Plaque unveiled 10 April 2019 on the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy, University of York, More House, Heslington, York,YO10 5DX

More House where Sydney Smith lived 1809-14

The Revd Sydney Smith was an Anglican parson and a politically-engaged writer for the literary and reforming quarterly the Edinburgh Review (1802-1929). He was its cofounder, editor of the first issue and a major contributor for 25 years. His witty articles were perhaps the chief reason for the Edinburgh’s early success. Though non-resident till 1814, from 1806-28 he was also rector of Foston-le-Clay, an isolated parish – ‘twelve miles from a lemon’, as he put it – near Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. At first he employed a curate whilst remaining in London but, after Spencer Perceval’s Residence Act was passed in 1808, he reluctantly moved his family to Yorkshire. Because there had been no resident rector at Foston for 150 years, and no habitable rectory, he lived in Heslington from 1809-14, in what, with a benign irony that he would have relished, is now the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of York.

Political reformer

That Sydney’s provocative writings were much needed can be seen in his Edinburgh Review themes, composed when it was ‘safer almost to be a felon than a reformer’. In the early 19th century, the vote was far from universal and often bought with bribes: ‘What right has this lord or that marquis, to buy ten seats in parliament … and then make laws to govern me?’ Industrial cities existed with no MP while small country towns might have several. Catholic Ireland was oppressed; Catholics were an underclass. The Established Church was in a state of complacent torpor. Landowners were free to set mantraps and spring-guns to protect their game. Universal education did not exist and the public-school curriculum comprised classical languages alone. Worse still, women were denied education on principle: ‘Can anything … be more perfectly absurd than to suppose that the care … which a mother feels for her children, depends on her ignorance of Greek and mathematics … that she would desert her infant for a quadratic equation.’

He opposed slavery, supported prison reform, condemned the abuse of child chimney sweeps and exposed the profound injustice that denied defence counsel to prisoners tried for capital offences. But perhaps his most influential work was studiously anonymous: Letters of Peter Plymley to My Brother Abraham Who Lives in the Country, (1807-8), published as 10 pamphlets urging Catholic emancipation. Since the Reformation, disabling legislation, including the Popery Act of 1698, had made Catholics unequal citizens, not least with insupportable oaths that excluded them from public life. The fictitious correspondence between two brothers, both Anglican parsons, comprised 10 letters from urban Peter, calming the fears and rooted prejudices of his country brother, Abraham.

The tone is one of brotherly affection: ‘A worthier and better man than yourself does not exist; but I have always told you, from the time of our boyhood, that you were a bit of a goose.’ This draws the sting while making a rooted fear of Catholics more ridiculous: ‘In the first place, my dear Abraham, the Pope is not landed, nor are there any curates sent after him, nor has he been hid at St Albans by the Dowager Lady Spencer – nor dined secretly at Holland House – nor been seen near Dropmore.’ He exposes unreason by turning it on its head: ‘The Catholic not respect an oath! why not? What upon earth has kept him out of Parliament, or excluded him from all the offices whence he is excluded, but his respect for oaths?’ He also invokes the real threat of Napoleon: Catholics, especially Irish ones, might so easily ‘break the Union, revenge their wounded pride and their insulted religion, and fling themselves into the open arms of France’.

Released one by one, the Plymley letters caught fire immediately, profoundly embarrassing the Tory government. When they were printed together, they ran to 16 editions, becoming collectors’ items within 20 years. They have been judged ‘one of the most successful pieces of pamphleteering in our political history’ (Bullet), and were compared with Jonathan Swift, even at the time. However, when Lord Holland wryly observed that the unknown writer ‘lost a bishopric for his wittiest performance’, he hinted at the open secret of the author’s identity. None the less, Sydney acknowledged his authorship only with his collected works published shortly before he died in 1845.

Yorkshire rector

Living far from London and his large circle of friends was not Sydney’s first choice but once reconciled, he threw himself into the role. He had to build his own rectory, dismissing his architect – ‘You build for glory sir, I for use’ – and designing and overseeing the construction of house and farm buildings himself. The design was innovative; for example, special tubes venting to the outside ensured that his fires burned brightly – Sydney called them ‘Shadrachs’. The construction costs were such that he and his wife educated their children at home, employed a carpenter on parish relief to build their furniture and trained local young women as their servants, including a butler. It was soon a comfortable home and a happy household. Sydney enjoyed nothing more than prompting loud laughter in children and servants alike and he never used his study for studying, preferring to write his sermons and Edinburgh essays amid family noise and bustle.

The villagers of Foston received much more than spiritual leadership and older inhabitants still recalled Sydney with fondness 60 years later. He was a vigorously practical parson; seeing the poverty of his neighbours, he divided a portion of the church glebe into allotments for growing their own food. He had picked up rudimentary medical knowledge while in Edinburgh and now put it to good use. Part of his study became a dispensary and he treated his parishioners without charge, baptising and dosing with castor oil at the same time, using garlic for the whooping cough and making up potions for common illnesses. He also had a suit of hollow tin armour that could be filled with hot water and attached in sections to relieve rheumatism. With his stomach pump, he saved the life of a parishioner who had swallowed poison. In times of poor harvest, he experimented with cheap nutritious dishes for his parishioners – they were not always tasty – and he provided scratching posts in the fields to relieve his animals.

He was soon a Justice of the Peace, travelling to court in Malton and irritating his fellow magistrates by trying to keep poachers out of prison – ‘for every ten pheasants which flutter in the wood, one English peasant is rotting in gaol’. He upset his fellow clergy too by pressing, as a minority of one, for Catholic reform at their meetings. But it was not long before he became friends with Archbishop Harcourt and his family, dining at Bishopthorpe Palace and relieving the archbishop from the tedium of his more solemnly restrained guests. Despite the obscurity of his parish, he entertained his friends there including Lord and Lady Holland, fellow Edinburgh reviewers, the Carlisles of Castle Howard and Macaulay, then a young lawyer visiting the York Assizes. Macaulay was later to dub Sydney, ‘the Smith of Smiths’. He joked that his house should be called the Rector’s Head, and was as good as any inn on the Great North Road – ‘except Ferrybridge’. He preached in the Minster too. As chaplain to the High Sherriff, he delivered two challenging sermons, one to the judges and one for the lawyers: ‘The Judge that smites contrary to the law’ and ‘The lawyer that tempted Christ’.

Before and after Yorkshire

Sydney was born in Woodford, Essex, on 3 June 1771, the son of a wealthy but wayward father who moved house frequently. He was brought up in Swaythling, near Southampton, sent to school at Winchester – his brothers went to Eton – and on to Oxford. At his father’s insistence, he became a clergyman – he would have preferred being a barrister – and was first an obscure curate in Netheravon on Salisbury Plain, where his concern for education showed up early. He founded a Sunday school to teach basic literacy. He got on so well with Netheravon’s squire that he was asked to tutor his son on the Grand Tour. War, however, turned the venture away from Europe to Edinburgh where he preached impressively at the Charlotte Chapel and fell in with a group of young lawyers: Horner, Jeffrey, and Brougham (later Lord Chancellor). Together they founded the Edinburgh Review. Shortly after marrying, he moved to London, preaching regularly at the Foundling Hospital and the Berkeley Chapel and gave lectures on moral philosophy, with great success, at the Royal Institution. It was reported that all of Albermarle Street was blocked with his audience’s coaches. Foston, however, was his first permanent clerical post.

After Yorkshire, Sydney was a canon of Bristol Cathedral with a parish in Combe Florey, near Taunton (1829-45). Two of the Foston servants went with him. His campaign for political reform continued; he made a famous speech for reform in Taunton. This led to a widely-published cartoon of the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, as an old woman sweeping against the tide of reform with mop and bucket, which caused enormous laughter.

In 1831, he was also made a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral which he administered with scrupulous care. This brought him back, for part of each year, to his London circle where he was soon a celebrity. Wherever he dined, people clamoured for invitations. Dickens, too, was keen to meet him and they became friends. In his last years, however, Sydney became increasingly ill. In his 74th year, when a French scholar wrote asking for personal details, he responded accurately, but with undue modesty: ‘a mild Whig, a tolerating churchman, and much given to talking, laughing, and noise. I dine with the rich in London, and physic the poor in the country; passing from the sauces of Dives to the sores of Lazarus.’ Sydney Smith died on 22 February 1845. The inscription on his grave in Kensal Green Cemetery neatly sums up his best qualities:

One of the best of men. His talents, though admitted by his contemporaries to be great, were surpassed by his unostentatious benevolence, his fearless love of truth, and his endeavour to promote the happiness of mankind by religious toleration, and rational freedom.

Further reading

W.H. Auden, (ed.), The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, (New York, 1956)

Alan Bell, Sydney Smith, (Oxford, 1980)

Gerald Bullett, Sydney Smith, A Biography and Selection, (London, 1951)

Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths, Being the Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith (London, 2009)

Peter Virgin, Sydney Smith, (London, 1994)

© Graham Frater