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AL Smith - Biographical Summary

Arthur Lionel Smith was perhaps the first Master of Balliol since Benjamin Jowett to acquire something of a national reputation. Smith was a particularly hard-working and wide-ranging Master, but although he followed the traditional path of a Balliol Fellow, returning to the college after he had been an undergraduate, he was by no means introspective, and a great part of his time and energy was devoted to work outside Oxford. Indeed, the opening of the University to all was one of Smith's strongest ideals.

He was born in London on December 4th 1850, the second son of William Henry Smith, a civil engineer. His father died when he was young, and Smith went to Christ's Hospital when a family friend gave Mrs. Smith the money for a place there. She then went to live first in Rome, then in America. Smith was a strong scholar and in November 1868 he won an Exhibition to Balliol to read Classics, and he came into residence in October 1869. He was a hard-working, if not a brilliant student, gaining a First in both Mods and Greats, and a shared Jenkyns Exhibition. He was also a keen sportsman - he played hockey, sculled and rowed bow for the Head of the River crew in 1873. He then decided to read for the relatively new School of Modern History, gaining a Second and a Lothian Prize after only a year in 1874. Yet it was a few years before Smith began his career as a Modern History tutor. From 1874 he held a Fellowship at Trinity College, tutoring in Greats. In 1876 he began studying for the Bar, moving to London until 1879. The Trinity Fellowship ended when he married Mary Baird, and he gave up Law, moving back to Oxford. In 1879, thanks in part to Benjamin Jowett and Dr. J. Franck Bright of University College, one of the pioneers of the Modern History School, Smith was offered a Lectureship in Modern History at Balliol, and he began his career as a History Tutor.

In 1882 he was elected a Fellow of the College, and he worked well with Jowett, Edward Caird and James Leigh Strachan-Davidson during their Masterships. In 1906 he was elected a Jowett Fellow, and from 1907 to 1916 he was Senior Dean. When Strachan-Davidson died in March 1916, Smith was the logical choice for the Mastership, and the election passed smoothly. Like many other Balliol Fellows he was active in University administration - in 1882 he became Junior Proctor, he was a Curator of the Bodleian Library, and a Trustee of the University Endowment Fund, which he helped to establish at the outset along with T.A. Brassey. In 1920 he became a member of the Hebdomadal Council, and he received an LL.D. from St. Andrew's. He also remained deeply interested in college sport, and found the time to raise a family of two sons and seven daughters.

However such posts were secondary to other interests beyond college and university administration, and two main areas dominated Smith's career. Firstly he became a champion of the developing School of Modern History - he was an Examiner for the first time in 1884, and again for many years subsequently. In 1905 he delivered the Ford Lectures, and he was asked to be an Examiner in the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow and Wales. In 1909 he was invited to give the Carpentier Lectures at Columbia University in New York. He appears to have been much liked by his students.

Yet it was not as a university administrator or as a historian that Smith gained his reputation. Smith was very much a moral figure during his Mastership - Balliol had produced a stream of politicians and Imperial administrators, and being Master of the college carried a certain weight, should the incumbent choose to exercise it. Unlike his predecessors Caird and Strachan-Davidson, Smith was very much at home in the area of public morals and national education. The First World War had sharply focused already growing debates about the working classes, national education and the reform of religion, and Smith, a highly moral man, was involved in many of these debates. He passionately believed in the opening of both Oxford and university education to all - the working classes, women. He sat on the Oxford University/Workers' Educational Association Joint Committee in 1907, working with the WEA's founder, Albert Mansbridge, and was involved with the Tutorial Classes movement. He was also a member of the University Extension Delegation, set up in 1908. He helped to organise WEA Summer Schools at Balliol, and he travelled the country, lecturing to various audiences about his belief in educational reform, and the WEA and the Oxford education reform movement became closely linked with the work of the Secretary of State for Education, H.A.L. Fisher, and the 1918 Education Bill. Bernard Jennings attributed such activity to "...a sense of social obligation - often a sense of guilt - attached to privilege, which was nurtured at Oxford, and particularly at Balliol..." While there is undoubtedly a great deal of truth in this, Smith as an individual genuinely believed in the value of education, and worked hard to convince others of it.

Smith was also involved in religious reform, serving on the Archbishops' Committee on Church and State, helping to write its report in 1916, and on one of the five committees examining "Christianity and Industrial Problems." He also believed strongly in Britain's involvement in the War, and felt that the Church and academia should do everything in their power to ensure that the working classes were convinced of the right of Britain's position. Not surprisingly, Smith was also involved with the idea of "Reconstruction," the idea that the end of the War would present an opportunity for essential moral, spiritual and educational reform among all sections of society - to this end along with R.H. Tawney he wrote the 1919 Report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction. It was largely ignored - "Reconstruction" proved a somewhat nebulous concept - as Bernard Jennings put it, "...the (Reconstruction) boat never sailed." Yet such concerns took Smith on an almost never-ending series of lectures and talks throughout Britain during the years of his Mastership. If nothing else, the "Letters to A.L. Smith" highlight the vast range of societies, journals and individuals who came to Smith, and the same themes occur again and again in the material they request - education, Christianity, The Archbishops' Committee Report, Reconstruction.

Smith still found time to publish a few works, although it was not for his historical works that he was known in his time, and he seems to have found the process of assembling material for books hard, and his work was often late. He published Notes on Stubb's Charters, Frederick William Maitland: Two Lectures and a Bibliography and

Church and State in the Middle Ages, this last work being a somewhat mistitled 1913 publication of his 1905 Ford Lectures. He also contributed a chapter on English 17th and 18th Century Political Philosophy to the Cambridge Modern History, and chapters to Social England, The Dictionary of Political Economy and The Dictionary of English History, but his long-planned book on the Emperor Frederick II was never finished. Linked to his other interests, he was joint author of "The Teaching of Modern History" in Essays on Secondary Education in 1898. He also published the pamphlets The War and Social Duty (for the Christian Social Union), The Christian Attitude to War and The Empire and the Future. Smith was greatly troubled by failing health and arthritis in his later years, and he died on April 12th, 1924.

If you are using a computer on the Oxford network or have other access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography subscription service, you can read AL Smith's entry here.

 

- Tim Procter, Modern MSS Assistant, 1993


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