Carmelite Friar Unveils Plaque in Honour of Victorian Cleric, Writer & Social Reformer

Sunday, 14 April 2019

On 10th April 2019 a heritage blue plaque was unveiled at More House in the village of Heslington, York, to honour former resident The Reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845), who was one of the foremost writers and social activists of the nineteenth century.



A group gathers at More House for the unveiling ceremony.


A word of welcome from Andrew Scott, Chair of York Civic Trust.


Since the 1970s More House has been the base of the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of York, which the Diocese of Middlesbrough entrusted to the care of the British Province of Carmelites in 1995. The current chaplain, Carmelite friar Fr. Kevin Melody, O.Carm., was given the honour of unveiling the plaque.


Fr. Kevin Melody unveiling the plaque in honour of The Reverend Sydney Smith.


Before its purchase by the Catholic Church, the beautiful Georgian building was owned by the Anglican Diocese of York, sometimes serving as the vicarage for the Church of England parish of St. Paul in Heslington. It was occupied by Sydney Smith between 1809 and 1814 whilst a new vicarage was built for him in his living of Foston 12 miles away.



Portrait of Sydney Smith by Henry P. Briggs, 1840 (replica of the original 1833) in the National Portrait Gallery, London.


Sydney Smith is often compared to satirist Jonathan Swift, to his contemporary writer Oscar Wilde, and today to the likes of Stephen Fry, for his ability to write with great wit and insight. Smith was an Anglican clergyman who rose to national prominence through his powerful preaching and his writings in the press. He was a champion of various social causes including political reform, the abolition of child chimney-sweeps, prison reform (he visited Newgate Prison with Elizabeth Fry), the abolition of slavery, and the repeal of laws designed to keep rural communities in poverty. He is best remembered, however, for his efforts in support of Catholic Emancipation. Since the Reformation, Catholics had been treated as second-class citizens in England, denied the right to vote and stand for parliament, and excluded from various professions. Though not an advocate of all aspects of Catholic theology, Smith considered the prejudice against Catholics to be unjust, illogical, and politically dangerous. Writing under the pseudonym of Peter Plymley, Smith wrote a series of public letters ridiculing the opposition of the Established Church's country clergy to the rights of Catholics. These satirical pamphlets caused a sensation and paved the way for equal rights for Catholics in Britain. Though using a pen-name to conceal his identity, rumours spread of Smith's authorship of the letters, prompting the government of the day to turn against him and depriving him of a bishopric. Smith's letters and sermons have been published in multiple editions.


Graham Frater (left), who has written an account of Sydney Smith's life for York Civic Trust, presented a copy of Smith's Peter Plymley Letters to Fr. Kevin and the Chaplaincy.


The plaque at More House describes Sydney Smith as "Anglican Priest, Wit and Social Reformer who fought for Catholic Emancipation". At the unveiling ceremony Professor Graham Parry, a specialist in antiquarian studies and ecclesiastical history at the University of York, outlined Smith's life, remarking that Smith would no doubt be gratified and amused that his former residence is now used by the Catholic Church.


Literary scholar Professor Graham Parry outlined Sydney Smith's life, witty personaility, and considerable achievements.


Sydney Smith's ecumenical credentials were reflected in the fact that a prayer of thanksgiving for his life was led by the Catholic Chaplain, Fr. Kevin, before the plaque was blessed by the Vicar of Heslington, Revd. Johannes Nobel. The ceremony was attended by some Lay Carmelites, including the Chair of the ecumenical organisation Churches Together in York, Dr. Johan Bergström-Allen, who works in More House as Communications & Outreach Manager for the British Province of Carmelites.



Fr. Kevin Melody leading a prayer of thanksgiving for Sydney Smith, and Revd. Johannes Nobel blessing the plaque.


The plaque was erected by York Civic Trust in collaboration with The Sydney Smith Association which perpetuates the memory and achievements of this remarkable Victorian gentleman. York Civic Trust is responsible for the selection, approval, and manufacture of blue plaques which are awarded to noteworthy individuals and institutions who have made major contributions to the city's life and reputation.


The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sums up the life of Sydney Smith thus: "Know throughout society as 'Dear Sydney', he was one of the most approachable men of his generation, treating his servants in much the same way as he treated prime ministers. Outgoing and immensely charming, especially to women, Smith was very well liked, had few enemies, and possessed a great gift for friendship. He was at his best with children, speaking to them on their own level and being endlessly amusing ... An important contributor to the growth of libertarian thought in England, he was also, as G. K. Chesterton later pointed out, the inventor of nonsense, a very English style of humour."


Those involved in the ceremony together with Lay Carmelites, members of York Civic Trust, and The Sydney Smith Association.


The inscription on Sydney Smith's grave in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, neatly sums up his best qualities: "One of the best of men. His talents, though admitted by his contemporaries to be great, were surpassed by his unostentatious benevolence, his fearless love of truth, and his endeavour to promote the happiness of mankind by religious toleration, and rational freedom."