SMYTHE, Thomas I (1522-91), of London, Ashford and Westenhanger, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 1522, 2nd s. of John Smythe of Corsham, Wilts. by Joan, da. of Robert Brouncker of Melksham. m. c.1554, Alice, da. and event. h. of Sir Andrew Judd, merchant of London and Tonbridge, by Joan, da. of Sir Thomas Mirfyn, 7s. inc. John I, Richard and Thomas II, 6da.
Collector, tonnage and poundage, port of London 1558-69; j.p.q. Kent from c.1577; treasurer for repair of Dover harbour 1580; master, Haberdashers’ Co. 1583.1
Smythe sat in only one Elizabethan Parliament, for Portsmouth, through an unknown connexion with the captain of that port, Adrian Poynings. Smythe made no known contribution to the business of the House.
In July 1558 Smythe became collector of the subsidy of tonnage and poundage on goods imported into London. This appointment to the second most important fiscal office in England’s principal port began that part of his career for which he is best remembered, and which earned him the soubriquet Customer Smythe. Elizabeth confirmed his appointment, which he retained until he became farmer of the same subsidies in 1569. In 1567, however, it was discovered that he had caused a loss of revenue by issuing privy warrants and his disfavour with the Queen cost him a turn as sheriff of London. In fact he escaped imprisonment only through Cecil’s good offices, and remained out of favour until his accounts were settled in 1570. Now began the most profitable period of his association with the customs, his lease of the duties on all goods imported into London (except those on wine), and the duties on all goods imported or exported through Sandwich and Chichester, with the same exception. The lease was renewed in 1576, and then on two subsequent occasions until Smythe relinquished it in 1588. During this period because of an increase in revenue brought about by a general expansion in trade, the annual rent rose from £17,659 6s. 5d. between 1570 and 1576, to £30,000 between 1584 and 1588. Through constant vigilance the government tried to keep track of Smythe’s activities and hold his profit within reasonable bounds; nevertheless his total profit for the period when he was farmer of the customs has been estimated at £48,000. Part of this was spent on other ventures less immediately successful, such as prospecting for minerals, and trading with Russia. Smythe became a member of the Muscovy Company on its formation in 1569, and of the Levant Company in 1581. He also attempted to corner the alum market, gaining Burghley’s agreement to a three-year monopoly of the English market while he disposed of acquired stock at a profit of 25%. It is a measure of Smythe’s influence with Burghley that, while the latter had rejected all previous suggestions of monopoly, he agreed to Smythe’s, who thus gained a guaranteed market for his alum, besides benefiting from the increased customs duty on imports.2
Through a fortunate marriage Smythe came into the Kent manors of Ashford, Estone and Wall, as well as lands in Hertfordshire. In 1575 he bought Westenhanger, and made further additions to his estates in Kent in 1578 and 1579. In Wiltshire he acquired Holme Park, and West Park in Corsham, where he built a new house as a tangible reminder of his wealth.
There is evidence that Smythe could count the Earl of Leicester among his friends as well as Burghley. In 1585 Sylvanus Scory, when questioned about the publication of Leycester’s Commonwealth, admitted that he had introduced Leicester to the Spanish ambassador at a dinner in the Customer’s house, and in the same year Smythe was amongst those who promised to finance Leicester’s expedition to the Low Countries. Leicester himself referred in his will to ‘the great love and long friendship’ that there had been between himself and Smythe. Smythe in his own will, made 21 May 1591 and proved by his eldest surviving son John on 29 Oct. 1591, asked to be buried in Ashford parish church. His widow received the lease of his London house; his unmarried daughter Elizabeth was left £1,500; and his married daughters a total of £1,990. Four of his sons were left £100 each, and his household servants £5 each. The poor of Ashford in Kent were to receive £40, those of the London parish of St. Gabriel Fenchurch £10, and those of Corsham in Wiltshire £10. The London prisoners were left a further £40. The total money bequests mentioned in the will, excluding those to servants, amounted to £5,050, not a vast sum when all is considered. The executors were his son John, his sons-in-law Sir Rowland Hayward and Thomas Fanshawe, and his friend and fellow merchant Thomas Aldersey. The overseer was Thomas Owen. Smythe died 7 June 1591 and was buried in Ashford church, where a monument was erected to him. His epitaph described him as a patron of literature, and his name occurs in the dedication of Richard Robinson’s translation of John Leland’s book on King Arthur (1562).