LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith
Chapter I

Author's Preface
‣ Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Editor’s Preface
Letters 1801
Letters 1802
Letters 1803
Letters 1804
Letters 1805
Letters 1806
Letters 1807
Letters 1808
Letters 1809
Letters 1810
Letters 1811
Letters 1812
Letters 1813
Letters 1814
Letters 1815
Letters 1816
Letters 1817
Letters 1818
Letters 1819
Letters 1820
Letters 1821
Letters 1822
Letters 1823
Letters 1824
Letters 1825
Letters 1826
Letters 1827
Letters 1828
Letters 1829
Letters 1830
Letters 1831
Letters 1832
Letters 1833
Letters 1834
Letters 1835
Letters 1836
Letters 1837
Letters 1838
Letters 1839
Letters 1840
Letters 1841
Letters 1842
Letters 1843
Letters 1844
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH




My father, the Rev. Sydney Smith, was born at Woodford, in Essex, 1771, the second of four brothers and one sister, all remarkable for their talents; the two eldest eminently so. To these talents, as well as to his great animal spirits, he had an hereditary right; for my grandfather, Mr. Robert Smith, was a man of singular natural gifts; very clever, odd by nature, but still more odd by design, loving to astonish, and, fully aware that knowledge is power, he employed the activity of a very sagacious mind, through a long and varied life, in acquiring a minute acquaintance with the history of all he came in contact with. On becoming early his own master, by the death of his father, and possessed of some money, he employed
all the early part of life (having first married a very beautiful girl, from whom he parted at the church-door, leaving her with her mother, Mrs. Olier, till his return from America) partly in wandering over the world for many years, and partly in diminishing his fortune by buying, altering, spoiling, and then selling about nineteen different places in England, till, in his old-age, he at last settled at Bishop’s Lydiard, in Somersetshire, where he died.

My grandfather was a very handsome and picturesque old man when I knew him, his hair long, thin, and perfectly white. To add to the effect of his appearance and manner, he used to affect the drab-coloured dress of a Quaker, with a large flap hat, rather like those of our coal-heavers; this hat was so extraordinary in form, and had seen so many years’ service, that when at last he offered its remains to his old factotum Charles, who was digging in his garden, the man, after twisting and twirling it round and round for some time, and examining its proportions, returned it to him with a broad grin, saying, “No, thank your honour, it’s no use to I.” I remember him sitting in his arm-chair basking in the sun, leaning forward on his crutch-stick, a fine study for Rembrandt, and telling this story of his favourite hat till the tears ran down his cheeks with laughter.

But though the sons inherited talent from their father, yet all the finer qualities of their mind they, derived from their mother, Miss Olier, the youngest daughter of a French emigrant, from Languedoc, who
was driven over to England for his religious principles at the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and was reduced to great poverty in consequence; but his eldest daughter, a woman of much sense and energy of character, established a school for young ladies in Bloomsbury-square, which acquired considerable celebrity under her direction, and thus enabled her to contribute to the support of her family. My father used to attribute a little of his constitutional gaiety to this infusion of French blood. His maternal grandfather, Mr. Olier, could not speak a word of English. He married a Miss Barton, who was a collateral descendant of
Sir Isaac Newton’s, through his mother’s second marriage,—a very distinguished ancestor to possess, and one not to be lightly passed over.*

My grandmother, Mr. Olier’s youngest daughter, had (I have been told, for I never saw her) a noble countenance, which two of her sons inherited, and as noble a mind. To her early care of them, and to the respect with which her virtues and high tone of feeling inspired their young hearts, may be ascribed much that was good and great in their characters. The charm of her mind and manner extended even to her correspondence. I heard a singular proof of

* At the moment of going to press, I learn from Sir David Brewster (now engaged on a Life of Sir Isaac Newton) that there is an error in the pedigree inserted in my first edition. In deference to his superior knowledge I therefore omit it; but I feel sure he will excuse me for still retaining a tradition so long preserved in our family, till I have had more time than I can command at present to investigate the subject.

this the other day, from a schoolfellow of my father’s, who said that when he or his younger brother
Courtenay received one of her letters at Winchester, the schoolboys would often gather round and beg to hear it read aloud. Her influence, however, did not remain to them very long in after-life. Delicate; with a husband who, though delightful from the charm of his manner to the world, was not very well suited to domestic life, from his wandering habits; and with the natural anxiety of a mother about four such sons, often left for long periods entirely to her care and guidance, she fell into ill-health while still young and beautiful, and, to the deep regret of all who knew her, died about two years after the marriage of my father.

This reminds me of an anecdote of Talleyrand, who, when living as an emigrant in this country, was on very intimate terms with her eldest son, Robert, more generally known by the name given him by his schoolfellows at Eton, of Bobus. The conversation turned on the beauty often transmitted from parents to their children. My uncle, who was singularly handsome (indeed I think I have seldom seen a finer specimen of manly beauty, or a countenance more expressive of the high moral qualities he possessed), perhaps with a little youthful vanity, spoke of the great beauty of his mother, on which Talleyrand, with a shrug and a sly disparaging look at his fine face, as if he saw nothing to admire, exclaimed, “Ah! mon ami, c’était donc apparemment monsieur votre père qui n’était pas bien.”


The peculiarities and talents of the young Smiths were very early evinced; their mother describes them as neglecting games, seizing every hour of leisure for study, and often lying on the floor, stretched over their books, discussing with loud voice and most vehement gesticulation, every point that arose,—often subjects above their years, and arguing upon them with a warmth and fierceness as if life and death hung upon the issue;—a most interesting and curious spectacle, to a mother justly proud of her boys, and rejoicing in these signs of their future distinction.

They were like young athletes, constantly trying their intellectual strength against each other; “and the result,” I have heard my father say, “was to make us the most intolerable and overbearing set of boys that can well be imagined, till later in life we found our level in the world.”

As his sons were so nearly of an age, Mr. Smith deemed it advisable to separate them at school as much as possible, that there might not be too strong rivalry between them. Robert, the eldest, with Cecil, the third son, were therefore sent to Eton, where Robert distinguished himself greatly, and was one of the four boys (he was then only eighteen) who wrote the ‘Microcosm;’ Mr. Canning, Mr. Frere, and Mr. John Smith, being the other three.

From Eton he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where (says a sketch of him written, I believe, by his friend Lord Carlisle, after his death,) “he added materially to the reputation for scholarship and classical
composition which he had established at school; and if the most fastidious critics of our day would diligently peruse the three triposes which he composed in Lucretian rhythm, on the three systems of
Plato, Descartes, and Newton, we believe that we should not run the least risk of incurring the charge of exaggeration, in declaring that these compositions in Latin verse have not been excelled since Latin was a living language. Be this said with the peace of Milton and Cowley, with the peace of his fellow-Etonians, Grey and Lord Wellesley.”

My father was sent as early as six years of age to a school at Southampton, (kept by the Rev. Mr. Marsh, a scholar of some celebrity,) which he always spoke of with pleasure. Whilst there he received much kindness from the family of the present Lady Mildmay, whose friendship he retained from that time, and who still survives her old friend. From thence he was sent, with his youngest brother, Courtenay, to the foundation at Winchester;—a rough apprenticeship to the world for one so young, from which Courtenay ran away twice, unable to bear it. My father suffered here many years of misery and positive starvation; there never was enough provided, even of the coarsest food, for the whole school, and the little boys were of course left to fare as they could. Even in old-age he used to shudder at the recollections of Winchester, and I have heard him speak with horror of the misery of the years he spent there: the whole system was then, my father used to say, one of abuse, neglect, and
vice. It has since, I believe, partaken of the general improvement of education. However, in spite of hunger and neglect, he rose in due time to be Captain of the school, and, whilst there, received, together with his brother Courtenay, a most flattering but involuntary compliment from his schoolfellows, who signed a round-robin,* “refusing to try for the College prizes if the Smiths were allowed to contend for them any more, as they always gained them.” He used to say, “I believe, whilst a boy at school, I made above ten thousand Latin verses, and no man in his senses would dream in after-life of ever making another. So much for life and time wasted.”

At school he was not only leader in learning, but in mischief, and was discovered inventing a catapult by lamp-light, and commended for his ingenuity by the master, who little dreamt it was intended to capture a neighbouring turkey, whose well-filled crop had long attracted the attention, and awakened the desires, of the hungry urchins. He was fond of telling an incident which happened to him when either at Winchester or Oxford, I am not sure which. A friend who was making a tour, wrote in great distress, asking him to lend him five guineas; he had but four, which he was conveying himself to the post, much lamenting he had not the sum wanted; when he suddenly saw shining on the high-road before him another guinea, and no owner being to be found to claim it, he with joy enclosed it in another cover to his friend.

* To Dr. Warton, then Head Master or Warden of Winchester.


I have heard my father speak of one of the first things that stimulated him in acquiring knowledge. A man of considerable eminence, whose name I cannot recall, found my father reading Virgil under a tree, when all his schoolfellows were at play. He took the book out of his hand, looked at it, patted the boy’s head, gave him a shilling, and said, “Clever boy! clever boy! that is the way to conquer the world.” This produced a strong impression on the young Sydney. Whilst at Winchester he had been one year Præpositor of the College, and another, Praepositor of the Hall. He left Winchester, as Captain, for New College, Oxford, where, as such, he was entitled to a Scholarship, and afterwards to a Fellowship. New College was chiefly then renowned for the quantity of port-wine consumed by the Fellows, but the very slender income allowed him by his father, perhaps luckily for his health, did not permit him to indulge in such habits. As my father was too proud to accept what he could not return, he lived much out of society, and thus lost one of the advantages of College to a poor man—that of making private friends.

Soon after quitting Winchester, and before he became a Fellow of New College, his father sent him to Mont Villiers, in Normandy, where he remained en pension for six months, to perfect his knowledge of French, which he always after spoke with great fluency. The fierceness of the French Revolution was then at its height, and for his safety it was thought necessary that he should enrol himself in one of the
Jacobin Clubs of the town, in which he was entered as “Le Citoyen Smit, Membre Affilié au Club des Jacobins de Mont Villiers.” The only revolutionary peril he encountered, however, was in attending his two friends,
Captain Drinkwater and his brother, to Cherbourg. These gentlemen, who were excellent draughtsmen, began sketching the works, in spite of my father’s remonstrances, who said, “We shall all be infallibly hung on the next lantern-post, if you are seen;” and in truth, in a few minutes they had a gendarme upon them; and it required all my father’s skill, address, and knowledge of the language, with a few good-humoured jokes, and boasts of his own citizenship, to extricate himself and his friends out of his hands. When clear off—“And now, my friends, no more sketching, if you please,” said he.

I know little of his career at College, save that he obtained his Fellowship as soon as it was possible, and from that moment was cast upon his own resources by his father, who never afterwards gave him a farthing till his death. Yet with this small income, about £100 per annum, he not only preserved that honesty, so often disregarded by young men, of keeping out of debt; but undertook to pay a sum of £30 for a debt incurred when at Winchester School by his younger brother Courtenay, who had not had courage to confess it to his father before his departure for India. Courtenay became Supreme Judge of the Adawlut Court, subsequently made a very large fortune, acquired great reputation as a Judge and Ori-
ental scholar, returned to this country in his old-age, and died suddenly a few years afterwards.

On leaving College it became necessary that my father should select a profession. His own inclinations would have led him to the Bar, in which profession he felt that his talents promised him success and distinction, and where a career was open to him that might gratify his ambition. But his father, who had been at considerable expense in bringing up his eldest brother Robert to that profession, and fitting out the other two for India, after giving up a project he once had of sending Sydney as supercargo to China, urged so strongly his going into the Church, that my father, after considering the subject deeply, felt it his duty to yield to my grandfather’s wishes, and sacrifice his own, by entering the Church, and became a curate in a small village in the midst of Salisbury Plain. One of the first professional duties he was called upon to perform was to marry his eldest brother Robert to Miss Vernon, aunt to the present Lord Lansdowne. In a letter to his mother on the occasion he says, “The marriage took place in the library at Bowood, and all I can tell you of it is, that he cried, she cried, and I cried;” the only tears, I believe, this marriage ever produced, save those we shed on her grave.

Sydney Smith, a curate in the midst of Salisbury Plain! To those who knew him, and his cast of character, the mere statement of the fact will be enough to paint his feelings; but to those who knew him not, it would be difficult to express the famine of the
mind that came over him when planted in that great waste of Nature. He has himself painted a curate as “the poor working-man of God—a learned man in a hovel, good and patient—a comforter and a teacher—the first and purest pauper of the hamlet; yet showing that, in the midst of worldly misery, he has the heart of a gentleman, the spirit of a Christian, and the kindness of a pastor.”

This picture can hardly be heightened, as descriptive of a curate in the abstract; but here was a curate formed, by his wit and powers of conversation, for the society of his fellow-creatures, doomed to the most unbroken solitude; and, pauper as he was, with scarcely a hamlet to interest him, for the village consisted but of a few scattered cottages and farms, in the midst of Salisbury Plain. Once a week a butcher’s cart came over from Salisbury; it was then only he could obtain any meat, and he often dined, he said, on a mess of potatoes, sprinkled with a little ketchup. Too poor to command books, his only resource was the Squire, during the few months he resided there; and his only relaxation, not being able to keep a horse, long walks over those interminable plains.

In one of these walks he narrowly escaped with his life, being overtaken in the midst of the Plain, far from any habitation, by a violent snow-storm; and, having lost all means of tracing his way, there being no trees or vestige of human habitation for miles round, it was by mere chance that he arrived, late at night, and fearfully exhausted, at his own home.


The Squire, after the good old orthodox fashion of squires, asked his curate to dinner on Sunday, and, to his surprise, found the tedium of a Sunday evening in the country so much beguiled by the society of his young friend, that the invitations became more and more frequent. This acquaintance soon ripened into friendship, and ended by the Squire requesting my father to resign the curacy at the termination of the two years, and accompany his eldest son abroad. Here my father best paints what happened.

“When first I went into the Church, I had a curacy in the middle of Salisbury Plain; the parish was Netherhaven, near Amesbury. The Squire of the parish, Mr. Beach, took a fancy to me, and after I had served it two years, he engaged me as tutor to his eldest son, and it was arranged that I and his son should proceed to the University of Weimar, in Saxony. We set out; but before reaching our destination, Germany was disturbed by war, and, in stress of politics, we put into Edinburgh, where I remained five years. The principles of the French Revolution were then fully afloat, and it is impossible to conceive a more violent and agitated state of society.”