Sir William Sidney Smith
1764-1840. He was born on 21 June 1764 in Park Lane, London, the second son of John Smith of Midgham, Berkshire, a captain in the guards, aide-de-camp to Lord George Germaine, and gentleman usher to Queen Charlotte, who had married Mary Wilkinson, the daughter of the wealthy merchant and politician Pinckney Wilkinson, without that gentleman’s consent, thus depriving her of a rich inheritance. He was the grandson of an army officer, Edward Smith, who had served as the governor of Fort Charles at Kingston, Jamaica and fought under General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, and the uncle of Captain Charles Thurlow Smith. As the first cousin of the impetuous and unruly Captain Lord Camelford on his mother’s side Smith was a distant relative of the prime minister William Pitt.
Smith was schooled at Tonbridge and Bath before entering the navy in June 1777 aboard the store ship Tortoise, Commander Jahleel Brenton, going out to North America. In January 1778 he transferred to the Unicorn 20, Captain John Ford, which in company with the Experiment 50, Captain Sir James Wallace, captured the American frigate Raleigh 32 on 28 September near Boston. On 13 May 1779 the Unicorn served under the orders of Wallace when his squadron took or destroyed three French frigates in Cancale Bay, and from September Smith was aboard the Arrogant 74, Captain John Cleland, fitting out at Portsmouth.
On 25 November 1779 Smith removed to the Sandwich 90, Captain William Young, flying the flag of Admiral Sir George Rodney, and in this vessel he was present at the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January 1780, and thereafter at the Battle of Martinique on 17 April. Remaining in the Leeward Islands during the May-July 1780 campaign, and after a short period aboard the Greyhound 28, Captain Archibald Dickson, Smith was commissioned lieutenant on 25 September of the Alcide 74, Captain Charles Thompson, in which ship he was present at the Battles of the Chesapeake on 5 September 1781, St Kitts on 25-26 January 1782 and the Saintes on 12 April.
On 6 May 1782 Smith was promoted to the rank of commander by Admiral Rodney, and after being appointed to the newly arrived sloop Fury 16 he was sent with news of the victory at the Battle of the Saintes to North America. Upon returning to the West Indies he established a reputation as a prize-taker, with one capture being estimated at thirty thousand pounds, or nearly five million pounds in today’s money. He also earned repute as an innovative man-manager, and even the pressed men amongst his complement returned to the ship after given liberty ashore. One letter home reported how after learning that some laden merchantmen and three armed ships were in Flamand Bay, Saint-Domingue, Smith disguised the ubiquitous Fury as an American vessel, and upon being challenged when reconnoitring the anchorage in a small boat persevered with his American disguise and requested permission to land. He then surprised and overcame a welcoming party of three unsuspecting men with the assistance of his one-handed lieutenant, and once the defenders had fled from his boat crew he spiked four guns in the fort guarding the bay.
On 7 May 1783 Smith was posted to the frigate Alcmène 28 which returned home to be paid off at Spithead in February 1784 and was sold out of the service shortly afterwards. He remained unemployed during the early years of the peace but soon established his place in fashionable society, with his arrival at Bath being announced in May. He later studied French at Caen from 1785-7 and walked the coastline to gather intelligence for his own purposes. On one occasion a fisherman told him how he had recovered forty round-shot from the proximity of a windmill, little knowing that Smith could actually recollect firing the shot at that structure.
In April 1787 he had a private audience with the King prior to going out to the Mediterranean aboard the Carysfort 28, Captain Mathew Smith, on a mission to apparently test a new pumping system based on a ship’s motion rather than manual labour. In all probability this was a ruse, for after visiting Gibraltar, and having learned that war with Morocco might be imminent because of her aggressive behaviour in the Mediterranean, he crossed to that country to learn the language and familiarise himself with her coast. He then returned home via Spain and Portugal to present prime minister William Pitt and the Admiralty with his findings, although by the time he arrived in London the threat of war with Morocco had passed.
Having been unsuccessful in overtures to undertake an ambassadorial role to China, Smith next took six months leave in Sweden during 1789. Dramatically, he reappeared in London during the following January, bearing a message from the Swedish King Gustav III, and requesting that he be allowed to serve in that monarch’s fleet. The government did not approve of his unofficial emissary and so he returned to Sweden claiming that he was in possession of despatches for the King in order to serve as a volunteer in the war with the Russians. Placed in command of the light squadron, his fleet of a hundred galleys, bombs and gunboats drove the Russians away from the islands protecting the Bay of Viborg where they had blockaded the Swedish fleet during June, thereby leading to its relief. On another occasion it was reported that he swam two miles to deliver the king’s despatches.
Despite his successes, in general Smith’s presence in the Swedish service was resented by all bar his patron, and this opinion was exacerbated when he received a Swedish knighthood, the Order of the Sword, with which he would eventually be invested by King George at St. James’ Palace on 16 May 1792. Prior to the formal investiture he was allowed to use the title Sir Sidney, much to the chagrin and amusement of his contemporaries, not to mention the outrage of those acquaintances of the six British officers who had been killed in the Russian service during the war with Sweden.
In December 1790 Smith arrived at Gothenburg from Finland, but in attempting to return to England was forced by adverse weather to enter Christiana in Norway, and from there he made his way to Copenhagen, where early in the following year he was dined by the King of Denmark. At the end of April he arrived in Potsdam and held a meeting with the King of Prussia which led to his involvement in the construction of a flotilla of naval craft for that monarch’s service. In late August 1791 he came back to Sandwich from Berlin in his own boat to report straight to the Admiralty, and as the Russian Armament was on-going at that time the government sought to consult with him as a leading naval authority on the Baltic. By November he was back in Bath mixing with the aristocracy, and shortly afterwards he appeared at Dover with the Duke and Duchess of York, having crossed from Calais.
In the summer of 1792 Smith was one of a number of young English gentlemen who became attached to the retinue of various German heads of state, including the King of Prussia, who met at Coblenz. His views on the partition of Poland by the Prussians, Austrian and Russians were met with strong disapproval however, and in the autumn he left the Prussian service to go out to Constantinople, where his younger brother John Spencer Smith had been appointed the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The official reason for his visit, he claimed, was that he was engaged on a secret mission to reconnoitre the Eastern Aegean, Bosporus and Black Sea, however in reality it was probably Smith’s intention to join the Turkish service.
In early 1793 he learned that hostilities had broken out between Britain with France, and so he rushed to join the colours. Reaching Smyrna, the modern day Izmir, he was struck down by a most untimely fever that took the better part of two months to pass, whilst a further inconvenience was the presence of two French frigates off the port. Displaying his habitual indefatigability and ingenuity, he in due course purchased a lateen rigged ship, renamed it the Swallow, and manned it with forty British seamen who were similarly attempting to respond to the call to arms. Eventually he got away and sailed down the Mediterranean, despite the risk that if captured he could have been shot as a pirate, as he was not in possession of a letter-of-marque.
In November he reached the French port of Toulon which had been occupied by Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s Mediterranean fleet three months earlier in August. When Toulon was evacuated in the following month, and despite still being on half-pay as a volunteer, he was given the task of destroying the French Fleet but partially failed to do so. Many contemporaries such as Captain Cuthbert Collingwood deplored his selection for this task and criticised his methods, but nevertheless Smith was given the honour of carrying home Hood’s despatches, with which he arrived in Whitehall on 15 January 1794.
In February 1794 it was reported that Smith was to be placed in command of a number of large gunboats that were fitting out at different home ports, and towards the end of the month he visited Woolwich to review and accelerate their construction before moving on to Chatham to inspect the Albion 74 and Nonsuch 64, which were fitting out as floating batteries. After he rushed back from Bath to London in March on an Admiralty summons he held meetings with the government to discuss the employment of these vessels on the coast of France, and at the beginning of April he was appointed to the newly commissioned frigate Diamond 38. Towards the end of June, after receiving further orders at the Admiralty and the best wishes of the Royal Family, he proceeded to join the Diamond at Sheerness, where he also took command of forty-three gunboats and both floating batteries. Days later it was reported that sixty gunboats from the Netherlands would join this squadron in an attack on Dunkirk, but in the event the operation did not take place.
Whilst he had been waiting for orders to proceed to sea with the gunboat flotilla Smith had continued to enhance his diplomatic ties by offering a sumptuous breakfast to the Turkish ambassador and the Duke and Duchess of Manchester aboard his frigate in the Thames during early June. On 20 July the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, embarked aboard the Diamond at Deal with his suite and sailed for Flushing to conduct negotiations with the allies, and at the beginning of August Smith’s frigate returned from the Continent giving passage to Major-General the Earl Moira and his staff after their unsuccessful campaign in Belgium.
Thereafter joining Commodore Sir John Warren’s crack frigate squadron in the Channel, but still acting under Admiralty orders, the Diamond took the lead in the driving ashore of the Volontaire 38 near the Penmarks on 23 August. By September she was at Falmouth where she joined Commodore Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron which departed for a cruise off Brest, and on 21 October Smith was on the verge of boarding the Révolutionnaire 40 when she struck to the Artois 38, Captain Edmund Nagle, earning some credit by keeping away in order not to steal his fellow captain’s glory.
He was next sent to watch Brest on the instructions of Commodore Warren and on 3 January 1795 had the temerity to close with a French sail of the line, the grounded Nestor 74, and converse convivially with her captain after this ship had moved across the Diamond’s line of retreat following a cheeky reconnaissance of the Brest Roads. His subsequent command of a squadron of six frigates virtually closed the Normandy and Brittany coasts to French trade, and this supremacy allowed him to capture and garrison the St. Marcou islands off the Normandy coast in July, where his force of gun-boats were finally put to use in a defensive mode. A brief return to England saw him dine with the Prince of Wales at Brighton in August, and on 2 September 1795 he drove the Assemblée Nationale 22 on to the Breton coast off Tréguier before returning to Portsmouth from Quiberon on 23 October with several army officers. On March 1796 he joined Lieutenant George McKinley of the cutter Liberty in destroying the French corvette Etourdie 16 and her consorts consisting of four brigs, two sloops and a lugger in the port of Erqui, Brittany.
Smith’s run of impudence, nerve and good fortune came to an almost inevitable end when on 18 April 1796 he learned that a prolific privateer lugger, the Vengeur, had put into Le Hâvre, and with all his lieutenants absent from the Diamond he decided to lead her cutting out himself. The first part of the plan went well when the lugger was easily boarded, but she was then carried up river on the flood tide with the consequence that by daylight she was a sitting target for a number of gunboats that surrounded her. Smith and his crew were taken prisoner, and although he was initially treated with the dignity that befitted a captured officer the French government soon learned of his detention and removed him to the Temple Prison at Paris.
In refusing all British offers to have him exchanged the French had various reasons for continuing to incarcerate Smith, predominant of which was the question of his status as a non-serving officer when he had burned the French fleet at Toulon, although their reluctance to let him loose on their coast again, and the fact that his appearance in the harbour at Le Hâvre laid him open to spying charges were also key. That he had been regularly involved in clandestine affairs was largely beyond doubt, and even whilst imprisoned he managed to spirit away intelligence information regarding the various factions in Paris.
As time passed by and no charges were laid at Smith’s door the efforts to have him exchanged did not abate. There was some talk of trading him with Captain Jacques Bergeret, whose frigate Virginie 44 had been captured by Captain Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron on 20 April 1796, and who had returned to France for that very purpose, but when this arrangement was rejected by the French authorities Bergeret honourably returned to England. Similarly a suggestion that he be exchanged with Colonel William Tate’s irregulars who invaded Wales in 1797 and were humiliated by the local militia at Fishguard was dismissed.
Smith was kept in prison for two years, but on 24 February 1798 he resolved the matter of his release by making his escape on forged prison removal papers with one of his midshipmen, John Wright, and with the assistance of a French Royalist, Colonel Louis-Edmond Picard de Phélippeaux. The pair were taken to Rouen by boat and then made their way to Honfleur, where on 4 May a fishing boat carried them out to the Argo 44, Captain James Bowen, in the mouth of the Seine. By the 7th Smith was back at Spithead, and such was his disguise and perfection of the French language that on dining with him aboard the Argo Admiral William Hotham did not believe that he was conversing with anyone other than a French civilian. On his return to London Smith was taken for a private audience with the King by Earl Spencer, the first lord of the admiralty, and as a sign of goodwill His Majesty returned the esteemed Captain Bergeret to France in ‘exchange’.
A matter of weeks later Smith was appointed to the newly commissioned French prize Tigre 74 which was fitting out at Portsmouth for foreign service, and he set off to join her at the beginning of October. Reaching Gibraltar from Plymouth towards the end of November after a passage of eight days, he proceeded to Malta and then Constantinople where he had been appointed a joint plenipotentiary with his brother John, who was still the resident minister. Although his instructions were to assist the Turks in defending the Ottoman Empire from the French Army’s advance towards Syria from Egypt, one of his first moves was to organise the repatriation of forty French galley slaves, as the abolishment of the slave trade was a cause that was ever close to his heart.
On 3 March 1799 he assumed command of the squadron at Alexandria from Captain Thomas Troubridge, and he quickly set himself up as an independent commander on the Levant. This imperious and unilateral promotion earned a sharp rebuke from both Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent and Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson, who as the nearest flag officer was particularly outraged that Smith had taken it upon himself to raise a broad pennant as commodore when he should have been under his orders. The situation was only resolved once the broad pennant was hauled down and Smith subordinated himself to Nelson.
Having learned that General Napoleon Buonaparte’s army had stormed Jaffa, the modern-day southern district of Tel Aviv, Smith despatched the Theseus 74, Captain Ralph Miller, to dispute the French advance at the strategic coastal town of Acre, which was some seventy miles further to the north. He followed with the Tigre on 15 March and three days later captured the French siege train from its escort of eight gunboats, whereupon he hoisted the captured cannons up on top of the walled fortress at Acre to ply them on their previous owners. A week later the French managed to bring some more heavy guns up, and by 7 May, and with a Turkish relief force laying becalmed off shore, Buonaparte launched a major assault on the fortress. For once the brilliant Corsican was thwarted, and finding the defences impossible to breach he decided to throw up the siege twelve days later and retire to Egypt.
Smith’s success in halting the French advance was honoured with the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and a thousand guinea pension, together with many other awards including a cherished chelengk and a sable coat from the Sultan of Turkey. For their part the French exasperation with him was such that Buonaparte apparently tried to have him assassinated. Returning to the Egyptian coast, Smith gleefully sent the French commander-in-chief newspapers celebrating French reverses in Europe, but this act somewhat backfired when Smith took his ships to Cyprus to refit, thereby allowing Buonaparte to sail for France on 23 August. Shortly afterwards the general seized power in Paris with all the appalling consequences that would have over the next two decades for the peace of Europe.
In October Smith landed another Turkish army in Egypt, but once again his propensity to challenge the boundaries of his authority came to the fore when a truce was called with the French on 23 December and he took it upon himself to negotiate for Britain in the Convention of El Arish with the Turks and Buonaparte’s successor, General Jean Baptiste Kléber. This convention allowed for the French Army, with all its arms, to be transported back to France under the care of the Sultan. The wily French were perfectly aware that Smith yearned to have the glory of removing them from Egypt, and they readily signed the treaty on 24 January 1800. Smith did not sign the treaty himself but instead sent the document to London. In the meantime instructions from Britain had reached the new commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Vice-Admiral Lord Keith, advising that he should not recognise any treaty between the French and the Turks, and being appraised of these orders in February when he visited Cyprus, Smith, who still believed that he had acted in Britain’s best interests, had to inform Kléber that the convention was invalid.
The campaign recommenced on 19 March and the next day a livid Kléber routed the Turks at the Battle of Heliopolis. By then the British government had studied the Convention of El Arish and agreed that it was the best course of action to take, so that in April Keith received further orders that the convention should be accepted. Kléber scorned the reversal, and following his assassination in June his successor, the Muslim convert General Jacques-François de Menou, made it plain that he would fight to stay in Egypt. Clearly the French would have to be dislodged by force, and after being heavily involved in planning an invasion Smith commanded a wave of boats when Keith’s fleet landed Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby’s army on 8 March 1801. Dressed in Arabic garb and sporting side-whiskers, he then led a force of a thousand seamen ashore, and during the fighting that followed he was wounded in his upper arm.
Yet by now Smith had not only alienated Nelson and the French, but had also lost his influence with the Turks who had become wary of his association with Kléber. His broad pennant was removed, his diplomatic status revoked, and leaving the Tigre, which during his time ashore had been commanded by his old first lieutenant, Commander Edward Canes, he was sent home on 2 September as a passenger aboard the frigate Carmen 32, Captain William Selby, with the despatches announcing the British army’s victory over the French. After insisting on an alternative course along the Barbary Coast he found that he was beaten to Portsmouth by the duplicate despatches, despite the fact that the second vessel had departed Egypt two weeks after the Carmen. This did not prevent him from broadcasting his successes in the Levant by appearing at the Admiralty in early November in Turkish dress with a turban, robe, shawl, and a girdle around his waist, and a brace of pistols. Initially taking up residence at the Prince of Wales Coffee House in Conduit Street, he was rewarded with the Freedom of the City of London, and a country dance was even named in his honour. Parliament was less enamoured of his conduct and despite his popularity in the newspapers a mooted peerage for his defence of Acre did not materialise.
Once back in London Smith settled effortlessly into the upper echelons of society, and he removed to Blackheath where he took lodgings with a friend, Sir John Douglas. Moving in royal and diplomatic circles, he was a regular attendee at levees and dinners, and whilst doing little to hide the fact he even became the lover of Caroline the Princess of Wales over the winter of 1801-2. On one occasion he shared her attentions with Captain Thomas Manby at dinner, with one of her feet resting on his boot and the other on his apparent rival’s. Matters did not end well in this relationship, and the jealous princess later accused him of having an affair with Mrs Douglas.
In 1802, despite suggestions that his cousin Lord Camelford might send him to parliament as the representative for the rotten borough of Old Sarum, Smith was instead elected M.P for Rochester, claiming allegiance to no party but joining his brother John, who had been elected M.P for Dover, as a supposed independent supporter of the new Whig administration, despite speaking out against the Earl of St. Vincent’s spending cuts to the Navy. In reality though he was a supporter of William Pitt, and when his distant relation returned as the prime minister in 1804 Smith leant him his support until he was eventually discarded by the electors of Rochester in 1806.
On the resumption of hostilities with France in 1803 Smith was one of the first officers to appear at the Admiralty, but instead of receiving the senior appointment he was expecting and felt that he deserved he was given the command of a squadron in the Downs reporting to Admiral Lord Keith. Raising his broad pennant aboard the Antelope 50 on 12 March, he was initially engaged in pressing men and in the protection of the Thames, following which he took command of a squadron of smaller craft operating off the Dutch coast. Although he provided his commander-in-chief with excellent intelligence reports, Keith’s taciturn temperament did not endear him to Smith’s constant demands for the undertaking of adventurous assaults on the enemy, and early in 1804 he was censured by his commander-in-chief for hazarding the lives of his men in a minor cutting-out expedition on the Dutch coast.
In January 1804 Smith sustained an injury to his back when he fell against a sword in his cabin, but although the initial bulletins indicated that his life was despaired of he soon recovered and was not required to leave his ship. On 23 April he was made a colonel of marines, and after a successful attack on the Flushing and Ostend gunboat flotilla by his squadron on 16 May he struck his pennant and went ashore. During the rest of the year his health was poor and an expected posting to the Swiftsure 74 did not take place. Instead he spent his time theorising about rocket and torpedo warfare, designing landing craft for use in shallow water, and building two catamarans which would be used in conjunction with Robert Fulton’s combustible machines to attack Napoleons invasion camp at Boulogne, this being regarded as un-chivalrous mode of warfare that would earn contempt on both sides of the Channel. Such research and development was not without its cost, and despite being able to use his father’s cottage at Dover as a base the ever profligate Smith spent some time in the King’s Bench Prison for debt during 1805.
For most of 1805 Smith remained in London and out of employment, although in September he was at Dover again inspecting two gunboats of his own design. Shortly afterwards he received an Admiralty summons ordering him to report once more to Dover where he re-hoisted his broad pennant aboard the Antelope 50 under the orders of Admiral Lord Keith. When they learned that he had sailed across the Channel to reconnoitre Boulogne the newspapers excitedly, and no doubt speculatively, reported that he had entered the harbour, inspected the defences, and come away with a sentinel. Thereafter he remained in the Downs or at Dover preparing for the long-awaited attack on the invasion flotilla at the French port.
On 9 November he was promoted rear-admiral, and later that month his attack force anchored three miles off Boulogne awaiting the right conditions for an assault. But despite all the lengthy and costly preparations the incoming winter weather thwarted his designs, and when a trial run was attempted the French gunboats proved to be more formidable in defending the port than had been anticipated. Once Napoleon learned of the allied fleet’s earlier annihilation at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October he broke camp and took his army away to campaign on the continent, and with the invasion no longer a threat Smith’s force was back in the Downs by the end of the month, where on 29 December he struck his flag aboard the Antelope.
Unlike most of the senior naval officers in home waters Smith did not attend Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s funeral in London on 9 January 1806. Instead, following a brief sojourn in Bath, he arrived at Plymouth on 14 January to raise his flag aboard the Pompée 74, Captain Richard Dacres, prior to sailing in the following month with a small squadron for the Mediterranean to join Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood. After arriving at Gibraltar on 27 March he proceeded up the Mediterranean with a convoy to Malta.
Thereafter Smith was detached in command of five sail of the line to the Neapolitan coast. On 11 May he captured the island of Capri from the French, and building on Collingwood’s orders to defend Sicily he inspired the Neapolitan king and patriots to undertake a number of insurrections against the French on the mainland. Anointing himself ‘King Ferdinand’s commander-in-chief ‘, he was appointed the viceroy of Calabria by that poorly regarded monarch, and his exuberant behaviour in the Neapolitan court, at that time sitting in Sicily, was reminiscent of Nelson’s a decade earlier. The military campaigns on the mainland were not a success however, and even when the British army landed in early July and won the Battle of Maida it was soon evacuated. Nothing else of note was achieved that year, and typically Smith argued violently with the army officers, notably Major-General Sir John Stuart and Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, who were unaccustomed to his vainglorious behaviour.
At the beginning of 1807 Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth arrived at Palermo, and with his flag still flying aboard the Pompée Smith joined that officer’s squadron which was under orders for the Dardanelles to intimidate the Turks against allying with the French. Unfortunately, once Duckworth arrived within sight of Constantinople in February his indecision and prevarication led to an ignominious flight eleven days later. Smith, who had predicted such results, personally did well in destroying a Turkish squadron of one 64 gun ship, four frigates, four corvettes, two brigs and three gunboats which was anchored off a thirty-gun battery, thereby justifying the comments of those who said that he should have held the command, and who complained that Duckworth had injudiciously refused his advice during the mission.
In the summer of 1807, following a short period with Duckworth off Egypt, Smith returned to England, and after attending a levee with the King and receiving fresh instructions from the Admiralty he travelled to Bath. In October he was appointed the senior officer off Lisbon, and hoisting his flag at Plymouth aboard the London 98, Captain Thomas Western, he went out to the Tagus in the following month. Transferring his flag to the Hibernia 110, Captain Charles Marsh Schomberg, he spirited the Portuguese Royal Family and that country’s fleet out of Lisbon on 29 November, doing so just a step ahead of Marshal Andoche Junot’s army of forty thousand men. Once the Portuguese were safely out into the Atlantic and on their way to Brazil, and with his own squadron of four vessels supplemented by another five, he returned to the Tagus to attempt the interception of a Russian fleet of nine sail of the line.
In February 1808 Smith was superseded by Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton off Portugal upon his appointment as the commander-in-chief in South America, and he followed the Portuguese Royals to Rio de Janeiro with his flag aboard the Foudroyant 80, Captain Charles Marsh Schomberg. Although awarded the Order of the Tower and Sword by John the Prince Regent in Brazil to honour his services to Portugal, his meddling in that country’s affairs, not least between the Prince Regent and his Spanish wife with whom he sided, and also his quarrels with the British Minister, Lord Strangford, led to his recall in the summer of 1809.
After arriving at Portsmouth in August aboard the Diana 38, Captain Charles Grant, Smith attended a levee with the King and then travelled to Bath to regain his health. On 31 July 1810 he was promoted vice-admiral, but remaining out of employment he undertook a tour of the provinces, including visits to Doncaster and to Oxford University, where he received the acclaim of the students and dons. Back in the Home Counties he dined with the French royal family and the King of Sweden in Buckinghamshire during October 1810, and he threw grand dinners at his residence in Cleveland Row. In the spring of 1811 he was at Dover before heading back to London, then in July he visited Cambridge University and by September was in Scotland. Throughout the spring of 1812 he was very ill and was confined to his house in Albemarle Street with what was described as a ‘low fever’. Only a visit to Brighton at the end of May saw the restoration of his constitution.
In July 1812 Smith was at last re-employed as the second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew in the Mediterranean, and on 13 August he embarked at Portsmouth aboard the Tremendous 74, Captain Robert Campbell, to sail a few days later. By early October he was off Cartagena assisting the Spanish patriots, and here he shifted his flag to the Hibernia 120, Captain Charles Thurlow Smith, who was succeeded in the autumn of 1813 by Captain Thomas Gordon Caulfield. Smith’s absence abroad was somewhat convenient, for at home his name was being bandied around in the newspapers with reports of an investigation by a Kings Commission into the conduct of the Princess of Wales during his liaison with her at the turn of the century. Otherwise, bar the occasional diplomatic mission, his posting in the Mediterranean was a quiet one, although he did endure a torrid relationship with his senior, Pellew. Smith finally returned home in ill-health aboard the Hibernia in July 1814 via Tarragona and Lisbon, and after reaching Plymouth he hauled down his flag for the last time.
No sooner was Smith on dry land than he was off to the Congress of Vienna with his wife and three stepdaughters to speak for the deposed Swedish king and push for an abolishment of the slave trade. Typically he and his family were at Brussels on the day that the Battle of Waterloo was fought, and he rode out to meet the Duke of Wellington as the battle ended and accompanied him to the village of Waterloo. With Wellington’s authority he then followed the army to Paris, taking the surrender of the French garrisons at Amiens and Arras on the way and ensuring that the route of the restored French King to Paris was secure. It was at the Palais Bourbon in the French capital on 29 December that he was invested by Wellington with the K.C.B., having earlier been nominated for that honour on 2 January.
Now that peace had been restored Smith’s prime motivation was to bring about an end to the enslavement of Christians by the Barbary States. In 1816 he had an audience with the French king, claiming that he, not Pellew, should be sent out to deal with the Dey of Algiers, only to be advised at the end of the conversation of Pellew’s victory at the Battle of Algiers. Preferring to take up residence in Paris, he became the titular head of a fictional order called the ‘Knight’s Liberators’ that was dedicated to the relief of Christian slaves, but really existed only in his furtive mind or on paper. He also sought to establish the truth behind the suspicious death of his long-time friend and mentee, Captain John Wesley Wright, in Paris on 28 October 1805.
In 1818 the habitually impecunious Smith had his pension doubled, but various applications for governorships and a seat in the House of Lords were rejected, and embittered at not having been accorded more honours he avoided his debts by continuing to live in Paris, although he often had to borrow from his son-in-law. Advanced to the rank of admiral on 19 July 1821, he regularly paraded around the French capital in decorated uniforms whilst mixing in the highest social circles and attending other events, including a cricket match at Dieppe in the summer of 1826. He was often seen in London circles and at levees too, and his active mind continued to explore new designs, including an apparatus for saving shipwrecked seamen that he demonstrated at The Hague in the summer of 1829.
Smith was created a lieutenant-general of Marines on 28 June 1830, and although he was disappointed of the Plymouth command that year, the posting going to Admiral Sir Manley Dixon, he was somewhat mollified by his admittance to the Privy Council, and much later the award of the G.C.B. on 19 July 1838.
Smith died on 26 May 1840 at his residence of No. 9 Rue d’Auguesseau in Paris, and he was buried at Père la Chaise Cemetery, where a monument was erected to him. Admiral Sir Charles Rowley was one of his pall-bearers.
On 11 October 1809 he married Caroline, four years his elder, the daughter of James Hearn of Shanakill, Co Waterford, and the widow of the diplomat and British minister to Hamburg, Sir George Rumbold. The ceremony was held at St. James Church, London, and was attended by her daughter and one other witness. Lady Smith died on 16 May 1826 having had no children with Smith, but one son and three daughters from her previous marriage. Smith’s stepdaughter married Septimus Arabin, his flag-lieutenant in the Mediterranean after 1812. His nephew, William Sidney Smith, the son of John Spencer Smith, entered the service with him in 1813 and was posted captain in 1837.
Smith was arrogant, wilful, pompous, energetic, extravagant, capable, brave, theatrical and boastful. A flamboyant genius who could not stop talking about himself, and who claimed that he was ‘perhaps the best English-Frenchman that ever lived’, he was nonetheless always happy to dispense praise on others, generally after they had been inspired to great deeds by his over-brimming self-confidence, diligence and determination. He had a reputation for being kind-tempered, kind-hearted, and generally agreeable, but in warfare took more risks with the lives of his men than his contemporary, Lord Cochrane.
Smith was not everyone’s cup of tea, as illustrated in December 1809 when his coachman sustained a broken leg in a scuffle arising from a dispute with another man who had criticised Smith for allowing Buonaparte to escape Egypt and enslave all of Europe. Within the service he attracted much disapproval, particularly in earlier days when he was known somewhat derogatorily as the ‘Swedish Knight’. Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, with whom he shared many characteristics, initially had occasion to be exasperated with him before appreciating his success at Acre, as did Admiral Lord Keith who was his polar opposite with regard to the clandestine operations and intelligence that Smith revelled in. Whilst commanding the fleet in the Mediterranean Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood distrusted Smith’s ability to follow orders, and stated that his subordinate caused him more difficulties than the rest of the station entire. The plain speaking Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Troubridge was even more condemnatory, stating that Smith made him ‘sick’, whilst Admiral Lord Exmouth called him ‘gay and thoughtless’. The Duke of Wellington thought his brilliant reputation ill-deserved, the long-term secretary to the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker, said he was a ‘mere vaporiser’, and Lord Barham the first lord of the Admiralty, suggested that his want of judgement meant that he was far better to be commanded than in command.
More positively, the newspapers generally adored Smith, and often described him as a ‘gallant hero’. Napoleon, whilst voicing the opinion that Smith was half-mad, often spoke of him in exile at St. Helena, claiming that he had denied the emperor his destiny. The politician William Wilberforce opined that Smith had been ill-used and was deserving of far more awards. He was a good friend of Captain Ralph Miller, and Captain John Wright was his protégé and a frequent companion, whose death in a Paris gaol in 1805 affected him deeply.
Known generally as Sir Sidney Smith, or ‘Sir Sydney Smith’, he was of a slight build, penetrating dark eyes, a high-arched nose, striking and sharp looks and dark skin and dark curly hair. Smith, like his father who had been a rake, was a lady’s man. His intelligence and cheerfulness were apparent in his looks, and a gentlemanly manner was fairly evident. When second-in-command in the Mediterranean he set up a library for his officers and even organised a printing press. Accomplished in Latin and French, he loved poetry and composed his own works to celebrate not only his victories, but also his defeats. Although a hopeless administrator, his talents were otherwise numerous and various, be they cutting shapes out of paper or designing landing craft for attacking Boulogne. Such a profligate with money that his small estate in Norfolk had to be sold in the 1800’s to cover his debts, he nevertheless had to have the best that money could buy, as evidenced by his purchase of a top of the range carriage in 1805 that had all the mod cons.