SMYTH, John Henry (1780-1822), of Heath Hall, Yorks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



9 June 1812 - 20 Oct. 1822

Family and Education

b. 20 Mar. 1780, 1st s. of John Smyth*. educ. Eton 1793-8; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1798-1801; M. Temple 1801; European tour 1802. m. (1) as July 1810, Sarah Caroline (d. 29 May 1811), da. of Henry Ibbetson of St. Anthony’s, Northumb., s.p., (2) 16 Apr. 1814, his cos. Lady Elizabeth Anne Fitzroy, da. of George Henry Fitzroy*, 4th Duke of Grafton, 2s. 4da.

Offices Held

Under-sec. of state for Home affairs July 1804 Feb. 1806.

Capt. S. W. Yorks. yeomanry 1803.


Although his father was a prominent Pittite, Smyth formed Whig friendships at university, where he carried off the classical prizes, notably with Lord Henry Petty*. In 1802 his father thought of putting him up with himself at Pontefract, but he had to be content with canvassing for him.1 In 1804 his father, who had to sacrifice his office to accommodate Pitt on his return to power, wrote to the prime minister, 30 May:2

I have only to say that what has suggested itself to you respecting my son, affords an opportunity for your kindness towards me, which will be gratefully received. I should be very glad to have him trained to business in a line suitable to his pretensions. I have heard that the office of under-secretary of state in Lord Hawkesbury’s office, having been declined by the person to whom it was offered, is not filled up, and if you could do me the favour to recommend him to it, it would be a most desirable situation for him, and a strong proof of the continuance of your regard to me, which to have forfeited would be I do assure you the most sensible mortification I could receive in life.

Smyth duly became under-secretary at the Home Office until Pitt’s death. On 14 Oct. 1806 he pointed out to Petty:

my appointment was entirely owing to Mr Pitt, and although I felt that it imposed upon me a duty with respect to the government while it subsisted, yet I neither had then, nor have I, any obligation to Lord Hawkesbury further than what is due for his personal civility and kindness to me during the time of my connection with him.

He still had no seat in Parliament. His father had applied unsuccessfully to Pitt on 27 Dec. 1805 for the vacant seat at Boroughbridge:

The wish I feel to see him in Parliament will I hope excuse my mentioning it to you again, after the very obliging manner in which you expressed yourself upon it last year and I will only add that it will be a very great additional obligation conferred upon me.

Smyth’s friends in power did not seat him either, though on 21 Apr. 1807 Lord Grenville, then out of office, recommended him to Lord Caledon as a man who would ‘do credit to any person by whom he is brought forward’.3

In 1811 Smyth’s uncle became 4th Duke of Grafton and put him up for the seat for Cambridge University which he was vacating. Smyth, the Whig candidate, was defeated by Lord Palmerston. Shortly before the dissolution he was returned unopposed on another vacancy and retained the seat for life. His obituary stated that ‘he courted neither party and the votes which he gave were dictated by his conscience’.4 In practice he voted and spoke steadily with the young Whigs in opposition. In his first known speech5 he announced his support for Catholic relief, 25 Feb. 1813, and he spoke in favour of the regulation of the slave trade abolition, 13 July; he also voted for the Christian missions to India. He was a critic of the Corn Laws but gave in, 10 Mar. 1815, and favoured resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 2 Mar. He voted and spoke against the resumption of war, 28 Apr., and subsequently voted against foreign entanglements, calling for a reduction in the peacetime military establishment, 20 Feb. 1816. He several times deplored the tax burden, pleading for retrenchment. He vehemently opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, 26 Feb. 1817, as ‘a great departure from the maxims of our ancestors’. On 20 May 1817 he voted for parliamentary reform. Other topics that concerned him were the reform of the criminal code, the promotion of education, the suppression of the Portuguese slave trade and the freedom of South America. On 8 Feb. 1819 he was named to the finance committee. Smyth, who had signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs in the House in 1818, duly voted for Tierney’s censure motion on 18 May 1819. In the ensuing session he was a critic of the seditious meetings bill, 2 Dec. 1819.

He died 20 Oct. 1822: ‘to a high reputation as a scholar, he united great suavity of manner and kindness of heart’.6

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Lansdowne mss, Smyth to Petty, 21 May, 17 June 1802.
  • 2. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 5/36.
  • 3. Lansdowne mss; PRO 30/8/179, f. 178; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Alexander, 21 Apr. 1807.
  • 4. Gent. Mag. (1822), ii. 473.
  • 5. The speech attributed to him on 11 Feb. 1813 seems to belong to Robert Percy Smith.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. loc. cit.