Skip to main content

Smee, William; Smee, W. A. & S.; Smee, John Henry; Smee & Cobbay (1793–1890)   

Smee, William; Smee, W. A. & S.; Smee, John Henry; Smee & Cobbay

London; cabinet makers, upholsterers, export furniture manufacturers, undertakers and appraisers (fl.1793–1890)   

William Smee I (probably the father of William II) was listed at 1 Artillery Street, Bishopsgate Street as a broker and cabinet maker in 1793 when he purchased insurance cover of £200 of which £130 was for utensils and stock [London Metropolitan Archive (LMA), Sun MS vol. 395, p. 8]. In 1802 he was listed at 5 Pavement, Moorfields in a London Directory and this address appears on a billhead dated 1805 in the John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library. In 1826-29, William (whether father or son is not known) was listed as an upholsterer at 6 Devonshire Street, Bishopsgate Street (this could have been a home address). 

William Smee II (b.1798-d.1856?) married Margaret Mason, in 1825 in Yorkshire [Quakers Marriages Register]. He is recorded in 1841 as an upholsterer living in Epping, Essex with his wife and sons, John (b.1832) and Sylvanus (b.1835-d.1870). The 1851 census records him as a cabinet maker & upholsterer, employing ninety men and twelve women, living in Woodberry Down, Stoke Newington with his sons, William A. (b.1829-d.1886) working as a 'cabinet maker for master', and John & Sylvanus who were both working as assistants to their father. City of London freedom records indicate that William Smee II was admitted to the Worshipful Company of Dyers in 1819 and all three sons became freemen of the Dyers' Company in later years.

William A. married in 1853 and was recorded as an upholsterer living with his mother and his young children in Stoke Newington [1861 & 1871 census]. He died in 1886 leaving an estate valued at nearly £118,000 (£16 million today). John was recorded as a cabinet manufacturer employing fifty-three men and eight boys and living at 73 Chiswell Street [1861 census]; as an upholsterer living in Theydon Green, Essex [1871 census]; as a master cabinet maker & upholsterer at 11 Hanover Terrace, Kensington [1881 census]; and at Bedford Park, Chiswick with offices at Clun House, Surrey Street, Strand in 1910.

Sylvanus married in 1860 and was recorded as an upholsterer and cabinet maker, living with his wife and family in Coleman Street [1861 census]. He died in Stamford Hill in 1870. 

From 1835, William II, William A. & John Smee were recorded at 6 Finsbury Pavement with additional premises at 34 Little Moorfields (house & warehouse). The 1845 Post Office Directory records W. Smee & Son as cabinet makers and upholsterers and the 1851 London Postal Directory as upholsterers, undertakers and appraisers. The 1871 Post Office Directory listed Wm. A. & S. Smee as wholesale upholsterers and cabinet makers at three locations: 18-20 Finsbury Pavement; 34 Little Moorfields; and King Henry’s Walk, Ball’s Pond. The Furniture Gazette Directory, 1876 & 1877 listed Wm. A. & S. Smee at 6 Finsbury Pavement as cabinet makers, bed & mattress manufacturers.

It would appear sometime after his father’s death, John established his own business, John Henry Smee & Co., which was recorded in 1871 as trading from 18 & 20 Finsbury Pavement and 10 & 12 Little Moorfields. 

The Furniture Gazette, 21 May 1881, reported a fire at W. A. & S. Smee’s premises of 27 Moorfields, Fore Street, on 12 May 1881. Considerable damage was done with the principal building of seven floors nearly burnt out and the roofs of this and adjoining buildings injured by heat and water. The firm was fortunately insured and the main part of their stock was preserved and business in the manufactory and warehouse was unaffected.

In 1886 The Furniture Gazette recorded W. A. & S. Smee listed as wholesale cabinet makers at 6 Finsbury Pavement, Little Moorfields and with 'works' at King Henry’s Walk, Ball’s Pond. William Alfred Smee died in 1886 and by 1888 the firm was known as Smee & Cobbay, with the address of 80 Finsbury Pavement


  • Great Exhibition, 1851: the firm exhibited a walnut and marquetry cabinet, illus. Meyer (2006), p. 57
  • London International Exhibition, 1862: Smee and Sons showed a finely carved chiffonier in Italian walnut with tulipwood bandings and a wardrobe in birch and tulipwood, illus. Meyer (2006), pp. 159 & 160   
  • Paris Exhibition, 1878: an oak sideboard by the firm was shown, illus. Meyer (2006), p. 261 & The Furniture Gazette, 7 December 1878
  • Sydney Exhibition, 1879: Smee was awarded a 1st prize for drawing, dining and bed room furniture [The Furniture Gazette, 31 May 1879 & 19 June 1880]  
  • Melbourne Exhibition, 1880: the firm participated in this exhibition and through their local agent made good sales [The Furniture Gazette, 16 April 1881]  
  • Furniture Exhibition, Agricultural Hall, 1882: the firm’s display was described as ‘a general assortment of goods in all the dominant styles and in various woods adaptable to the mansion or the villa; many of the exhibits are noticeable for their excellence, both in design and workmanship’ [The Furniture Gazette, 13 May 1882]
  • Industrial & Fine Art Exhibition, Bradford Technical School, Great Horton Road, Bradford, 1882;a bedroom with American walnut furniture [The Furniture Gazette, 22 July, 16 & 23 December 1882]
  • Third Annual Furniture Exhibition, Agricultural Hall, 1883: a walnut bedroom suite, with rosewood inlay or panels, and dining room furniture and furniture to the designs of E. W. Godwin [The Furniture Gazette, 5 May 1883]  
  • First Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society Exhibition, 1888: W.A & S. Smee were the makers of furniture designed and exhibited by Rhoda & Agnes Garrett; a long chair, tea table, fire-side chair and flower stand (stand no. 292)    

It is possible that Smee executed all the Garrett sisters designs and the firm certainly supplied West End furnishing shops and also provincial furniture makers such as Pratt’s of Bradford.  Numerous illustrations taken from Smee’s pattern books are reproduced in Joy (1977). Among recorded furniture is a dinner wagon, c. 1840, of oak with carved decoration, V&A (W.110-1978). 

William Smee
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Carved oak dinner wagon, c. 1840 [W.110-1978]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Two alternative designs for similar dinner wagons were published in the 1850s catalogues of their stock. The 1855 catalogue featured 600 furniture designs. Two oak and plaster stools of about 1840 were formerly in the Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read collection. A breakfront mahogany bookcase of c. 1825 is known marked with the name of this maker and a chess/work table attributed to Smee is in the collection of the Phillip Blairman family (illus. Levy, FHS Newsletter (Feb. 2013), fig. 1). Designs for a hall stand (c.1840), hall seat (1865), two sofas and two upholstererd ‘superior lounge chairs’ are illus. in Symonds & Whineray (1962), figs. 99, 100, 264 & 277. The designer E W Godwin (1833-188s6) is known to have worked with the firm at unspecified dates.

Commissions, as recorded in The Furniture Gazette:

  • The Admirality: residential furniture [8 March 1879], residential, office and bedroom furniture for the Lords of the Admiralty [1 April 1882]
  • Carpenters Hall: furniture [4 December 1880]
  • New Town Hall, Reading: 200 upholstered chairs for the stalls [8 April 1882]
  • City of London Colleges, Moorfields: tables [17 February 1883] 
  • The Bishop of Bedford: Smee & Cobay were the makers of a suite of dining room furniture which was presented by his former parishioners [1 November 1888]

Smee also exported furniture worldwide, sometimes to private clients and sometimes to cabinet makers/retailers. For example three walnut pieces now in the Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Australia; the teapoy imported & sold by a Sydney cabinet maker, Andrew Lenehan, 1855; a canterbury imported & sold by Raphael & Co. about 1868 and a settee with central medallion back.  A mahogany extending dining table, made by Smee c. 1850, from the former collection of Dysart House, Kempton, Tasmania was sold in recent years. Also an ebonised mahogany aesthetic movement side cabinet, of 1877, was imported to Australia shortly after manufacture. 

An advertisement in The Furniture Gazette, 3 January 1874, promoted Smee’s patent spring mattress. The firm also advertised for an ‘experienced cabinet maker who will work at the bench and act as Under Foreman’ [The Furniture Gazette, 23 April 1881]. 

In 1883 Robert Smith, foreman of the upholstery and carpet department of Smee’s for many years, left to join F. & W. Parker to form Parker, Smith & Parker [The Furniture Gazette, 17 November 1883].  On 27 February 1885 Thomas Wood & Thomas Williams were indicted with entering the counting house of Smee and Finsbury Cabinet Works, and stealing £15 10s and six postage stamps. Wood’s father had previously been employed as an assistant by Finsbury Cabinet Works and held onto a key to the safe, which had fallen into his son’s hands after his death. The key was lent to Williams, they had agreed to split the proceeds of whatever Williams stole and on 31 January 1885 the robbery took place. Both Wood & Williams were sentenced to six months imprisonment, with hard labour [The Furniture Gazette, 1 April 1885].

William Alfred Smee, senior partner of the firm and of The Limes, Woodberry Down, Finsbury Park, aged 57, died in 1886. His estate was proven at £117,978 with his two executors receiving £250 each and the contents of his home left to his two elder daughters. There were immediate legacies of £500 each to his four daughters and the whole of his property, real and personal, was left in trust to them. His daughters were named as the Misses Mary, Margaret & Jane Smee and Mrs Elizabeth Allen.  There was also an instruction that the trustees could extend the normal areas of investment to railway companies in the USA [The Furniture Gazette, 1 June & 1 August 1886].

Sources: DEFM; Furniture Gazette: Classified List of the Furniture, Upholstery, and Allied Trades, 1886; Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Symonds and Whineray, Victorian Furniture (1962); Joy, Pictorial Dictionary of British 19th Century Furniture Design (1977); Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design.  From Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Bennett, Shapland & Petter Ltd of Barnstaple, Arts & Crafts Furniture (2005); Meyer, Great Exhibitions. London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia. 1851-1900 (2006); Stabler, ‘Furniture Makers' Trade-Cards and Bill-Heads in the John Johnson Collection’, FHS Newsletter (May 2007); Boram, ‘Makers of 'Dy'd, Fancy and Japan'd' Chairs’, Regional Furniture (2010); Daniels, ‘Houses as They might be: Rediscovering Rhoda and Agnes Garrett and their Influence on the Victorian Middle-Class Home’, The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society1850 to the Present (2011);  Levy, ‘Philip Blairman (1896/97-1972): An Early Collector of Victorian Furniture’, FHS Newsletter (Feb. 2013); Wallis, ‘A Hand-List of the Handley-Read Collection’, DAS, vol. 40. 

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.