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

Published in Features

The welfare estate

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. Richard Larn OBE charts the life of this enthusiastic Freemason and philanthropist

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 five off-islands of Scilly from starvation.

The Smith family originated from Nottingham, where grandfather Smith had made his fortune in textiles. His son James took over the business before moving into banking and property investment, purchasing Ashlyn’s Hall in Berkhamstead, where Augustus was raised. The young Smith was at Harrow when his mother Mary died while visiting Paris. 

Graduating from Christchurch College, Oxford, Smith greatly missed his mother and her guidance. Her love of horticulture encouraged him to later create the now world-famous Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly. However, his great passion in life was education and improving the lot of the working class.

While in his twenties, Smith’s 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 not Smith. A studious and serious young man, he toured Britain, studying the working class – their living conditions, employment, finances and education.

At his own expense, Smith established two schools in his home town 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 seek pastures new, 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.   

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.’

Devoted to reform

The reverend was referring to the conditions he found during a tour of the off-islands, which revealed men, women and children in the depths of poverty. He wrote in his journal: ‘What strength could they have from limpets and dried leaves off the hedge, which they mix with hot water? ... Scarcely any clothes and no shoes, the woman frequently goes out at twelve at night to any family who can hire her, and stands washing till the next night for four pence and a little food.’

After signing a lease for ninety-nine 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 five off-islands were in a deplorable state; the Duchy wasn’t prepared to invest in its own property, yet still it demanded this sum. 

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

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 thirteen. 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 personal needs, Smith built Tresco Abbey as his private residence, overlooking two lakes in the grounds of the old St Nicholas Priory.

The moral man

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 twenty-seven, and later became a member of numerous other lodges. In 1855, aged fifty-one, the Phoenix Lodge in Truro sponsored his election as Deputy Provincial Grand Master; by 1863 he was chosen as the sixth Provincial Grand Master of Cornwall.

Just when Smith joined Dolphin Lodge, No. 7790, Isles of Scilly, is uncertain. There had been a lodge on the island from 1755, but in 1783 it changed its name to Godolphin Lodge, possibly out of respect for the family who held the tenancy of the islands for centuries. In 1851, for reasons unknown, the lodge surrendered its warrant and closed. 

While this could have been due to a lack of support, it does not seem likely. With shipbuilding on the main island of St Mary’s at its peak, the island was packed with workers and countless ships’ captains, many of whom were masons. There is a possibility that Smith initiated its closure, since as a mason he was morally obliged to support the lodge and attend its meetings, but his role as Lord Proprietor placed him in an impossible position. We shall never know.

In 1872, Smith died aged sixty-seven from gangrene of the lungs in Plymouth. He was buried in St Buryan, Cornwall, choosing that location over the islands as a death-bed protest against the Duchy of Cornwall, which he felt had treated him badly. 

Smith had worked tirelessly for the benefit of Scilly. 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.

Published in Features

Masonic gift from 1883

Nearly 800 Hertfordshire masons and their families attended the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban for a service of thanksgiving and the rededication of a pulpit, a gift from English Freemasons in 1883. Most of the original funding for the carved stone pulpit came from the Province of Hertfordshire and three lodges in particular – Watford, No. 404, Gladsmuir, No. 1385, and Halsey, No. 1479.

Its £6,000 restoration, under the guidance of Hertfordshire Provincial Grand Orator and Cathedral Clerk of the Works, George Laverick, was made possible by many lodge donations, as well as three other local orders: Knights Templar, Rose Croix and Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia.

At the service, Provincial Grand Master Colin Harris and Dean the Very Rev Jeffrey John both referred to the relationship between the Abbey and Hertfordshire Provincial Grand Stewards’ Lodge, No. 8984, which regularly assists at major Abbey events. The restored pulpit is situated in the crossing of the cathedral, under the great Norman Tower.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 09:46

Tracing New Zealand’s Masonic Roots

Roger Marjoribanks looks to his family tree to follow the masonic life of Stewart Marjoribanks and his role in the creation of New Zealand as we know it today

In New Zealand, many of Wellington’s citizens will be aware of a perfectly ordinary road called Majoribanks Street running out of town from Courtenay Place. They may perhaps know that it should correctly be spelled Marjoribanks and pronounced Marchbanks. However, they are less likely to know that it commemorates a man who, although having never visited the island country in the Pacific, may truly be numbered among the founding fathers of the nation.

Stewart Marjoribanks was the third of five sons of Edward Marjoribanks of Lees, just north of the Scottish border with England, all of whom distinguished themselves in their various fields. The eldest brother, John, remained in Scotland, became Lord Provost of Edinburgh (twice), an MP and Depute Grand Master of Scotland. Campbell, Stewart and Edward all came to London around the turn of the century, while James became a judge in India.

Campbell twice became chairman of the East India Company, Stewart a most successful owner of a fleet of merchantmen and Edward a senior partner in Coutts & Co. Bank. It is, incidentally, perhaps in the family friendship with Thomas Coutts that the key to their extraordinary and sudden prominence lies. They were in any case a very talented group, but a helping hand never comes amiss.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin down Stewart’s early career to precise dates, but a letter from 1820 mentions that in that year he was expecting to be returned unopposed as MP for Hythe. This election conferred on him the ancient title of ‘Baron of the Cinque Ports’ (founded originally to defend the coast from the French) and the right to bear the canopy at the coronation of George IV while girt with a sword (which is still in possession of Watford Lodge).

Involved and Influential
Stewart’s masonic career began in February 1811, when he was initiated into the Lodge of Friendship, No. 6, a ‘Moderns’ lodge of great prestige meeting in Bond Street. Although the final achievement of the union was still a couple of years in the future, concrete steps were already being taken, in which members of this lodge took a leading part. Stewart made his masonic reputation as a member of this lodge, for he became Senior Grand Warden in 1823, the year before joining the equally prestigious Royal Alpha Lodge. This is traditionally the lodge of the Grand Master and in due course Stewart served as Deputy Master to the Duke of Sussex.

Much more is known about Stewart’s membership of Bamborough Lodge, No. 580, which he joined in 1830, and which was eventually renamed and numbered as Watford Lodge, No. 404. Here he is well remembered as an assiduous, authoritative and kindly member, and can be recalled physically through his portrait by John Lennell, which still hangs in the Temple in the west. He came to Watford when he and Campbell bought Bushey Grove House as their country seat. Stewart joined the Royal Arch in Cyrus Chapter, No. 21, in 1813 and became a founder of the Chapter of Friendship, No. 3 (now No. 6), in 1824, in which year he became Assistant Grand Sojourner (AGSoj).

As a member of Watford Lodge, Stewart was a distinctly big fish in a moderate pond. He apparently introduced a number of well-known men to the lodge, culminating in the agreement of the Duke of Sussex to become an Honorary Member. He was Worshipful Master for two consecutive years from 1835 to 1836 (the lodge numbered some seventy-one masons) and was elected again in 1841, although ill health appears to have prevented his installation. He is said to have been regular in attendance except when his Parliamentary duties kept him away, though with advancing years he was unable to play a very active part after turning seventy. He married a lodge widow, Lady Rendlesham, but the union produced no children. He appears to have been a popular and effective member of the lodge and promoter of its interests.

Expanding Apace
It is worth remembering that Stewart’s masonic career coincides with the first generation of the United Grand Lodge of England after the resolution of the schism between the Moderns and the Ancients which had so marred the half century previous to 1813. The Duke of Sussex, as Most Worshipful Grand Master, must have felt that Stewart, with his easy personality and well-reputed integrity, was an ideal friend and support.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s business expanded apace from his premises in King’s Arms Yard. At first it appears that he traded mainly with India and China, which fitted in well with the interests of his brother Campbell and Thomas Coutts; but before long he turned to the Australia run (he invested substantially in the Australian Agricultural Company) and the growing interest in New Zealand through the New Zealand Company. We have evidence from one of his captains  – Cole of the ‘Mellish’ in 1822 – that he was very much looked up to as a model for emulation, while in 1826 his captains clubbed together to present him with a gift of silver plate ‘in view of his much appreciated way of conducting himself towards them’.

As far as New Zealand was concerned, Stewart was very much the right man in the right place at the right time. He was well placed to win government contracts for the transport of troops and stores, but his major role seems to have been in implementing the official policy of encouraging emigration after the Treaty of Waitangi by transporting potential settlers of all classes, especially from Scotland. Here he was assisted by his distant cousin Alexander Marjoribanks of that ilk, chief of the family – it was not then recognised as a clan. Alexander’s prestige stood a great deal higher than his character warranted, but he did take ship to New Zealand and then on to New South Wales in 1840-41 and wrote very readable books about both colonies. To judge by the volume of Scottish settlers, the publicity gained was well worthwhile.

Round Peg in a Round Hole
As it happens, one of the ship’s officers kept a diary of the first leg of this trip and most entertaining it is – he makes clear that he is torn between respect for Alexander’s rank and contempt for his unworthy behaviour. He records with disapproval Alexander’s marriage on board to his maid and it is notable that no such marriage is officially recorded anywhere, nor did the lady proceed to New South Wales.

Bearing in mind the savagery of the Mãori wars that followed, one could be in two minds about the effects of Stewart’s work on New Zealand. However, the impression is of a diligent, conscientious and kindly businessman, ‘a round peg in a round hole’. As the 1840s progressed, ill health drove him into virtual retirement. Campbell had died in 1840 but Stewart lived on to the age of eighty-seven. Childless, he left Bushey Grove House to his nephew Edward (my great-grandfather), who promptly bankrupted himself by destroying it and building a monstrosity
in its place. And the explanation of the spelling and pronunciation of Majoribanks Street? A mystery, lost in the mists of history. Even the Marjoribankses themselves have no convincing explanation.
Published in Features

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