Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smyth, William (1765-1849)

SMYTH, WILLIAM (1765–1849), professor of modern history at Cambridge, was the son of Thomas Smyth, banker, of Liverpool, where he was born in 1765. After attending a day school in the town, he went to Eton, where he remained three years. On leaving Eton he read with a tutor at Bury, Lancashire, and in January 1783 he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge. He graduated eighth wrangler in 1787, and in the same year was elected to the fellowship vacated by Sir John Wilson (1741–1793) [q. v.], judge of common pleas. He proceeded M.A. in 1790. He returned to Liverpool, but in 1793, consequent upon the declaration of war with France, his father's bank failed, and it became necessary for William to earn his living.

Through the kindness of Edward Morris, a college friend, Smyth was chosen in 1793 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan [q. v.] as tutor to his elder son Thomas. He lived with his pupil at Wanstead, at Bognor, and at Cambridge, and saw much of Sheridan himself. In the memoir that he subsequently wrote of his pupil's father he describes his intercourse with him as ‘one eternal insult, mortification, and disappointment,’ and writes with mingled humour, pity, and anger of Sheridan's eccentricities and disregard of the duties of life. Smyth's salary was usually in arrears, and his letters of protest were unanswered. But Sheridan's fascinating manner whenever a personal interview took place rendered effective protest impossible. When Smyth accompanied his pupil to Cambridge in 1803, he received bills on Drury Lane theatre in lieu of cash for his expenses. In 1806 his pupil went into the army, and Smyth, on being released from his post of the young man's governor, became tutor of Peterhouse. In 1807, on the recommendation of his political friends, he was appointed regius professor of modern history. That office he filled until his death. In 1825 he inherited real property, and, in accordance with the college statutes then in force, his fellowship was declared vacant, much to his dissatisfaction. He continued, however, to occupy his rooms in college, until in 1847 he retired to Norwich, where he died, unmarried, on 24 June 1849. He was buried in the cathedral, where there is a stained-glass window to his memory over his grave. The two stained Munich windows in Peterhouse Chapel, representing the Nativity and the Ascension, were subscribed for as a memorial to him. There is a portrait of him in the hall of Peterhouse, given by his brother, the Rev. Thomas Smyth (1778–1854), fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, from 1800 to 1813, and vicar of St. Austell. This portrait is lithographed in the fifth edition of his ‘English Lyrics,’ edited by his brother in 1850. The posthumous bust in the Fitzwilliam museum, by E. H. Baily, is copied from the picture.

Smyth was very popular and fond of society (see his humorous lecture on ‘Woman,’ delivered in 1840 at Mrs. Frere's house at Downing, and privately printed at Leeds in the same year). He possessed great conversational power, was passionately fond of music, and frequently gave concerts in his college rooms with the aid of eminent performers. These entertainments were much sought after by members of the university. He wrote much verse, and his ‘English Lyrics,’ published in 1797, which were warmly praised by the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ ran through five editions. Moore's opinion of them was less favourable. He accused Smyth of appropriating his metres and parodying his songs (Moore, Memoirs, ed. Russell, iv. 286–8, vi. 332). Smyth contributed some of the words to Clarke Whitfield's ‘Twelve Vocal Songs,’ and wrote the ode for the installation of Prince William Frederick as chancellor of the university. He devoted his declining years to a work on the ‘Evidences of Christianity.’ He is ‘the Professor’ in ‘Reminiscences of Thought and Feeling’ by Mary Ann Kelty [q. v.]

Smyth's ‘Lectures on Modern History,’ 1840, 2 vols., dedicated to Lord Henry Petty, marquis of Lansdowne, were revised by Professor Adam Sedgwick (see Clark, Life of Sedgwick, ii. 22), and long enjoyed a high reputation as judicious and perspicuous essays. They supply an admirable summary of the historical literature of the period under survey. Smyth aimed at impartiality, but he did not possess sufficient insight or sympathy to achieve it. Of like character and of equal popularity were Smyth's ‘Lectures on the French Revolution,’ 1840 (3 vols.), which broke new ground and sifted some of the earlier authorities, but were very diffuse, and were far inferior to Croker's essays on the same subject in the ‘Quarterly.’ Both sets of lectures were reissued, with the author's latest corrections, in Bohn's Standard Library (1855). Smyth's other works include ‘A List of Books Recommended,’ 1817; 2nd ed. 1828; and ‘Memoir of Sheridan,’ 1840 (privately printed, and now rare).

[Autobiography and Memoir by his brother in Lyrical Poems, 5th ed. 1850; Gent. Mag. vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 540; Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers; Athenæum, 30 June, 1849; Registers of Peterhouse; Kelty's Visiting my Relations, pp. 332 sq.; private information.]

E. C. M.