Guide to the Sir William Sidney Smith papers, 1794-1862 MS 267
Smith, Sir (William) Sidney (1764–1840), naval officer, was born on 21 June 1764 in Park Lane, London, the second son of John Smith of Midgham, Berkshire, a captain in the guards and gentleman-usher to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III; he was also grandson of Edward Smith, an army officer who was governor of Fort Charles at Kingston, Jamaica, and fought under Wolfe at Quebec.
Naval service, 1777–1792. Smith entered the navy in June 1777 on board the storeship Tortoise, going out to North America, and in January 1778 moved to the brig Unicorn, which with the 44 gun Experiment in September 1778 captured the 32 gun American frigate Raleigh. Having passed his examination for lieutenant, in September 1780 Smith was appointed in this rank to the Alcide and in her was present off the Chesapeake in September 1781 at Admiral Graves's unsuccessful attempt to relieve the British army at Yorktown, and at the battle of the Saintes in April 1782. In May 1782 he was appointed to command the sloop Fury and in May 1783 was promoted to the 32 gun Alcmene. At the return of peace, when the Alcmene was paid off, Smith lived for two years in France, for the most part near Caen, and in 1787 travelled through Spain to Gibraltar and Morocco, where, in expectation of future hostilities, he took deliberate note of the sultan's naval forces and bases, then reported on them to the Admiralty.
Smith returned to Sweden and travelled on to the Gulf of Finland, where the summer campaigning season of 1790 had begun, and where he agreed to serve King Gustavus III as a volunteer. That summer he served both the king on shore and the duke of Sodermanland in the Swedish fleet. The Swedes were short of experienced naval officers and Smith was favoured, but this aroused envy. Early in June Russian naval forces drove back and entrapped the Swedes in the Bay of Viborg and to effect their escape Smith was given command of the Swedish light craft—nearly 100 vessels, predominantly bomb ketches, galleys, and gunboats—with which he cleared the Russians from islands commanding the exit from the bay and enabled the Swedes to break out early in July. An armistice followed and Smith returned to London, where in May 1792, at the request of Gustavus, George III invested him a knight grand cross of the order of the Sword. Thereafter his enemies knew him as ‘the Swedish knight’, the ill feeling behind which title was perhaps increased by the fact that at least six British naval officers were killed fighting for Russia on 3–4 June 1791.
War in the Mediterranean, 1792–1800. Meanwhile, Smith's younger brother, John Spencer, had been appointed to the British embassy to Sultan Selim III of Turkey, and in 1792 Sidney Smith was authorized to visit his brother; at the same time he inspected the Turkish-ruled coasts in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Sidney Smith went on to various assignments in the war. Following the French declaration of war against Britain on 1 February 1793, Smith received news of the general recall of British officers at Smyrna. He recruited some forty British seamen, purchased a lateen-rigged vessel, and sailed west; in December he entered the port of Toulon, where a British fleet under Lord Hood, with Spanish and Neapolitan allies, was attempting to support the anti-Jacobin party. When in mid-December a republican bombardment forced the withdrawal of the allied forces, Smith volunteered to burn those ships of the French fleet—thirty-two of the line and fourteen frigates—that could not be removed and were within the inner harbour, close to the naval arsenal. For various reasons this effort was not entirely successful. The British had indeed missed an unprecedented opportunity to weaken French naval power. However, Smith was only partly to blame: more advance planning and preparation might have avoided last-minute delegation to one who was regarded as a maverick volunteer.
Napoleon's siege of Acre was raised on 20 May, 1799. Initially resistance was possible principally because the French possessed only field guns; the ships conveying Bonaparte's siege guns eastward were captured by British warships on 18 March. Also, from 7 May Acre's garrison was reinforced by Turkish troops from Rhodes. The defence of Acre nevertheless made Smith's name, and justifiably so, as his courage and determination undoubtedly inspired the defenders. From Britain in September 1799 he received the thanks of both houses of parliament, and in 1801 he received a pension of £1000 a year, backdated to 1799. From the sultan he received a pelisse and the chelingk, or plume of triumph, like that awarded to Nelson.
The height Smith's reputation had achieved after Acre was never attained again. Rather, his career hereafter was constrained by a reputation for impulsive activity that was not completely trustworthy because it was unconventional; an added restraint was the fear and irritation Smith engendered by his tendency not to consult or inform when his energy outran his discretion. The agreement of al-‘Arish did much to discredit him, while his own high opinion of his merits and long accounts of his adventures annoyed other officers.
Parliament and the Mediterranean again, 1801–1809. Smith had acquired a high popular reputation, and at the general election of 1801 he was elected MP for Rochester, an Admiralty borough. There he posed as an independent supporter of the Admiralty, but his maiden speech of 2 December 1802 deplored the peace reductions of Lord St Vincent, then first lord, a disregard for the government interest that had already been demonstrated in 1802 when he was living at Greenwich, where he was rumoured to have had a brief affair with Caroline, princess of Wales. With the resumption of war he considered his appointment to active service a deliberate attempt to prevent him attending the House of Commons and that he was disengaged from ministers. By 1804 he was listed as supporting Pitt, and in 1806 was defeated at Rochester.
Between March 1803 and May 1804, with the rank of commodore, Smith commanded a squadron of small craft blockading the Flemish coast. After striking his flag, he designed and obtained Admiralty approval to build at Dover two prototype catamaran landing craft, a design based on the twin-hulled canoes of the Pacific islands. In the autumn of 1804, with the rank of colonel of marines, he was authorized to attempt a night attack on the French invasion flotilla at Boulogne using Congreve's rockets and Robert Fulton's mines but owing to bad weather and a heavy swell the attack was unsuccessful. It was a failure that prompted Lord Barham, first lord of the Admiralty from May 1805, to observe that ‘there seems … such a want of judgement in our friend Sir Sidney, that it is much safer to employ him under command than in command’ (Castlereagh, 5.115).
Smith's expenses at Dover had outrun his income, and in 1805 he was temporarily in the king's bench prison for debt. On 9 November 1805, however, he was promoted rear-admiral and in January 1806 he hoisted his flag in the Pompée for service in the Mediterranean, where Lord Collingwood employed him on the coast of Naples. The French had once more invaded the kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Smith's first task was to land supplies for the relief of the fortress of Gaeta; he also displaced the French occupying force on Capri with a British one, beginning the British occupation of the island. The king of the Two Sicilies appointed him viceroy of Calabria, when, as ‘commander-in-chief on behalf of King Ferdinand’, he began supplying and reinforcing the guerrilla war in the mountains, agitating for more financial and military support. The insurgents had one notable success at the battle of Maida. However, General Moore, commanding British land forces in Sicily, thought little of Smith's strategy, believing him the unconscious tool of the Neapolitan royal family, while Collingwood thought his head ‘full of strange vapours’, believed Barham had sent Smith to him simply ‘to be clear of a tormentor’ (Private Correspondence, 191), and himself found Smith more annoying than the French or Spanish fleet.
Latter years, 1810–1828. Smith was promoted vice-admiral on 31 July 1810 but by then opinion about employing him seems to have been widely unfavourable. ‘Beware of Heroes—the more you come to know them, the less you will think of them’ (Croker Papers, 1.350), Sir Roger Curtis advised John Wilson Croker, the new secretary to the Admiralty, with regard to Smith. However, it was Croker who asserted responsibility for Smith's appointment as second in command to Sir Edward Pellew in the Mediterranean in July 1812, claiming that naval members of the board were ‘rather averse; for certainly he was not what is called a sailor’ (ibid., 1.349). Mainly employed in the blockade of Toulon, Pellew found him ‘as gay and thoughtless as ever’ (Parkinson, 406), and he was replaced in July 1814.
Smith was not employed at sea again. Smith lived in Paris for much of the remainder of his life. Initially this was to escape his creditors. In 1811 he had been refunded £7375 for past expenses and, on petitioning government from Paris, his pension was doubled. He was accompanied to France by his wife, Caroline, daughter of James Hearn of Shanakill, co. Waterford, and widow of Sir George Berriman Rumbold, British minister to Hamburg; Smith had married her in October 1810 and they had three daughters and a son. He was invested with the KCB in December 1815 and attained the rank of admiral on 19 July 1821. In Paris he formed the order of ‘knights liberators’ to campaign for the release of Christian slaves from captivity in the piratical states of north Africa. With characteristic enthusiasm, he continued to request naval employment. He was made a GCB on 4 July 1838. His wife died on 16 May 1828, and he died in Paris on 26 May 1840; both were buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
Smith's intelligence, imagination, energy, and courage were the principal features of his reputation, but he was also renowned for his eccentricities. He was indeed egotistical and insensitive to others, for which he suffered. For he was also the victim of a naval service that during the Napoleonic wars became increasingly rigorous and bureaucratic in its conventions. The sheer size of the Royal Navy, the scale of its operations, and the co-operation and discipline demanded of its officers acted against Smith. He was an individualist who might have been judged more liberally in an earlier military age; certainly some of his proposals were sound.
Excerpted from Roger Morris' biographical sketch featured in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 2/15/2006, at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25940.
Correspondence, watercolor sketches, printed documents document the career and family of Sir William Sidney Smith. The bulk of the letters concern Smith's brother, John Spencer Smith, who was British ambassador to the Porte at Constantinople in the early 1790s. Correspondents include Robert Liston, British Minister to the United States. Also included is a genealogy of the Smith family, a battle order issued by Smith aboard HMS Tigre during the siege at Acre in 1799, and an invitation to the funeral of the Duke of Wellington.
This material is open for research.
Permission to publish materials from the Sir William Sidney Smith papers must be obtained from the Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
Sir William Sidney Smith papers, 1794-1862, MS 267, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
This material was purchased from manuscript dealers, 1956-1964.
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