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Smith, John (bap. 1711, d. 1795), college head, was born at Coltishall, Norfolk, and baptized there on 14 October 1711, the second son of Henry Smith, attorney, and his wife, Elizabeth, formerly Johnson. After three years at Norwich grammar school, followed by six years at Eton College (1726–32), he was admitted as a pensioner at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1735–6 and MA in 1739. Elected to a junior fellowship in 1739, he progressed to a senior fellowship in 1744. He was ordained priest in 1739 and briefly held the curacy at Coltishall. He was collated to the chancellorship of Lincoln in 1783 and held this position until his death.

Smith held numerous college offices, including those of dean (1744–9), bursar (1750–53), and president (1754–64). In that year he was awarded the degree of DD and took up the mastership, which he held thereafter. From 1771 he held the Lowndean professorship of astronomy. As was customary at that time, he neither delivered lectures nor published anything on the subject of astronomy. He did, however, have permission in November 1764 to make alterations to the south parapet of the college in order to employ his transit telescope, and this demonstration of interest may have influenced the university—though his friend William Cole ascribed his appointment to court favour.

Cole, who had been at Eton with Smith, described him somewhat harshly:
This downright honest man … has no other preferment; but as he is a bachelor, with a private fortune, he lives very hospitably and much esteemed by his acquaintance …. A plain honest man of strong passions when moved … an eternal smoker of tobacco; pretends to a taste in painting, and may possibly understand it, though he looks as if he did not, and has such an inarticulate way of expressing himself that very few people understand what he says. He has a brother's widow and her children who lives with him and keeps his house. (Venn, 3.129)
This was Margaret, widow of Smith's younger brother Joseph.

Smith's argumentative nature led, Cole reports, to an unseemly quarrel in the Senate House with Dr Ewin of St John's, and on another occasion to a dispute over some elections. Smith died on 17 June 1795 in Cambridge and was buried on 21 June in Gonville and Caius College chapel, where a memorial tablet was set up in the ante-chapel. He bequeathed to the university the sum of £200, for the increase of the Wendy fellowship, and a small piece of land in Cheshire, the income from which was to benefit the Lowndean professorship.

Anita McConnell


J. Venn and others, eds., Biographical history of Gonville and Caius College, 2: 1713–1897 (1898), 129–32 · J. Venn and others, eds., Biographical history of Gonville and Caius College, 3: Biographies of the successive masters (1901), 129–32 · R. A. Austen-Leigh, ed., The Eton College register, 1698–1752 (1927), 314 · GM, 1st ser., 65 (1795), 534


BL, Add. MSS 32961–32989 (Newcastle)

Wealth at death  

under £5000: Venn and others, eds., Biographical history, vol. 3