Richard Smyth (1590-1675)

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Richard Smyth or Smith (1590-1675), city of London law-officer and book collector, was the author of Folger MS V.a.510 and owner of several books in the collection, including John Goodale's The lyberties of the cleargy collected out of the lawes of this realme both necessary for vycars and curates compyled by John̄ Goodale. [[London] : Imprynted by me Robert Wyer, [1554?]] STC (2nd ed.), 12006.

Richard Smyth was born in Buckinghamshire in 1590, the eldest son of an Anglican clergyman and of the daughter of a gentry family. He went to Oxford, but like many contemporaries did not take a degree. He came to London in his teens, obtaining a post in the legal system of the city of London, probably through family connections. The city had a number of civil and criminal law-courts and an associated range of minor and major gaols, and Smyth served as a junior clerk in the Poultry Compter, attached to one of the two sheriffs' courts, from around 1608 or 1609. He remained a clerk in the Compter from the 1610s to the 1640s, rising in seniority over the years and appointed to the post of Secondary or chief officer of the Compter, in 1644.[1]

The Secondary acted as under-sheriff, head of a staff of law-officers and clerks. The office was said, in Anthony Wood’s brief biographical note, to be worth several hundred pounds a year, derived from a share of the fees and profits of justice there; in the early eighteenth century the 'price' of the office was said to be £2500, the highest sum for any of the venal offices. Smyth served as Secondary until 1655, when (aged 65, and following the death of his son John, to whom he had intended to pass the office) he sold the office and retired. The Poultry Compter, and the City's legal system, seem to have been the focus of Smyth’s whole career, and he built up an extensive acquaintance among the law-officers, clerks and personnel of the City's courts and prisons, and also contacts with the Inns of Court.[2]

Both before and particularly after his retirement, Smyth was able to pursue his passion for book-collecting. A contemporary reported that he made the rounds of the booksellers’ shops daily, and he knew many of London’s booksellers in person or by repute. By the time he died in 1675 he had amassed a library of over 8,000 works. Its sale by auction in 1682, eagerly anticipated by other collectors, ran over several weeks, and realised over £1,400.[3]

Smyth’s interests and expertise are revealed by the areas covered in his book collection. Over half of the works were in Latin. He had a significant number of early printed works, from both British and continental presses, a substantial working collection of books on English history, religious and ecclesiastical history and theology; sermons; political history; philology; legal matters, especially the law and customs of the city of London; and aspects of science and medicine. He acquired a quantity of printed ephemera and pamphlets, and owned a number of manuscripts on paper and parchment. The contents of his collection are principally known through the surviving printed sale catalogue, Bibliotheca Smithiana: sive Catalogus librorum ... quos in usum suum & bibliothecæ ornamentum ... sibi comparavit vir clarissimus doctissimusque D. Richardus Smith Londinensis, compiled and published by the bookseller Richard Chiswell in 1682.[4] There are also several fragmentary catalogues of the library in Smyth’s own hand, which also document the way he listed and categorised his books.

Also highly important is the evidence of how he used the collection, in the translations, compilations, and excerpts in his own hand. The sale catalogue notes Smyth’s practice of collating his books and manuscripts, comparing impressions and correcting defects, and entering in his own hand 'memorable and very useful remarks … wherein certainly never man was more diligent and industrious'. One example of this is Goodale, noted above: Smyth has written out (in blackletter, in imitation of the book's type) a page of text missing from this edition and indicated where it should be inserted.

Smyth translated and copied out various texts, often drawing on books in his collection. He was more of a compiler and collator than an original writer, but his various works reveal his interests and even obsessions. Folger MS V.a.510 is a substantial corpus of handwritten material on paper, mostly roughly stitched into booklets, covering a number of themes. The largest part is a biographical catalogue of English bishops. Other parts include notes for a collection of ‘Wonders of the World’, covering subjects as diverse as the Dead Sea, giants and pigmies, the holy house of Loreto, and monstrous births; the remains of a larger biographical catalogue of saints to whom parish churches were dedicated; an historical account of church festivals; a list of indulgences; and a MS copy of a printed text on Christ’s descent into Hell. Its components appear to date from the later 1650s and 1660s. In both content and compilation, the different part of the MS cast light on Smyth's interests and sympathies: he was clearly an enthusiastic Episcopalian Anglican, though generally resistant

  1. Bibliotheca Smithiana (1682), preface; H.Ellis, ed., The Obituary of Richard Smyth, Secondary of the Poultry Compter, London, being a catalogue of all such persons as he knew in their life, extending from AD 1627 to AD 1674, Camden Society xliv (1849).
  2. Bibl. Smith.; John Strype, A survey of the cities of London and Westminster (1720) (
  3. Bibl. Smith.
  4. At least 16 copies of this survive, including two in the Folger: S4151