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William Henry Smyth

William Henry Smyth
Smyth, as depicted in his
Smyth, as depicted in his The Sailor's Word-Book
Born (1788-01-21)21 January 1788
Westminster, London
Died 8 September 1865(1865-09-08) (aged 77)
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
Buried at Stone, Buckinghamshire
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1804–1846
Rank Admiral
Commands held
Battles/wars Napoleonic Wars
 • Walcheren Campaign
 • Siege of Cádiz
Other work Astronomer and numismatist

Admiral William Henry Smyth KFM DCL FRS FRAS FRGS FSA (21 January 1788 – 8 September 1865) was an English naval officer, hydrographer, astronomer and numismatist. He is noted for his involvement in the early history of a number of learned societies, for his hydrographic charts, for his astronomical work, and for a wide range of publications and translations.


  • Family 1
  • Royal Navy 2
  • Astronomical and other work 3
  • Involvement with learned institutions 4
  • Publications 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


William Smyth was born at 42 Great Peter Street, Laetitia Pilkington and her husband Matthew Pilkington, both protégés of Jonathan Swift. His father was a colonial American who lived in New Jersey. He was a British loyalist, however, and during the American Revolution came to England where his son was born shortly before Joseph died. William's half brother was the famous painter and traveller Augustus Earle.

He married William Henry Flower and had seven children; and Ellen Philadelphia, who married Capt. Henry Toynbee and sailed out to Australia as a bride in 1855. She died childless in 1881 aged 52 after a long illness.

Smyth suffered a heart attack at his home near Aylesbury in early September 1865, and at first seemed to recover. On 8 September he showed the planet Jupiter to his young grandson, Arthur Smyth Flower, through a telescope. He died a few hours later, in the early morning of the 9 September 1865, aged 78. He was buried in the churchyard at Stone near Aylesbury.

Royal Navy

At the age of 14 Smyth ran away to join the merchant marine. In 1804 he was in the East India Company's ship Marquis Cornwallis, which the government chartered for an expedition against the Seychelles. In the following March 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 74-gun Milford 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 Rodney off Toulon, and through 1812 served on the coast of Spain.[1]

On 25 March 1813 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and appointed for duty with the Sicilian flotilla, in which he combined service against the French from Naples with a good deal of unofficial hydrographic surveying and antiquarian research. For his services in defending Sicily Smyth was subsequently awarded the Order of Saint Ferdinand and of Merit by King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, and received permission from the Prince Regent to wear it on 16 March 1816.[2]

On 18 September 1815 he was made commander, and without any appointment to command a ship he continued surveying the coast of Sicily, the adjacent coasts of Italy, and the opposite shores of Africa.

With his military commitments coming to an end with the fall of Napoleon, Smyth devoted himself to the survey of Sicily, in command of the brig Scylla, and he produced a number of maps and drawings that roused the Admiralty's unconditional admiration for their beauty and accuracy.

He was subsequently engaged in hydrographic operations in the Adriatic, collaborating with the Austrian and Neapolitan authorities in the production of loose charts and of the Carta di Cabottaggio del Mare Adriatico ("Cabotage map of the Adriatic Sea"), published in 1822–24.[3]

During this period (1815–1817), Smyth's 22-year-old half-brother, Augustus Earle, visited Sicily, Malta, Gibraltar and North Africa. Smyth had sought and was given permission by Lord Exmouth to allow Augustus passage through the Mediterranean aboard the Scylla that he commanded and which was part of Admiral Lord Exmouth's Royal Navy fleet.

In 1817 Smyth's survey work was put on a more formal footing by his appointment to Aid (renamed in 1821 as Adventure). This ship was later to be accompanied by HMS Beagle (2) on the first "voyage of the Beagle" (1826–30). Charles Darwin was on the second voyage, 1831–36, on which voyage, Smyth's half-brother Augustus Earle was appointed 'ship's artist' by naturalist Charles Darwin. In this capacity he acted as both a recorder of biological specimens and as topographical artist.

In Aid, Smyth carried on the hydrographic survey of the Italian, Sicilian, Greek, and African coasts, and constructed a very large number of charts, used by the British Royal Navy inter alia until the mid 20th century. As a result, he became known as "Mediterranean Smyth"; an 1818 portrait exists.[4][5]

In 1817 he met the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in Palermo, Sicily, and visited his observatory; this sparked his interest in astronomy. Smyth's first son was given Piazzi's surname as his middle name.

Smyth published some of this work in his elaborate Memoir … of the Resources, Inhabitants, and Hydrography of Sicily and its Islands (London, 1824), which was to be followed in 1828 by a Sketch of Sardinia.

On 7 February 1824, Smyth was promoted to post rank, and in the following November, aged 37, he paid off the Adventure. As a result of the inevitable cuts following the defeat of Napoleon, this was the end of Smyth's service at sea, his tastes then leading him to a life of literary and scientific industry.[1]

In 1846 Smyth accepted retirement from the Navy, receiving half-pay of 18 shillings per day,[6] though in due course he was advanced, on the retired list, to rear-admiral ("without increase of pay") on 28 May 1853,[7] then to vice-admiral on 17 May 1858 (with seniority from 13 February),[8] and finally to admiral on 14 November 1863.[9][10]

He was awarded the Royal Geographic Society's Founder's Medal in 1854 for his survey work in the Mediterranean. [11]

Astronomical and other work

The Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smyth

In 1825 Smyth established a private observatory in

  • Obituary in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Vol XXVI (November 1865 to June 1866) pp. 121–129
  • Works by William Henry Smyth at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about William Henry Smyth at Internet Archive

External links


  1. ^ a b c d Laughton, J. K. (1898). "Smyth, William Henry (1788–1865), admiral and scientific writer".  
  2. ^ The London Gazette: no. 17126. pp. 65–66. 9 April 1816.
  3. ^ Presciuttini, Paola (2012). "Nautical cartography : Great Britain". Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  4. ^ "Portrait study of Captain William Henry Smyth, R.N., in dress uniform and wearing his insignia of the Order of St. Ferdinand by James Green (1771-1834)". 2013. Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  5. ^ "William Henry Smyth by William Brockedon". National Portrait Gallery. 2013. Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  6. ^ The London Gazette: no. 20656. pp. 3839–3840. 3 November 1846.
  7. ^ The London Gazette: no. 21445. p. 1549. 3 June 1853.
  8. ^ The London Gazette: no. 22140. pp. 2454–2455. 18 May 1858.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: no. 22790. p. 5586. 20 November 1863.
  10. ^ "Portrait photograph of William Henry Smyth by Maull & Polyblank". National Portrait Gallery. 1855. Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  11. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 24 August 2015. 
  12. ^ Lovi, George (2008). "The Bedford Catalog from Cycle of Celestial Objects by William H. Smyth". Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  13. ^ Tirion, Will (1993). "Obituary: George Lovi (1939-1993)". Journal of the British Astronomical Association 103 (4): 201.  
  14. ^ Smyth, William Henry (2013). "Aedes Hartwellianae: or, Notices of the Manor and Mansion of Hartwell". Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  15. ^ Carson, R.A.G. (2013). "History of the Society Part 1: 1836-1874" (PDF). Royal Numismatic Society. Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  16. ^  
  17. ^ "Obituary : Admiral William Henry Smyth".  


  • Memoir Descriptive of the Resources, Inhabitants, and Hydrography of Sicily and Its Islands, Interspersed With Antiquarian and Other Notices (1824)
  • Sketch of the Present State of the Island of Sardinia (1828, reprinted 2009)
  • The Life and Services of Captain Philip Beaver (1829)
  • Descriptive Catalogue of a Cabinet of Roman Imperial Large-brass Medals (1834)
  • Voyages up the Mediterranean and in the Indian Seas; with memoirs, compiled from the logs and letters of W. Robinson, a Midshipman. Revised by W. H. Smyth (1837)
  • Address to the Royal Geographical Society of London: delivered at the anniversary meeting on 27 May 1850 (1850)
  • A Cycle of Celestial Objects, for the use of naval, military and private astronomers, observed, reduced and discussed by Captain W. H. Smyth (1844)
  • Aedes Hartwellianae, or notices of the Manor and Mansion of Hartwell (1851)
  • Address to the Royal Geographical Society of London; delivered at the anniversary meeting on 26 May 1851 (1851)
  • The Mediterranean: a Memoir Physical Historical and Nautical (1854, reprinted 2000)
  • Popular Astronomy ... by Dominique Francois Jean Arago, translated and edited by Admiral W. H. Smyth and R. Grant (1855)
  • Descriptive Catalogue of a cabinet of Roman Family Coins belonging to His Grace the Duke of Northumberland (1856)
  • Lines written on reading verses of Rear-Admiral W. H. Smyth (1857)
  • History of the New World (1857) by Girolamo Benzoni, translated by W. H. Smyth
  • Biographies of Distinguished Scientific Men by Dominique Francois Jean Arago, translated by W. H. Smyth, the Rev. Baden Powell and R. Grant, (1857)
  • The Cycle of Celestial Objects continued at the Hartwell Observatory to 1859. With a notice of recent discoveries, including details from the Ædes Hartwellianae (1860)
  • An Additional Word on the pristine establishment of the Royal Society Club (1861)
  • Synopsis of the published and privately-printed works by Admiral W. H. Smyth (1864)
  • Addenda to the Ædes Hartwellianæ (1864)
  • Nautical Terms - The Sailor's Word-Book (1867)
  • Sidereal Chromatics: Being a Re-Print, with Additions from the Bedford Cycle of Celestial Objects and its Hartwell Continuation on the Colours of Multiple Stars (Re-printed 2010. ISBN 9781108015172)


As President of the Astronomical Club, he was always genial & courteous, ever keeping things in happy order, and by his ready wit and flow of humour compelling the maintenance of good fellowship. He used to fill his pockets with new half-pennies to distribute to any children he met in his daily walks. Whatever he did, he did it with his might.[17]

His obituary in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society noted:

A lunar mare was named Mare Smythii in his honour.

In 1821 he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). On 15 June 1826 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1830 was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). In 1845–6 he was president of the RAS; in 1849–50, of the RGS; 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.[1] Among these were the Royal Irish Academy, the Institut de France, the Accademia Pontaniana, the National Institute of Washington, the Academy of Sciences at Boston, and the Naval Lyceum of New York. He also served on the Board of Visitors to the Greenwich Observatory.[16] He contributed numerous papers to the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings of the RAS and RGS, 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. 1844), for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society; The Mediterranean: a Memoir Physical, Historical, and Nautical (1854); and The Sailor's Word-Book, revised and edited by Sir Edward Belcher (1867). He also translated and edited François 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 (1864), which enumerates his fugitive papers as well as his larger works.[1]

Involvement with learned institutions

Smyth latterly also had a house at 3 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where he stayed while attending the various learned societies, and where he entertained his like-minded friends, of whom Rev. Professor Baden Powell was one, and who, on the 10 March 1846, when he was 50, became Smyth's son-in-law, although only eight years younger, by marrying Smyth's daughter Henrietta Grace, then aged 22.

An 1861 portrait in oils by E. E. Eddis of him, with his wife, cataloguing the Duke of Northumberland (of Newcastle?)'s numismatic collection, was destroyed during the London blitz, but prints exist. That catalogue was used when the Duke's collection was sold.

The first meetings, held on 26 June 1836 ... proposed that ... the friends of Numismatic Science should ... be formed into ... the Numismatic Society, that Capt. William Henry Smyth be requested to act as President.[15] In the event, he became instead one of the first Members of Council.

Smyth was a numismatist of note. He was a founding member of the Royal Numismatic Society in 1836. He maintained a lifelong interest in coins and was author of a number of interesting treatises on the subject. The history of the Society, Part 1: 1836–1874, describes the founding of the Society including the role of Admiral Smyth:

Smyth moved to Stone near Aylesbury in 1842, and still had the opportunity to use the telescope since his residence at St. John's Lodge was not far from its new location, and he performed a large number of additional astronomical observations from 1839 to 1859. The telescope is presently in the Science Museum, London. (See his book "Aedes Hartwellianae, or notices of the Mansion of Hartwell" (1851),[14] which has illustrations by his wife Eliza, his sons Charles and Henry, his daughter Ellen, and his son-in-law, Rev. Professor Baden Powell.)

Having completed his observations, Smyth moved to Cardiff in 1839 to supervise the construction of the Bute Dock which he had designed (see his Report, of which a copy is held at the Institution of Civil Engineers). His observatory was dismantled and the telescope was sold to Dr John Lee and re-erected in a new observatory of Smyth's own design at Hartwell House nearby.

writes, "What makes it so special is that it is the first true celestial Baedeker and not just another "cold" catalogue of mere numbers and data. Like the original Baedeker travel guidebooks of the last century, this work is full of colorful commentary on the highlights of the heavenly scene and heavily influenced several subsequent works of its type, even to the present day. ... It is in the descriptive material that Smyth is a delight. He not only describes what the user of a small telescope will see, but also includes much fascinating astronomical, mythological, and historical lore. Many of these descriptions are especially valuable for the novice and user of small telescopes of a size similar to Smyth's." [13]

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