The story of Augustus John Smith philanthropist and Freemason

Thursday, 05 June 2014

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.

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