SMITH, Robert Vernon (1800-1873), of Savile Row, Mdx. and Farming Woods, nr. Thrapston, Northants.

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

Constituency

Dates

9 June 1829 - 1831
1831 - 28 June 1859

Family and Education

b. 23 Feb. 1800, 1st and o. surv. s. of Robert Percy Smith* and Caroline Maria, da. and coh. of Richard Vernon† of Hilton Park, Staffs. educ. Eton 1814; Christ Church, Oxf. 1819; I. Temple 1822. m. 15 July 1823, Emma Mary Wilson, illegit. da. and coh. of John Fitzpatrick†, 2nd earl of Upper Ossory [I], 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1845; cr. Bar. Lyveden 28 June 1859; took name of Vernon by royal lic. 14 July 1859; GCB 13 July 1872. d. 10 Nov. 1873.

Offices Held

Ld. of treasury Nov. 1830-Nov. 1834; jt.-sec. to bd. of control Apr. 1835-Sept. 1839; under-sec. of state for war and colonies Sept. 1839-Sept. 1841; PC 21 Aug. 1841; sec. at war 6-28 Feb. 1852; pres. bd. of control Mar. 1855-Mar. 1858,

Commr. of lunacy 1830-61.

Biography

On Smith’s birth his witty uncle, the Rev. Sydney Smith, quipped that ‘the immense fortune of the Smiths is free from the danger of being lost from want of heirs’. His father did subsequently make a substantial amount of money in India, but Smith’s health, like that of his siblings, was so poor during his boyhood and youth that at times it seemed unlikely that he would live to inherit.1 In 1816 he was thought to have ‘turned the corner’ and looked ‘stout, healthy and well’, but two years later he was again ‘very alarmingly ill’. His father ‘Bobus’, whose life was blighted by the deaths of his daughters in 1814 and 1816, doted on him and his younger brother Leveson, and took considerable pains with their education at home. Caroline Fox wrote that ‘too much cannot be said of the excellence of their heads, hearts, tempers and dispositions’. Illness continued to plague him at Oxford, where he was ‘very kind and attentive’ to Lord Holland’s wayward son, Henry Edward Fox*, but he seems thereafter to have enjoyed better health.2 Smith was generally ‘agreeable’ in society, but had not the same measure of charm as his father and uncle.3 In a moment of peevishness in 1822 Fox, while acknowledging his debt to Smith ‘for his kindness to me when I most needed it’, commented that his ‘unauthorized and unbounded conceit’ was ‘quite insufferable’.4 Yet they remained friends. Like his father, Smith was of a generally liberal disposition in politics, and in March 1823 he suffered in silence at a dinner given by his Tory friend Lawrence Peel*, when the aged duchess of Richmond lambasted ‘all our friends the opposition ... on the trite subject of the Catholic question’. As he told Fox:

Being alone, my politeness prevented my attacking them all in their own house, as I should have thought it the height of incivility in Daniel to have remonstrated with the lions on their naughty practice of eating gentlemen in their den.

Soon afterwards Smith, who liked his women’s breasts to be ‘hard and springy’ (Fox preferred ‘the voluptuousness of soft breasts’), became engaged to Holland’s ward Mary Wilson, the illegitimate child of his mother’s half-brother Lord Ossory.5 His father, putting Holland ‘in possession of what little I have to say on the subject’, commented:

If I could have shaped events just as I wished I should have been glad if this matter had been brought to bear when they were a few years older, but in the absence of other objections I do not feel this from age to be of sufficient weight to induce me to say no. It is in some measure removed by a steadiness in Vernon’s character which is beyond his age, and as a further corrective I have proposed, and I believe they both receive the proposal with pleasure, that if they marry they shall live with us at first ... I am bound to add that Vernon has never given us an hour’s uneasiness, and that I think him as likely to make a good husband as any young man I have ever known.

He settled £20,000 on the couple, to supplement Mary’s fortune of £12,000. They could also look forward to the reversion, on the deaths of Ossory’s two legitimate spinster daughters, of his Northamptonshire estate at Farming Woods, near Daventry. Although ‘Bobus’ Smith attached ‘a great deal of consequence’ to Vernon’s pursuing the law as a profession, and was ‘perfectly satisfied with the way in which he takes to it’, nothing seems to have come of this scheme.6 Vernon ‘hurt his knee and chin so much’ in a fall from his horse that the wedding had to be postponed for three weeks: he was ‘pale and in pain’ during the ceremony.7 The ‘completely uncalculated’ death of his brother, aged 26, in April 1827, brought him low, as he told Fox:

It not only turns all my pleasing recollections into painful regrets but makes me shudder for the future. It unhinges all my attachments to life, as it makes me tremble for their doubtful duration ... My nature always did and my situation and age now prevent my forming very close intimacies. Fate has deprived me of the most perfect unreserve I ever enjoyed ... When I recall the merry days of our boyhood, I cannot help the reflection ... that I am now left alone of the flourishing family to which I belonged when first you knew me.8

He remained ‘nervous and unwell’ for several weeks, but was ‘much better’ by the end of July.9

Two years later Smith purchased an Irish seat from Sir Edward Denny*. He was sworn in, 22 June 1829. In the tradition of his father, a quondam Canningite, he attached himself, though somewhat loosely, to William Huskisson* and Lord Palmerston*. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., 5, 15 Mar., the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 18 Feb., and inquiry into the duke of Newcastle’s electoral domination of Newark, 1 Mar., but was in the majority against Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Feb. 1830. He divided against the grant for volunteers, 9 Mar. On 12 Mar. he was ‘diverted’, as he put it, from voting to censure ministers for appointing a salaried treasurer of the navy by the home secretary Peel’s challenge ‘not to judge him for an individual act, but to arraign him for his whole economical administration’. But on 22 Mar., after voting for admiralty reductions, he moved to reduce the grant for the navy pay office by £1,200:

If I cannot administer to the wants of a suffering people, I will at least defer to their wishes. I shall vote against the committee [of inquiry into distress proposed by Davenport, 16 Mar.], because I think legislative enactments no cure for popular distress; but I do not think that the inattention of the legislature need provoke the prejudice of the people. For this reason, though £12,000,000 might not cure their grievances, I will not allow £1,200 to be added to their burdens.

He withdrew the amendment when Peel pledged government to effect a reduction, but was in the minority in the division forced by Hume that day. Thereafter he divided steadily with the revived opposition for economy and reduced taxation, and was in their minorities on the Terceira incident, 28 Apr., and the civil government of Canada, 25 May. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, but against abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June. On 18 May he presented a petition from Tralee against assimilation of the English and Irish stamp duties. He was in the minority for halving the grant for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels, 14 June. He voted against an increase in the amount of security required of newspaper publishers under the libel law amendment bill, 6, 9 July, but opposed Hume’s attempt to reduce judicial salaries, 7 July 1830.

At the 1830 general election he renewed his purchase of Tralee. On the motion of 11 Nov. 1830 for reappointment of the select committee on the Irish poor, to which he had been named, 11 Mar. 1830, Smith defended it against charges of dilatoriness, while admitting that his original ‘prejudice in favour of poor laws in Ireland’ had been weakened by the evidence so far brought before it. He was a member of the new committee. The following day he was one of the minority of 39 who voted to reduce the duty on wheat imported into the West Indies. He had been listed by ministers as one of the ‘Huskisson party’, and he divided against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. On the accession of the Grey administration he accepted a place at the treasury worth £1,200 a year, his kinsman Lord Lansdowne having assured Grey that if Denny made difficulties about his re-election, he would be ‘perfectly willing to be clerk of the ordnance’ instead.10 (He was re-elected without trouble.) Criticizing the new appointments, Denis Le Marchant† remarked, ‘Lords Lansdowne and Holland have to answer for Vernon Smith, who, small deer as he is, has more enemies than many an experienced statesman’.11 He presented a Tralee petition for the abolition of slavery, 11 Dec. 1830, and voted with his colleagues for the second reading of the ministerial reform bill, 22 Mar. 1831. On 13 Apr. he attended the Northamptonshire county meeting convened to support the measure. After considerable turmoil inside Northampton town hall the reformers, ignoring the protests of their opponents, adjourned to the open air (and heavy rain), where Smith, addressing a large assembly for the first time in his life, pronounced himself

for the whole bill, for cutting off all the rotten boroughs root and branch. He trusted that the people would admit of no departure from the principle of the measure. There would be plenty of chaffering in the committee, plenty of attempts to destroy the efficacy of the bill. He wished, therefore, to impress on the meeting the necessity of demanding the bill unmutilated ... The country was bent upon reform, and reform must be had, and before long.

His admission that the electors of Tralee, where ‘not a soul in the whole borough knew him’, had ‘no confidence in him’, and the explicit recommendation of him by Robert Otway Cave* indicate that Smith had an eye on the county or borough representation. When the events at Northampton were discussed in the House, 19 Apr. 1831, he denied having mocked the Tory county Member Cartwright and defended the decision to abandon the hall on the grounds of public safety. He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment that day.

At the ensuing general election he offered for Northampton as a reformer, denying allegations that he was a Catholic and defending the ministry’s record on retrenchment, arguing that they had accomplished all that could be done in an unreformed Parliament. At the close of polling, 6 May, he was in second place, but he had to endure a scrutiny called for by Sir Robert Gunning*, the defeated anti-reform candidate, which did not terminate until 31 May. Returning thanks for his success, Smith declared that ‘the middle and lower classes were worthy of the utmost extension of their privileges proposed by the bill’.12 When Lord Chandos presented a petition from some Northampton electors complaining of the use made of neighbouring barracks to receive, treat and accommodate the supporters of Smith and his colleague Robinson at the election, 11 July, Smith retorted that he had ordered all the voters so housed to be ejected as soon as he learnt what was going on. He also pointed out that it had been customary for the supporters of the ministerial candidate to be so housed, in the interests of tranquillity, and that Gunning’s voters had occupied the barracks in 1826. He asserted that the issue was being raised to prejudice the pending hearing of Gunning’s petition, but in the event this was abandoned. Smith voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, at least twice against adjournment, 12 July, and assiduously supported its details. He made a brief comment on borough population returns, 14 July. He divided with ministers on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug. On 19 Sept. he protested against premature discussion of the Deacles’ case. He voted for the reform bill’s passage, 21 Sept., for the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept., and for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. He was appointed to the select committees on West Indian commerce, 6 Oct., 15 Dec. 1831. He voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and again supported its details, acting as a majority teller for the proposed restrictions on the freeman franchise, 7 Feb., and division of counties, 7 June 1832. He divided for the bill’s third reading, 22 Mar. He voted against Hobhouse’s vestry bill, 23 Jan. He was in the ministerial majorities on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July, and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb. On 12 Feb. he belatedly joined Brooks’s. He voted for the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr. He replied to Hume’s criticisms of the expense of parliamentary printing, 13 Apr., and the pension granted to Justice Stephens, 18 Apr. He presented petitions from Northampton in favour of Lord Nugent’s bill for the registration of births, 18 Apr., 9 May, and gave it his backing, 18 May, 20 June, when he declared his intention of proposing that persons already alive could be registered retrospectively within a year, which would constitute ‘a very material benefit’ to ‘a large class of the Dissenters of this country’. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May, for the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to increase the Scottish county representation, 1 June. He was appointed to the select committee on the renewal of the Bank of England’s charter, 22 May. On 6 July he defended the grant of £1,000 for a survey of the possibility of establishing an efficient metropolitan water supply. He was a majority teller against adjourning the Irish tithes bill next day, and against the reception of a petition for their abolition, 2 Aug. Responding to the opposition attack on ministers over the Russian-Dutch loan, 16 July 1832, he declared:

There can be but two objects in supporting this motion ... to turn out the present administration; and ... to make a splash upon the hustings ... Let Honourable gentlemen opposite ... raise at the hustings their promised cry of mock-economy, and we will meet them with our old battle cries, with no promises, but with boasts of performance ... of peace preserved, of retrenchment advanced, and of reform carried.

He was a majority teller on the issue that day.

At the 1832 general election Smith was re-elected in first place for Northampton as a Liberal. He successfully contested the borough at the next seven elections and held office in successive Liberal ministries until 1858. His tenure of the board of control in Palmerston’s first administration, however, was a failure and he was removed to the Lords on the formation of his second in 1859.13 He published editions of Horace Walpole’s Letters to the Countess of Ossory (1848) and his father’s Early Writings (1850). When the historian Sir Archibald Alison met him in 1861 he wrote:

I had not been prepossessed in his favour, from his parliamentary appearances as secretary for India, but I was agreeably surprised by finding him not only polished and agreeable, but quick and intelligent in conversation. I did not see him long enough to be able to determine whether this was the result of native talent, or, as is often the case, of the advantage of having lived in superior and intellectual society.14

Smith died at his Northamptonshire country seat in November 1873. His property and the barony passed to his eldest son Fitxpatrick Henry Vernon (1824-1900).15

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Philip Salmon / David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Smith Letters, i. 55, 158, 206.
  • 2. Add. 51740, Caroline Fox to Holland, 27 July [1816]; 51741, same to same [15], 17 Sept. 1818, 26 Sept. [1819], replies [16 Oct.], [20 Nov. 1819]; 51801, Caroline Smith to Holland, 15 Jan. [1820].
  • 3. Countess Granville Letters, ii. 174.
  • 4. Fox Jnl. 99.
  • 5. Add. 52059, Smith to Fox, 6 July [1821], [3 Mar.], [25 Apr. 1823].
  • 6. Add. 51801, R.P. Smith to Holland, 6 Apr. 1823; VCH Northants. iii. 171.
  • 7. Fox Jnl. 167, 171.
  • 8. Add. 52059, Smith to Fox, 24 May 1827.
  • 9. BL OIOC MSS Eur. C.247/3, R. P. to Rev. C.R. Smith, 29 July 1827.
  • 10. Grey mss, Lansdowne to Grey [21 Nov. 1830].
  • 11. Three Diaries, 6.
  • 12. Northampton Mercury, 16, 23, 30 Apr., 7, 21, 28 May, 4 June 1831.
  • 13. Macaulay Letters, vi. 220; Grevill