Sir William Alexander Smith was born on 27 October 1854 in Pennyland House, Thurso. At the age of nearly 15, William moved to Glasgow to work in his uncle’s soft goods business, Fraser & Co. During his teens he joined the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers and became a Lance Corporal by the time he was 19. During that period William also joined the Free Church College.
Extracts from the accompanying The Greatest Scot television programme are being added to these biographical notes as the programme is broadcast between November 9 and 13. If you live outside the UK, you will not be able to see these, but you may enjoy other videos about some of the subjects which are available via links in the text.
By 1883 William had become a Lieutenant and was a teacher in the Sabbath School, held in a mission hall in North Woodside Road. It was at this point he realised that the methods and discipline used at the Rifle Volunteers could be more effective and appropriate when dealing with the children. Especially with the older boys, who seemed restless and bored during the Sunday School classes.
It was a combination of these activities and experiences that inspired William to create The Boys’ Brigade. On 4 October 1883 William and two of his close friends, brothers James R. Hill and John B. Hill, invited the boys of North Woodside Mission Sabbath School to join The Boys’ Brigade.
More than fifty boys joined straight away, but the rigid military discipline and strict obedience meant that by the end of the first season numbers had dropped quite dramatically.
By the end of the year 1883, the 1st Glasgow Company of the Boys’ Brigade was well established; two sergeants, two corporals and two lance-corporals were appointed and the Company was divided into six squads. Not long after that The Boys’ Brigade uniform was introduced – cap, belt and a haversack - and in 1886 the 1st Glasgow Company had its first summer camp held at Tighnabruaich.
William Smith married Amelia Pearson Sutherland in March 1884 and they came to live at Ann Street, in the West End area of Glasgow - and within walking distance of the North Woodside Mission Hall.
Soon The Boys’ Brigade movement spread over the United Kingdom. By 1887 Companies from London, Newport, Manchester and Armitage Bridge had joined The Boys’ Brigade. Not long after the movement could claim another Company founded in the United States, followed by others in Canada, Cape Town, West Indies and New Zealand, amongst others.
William took a leading role in the new organisation and accepted a post as the first brigade Secretary in 1887, giving up his business job to devote himself to the work of the Brigade. At this point, William turned his attention to supplying a guide and manual on how to form and conduct a Company, known as “the little red book”. He also founded and edited The Boys Gazette, which has since been the Brigade’s official monthly paper.
In 1909 Mr Smith received the honour of knighthood from His Majesty, King Edward VII, for his service to boys.
Sir William Alexander Smith died on Sunday 10th of May 1914. He was buried in the Western Necropolis in Glasgow where thousands followed the funeral procession.
The Boys’ Brigade celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 2008 and still nowadays operates all over the world with over half a million members around the globe.