Henry Smith: His life and legacy
Lucy Lethbridge and Tim Wales
The Henry Smith Charity £20
Times Bookshop £18
EVERY year, just as they have since 1629 when it was founded,
the trustees of Henry Smith's charity sit down to distribute its
wealth. Every year, just as Smith intended, a variegated collection
of recipients receives support: be they his own "poor kin",
impecunious clergy, needy inhabitants of various parishes, or a
range of other deserving causes.
To pay for all this, the trustees also oversee the estates that
have been held continuously since the early 17th century.
There is, then, something reassuringly traditional about the
Henry Smith Charity. But both it and the world around it have
changed radically since the founder drew up his will and appointed
Provisions for "the redemption of the captives of Barbary
pirates" seem simply anachronistic. Surrey, where the bulk of
Smith's parishes lay, is self-evidently no longer the "backward"
and rather desolate spot that contemporaries found it to be. The
"poor kin" - once just the children of Smith's sister - now number
no fewer than 6000.
More important still, the funds that the charity can draw on
have also grown and grown. In particular, the trustees' purchase of
land in the parish of Brompton - now smart and sophisticated South
Kensington - has produced a huge legacy. Today, the charity grants
something like £27 million a year.
This book, written in an accessible style and beautifully
illustrated, tells a story of continuity and change. It even shows
that the money for the redemption of captives is still needed -
being used to help women who have been trafficked in London and
At its heart, however, lies a mystery: the founder himself.
Smith's life has accreted many legends, but his beliefs remain
What motivated an avaricious, flinty usurer to found this
charity? Was it faith, or guilt, or just a desire to control people
from beyond the grave?
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor
of St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and
Architectural History in the University of Oxford.