Obituary: E. A. Smith

Stephen Taylor
Thursday 21 January 1999 00:02
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THE DEATH of E. A. Smith just two days after that of Ian Christie within one week deprived the scholarly community of two outstanding historians of later Georgian England.

Through a career spanning more than 40 years Smith remained fascinated by the history of the decades between the French revolution and the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832. He strayed occasionally - a brief history of the press in 1970 was followed by a study of the 19th- century House of Lords two decades later. But his reputation is founded on his contribution to our understanding of the Whig political tradition and, latterly, to the history of the monarchy in the early 19th century, a period when that institution appeared, if anything, even more troubled than today.

At a time when the historical profession was being rapidly transformed, above all by the rise of social history, Smith remained unapologetically attached to the traditions of political and constitutional history. In his view, that approach taught important lessons about the dangers of abstract principles and innovation, and about the British preference for gradual and organic change. It will have come as no surprise to those who attended his funeral that, in his retirement, he found a spiritual home at the parish church of Remenham in Berkshire, where the main Sunday service, matins, followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Nor is it surprising that Smith was firmly convinced of the virtues of narrative as a mode of historical writing. His most important works were all biographies. The first, Whig Principles and Party politics: Earl Fitzwilliam and the Whig party, 1748-1833 (1975), a study of the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam, was a masterpiece of its kind. A deeply researched and sensitive portrayal of a largely forgotten figure, it was also a subtle and illuminating investigation of the survival of whig principles from the era of Rockingham and Burke to that of Grey and Russell. For Smith biography was not perhaps the only, but it was certainly the most appropriate, way of exploring historical issues such as these.

Later subjects were more obvious. Lord Grey, 1764-1845, published in 1990, the year of Smith's retirement from Reading University, was another magisterial work. By this time, however, he was becoming increasingly interested in the life of George IV. This led to A Queen on Trial, a volume on the Queen Caroline affair, published, with wonderful timing, in 1993, as news of other royal affairs was coming to dominate the attention of the tabloid press, and his major new biography of the most colourful British monarch of the 18th and 19th centuries is due to appear this year.

Had Lord Grey been published a few years earlier Smith would surely have been rewarded with a personal chair. As it was he had to wait until 1991 for the arguably more prestigious accolade of a LittD from Cambridge, his undergraduate university.

Born in Grimethorpe in the West Riding in 1924, Smith followed the only route to Cambridge for a lower-middle-class boy of his generation by winning an open scholarship to Emmanuel College in 1942. War service in the RAF intervened - his eyesight was too bad for the Army - and he did not take up his place until October 1947. Having married while still an undergraduate, he decided to pursue a career in teaching and moved to Reading in 1949 to take a diploma in education.

Here he was spotted by Arthur Aspinall, Professor of History at Reading, who appointed him to an assistant lectureship in 1951. For some years, however, he was effectively Aspinall's research assistant. On occasion Aspinall would take Smith with him in his Bentley on trips to Windsor to transcribe documents in the Royal Archives. More formally, he worked for both Aspinall and Sir Lewis Namier as a research assistant on the History of Parliament. These efforts received some recognition when he was credited with Aspinall as joint editor of a weighty edition of English Historical Documents 1783-1832 (1959).

To a young lecturer appointed in the late 1980s Smith provided a personal link with a distant past, when the history department had numbered only four people and when it had been possible to embark on an academic career without a PhD. He had deep loyalty and commitment to the department, the university and, indeed, Reading itself. He chaired innumerable committees, instituted the university's staff journal and played a leading role in establishing the Reading Festival.

But it was obvious that his first loyalty was to his students, among many generations of whom he inspired gratitude and affection. Young colleagues were equally beneficiaries of his willingness always to make time to provide advice and encouragement - the only time he ever locked himself away was to write Aspinall's obituary for The Times.

Always immaculately dressed, Tony Smith radiated a sense of leisured calm. That this concealed remarkable energy became obvious to all after he had retired. In the vivacious company of his third wife, Virginia, he threw himself into the life of the communities of which they were a part at Henley and Dorking.

More surprisingly, perhaps, he revealed that 40 years of teaching and administration had left his enthusiasm for history undiminished. In the last eight years of his life he produced five books, more than many historians write in a lifetime. At the time of his death he was already beginning to draft a biography of William IV, whom he liked, while another of George III, "an evil old man", was being planned.

Ernest Anthony Smith, historian: born Grimethorpe, Yorkshire 25 December 1924; Assistant Lecturer, Reading University 1951-54, Lecturer 1954-64, Senior Lecturer 1964-76, Reader 1976-90; married 1948 Daphine Greenhaigh (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1978), 1978 Anne Pallister (died 1986), 1988 Virginia Willcox (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Redhill, Surrey 27 November 1998.

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