One can drive through the quiet village of Combe Florey and not notice a delightful house which is set back from the road and hidden in a mature garden. In the early 19th century this was, for some years, the home of a man who was recognised in his time both as a great wit and a reformer. A man not afraid to speak up when he saw injustice. His name was Sydney Smith. He was born in 1771 to a family of 4 boys and one girl. His father was described as a “prosperous merchant of restless ingenuity and activity”. His maternal grandfather was a French Protestant, a Huguenot, who had fled to England.
Sydney and one of his brothers were sent to Winchester where they excelled both academically and on the games field. He then went on to Oxford with the hope of reading for the bar but his father insisted he take Holy Orders. He was ordained in 1796 and appointed Curate in a village on Salisbury Plain. Here he came to the attention of the local squire who engaged him as a tutor to his son and together they went to Edinburgh.
In Edinburgh he deputised for the local clergy and his preaching quickly gained a reputation for wit, coupled with a strong care for humanity. Sydney could and did fill the pews to capacity and in 1880 he published his first book “Six Sermons preached in Charlotte Street Chapel”.
He came to the notice of many influential people in Edinburgh including Francis Jeffrey, later to become Lord Advocate of Scotland. Together they founded the Edinburgh Review for which he continued to write for a quarter of a century and it is said that his brilliant essays were a main element of its success.
While in Edinburgh, he married Katherine Pybus who was to bear him five children.
In 1809, Sydney received the living of Foston le Clay in North Yorkshire where he settled down to care for his parishioners and support his growing family. He was still busy writing for the Edinburgh Review where it became apparent to its readers that the articles reflected the opinions of a champion of reform in English life. He wrote on the iniquities of the poaching laws. Spring-guns and mantraps were in common use and caused terrible injuries whilst others were in prison while their families starved. “In the meantime, for every 10 pheasants that fluttered in the wood, one English peasant was rotting in goal”.
He spoke against slavery and poverty and he supported the education of women. One cause, about which Sydney felt very strongly, was the plight of the Roman Catholics. “The Catholic cause is the cause of common sense and justice...it rests upon the soundest of principles and leads to the most important consequences and therefore cannot be too frequently brought to the attention of the public.”
A further series on the subject began to appear under the title "Letters on the Subject of the Catholics to my brother Abraham who lives in the country " by Peter Plymley. They are firmly attributed to Sydney Smith and he saw his efforts rewarded when the Catholic Emancipation Bill was passed in 1829.
Two other causes about which he felt very strongly were the parliamentary system and suffrage, and the Church itself . "“It is vain to talk of the good character of bishops. Bishops are 18 men; not always the wisest of men; not always preferred for eminent virtues and talents, nor for any good reason known to the public. They are almost devoid of striking or decorous vices, but a man may be shallow, very arrogant and very vindictive, though a bishop, and may pursue with an unrelenting hatred a subordinate clergyman whose principles he dislikes or whose genius he fears."
In 1829 Sydney was appointed prebend of Bristol Cathedral with an entitlement to a living. That same year the family moved to Combe Florey. He wrote to his friends in Yorkshire “My neighbours look very much like other people's neighbours; their remarks are generally of a meteorological nature" . Nothing has changed there then!
A further advancement in the Church came in 1831 when he was appointed a cannon to St Paul’s Cathedral. The family remained in Combe Florey and Sydney died in February 1845 . He is buried in London and there is a memorial to him in a stained glass window in Combe Florey church.
Article by Dr Jasmine Lucas previously published in the Friends of quantock Newsletter