Tag: Henry Keene Smithers

Henry and Sophia Smithers: the next generation

Big cities usually act as magnets, attracting people from the countryside to the excitement and employment opportunites urban centres offer. But several adult children of Henry and Sophia Smithers did the opposite: born in greater London at the beginning of the 19th century, they scattered across Engand and beyond as adults.

Henry Smithers (1762-1828) was born in London, while his wife, Sophia Papps (1763-1845) was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge. They were married in 1783 at St. Matthew’s Parish Church, Bethnal Green, and had seven children. 

Henry Keene Smithers was born in St. Andrews Holborn parish, London in 1785. His birth and that of his sister Charlotte Sophia were registered simultaneously in the non-conformist records on Dec 14, 1789. After being apprenticed to his father, he became a coal merchant, then a general merchant and accountant. He and his wife, Charlotte Letitia Pittman, and their eight children lived in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames River. He died in 1859. He was my three-times great-grandfather, and I have written in greater detail about his life and beliefs in two previous posts.

Charlotte Sophia Smithers was born in St Saviour’s Parish, County Surrey, in April 1789, so the family must have moved across the Thames before she was born. I know very little about her life except that she did not marry and was living with her brother Henry Keene Smithers and his wife in St. Giles, Camberwell at the time of the 1841 Census of England. 

By the time the 1851 census took place, she was age 61 and living as a lodger with a Baptist minister’s family in Bedfordshire. She described herself as an annuitant, meaning she had some private income. She died a few months later.

Martha Keene Smithers, born in 1790, was said to have been a great beauty. She married John Van Cooten, at St. Woolos Church in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales in 1808. (Newport was an important coal-exporting port at the time, and her father had a business there; it went bankrupt in 1812.) Martha and John had six children, at least one of whom was born in the Netherlands. (John’s father was originally from the Netherlands, but he became a sugar plantation owner in Demerara, Guyana, South America, which is where John was born.) 

Their marriage must have been an unhappy one because, according the Van Cooten family website, Martha went to the West Indies, leaving John and their young children behind. She eventually returned to England, but, although she and John did not divorce, they never lived together again. Her brother Sydney, who was steward to the Duke of Devonshire, supported her. At the time of the 1851 census she was living with her daughter Anna in London. She was buried in the parish of St. George Bloomsbury, London in 1854. 

John Hampden Smithers was born in Southwark, Surrey in 1792, and his birth, like that of his older siblings, was registered at the Maze Pond Baptist Church. He was likely named after English politician John Hampden, who challenged the authority of King Charles I and was killed in battle in 1643 at the outset of the Civil War in England.

In 1806, when brother Henry Keene was wrapping up his apprenticeship, John became apprenticed to his father. John was admitted to the Freedom of the City of London by patrimony in 1815. Also in that year, the business he and his father owned on Oxford Street in London went bankrupt.

In 1822 John married Amsterdam-born Elizabeth Hoffmann by license at St. Marylebone Church, London. They had five children, the eldest daughter baptized in London, a son baptized in Liverpool, and the two youngest daughters, born 1827 and 1830, baptized in Derbyshire. All the children were baptized in the Anglican church. In 1827 John, a provision merchant in Liverpool, went bankrupt a second time. Soon after that the family appears to have moved to the city of Derby. 

The 1851 census showed John, his wife and three daughters living in London. John gave his occupation as proprietor of houses (basically a landlord.) I did not find the family in 1841 or 1861 in the British Isles, so perhaps they were living in Europe. He died in 1867 in Nice, France and was buried in the Anglican cemetery there. 

Sydney Smithers was born in Southwark around 1795. I have not found any record of his birth or baptism. He married Catherine Longsdon in 1822 in Youlgreave, Derbyshire, and they had three children baptized in the Church of England. Sydney worked for William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. A Whig in politics (he supported liberalizing restrictions on Catholics and abolishing slavery,) the duke was friends with kings, writers and botanists. He owned several vast estates, including one in Derbyshire. Sydney and his family lived in Ashford, Derbyshire, and his duties probably involved managing the duke’s household and estate there. Sydney died in 1856, age 61.

Augusta Sophia Smithers, was born in 1799 or 1800, and was baptized in 1827. Adult baptism is normal for a member of the Baptist church, but several things suggest this baptism was not a happy occasion.

The baptism took place on August 26, 1827 at the Anglican Church of St. Mary Edge Hill, near Liverpool, where her brother John lived. Her parents were Baptists, but it appears that Augusta Sophia was converting to the Anglican religion. The register of the baptism listed her father’s name, but her mother’s was left blank. Perhaps her mother did not attend the service that day. 

Like her brother John, Augusta Sophia is hard to trace. I did not find her in the 1841 or 1851 censuses, but in 1861, at age 60, she may have been living as a lodger in Wandsworth, Surrey. She may have been living as a lodger in Islington, London in 1871, and she is probably the Augusta Sophia Smithers who died in Croydon, Surrey in 1881.

Rosa Smithers only appears in the records twice: the day she and her sister were baptized as adults, and the day she died, two weeks after her baptism. Everyone must have known she was very ill when she was baptized. She was buried at the Church of St. Mary Edge Hill, near Liverpool, Lancaster, on 8 September, 1827. She was just 24 when she died.  

Several months later, in April 1828, her father also died in Liverpool and was buried in the same cemetery.

These highlights are all I know about the lives of Henry and Sophia Smithers’ children. Put them together, though, and patterns start to appear. I have begun to suspect that, although their father wrote of his love for his children in his 1807 book Affection, with other poems, these siblings were not very close. In many of the families I have researched, I have found widows, elderly fathers and unmarried sisters living with other family members. In the case of my Smithers ancestors, this was not the case. I should not speculate, though; I will never learn the truth.

Research Remarks

For more information on other generations of this family, and other families with the same last name, see Michael Smither’s Smither, Smithers, Smythers family tree in Ancestry.com’s Public Member Trees section. http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/49405444/person/12982389958

This article relies primarily on birth, marriage and death records found on Ancestry.com, supplemented by census records as of 184I. I found bankruptcy announcements in English newspapers on findmypast.com.

I have written more extensively about Henry Keene Smithers, non-conformist religious beliefs and apprenticeships. See https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/12/the-apprenticeship-of-coal-merchant.html and https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/12/henry-keene-smithers-non-conformist.html

The Van Cooten family page, www.vc.id.au/fh/smithers.html, includes several references Martha Keene Smithers and points to the position held by Sydney Smithers.    

My suspicion that John Hampden Smithers was named after a politician from the English Civil War era who died in battle in 1643 is based on a poem called Hampden in Henry Smithers’ 1807 book Affection, with other poems. (see https://books.google.ca/books?id=DGUUAAAAQAAJ  p.11-12)  At first I had no idea who Hampden was. Then, while researching Henry’s political interests, I found an article about John Hampden. Henry mentioned someone named Sydney in the same poem, so perhaps his younger son was also named after a politician.

There was probably only one Augusta Sophia Smithers living in England at that time, so the person I found in the census was probably my ancestor. I was confused, however, because her birthplace was listed as Wandsworth, Sussex. All the information I have about Henry’s family, including property tax records, puts them in Walworth, Sussex.

The Apprenticeship of a Coal Merchant

In 1799, Henry Keene Smithers became an apprentice to his father, Henry Smithers, a London coal merchant and poet.1  It was not uncommon for teenage boys to become apprentices to their fathers, but given his father’s broad range of interests, his experience might have been somewhat unusual. 

Henry Keene Smithers (1785-1859) was the eldest of the six children of Henry Smithers (1762-1828). (For clarity, I will refer to the son as Henry K., the father as Henry sr.) Born in London, Henry K. was 14 when he started his apprenticeship, slightly younger than the average age of 17. 

Henry Keene Smithers apprenticed himself to his father in 1799.

Apprenticeship traditions dated from medieval times. The master was expected to house and feed the apprentice, teach him (or her) a marketable trade, and ensure that the apprentice followed the moral values of society. The apprentice had to learn various skills and obey the master. Many apprentices started by doing simple tasks, such as sweeping the floor, while observing the master conduct business. They gradually acquired the skills they needed over a seven-year period. 

Henry sr. was an educated man. His own father and grandfather, both named Joseph Smithers, had been schoolmasters at St.Margaret Lothbury Academy in the City of London. Henry sr. believed that studying the arts and sciences promotes hard work, virtue and happiness, so it is easy to imagine that his son studied the classics along with accounting and the intricacies of the coal business.  

In 1807, after Henry K. completed his apprenticeship, he was granted the Freedom of the City of London.  In medieval times, a freeman had been someone who was not the property of a feudal lord but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land. Many city dwellers were freemen, so this was the origin of the term ‘freedom of the City’. Freemen had various rights, including the right to carry on their trades, and the right to vote for Members of Parliament. In London especially, freedom also brought social prestige. 

Completion of an apprenticeship was one way to achieve freedom of the city, but by the end of the eighteenth century, it was frequently purchased or inherited. In 1799, Henry sr. paid 46 shillings, eight pence to be admitted to the Freedom of the City of London.2 Henry K. was made free by patrimony; in other words, because he was his father’s legitimate son.3

Henry sr. was also a member of a trade guild, the Company of Fishmongers, and so was his son. Guilds and livery companies were another medieval invention. They were created so their members could provide each other with support and enforce standards in craftsmanship and in retail trade. The guilds also oversaw apprenticeships, ensuring that masters met their obligations and that apprentices achieved competence.

There was a lot to learn about the coal trade. Coal was shipped from the north of England, where it was mined, down the coast to London, where people used it to heat their homes and to power expanding industries. Some 1.2 million tons of coal were imported to London in 1800. But the merchants had to deal with hundreds of regulations and pay expensive duties to the government. So many people complained about the high cost of coal in London and suspected there were irregularities in the system that  Parliament held an enquiry into these issues. 

Clink Street, Southwark, near The Clink Prison and London Bridge

An 1803 London city directory shows that Keen and Smithers, coal merchants, had an office on Clink Street in Southwark, not far from the London Bridge on the south shore of the Thames. The Smithers family had lived in Southwark in 1799, but by 1807 Henry sr. must have achieved considerable financial success because he now lived at an exclusive address: the Adelphi, a development of 24 terraced houses, built in the 1770s overlooking the Thames River, near today’s Victoria Embankment Gardens in central London. 

Perhaps the coal business became too challenging, however, because in 1812 and 1813, the names of Henry Keene Smithers, Henry Smithers and another partner appeared in the bankruptcy announcements of several English newspapers. 

Henry sr. appears to have retired soon after that, perhaps to travel and concentrate on his writing. He published several books in the following years, ranging from an account of his travels in Europe to a book about Liverpool and the cotton trade.

At some point, Henry K. also left the coal business. In the 1841 census, he identified himself as an accountant and in 1851, he said he was a general merchant and agent.

Research Remarks 

While in London in September 2014, I visited the Museum of London Docklands, where I found several panels about the coal trade. 

Stuart A. Raymond’s My Ancestor was an Apprentice; How Can I Find Out More About Him? London: Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd, 2010 provides background on apprenticeships and freedom of the city and guides the researcher looking for further information.

The database London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1925 provides a wealth of information. These documents give an indication of family relationships, apprenticeships, guild membership, residence and occupation, as well as admission to the freedom of the city. 

In 1818, Henry sr. wrote, “I maintain that the cultivation of the Arts and Sciences are Favourable to virtue and to happiness. I. The cultivation of the Arts and Sciences naturally promote Industry. II. Habits of Industry are favourable to Virtue and Piety. III. The practice of Virtue and Piety ensures to man the greatest portion of happiness, taking into consideration his relation to the present and to a future state of existence.” Smithers, Henry.

The Cultivation of the Arts and Sciences. Brussels, Printed at the British Press, 1818, p. 10.

The books of Henry Smithers are available online or in reprint editions. He wrote both poetry and non-fiction, but his best known book is probably Affection; with Other Poems, by Henry Smithers of the Adelphi, London.London: Printed for the Author by T. Bensley and Sold by W. Miller, 1807. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t5cc0z71k;view=1up;seq=1

photo credits: above, Ancestry.com; below, Janice Hamilton 


  1. “London Metropolitan Archive; Reference Number: COL/CHD/FR/02/1315-1321,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 3 December 2014), entry for Henry Keene  Smithers, 5 December 1799; citing London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1925
  2. “London Metropolitan Archive; Reference Number: COL/CHD/FR/02/1229-1265,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 3 December 2014), entry for Henry Smithers, 8 October 1799, citing London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1925
  3. “London Metropolitan Archive; Reference Number: COL/CHD/FR/02/1655-1660,”database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 3 December 2014), entry for Henry Keene Smithers, born 1812, 3 June 1807, citing London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1925.