Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smyth, William Henry

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SMYTH, WILLIAM HENRY (1788–1865), admiral and scientific writer, born in Westminster on 21 Jan. 1788, was the only son of Joseph Brewer Palmer Smyth, who claimed descent from Captain John Smith (1580?–1631) [q. v.] of Virginia, and owned large estates in New Jersey, which, as a royalist, he lost on the recognition of the independence of the North American colonies. At an early age he went to sea in the merchant service, and in 1804 was in the East India Company's ship Cornwallis, which was taken up by the government for the expedition against the Mahé Islands. In the following March the Cornwallis was bought into the navy and established as a 50-gun ship under the command of Captain Charles James Johnston, with whom Smyth remained, seeing much active service in Indian, Chinese, and Australian waters. In February 1808 he followed Johnston to the Powerful, which, on returning to England, was part of the force in the expedition to the Scheldt, and was paid off in October 1809. Smyth afterwards served in the Milford of 74 guns on the coast of France and Spain, and was lent from her to command the Spanish gunboat Mors aut Gloria for several months at the defence of Cadiz (September 1810 to April 1811). In July 1811 he joined the Rodney off Toulon, and through 1812 served on the coast of Spain. On 25 March 1813 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and appointed for duty with the Sicilian flotilla, in which he combined the service against the French in Naples with a good deal of unofficial surveying and antiquarian research. On 18 Sept. 1815 he was made commander, and without any appointment to a ship was continued on the coast of Sicily, surveying that coast, the adjacent coasts of Italy, and the opposite shores of Africa. In 1817 his work was put on a more formal footing by his appointment to the Aid, in which, and afterwards (from 1821) in the Adventure, he carried on the survey of the Italian, Sicilian, Greek, and African coasts, and constructed a very large number of charts, which are the basis of those still in use. Some of his results appeared in his elaborate ‘Memoir … of the Resources, Inhabitants, and Hydrography of Sicily and its Islands’ (London, 1824, 4to), which was followed in 1828 by a ‘Sketch of Sardinia.’ Meanwhile, on 7 Feb. 1824, Smyth was promoted to post rank, and in the following November he paid off the Adventure. It was the end of his service at sea, his tastes leading him to a life of literary and scientific industry.

In 1821 he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Astronomical Society. On 15 June 1826 he was elected F.R.S., and in 1830 was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society. He built and equipped an astronomical observatory at Bedford, where for many years he carried on systematic observations of stars. In 1845–6 he was president of the R.A.S.; in 1849–50, of the R.G.S.; he was vice-president and foreign secretary of the Royal Society; vice-president and director of the Society of Antiquaries; and was honorary or corresponding member of at least three-fourths of the literary and scientific societies of Europe. He contributed numerous papers to the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ the ‘Proceedings’ of the R.A.S. and R.G.S., and from 1829 to 1849 to the ‘United Service Journal,’ and was the author of many volumes, the best known of which are ‘The Cycle of Celestial Objects for the use of Naval, Military, and Private Astronomers’ (2 vols. 8vo, 1844), for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society; ‘The Mediterranean: a Memoir Physical, Historical, and Nautical’ (8vo, 1854); and ‘The Sailor's Word-Book,’ revised and edited by Sir Edward Belcher (8vo, 1867). He also translated and edited Arago's treatises on ‘Popular Astronomy’ and on ‘Comets.’ The complete story of his literary activity is contained in ‘Synopsis of the published and privately printed Works of Admiral W. H. Smyth’ (4to, 1864), which enumerates his fugitive papers as well as his larger works.

In 1846 Smyth accepted the naval retirement, and in due course was advanced, on the retired list, to be rear-admiral on 28 May 1853, vice-admiral on 13 Feb. 1858, and admiral on 14 Nov. 1863. After living for many years near Bedford, he moved about 1850 to St. John's Lodge, near Aylesbury, where he died on 9 Sept. 1865. He married at Messina, in October 1815, Annarella, only daughter of T. Warington of Naples, and by her had a large family. One of his sons, Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth [q. v.], is separately noticed; another, Charles Piazzi Smyth, was for many years astronomer-royal for Scotland; a third is General Sir Henry Augustus Smyth, K.C.M.G. One of his daughters, Georgiana Rosetta, is the wife of Sir William Henry Flower, K.C.B., F.R.S., director of the British (Natural History) Museum.

[Gent. Mag. 1865, ii. 784; O'Byrne's Nav. Biogr. Dict.; Annual Report of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1866; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1866; Fraser's Mag. 1866, i. 392; United Service Mag. 1865, iii. 272; Buckingham Archæological Society's Records, 1867, vol. iii.]

J. K. L.