William Johnson Fox

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William Johnson Fox by his daughter Eliza Bridell Fox

William Johnson Fox (1 March 1786 – 3 June 1864) was an English religious and political orator.

Early life[edit]

Fox was born at Uggeshall Farm, Wrentham, near Southwold, Suffolk on 1 March 1786.[1] His parents were strict Calvinists. When he was still young, his father quit farming. After time at a chapel school, Fox became a weaver's boy, an errand-boy, and in 1799, a bank clerk. An autodidact, he entered prize competitions.[2]

From September 1806 Fox trained for the Independent ministry, at Homerton College. His tutor there was John Pye Smith, the Congregational theologian. Early in 1810 he took charge of a congregation at Fareham in Hampshire. Failing to make a small seceding congregation there viable, he left within two years to become minister of the Unitarian chapel at Chichester.[2]

South Place Chapel circle[edit]

In 1817 Fox moved to London, becoming minister of Parliament Court Chapel. In 1824 he moved the congregation to South Place Chapel, in Finsbury on the edge of the City of London, which had been built specifically for him.[2] Around Fox and the chapel there gathered a group of progressive thinkers, including feminists and, through William Lovett, some adherents of Chartism.[3] The circle included Sophia Dobson Collet, who saw some of Fox's sermons into print;[4] Mary Leman Gillies, who wrote on women's rights;[5] and Caroline Ashurst Stansfeld, whose marriage to James Stansfeld was conducted by Fox.[6] Fox's position as a leading Unitarian minister was jeopardized in 1834-5 when he left his wife for one of his wards, and became an advocate of freer divorce. The Chapel's committee, led by Thomas Field Gibson’s father Thomas Gibson, accepted Fox's resignation, which led to Fox’s removal from the Unitarian ministry and a secession of fifty families from the Chapel.[7][8] He set up a new household in the Craven Hill area of Bayswater and re-established himself as a preacher of rationalism. Charles Hardwick grouped Fox with Theodore Parker and Robert William Mackay as proponents of "absolute religion".[9] Fox's public presence became increasingly that of a commentator on social and political matters. The South Place chapel itself eventually lost its identification with Unitarianism, becoming the South Place Ethical Society.


As a supporter of the Anti-Corn-Law movement, Fox won celebrity as an impassioned orator and journalist, and from 1847 to 1862 he intermittently represented Oldham in Parliament as a Liberal.[10]

Fox died 3 June 1864, in London.


He was editor of the Monthly Repository, and a frequent contributor to the Westminster Review, and published works on political and religious topics. An edition of his Works was edited by William Ballantyne Hodgson and Henry James Slack, and appeared from 1865.[11]


The ambition of Fox was to become a great political orator and debater, in which at last he succeeded. His mental agility was manifest in his reply to an elector whom he had canvassed for a vote, and who offered him a halter [an old euphemism for noose] instead. "Oh thank you," said Fox, "I would not deprive you of what is evidently a family relic." His method was to take each argument of an opponent, and dispose of it in regular order. His passion was for argument, upon great or petty subjects. He availed himself of every opportunity to speak. "During five whole sessions," he said, "I spoke every night but one; and I regret that I did not speak on that night, too." - Successful Methods of Public Speaking, 1920


Fox was a friend of radical journalist Benjamin Flower. On Flower's death in 1829, his two daughters, Eliza Flower and Sarah Fuller Flower Adams, became Fox's wards.[12] Fox separated from his wife in the 1830s, and, causing much scandal, apparently set up home with Eliza Flower and his children.[12] Following the separation from his wife, Fox brought up his ward himself, living first in Stamford Hill and later Bayswater.[13] One of Fox's daughters, also named Eliza, married Frederick Lee Bridell. Both were accomplished artists.


  1. ^ Memorial Edition of the Works of W. J. Fox. Charles Fox, Publisher. London. 1868. p.355-359
  2. ^ a b c Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1889). "Fox, William Johnson" . Dictionary of National Biography. 20. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  3. ^ Clare Midgley (28 September 2007). Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790 1865. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-203-93215-5.
  4. ^ Gleadle, Kathryn. "Collet, Sophia Dobson". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/41272. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ Gleadle, Kathryn. "Gillies, Mary Leman". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/50069. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Gleadle, Kathryn. "Stansfeld, Caroline". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56461. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ Webb, R. K. "Fox, William Johnson". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/10047. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ "Thomas Gibson & Thomas Field Gibson". Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  9. ^ Tomoko Masuzawa (26 April 2012). The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. University of Chicago Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-226-92262-1.
  10. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1989) [1977]. British parliamentary election results 1832–1885 (2nd ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-26-4.
  11. ^ "Hodgson, William Ballantyne" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  12. ^ a b Kennedy, Richard S.; Donald S. Hair (2007). The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning. University of Missouri Press. pp. 18. ISBN 978-0-8262-1691-5.
  13. ^ Frederick Lee Bridell 1830-63, C Aitchison Hull - ISBN 978-1-906221-09-6

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Fox, William Johnson". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Oldham
With: John Duncuft
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Oldham
With: John Morgan Cobbett
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Oldham
With: John Morgan Cobbett
Succeeded by