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Smith, Arthur Lionellocked

  • R. L. Patterson

Arthur Lionel Smith (1850–1924)

by Francis Dodd, 1915

© Estate of Francis Dodd; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Smith, Arthur Lionel (1850–1924), historian and college head, was born in London on 4 December 1850, the second son of William Henry Smith, a civil engineer, and his wife, Alice Elizabeth, daughter of the painter Jacob Strutt. Smith's father died young, leaving the family badly off. The widow sent her first son to sea, got Arthur a place at Christ's Hospital (1857–69), and took the other children to Italy; after losing a second husband she moved to Chicago. Arthur, entering the school at six, by default made it his home; he won prizes, honours, and an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. He went up there in 1869 just as Benjamin Jowett was beginning his mastership. Smith earned first-class honours in classical moderations (1871) and literae humaniores (1873); in 1874 he was placed in the second class in the school of modern history. He won the Lothian prize for history that year. Meanwhile, he became a university and college prizeman, and built up his slight frame so that he could row as Balliol's bow; in 1873 his college went head of the river. He remained a keen boatman, and later took up bicycling, hockey, and skating.

In 1874 Smith became a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. He taught classics for two years (and rowed in the college boat), and then studied for the bar at Lincoln's Inn until 1879, an important year for him. In it he married Mary Florence (b. 1855/6, d. in or after 1924), eldest daughter of John Forster Baird of Bowmont Hill, Northumberland; left Trinity; and began teaching history at Balliol. He was elected fellow of Balliol in 1882, and remained there until his death. Under Smith's tutorship, the history school grew steadily. Thanks in part to his teaching, Balliol soon needed a second and then a third tutor in the subject. Each week in a normal term, he gave thirty or more hours, famed for humour and personal sympathy, to his pupils. Examination honours, prizes, and fellowships at All Souls College reflected the success of Balliol's methods of recruitment and tuition. Lewis Namier, whom Smith personally admitted to Balliol, described him as 'perhaps the best history teacher of our time', emphasizing his complete commitment to tutorial work and his pupils. Two decades after Smith died, his pupils Maurice Powicke, Keith Feiling, and G. N. Clark held Oxford and Cambridge's leading chairs of modern history.

In Smith's first years, he became a favourite of Benjamin Jowett, who admired his aptitude for training students with poor school records. Many such students lived with the Smith family before matriculating, and became lasting friends. Smith was also skilful at bringing on African and Asian students, who found Balliol (and the Smiths' home) welcoming. Jowett responded by coming to share Smith's taste for sports and games, and consequently developing Balliol's playing fields in Holywell. Near them, the master ordered a spacious home, the King's Mound, to be built for the large Smith family and their many boarders. It was finished in 1893, while Jowett lay dying.

Smith thus had considerable political gifts. On Jowett's death he organized the successful campaign to elect Edward Caird as the new master, though subsequently establishing a firm alliance with J. L. Strachan-Davidson, the dean and internal candidate against Caird. When Caird retired in 1907, Strachan-Davidson almost automatically succeeded, and Smith became dean; Strachan-Davidson's death in 1916 led to Smith's own immediate election as master.

This managerial talent also made Smith a leader in the university at large. From 1884 to 1887, and again in 1895 and 1901–3, he served as an examiner in the final honour school of modern history (he also was external examiner in other universities). He joined Edward Armstrong, Richard Lodge, C. R. L. Fletcher, and others in a strong tutors' association, which came to determine the history school's syllabus and to resist critics like Charles Oman and Charles Firth who sought to give the school a more ‘scholarly’, professorial tone. In 1907 he built strong ties as a committeeman in Oxford's dealings with the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), and later taught at the WEA's summer school at Balliol. He promoted women's education in the university, and until his death tutored students at Lady Margaret Hall.

Smith long tried to meet his family's claims materially by taking on pupils for cramming, and by personally teaching his daughters. Both habits survived 1906, when he received one of the first two Jowett fellowships, endowed by his friend Lord Newlands to reward exceptional teaching. This nearly doubled his income but did not diminish his commitment to teaching: in the Christmas vacation of 1907, he was giving three extra hours a week to Lawrence Jones, an oarsman and baronet's heir whom he was cramming (unsuccessfully) for the fellowship examination at All Souls College.

During the First World War, as a firm believer in its moral and political rightness, Smith threw himself into the ‘war effort’, lecturing at workers' meetings and at public schools, making long railway journeys, often in term time. Between 1914 and 1917 he served on the archbishops' committee on church and state, writing with Sir Lewis Dibdin the section of its report on the history of church and state in England. After 1916 he served on another archbishops' committee, on industrial problems, and from 1917 to 1919 chaired the Ministry of Reconstruction's committee on adult education.

Smith thus had scant time for scholarly writing. According to his wife, he mostly wrote late at night, after poring over undergraduate essays and planning the next day's tutorials. His earliest pieces were hack work, as in sections of Social England, edited by H. D. Traill from 1893. He also wrote summary notes for students' revision, which he began issuing around 1890; his Notes on Stubbs's Charters was published in 1906. The year before, during a row over C. H. Firth's attack on the tutors' association, Smith was invited to be the Ford lecturer in English history. He accepted, he told the Cambridge legal historian, F. W. Maitland, in part to defend the tutors' honour as competent historians. The lectures, published in 1913, were entitled Church and State in the Middle Ages, but dealt mostly with quarrels between popes and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whose life Smith had long been trying to write. The biography survives only as bundles of notes and sketches in the Balliol archives.

The preparation of Church and State was delayed by Smith's busy routine of teaching and administration. When Maitland died in 1906, Smith agreed to compile a bibliography of his work, and to give two lectures on it as Oxford's public memorial. Issuing that work in 1908 delayed a promised chapter in volume 6 of the Cambridge Modern History on 'English political philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries'. Its publication in 1909 led to an invitation to visit Colombia University, New York, the next winter—his sole sabbatical leave. Smith gave a set of lectures on political discourse, which summed up his years of teaching Hobbes's Leviathan, a set text in the history school; he later kept recasting the lectures, but never quite finished the project.

However, Smith had little personal interest in publishing. As one of Oxford's first married dons, free of pressure to be ordained, he was none the less as pastoral a tutor as any cleric. He is said to have defined a good tutorial relationship as one requiring 'muddy boots': tutor and undergraduate hiked across country talking at length. He cared little for outward piety, or until later life for refined theology. Yet his lectures sought common ground between Christian and civic values, and in later years he wrote for Christian socialist publications. Such an approach exemplified a tradition in Balliol, derived from Jowett and T. H. Green and later upheld by Smith's successor in the mastership, A. D. Lindsay.

Few of Smith's known writings, including manuscripts at Balliol, directly show the man himself. His character is best revealed in his family life. Mary Smith showed prowess in managing a man untidy, overworked, generous to a fault; she also excelled as a steward of a family barely living within its means, and as a hostess. In time she became his secretary, and later his official biographer. They had two sons, including the educationist (Arthur) Lionel Forster Smith, and seven daughters who made notable marriages, for example to Reader Bullard, Henry Clay, and Harold Hartley.

Smith suffered some sporting injuries, but generally enjoyed good health. In 1902 he took a term's leave in Egypt for rheumatism. His war activities combined with his new duties as master ran him down; later, leading the revival of college life exhausted him. Yet he kept teaching, writing, and serving on the university's hebdomadal council, on the board of its endowment fund and as a curator of the Bodleian Library. Smith was a popular master, and his public service restored the national reputation of the post which Jowett had achieved for it. But the circumstances of the war and his subsequent ill health lessened Smith's ability to shape the college internally. He had a major operation in 1921 and died after two months' illness at the master's lodgings on 12 April 1924. He was buried in Holywell cemetery, Oxford.


  • [M. B. Smith], Arthur Lionel Smith, Master of Balliol College, 1916–1924 (1928)
  • J. Jones, Balliol College: a history, 1263–1939 (1988)
  • J. Kenyon, The history men: the historical profession in England since the Renaissance (1983)
  • P. R. H. Slee, Learning and a liberal education: the study of modern history in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, 1800–1914 (1986)
  • R. E. Soffer, ‘The modern university and national values, 1850–1930’, Historical Research, 60 (1987), 166–87
  • R. Soffer, ‘Nation, duty, character and confidence: history at Oxford, 1850–1914’, HJ, 30 (1987), 77–104
  • m. cert.


  • Balliol Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with W. G. S. Adams
  • Parl. Arch., Lloyd George MSS


  • F. Dodd, oils, 1914, Balliol Oxf.
  • F. Dodd, etching, 1915, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. Watt, oils, 1918, Balliol Oxf.
  • pastel drawing (after F. Dodd), Balliol Oxf.
  • photograph, Balliol Oxf.

Wealth at Death

£4162 19s. 6d.: probate, 8 July 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Historical Journal
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]