Historian To Present Life Of Augustus Smith

Local historian, Richard Larn

A St Mary’s historian will explain how much our islands owe to Augustus John Smith at a presentation this evening.

Richard Larn has spent the winter researching the life of Augustus John Smith, who was the first resident Governor in Scilly.

For five seasons, Richard’s talk has focussed on the tougher times in Scilly’s past, but says offering the same talk virtually year after year isn’t good for visitors, especially those who return here often.

The evening lectures and slide shows given in Scilly are very unusual, says Richard. It’s not something you’d usually do on holiday but seem very popular, and are expected, here.

He feels attendees will find the mid-Victorian years in Scilly to be fascinating because while boat builders became hugely wealthy, almost millionaires, there was widespread poverty and Smith wanted to address that.

Augustus John Smith

Richard says Augustus Smith has probably been the most important person in Scilly’s history, describing him as ‘the saviour of the Isles of Scilly.” But most visitors have hardly heard of him.

He came in the 1830’s, at a point in history when the five Off-Islands, which at that time included Samson, were in a state of starvation. The Duke of Leeds had just given up the tenancy of the islands and the Duchy of Cornwall were having to run them.

Richard says he was wealthy, coming from a banking family. He went to Harrow and Oxford University, and found himself at 26 years old rich but with nothing to do.

He was apparently welcomed here with open arms when he said he wanted the tenancy.

Richard says was a true philanthropist, introducing full-time education here 40 years before the mainland and was also responsible for many of our great buildings, such as the schools, the Town Hall and St Mary’s church, as well as Tresco Abbey and Gardens.

One interesting change that he brought in was to remove the tradition of dividing farm land between surviving sons on their father’s death, as he realised this was unsustainable in the long term.

 

‘Emperor Smith’

 

Much of this went unseen at the time. However, locals didn’t really like him telling them what to do and nicknamed him ‘Emperor Smith.’

Richard says he chose to live on Tresco as this gave him some isolation from all of the people, commerce and activity on St Mary’s

And his funeral was fascinating. At first, he was going to be buried in Old Town Church, but changed that to St Buryan near Land’s End, four days before his death, as he didn’t want to be buried in Duchy land who he felt were “greedy and grabbing.”

From Radio Scilly

Richard Larn talks to Keri jones about the life of Augustus Smith

His body was enclosed in a lead-lined, deal coffin, which in turn was placed in an oak casket. The grave was also lined in waterproof brick and concrete.

Richard says the islands have a lot to thank Augustus Smith for. Had he not arrived, the introduction of schooling would have been set back 40 or 50 years and many of the Off-Islands, including Tresco and Bryher, would probably have been evacuated.

Richard spent most of this winter researching Smith using archives in Cornwall and at Smith’s family seat in Berkhamsted.

Robert Dorrien Smith has given Richard permission to use photographs from the Tresco Archive for the shows, which will run through the summer.

The first presentation is on at the Methodist Church Hall at 8.15pm this evening.