William Allen was the son of a Spitalfields silk weaver. From an early age he showed an interest in science, constructing a telescope through which he observed the satellites of Jupiter. His interest in chemistry aroused the attention of Joseph Gurney Bevan, a pharmacist, who took William into his business in 1792. William continued to run the business after Joseph Bevan retired. The business eventually became Allen and Hanbury, a pharmaceutical company still in existence today.
William Allen lectured in chemistry at Guy’s Hospital and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also a founder member of the Geological Society, the Mineralogical Society and the Pharmaceutical Society (of which he was the first president).
From a young age he saw the abhorrence of slavery. At the age of nineteen he realised that opposition to slavery should be matched by “disusing those commodities procured by the labour of slaves”, deciding that “as sugar is undoubtedly one of the chief, I resolve, through divine assistance, to persevere in the disuse of it until the Slave Trade shall be abolished”.
William Allen was concerned about the rights of all people. He was instrumental in a survey of 1,504 families so that the roots of poverty might be understood. He also set up a society to work against capital punishment.
William Allen the philanthropist
William Allen was a welcoming man who always sought to help people out. A young Frenchwoman who stayed with him in 1829 recalled that his house
“to its full extent and often beyond it, was ever open to receive all the strangers who required his aid and protection; and as memory glances over the scenes of that period… I see men of all countries and of all shades of colour; Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Greeks, Italians, and Spaniards, North American Indians, West Indians, and many of the suffering sons of Africa partaking of that hospitality which he knew so well how to bestow without the least ostentation.”
He also took a keen interest in education. From 1808 he took an active part in the schools promoted by fellow Quaker Joseph Lancaster. Joseph’s vision was not matched by financial or administrative abilities and William was almost solely responsible for setting these schools on a sound footing.
While travelling in Sussex, he “saw that a good system of education for the children of the labouring classes was greatly needed in these districts” and began the agricultural colony at Lindfield, near Haywards Heath, where he created a school farm and other training facilities for the children.