Sydney Smith

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Smith, Sydney (1771–1845). One of the ablest polemicists in a period of remarkable vitality. His father was severe, often in financial difficulties, and ungenerous. Sydney was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, where he took orders and became a fellow. After two years in Netheravon in Wiltshire as a curate, he became tutor in 1797 to Michael Hicks Beach and then to his younger brother William. The continent being closed by the war, they settled in Edinburgh. During his stay there, he launched in 1802 the Edinburgh Review with his friends Brougham and Jeffrey and contributed to it for 25 years. From 1806 Smith was rector of Foston near York, which he held until 1829, when he moved to the living of Combe Florey in Somerset. In 1807 his Peter Plymley letters, published anonymously and urging religious liberty, had a great success. Smith was an ardent advocate of catholic emancipation, had a distaste for the excesses of methodists—‘there is not a madhouse in England where a considerable part of the patients have not been driven to insanity by the extravagancies of these people’—and his speech at Taunton in 1831 on parliamentary reform (‘Mrs Partington and the Atlantic Ocean’) became an instant classic. When his Whig friends came to power in 1830, Grey gave him a canonry at St Paul's, but he was passed over for a bishopric, which hurt him. Though Smith's facetiousness can appear mechanical, and even desperate, he was genuinely funny, and there is testimony to dinner-table companions reduced to helplessness and servants forced to leave the room in stitches.

J. A. Cannon