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William Small

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many people relied upon a letter of introduction as a first step towards building up new business and social contacts. Earnest young men set out from their home towns to seek their fortune clutching little more than a letter from someone they knew in the hope that it would open doors from them in a new life. The letter of introduction was a powerful form of social currency – providing it was written by the right person.

William Small (1734-1775) arrived in Birmingham to meet Matthew Boulton in 1764 with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin – the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, one of the Founding Fathers and the third president of the United States. Small had been Thomas Jefferson’s tutor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, then one of Britain’s American colonies, and had met Franklin whilst teaching there between 1758 and 1764. The letter of introduction led to a chain of events which culminated in Small becoming a member of Birmingham’s famous Lunar Society – one of the most important groups of thinkers in British industrial history.

A rare pencil image of William Small by an unknown artist is housed in the Birmingham Assay Office’s collection. Originally the property of James Watt Jnr, the sketch was donated to the Assay Office’s collection in the 1930s. It shows Small in profile, as if paused in conversation, his arms folded, surrounded by books and a pot of ink. The image dates from around 1765-1775. Small was born in Forfarshire, Scotland in 1734, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He attended Marischal College in Aberdeen between 1751 and 1755 and was awarded his MD in 1765.

After his time in Virginia, Small eventually established a medical practice in Birmingham. He became Matthew Boulton’s physician, and was a close associate of Dr John Ash, a fellow doctor and founder of Birmingham’s first General Hospital, which opened in 1779.

Tragically, Small died at the relatively young age of 41 after contracting malaria during a stay in Virginia. Matthew Boulton was particularly affected by his death.
William Small is buried in the grounds of St Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham.



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