William Henry Smyth was born in Westminster, London on 21st January 1788. He was the son of an American loyalist soldier who had lost all of his lands and possessions during the War of Independence and had retired to England. The family were descendants of the founder of the state of Virginia.
At the age of 14 William ran away from home to join a merchant ship. He served for three years on vessels of the East India Company but transferred to the Royal Navy in 1805 and saw active service in Indian, Chinese and Australian waters, serving his country with ‘’conspicuous gallantry.’’ He developed a great interest in cartography and hydrography.
At Messina on 7th. October 1815, while based in Italy, Smyth married Eliza Anne (sometimes known as Annarella) Warington the only child of the British Consul in Naples. They were to have eleven children, five of whom themselves achieved public prominence and two were also honoured with knighthoods.
In 1817 he visited the Italian astronomer Guiseppe Piazzi at his observatory in Palermo and there began his love of astronomy and also gave him the name for his second son – Charles Piazzi.
Smyth was ‘’paid off’’ from active service in 1824 and came with his family to live at 6 The Crescent, Bedford, while also keeping a house in London. At The Crescent he built and fitted out a fine private observatory and while here published a number of works concerning deep sky objects which earned him both the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and also the Presidency of the Society.
He was renowned for his book “Cycle of Celestial Objects” an original copy of which is kept in Bedford public library. The second volume of his work is known as ‘’The Bedford Catalogue.’’
Smyth also became a numismatist and a member of a number of learned institutions.
His sons Warrington, Charles Piazzi, and Henry were all educated at Bedford Grammar School the predecessor of the current Bedford School.
It is not known exactly why Smyth chose Bedford as the place to settle but undoubtedly the quality of the education available at the Grammar School could have influenced his decision. He was however also friendly with Dr. John Lee (born John Flott) of Hartwell near Aylesbury, another astronomer and founder member of the Astronomical Society, who had land in Bedfordshire and was a frequent visitor to his own Uncle at Colworth House, Sharnbrook.
In 1839 the family moved to Cardiff where Smyth was to supervise the construction of the new docks which he had also designed. The observatory was demolished and its contents were sold off, some of these being acquired by Dr. Lee.
Three years later, in 1842 William Smyth moved to St. Johns Lodge, Stone near Aylesbury where he died on September 9th 1865 and was buried in the churchyard there. His telescope is now held in the London Science Museum.
The more famous of the children were:-
- Warington Wilkinson – an industrial geologist and professor of mineralogy. Later knighted.
- Charles Piazzi – an astronomer and Astronomer Royal For Scotland.
- Henry Augustus – senior office in the British Army. Later knighted
- Henrietta Grace – mother of Robert Baden Powell the founder of the Scout Movement.
- Georgina Rosetta – the youngest daughter, married William Henry Flower surgeon, museum curator and anatomist.
Kindly submitted by Trevor Stewart