Augustus John Smith: The man who was an island

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

When Augustus John Smith signed a lease to run the Isles of Scilly, he created an infrastructure that would transform living conditions for the poor

While the Victorian era produced countless well-educated young men from wealthy British families, Augustus John Smith stood out. Provincial Grand Master and Chapter member of both Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Smith saved the people of the off-islands of Scilly from starvation.

While Smith was in his 20s, his father gave him a very large sum of money. With such serious funds in a bank account, many young men would have embarked on the grand tour, seen Europe end to end and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But Smith, a studious and serious young man, toured Britain, studying the working class – their living conditions, employment, finances and education.

Raised in Berkhamsted, Smith established two schools in his home town at his own expense, where ‘the three Rs’ were taught alongside instruction in industry. He suffered abuse from his peers for his support of the poor, with wealthy industrialists fearing that education would make workers unwilling to slave for the pittance they were paid. It was this opposition to progress that caused him to search for somewhere he could turn his dream of reformation into reality. Smith toured England and Ireland looking for such a place before setting his heart on Scilly.

A SCENE OF POVERTY

The needs of the islands, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and deemed ‘unprofitable’ by their previous tenant, were summed up in a Duchy Report that stated, ‘No corner of Great Britain stood in greater need of help than Scilly.’ A similar comment was voiced by the Rev George ‘Bosun’ Smith, who stated in 1818, ‘Oh, that some of our wealthy and benevolent countrymen, whose hearts are as generous as their means are ample, could but witness these things.’

After signing a lease for 99 years at an annual rent of £40, Augustus Smith was asked by the owners to pay a fine of £20,000 – a refundable surety, he was told. The off-islands were in a deplorable state; the Duchy wasn’t prepared to invest in its own property, yet it demanded this sum.

Smith also spent £5,000 building a new quay, and £3,400 on the parish church. A lesser man would have walked away, but not Smith. He arrived on Scilly in 1835 as Lord Proprietor and began a huge construction plan, offering employment and paying wages out of his own pocket.

EDUCATION FOR ALL

Smith set out a policy that cut to the quick of the old Scillonian ways. In future, every child would attend school until the age of 13. New dwellings went up, quays and roads were repaired, and new ones created, all at his own expense. He banned smuggling, introduced a magistrates’ court and upset a lot of people who were reluctant to change.

With no property on Scilly sufficiently large enough for his own personal needs, Smith built Tresco Abbey as his private residence, overlooking two lakes in the grounds of the old St Nicholas Priory.

One of Smith’s great passions was Freemasonry. He was initiated into the brotherhood in Watford Lodge, No. 404, in London in 1832 at the age of 27, and later became a member of numerous other lodges. In 1855, when he was aged 51, the Phoenix Lodge of Honour and Prudence, No. 331, in Truro sponsored his election as Deputy Provincial Grand Master; by 1863 he was chosen as the sixth Provincial Grand Master of Cornwall.

In 1872, Smith died aged 67 from gangrene of the lungs in Plymouth. Buried in St Buryan, Cornwall, he had in his lifetime worked tirelessly for the benefit of Scilly’s inhabitants. A hero to many, he got the post office to connect the islands to the mainland by telegraph cable, established a regular packet service, mail collection and delivery, and encouraged new enterprise including the island’s burgeoning flower industry.

Did you know?

Smith’s support of the poor was scorned by his wealthy peers, as they felt education would lead to demands for fair wages

Words: Richard Larn OBE

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