On 22 February, 1845, a man who many considered to be Britain's greatest wit, died. From the highest in the land down to his most 'lowly' servants, all were plunged into grief at the news of his death. For the great families who had lionised him, and the servants and parishioners who had hung on his every word, the world had suddenly become a more serious place.
The Reverend Sydney Smith was a man who was universally loved and had no recorded personal enemies. He was a parson, ministering in what Sydney himself referred to as a 'branch of the Civil Service'. He was also founder of the Edinburgh Review, an organ through which he published articles to help promote his many causes, including Catholic Emancipation and the abolition of slavery.
Throughout his life as a parson in Yorkshire and Somerset, and later as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, Sydney was admired for his conversational wit, his humanity and for the sheer creative power of his writing.
Sydney Smith was the second son of merchant Robert Smith and Maria Olier, daughter of an exiled Huguenot. After his marriage ceremony, Robert Smith left his wife at the church door and went exploring to America due to the sudden realisation that marriage brought children and therefore responsibility. He returned but never gave up wandering - though he confined his travels to the UK - and therefore lived at many addresses; his wife gave birth to five children in five different homes.
Sydney was born in 1771 in Suffolk. From 1782 he attended Winchester school, which he loathed: he wrote that at that particular institution, 'a boy was either a tyrant or a slave'. In 1789 he attended New College, Oxford, and took a degree in classics while studying anatomy and medicine in his spare time. These early interests initially led to him considering a career as a doctor or a lawyer, but when his father refused to finance his studies further, he instead became a cleric in the Church of England.
A living1 was obtained for him at Never Avon, near Amesbury, on Salisbury Plain, which although picturesque, Smith felt was 'a pretty feature in a plain face'. There he worked among predominantly poor parishioners for three years.
Sydney took his ecclesiastical responsibilities seriously, so that when he left he had made many friends within the parish. Local Squire Mr Hicks-Beach was so impressed by Smith's character he placed the responsibility for the education of his son Michael in his hands. When the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte prevented Michael Hicks-Beach from going on a grand tour of Europe (which was the custom for young men at the time), Sydney accompanied him on a tour of the North of England and Edinburgh. During the tour, Sydney preached many sermons, some of which were later published, and it was there that his fame as a preacher began to grow.
His fame spread throughout Edinburgh; prominent people such as Francis Horner, Lord Webb Seymour and Lord Cockburn came to hear him and later became his friends. Lord Cockburn in particular recalled Sydney's quiet delivery, cogent argument and simplicity of style; his ideas were expressed with such power that Lord Cockburn claimed to have been able to recall the sermon word for word even 50 years later.
After Michael Hicks-Beach left Sydney for Oxford, the young preacher took on another student, for which he was paid a fee of £400 per annum. In 1800, he married Catherine Pybus at Cheam in Surrey and they set up home in Edinburgh. They had three surviving children (two others sadly died in infancy): Saba, his favourite daughter, Douglas and Emily. His marriage was by all accounts happy and lasted for 45 years until his death in 1845 from heart disease.
Sydney Smith's sense of outrage at particular examples of injustice inspired him, in 1802, to establish the Edinburgh Review, written with his friends and colleagues anonymously or under pseudonyms.
Under the laws of England and Scotland at the turn of the 19th Century, poachers could be shot on sight, mutilated or executed in public; prisoners were tried for their lives without representation; the slave trade was still in operation; the laws of debt and conspiracy were horrendous; the publication of pamphlets criticising Parliament was considered treasonous and seditious; and it was widely believed - with good reason - that the government stood only for the interests of landowners and the very wealthy. Under these conditions the Edinburgh Review was born, first published in March 1802, with articles that sought to prick the consciences of those who were in positions of power. Smith was joined on the periodical by Francis Jefferies (who became the Review's editor), Francis Horner, Lord Henry Brougham, and many other likeminded gentlemen.
Although Sydney was a Minister of the Church of England, this did not blind him to the corruption within the Church itself, the chain of nepotism that allowed members of some families to obtain positions within the Church regardless of merit or even vocation. Nor did his own position prevent him from commenting on what he saw as its 'iniquities', neither to the lack of humanity he perceived in some of the Church's leading lights. 'I must believe in the Apostolic succession,' he once remarked. 'There being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot.'
Despite his humble background, Sydney Smith was an ambitious man and hoped to be Archbishop of Canterbury, or at least rise to the position of bishop. He achieved neither post for the reason that he was a thorn in the side of the establishment: his support of Catholic Emancipation arose, not from any sympathy with the Roman Catholic faith (of which he had a self-confessed ignorance), but from the nature of the injustice suffered by Roman Catholics at the time. That he did in fact manage to secure the post of Dean of St Paul's might be seen as merely a consolation prize. Nevertheless he had many willing to champion him, including Lord Melbourne, British Prime Minister from 1835 to 1841, who said:
Sydney has done more for the Whigs than all the Clergy put together, and our not making him a bishop is mere cowardice.
As well as his campaigns against slavery and in favour of Catholic Emancipation, Smith wrote articles in support of Caroline, Princess of Wales and estranged wife of the Prince Regent (the future George IV), during her ultimately unsuccessful trial for adultery. He again showed support for her when she was excluded from the Prince Regent's coronation in 1820. Caroline's legal council during her trial was former Review contributor and Attorney-General Lord Brougham, who later wrote of Sydney Smith:
He was an admirable joker; he had the art of placing ordinary things in an infinitely ludicrous point of view. I have seen him at Foxton (his living in Yorkshire) drive the servants from the room with the tears running down their faces in peals of inextinguishable laughter.
The Wit of Smith
Wherever Sydney preached he could fill the churches to overflowing. He would use simple words but never talk down to his audience. Some members of the congregation had heard of Sydney's reputation as a wit and presumably attended in expectation of a comical sermon or two. In this they were sadly disappointed as Sydney took his pastoral duties very seriously. Instead, it was at the dinner tables of the great figures of society that Sydney became decidedly 'uncanonical'. He appeared not to fear reprisals, regardless of the position or social rank of his targets. On one occasion, when told that a proposal had been put forward to surround St Paul's Cathedral with a wooden pavement, he replied:
'Let the Dean and Canons put their heads together and the thing will be done'.
Though Sydney's concerns were serious to him, his criticisms were not meant to hurt; he preferred to make a serious point through the medium of humour. Lord Macaulay, author of The History of England and a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, was known for his use of ten words where one might have done and therefore considered by those who knew him as a bit of a bore. Sydney Smith however chose a more tactful way of appraising his particular skills:
There were gorgeous flashes of silence...that made his conversation perfectly delightful.
The gift Sydney had of putting 'ordinary things in an infinitely ludicrous point of view' is best demonstrated by the time somebody told him that a young Scotsman was about to marry a widow who was twice his age and three times his size. His reaction was perhaps uncharacteristically relentless, but typically witty:
Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her; he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy but trigamy; there is enough of her to furnish wives for the whole parish. One man marry her! - it is monstrous! You might people a colony with her; or give an assembly with her; or perhaps take your morning's walk round her, always provided there were frequent resting places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half way and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her; in short, you might do anything but marry her!
There are many stories of Sydney Smith's witticisms:
Henry Hallam was an historian who would debate any topic for the sake of competitive argument. He had a high opinion of his gifts and would not countenance any view but his own. Such was Henry Hallam's notoriety, that when Lord Melbourne began a conversation with the words 'I think I may assert without fear of contradiction -', the Reverend Sydney interrupted: 'Are you acquainted, sir, with Henry Hallam?'
When a rather pompous clergyman dated a letter to him with a particular Saint's Day instead of the more traditional date, Sydney replied, dating his letter 'Washing Day'.
Seeing a lady enter a grand drawing room dressed in a crimson gown, he jumped up exclaiming, 'exactly the colour of my preaching cushion!' Then, pretending to be lost in admiration he declared, 'I really can hardly keep my hands off you; I shall be preaching on you I fear'. Amid roars of laughter, the lady quickly sent for her carriage.
On another occasion he told the assembled company that his 'living in Yorkshire was so far out of the way that it was actually twelve miles from a lemon'.
While still attached to the Edinburgh Review, Sydney met one Professor Leslie, a Scottish philosopher whose sole topic of conversation was the North Pole - to the intense irritation of friends and acquaintances. When Leslie bumped into the Review's editor, Francis Jeffrey he, as usual, could talk of nothing but his obsession, provoking Jeffery to exclaim, 'Oh damn the North Pole!' Upset at this perceived slight, Leslie related the incident to Sydney. 'Oh my dear fellow,' said Sydney consolingly, 'never mind... you will scarcely credit it, but - strictly between ourselves - it is not more than a week ago that I heard him speak disrespectfully of the Equator!'
All his life, Sydney was excessively fond of his food, and because he was rather fat his doctor had put him on a strict diet that excluded meat. One day he was heard to moan 'I wish I were allowed even the wing of a roasted butterfly'. Sydney's doctor had also advised he take walks, but on an empty stomach. 'Whose?' inquired Sydney.
Even on his deathbed, Sydney could not resist making a joke. His nurse, looking for his medicine, found a half-bottle of ink in the place where the medicine should have been. Sydney said he had probably taken a dose of ink the last time by mistake. The horrified nurse asked what to do. 'Bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house,' advised Sydney.
American President Abraham Lincoln was one of Sydney Smith's greatest admirers, constantly quoting from his writings and roaring with laughter at his ludicrous 'word pictures' (Sydney's descriptive powers were such that it was said he could make you see a thing purely through his choice of words). Queen Victoria used to go into fits of laughter when Sydney's sayings were reported to her (usually by Lord Melbourne). Sydney himself wrote to her on her accession in 1837, advising her on how to govern.
But it is Lord Macaulay - whom Sydney had affectionately satirised for his verbosity and self-importance - who has left us with the appellation by which Sydney was best known:
In spite of innumerable affections and oddities, he is certainly one of the wittiest and most original writers of our times - the Smith of Smiths.