Sir James Edward Smith 1759-1828

J. E. Smith was born in the centre of Norwich just opposite St Peter Mancroft church  in Gentleman’s Way, now known as The Walk. His father was a wealthy draper and James Edward lived with his family over the shop. We have several glimpses of his father in Parson Woodforde’s diary. Woodforde refers to him as “my mercer” and regularly visited him when in the city to pay his account. On one occasion he fell out with him over a bill (he had the cheek to ask for payment before Woodforde thought it was due). He is then referred to him disparagingly as a ‘Presbyterian’ – James Woodforde’s term for all Non-conformists; the Smiths were in fact Unitarians.

This fact has some bearing on the education of young J. E. Smith.  As a child he had been privately educated at home, and because he was not a member of the established church he was ineligible to attend the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. He was sent instead to Edinburgh University where he read medicine. Although he took his medical degree he never practised as a doctor. His interest was always in botany, which was, in the eighteenth century, only studied as part of a medical degree, plants being virtually the only source of drugs then available. His father had hopes of him being a physician but these faded and he accepted his son’s desire to be a scientist.

On graduating the young man went to London to join in the rich intellecual life of the capital. He was fortunate to make friends with the leading botanist of the time, Sir Joseph Banks, who had participated in Captain Cook’s first expedition to Australia and had brought back specimens of many plants new to science. Through his acquaintance with Banks he learnt of the sale of the late Carl Linnæus’s scientific effects, notes and collection of plants. These were then in still held his native Sweden.

Banks was interested in the collection but could not afford the  cost of 1,000 guineas. This was a bargain price but still a huge amount of money. Smith however was very keen to buy. He was normally very careful in his expenditure, even being encouraged by his father to spend more on “diversions and amusements”, but for scientific research he was prepared to spend on a grand scale. He did not have the funds personally, but he knew that his father could come up with the money. His father eventually provided the funds necessary for the purchase, but only after initially refusing; even for a wealthy merchant this was a large sum.

J. E. Smith stressed the need for speed. There was interest (according to the young man) from other buyers including Catherine the Great of Russia. Privately he thought the University of Uppsala should buy the collection, but if they were too mean he would gladly take their place. In fact there was lot of ill feeling in Swedish academic circles that the work of so important a countryman should have been taken abroad.

Sir James went on to produce some important works, including the Flora Brittanica, but it was the Linnaean Collection of specimens which made him widely consulted from a young age. When he moved to Norwich his house at 29 Surrey Street became well known and visited by scientists from all over Europe, as housing the Collection. The cases were of an older more intimate size and looked slightly out of place in the grandeur of an eighteenth century room.

This was the room my father used as the sight testing room of his optician’s practice. He did not

The overmantle in the main room on the ground floor of the house at 29 Surrey Street, Norwich, which once held the Linnean Collection.

The overmantle in the main room on the ground floor of the house  which once held the Linnean Collection.

know the history of the house; the green plaque had not then been put up by the council. He had heard the story that Sir J. E. Smith had lived there, but thought it must have been 31, the house next door. This was because a later naturalist had put up cabinets in the equivalent room, and he (wrongly) assumed that these had held the Linnaean specimens. His testing room had a fine overmantle of a Mediterranean view, in a wooden Breton surround. It was not originally part of the room as one could see from the fact that the skirting board did not match the recesses cut for it. Was this part of the decor when it held the Linnaean specimens? We will never know for sure.

Lady Pleasance Smith as a Gypsy. Opie, c1796.

Lady Pleasance Smith as a Gypsy. Opie, c1796.

At 29 Surrey Street the Smiths had three servants: a manservant (who no doubt doubled as a butler), an above-stairs maid and a cook. Visits to the Market, shopping for important entertaining was done by Lady Pleasance herself; otherwise it would have been entrusted to servants. The title Lady followed the knighthood bestowed on Sir James Edward Smith in July 1814 by the Prince Regent.

The Linnaean Collection finally returned to its home in London on the death of Sir James Edward Smith in 1828. The Linnaean Society had to buy the collection from his estate however at a cost of £3,150, a considerable increase on the sum of £1000 he (or rather his father) had paid for it back in 1784. Lady Pleasance seems to have been an astute business woman.


For more information see the book by Margot Walker, SIR JAMES EDWARD SMITH, London,1988.



One response

  1. Fascinating.


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