A Life Well Lived
Augustus Smith is a name entwined with Berkhamsted’s history – from the Battle of Berkhamsted Common to the creation of the town’s first elementary school.
Berkhamsted has a link with the Isles of Scilly thanks to a 19th-century resident, whose name will be familiar to readers who went to school in the town in the 1970s.
Pay a visit to the fascinating Rectory Lane Cemetery and on the base of the cemetery’s foundation stone you’ll find the name Augustus Smith. He is listed here as churchwarden, but he had a far more prominent role in the town’s history.
Augustus belonged to a wealthy banking family who were influential in the town. He was born at Ashlyns Hall, and had a reputation as a philanthropist.
In the 1830s, Augustus acquired the lease from the Duchy of Cornwall of the Isles of Scilly, for £20,000. He called himself Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly and maintained a home there at Tresco Abbey.
He was not always popular during his 35-year ‘reign’ as he began to change the islanders’ way of life. Those who were unable to find a job locally were expelled and he also moved families off some of the smaller islands – the locals dubbed him ‘The Emperor’. But in his favour, he also built a new quay at Hugh Town, planted gorse and trees to create shelter for agricultural land, and built schools.
However, he is remembered more fondly in Berkhamsted, where he led the Battle of Berkhamsted Common in 1866. The Ashridge Estate was owned by the Brownlow family, and in 1865, parliament recommended that common rights should be transferred to the public. Lords of the manor were outraged by the idea and began to take action to ensure common land was part of their estates before any law could take effect. Lord Brownlow fenced off more than 400 acres of common land, blocking footpaths and bridleways.
Augustus, a radical MP by this time, hired 120 Irish navvies from the East End of London and brought them to Hertfordshire in a special train in the dead of night. In the early hours the men dismantled two miles of iron fencing, and stacked it in neat piles so they could not be charged with trespass with intent to cause damage.
Lord Brownlow brought a legal case against Augustus for trespass and criminal damage, but died before the case came to its conclusion. In 1870 Lord Justice Romilly determined that pulling down a fence was no more violent an act than erecting one and ruled in favour of Augustus.
Augustus also donated generously to local schools and is credited with restarting Berkhamsted School. The Grammar School was mismanaged and he led a campaign to bring in a new board of governors. Under his influence the emphasis moved away from classics such as Greek and Latin in favour of more modern subjects.
Augustus then turned his sights on the education of the poorer young inhabitants of the parish and proposed an elementary school where ‘boys and girls shall be taught reading, writing and arithmetic and other useful work’.
In 1834 a thatched workhouse was demolished to make way for the new parochial school. At the back of the school, Augustus arranged that an area of land was cultivated by the boys, who could then sell the produce – giving them a taste of ‘practical’ work. The name changed to Park View School in 1948 and it finally closed in 1971.
In his memory, Berkhamsted’s first middle school, Augustus Smith School, opened in 1970 and was formally opened by Margaret Thatcher, then Minister of Education. Each year, its students spent holidays in the Scilly Isles, maintaining the connection with Augustus. When the school amalgamated with Thomas Bourne School in Durrants Lane, it was renamed Thomas Coram School and the memorial to Augustus was lost.
Augustus never married but had plenty of other things to keep him busy – his garden in the Isles of Scilly became well known for the temperate plants that thrived outdoors in the islands’ welcoming climate. Now the gardens are open to the visiting public and dubbed ‘a perennial Kew without the glass’. It is home to around 20,000 plants from more than 80 countries.
He was also a Member of Parliament (MP) for Truro and President of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall.
From his home in Tresco Abbey, Augustus looked over to St Bunyan’s Church on the mainland, and this is where he was buried after his death in Plymouth in 1872. On St Mary’s Isle in the Isles of Scilly there is a tall stone monument to him in the churchyard.
However, in Berkhamsted the stone in the Rectory Lane Churchyard is the only memorial left to this man who made such an impact on the town and its people.