LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith
Chapter V

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
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In 1806 those political changes took place which so unexpectedly, and for so short a period, brought the Whigs into power.

To one who, as he says, “had lived so long on the north side of the wall, this ray of sunshine was very cheering, and gave some hopes that he who had so well and so honestly fought the good fight, would now have some opportunity afforded him of exerting himself in his profession.” But as he had no connections and little political interest, I do not know what might have been the result, had it not been for the indefatigable exertions of his friends at Holland House, who never rested till they saw justice done to him, and had obtained from the Chancellor, Lord
Erskine, the living of Foston-le-Clay, in Yorkshire, for him.

For this he always felt that he owed Lord and Lady Holland a deep debt of gratitude; as, in addition to the immediate increase of his income, being a permanent provision, it gave him the first feeling of independence and security that he had enjoyed after a life of anxiety and uncertainty. An old friend of my father’s told me the other day, “I was present at Bishopthorpe when your father first came down to be inducted to the living of Foston (now nearly fifty years ago), under the reign of old Archbishop Markham; I was then so young as to be placed at the side-table in that large dining-room; but I well remember the unwonted animation and the brilliant conversation that constantly attracted all our attention to the great table, and which we were told proceeded from a young clergyman of the name of Sydney Smith, just come down to take possession of a living in Yorkshire. When he went away, the old Archbishop, I could see, though struck with his extraordinary abilities, did not half like, or understand, how one of the inferior clergy should be so much in possession of his faculties in the presence of his diocesan. On my return home the next day I found my family in a state of great excitement. They had just, they said, had a long visit from the most delightful person they had ever met, a Mr. S. Smith, who had brought letters of introduction from Lord Abinger, then Mr. Scarlett, saying that the bearer was one of the most distinguished young men
then in London, and congratulating my mother on the probability of having such a man established in her neighbourhood,—a piece of good fortune which, when it did happen shortly after, she fully appreciated, and was not inclined to neglect. From this time we saw more and more of him; and though I have enjoyed now all that is best in life, I think if I were to select the day of my life that has left the most agreeable impression on my mind, it would be a long summer afternoon we all spent with your father at Heslington. We walked over with Lord —— and several of the lawyers of the Northern Circuit, and found a Mrs. Hamilton in the house, who had just come from Edinburgh. The weather was lovely, everything looked bright, your father and Lord —— were in the highest spirits; the conversation turned on Edinburgh, the mode of life there, the remarkable men it contained or had produced; it was most brilliant and interesting,—the first taste I had had of what I must still think the perfection of society. After dinner we all walked back by moonlight. ‘I have never forgot that day; I think it was one of the happiest of my life, and this has not been an unhappy one, as you know.’”

In the summer of 1807 he took his family for a short time to a little cottage in the village of Sunning, near Reading, to give them their first taste of the country; and even now I recollect with delight “each rural sight, each rural sound,”—this first breath of air, free from carpet-shakings, that we had inhaled.


I believe it was about this period that a letter from Peter Plymley to his brother Abraham, on the subject of the Irish Catholics, appeared suddenly in the London world. Its effect, I have been told, was like a spark on a heap of gunpowder. It was instantly dispersed all over London, was to be found on every table, spread in every direction over the country, and was the topic of general conversation and conjecture. It was quickly followed by another and another; each fresh letter increased the eagerness and curiosity of the public. Every effort was made on the part of the existing Government to find out the author,—in vain: the secret was well kept. It is true, strong suspicion pointed towards the little village in which my father then was, and a few of those best acquainted with his style felt convinced there was but one man in England who could so write,—who could make the most irresistible wit and pleasantry the vehicle of the soundest and most unanswerable argument; but no proof could be obtained. The editions were bought up as fast as they could be printed, and I am afraid from memory to state the numbers that were sold.

At the request of the Catholics, cheaper editions were made for dispersion in Ireland; and few works, I have heard, ever did more to open men’s minds to the absurdity and danger of the system then pursued by England,* and there are, or rather were, few Catholics

* Lord Holland, I see, bears witness to the powerful effect this work and the Edinburgh Review had on this question, in his Reminiscences of that period; and Lord Murray, in writing of it, says, “After Pascal’s Letters, it is the most instructive piece of

who did not venerate the name of
Sydney Smith, as one who, though an honest servant of another church, felt that the strongest tenet of that church was charity and mercy; and in this feeling laboured incessantly to remove the heavy burdens and disqualifications imposed on them by the actual state of the laws.

And let no man say that he laboured in vain; that the seeds he sowed have not brought forth fruit, though not all the fruit they would have produced had they been sown when they were offered.

All admit, much has still to be done, and much time must elapse before such sufferings can be forgotten: but look what Ireland was when my father first entered life, in the midst of the tumult and violence of the French Revolution, and look at what it has been of late; look at what he advised, and how he advised it; look at what has been done; and who will then say that the efforts of such a man were unavailing, that his honest labours were in vain, that he who dedicated the fine talents God had given him from early youth to the hour of his death, to spread religious toleration, has not done good in his generation? I believe that his memory will live with the good men of every land, and that his best monument will be the love and respect of his countrymen.

Referring, some time after my father had left London for Yorkshire, to Peter Plymley, Lord Holland writes to him from Dropmore:—

wisdom in the form of irony ever written, and had the most important and lasting effects.”

“My dear Sydney,

“I wish you could have heard my conversation with Lord Grenville the other day, and the warm and enthusiastic way in which he spoke of Peter Plymley. I did not fail to remind him that the only author to whom we both thought it could be compared in English, lost a bishopric for his wittiest performance; and I hoped that, if we could discover the author, and had ever a bishopric in our gift, we should prove that Whigs were both more grateful and more liberal than Tories.

“He rallied me upon the affectation of concealing who it was, but added that he hoped Peter would not always live in Yorkshire; for, among other reasons, we felt the want of him just now in the state of the press, and that he wished to God Abraham would do something to provoke him to take up the pen again.”

In this little village of Sunning he first made the acquaintance of Sir William Scott, afterwards Lord Stowell, then our nearest neighbour, whose society he found most agreeable; and by whom, though differing on almost every point of politics, he was fully appreciated, and his acquaintance eagerly sought after by him, not only then, but during the remainder of my father’s life, whenever opportunity offered in London; and during the period of this intercourse he not unfrequently said to my father, “Ah, Mr. Smith, you would have been in a different situation, and a far richer man, if you would have belonged to us.” These obser-
vations, from one so cautious, so sagacious, and so strong a politician as Lord Stowell, were, of course, gratifying to my father, as they showed that his powers and talents were fully felt and appreciated by his political opponents.

On his return to town, receiving an invitation, I believe from his friend Mr. Sharp, to dine with him at Fishmongers’ Hall, he sent the following playful answer, which, trifling as it is, as my tale is made up of trifles, I shall give.
“Much do I love, at civic treat,
The monsters of the deep to eat;
To see the rosy salmon lying,
By smelts encircled, born for frying;
And from the china boat to pour,
On flaky cod, the flavour’d shower.
Thee, above all, I much regard,
Flatter than Longman’s flattest bard,
Much honour’d turbot!—sore I grieve
Thee and thy dainty friends to leave.
Far from ye all, in snuggest corner,
I go to dine with little Horner:
He who, with philosophic eye,
Sat brooding o’er his Christmas pie:
Then, firm resolved, with either thumb,
Tore forth the crust-enveloped plum,
And, mad with youthful dreams of future fame,
Proclaim’d the deathless glories of his name.”

In the autumn of this year, 1808, he paid a short visit to his old haunts in Edinburgh, and on his return visited for the first time Lord Roslyn and Lord Grey;—saw the latter (where he was ever best seen)
in the midst of his family, at Howick; and laid the foundation of that friendship which was a constant source of pleasure and gratification to him in afterlife, and ended only with his death.

As there was no house on his living, and no means of procuring one in the neighbourhood, and the population of the parish was small, Dr. Markham, the then Archbishop of York, permitted his continued residence in town, on condition of his appointing an efficient curate; till the passing of the Residence Bill by Mr. Percival in 1808 (a bill the most just in its intentions, and the most unjust in its effects) compelled him to resign or build.

From the blamable negligence on the subject of residence of the clergy, which had existed for so long a period in the Church, one-third of the parsonage-houses in England had gone to decay; and thus, by the effects of this bill, one generation of clergymen was compelled suddenly to atone for the accumulated sins of their predecessors, and to benefit their successors, by building parsonage-houses out of their own private fortunes; unaided, save by a sum (I think a two or three years’ income of the living) which they were allowed to borrow from Queen Anne’s Bounty. Of this sum they were to repay a portion each year, with interest upon the rest; and thus, if they retained the living a few years, they were obliged to refund the whole sum, and it was utterly lost to them and their families.

On receiving the startling summons from the Arch-
bishop, my father went down immediately into Yorkshire, to see what his fate was to be. He found his living well deserved its name of Foston-le-Clay; consisting as it did of three hundred acres of glebe-land of the stiffest clay, in a remote village of Yorkshire, where there had not been a resident clergyman for a hundred and fifty years, owing to the wretched state of the hovel which had once been a parsonage-house. This consisted of one brick-floored kitchen, with a room above it, which was in so dangerous a condition that the farmer, who had occupied it hitherto, declined living any longer in it, and which opened on one side into a foal-yard, and on the other into the churchyard; and placed in a village where there was no society above the rank of a farmer.

His parishioners were so unaccustomed to the sights of civilized life, that they could hardly recover from their surprise at the sight of a gentleman from London in a superfine coat and a four-wheeled carriage.

The prospect, it must be allowed, was not cheering, either morally or physically; for the country was as unpromising as the house. The clerk, the most important man in the village, was summoned; a man who had numbered eighty years, looking, with his long grey hair, his threadbare coat, deep wrinkles, stooping gait, and crutch-stick, more ancient than the parsonage-house. He looked at my father for some time from under his grey shaggy eyebrows, and held a long conversation with him, in which the old clerk showed that age had not quenched the natural shrewd-
ness of the Yorkshireman. At last, after a pause, he said, striking his crutch-stick on the ground, “
Muster Smith, it often stroikes moy moind, that people as comes frae London is such fools. . . . But you,” he said (giving him a nudge with his stick), “I see you are no fool.” Having thus gained the respect of the old, prejudiced clerk, he endeavoured to prove himself no fool. He examined carefully and understood thoroughly all the difficulties of his position, viz. a house to be built without experience or money; a family and furniture to be moved into the heart of Yorkshire,—a process, in the year 1808, as difficult as a journey to the back settlements of America now, to a man of small means; the absolute necessity of becoming a farmer, the living consisting of land and no tithe, there being no farm-buildings on it to enable him to let it, and the profound ignorance of all agricultural pursuits inevitable in a man who had passed life hitherto in towns, and whose time and attention had been divided between preaching, literature, and society.

Add to these, the moral difficulty of breaking through all the habits of his life, and tearing himself from the many valuable friends he had by this time formed, and who delighted in his society. But he felt it a duty, both to his profession and family, that the effort should be made.

He returned immediately to London, and obtained the means of transporting his family and furniture, by the publication of two volumes of the sermons he had
preached during his residence there with so much success. The means obtained, and the order of march arranged, he set about breaking up his little establishment in London, which was not effected without great opposition from his friends there, and many kind attempts and schemes to detain him amongst them.

We all left town in the summer of 1809. He preceded the party, and hired for their reception a small but cheerful house in a village about two miles from York; from whence, not having been able to procure one nearer, he proposed to do the duties of his living for the present, whilst he endeavoured, with Dr. Vernon Harcourt’s (the present Archbishop of York’s) consent, to negotiate some exchange of living, and thus to avoid the necessity of building.

Lord Eldon required that a chancery living should only be exchanged for another chancery living, and that the parties so exchanging should be exactly of the same age. These conditions rendered exchange almost impossible; but to one with such slender means, it was worth any effort to avoid the ruinous expense of building. He therefore exerted himself in every possible way, and began several negotiations, but from these reasons they all failed.