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SYDNEY SMITH

CHAPTER I

EDUCATION-SALISBURY PLAIN-EDINBURGH

A WORTHY tradesman, who had accumulated a large fortune, married a lady of gentle birth and manners. In later years one of his daughters said to a friend of the family, “I dare say you notice a great difference between papa's behaviour and mamma's. It is easily accounted for. Papa, immensely to his credit, raised himself to his present position from the shop; but mamma was extremely well born. She was a Miss Smith--one of the old Smiths, of Essex.

It might appear that Sydney Smith was a growth of the same majestic but mysterious tree, for he was born at Woodford; but further research traces his ancestry to Devonshire. “We are all one family,” he used to say, “all the Smiths who dwell on the face of the earth. You may try to disguise it in any way you like-Smyth, or Smythe, or Smijth 1—but you always get back to Smith after all—the most numerous and most respectable family in England.” When a compiler of pedigrees asked permission to insert Sydney's

* For this remarkable variant, see Burke's Peerage, BowyerSmijth, Bart.

A

arms in a County History, he replied, "I regret, sir, not to be able to contribute to so valuable a work; but the Smiths never had any arms. They invariably sealed their letters with their thumbs." In later life he adopted the excellent and characteristic mottoFaber mere fortunæ; and, to some impertinent questions about his grandfather, he replied with becoming gravity _“He disappeared about the time of the assizes, and we asked no questions."

As a matter of fact, this maligned progenitor came to London from Devonshire, established a business in Eastcheap, and left it to his two sons, Robert and James. Robert Smith 1 made over his share to his brother and went forth to see the world. This object he pursued, amid great vicissitudes of fortune and environment, till in old age he settled down at Bishop's Lydeard, in Somerset. He married Maria Olier, a pretty girl of French descent, and by her had five children: Robert Percy-better known as “Bobus ”_born in 1770; Sydney in 1771; Cecil in 1772; Courtenay in 1773; and Maria in 1774.

Sydney Smith was born on the 3rd of June; and was baptized on the 1st of July in the parish church of Woodford. His infancy was passed at South Stoneham, near Southampton. At the age of six he was sent to a private school at Southampton, and on the 19th of July 1782 was elected a Scholar of Winchester College He stayed at Winchester for six years, and worked his way to the top place in the school, being “Prefect of Hall" when he left in 1788. Beyond these facts, Winchester seems to retain no

1 (1739-1827.)

impressions of her brilliant son, in this respect contrasting strangely with other Public Schools. Westminster knows all about Cowper—and a sorry tale it is. Canning left an ineffaceable mark on Eton. Harrow abounds in traditions, oral and written, of Sheridan and Byron, Peel and Palmerston. But Winchester is silent about Sydney Smith.

Sydney, however, was not silent about Winchester. In one of the liveliest passages of his controversial writings, he said :

“I was at school and college with the Archbishop of Canterbury :1 fifty-three years ago he knocked me down with the chess-board for checkmating him—and now he is attempting to take away my patronage. I believe these are the only two acts of violence he ever committed in his life.”

Now Howley was a prefect when Sydney was a junior, and this game of chess must have been (as a living Wykehamist has pointed out to me) “a command performance.” The big boy liked chess, so the little boy had to play it: the big boy disliked being checkmated, so the little boy was knocked down. This and similar experiences probably coloured Sydney's mind when he wrote in 1810:

“At a Public School (for such is the system established by immemorial custom) every boy is alternately tyrant and slave. The power which the elder part of these communities exercises over the younger is exceedingly great ; very difficult to be controlled ; and accompanied, not unfrequently, with cruelty and caprice. It is the common law of these places, that the younger should be implicitly obedient to the elder boys; and

i William Howley (1766-1848).

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