Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smythe, George Augustus Frederick Percy Sydney

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624213Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53 — Smythe, George Augustus Frederick Percy Sydney1898William Charles Mark Kent

SMYTHE, GEORGE AUGUSTUS FREDERICK PERCY SYDNEY, seventh Viscount Strangford and second Baron Penshurst (1818–1857), eldest son of Percy Clinton Sydney Smythe, sixth viscount [q. v.], was born on 13 April 1818 at Stockholm, where his father then resided as minister-plenipotentiary to the court of Sweden. George's early education began at home under the personal guidance of his father, by whose harsh reproofs and excessive indulgence his character was injured. At twelve he went to Eton, his name being entered in the book of Dr. John Keate, the headmaster, on 8 July 1830. Twice during his five years' stay he was threatened with expulsion. Upon quitting Eton in July 1835, when seventeen, he went to read for several months under the Rev. Julius Hare at Hurstmonceaux Rectory, by way of preparation for Cambridge. He was admitted on 29 Jan. 1836 to St. John's College as a fellow-commoner; his kinsman and godfather, the Duke of Northumberland, helping to defray his expenses at the university. He took an effective part in the debates of the Cambridge Union, and formed many close friendships. Conspicuous among his intimate associates were Lord John Manners (afterwards Duke of Rutland), Beresford-Hope, Baillie Cochrane (afterwards Lord Lamington), Frank Courtenay, and Lord Lyttelton. In 1840 Smythe, according to the custom then prevailing in regard to fellow-commoners, graduated M.A. jure natalium. Before going to the university he had written both verse and prose in the annuals and in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ and his contributions to periodical literature while he was at Cambridge were numerous and promising.

At a by-election on 1 Feb. 1841 he was returned in the tory interest as member for Canterbury. His ancestors, the Sidneys of Penshurst, had long exercised great influence in that constituency. He was on 2 July 1841 returned at the general election with an increased majority. Although he broke down on making his maiden speech, his many brilliant gifts, his handsome presence, his gracious manner, soon secured him a reputation among all parties in the House of Commons.

He became a finished debater, and before the end of his first session Mr. Gladstone is said to have described him as one of the best two young speakers in the House of Commons (cf. Croker Papers, iii. 8, 9; Trevelyan, Life of Macaulay, ii. 133). Smythe's readiness of retort involved him in at least three serious quarrels with fellow-members of parliament, one with John Arthur Roebuck [q. v.] in April 1844.

Smythe soon associated himself with the active and ambitious section of the conservatives, which was known as the Young England party and acknowledged Mr. Disraeli's leadership. The Young England party sought to extinguish the predominance of the middle-class bourgeoisie, and to re-create the political prestige of the aristocracy by resolutely proving its capacity to ameliorate the social, intellectual, and material condition of the peasantry and the labouring classes. Outside as well as inside parliament Smythe energetically advocated such principles. He and Lord John Manners expounded them with a brilliance which extorted a compliment from Cobden. At a soirée held at the Manchester Athenæum on 3 Oct. 1844, under Disraeli's presidency, Smythe, in an address on ‘The Importance of Literature,’ asserted that ‘his political watch was always five minutes too fast.’ A few days later he and his friends attended a festival at Bingley, Yorkshire, to celebrate the allotment of land for gardens to working men. On 11 July 1843 Smythe had denounced in parliament ‘the perpetual toryness’ of England's treatment of Ireland, and on 16 April 1845 he strongly advocated the grant to Maynooth College (Hansard, 3rd ser. lxxix. 833–40). Disraeli paid Smythe the compliment of drawing from him his portrait of the hero of ‘Coningsby’ (1844).

In January 1845 Smythe was appointed under-secretary of state for foreign affairs in Sir Robert Peel's second government. His friends spoke of him regretfully as ‘Pegasus in harness,’ and he described himself as ‘fettered by party and muzzled by office.’ In 1842 Smythe had spoken against free trade; but when Peel in 1846 accepted that principle, Smythe, who was by nature readily open to conviction, followed his chief. Disraeli and others of Smythe's former allies adhered to their original position, and Smythe's severance from them was complete. During the great debate on the corn laws in June 1846 Smythe advocated their abolition. The premier highly praised Smythe's effort, but after the discussion was over, and when Sir William Gregory remarked to Smythe, ‘Peel gave you plenty of butter,’ Smythe characteristically replied ‘Yes, rancid as usual’ (Gregory, Autobiography, p. 89). On the same night Disraeli delivered his scathing denunciation of Peel's administration as an ‘organised hypocrisy,’ and before the close of the month (29 June) Sir Robert resigned. At the general election in the following year Smythe was again returned, on 3 Aug. 1847, for Canterbury. During that parliament, which lasted until July 1852, Smythe, according to Disraeli, committed a sort of political suicide by abstaining from all part in the debates. In May 1852 he fought at Weybridge with Colonel Frederick Romilly (1810–1887), youngest son of Sir Samuel Romilly [q. v.], the last duel in England. Romilly was his colleague in the representation of Canterbury, and Smythe accused him of unfairly influencing the electors against him. At the subsequent general election in July Smythe received only seven votes, and he did not sit in the house again. The election was afterwards declared void through bribery and the writ suspended until August 1854.

From 1847 to 1852 Smythe devoted himself to journalism, and wrote industriously and with brilliant effect in the leading columns of the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ An attack on Richard Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton) led to a challenge, but the affair was compromised (Reid, Life of Lord Houghton, i. 416 sq.). ‘He would rather be’ (he had said in 1844) ‘one of the journalists who led than of the statesmen who followed in the path of reforms.’ He had already made a literary reputation by his ‘Historic Fancies,’ which was published in 1844. It is a miscellaneous collection of poems and essays, the titles of which indicate the range of its author's studies: ‘The Merchants of Old England,’ ‘The Aristocracy of France,’ ‘The Jacobin of Paris,’ ‘The Loyalist of La Vendée,’ an elegy on ‘Armand Carrel,’ and a Napoleonic dialogue between ‘Fifteen and Twenty-five.’ In the following year (1845) two remarkable monographs from his hand, on ‘George Canning’ and ‘Earl Grey’ respectively, appeared in the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Review.’

On his father's death, on 29 May 1855, Smythe succeeded to the title as seventh Viscount Strangford, but took no part in the debates of the House of Lords. Consumption had manifested itself and proved incurable. Early in 1857 he went to Egypt in a vain search of health, and returned to London in the autumn. On 9 Nov. he was married by special license, at Bradgate Park, near Leicester, the seat of the Earl of Stamford and Warrington, to Margaret, eldest daughter of John Lennox Kincaid Lennox, esq., of Lennox Castle, N.B. But he was then dying, and the end came a fortnight later at Bradgate Park (23 Nov. 1857) (Malmesbury, Memoirs of an ex-Minister, 2nd edit. ii. 88). He was succeeded by his brother, Percy Ellen Frederick William [q. v.], as eighth Viscount Strangford.

Among his papers was found the manuscript of a novel entitled ‘Angela Pisani,’ which he had begun writing at Venice in 1846. This was eventually published under the editorship of his brother's widow in 1875.

The Earl of Beaconsfield described Strangford as ‘a man of brilliant gifts, of dazzling wit, of infinite culture, and of fascinating manners’ (Lothair, pref. 1870; but cf. Gregory, Autobiogr. pp. 87–90, 94–5, 123). Lord Lyttelton said of him with much truth ‘he was a splendid failure.’

[Lady Strangford's Brief Memoir prefixed to Angela Pisani, 1875; Disraeli's Coningsby, 1844, and Life of Lord George Bentinck, 1851, both passim; Ann. Reg. for 1857, p. 347; Times, 26 Nov. 1857; Monody on George, Lord Strangford, in the present writer's Dreamland, 1862, pp. 238–41; A Young England Novel by T. H. Escott; Fraser's Mag. 1847; Edward de Fonblanque's Lives of the Viscounts Strangford through Ten Generations, 1877.]

C. K.