Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Thomas (d.1762)

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SMITH, THOMAS (d. 1762), admiral, by repute the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton, bart., and half-brother of George, first lord Lyttelton [q. v.], was on 6 Feb. 1727–8 appointed by Sir Charles Wager [q. v.] to be junior lieutenant of the Royal Oak. In June he was moved to the Gosport, with Captain Duncombe Drake. In November 1728 the Gosport was lying off Plymouth, inside Drake's Island, when on the 23rd, the French corvette Gironde came into the Sound, apparently to avoid a fresh southerly gale, and to pick up any news that she could about the anticipations of a war. Smith was sent on board her, as officer of the guard, to ask whence she came and whither bound, and was told from Havre to Rochfort. Smith proceeded to ask the captain of the corvette ‘if it was not usual to pay some acknowledgment on coming into our ports,’ and was answered, ‘No, unless to flags.’ As Drake was on board the Gosport, Smith pressed the matter no further and returned to his ship. After six days in Hamoaze the Gironde came out on the 29th, and as she passed the Gosport, Smith, who, though her junior lieutenant, happened to be commanding officer, in the absence of Drake and the other lieutenants, hailed her in French and desired her captain ‘to haul in his pennant in respect to the king of Great Britain's colours.’ The Frenchman answered that he would not, but would salute the citadel; on which Smith told him that was nothing to him, but that if he did not haul down his pennant he should be obliged to compel him. On this the Frenchman hauled down his pennant and shortly afterwards fired a salute of eleven guns, which Smith, not knowing of any agreement between him and the citadel, answered, gun for gun, the citadel also answering it, as had been previously arranged. The French captain afterwards complained of the insult to which he had been subjected, and Smith, Drake, and the captain of the Winchester in Hamoaze were called on for an explanation. On their reports, which are in virtual agreement with the Frenchman's letter, Smith was summarily dismissed from the navy, 27 March 1729, by the king's order, for having ‘exceeded his instructions.’ On 12 May following he was restored to his rank and appointed second lieutenant of the Enterprise, from which on 14 Oct. he was discharged to half-pay, and on 5 May 1730 he was promoted to be captain of the Success. The circumstances of this incident were, even at the time, grossly exaggerated by popular report. Smith was described as having been commanding officer of the Gosport when the Gironde came into the Sound, and as having fired into her at once to compel her to lower her topsails to the king's flag. By the popular voice he was dubbed by the approving name of ‘Tom of Ten-thousand’ (a title which had fifty years before been conferred on Thomas Thynne [q. v.]); and it was said that, though, in deference to the French ambassador, he was tried by court-martial and dismissed the service, he was reinstated the next day, with the rank of post-captain.

From May 1732 to October 1740 Smith commanded the Dursley galley on the home station and in the Mediterranean; from January 1740–1 to April 1742 he was captain of the Romney, for the protection of the Newfoundland fisheries; but Charnock's statement that while in command of her he was tried by court-martial on a charge of converting the ship's stores to his own use appears to be unfounded. In October 1742 he was appointed to the Princess Mary, which in 1744 was one of the fleet under Sir John Norris [q. v.] off Dungeness, and afterwards under Sir Charles Hardy (the elder) [q. v.], and Sir John Balchen [q. v.] on the coast of Portugal. From the Princess Mary Smith was appointed in November 1744 to the Royal Sovereign, as commodore and commander-in-chief in the Downs, and during July and August 1745, off Ostend. In September 1745 he was appointed commander-in-chief at the Nore; and on 11 Feb. 1745–6 commander-in-chief at Leith and on the coast of Scotland, with the special duty of preventing communication between Scotland and France. He held this post till January 1746–7, when he was placed on half-pay. On 15 July 1747 he was promoted to be rear-admiral of the red, and on 18 May 1748 to be vice-admiral of the white. In August 1755 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Downs, where he was promoted on 8 Dec. 1756 to be vice-admiral of the red, and on 24 Feb. 1757 to be admiral of the blue.

When on 28 Dec. 1756 the court-martial was convened at Portsmouth for the trial of Admiral John Byng [q. v.], Smith, as the senior flag-officer available, was appointed president, and as such had the duty of pronouncing the sentence on 27 Jan. 1757, and of forwarding the recommendation to mercy. When the question of absolving the members of the court from their oath of secrecy came before the House of Commons, Smith wrote to his half-brother, Sir Richard Lyttelton, begging him to support the application. Similarly, he wrote to Lord Lyttelton; but when examined before the House of Lords and asked if he desired the bill to pass, replied, ‘I have no desire for it myself. It will not be disagreeable to me, if it will be a relief to the consciences of any of my brethren.’ In October 1758 he retired from active service, and died on 28 Aug. 1762. He was not married. He is described by Walpole, when before the House of Lords, as ‘a grey-headed man, of comely and respectable appearance, but of no capacity.’ There is, in fact, no reason to suppose that he was more than a good average officer; his peculiar fame is entirely based on the exaggerated report of the Gosport-Gironde incident, which in itself seems to have been caused primarily by a misunderstanding of instructions.

Smith's portrait, by Richard Wilson, R.A., is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich; it has been engraved.

[The memoir in Charnock's Biogr. Nav. iv. 209, is grossly inaccurate; the facts are here given from the official documents in the Public Record Office, and especially, copy of the complaint of M. de Joyeux, captain of the Gironde, in Home Office Records, Admiralty, No. 55; Burchett to Drake, 4 Feb. 1728–9, in Secretary's Letter-Book, No. 86, p. 347; Drake to Burchett, 7 Feb., in Home Office Records, Admiralty, No. 66; Smith to Burchett, 23 Feb. 1728–9, ib.; Admiralty report on the case, 3 March, ib.; Duke of Newcastle to the Admiralty, 27 March 1729, in Secretary of State's Letters, Admiralty, No. 21; Commission and Warrant books, Paybooks, &c.; see also Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs; Walpole's Memoirs of George II, ii. 359; Shenstone's Poems, 1778, i. 187.]

J. K. L.