Prev. 100Thomas Overbury1 Thomas Parnell1 Thomas Pennant1 Thomas Percy1 Thomas Pringle1 Thomas Provis1Thomas Randolph1 Thomas Reid1 Thomas Robert Malthus1 Thomas Roscoe1 Thomas Rymer1 Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorse...1 Thomas Scott1 Thomas Shadwell1 Thomas Sheridan1 Thomas Simpson1 Thomas Southern1 Thomas Southwood Smith1 Thomas Sprat1 Thomas Stanley1 Thomas Sternhold1 Thomas Talfourd1 Thomas Taylor1 Thomas Telford1 Thomas Tickell1 Thomas Topham1 Thomas Tusser1 Thomas Tyrwhitt1 Thomas Vaughan (philosopher)1 Thomas Vaux, 2nd Baron Vaux of Harr...1 Thomas Warton1 Thomas Watson1 Thomas Westwood1 Thomas William Robertson1 Thomas Wilson (rhetorician)1 Thomas Witlam Atkinson1 Thomas Wolsey1 Thomas Woolner1 Thomas Wright1 Thomas Wyatt (poet)1 Thomas Young1 Thomas Zouch1 Thomond1 Thomson Effect1 Thomson’s Unit of Resistance1 Thor1 Thoracentesis1 Thorax1 Thorberg Skafting1 Thorn Apple1 Thorn Hill School1 Thorn-Apple1 Thornback1 Thorns1 Thorough Churchman1 Thorough Cough1 Thorough Go Nimble1 Thorough Stitch1 Thorough-good-natured Wench1 Thos.1 Thoue1 Though1 Thought1 Thowe1 Thowen1 Thrasher1 Threatening1 Three Bullocks and a Lion1 Three first 1 Three Little Pigs1 Three Mile Cross1 Three Musketeers1 Three sheets in the wind1 Three Threads1 Three To One1 Three Way Switch1 Three Wayfarers1 Three Wire System1 Three-cornered scraper1 Threed1 Three-legged Mare1 Three-penny Upright1 Three-quarters of a peck1 Three-up1 Threlkeld Tarn1 Threps1 Threting1 Thretnen1 Thrifty1 Thrill1 Thrillage1 Throat1 Throat lozenge1 Thrombin1 Thrombosis1 Thrombus1 Throne1 Throttle2 Through3 Throw1 Prev. 100

Thomas Provis

Thomas Provis—Calling Himself Sir Richard Hugh Smyth

Great excitement prevailed throughout England towards the close of the year 1853, in consequence of the result of a trial which took place at the autumn assizes at Gloucester. A person calling himself Sir Richard Hugh Smyth laid claim to an extinct baronetcy, and brought an action of ejectment to recover possession of vast estates, situated in the neighbourhood of Bristol, and valued at nearly £30,000 a-year. The baronetcy in question had become, or was supposed to have become, extinct on the death of Sir John Smyth, in 1849, and at his decease the estates had passed to his sister Florence; and when she died, in 1852, had devolved upon her son, who was then a minor, and who was really the defendant in the cause. Mr. Justice Coleridge presided at the trial, Mr. (afterwards Lord-Justice) Bovill appeared for the claimant, and Sir Frederick Thesiger represented the defendant.

According to the opening address of the counsel for the plaintiff, his client had been generally supposed to be the son of a carpenter of Warminster named Provis, and had been brought up in this man's house as one of his family. When the lad arrived at an age to comprehend such matters, he perceived that he was differently treated from the other members of the household, and, from circumstances which came to his knowledge, was led to suspect that Provis was not really his father, but that he was the son of Sir Hugh Smyth of Ashton Hall, near Bristol, and the heir to a very extensive property. It seemed that this baronet had married a Miss Wilson, daughter of the Bishop of Bristol, in 1797, that she had died childless some years later, and that he had, in 1822, united himself to a Miss Elizabeth. The second union proved as fruitless as the first, and when Sir Hugh himself died, in 1824, his brother John succeeded to the title and the greater portion of the property. By-and-by, however, certain facts came to the ears of the plaintiff, which left no doubt on his mind that he was the legitimate son of Sir Hugh Smyth, by a first and hitherto concealed marriage with Jane, daughter of Count Vandenbergh, to whom he had been secretly married in Ireland, in 1796. But, although the plaintiff was thus convinced himself, he knew that, while he possessed documents which placed his origin beyond a doubt, it would be extremely difficult for a person in his humble circumstances to substantiate his claim, or secure the services of a lawyer bold enough to take his case in hand, and refrained from demanding his rights until 1849; in which year, rendered desperate by delay, he went personally to Ashton Hall, obtained an interview with Sir John Smyth, and communicated to him his relationship and his claims. The meeting was much more satisfactory than might have been expected. As Sir John had been party to certain documents which were executed by his brother in his lifetime (which were among those which had been discovered), and in which the circumstances of the concealed marriage and the birth of the claimant were acknowledged, it was useless for him to deny the justice of the demand, and he recognised his nephew without demur. But the excitement of the interview was too great for his failing strength, and he was found dead in bed next morning. Thus all the hopes of the real heir were dashed to the ground, for it was not to be expected that the next-of-kin, who knew nothing of the supposed Provis, or of Sir Hugh's marriage, would yield up the estates to an utter stranger, without a severe struggle and a desperate litigation. He, therefore, refrained from putting forth his pretensions, and travelled the country with his wife and children, obtaining a precarious living by delivering lectures; and he took no steps to enforce his rights until 1851, when, after negotiations with several legal firms, he at length found the means of pursuing his claims before the tribunals of his country.

In support of the plaintiff's case a number of documents, family relics, portraits, rings, seals, &c., were put in evidence. At the time when the marriage was said to have taken place there was no public registration in Ireland, but a Family Bible was produced which bore on a fly-leaf a certification by the Vicar of Lismore that a marriage had been solemnized on the 19th of May, 1796, "between Hugh Smyth of Stapleton, in the county of Gloucester, England, and Jane, daughter of Count John Samuel Vandenbergh, by Jane, the daughter of Major Gookin and Hesther, his wife, of Court Macsherry, county of Cork, Ireland." In the same Bible was an entry of the plaintiffs baptism, signed by the officiating clergyman. A brooch was produced with the name of Jane Gookin upon it, and a portrait of the claimant's mother, as well as a letter addressed by Sir Hugh Smyth to his wife on the eve of her delivery, in which he introduced a nurse to her. Besides these, there were two formal documents which purported to be signed by Sir Hugh Smyth, in which he solemnly declared the plaintiff to be his son. The first of these declarations was written when the baronet was in extreme ill-health, in 1822, and was witnessed by his brother John and three other persons. It was discovered in the possession of a member of the family of Lydia Reed, the plaintiff's nurse. The second paper, which was almost the same in its terms, was discovered in the keeping of an attorney's clerk, who had formerly lived in Bristol. The following is a copy of it:—

"I, Sir Hugh Smyth, of Ashton Park, in the county of Somerset, and of Rockley House, in the county of Wilts, do declare that, in the year 1796, I was married in the county of Cork, in Ireland, by the Rev. Verney Lovett, to Jane, the daughter of Count Vandenbergh, by Jane, the daughter of Major Gookin, of Court Macsherry, near Bandon. Witnesses thereto—The Countess of Bandon and Consena Lovett. In the following year, Jane Smyth, my wife, came to England, and, immediately after giving birth to a son, she died on the 2d day of February, 1797, and she lies buried in a brick vault in Warminster churchyard. My son was consigned to the care of my own nurse, Lydia Reed, who can at any time identify him by marks upon his right hand, but more especially by the turning up of both the thumbs, an indelible mark of identity in our family. My son was afterwards baptized by the Rev. James Symes of Midsomer Norton, by the names of Richard Hugh Smyth; the sponsors being the Marchioness of Bath and the Countess of Bandon, who named him Richard, after her deceased brother, Richard Boyle. Through the rascality of my butler, Grace, my son left England for the continent, and was reported to me as having died there; but, at the death of Grace, the truth came out that my son was alive, and that he would soon return to claim his rights. Now, under the impression of my son's death, I executed a will in 1814. That will I do, by this document, declare null and void, and, to all intents and purposes, sett asside(sic ) in all its arrangements; the payment of my just debts, the provision for John, the son, of the late Elizabeth Howell, and to the fulfilment of all matters not interfering with the rights of my heir-at-law. Now, to give every assistance to my son, should he ever return, I do declare him my legitimate son and heir to all the estates of my ancestors, and which he will find amply secured to him and his heirs for ever by the will of his grandfather, the late Thomas Smyth of Stapleton, Esq.; and further, by the will of my uncle, the late Sir John Hugh Smyth, baronet. Both those wills so fully arrange for the security of the property in possession or reversion that I have now only to appoint and constitute my beloved brother John Smyth, Esq., my only executor for his life; and I do by this deed place the utmost confidence in my brother that he will at any future time do my son justice. And I also entreat my son to cause the remains of his mother to be removed to Ashton, and buried in the family vault close to my side, and to raise a monument to her memory.

"Now, in furtherance of the object of this deed, I do seal with my seal, and sign it with my name, and in the presence of witnesses, this 10th day of September, in the year of our Lord, 1823.

Hugh Smyth  (L.S.).    William Edwards.
   William Dobbson.
   James Abbott."

After some proof had been given as to the genuineness of the signatures to this and the other documents, the plaintiff was put into the witness-box. He said that his recollections extended back to the time when he was three years and a half old, when he lived with Mr. Provis, a carpenter in Warminster. There was at that time an elderly woman and a young girl living there, the former being Mrs. Reed, the wet-nurse, and the latter Mary Provis, who acted as nursemaid. He stayed at the house of Provis until Grace, Sir Hugh's butler, took him away, and placed him at the school of Mr. Hill at Brislington, where he remained for a couple of years, occasionally visiting Colonel Gore and the family of the Earl of Bandon at Bath. From Brislington he was transferred by the Marchioness of Bath to Warminster Grammar School, and thence to Winchester College, where he resided as a commoner until 1810. He stated that he left Winchester because his bills had not been paid for the last eighteen months; and, by the advice of Dr. Goddard, then headmaster of the school, proceeded to London, and told the Marchioness of Bath what had occurred. The marchioness kept him for a few days in her house in Grosvenor Square, but "being a woman of high tone, and thinking that possibly he was too old for her protection," she advised him to go to Ashton Court to his father, telling him at the same time that Sir Hugh Smyth was his father. She also gave him some £1400 or £1500 which had been left to him by his mother, but declined to tell him anything respecting her, and referred him for further information to the Bandon family. The marchioness, however, informed him that her steward, Mr. Davis, at Warminster, was in possession of the deceased Lady Smyth's Bible, pictures, jewellery, and trinkets. But the lad, finding himself thus unexpectedly enriched, sought neither his living father nor the relics of his dead mother, but had recourse to an innamorata  of his own, and passed three or four months in her delicious company. He afterwards went abroad, and returned to England with exhausted resources in 1826. He then made inquiries respecting Sir Hugh Smyth, his supposed father, and discovered that he had been dead for some time, and that the title and estates had passed to Sir John. Under these circumstances he believed it to be useless to advance his claim, and supported himself for the eleven years which followed by lecturing on education at schools and institutions throughout England and Ireland.

Up to this time he had never made any inquiry for the things which the Marchioness of Bath had informed him were under the care of Mr. Davis; but, in 1839, he visited Frome in order to procure them, and then found that Davis was dead. Old Mr. Provis, who had brought him up, was the only person whom he met, and with him he had some words for obstinately refusing to give him any information respecting his mother. The interview was a very stormy one; but old Provis, who was so angry with him at first that he struck him with his stick, quickly relented, and gave him the Bible, the jewellery, and the heir-looms which he possessed. Moreover, he showed him a portrait of Sir Hugh which hung in his own parlour, and gave him a bundle of sealed papers with instructions to take them to Mr. Phelps, an eminent solicitor at Warminster. The jewellery consisted of four gold rings and two brooches. One ring was marked with the initials "J.B.," supposed to be those of "James Bernard;" and on one of the brooches were the words "Jane Gookin" at length.

The claimant further stated that, on the 19th of May, 1849, he procured an interview with Sir John Smyth at Ashton Court. He said that the baronet seemed to recognise him from the first, and was excessively agitated when he told him who he was. To calm him, the so-called Sir Richard said that he had not come to take possession of his title or property, but only wanted a suitable provision for his family. It was, therefore, arranged that Sir John's newly-found nephew should proceed to Chester and fetch his family, and that they should stay at Ashton Court, while he would live at Heath House.

But the fates seemed to fight against the rightful heir. When he returned from Chester twelve days later, accompanied by his spouse and her progeny, the first news he heard was that Sir John had been found dead in his bed on the morning after his previous visit. All his hopes were destroyed, and he reverted calmly to his old trade of stump orator, which he pursued with equanimity from 1839 till 1851. During this time he vainly endeavoured to secure the services of a sanguine lawyer to take up his case on speculation, and it was not until the latter year that he succeeded; but when the hopeful solicitor once took the affair in hand, evidence flowed in profusely, and he was at last enabled to lay his claims before her Majesty's judges at Gloucester assizes. Such, at least, was his own story.

In cross-examination he stated that although Provis had two sons, named John and Thomas, he only knew the younger, and had but little intercourse with John, who was the elder. He described his youthful life in the carpenter's house, and represented himself "as the gentleman of the place," adding that he wore red morocco shoes, was never allowed to be without his nurse, and "did some little mischief in the town, according to his station in life, for which mischief nobody was allowed to check him." After a lengthy cross-examination as to his relationship with the Marchioness of Bath and his alleged interview with Sir John Smyth, he admitted that as a lecturer he had passed under the name of Dr. Smyth. He denied that he had ever used the name of Thomas Provis, or stated that John Provis, the Warminster carpenter, was his father, or visited the members of the Provis family on a footing of relationship with them. As far as the picture, which he said the carpenter pointed out to him in his parlour as the portrait of his father, was concerned, and which, when produced, bore the inscription, "Hugh Smyth, Esq., son of Thomas Smyth, Esq., of Stapleton, county of Gloucester, 1796," he indignantly repudiated the idea that it was a likeness of John Provis the younger, although he reluctantly admitted that the old carpenter sometimes entertained the delusion that the painting represented his son John, and that the inscription had not been perceivable until he washed it with tartaric acid, which, he declared, was excellent for restoring faded writings. He was then asked about some seals which he had ordered to be engraved by Mr. Moring, a seal engraver in Holborn, and admitted giving an order for a card-plate and cards; but denied that at the same time he had ordered a steel seal to be made according to a pattern which he produced, which bore the crest, garter, and motto of the Smyths of Long Ashton. However, he acknowledged giving a subsequent order for two such seals. On one of these seals the family motto, "Qui capit capitur " had been transformed, through an error of the engraver, into "Qui capit capitor," but he said he did not receive it until the 7th of June, and that consequently he could not have placed it on the deed in which Sir Hugh Smyth so distinctly acknowledged the existence of a son by a first marriage—a deed which he declared he had never seen till the 17th of March. A letter was then put into court, dated the 13th of March, which he admitted was in his handwriting, and which bore the impress of the mis-spelled seal. Thus confronted with this damning testimony, the plaintiff turned pale, and requested permission to leave the court to recover from a sudden indisposition which had overtaken him, when, just at this juncture, the cross-examining counsel received a telegram from London, in consequence of which he asked, "Did you, in January last, apply to a person at 361 Oxford Street, to engrave for you the Bandon crest upon the rings produced, and also to engrave 'Gookin' on the brooch?" The answer, very hesitatingly given, was, "Yes, I did." The whole conspiracy was exposed; the plot was at an end. The plaintiff's counsel threw up their briefs, a verdict for the defendants was returned, and the plaintiff himself was committed by the judge on a charge of perjury, to which a charge of forgery was subsequently added.

The second trial took place at the following spring assizes at Gloucester. The evidence for the crown showed the utter hollowness of the plaintiff's claim. The attorney's clerk, from whom the impostor had stated he received the formal declaration of Sir Hugh Smyth, was called, and declared that he had written the letter which was said to have accompanied the deed, from the prisoner's dictation; the deed was produced at the time, and the witness took a memorandum of the name of the attesting witnesses on the back of a copy of his letter. This copy, with the endorsement, was produced in court. The brown paper which the prisoner had sworn formed the wrapper of the deed when he received it, was proved to be the same in which Mr. Moring, the engraver, had wrapped up a seal which he had sent to the prisoner—the very seal in which the engraver had made the unlucky blunder. It was also clearly proved that the parchment on which the forgery had been written was prepared by a process which had only been discovered about ten years, and chemical experts were decidedly of opinion that the ink had received its antique appearance by artificial means, and that the wax was undoubtedly modern. Various startling errors and discrepancies were pointed out in the document itself, the most noteworthy being a reference made to Sir Hugh's wife, as "the late Elizabeth Howell," whereas that lady was alive and in good health at the time the deed was supposed to have been drawn up, and having been previously married to Sir Hugh, was known as Lady Smyth up to her death in 1841, she having survived her husband seventeen years,

The picture, which had been produced on the first trial as a portrait of Sir Hugh, was proved beyond all doubt to be that of John Provis, the eldest son of the carpenter; and the prisoner's sister, a married woman named Mary Heath, on being placed in the witness-box, recognised him at once as her youngest brother, Thomas Provis; and said she had never heard of his being any other, although she knew that upon taking up the trade of lecturing he had assumed the name of "Dr. Smyth." Several persons, who were familiarly acquainted with the carpenter's family, also recognised him as Tom Provis; and evidence was led to identify him as a person who had kept a school at Ladymede, Bath, and had been compelled to abscond for disgraceful conduct towards his pupils. They, however, failed to do so very clearly; "whereon," says the reporter, "the prisoner, with an air of great triumph, produced an enormous pig-tail, which up to this moment had been kept concealed under his coat, and turning round ostentatiously, displayed this appendage to the court and jury, appealing to it as an irrefragable proof of his aristocratic birth, and declaiming with solemn emphasis that he was born with it. He added also that his son was born with one six inches long." Cocks, the engraver, proved that he was employed by the prisoner, in January, 1853, to engrave the inscriptions on the rings, which the prisoner had selected on the supposition that they were antique rings; but, in fact, they were modern antiques. Mr. Moring also gave evidence as to the engraving of the fatal seal. On this evidence Provis was found guilty, and was sentenced to twenty years' transportation. He retained his composure to the last, and before his trial assigned all his right, title, and interest in the Smyth estates to his eldest son, lest they should become forfeited to the crown by his conviction for felony.

His history was well known to the authorities, who were prepared to prove, had it been necessary, that he had been convicted of horse-stealing in 1811, and had been sentenced to death—a sentence which was commuted; that he had married one of the servants of Sir John Smyth, and had deserted her, and that he had fled from Bath to escape the punishment of the vilest offences perpetrated during his residence in the City of Springs. But it was needless to produce more damning testimony than was brought forward. For twenty years the world has heard nothing more of the sham Sir Richard Hugh Smyth.