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William Allen

In connection to our current exhibition, Unlocking the Secrets of Slavery and Abolition in the Easten Gateway Building, and in support of International Men’s Day (November 19th), we are taking the opportunity to highlight one of the men in that exhibition.

 William Allen cropped 

William Allen (1770-1843), scientist, philanthropist and abolitionist.  Committee member and treasurer of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) from 1808 until his death in 1843

The son of a Quaker silk manufacturer of Spitalfields, London, Allen briefly attended a Quaker boarding school, but was largely self-taught. After school he was employed in his father's business; but his taste for chemistry induced him to join a chemical business at Plough Court, London, taking over the business in 1795.    Allen and Hanburys survived until 1958, when it was taken over by Glaxo (now GSK). 

Allen was a member of the Askesian Society, a Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Royal Society.  He was a lecturer at Guy's Hospital 1802 - 1826.  In 1841 he was appointed president of the Pharmaceutical Society Council. 

He was also heavily involved in the philanthropic movements of his time, including the campaign against the slave trade, being friends with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, leading abolitionists. 

In 1808 he became a member of the committee formed to rescue Joseph Lancaster from his financial difficulties and safeguard the future of his monitorial school at Borough Road, Southwark which in 1814 became the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS).  The committee members, headed by Allen as treasurer paid off Lancaster's debts mainly from their own financial resources.  The course of these developments is noted in the minutes -many of them taken by Allen himself-of the BFSS committees held at Plough Court or Borough Road.

The transformation of the Royal Lancasterian Society into the BFSS reinforced overseas efforts of the Society.  In this development, Allen, who was a member of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a leading member of the Africa Institution formed in 1808, again played a dominant role. The education of liberated slaves in Sierra Leone and in the West Indies concerned him as much as the education of the children of the poor in the UK.

In the joint promotion of education and abolition, from August 1818 to February 1820 Allan toured Sweden and Finland, continuing to Russia where he was a guest of his personal friend Tsar Alexander, reached Constantinople in July 1819, and returned by the Greek islands, Italy, and France. 

In the UK he also promoted schools and district visiting societies, he was a partner in Robert Owen's New Lanark Mills scheme for social improvement from 1814 until 1835,  he gave evidence on the Education of the Poor to the parliamentary Select Committees, and campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment and the protection of the Greeks;

Although Allen is not well known today, his contributions to education and abolition cannot be ignored. Without his work on its behalf, the BFSS would not have survived.  To this day the BFSS continues to provide overseas aid for suitable education projects.

For more information on the British and Foreign School Society see our website.