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Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1897

Sydney Smith, canon of St. Paul's, born on 3 June 1771 at Woodford, Essex, was the second son of Robert Smith. The latter had lost his father, a London merchant, in early youth. He retired from business, married Maria Olier, daughter of a French refugee, left her at the church door to ‘wander over the world,’ and, after returning, bought, spoilt, and then sold nineteen different places in England, ultimately settling at Bishop's Lydiard, Somerset, where he died in 1827, aged 88.

Mrs. Smith was vivacious, modest, and beautiful, resembling Mrs. Siddons. The Smiths had four other children: Robert Percy Smith (known as ‘Bobus’), born in 1770; Cecil in 1772; Courtenay in 1773, and Maria in 1774. The sister, after her mother's death in 1802, took care of her father till her own death in 1816. The boys showed talent at an early age, especially by incessant argumentation. In the interests of fraternal peace the father sent Robert and Cecil to Eton, while Sydney and Courtenay went to Winchester. Sydney, after some time under a Mr. Marsh at Southampton, was admitted upon the foundation at Winchester on 19 July 1782. He was bullied and half starved, and had to write ‘about ten thousand Latin verses,’ which were probably worse than his brother's, and which he at any rate regretted as sheer waste of life and time.

He and Courtenay, however, won so many prizes that their schoolfellows sent in a round-robin refusing to compete against him. He was ‘prefect of the hall’ in his last year, and on 5 February 1789 became a scholar of New College, Oxford. At the end of his second year's residence he succeeded to a fellowship, which then brought £100 a year. On this he supported himself without help from his father, and managed to pay a debt of £30 for his brother Courtenay. Nothing is known of Smith's Oxford career. He spent some months during this time in Normandy, where he had to join a Jacobin club in order to avoid suspicion, and became a good French scholar. His father thought that he had done enough for his family by supporting ‘Bobus’ during his studies for the bar, and obtaining Indian writerships for Cecil and Courtenay. He told Sydney that he might be ‘a tutor or a parson.’ Sydney, who had wished to go to the bar, was compelled to take orders.

He was ordained in 1794 to the curacy of Nether Avon on Salisbury Plain. The squire of the parish was Michael Hicks Beach of Williamstrip Park, Fairford, Gloucestershire. Beach helped Smith in plans for improving the condition of the poor in that secluded parish, and in setting up a Sunday school, then the novelty of the day. He took a great liking to the young curate, and in 1797 made him travelling tutor to his eldest son, Michael, grandfather of Sir M. Hicks Beach, first Viscount St. Aldwyn. A scheme for a sojourn at Weimar was given up on account of the war, and Smith ultimately took his pupil to Edinburgh, which he reached in June 1798. Many other young men in a similar position were attracted to Edinburgh at this time by the fame of Dugald Stewart and the difficulties of access to the continent. Smith, always the most sociable of men, formed many intimacies with them and with the natives. Though he made endless fun about the incapacity of Scots to take a joke without ‘a surgical operation,’ they at least appreciated the humour of Smith himself. He formed lasting friendships with Jeffrey, Brougham, Francis Horner, Lord Webb Seymour, and others, and before leaving became an original member of the ‘Friday Club’ with Dugald Stewart, Playfair, Alison, and Scott. He was on the most cordial terms with his pupil, and wrote letters full of fun and sense to the parents. In 1800 he went to England to marry Catherine Amelia, daughter of John Pybus of Cheam, Surrey, a friend of his sister's, to whom he had long been engaged. The marriage took place at Cheam on 2 July 1800. The lady's father was dead, and, though her mother approved, her brother Charles, at one time a lord of the admiralty, was indignant, and broke off all relations with his sister.

Smith's whole fortune consisted of ‘six small silver teaspoons;’ but his bride had a small dowry, which he settled upon her. Mr. Beach presented the Smiths with a cheque for £750. Smith gave £100 to an old lady in distress, and invested the remainder in the funds. He then returned to Edinburgh. His pupil had entered Christ Church, but was replaced by a younger brother. Smith had a second pupil, Alexander Gordon of Ellon Castle. For each of them he received £400 a year, the ‘highest sum which had then been given to any one except Dugald Stewart’. During his stay at Edinburgh he preached occasionally at the Charlotte Chapel, and published in 1800 six of his sermons. Dugald Stewart declared that Smith's preaching gave him ‘a thrilling sensation of sublimity never before awakened by any oratory’.

In March 1802 Smith proposed to his friends Jeffrey and Brougham to start the Edinburgh Review, suggesting as a motto Tenui Musam meditamur avena. Though not formally editor, he superintended the first three numbers. Smith contributed nearly eighty articles during the next twenty-five years. The great success of the review brought a reputation to the chief contributors. Smith's articles are among the best, and are now the most readable. Many of them are mere trifles, but nearly all show his characteristic style. He deserves the credit of vigorously defending doctrines then unpopular, and now generally accepted. Smith was a thorough whig of the more enlightened variety, and his attacks upon various abuses, though not in advance of the liberalism of the day, gave him a bad name among the dispensers of patronage at the time. His honesty and manliness are indisputable. Smith now resolved to leave Edinburgh, in spite of a request from the Beaches, with whom he always retained his friendship, that he would continue his tutorial duties. He resolved to settle in London, in order to make a more permanent position. He settled after a time at a small house in Doughty Street, and looked about for a preachership. His wife sold some jewels presented to her by her mother for £500. He presumably made something from the Edinburgh Review, and he derived assistance from his brother ‘Bobus.’ Lady Holland says, however, that Sydney's finances at this period are ‘enigmatic'.

Congregations to which he gave two or three ‘random sermons’ thought him mad, and the clerk, he says, was afraid that he might bite. Sir Thomas Bernard took a more favourable view of his style, and obtained his appointment to the preachership at the Foundling Hospital, worth £50 a year. He also preached alternately at the Fitzroy Chapel and the Berkeley Chapel. His fresh and racy preaching filled seats and the pockets of the proprietor. Through Bernard he was also invited to lecture upon ‘Moral Philosophy’ at the Royal Institution. He gave three courses in 1804, 1805, and 1806, receiving £50 for the first and £120 for the second, which enabled him to move into a better house in Orchard Street. The lecturer modestly professed to aim at no more than a popular exposition of ‘moral philosophy,’ by which he meant Scottish psychology; but the ingenuity and humour of his illustrations, and his frequent touches of shrewd morality, made them singularly successful. Albemarle Street was impassable. Galleries had to be added in the lecture-hall. There was such ‘an uproar,’ says Smith, as he ‘never remembered to have been excited by any other literary imposture.’ Mrs. Marcet was alternately in fits of laughter and rapt enthusiasm, and Miss Fanshawe bought a new bonnet to go to them, and wrote an ode to celebrate the occasion. Smith's friendships lay chiefly among rising lawyers and men of letters.

He provided weekly suppers at his house, with leave for any of his circle to drop in as they pleased. He belonged to the ‘King of Clubs’ founded by his brother and Mackintosh, which included Romilly, Sam Rogers, Brougham, and others, chiefly of the whig persuasion. Smith was naturally introduced at Holland House, the social centre of all the whig party, his sister-in-law being Lord Holland's aunt. Smith was for once shy when entering the august house of which the true whig spoke with ‘bated breath,’ but soon learnt to hold his own even with Lady Holland. When the whigs were in power in 1806, Erskine, at the request of the Hollands, gave Smith the chancery living of Foston-le-Clay, eight miles from York, worth £500 a year. His preachership at the Foundling Hospital made residence unnecessary, and, after settling that a clergyman should go over from York to perform services, he continued in London. In 1807 he published the Plymley letters in defence of catholic emancipation — his most effectual piece of work. Sixteen editions were printed in the year. The letters were anonymous. The government, he says, took pains, without success, to discover the author. Somehow or other the authorship came to be guessed, he adds, though he ‘always denied it.’ The secret was probably not very serious, and was certainly known to his friends, Lords Holland and Grenville, who agreed in pointing out that Swift, the only author whom it recalled, ‘had lost a bishoprick for his wittiest performance.’ When the ‘residence bill’ was passed in 1808 the archbishop of York called upon Smith to attend personally to his parish. No clergyman had resided for 150 years, and the parsonage-house was a ‘hovel,’ worth £50 at the highest estimate. Smith had either to exchange his living or to build with the help of Queen Anne's bounty. He took his family to Heslington, two miles from York, in June 1809. He could thence perform his duties at Foston, and try to arrange for an exchange. As an exchange could not be effected, he resolved to build in 1813, though the archbishop ultimately excused him, and finally moved into his new house in March 1814. The exile from London was painful, and Smith's biographers appear to think that he was somehow hardly treated. He took his position, however, cheerfully, and settled down to a country life.

Smith was his own architect, and built a comfortable parsonage-house and good farm buildings. He bought an ‘ancient green chariot,’ which he christened the ‘Immortal,’ to be drawn by his carthorses; had his furniture made by the village carpenter; caught up a girl ‘made like a milestone,’ christened her ‘Bunch,’ and appointed her butler. He made her repeat a quaint catechism, defining her various faults. Her real name was Annie Kay, and she nursed him in his last illness. His servants never left him except from death or marriage. He learnt farming, and wrote an amusing account of his first experiments to the ‘Farmers' Journal'. He bred horses, though he could seldom ride without a fall. He was full of quaint devices; directed his labourers with the help of a telescope and a speaking-trumpet; and invented a ‘universal scratcher’ for his cattle. He became a magistrate, got up Blackstone, and was famous for making up quarrels and treating poachers gently. He had attended medical lectures at Edinburgh, and by his presence of mind had saved the lives of more than one person in emergencies. He now set up a dispensary and became village doctor. He helped the poor by providing them with gardens at a nominal rent, still called ‘Sydney's Orchards’. He was on the friendliest terms with the farmers, whom he had to dinner, and learnt, in Johnson's phrase, to ‘talk of runts.’ He studied Rumford to discover the best modes of providing cheap food for the poor, and his ingenious shrewdness recalls Franklin, whom he specially admired. Smith found time for a good deal of reading, laying out systematic plans for keeping up his classics as well as reading miscellaneous literature. He was writing French exercises in the last year of his life. He had to work in the midst of his family. He was devoted to children, lived with his own on the most intimate terms, and delighted them with his stories. Smith's retirement and comparative poverty cut him off from much social intercourse; but he occasionally made trips to London or Edinburgh, or received old friends on their travels. He became specially intimate with Lord Grey, to whom he paid an annual visit at Howick, and with the fifth and sixth earls of Carlisle, whose seat, Castle Howard, is four miles from Foston. His position was improved by the death of his father's sister in 1820, who left him a fortune of £400 a year. The Duke of Devonshire, at Lord Carlisle's request, soon afterwards gave him the living of Londesborough, to be held till his nephew (a son of Lord (a son of Lord Carlisle) should be of age to take it. Smith kept a curate, visiting the parish, which is within a drive, two or three times a year. He now, for the first time, was at his ease. Anxiety about money matters had hitherto been a frequent cause of depression. His opinions or other causes had excluded him from preferment. In the spring of 1825 meetings of the clergy of Cleveland and Yorkshire were held to protest against catholic emancipation. Smith attended both, and made his first political speeches. He proposed a petition in favour of emancipation, which received only two other signatures, and at the second meeting was in a minority of one. The change of ministry in 1827 improved his chances. After Canning's death he wrote to a friend in power, stating his claims. At last, in January 1828, Lord Lyndhurst, the chancellor, though a political opponent, gave him a prebend at Bristol, from private friendship. Smith confessed frankly his delight on at last finding the spell broken which had prevented his preferment. He confessed with equal frankness that he was ‘the happier’ every guinea he gained. He gave up writing in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ as not becoming to a dignitary. He offended the corporation of Bristol by preaching in favour of catholic emancipation; and a sermon on 5 November 1828 induced them to give up for many years their custom of celebrating the day by a state visit to the cathedral. He now exchanged Foston for Combe-Florey, Somerset, six miles from Taunton, to which he moved in 1829. He brought his old servants, while he could now for the first time afford a library, began at once to rebuild his parsonage, welcomed his old friend Jeffrey, and soon made friends of his parishioners. He attended reform meetings, and on 11 October 1831 made his famous speech at Taunton, comparing the House of Lords to Mrs. Partington resisting the Atlantic Ocean. Mrs. Partington at once became proverbial. Lord Grey had, in the previous month, made him canon-residentiary of St. Paul's. He had now made up his mind that he was unequal to a bishopric, but, as his daughter tells us, he was deeply hurt that his friends never gave him the opportunity of refusing one.

Henceforth he had to reside three months of the year in London. He showed himself to be a good man of business in cathedral matters, and his sermons were admitted to be forcible and dignified. He was, however, chiefly famous for his social charm. He was acquainted with everybody of any mark, and a familiar figure at the Athenæum Club. On the death of his brother Courtenay, in 1839, he inherited £50,000, and took a house, No. 56 Green Street, Grosvenor Square (pulled down in December 1896), where he could fully indulge his hospitable propensities.

Smith's reforming zeal showed its limits on the appointment of the ecclesiastical commission. He found himself ‘arguing against the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London for the existence of the National Church,’ namely, in the ‘Letters to Archdeacon Thomas Singleton’, published in 1837. Nobody could put more wittily the argument that, by levelling church incomes, the inducements to men of ability to become clergymen would be seriously diminished. He of course did not object to reform ‘in the abstract,’ but to a given reform. Smith, however, though a good whig, had a thorough aversion to radicals or levellers, and had expressed similar opinions in early articles.

Smith wrote a pamphlet against the ballot in 1839. His last literary performance was a petition to the United States congress in 1843 complaining of the state of Pennsylvannia, which had suspended the interest on its bond; he published it in the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ and followed it by letters which made some sensation in both countries. Payments were resumed soon after his death. The last years of his life, however, passed peacefully; and his letters show the old spirit to the end. In the autumn of 1844 he was brought from Combe-Florey to be under the care of his son-in-law, Dr. Holland. He died at Green Street on 22 February 1845, and was buried at Kensal Green.

Mrs. Smith died in 1852. Four of Smith's children survived infancy. Saba, born in 1802 (a name which he invented in order that she might not have two commonplace names), married Dr. (afterwards Sir) Henry Holland in 1834, wrote her father's life, and died in 1866; Douglas, born 1805, was distinguished at Westminster and Christ Church, and died on 15 April 1829, to his father's lasting sorrow; Emily, born in 1807, married Nathaniel Hibbert of Munden House, Watford, on 1 January 1828, and died in 1874; Windham was born in 1813, and survived his father.

Bishop Monk of Gloucester said that Smith had got his canonry for being a scoffer and a jester. The same qualities were said by others to have prevented his preferment in the virtuous days of tory ministers. His jesting is undeniable. People, as Greville says, met him prepared to laugh; and conversation became a series of ‘pegs’ for Smith ‘to hang his jokes on.’ His drollery produced uproarious merriment. Mackintosh is described as rolling on the floor, and his servants had often to leave the room in fits of laughter. If he sometimes verged upon buffoonery, he avoided the worst faults of the professional wit. His fun was the spontaneous overflow of superabundant animal spirits. He was neither vulgar nor malicious. ‘You have been laughing at me for seven years,’ said Lord Dudley, ‘and have not said a word that I wished unsaid’. He burnt a pamphlet of his own which he thought one of ‘the cleverest he had ever read,’ because he feared that it might give pain to his antagonists. His wildest extravagances, too, were often the vehicle of sound arguments, and his humour generally played over the surface of strong good sense. His exuberant fun did not imply scoffing. He was sensitive to the charge of indifference to the creed which he professed. He took pains to protest against any writing by his allies which might shock believers. He had strong religious convictions, and could utter them solemnly and impressively. It must, however, be admitted that his creed was such as fully to account for the suspicion. In theology he followed Paley, and was utterly averse to all mysticism in literature or religion. He ridiculed the ‘evangelicals,’ and attacked the methodists with a bitterness exceptional in his writings. He equally despised in later days the party then called ‘Puseyites.’ He was far more suspicious of an excess than of a defect of zeal. His writings upon the established church show a purely secular view of the questions at issue. He assumes that a clergyman is simply a human being in a surplice, and the church a branch of the civil service. He had apparently few clerical intimacies, and his chief friends of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ and Holland House were anything but orthodox. Like other clergymen of similar tendencies, he was naturally regarded by his brethren as something of a traitor to their order. Nobody, however, could discharge the philanthropic duties of a parish clergyman more energetically, and his general goodness and the strength of his affections are as unmistakable as his sincerity and the masculine force of his mind.

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