SMITH, Robert Percy (1770-1845), of 20 Savile Row, Mdx. and Cheam, Surr.

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

Constituency

Dates

1812 - 1818
1820 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 7 May 1770, 1st s. of Robert Smith (d. 1827) of Bishop’s Lydiard, Som. and Maria, da. of Isaac Olier of Bloomsbury, Mdx., late of Montauban. educ. King Edward’s sch. Southampton; Eton 1779-88; 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. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. d.v.p. d. 10 Mar. 1845.

Offices Held

Adv.-gen. Bengal 1803-11.

Biography

‘Bobus’ Smith’s famously witty brother, the Rev. Sydney Smith, once said to him: ‘Brother, you and I are exceptions to the laws of nature. You have risen by your gravity, and I have sunk by my levity’.1 In fact Smith, blighted in spirit by the humiliating failure of his parliamentary début in 1812, and still more by the deaths of his daughters in 1814 and 1816, never fulfilled in public life the high expectations which were held of him. Yet, as Edward Littleton* noted in 1818, ‘his friends did not on that account change their opinion of his talents’:

I know no man whose mind is more luminous. The strength and soundness of his judgement can scarcely be surpassed. His perception is very rapid, and his power of reasoning surprising. Added to all this, his integrity is inviolable.2

Samuel Rogers ranked him with Sir James Mackintosh* and Thomas Malthus as ‘the three acutest men with whom I was ever acquainted’; and Lord Holland, with whom he was a special favourite (though he was less popular with Holland’s wife), reckoned him ‘a library in himself’.3 John William Ward* commended him in 1821 for

the vigour of his understanding, and the variety and extent of his knowledge. Besides, he is an excellent person, upright and kind-hearted. It is very provoking that his success in Parliament should have been so entirely disproportionate to his talents. It has made a less happy and less useful man ... He shuns society which is so much benefitted by his presence.4

Sydney Smith, perturbed by his brother’s increasing fondness for ‘solitude’, supposed in March 1818 that

he will not go into Parliament again; then of course the evil will become worse. Whatever faults Bobus has, he has them in fee, his tenure is freehold, they are not to be touched or changed. This is true also of his virtues, which God be praised are many.5

As it happened, he gave up his purchased seat for Grantham and at the general election stood for Lincoln on the Monson interest. He was beaten into third place, at a personal cost of £3,000. Sydney, who could get no word out of him on the subject, jocularly blamed his defeat on ‘a trick played upon him’ by the Lincoln Imp, who ‘saw that he had not his clerical brother with him, and so watched his opportunity to do him a mischief’.6 Later that year Caroline Fox reported to Holland from Littlehampton, where she was staying with the Smiths:

Bobus and his two sons are quite delightful. I have not seen him since his return from India so cheerful and conversible, full of everything animating and agreeable. Mrs. Smith says it is because he has books enough to read here, but not a whole library to absorb him and withdraw him from society. Be the cause what it may, the effect is delightful, and it does my head and heart good to see him so full of enjoyment himself, and imparting it to others.

He doted on his sons, in whom he sought compensation ‘for what he has lost, losses which he has felt and still feels so deeply’.7 In the winter of 1819 he was temporarily incapacitated by an attack of gout, to which he was always a martyr.8 At the general election of 1820 he was returned in absentia (still gout-ridden) and free of expense for Lincoln, where a group of independent residents, disgusted by the efforts of the London freemen to barter the borough on the open market, subscribed to a fund to bring him in. In an address of thanks Smith, who had followed his own line in the House after Canning had disbanded his group in 1813, declared that ‘unconnected with party, the only rule by which I have guided myself in Parliament is that of diligently attending to the questions as they arise, and voting upon them to the best of my judgement’.9 Lord Morpeth† was glad to hear of his return to Parliament, ‘for it is a great resource to him, and he has great ambition’.10

George Tierney, the Whig leader in the Commons, could not count Smith, who never joined Brooks’s, as a partisan adherent, but supposed ‘he will vote for us nine times in ten’;11 and so, by and large, he did. He divided with them on the civil list, 5, 8 May, the additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May, the aliens bill, 1 June, 12 July, and the barrack bill, 17 July 1820. It is not clear whether it was he or Robert John Smith who, ‘from a solicitude to establish parliamentary reform’, but disavowing ‘those wild theories which were advocated by would-be patriots’, supported the Grampound disfranchisement bill, 5 June. It was surely ‘Bobus’ who condemned as ‘a compilation of falsehood and nonsense’ a Birmingham petition denouncing boroughmongers, 25 July. He favoured the exclusion of Thomas Ellis from the House as an Irish master in chancery, 30 June. In December 1820 he presented to Queen Caroline a congratulatory address from Lincoln, in which he fully concurred, on the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties.12 He did not vote in the division on the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb. 1821; but on the 13th he endorsed a Lincoln petition for the restoration of the queen’s name to the liturgy, though he could not subscribe to its associated call for parliamentary reform, to which he ‘looked with more apprehension of evil than hope of good’. He paired in favour of the restoration later that day. He voted for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He divided for army reductions, 14, 15 Mar., and for at least eight other proposals for retrenchment during the rest of the session; but he sided with the Liverpool ministry against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., and for the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June. He supported Tennyson’s amendment to the preamble of the Grampound disfranchisement bill, 19 Mar. He was in the minorities on placemen in Parliament, 31 May, and Sicily, 21 June. He voted for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 23 May, 4 June. As a member of the select committee on the receivers-general of the land tax, he begged its critics not to obstruct implementation of its recommendations, 8 June 1821.13 At the close of the session his wife reported that ‘the House of Commons has not given Mr. Smith the gout’.14

Smith voted for the amendment to the address, 5 Feb., but divided with government against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb. 1822. He voted for gradual reduction of the salt duties, 28 Feb., and admiralty economies, 1 Mar. He spoke and voted against a detail of the navy five per cents bill, 8 Mar.15 He voted for abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., 2 May, and was in small minorities for army economies, 15, 18 Mar. That day he threatened to propose the extinction of the office of clerk of the rope yard at Woolwich but, on Croker’s statement that he would thereby ‘impede the progress of economy’, he withdrew his motion with an ironical flourish, which raised a laugh.16 On 22 Mar. he declined to support Hume’s motion to reduce the grant for garrisons, but a week later he backed his successful attack on the barracks estimates. He voted in the opposition minorities on the government of the Ionian Isles, 14 May, the embassy to the Swiss cantons, 16 May, the aliens bill, 5 June, 19 July, the Irish constables bill, 7 June, and chancery delays, 26 June. He presented a Lincoln petition against the poor removal bill, 31 May, and on 9 July he accused ministers of ‘clandestinely’ departing from the recommendation of the select committee to restrict the salaries of receivers-general to £600.17 At about this time wide circulation was given to his ‘caricature of a private conference between Joseph Hume* and Nicholas Vansittart* as a dialogue of penny-wise and pound-foolish’.18 Soon afterwards Croker named him as one of the Members whom Canning would be able to ‘command’ should he go into opposition, but would not bring over with him if he joined the ministry.19

Smith presented and endorsed a Lincoln tradesman’s position for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Act, 10 Feb. 1823.20 He voted in opposition minorities on the grant to the Royal Military College, 10 Mar., the merchant vessels apprenticeship bill, 24 Mar., and the military and naval pensions bill, 11, 18 Apr.; but he divided with government against repeal of the assessed taxes, 10, 18 Mar. He also sided with them against inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 24 Mar., 22 Apr., and he took a part in questioning witnesses before the House, 7, 8, 9, 23 May. He opposed the grant for Irish glebe houses, 11 Apr., 1 July.21 On the presentation of a Lincolnshire petition for parliamentary reform, 22 Apr., he declared that ‘a more complete farce had never been played off’ than at the meeting (which he had not attended) at which it had been voted; yet he voted for reform of the Scottish representative system, 2 June. He was in the minority of 37 for the abolition of punishment by whipping, 30 Apr. On the case of O’Grady, the Irish chief baron, 16 May, he suggested a precedent which might provide a basis for his removal, though he conceded that there were no grounds for impeachment.22 He again called for some notice being taken of the issue, 17 June, and opposed dropping proceedings altogether, 9 July. He voted to equalize the East and West Indian sugar duties, 22 May, and to recommit the silk bill, 9 June, but divided with ministers against inquiry into the currency, 12 June. He almost certainly voted for investigation of chancery delays, 5 June. He voted for the Scottish juries bill, 20 June, and to include provision for jury trial in the New South Wales bill, 7 July. On 11 July 1823, as expected, he ‘violently’ opposed the clause in the East India mutiny bill permitting courts martial to try capital offences, but he was beaten by 40-13.23 Smith voted to reduce the barrack grant, 27 Feb., in support of the complaint of breach of privilege against lord chancellor Eldon, 1 Mar., and against the aliens bill, 23 Mar., 2, 12 Apr. 1824. He favoured reform of the usury laws, 27 Feb., 8 Apr. On the game laws amendment bill, 25 Mar. he ‘objected that any other penalty should be annexed to the violation of it than attached to ordinary trespassers’. He voted against the Welsh judicature bill, 11 Mar., but for Scottish judicial reform, 30 Mar. He spoke in favour of compensating court officials whose emoluments would be reduced by the county courts bill, 26 Mar., and on 24 May argued that it would be preferable to give the patronage of the places created by it ‘to government at once, in its responsible capacity, than to leave them to be got at by jobbing’. He voted to end flogging in the army, 15 Mar., and successfully moved to relieve certain classes of vagrants from punishment by whipping, 3 June. He deemed the horses slaughtering bill ‘unnecessary’, 4 June 1824.

In April 1824 Smith was named as one of the 14 unsalaried commissioners appointed to investigate chancery administration, having been mentioned by the home secretary Peel as a person ‘independent of the government’ who ‘would not lend himself to promote the hostile views of anyone, though he would act firmly on his own sense of what is right’.24 He took his duties seriously (Lord Redesdale later called him the ‘most troublesome’ member of the commission),25 but ill health, on account of which he was granted two weeks’ leave, 21 Feb. 1825, restricted his attendance both there and in the House. He paired for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, and presented a Lincoln millers’ petition against any change in the corn laws, 28 Apr. 1825.26 In September he was ‘confined in a horizontal position to my couch’, but by November he had resumed attendance at the chancery commission. Caroline Fox was relieved that he did ‘not seem the worse for it’, though she feared, as ever, ‘his overdoing exercise of mind and body, when once he is equal to any exercise of either’.27 In March 1826 he was reported to be ‘flourishing’, having had ‘less gout than usual’, and to be ‘pleased upon the whole with his chancery report’.28 He defended it in the House against charges of prolixity, 18 Apr., and blandness, 18 May. He presented a Lincoln petition for the abolition of slavery, 3 Mar.29 He spoke, 6 Apr., and voted, 7, 10 Apr., against the proposal to confer an official salary on the president of the board of trade. He presented a petition from some Lincoln landlords complaining that by a recent alteration of local jurisdiction they had been deprived of the vote, 18 Apr.30 He had a hand in Sykes’s county elections bill, intended to deal with this problem, and made constructive comments on it, 26 Apr., 2 May 1826.

Ward commented that although Smith was ‘no speaker, his known abilities and entire freedom from party views and party objects, give him no inconsiderable weight’ in the House.31 Morpeth wrote after his death that he rendered ‘really eminent services as a most diligent and painstaking member of committees, which might have put many an idle mediocrity to the blush’. This is borne out by the frequency with which his name appears as a member of select committees.32 On 10 Apr. 1826 Tierney told Holland:

I walked home from the House with Bobus and am glad to find there is no truth in the report I had heard that he thought of quitting Parliament. I know no person who appears to me to enjoy a seat more than he does.33

He was mistaken, for three weeks later Smith announced his intention to retire from Parliament at the impending dissolution.34 The harmful effects of attendance on his health may have decided him to step down: Sydney noted in May 1826 that he was not ‘quite so well’ as earlier, having been ‘a good deal at the House of Commons, which never does him any good’; and two months later Lady Holland found him relishing ‘extremely’ his rural retreat at Cheam because ‘his life has been improved by the complete restoration of his health’.35

Smith reacted stoically to the quite unexpected death of his younger son Leveson in April 1827, though it was another savage blow to one of his ‘strong and ungoverned feelings’.36 Less hard to bear was the loss a few weeks later of his eccentric father, who had repeatedly taken unfair advantage of his financial generosity and whose will bore all the signs of mental derangement. Smith, who had made a substantial fortune in India, was excluded from it at his own request, but he persuaded the old man to increase Sydney’s legacy from £6,000 to £10,000.37 He deemed Canning’s death soon afterwards ‘a great public misfortune’. Buoyed by much improved health, he mocked the hysteria with which the Ultra Tories reacted to Catholic emancipation in 1829: ‘the Pope is expected at St. Paul’s by ... [then], but many people think he will not come’.38

In December 1833 Tom Macaulay*, who was about to go out to India, met Smith at dinner:

Bobus was very amusing. He is a great authority on Indian matters ... I asked him about the climate. Nothing, he said, could be pleasanter except in August and September. He never ate or drank so much in his life. Indeed his looks do credit to Bengal; for a healthier man of his age I never saw ... We talked of the insects and snakes: and he said a thing which reminded me of his brother Sydney. ‘Always, Sir, manage to have at your table some flashy, blooming, young writer or cadet, just come out, that the mosquitoes may stick to him, and leave the rest of the company alone’.39

On the other hand, in May 1834 Thomas Creevey* was made ‘sick of learning’ by the incessant witty prattle of Smith and Richard Sharp* at Rogers’s table.40 Smith, who lost his wife in 1833, increasingly kept himself to himself in ‘his Elysium at Cheam’, though he retained his sense of humour. Sending the Hollands a likeness of ‘my very morose countenance’, he wrote:

I have I believe outlived a great deal of ill temper since I was painted, but I can hardly think I ever looked so grim as the painter has made me. Sure I am that in more than 50 years I never met you with such a face, nor ever shall.41

His brother noted that he ‘loves paradoxes’, as he demonstrated in an exposition of his mature political views in 1841:

I am not sorry the Whigs are out. The country was tired of them, I think, and always will be after a short time. There is too much botheration in their politics for our people, who, though they have reformed more than all the nations of Europe put together, do not like scheming and planning reforms when the work is not in hand, and called for by some pressing occasion; they have something else to do, and talking about reform disturbs them. I do myself think the state of things best suited to our condition is a Tory government, checked by a strong opposition, and under the awe of a tolerably liberal public opinion.42

Smith, who inherited about £33,000 on the death of his brother Courtenay in 1843, was afflicted in his last years with progressive blindness, which he bore ‘heroically’.43 He died, resigned and composed, in March 1845, within three weeks of Sydney, whose son-in-law Dr. Henry Holland wrote that he had ‘scarcely met with one who might compare in power and fullness of intellect with him’.44 In his will, dated 8 June 1843, he provided for female relatives of his mother and two of his grandchildren.45 He was commemorated by his only surviving son in an edition of his Early Writings (1850), which consisted chiefly of Latin verses composed between 1787 and 1792. Greville wrote that he was

perhaps more agreeable and more cultivated than Sydney, though without his exuberant wit and drollery: still he had great finesse d’esprit, and was very amusing, but in a quieter and less ambitious style.46

Holland had this to say of him in 1826:

If he seldom displayed his pleasantry and imagination, enough escaped him to satisfy even a superficial observer that he had in store, though he perhaps disdained to use it, as much of both those commodities as glittered in the conversation of his brother ... Perhaps the strict discipline to which Robert Smith had inured his mind even at Eton perverted rather than directed, encumbered rather than enriched it. Notions not very friendly to our species and crudely adopted from books while a boy, though quite foreign from his natural character, which was sanguine and gay as well as ambitious, checked him in the career of his profession, aggravated many little unavoidable but not insuperable disappointments, dimmed the brilliancy of his spirits, and though they could not extinguish the native warmth of his heart, confined its influence to too small a circle, and gave up, not to party, but to the parlour and the fireside, what was meant and admirably formed for mankind.47

Lady Holland, who had mellowed towards him with the passage of time, felt his death as ‘a cruel blow’, for ‘he was so staunch a friend, and such a delightful companion’.48

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Sir F. Hill, Georgian Lincoln, 225.
  • 2. Hatherton diary, 6 Feb. [1818].
  • 3. Recollections of Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856), 194-5; Lord Ilchester, Chrons. Holland House, 86, 153-4.
  • 4. Ward, Llandaff Letters, 292-3.
  • 5. Smith Letters, i. 288.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 255; Smith Letters, i. 294-5.
  • 7. Add. 51741, Caroline Fox to Holland [15, 17 Sept. 1819].
  • 8. Smith Letters, i. 327; Add. 51801, Caroline Smith to Holland, 15 Jan. 1820.
  • 9. Hill, 225-8; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 10, 17 Mar. 1820.
  • 10. Castle Howard mss, Lord to Lady Morpeth [13 Mar. 1820].
  • 11. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 5 Apr. 1820.
  • 12. Drakard’s Stamford News, 24 Nov., 1, 8, 15 Dec. 1820; Fox Jnl. 52.
  • 13. The Times, 9 June 1821.
  • 14. Add. 51801, Caroline Smith to Lady Holland, 8 July [1821].
  • 15. The Times, 9 Mar. 1822.
  • 16. Ibid. 19 Mar. 1822.
  • 17. Ibid. 1 June, 10 July 1822.
  • 18. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 355; Bagot, Canning and Friends, ii. 134.
  • 19. Add. 40319, f. 57.
  • 20. The Times, 11 Feb. 1823.
  • 21. Ibid. 12 Apr. 1823.
  • 22. Ibid. 17 May 1823.
  • 23. Ibid. 12 July 1823; Buckingham, i. 477.
  • 24. Add. 40315, f. 135; 51801, Smith to Holland, 6 Aug. [1824].
  • 25. Colchester Diary, iii. 417.
  • 26. The Times, 29 Apr. 1825
  • 27. BL OIOC Mss. Eur. C247/3, Smith to Rev. C.R. Smith, 2 Sept.; Add. 51746, Caroline Fox to Lady Holland, 6 Nov. [1825].
  • 28. Add. 51580, Carlisle to Lady Holland, 28 Mar. 1826.
  • 29. The Times, 4 Mar. 1826.
  • 30. Ibid. 19 Apr. 1826.
  • 31. Ward, 293.
  • 32. Early Writings of R.P. Smith ed. R.V. Smith, p. vi.
  • 33. Add. 51584.
  • 34. Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 5 May 1826.
  • 35. Smith Letters, i. 448; Lady Holland to Son, 43.
  • 36. Gent. Mag. (1827), i. 448; Lady Holland to Son, 43.
  • 37. A. Bell, Sydney Smith, 2, 59, 64, 141; OIOC Mss. Eur. C. 247/3, Smith to fa. 19, 25, 30 Dec. 1817, 12, 14, 16, 21, 31 Jan., 26, 27 Sept. 1824, replies, 13, 18 Jan. 1818, 12 Mar., 28 Apr., 17 May 1824; PROB 11/1732/613.
  • 38. OIOC Mss. Eur. C 247/3, Smith to Rev. C.R. Smith, 10 Aug. [14 Feb. 1829].
  • 39. Macaulay Letters, ii. 365.
  • 40.</