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Smythe [Smith], Thomas (1522–1591), merchant and financier, was the second son of John Smith, clothier and minor landowner of Corsham, Wiltshire, and his wife, Joan, daughter of Robert Brouncker of Melksham. Supported by a small inheritance from his father, who died in 1538, Smythe gained his freedom of the Haberdashers' Company and subsequently of the Skinners, the company of , a wealthy City merchant and Kent landowner, whose daughter, Alice (d. 1593), he married about 1555. Secure in business and society—he was a merchant adventurer, Muscovy merchant, and MP at the time of his marriage—Smythe abandoned a conventional career in commerce when he took up the collectorship of the subsidy on imports at the port of London in 1558. Through his association with the customs, which earned him the title of ‘customer’, Smythe entered the realms of government finance, court patronage, and politics. The move was highly profitable, particularly after the negotiation of his first lease of the duties on imported goods at London in 1570. Over eighteen years it is estimated that the farm yielded around £50,000 net profit.

Throughout this period Smythe enjoyed the confidence of the lord treasurer, William Cecil, Baron Burghley, and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, from whom Smythe subleased the farm of the duties on the import of sweet wines after 1573. The relationships were indeed so close that suspicions arose that Burghley, who helped Smythe to clear a substantial profit on an alum deal in 1578, and Leicester, who referred in his will to his ‘great love’ of the ‘customer’, shared in the profits of the farm. Sir Walter Ralegh was not alone in believing that they were, in his words, ‘pensioners to Customer Smythe’. Some of the profits of the farm were put into land in Kent, where he added substantially to properties acquired through marriage, and in Wiltshire, where he built a fine house at Corsham. Smythe also invested in industrial and overseas enterprises. He was particularly active in the affairs of the societies of the Mines Royal and of the Mineral and Battery Works, either as manager or as lessee of their rights. By comparison his interest in overseas enterprise was slight. Shares were bought in the venture of Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 and in the ‘troublesome voyage’ of Edward Fenton in 1582, but the who was associated with the Roanoke voyages and with the Levant Company was almost certainly his son and namesake. Mr Customer Smythe did however acquire a dubious reputation for dealing in prize goods.

Smythe died a wealthy man on 7 June 1591 and was buried at Ashford church. He was survived by Alice and their six sons and six daughters. The eldest son, John, was ancestor of the lords Strangford; Thomas, the second son, was eminent in commerce and colonization. According to the monument erected by John in Ashford parish church his father had cherished ‘the professors of true religion’ and promoted literature. The mathematician Thomas Hood was one who acknowledged a debt to Smythe. Mention is also made of his lease of the customs and the way ‘he presided over them with singular liberality towards those of higher rank’. Of several portraits the finest is in the possession of Queens' College, Cambridge.

Brian Dietz, rev.

Sources  

HoP, Commons, 1509–58 · HoP, Commons, 1558–1603 · J. F. Wadmore, ‘Thomas Smythe of Westenhanger, commonly called Customer Smythe’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 17 (1887), 193–208 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/78, sig. 78

Likenesses  

portrait, Queens' College, Cambridge

Wealth at death  

wealthy: HoP, Commons, 1558–1603, 406