Sir William Alexander Smith (27 October 1854 – 10 May 1914), the founder of the Boys’ Brigade, was born in Pennyland House, Thurso, Scotland. He was the eldest son of Major David Smith and his wife Harriet. He and his siblings formed a family of three sons and one daughter.
As a boy, William Smith was educated at the Miller Instituition, known as the “Thurso Academy”. Following his father’s death, his family moved to Glasgow. In early January 1869, William Smith became a pupil in a private school, The Western Educational Institution, more widely known as “Burns’ and Sutherland’s School”. In this first and only term there, he took seven prizes. His time in the institution was short-lived as he ended his school days late in May, at the age of fourteen and a half.
Nonetheless, Smith did not cease his education altogether. His writings in a notebook indicated that he continued to take French classes after joining his uncle’s business.
In October 1869, a few days before he became fifteen, William Smith entered his uncle’s business. Alex. Fraser & Co. were wholesale dealers in “soft goods”, shawls being of 19, he was promoted to the rank Lance-Corporal. He also joined the Church of Scotland in that same year.
Smith was commissioned into the Rifle Volunteers in 1877 and promoted to Lieutenant later the same year. He also became a Sunday School teacher. It was a combination of these two activities that led him to start the Boys’ Brigade on 4 October 1883 at Free Church Mission Hall, North Woodside Road, Glasgow. In 1909 he was knighted by King Edward VII for his services to children. He also eventually reached the rank of Major in the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers.
He died on 14 May 1914 in London. He was buried in Glasgow. There is a memorial stone in honour of him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.