ASSHETON SMITH, Thomas II (1776-1858), of Faenol, Caern. and Tidworth, Hants

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

11 May 1821 - 1831
1832 - 1837

Family and Education

b. 2 Aug. 1776, o. surv. s. of Thomas Assheton Smith I* and Elizabeth, da. of Watkin Wynne of Foelas, Caern. educ. Eton 1783-94; Christ Church, Oxf. 1795. m. 29 Oct. 1827, Matilda, da. of William Webber of Binfield Lodge, Berks., s.p. suc. fa. 1828. d. 9 Sept. 1858.

Offices Held

Capt. Andover yeoman cav. 1830.

Sheriff, Wilts. 1838-9.

Biography

Described in 1841 by ‘Nimrod’ as the ‘best and hardest rider England ever saw’, Assheton Smith was the most renowned field sportsman of his generation. He was, according to his biographer

of the stature best adapted to exertion and endurance, about five feet ten in height, with a frame athletic, well proportioned and muscular, but rather slight than the contrary ... His features were plain, and not in any way indicative of high breeding, but intelligent, the whole countenance denoting a powerful and resolute will.1

His reputation for ‘choleric and impetuous’ behaviour was shared with his father, who was said to have described himself as ‘the worst tempered man in England, except his son Tom’.2 An anonymous contemporary was inclined to blame any defects in Assheton Smith’s character on his upbringing, and most particularly on the neglect he suffered at the hands of his ‘vain and stupid’ mother.3 He was sent at the age of seven to Eton, where by his own account he ‘learnt nothing’ and devoted himself to sailing, cricket and pugilism, both inside and outside the boxing ring. At Oxford he widened his sporting interests to include swimming, rowing and foxhunting, the last of which was to dominate the rest of his life.4 Stories of his exploits in the saddle reached the ears of Buonaparte, who is supposed to have saluted him as ‘le premier chausseur d’Angleterre’ when, at an unspecified date, presumably between 1802-3, he was received at Court in France.5 Master of the Quorn Hunt from 1806, his obsession with the sport did not admit of a tolerant attitude towards the failings of others, and his biographer conceded that ‘he cannot be said to have been altogether personally popular either in Leicestershire, or generally in the hunting field’.6 It was with difficulty that he made ends meet on the £1,000 a year settled on him by his father in 1809, and in 1816 he moved to the Burton Hunt in Lincolnshire, where he remained until 1824.7 After a two-year interlude hunting with the duke of Rutland’s pack at Belvoir, Leicestershire, he moved to Penton Lodge, Hampshire, close to his family estate at Tidworth. On inheriting this in 1828 he had the house substantially rebuilt to his own design and set about transforming the surrounding countryside into foxhunting terrain. He hunted six days a week until 1841 and was master of the hounds until two years before his death.8 Parliament was a secondary consideration. According to his biographer, his habit was

to hunt his hounds at Tedworth in the morning, and then post in his light chariot with four horses to Westminster in the evening, announcing to the field that he must be allowed to meet at ‘twelve’ next day. Having voted in the division, he did not fail to be at the covert side at the hour appointed.9

It was his former mastership of the Quorn that brought about Assheton Smith’s candidacy for Nottingham at the 1818 general election, when he stood on the anti-corporation, Tory interest. After a narrow defeat, he tried again in 1820, when he complained of the aspersions cast on his character by opponents. Another unsuccessful close contest ensued, but he washed his hands of a petition against the return.10 It is not certain at which of these contests he is supposed to have subdued the crowd with the offer ‘to fight any man, little or big, directly I leave the hustings’.11 In 1821 his father made way for him at Andover, with the blessing of the corporation that had returned him since 1797. There was no opposition.12 Assheton Smith’s biographer characterized his politics as ‘of the old Tory school’ and claimed that ‘he regularly attended the debates, and never lost an opportunity of recording his vote for his party’, but his voting record was hardly assiduous and he often took an independent line.13 He spoke only occasionally.

He voted with the Liverpool ministry against greater tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb. 1822. In his maiden speech, 10 May 1822, he opposed the Catholic peers bill as elitist in principle and indicated that he would take his lead from Peel, the home secretary, on the general question of relief. In passing, he praised the ‘wonderful talents’ of Canning, yet on the latter’s appointment as foreign secretary in September, he denounced him to Thomas Creevey*, aprés Falstaff, as ‘rotten as a stewed prune, or words to that effect’.14 He divided against parliamentary reform, 20 Feb., and repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., but opposed ministers by voting for inquiries into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and the condition of Ireland, 12 May. 1823. He was a majority teller against reception of the Greenhoe reform petition, 3 June 1823. In his only recorded activity of the next session, he described the game laws amendment bill as ‘absurd’ and seconded Sir John Shelley’s successful wrecking amendment, 31 May 1824. He voted against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, and the accompanying measure to disfranchise Irish 40s. freeholders, 26 Apr. 1825. On 19 Apr. he presented a petition against relief from Portsmouth and Portsea and defended the character of its supporters. He voted against an increase in the grant to the duke of Cumberland, 27 May, but for his annuity bill, 10 June 1825.

At the 1826 general election Assheton Smith was again returned unopposed.15 He voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828 (as a pair). His father died the same day, leaving him property in Hampshire and Wiltshire, the Ashley estate in Cheshire (sold to William Tatton Egerton* of Tatton Park in 1841) and 7,000 acres in Caernarvonshire, which contained rich slate workings.16 Faced with an initial cash flow problem, he advised the manager of his Welsh estate that he had written to the treasury demanding an equalization of the duties on slate, which he contended had been the subject of a ‘job’ by ‘a certain member of the last administration’, and promised to seek an interview with Goulburn, chancellor of the exchequer, ‘with whom I am intimate’.17 That September he took the freedom of Caernarvon and roused the burgesses with a virulently anti-Catholic speech.18 Yet in February 1829 Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, predicted that he would vote ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation. In the event he abstained, in recognition, so he later informed Sir Charles Paget*, of the necessity of the measure at that juncture.19 No other trace of parliamentary activity has been found for that year. He had ‘quarrelled’ with ministers over the king’s refusal to allow him to succeed his father as lord lieutenant of Caernarvonshire, which would have broken all precedent, and Wellington and Peel were described as ‘still out of favour’ in July 1829, when Wellington suggested to Lord Lyndhurst, the lord chancellor, that by way of consolation he might be offered the living of Tidworth, noting that he was ‘a good Protestant and a supporter of the government, but an ill-tempered and violent man’.20 The outcome is not known. He voted against Jewish emancipation, 17 May, and in favour of the grant for South American missions, 7 June, but he was in the minorities against the pension for the governor of Prince Edward Island, 14 June, and the administration of justice bill, 18 June 1830.

At the 1830 general election he offered again for Andover, denying allegations that he had acted inappropriately by canvassing the corporation ‘in contemplation of a demise of the crown’ earlier that summer. Fears of an opposition came to nothing and he was again returned unopposed.21 In Wales he had encouraged the notion that he would challenge the Pagets of Plas Newydd in their control of Caernarvon Boroughs, but in the event their interests did not collide. (He had rejected an invitation to stand himself.) He instead shifted the focus of his exertions to the county of Caernarvonshire, where, having reportedly declined to offer himself, he nominated his cousin Charles Wynne Griffith Wynne, who was returned unopposed.22 He was later said to have caused local offence by boasting in London that his influence had returned not only Wynne, but the Member who eventually came in for the Boroughs.23 He was listed by the Wellington ministry as one of the ‘moderate Ultras’, with the hopeful endorsement ‘friend’, but he was absent from the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. His Hampshire neighbourhood was badly affected by the ‘Swing’ riots and late in December he was appointed to command the Andover troop of yeomanry cavalry. He informed Wellington, 20 Jan. 1831, ‘We shall prevent mobs rising but I fear it will be difficult to get rid of the very bad spirit which exists and which has shown itself in three fires ... within a few miles of me’.24 Reporting to Lord Holland on attitudes to the reform bill, 15 Mar., Thomas Spring Rice* observed that ‘Tom Smith’s horse has bolted’, an apparent indication that the Grey ministry had nursed hopes of his support.25 He duly voted against the second reading of the bill, 22 Mar., and paired for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. Later that month Creevey noted that Assheton Smith had discovered that ‘not one’ of the corporation was prepared to support him or any other anti-reformer at Andover, where there was overwhelming support among the inhabitants for the bill. At the ensuing general election he retired, citing ill health.26 During the reform bill riots of the following year, he allegedly raised a corps of yeomanry at his own expense, of which he was the captain. At the 1832 general election he replaced Wynne for Caernarvonshire, where he sat as a Conservative until 1837. In 1846 he communicated his support for repeal of the corn laws to Peel. To a tenant’s dire prophesy of the imminent end of arable farming, he is said to have replied, ‘So much the better ... for then I shall hunt over grass country’.27

Assheton Smith transformed the slate quarries on his Welsh estate into a highly profitable enterprise, whose annual turnover he estimated at £30,000 in 1856. He took an active interest in the minutiae of estate management, having learnt bookkeeping while convalescing from a foxhunting accident.28 He passed most summers at Faenol, where he enjoyed sailing in the adjacent Menai Straits. In 1829 he commissioned the Scottish marine engineer Robert Napier to build him a steam yacht, at a cost of £20,000, and he subsequently ordered eight more such vessels, which were built to his own specifications. His claim to have pioneered the use of hollow water lines in boat design was probably extravagant, and sparked a testy correspondence with John Scott Russell, the Scottish engineer.29 As an investor in railways he evidently lost heavily from their collapse in the 1840s. The failure of one concern led to one of his more spectacular losses of temper in 1845, when he punched a lawyer’s clerk who attempted to serve a writ on him for non-payment of a bill, and came close to repeating the offence when the matter came to court.30

Assheton Smith died ‘rather suddenly’ at Faenol in September 1858. His brief will, dated 22 July 1857, made seven minor bequests in the form of annuities and left all his property and the remainder of his personalty to his wife, the sole executrix. An obituary in The Times allowed that ‘although quick in temper he was equally prompt in warm and generous impulses’.31 Less charitable notices portrayed him simply as a boorish foxhunting fanatic, and it was in response to these that his widow commissioned a memoir, which went into six reprints. This duly catalogued his other interests and philanthropic endeavours, but among its large store of hunting anecdotes recalled such pleasantries as his alleged riposte to a labourer whom his horse had ‘slightly kicked’: ‘Why do you lie there, howling and exposing yourself?’32 His wife survived him by less than a year, leaving the Welsh property, worth more than £40,000 a year, to George William Duff (1848-1904), the grandson of her husband’s sister Elizabeth. A minor, he assumed the name of Assheton Smith on coming into his inheritance. Tidworth passed to her own nephew, Francis Sloane Stanley (1841-1904).33

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / Howard Spencer

Notes

Sir J.E.E. Wilmot, Reminiscences of Assheton Smith (1860).

  • 1. ‘Nimrod’, Hunting Reminiscences, 294-303; The Times, 13 Sept. 1858; Wilmot, 158.
  • 2. Wilmot, 142; ‘Nimrod’, 302.
  • 3. Wilmot, 156.
  • 4. Ibid. 13, 20.
  • 5. The Times, 14 Sept. 1858.
  • 6. Wilmot, 33, 126-7.
  • 7. ‘Nimrod’, 298; Lookback (Jnl. of Andover Local Hist. Soc.), iv (1994), 8.
  • 8. Wilmot, 27-29, 37-38.
  • 9. Ibid. 77.
  • 10. Brougham mss, F. Hilton to J. Wharton, 28 June 1818; Nottingham Rev. 25 Feb., 10 Mar., 14 Apr. 1820.
  • 11. Wilmot, 9-10.
  • 12. Salisbury Jnl. 14 May 1821.
  • 13. Wilmot, 76; Black Bk. (1823), 193; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 485.
  • 14. Creevey Pprs. ii. 49.
  • 15. Salisbury Jnl. 12 June 1826.
  • 16. PROB 11/1743/434; Gent. Mag. (1858), ii. 533; Wilmot, 301.
  • 17. Gwynedd (Caern.) RO, Vaynol mss 2601.
  • 18. N. Wales Chron. 9 Oct. 1828.
  • 19. UCNW, Plas Newydd mss i. 388.
  • 20. Wellington mss WP1/935/20; 1035/28.
  • 21. Salisbury Jnl. 7 June, 5 July, 9 Aug. 1830.
  • 22. Plas Newydd mss i. 376, 380-1, 386, 388, 394, 409, 415, 425, 450, 466; N. Wales Chron. 5, 12 Aug. 1830.
  • 23.</