Whenever young Benjamin and his brothers and sisters were in London they attended this school which was run by James Buchanan: he had begun life as a weaver in Lanarkshire, and ran the school with the aid of his wife on Swedenborgian principles. There was no corporal punishment; outbreaks of indiscipline were overcome by Buchanan calling all the children to dance together to the sound of his flute. The lack of conventional discipline scandalized the committee and they all withdrew their support leaving Smith to foot the bill. He generously gave £1000 for building baths and a small theatre at the school. Progress was made nonetheless, and Benjamin Senior was sufficiently impressed to invite this unconventional pedagogue to the family estates and continue his children's education during the holidays.
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