350 years since the birth of an influential man

An 18th century coffee house
An 18th century coffee house
HMS Victory moored off Gosport about 1920

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This month is the 350th anniversary of the birth of one of the most eminent and influential men to have served and shaped Portsmouth.

The school he founded – Portsmouth Grammar School – has educated movers and shakers in all fields: writers, dramatists, poets, musicians, doctors, scientists, international athletes, respected academics, high-ranking military and navy officers, war heroes, clergymen, local and national politicians and diplomats.

The entrance to Portsmouth Grammar School in High Street, Old Portsmouth

The entrance to Portsmouth Grammar School in High Street, Old Portsmouth

William Smith was born in Arreton in the Isle of Wight and baptised in Newport on October 17, 1661.

The youngest of three brothers, William went to Newport Grammar School which gave him the essential grounding for his subsequent career.

In 1683, he left the island to study medicine at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands and later returned to join his brother’s medical practice in Newport.

After his brother’s death in 1694, William was appointed to the prestigious post of physician to the town and garrison of Portsmouth.

Dr Smith threw himself into both his work and local society. He joined an early morning coffee club run by a Mrs Cloake at Point, where members convened at 4am to drink coffee, read newspapers and engage in political and philosophical debate.

Occasionally differences in opinions were lively and on one occasion, the Doctor’s belief that sovereignty should reside entirely in the hands of the monarch led to him being hissed from the club.

Usually, however, conversations were convivial and sedate and would continue amicably until the sun rose and the day’s work of treating the sick could begin.

Dr Smith was elected as a burgess in 1700 and five years later bought one of the most fashionable houses in High Street, Buckingham House, where the Duke of Buckingham had been killed in 1628. In 1711, Dr Smith became an alderman and was mayor in 1714.

Three years later, members of the local Grand Jury lamented the lack of a grammar school in Portsmouth.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that he owed his professional and personal success, his skills, status and wealth, to his early education at Newport Grammar that prompted Dr Smith to dictate on his deathbed that his estate should be used to establish a grammar school for the town.

Portsmouth Grammar School – the thriving legacy of this uncommon man with the commonest of names – continues to encourage, nurture, educate and prepare young people for life and future success.

nThe school has never discovered a portrait of its founder. If anyone knows of an image of Dr William Smith (1661-1732) the school archivist, John Sadden, is offering to buy will buy you a large drink. He’s on (023) 9268 1391.