Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Thomas (1558?-1625)

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SMITH or SMYTHE, Sir THOMAS (1558?–1625), merchant, governor of the East India Company, born about 1558, was second surviving son of Thomas Smythe of Ostenbanger (now Westenhanger) in Kent, by his wife Alice, daughter of Sir Andrew Judd. His grandfather, John Smythe of Corsham, Wiltshire, is described as yeoman, haberdasher, and clothier. His father carried on the business of a haberdasher in the city of London, and was ‘customer’ of the port of London. He purchased Ostenhanger of Sir Thomas Sackville and much other property from Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester; he died on 7 June 1591, and was buried at Ashford, where there is a beautiful monument to his memory (engraved in Gent. Mag. 1835, i. 257). His elder son, Sir John Smythe or Smith (1556?–1608) of Ostenhanger, was high sheriff of Kent in 1600, and was father of Sir Thomas Smythe, first viscount Strangford [see under Smythe, Percy Clinton Sidney, sixth Viscount Strangford].

Thomas, one of thirteen children, was brought up to his father's business. In 1580 he was admitted to the freedom of the Haberdashers' Company and also of the Skinners'. He rapidly rose to wealth and distinction. When the East India Company was formed in October 1600, he was elected the first governor, and was so appointed by the charter dated 31 Dec., though at this time he held the office for only four months (Stevens, Court Records of the East India Company, 1599–1603). In 1599 he was chosen one of the sheriffs of London. In February 1600–1 he was believed to be a supporter of the Earl of Essex [see Devereux, Robert, second Earl of Essex], who on 8 Feb. went to his house in Gracechurch Street. Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse's bridle, and advised him to yield himself to the lord mayor. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door and went to confer with the lord mayor. Afterwards he was accused of complicity with the earl's rebellion, was examined before the council, was discharged from his office of sheriff, and was committed to the Tower (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, 13, 18, 24 Feb.). His imprisonment was for but a short time; and on 13 May 1603, on the accession of James I, he was knighted. In 1604 he was appointed one of the receivers for the Duchy of Cornwall (ib. 11 April), and, in June, to be special ambassador to the tsar of Russia. His grandfather, Sir Andrew Judd, was one of the founders of the Muscovy Company, and he himself would seem to have been largely interested in the Muscovy trade. Sailing from Gravesend on 13 June, he, with his party, arrived at Archangel on 22 July, and was conducted by way of Kholmogori and Vologhda [cf. Jenkinson, Anthony] to Jaroslav, where the emperor then was. In the course of the winter he obtained a grant of new privileges for the company, and in the spring went on to Moscow, whence he returned to Archangel and sailed for England on 28 May.

In 1603 Smith was re-elected governor of the East India Company, and, with one break 1606–7, continued to hold the office till July 1621, during which time the company's trade was developed and established. In January 1618–19 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the settlement of the differences with the Dutch, which, however, after some years of discussion, remained, for the time, unsettled (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 8 Jan. 1619, 6? Dec. 1624). His connection with the East India Company and the Muscovy Company led him to promote and support voyages for the discovery of the North-West Passage, and his name, as given by William Baffin [q. v.] to Smith's Sound, stands as a memorial to all time of his enlightened and liberal energy. In 1609 he obtained the charter for the Virginia Company, of which he was the treasurer, an office which he held till 1620, when, on being charged with enriching himself at the expense of the company, and on a demand for inquiry, he resigned [see Sandys, Sir Edwin]. The charges against him, which were urged with great virulence, were formally pronounced to be false and slanderous, though Smythe was not held to be altogether free from blame (Cal. State Papers, North American, 16 July 1622, 20 Feb., 8 Oct. 1629, 23 April, 13 May, 15 June 1625); and the renewed inquiry was still going on, when he died at Sutton-at-Hone in Kent on 4 Sept. 1625. He was buried at Sutton, where, in the church, there is an elaborate monument to his memory. The charges against him had met with no acceptance from the king; to the last he was consulted on all important matters relating to shipping and to eastern trade (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 11 Dec. 1624), and for several years was one of the chief commissioners of the navy, as also governor of the French and Somer Islands companies.

Smythe amassed a large fortune, a considerable part of which he devoted to charitable purposes, and, among others, to the endowment of the free school of Tonbridge, which was originally founded by his grandfather, Sir Andrew Judd. He also established several charities for the poor of the parish of Tonbridge. He was three times married. The first two wives must have died comparatively young and without issue. He was already married to the third, Sarah, daughter of William Blount, when he was sheriff of London. By her he had one daughter (died unmarried in 1627) and three sons, two of whom seem to have predeceased their father. The eldest son, Sir John Smythe of Bidborough, married and had issue. The family, in the male line, ended with his great-great-grandson, Sir Sidney Stafford Smythe (1705–1778) [q. v.] The name, which is often spelt Smith, was always written Smythe by the man himself, as well as by the collateral family of Strangford.

A portrait belonging to the Skinners' Company has been identified with Smythe, though it has been supposed to be rather that of Sir Daniel Judd. An engraving by Simon Pass is inserted in the Grenville copy of Smith's ‘Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia’ (London, 1605, 4to). It is reproduced in Wadmore's memoir (1892).

[Sir Thomas Smith's Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia (4to, 1605). Wadmore's Sir Thomas Smythe, knt. (reprinted from Archæologia Cantiana, 1892); Stocker's Pedigree of Smythe of Ostenhanger (reprinted from Archæologia Cantiana, 1892); Markham's Voyages of William Baffin, with a copy of the portrait by Pass (Hakluyt Soc.), pp. ii–ix; Lefroy's Hist. of the Bermudas (Hakluyt Soc.), Index; Cal. State Papers, Dom., East Indies, North America; Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. pt. ii.; notes kindly supplied by William Foster, esq., of the India Office.]

J. K. L.