Smithson’s Bequest to London’s East End

On October 23, 1826, James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, sat down and wrote the final version of his will.  Smithson, who was 61 years old and had suffered various ailments, was clearly thinking about his legacy. After establishing his pedigree and naming his executors, his first bequest was:

To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of one hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death.

James Smithson, by James Roberts, 1786, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, NPG.96.28. Fitall had been his servant for a number of years, and Smithson seems to have held him in high esteem. There is no indication of the circumstances under which Fitall left Smithson’s employ, but it does seem that a job at the London Docks must have been a step down from his role as a man-servant to a wealthy gentleman. Fitall’s home on Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, was part of what is known as the East End of London. The area was not yet as notorious as during the Victorian era, when street gangs, prostitutes and Jack the Ripper kept the penny press headlines focused on the docklands area, but it was already a crowded, gritty neighborhood rife with crime. The East End was the section east of the Roman and medieval walled city of London, north of the River Thames, and bordered by the the River Lea. Many residents worked at the nearby docks, which were growing rapidly, with the St. Katharine Docks opening in 1827. Overcrowded and unsanitary, with transients arriving at the docks daily, cholera and other epidemics were a regular occurrence. This was also the home of the Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, competing for sales with their patter of rhyming slang.

Smithson seems to express regret that he has not done more for Mr. Fitall in the past and thus wishes to provide for him for the remainder of his life. His bequest of £100 sterling annually is not a paltry sum. It is difficult to really calculate what that would mean in today's dollars, but the Old Bailey Online website suggests:

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a skilled engineer could command 7s. 6d. a day, or around £110 per year, if fully employed, but this was not significantly more than their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the last decades of the nineteenth century William Booth estimated that a working family needed an income of at least 18s. to 21s. a week, or around £50 a year, just to get by, and 22s. to 30s. a week (£57-£78 per annum) to be "comfortable".

Regents' Room in Smithsonian Institution Building  So it would seem that Smithson provided a decent income for his faithful servant for the remainder of his life. I don't know if Mr. Fitall and his wife remained in the East End or if he continued to work at the London docks, but the Fitalls would have had a comfortable life. Life in the East End continued to deteriorate through the remainder of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century – the era portrayed in the current BBC series Call the Midwife. Many residents lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, often consigned to work houses for the indigent. Smithson's first bequest ensured that his faithful servant lived out his days in far greater comfort than his neighbors.

The annuity ceased when Mr. Fitall died with the principal reverting to the bequest to the people of the United States. The Minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for January 11, 1850, reported that Mrs. Fitall, the widow of a former servant of Mr. Smithson, through a Mr. H. P. Bohn, had offered for sale a small portrait of James Smithson which was in her possession for the price of thirty guineas. The portrait by James Roberts (1753-c. 1809) is of a young Smithson as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University, in 1786, attired in his academic robes and already committed to a life devoted to scientific research. The board resolved that Secretary Joseph Henry be authorized to purchase the portrait of Mr. Smithson which Honorable Abbott Lawrence, United States Ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of in his letter of the 10th of December, 1849. The oil on canvas painting soon arrived at the Smithsonian and is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery today, allowing the Fitalls to give back to the Institution founded by the man who held their service in the highest regard.

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