Smith, Augustus John (DNB00)

SMITH, AUGUSTUS JOHN (1804–1872), lessee of the Scilly Islands, was son of James Smith (b. 1768, d. at Ashlyn Hall, Hertfordshire, on 16 Feb. 1843), by his second wife, Mary Isabella (b. 1784, d. Paris, 14 Feb. 1823), eldest daughter of Augustus Pechell of Great Berkhamstead. He was born in Harley Street, London, on 15 Sept. 1804, entered at Harrow school about 1814, and matriculated from Christ's Church, Oxford, on 23 April 1822, graduating B.A. on 23 Feb. 1826. By inheritance he was the owner of considerable property in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and he obtained a lease under the crown for ninety-nine years, contingent on three lives, from 10 Oct. 1834, of the Scilly Islands. For this lease he paid a fine of 20,000l., and undertook the payment of an annual rent of 40l. and of some stipends.

Very early in life Smith interested himself in the working of the poor laws, and advocated a system of national education on a broad basis. After the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, when three members were assigned to Hertfordshire, he was asked to stand for that constituency, but declined the request. He published in 1836 an ‘Apology for Parochial Education on Comprehensive Principles’ as illustrated in the school of industry at Great Berkhamstead, in which he anticipated the adoption of a conscience clause, and in 1841, after having actively promoted for four years a suit in chancery, he obtained the reopening of the free grammar school at Great Berkhamstead. When the second Earl Brownlow enclosed with strong iron fences about a third of the common land of that parish which was in front of the earl's seat, Ashridge Park, Smith engaged a band of navvies from London who pulled the fences down. This incident attracted much attention at the time, and was the subject of a poem (‘A Lay of Modern England’) in ‘Punch’ for 24 March 1866. He vindicated his opposition to the enclosure in ‘Berkhamstead Common: Statement by Augustus Smith,’ 1866. In 1870 he obtained an injunction against any future enclosure of the common. From 1868 to 1872 he was engaged in controversy with the board of trade and Trinity House on lightships and pilotage.

Smith's action at Scilly, though despotic in character, was attended by beneficent results. The church at St. Mary's, the principal island, was completed at his expense, and when that at St. Martin's was nearly destroyed by lightning in 1866, it was rebuilt mainly at his cost. He built a pier at Hugh Town in St. Mary's, and constructed for his own habitation the house of Tresco Abbey, with its grounds and fishponds. His ‘red geranium beds’ are described as ‘a fine blaze of colour a mile off at sea’ (Mortimer, Princess Clarice, i. 97). He consolidated the farm-holdings and rebuilt the homesteads, but would not allow the admittance of a second family in any dwelling; he weeded out the idle, and stringently enforced education. These improvements cost 80,000l., and during the first twelve years of his term absorbed the whole of the revenue. They were set out by him in a tract entitled ‘Thirteen Years' Stewardship of the Isles of Scilly,’ 1848, and were described by J. A. Froude in his address at the Philosophical Institution at Edinburgh on 6 Nov. 1876 ‘On the Uses of a Landed Gentry’ (Short Studies on Great Subjects, 3rd ser. p. 275).

Smith contested in 1852, in the liberal interest, the borough of Truro in Cornwall, but was defeated by eight votes. In 1857 he was returned without a contest, and he represented the constituency until 1865, by which time his views had been modified. He was president of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall at Penzance from 1858 to 1864, and he held the presidency of the Royal Institution of Cornwall at Truro from November 1863 to November 1865. His addresses and papers for these societies are specified in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis.’ As provincial grandmaster for the freemasons of Cornwall from July 1863, he promoted the establishment of a county fund for aged and infirm freemasons. After a severe illness he died at the Duke of Cornwall hotel, Plymouth, on 31 July 1872, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Buryan, Cornwall, on 6 Aug. His will and seven codicils were proved in March 1873, and the lesseeship in the Scilly Isles was left to his nephew, Thomas Algernon Smith-Dorrien-Smith. A statue of him stands on the hill above Tresco Gardens.

Smith compiled a ‘True and Faithful History of the Family of Smith’ from Nottinghamshire, which was printed in 1861. He explained his views on parliamentary reform in ‘Constitutional Reflections on the present Aspects of Parliamentary Government,’ 1866.

[Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. ii. 660–661, 671, iii. 992, 1004, 1337; Boase's Collectanea Cornub. pp. 905, 1463; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall, iv. 342–8; Illustrated London News, lxii. 318; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Freemason, v. 477, 489–90.]

W. P. C.