SMITH, Robert Percy (1770-1845), of Savile Row, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 7 May 1770, 1st s. of Robert Smith of Bishop’s Lydiard, Som. by Maria, da. of Isaac Olier of Bloomsbury, Mdx., late of Montauban. educ. King Edward’s sch. Southampton; Eton 1782-8; King’s, Camb. 1789, fellow 1792-7; France 1792; L. Inn 1793, called 1797. m. 9 Dec. 1797, Caroline Maria, da. and coh. of Richard Vernon† of Hilton Park, Staffs., 2s. 2da.
Adv.-gen. Bengal 1803-11.
‘Bobus’ Smith was the loser in the future Duke of Wellington’s first battle, a fight with him at Eton. Academically he showed brilliant promise and contributed with his friend George Canning to The Microcosm. He was also a friend of Lord Holland, Fox’s nephew, who thought him in 1792 ‘the cleverest man now alive’ except his uncle, who, he alleged, was curious to meet him: he was confident (as was Canning) that Smith ‘must make a figure some way or other’. Lord Holland’s sister Caroline secured him an introduction to Lord Lansdowne, and shortly after he was called to the bar he married Lansdowne’s sister-in-law, 12 years his senior. Lansdowne’s heir at the same time offered to vacate his seat in Parliament for Smith’s benefit. Nothing came of this and Smith went the western circuit. His wife’s half-brother Lord Upper Ossory applied to the lord chancellor in 1799 for Smith to be made a commissioner of bankruptcy. Lady Holland, who had noted that the Smiths would be ‘excessively poor’, commented on this:
I can believe it now, though two years ago I was credulous enough to receive as sincere the fustian declarations upon independence, and that a lofty, aspiring mind would owe nothing to the influence of others; that it would extort reward by its sole merit, and that the only check upon his felicity in uniting himself to his antiquated wife was that her connexions were great and powerful, which, to little minds, might be supposed operated as an inducement to the union.
Nor, however, to speak fairly, do I think these motives actuated him: I truly believe he imagined he felt the belle passion. Be that as it may, I now think he is disposed to avail himself very readily of any advantage those connexions can procure for him, for his whole deportment recently demonstrates what is always said, ‘That no one despises situation and family, but those who have no claim nor chance of either’.1
Late in 1802 Smith was appointed advocate-general in Bengal. The directors of the East India Company chose him unanimously, although ‘he had not the cordial support of government’, under the influence of Lansdowne’s friend Sir Francis Baring*. He was impervious to his friends’ regrets: they were made to see ‘how little necessary they are to the daily habits of his life, or to his comfortable enjoyment of it’. Besides, it promised him an independent fortune: £5,000 p.a. and (with a patent of precedence in India) perhaps as much again from private practice; whereas at home, ‘a certain arrogance of manner’ had operated to his disadvantage in his law practice.2
Smith, ‘always merry and always kind’, enjoyed the reputation of a pundit in India and returned home with a fortune, said to amount to £150,000, in 1811. Uncertainty as to his pretensions provoked ill-natured prognostication: Henry Brougham* did not look forward to ‘his inroads into society’ and added that his politics must be ‘of the worst and most unprincipled description, if one may judge from his Indian conduct, but he must show himself up to other things than writing parodies on Lucretius before it can appear of any great importance what market he brings himself to’. John William Ward*, believing him ‘dogmatical’ and ‘argumentative’, wrote: ‘Lord send he may cut no figure in Parliament, for there will be no bearing him. But perhaps all this may be very unjust, and the Indian sun may have fairly baked out all his evil qualities.’ So it transpired, for Ward found him ‘a cheerful, unaffected, good-humoured man’ and hailed him as ‘a delightful accession to society’:
everybody agrees that he is vastly improved—mellowed and softened (like a pipe of madeira) under the tropical sun. You will understand what the change has been when I say that he is not disputatious, not rough, and not overbearing.
His witty brother, the Rev. Sydney Smith, commended him as ‘a very capital personage, full of sense, genius, dignity, virtue and wit’: but if he had as much ‘pleasantry and imagination’ as Sydney, it was confined to his coterie.3
In May 1812 when Lord Wellesley was cabinet-making he designated Smith as a lord of the Treasury, adding, ‘Would he not make an excellent judge advocate-general?’. On 4 June, after Wellesley’s failure to form a government, Smith wrote to him,
With no sort of impatience to be anything else than what I am I could not have been invited into public life in a way more gratifying to my feelings than I was by you—first because there is no man of whose good opinion I am prouder ... I lament as much as any man can do the opportunity which has been lost ... of uniting all the best men in the country for its salvation.4
Smith purchased a seat in Parliament from Sir William Manners* at the election of 1812, evidently on condition that he should forfeit it if he took office. His political allegiance to Canning soon became clear. As John William Ward remarked:
I am delighted with his talents, his learning and his gaiety, and of course it is a great additional satisfaction to me to find that we agree in politics. I am very anxious to hear him speak. He can hardly fail of success. He has a very strong mind, a strong voice, and excellent nerves. For some time he seemed to hang suspended twixt Holland House and Gloucester Lodge but Gloucester Lodge has proved the magnet of the strongest attraction.
Canning, who thought his language ‘the essence of English’, was to be disappointed.5 On 11 Feb. 1813 Smith attempted a maiden speech against the vice-chancellor bill. Although, as reported, it was unexceptionable6 and Wilberforce thought Smith began ‘promisingly’, Ward had another tale to tell:
Bobus made but a bad job of it on Thursday. This is sadly against our firm—Canning, Huskisson, Smith and Co. Confound his impudence! It is a great mistake in any man, and still more in a man who has a reputation of more than twenty years’ growth upon his back, to get up and address for the first time the most formidable assembly upon earth in a wholly unpremeditated speech. Mr Robert Smith! Order! Order!—bar! bar! Then fifty fellows rushed in, knocking each other over. Then the awful silence that precedes a great speech, or the expectation of one ... he must have nerves of steel to succeed if he trusts wholly to the moment. Accordingly I perceived before twenty words were out of Smith’s mouth that it would not do. He went on lamely for a quarter of an hour, and then got so puzzled that he was forced to apologise to the House and sit down. Still some of what he said was sensible and well put, and I am persuaded that if he ain’t cowed by his failure in the first instance he will become a very powerful speaker. In the meantime his reputation has been terribly damaged ... I ought to add that many people thought he was not to succeed. Lord Liverpool for instance, who told Lord Aberdeen, some time ago, when Smith came back from Bengal, that he had no notion of his making a good speaker.
Sydney ascribed his brother’s fiasco to ‘an unaccountable fit of nervousness like those sudden failures in gallantry to which we hear the most robust laymen are sometimes subject. However, I have no doubt nature will have her way at last. The man is powerful and will succeed.’ On 17 Mar. 1813 Sydney wrote to him, ‘I see you have spoken again’, but the speech was obscure and Smith failed to establish himself as a debater.7 He had several contributions to make (as a select committeeman) to the debates on the renewal of the East India Company charter in July 1813: he was hostile to Christian missions to India and wished provisions to be made for the education of Indians in their own cultural tradition; but he was ignored.
Smith was informed by Canning that he was disbanding his party, 21 July 1813. Lady Holland commented to Lord Lansdowne, 30 July:
Mr Smith rejoices inwardly at his release, but laments the injudicious conduct of his friend ... if Wallace goes there will be an opening at the Board of Control, and for this last month there has been a good deal of coquetting between Mr Smith and Lord Buckinghamshire, a circumstance supposed to make the disbanding of Canning’s party an acceptable measure to the former. Of him I think we may say, nothing can be more laughable than his situation, all his life declaiming emphatically against party, and just convinced to engage in one which held by such a rope of sand that it falls to pieces instantly, upon what then was his conviction of the futility of party founded?
In case Mr Smith joins government, have you a friend (not a mercantile man) who is ready to take the seat he is bound by agreement to give up, upon taking office?
The death of a beloved daughter dispirited Smith next session, though he was in the House from April 1814. When Canning came to terms with Lord Liverpool in July, he secured his ready approval for Smith’s appointment to the India Board: but to Canning’s disappointment he ‘absolutely’ declined office, ‘broken down by his daughter’s death, and rendered (in his own opinion) unfit for any exertion’.8
Smith’s political line was now his own. Edward John Littleton* reported: ‘His political feelings induce him to vote with government on most questions of foreign policy—and against them on questions of domestic policy’. He was a steady opponent of altering the Corn Laws, 1814-15, and as steady a supporter of Catholic relief. He opposed the aliens bill by vote and speech, 16 May, 15 July 1814. Having voted for Romilly’s bid to mitigate the treason laws, 25 Apr. 1814, he also supported his motion against the continuation of the militia in peacetime, 28 Feb. 1815. He supported retrenchment of the civil list, 14 Apr., 8 and 31 May 1815, and opposed the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant a month later. He voted against the Income Tax Act, 1 May 1815, and, the same day, for the reception of the London petition for retrenchment. On 15 June he moved for papers to explain the transfer of the island of Banca to the Dutch. He did not attend during the session of 1816 because of the fatal illness of one of his sons: he wintered in Switzerland and Italy. On 19 Feb. 1817 he voted for a committee on the Bank and on 25 Feb. for the reduction of the Admiralty board (again on 16 Mar. 1818). He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus in February and June 1817. On 13 and 15 Apr. 1818 he opposed the ducal marriage grants. He spoke on 21 Apr. on the question of the high bailiff of Westminster’s remuneration. He voted for the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 1, 18 May 1818, against the prosecution of radical booksellers, 21 May, and against the aliens bill, 22 May. In 1817 and 1818 he had been a member of the Poor Law and finance committees where, Littleton remarked, his ‘acuteness and industry was of great service to those who opposed government in the committee’. Lord Morpeth concurred as to his ‘really eminent services as a most diligent and painstaking member of committees’.9
Sydney Smith supposed that his brother, ‘not to be diverted from his solitude’, would not seek re-election in 1818; but he was wrong. He was Lady Warwick’s candidate at Lincoln on a Whig interest, paying his own expenses, which amounted to over £3,000. He was defeated then, but successful in 1820. Tierney, the Whig leader in the House, could not regard him as a devotee, ‘though I dare say he will vote with us nine times in ten’. Shunning both ‘party views and objects’ and society, Smith’s mature conclusions as to the best kind of government involved a balance of paradoxes.10 He died 10 Mar. 1845.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 26 June 1844; Add. 51683, Wycombe to Holland, 11 Dec. 1797; 51731, Holland to Caroline Fox [27 Feb.], [May 1792]; 51744, Caroline Fox to Lady Holland, 12 Sept. ; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 1 Feb. 1795; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 163; ii. 17.
- 2. Add. 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 10 Dec. , 18 Mar., 19 Apr. ; 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland, 26 Dec. 1802, 2 Apr. 1803; 51796, Lady Upper Ossory to Holland, 6 Feb. ; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2720; v. 4253.
- 3. Mackintosh Mems. i. 225; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 31 Jan. 1812; Add 52178, Brougham to Allen, 16 Sept. 1811; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 130, 164, 165; Lady Holland, Mem. of Rev. Sydney Smith, i. 4; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 218; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 316.
- 4. Add. 37297, f. 167; 37416, f. 1211.
- 5. See GRANTHAM; Letters to ‘Ivy’, 184; Early Writings of R. P. Smith ed. R. V. Smith, p. vii.
- 6. In Parl. Deb. the speech is attributed to ‘Mr Smyth’ and indexed J. H. Smyth; The Times has ‘Mr Smith’.
- 7. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iv. 100; Letters to ‘Ivy’, 184-5. Sydney Smith Letters, i. 233, 235.
- 8. Horner Mems. (1843), ii. 148; Lansdowne mss; Sydney Smith Letters, i. 243; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 14, 19 July 1814.
- 9. Hatherton diary, 6 Feb. 1818; Morpeth’s obit. of Smith for Morning Chron., reprinted in Early Writings of R.P. Smith .
- 10. Sydney Smith Letters, i. 288; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 5 Apr. 1820; Ward, Letters to Bishop of Llandaff, 292; Sydney Smith Letters, ii. 734. Smith’s papers are now (1984) held by the India Office Library.