TOBACCO, ADULTERATION AND SCANDAL
Thomas Smithson was baptised in 1797, the son of John Smithson, farmer of Bardsey-cum-Rigton, Yorkshire. Thomas was a member of the generation who abandoned the rural life that the Smithson family had led at Weardley, then East Rigton, for centuries. Thomas sought a future in business and, after a shaky start near Leeds, attained a respected position in York as a tobacco manufacturer. His success, unfortunately, was an illusion and his business collapsed. Thomas then embarked on an extraordinary attempt to continue business, employing a variety of underhanded strategies, which ended in scandal.
MALTSTER AND FARMER
Thomas is first recorded in adult life in 1818, when he married Mary Dunwell Evans of the parish of Hunsingore (near Harrogate), at Bardsey. On that occasion, he was identified as a farmer of Bardsey, probably working on his father’s land. By 1820, Thomas and Mary were living at Seacroft in the parish of Whitkirk, where Thomas was operating a malting. He also owned a property at Sherburn, consisting of 34 freehold acres and nine acres of copyhold land with a farmhouse, barn, out-houses and orchard. Thomas was following the example of his brother, Miles Smithson, who had been a maltster and farmer at Chapel Allerton, near Leeds. Thomas and Mary had three children at Seacroft: Mary, James (who died four months after birth) and Rebecca. Their fortunes suffered a reverse in 1822 when Thomas sold his farm and, by 1824, they had left malting behind and moved to Leeds. These events seem to indicate a crisis in the finances of the East Rigton Smithsons.
It is difficult to establish precisely how the Rigton Smithsons’ finances operated at this time, although a series of coincidences do suggest a general outline. John Smithson of East Rigton was probably instrumental in establishing his eldest son, Miles, as a farmer/maltster at Chapel Allerton some time before 1812. By 1814, Miles was in serious financial difficulties and, between late 1815 and mid1816, was confined in the Fleet debtors’ prison in London. Miles was released from the Fleet on 12 October 1816. There is little doubt that his father played a central role in extricating Miles from his financial mire.
In 1816, John Smithson sold a property at Bramham to his landlord, James Fox Lane. John made little profit on this investment and there may have been little of the sale money left. John probably sold more land to provide Thomas with a malting and a farm. John already held land at Sherburn – he was recorded as a freeholder there in 1817. This was surely the 25-acre property that John put up for sale in August 1819. Land at East Rigton appears also to have been sold. 1 In 1817, John Smithson’s land tax payments at Rigton had stood at 6/4¾d. After Thomas’s marriage in 1818, John’s payments halved.
Tombstone of Thomas Smithson’s wife, Mary Dunwell Smithson, and his children, James and Rebecca, in All Hallows churchyard, Bardsey, close to the grave of Thomas’ grandfather, James. Author photo.
Unfortunately, Miles Smithson’s financial difficulties continued in consequence of what appears to have been a series of dealings around 1816 designed to defeat his creditors. In October 1822, Miles was brought before the Wakefield Special Sessions and was found guilty of disposing of his tenant-right to a wind-mill and land at Chapeltown. He was remanded to York Castle for three months. This was probably the last straw for John Smithson. Not only was Thomas’ farm sold in 1822 and his malting gone by 1824, but John had vacated his East Rigton farm around 1826. By the 1830s, John had gathered up those of his family who had remained with him and relocated to Dunnington, near York. He was almost certainly drawn there in consequence of Thomas’ relocation to York. John Smithson would pass away near Dunnington in 1839.
After leaving Seacroft, Thomas had found work as a clerk in Leeds, but his sojourn in that city was not a happy one. In 1824, Thomas’ daughter Rebecca died. On the 11th May 1825, the couple’s son, Charles Thomas Smithson, was born. A month later, Thomas’ wife, Mary, died; her son was baptised at Bardsey on the same day that she was buried. What happened in Thomas’ life following this loss is not known, but, in 1830, he remarried in York and, by 1832, was trading there as a tobacconist.
TOBACCONIST AND COUNCILLOR
It is not known when Thomas arrived in York; when or where he trained as a tobacconist; or when he started his business. It seems likely though that his marriage to Phoebe Rayson provided him with at least the Micklegate premises from which to operate his tobacco manufactory. Phoebe Rayson was the widow of Thomas Rayson junior, a builder of North Street and Mickelgate, York and they had a daughter, Anne, baptised in 1821. The Rayson extended family was well-known in York, particularly in the North Street, Tanners Row and Mickelgate area. Thomas Rayson died in December 1828 and Phoebe married Thomas Smithson two years later.
In 1831, Thomas Thompson, acting as Thomas Rayson’s daughter Anne Rayson’s ‘next friend’, presented a bill in chancery alleging a series of irregularities in the administration of Rayson’s will that disadvantaged Ann, the major beneficiary. Thompson alleged that Henry Stead, the sole surviving executor and trustee, and Phoebe had benefitted from irregular dealings in money and property, and that Stead, Phoebe, Thomas Smithson (appointed by Phoebe as trustee after their marriage) and others had combined to deny Anne Rayson of her claims for maintenance and education. The result of the legal action was the resignation of Stead as executor and trustee and his departure from York and the establishment of a new management of the Rayson estate under order of the court in August 1831.2 Thomas and his daughter Mary Ann Dunwell Smithson, and Phoebe and her daughter Anne were all shown in the 1841 census living in Holy Trinity Micklegate.
Thomas’ status rose during his early days in York. In 1835, he was one of twenty gentlemen chosen to sit on the York grand jury. In 1838, Thomas was unanimously chosen as Councillor for the Micklegate Ward of the York City Council. He was classed as a ‘liberal’ – a person committed to limited government, free markets and individual liberty. Thomas regularly hunted (the annual licence for which cost £3/13/6d, about a month’s wages for a farm labourer) and ‘kept up a first rate appearance’. Around him gathered members of his brother Miles’ family, who trained in the tobacconist trade and one of whom, Thomas Smithson of Leeds, married the daughter of the governor of York’s new House of Correction in 1838.
Yet, despite outward appearances, there was nothing stable about Thomas’ affairs and they unravelled in 1842. In November of that year, Thomas was declared bankrupt and dates of meetings were set to enable him to disclose his assets and for his creditors to prove their debts and be awarded a share of his assets. In view of his bankruptcy, Thomas was quickly removed as councillor on the York City Council. In April of 1843, it was advertised that Thomas had been awarded a certificate acknowledging his conformity to the requisitions of the bankrupt law. Thomas was not to be let off so lightly and two of Thomas’ creditors contested his certificate of conformity. The resultant hearing made public the unhappy details of Thomas’ mismanagement and financial manipulations.
In the Leeds District Court of Bankruptcy, sitting in June 1843, it was established that, despite being declared bankrupt in 1842, Thomas had been insolvent since 1834. In the words of Mr Commissioner Bere, Thomas,
while in a state of hopeless insolvency, had engaged in pursuits in which he was not justified; that his whole conduct had been that of reckless extravagance and inattention to business, making a small profit and spending largely.3
From 1834, Thomas’ profits had been around £550 a year (around £350 in 1842), yet he spent around £800 a year. In 1834, Thomas had been essentially insolvent with debts totalling above £2000. Nevertheless, he had opened up an account with the Agricultural Bank and obtained large advances. By the time Mr Commissioner Bere examined his circumstances, Thomas was £4800 in debt with assets valued at only £550. The Commissioner judged that Thomas had not given ‘a fair and creditable account of his property’ and drew attention to his unsatisfactory and contradictory answers during an examination of ‘his brother’s [probably, Miles Smithson’s] accounts’: ‘first making his brother a debtor for 3s.9d., then a creditor for £85, and, lastly, a debtor for £37’. The Commissioner concluded that Thomas ‘should not be allowed easily to return to trade’ and suspended his certificate of compliance for two years pending a better statement of facts.4 Thomas’ creditors had to be content with a dividend of one shilling in the pound. His certificate of discharge was granted in 1845.5
Thomas was not a man to be so easily undone. He emerged with his Micklegate property intact and seemingly with his manufacturing equipment still in hand.6 Thomas proceeded to embark on a most extraordinary attempt to continue his involvement in the tobacco industry at York and his financial arrangements became even less transparent than they had been at the time of his bankruptcy in 1843. Thomas circumvented his bankruptcy by operating his tobacco business in the name of his daughter, Mary; and, later, in the name of a friend.7 His brother, Henry, and son, Charles Thomas, also worked in the business. Like many small tobacconists of the period who struggled with economic circumstances and the changing nature of the tobacco market, Thomas attempted to reduce costs by evading the high tax on tobacco. He dealt in smuggled tobacco, then adulterated his tobacco to produce more saleable product than the taxed tobacco allowed.
In 1847, Thomas and his family experienced the first in a series of tangles with excise authorities. On 5th of January, information was given to customs officials that a box of smuggled tobacco had been secreted in a railway warehouse at Hull, Yorkshire. On the following day, the box was placed under surveillance. Customs officers followed the box after it was collected by a carrier and observed it being delivered to stables at Toft Green, at the rear of Thomas’ Mickelgate premises. Charles Smithson signed for the box. The customs officers, accompanied by police and armed with a search warrant, located the box, despite meeting with some verbal abuse from Charles. The box contained 100 pounds of manufactured tobacco, valued at £46, which should have attracted excise of £50. Charles, having signed for the box, was charged and convicted of harbouring and concealing illegally shipped tobacco. The Smithsons were brought before magistrates at the York Guildhall. This was the first time the courts were confronted with the problem of just who was operating the business – Thomas, Mary or Charles? It was Charles who was fined £100, and the fine was promptly paid by Thomas.8
About this time, Thomas’ family began to disperse. Thomas’ daughter, Mary, married Terence Charles Brosnan in 1847 and appears to have left York. Thomas had entertained the hope that his son would stay with the York business, but Charles Smithson left York (certainly by 1849) and moved south to Leicester, Leicestershire.9 Charles was termed a wholesale tobacco dealer, although he did manufacture tobacco and probably handled the products of Thomas’ manufactory.
In February 1848, excise officers raided Thomas’ factory and he was charged with adulterating tobacco with peat moss and rhubarb leaves. The excise officers suspected that Thomas had engaged in this practice for some time. Thomas admitted guilt confessing that ‘It is useless for me to deny the adulteration; there is peat moss in the tobacco, I am a ruined man, but I was compelled to do it by the competition in trade’.10 At his trial before the Lord Mayor of York and magistrates at the Guildhall in April 1848, Thomas’ solicitor, while accepting Thomas’ guilt, vainly argued that peat moss and rhubarb leaves were not injurious and, in fact, improved the flavour of the tobacco and ‘rendered it less pernicious to those in the habit of using it’.11 Thomas was fined £200 and the tobacco was forfeited to the Crown. It was not enough to deter him.
In March 1849, excise officers again raided Thomas’ premises and 1,135 pounds of adulterated tobacco was seized. The excise officers included two chemists who analysed the tobacco and found that blackthorn and beech leaves had been added, making up 10% of the cut tobacco and 25% of the tobacco known as ‘smalls’. At Thomas’ trial, once again before the Lord Mayor of York and magistrates at the Guildhall, Thomas’ solicitor, Mr Langham of London, pointed out that the excise officers did not observe the adulteration taking place and claimed that Thomas had bought a good deal of tobacco from other tobacconists throughout the counties and this tobacco had already been adulterated. Langham lampooned the idea that additives, which he stated improved the attractiveness of tobacco, should be considered a threat to trade and played on Northern English suspicions of gentlemen from London with ‘their optics and magnifying glasses, and their knowledge of chemistry’. Thomas was fined £100 and the tobacco was forfeited to the Crown. The solicitor to the Customs was furious at the verdict and, despite his previous intimation to the magistrates that he would bow to their decision, announced his intention to appeal.12
Thomas was not alone in adulterating his product. Adulteration of food and other consumables was a scourge in Victorian Britain and, as the historian Anthony Wohl has observed, ‘The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist’.13 Surprisingly, the raid on Thomas Smithson in 1849 had been part of a national operation waged by the Commissioners for Excise in response to the loss of around a million and a half pounds in excise revenue from the adulteration of tobacco and not by fears for public health.14 Indeed, the English Cyclopaedia in 1859 informed its readers of the great extent of adulteration:
there is scarcely an article from arrowroot to guano, which escapes. The interference of Government with the practice of adulteration, except in the case of bread and drugs, has had no other object than the improvement of revenue.15
Matters came to a head in December 1849 when internal revenue officers seized a large quantity of tobacco, together with leaves and colouring used in adulteration, on Thomas’ premises.16 Thomas’ son, Charles Thomas Smithson, was also caught adulterating tobacco in Leicester at about the same time. Both Thomas and Charles Thomas were brought before the Court of Exchequer in London in June 1850, where Thomas received a much less sympathetic hearing than he had previously enjoyed in York. Thomas and Charles Thomas admitted guilt and came to agreements that reduced the sum demanded by the Crown. In the case of Thomas Smithson, who was accused of adulteration of tobacco and the use of unregistered rooms for the manufacture of tobacco, the penalty was reduced from £2,000 to £500.17
Thomas’ response to this fourth conviction was not to reform, but to restructure – both his business and his personal life. By 1851, Thomas’ wife, Phoebe, had left the family home; the census of that year shows that she was visiting the Woods, a shop-keeping family in Spurriergate, across the River Ouse from Mickelgate. It is impossible to know exactly why Phoebe departed Mickelgate, but two factors must have had some bearing on her decision. The first would have been the financial and emotional strain engendered by Thomas’ precarious business dealings. The second would have been the emotional strain caused by Elizabeth Ellis.
Elizabeth Ellis (b.c.1811) and Harriet Palmer (b.c.1796) had operated a small boarding school in a house next door to the Smithsons for about 23 years. In 1841, their school employed a teacher and two servants and catered for the educational and personal needs of fourteen students, mostly aged 15 years. They closed the school in 1845 and, seemingly, lived on investments. Ellis and Palmer had some involvement with Thomas’ business as early as 1847.18 By about 1850-51, the two women were living with Thomas, and Ellis began operations as a tobacconist in Thomas’ premises, trading under the names, ‘Thomas Smithson’ or ‘Smithson and Co’. Ellis ‘employed’ Thomas as a foreman and traveller, although his occupation was listed in the 1851 census as ‘retired merchant’.
Ellis and Palmer later claimed that their change of occupation and address was brought about by losses they had sustained after investing in railway shares (they had been forced to sell their furniture and move in with Thomas).19 However, it is difficult not to see Thomas’ hand in the birth of Ellis and Palmer’s new business. There is also little doubt that Thomas and Elizabeth Ellis were involved in a personal relationship, although it is unclear whether this relationship blossomed before or after Phoebe’s departure. Ellis was, thus, insensible to warnings from several quarters on the dangers of associating with ‘a person of so suspicious a character as Mr. Smithson’; indeed, she successfully resisted attempts by the Board of Inland Revenue to close down her new business due to Thomas’ involvement.20
It did not take long before Ellis and Palmer’s tobacco manufactory fell foul of the authorities. On the 20th November 1851, the supervisor and officers of Excise at York proceeded with warrants to search the premises of Thomas, Elizabeth Ellis and Harriet Palmer on Mickelgate and the factory at the rear on Toft Green for adulterated tobacco. So notorious had Thomas’ operations become, that the Board of Inland Revenue had detailed two officers solely to investigate the tobacco manufactory for some months before the raid. The search very quickly took on the appearances of a farce. The excise officers, having failed to locate the amount of tobacco they believed had been processed the night before, detected a trail of tobacco on the floor. Tracing this from room to room, they came to a chamber where Harriet Palmer lay in bed, ostensibly suffering an illness. The officers noticed that Harriet appeared ‘far more bulky than was natural for a person of her years’. Her bed covers were removed, revealing two hundredweight (about 102 kilograms) of partially manufactured tobacco packed about her person.21
The search, then, grew even more challenging. This probably did not surprise the excise officers; their previous raid on Thomas’ premises had uncovered secret rooms with inconspicuous or trapdoor entrances.22 However, the addition of Ellis and Palmer’s residence to the complex made their task even more difficult: ‘the place was like a rabbit warren, as there were so many communications between the factory and the houses 65 and 66’.23 In one room – ‘a secret and dark room, into which they had to creep on their hands and knees’ – they found a man hiding. He was allowed to escape and the room was found to contain a large amount of adulterated tobacco and adulterants: treacle, saltpetre, rhubarb and alum.24
One wonders if the ‘hidden man’ was Thomas’ brother, Henry Smithson. The 1841 census shows that the Smithson family was still living at Dunnington after the death of John Smithson. John’s son, Henry, was the head of a household comprising his wife Sarah Cook, his mother Mary Smithson and his brother William Smithson. By 1851, it seems that Mary had died and Henry had joined Thomas’ business. The census of that year shows Henry, Sarah and a lodger living on Toft Green in York and both Henry and the lodger were tobacconists. It may be that William Smithson also relocated to York, but he has yet to be located in the 1851 census.
On the 11th March 1852, Elizabeth Ellis and Thomas Smithson were brought to trial at the Guildhall, York, charged with adulteration of tobacco and the use of unregistered rooms for the manufacture of tobacco. The case elicited a good deal of interest from the public; and the account of the discovery of tobacco secreted in Palmer’s bed provided great amusement. Thomas and Elizabeth’s barrister attempted to mount a defence by accusing the inland revenue officers of persecuting Miss Ellis, pointing out that investigations conducted by these officers were compromised by their receipt of presents from the Board of Internal Revenue for successful seizures and prosecutions. However, legal argument essentially centred on who owned the business and, thus, who had actually broken the law. All attempts to prove that Thomas was the real owner of Ellis’ tobacco manufactory failed in court, despite attempts by the internal revenue officers to untangle the structure of ‘Smithson and Co’ by offering past employees ample remuneration for information. Consequently, on the 12th March 1852, Thomas escaped conviction and Elizabeth was fined £1200.25
Elizabeth Ellis, Harriet Palmer and Thomas Smithson had not remained in York in the aftermath of the November raid. In January 1852, the three retired to Thorparch (Thorp Arch, a small village about 20 kilometres south-west of York), probably to escape the attention focussed upon them. By April 1852 ‘flying rumours’ were reported to be abroad concerning Ellis, suggesting that Thomas and Elizabeth’s notoriety had extended beyond their business activities to their personal affairs. By April 1852, the £1200 fine imposed in March had not been paid. The sheriff’s officer arrested Ellis, her goods at Thorp Arch were seized and she was lodged in York Castle prison. On the 1st April 1852, Elizabeth Ellis was brought before the County Sheriff’s Court and the City Sheriff’s Court by the Crown in an effort to claim property to the value of the fine owed. Untangling the finances of Thomas Smithson, Elizabeth Ellis and Harriet Palmer proved to be as difficult as establishing ownership of the business had been in the March trial. Money once owned by Ellis had gone and her property was under mortgage. The Crown had to be satisfied with Ellis’ personal property seized at Thorp Arch, the tobacco manufacturing equipment in the York factory and equity in Ellis’ Mickelgate house.26 Thomas and Elizabeth’s later circumstances lead one to believe that they had successfully denied substantial assets to the Crown. Nevertheless, Thomas Smithson’s involvement in tobacco manufacturing was over.
The collapse of Thomas’ tobacco manufactory thrust his brother, Henry Smithson, back on his own devices. It was a change for the worse and, by 1861, Henry was reduced to working as a ‘porter for a flour dealer’ – probably a somewhat embellished job description for a position later given as ‘labourer in a flour mill’. By 1871, Henry had been forced to move from Toft Green down to poverty-stricken North Street. Henry died in late 1878.
While no record for Thomas and Henry’s brother, William Smithson, has been found in the 1851 census, it is possibly more than a coincidence that, after the collapse of Thomas’ business, William reappeared back in the old Smithson home area of Bardsey. William worked as an agricultural labourer and, in the 1861 census, he was shown living on Bardsey Hill with two other labourers – a father and son.
Little is known of Thomas Smithson and Elizabeth Ellis’ movements after the court case of April 1852, but they surface a few years later in London. Phoebe Smithson’s daughter, Anne Louisa Rayson, had married George Whiteley at High Harrogate on 22 August 1843. George Whiteley had recently been admitted to the Bar at Middle Temple, London, and the couple made their principal residence in Knightsbridge. It appears that Phoebe followed Anne to Knightsbridge, where she died in 1855. A year later, Thomas and Elizabeth Ellis married at St Giles without Cripplegate, London. Thomas claimed in the register to be a ‘Gentleman’ – perhaps the status he had craved for much of his working life.
By 1861, Thomas and Elizabeth returned to York and the census of that year shows Thomas’ occupation as a ‘proprietor of houses’ – living off house rentals. Thomas Smithson died in the first months of 1870. His effects were valued at under £100 for probate. Elizabeth continued as a ‘proprietor of houses’ at Micklegate, York, for the next two decades after Thomas’ death. By 1891, Elizabeth had moved from the old Mickelgate residence and become a lodger at Railway Terrace, York. She died that year.
The life of Thomas Smithson of York is perhaps the best known of all the Smithsons from Weardley because he was the most notorious. The documents paint a less than flattering picture of the man and his influence on his family’s younger generation was significant. His nephew, Miles Smithson junior, established a tobacco manufactory and retail outlet at Bradford and was joined by most of his siblings and possibly for a time by Thomas’ son, Charles Thomas Smithson. Unfortunately, they adopted some of Thomas’ practices and convictions for adulterating tobacco followed in 1861.27 The ‘consortium’ broke up shortly after, mostly with the deaths of several members of the Smithson family. Miles continued business without further trouble with the authorities. Charles Thomas Smithson, abandoned the trade and moved to London. The last male member of Thomas’ family died on the Somme in 1916 and the last male of Miles junior’s family died in Leeds in 1940.
One other nephew, who followed Thomas into the tobacconist trade, opened a manufactory in Leeds. He eschewed Thomas’ illegal practices and emigrated to Australia in 1852 where he established an extensive family. His tale, Thomas Smithson: From Kirkgate to the Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory is told as another Smithson Story.