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Smith, John and successors (1698-1832)

Smith, John and successors, Cambridge, joiners cm, u and undertakers (1698–1832). The first record of John Smith is when St John's College made a payment to him in 1698. Regular payments appear in his name from 1719, most are for general joinery work although he was paid in 1734 ‘for Chairs for ye Audit Room 24 at 18s, 2 at £1 3s: pr Chair’. Trinity College made regular payments to him from 1719, and from 1720 he leased a property from them (on the site of 26 Trinity St) ‘late demised to Cornelius Austin joyner’, consisting of ‘a Hall a Kitchen three chambers a shopp yard & House’. Most payments do not indicate what work was undertaken although in 1743 he was paid for mending and supplying furniture after the appointment of a new Master. His son Thomas, born 1709, had from 1746 leased from Trinity the property next door to his father. By 1748 John Smith, presumably then in his early seventies, appears to have relinquished the business to his son as the payment made by Trinity in that year is to him. However, Thomas Smith died in the same year. After the death of his son it would seem likely that John Smith took control of the business again and trained his grandson Thomas who at the time of his father's death was aged fourteen. Other than one small payment, no reference appears to the Smiths in the accounts of both Colleges until 1752. The payment made by Trinity in 1755 is to Thomas Smith who at the age of twenty-one had no doubt taken control of the family business His grandfather also died in that year leaving two thirds of his property to his grandson. In 1756 Thomas took app. named Cockle. In April 1757 he furnished the rooms of Francis, Marquess of Tavistock, who was an undergraduate of Trinity College. The main items provided were a bedstead complete, a draw table, a dressing glass, a basin stand, twelve walnut matted bottom chairs and a wainscot bureau. Smaller items included waiters, a knife box and a boot jack. The total cost was £28 7s. [S of G, app. index; Bedford Office, London]

From the early 1760s the Smiths became virtually the sole suppliers of furnishings to Trinity and St John's Colleges, a situation that continued until 1832. Although they would also undertake general joinery work payments are recorded for supplying furniture, upholstery, papering, carpeting and gilding etc.

Thomas Smith insured a house for £250 in 1780. [GL, Sun MS vol. 287, p. 638] His oldest son John, born 1763, had followed his father into the business as in 1788 an indenture was made between them. In this it was agreed that in consideration of ‘services and assistance’ of his son, that from 24 June 1788 for eight years the business would continue under the name of Smith & Son. John was to be paid £160 a year. On the 24 June 1796 Thomas Smith was to relinquish the cabinet making and upholstery side of the business to John but was to continue himself as an auctioneer and appraiser. The materials of the cabinet making and upholstery sides of the business were to be valued and paid for by John. Thomas Smith was to hand over the ‘two lease-hold dwellings’ for which John was to pay £600. During the period of the indenture Thomas was to keep them in good repair and also provide a capital sum of not less than £2,000. The change over took place in 1796 although Thomas Smith died in the following year. On 8 July 1797 it was reported that ‘Mr. John Smith Cabinet-maker was sworn into the office of Unversity Appraiser vacated by the death of his father Mr. Thomas Smith’.

When the renewal of the two leases of the property owned by Trinity College became due in 1797 a plan was taken. This shows the shop and dwelling house with a frontage on to Trinity St of approximately fifty feet and a total depth of just over ninty feet. Behind the house was the yard with a warehouse, a two-storied workshop with a saw pit behind.

In 1803 John Smith took his step-brother Elliot Macro Smith, who was aged twenty-one into the business. ‘Smith & Elliot’ are recorded in directories, 1805–08, at Trumpington St. In an indenture dated 25 March 1803, John Smith took his brother to be his assistant for a term of seven years. Elliot was to receive 2½ per cent of all money taken, this to be paid twice a year on the settling and signing of the accounts. A few weeks after the indenture was signed Elliot Smith married the daughter of ‘Mr. Smith, cabinet-maker of Norwich’. This may indicate there was a family or even a business connection with the various cm and u of that name who are recorded in Norwich during this period. Although in the indenture there is no change of name mentioned, there is one isolated payment recorded by St John's College in 1803 to ‘J. & E. Smith Upholsterers’. The period of seven years detailed in the indenture was not completed as Elliot Smith took over the business between July/August 1806. John Smith apparently retiring to Broxbourne, Herts., where he died in 1817.

Under Elliot Smith the business continued to prosper with larger payments being recorded by both Colleges who were refurnishing. It is from this period that much of the surviving furniture supplied to Trinity Master's Lodge can be identified. These include a pair of harewood side tables and a set of mahogany dining chairs supplied in 1795, two suites of a pair of sofa tables and matching Pembroke table supplied c. 1803–05, a set of japanned arm chairs in 1807, a state bed in 1811 for HRH William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester the Chancellor of the University, a set of twenty-eight sabre-leg dining chairs (Fig. 37) and a pair of card tables in 1820.

In late September 1831 Elliot Smith announced that his son Elliot was to enter the business and that the furnishing side was to be discontinued as they would be concentrating on the auctioneering, appraising and insurance sides of the business as well as keeping the funeral department. At first the stock was sold at ‘very reduced prices’, the final sales by auction being held in August and November 1832.

The Smiths would appear to have controlled the largest furnishing business in Cambridge and its closure must have affected the other cm and u in the town. John Swan, who had worked for Elliot Smith for thirteen years, enlarged his shop and engaged several of the Smith's workmen. Samuel Yorke employed one of the paperhangers, and three employees, James Hunt, John Worseldine and Robert Hills, started up businesses of their own. The Smith's firm continued as auctioneers and estate agents and finally insurance agents into the early years of this century. [Furn. Hist., 1976] R.W.

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.