The sad tale of Ensign Smerdon
A Devonshire Tragicomedy

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Extract from the Journal of Army Historical Research 1991

Geoffrey Smerdon writes:

Some years ago, when researching the Devonshire origins of the Smerdon family, I came across a collection of letters in the Bodleian library in Oxford. I read through the Palk letters with interest, knowing that the Rev. Fullwood Smerdon, the 18th century vicar of Ottery St. Mary had enjoyed the patronage of the Palk family and had named one of his children after them. Fullwood Smerdon was the son of the Rev. Thomas Smerdon, Master of the Ashburton Grammar school and the successor of Coleridge's father in the living at Ottery. The Palks, of course, were an ancient Devon family, already established at Ambrook in Ipplepen in the 15th century and later people of substance in the country, serving as Members of Parliament, Magistrates and officials of all sorts. Robert Palk (1717 - 1798) became a baronet, migrated to India, was Governor of Madras and finally enobled as Lord Haldon.

The letters are an extraordinary example of the bizarre stories which emerge when one investigates the lives of one's ancestors. And if the adventures of Ensign Smerdon scarcely give me a glow of family pride, I do find myself a certain sneaking sympathy with his fate, thrown as he was into a military career for which he had little inclination and even less aptitude. It was due to the patronage of the Palk family that the wretched boy found himself bound for India to become a soldier.

The first letter, dated "Samulcattah Oct. 16th, 1768", is from Capt. Thomas Madge to Robert Palk Esq. It begins: "I wish I could say anything in favour of Mr. Smerdon or could flatter myself with any hopes of being able to do justice to your recommendations on his behalf. But as his behaviour is so very inconsistent with the way of life he has embarked upon, I fear he will never get commission. He may thank his ill-judging father for his present imbecility and infatuation. The letter has been the consequence of his morose behaviour and close confinement of the young man to the study of books when he ought to have been taught to form his judgement of men and have instructed himself in their manners: for the neglect of which, notwithstanding his laborious education he can be deemed no otherwise than a learned blockhead. The close attachment to study so much has disguised him that now he is left to his own discretion, he indulges his inclinations to their utmost scope some of which are very much to the prejudice of his character and principles. The niggardly behaviour of his father when he launched him into the world is scarcely credible: for who would have sent his son on a voyage to India with no other allowance to furnish (him) with necessaries for the voyage but the £10 he received at the Indian House. However with the sum and that only, he was hurried aboard the Clive Indiaman at a very short notice, even after he had declared (as he tells me) his aversion to the way of life he was precipitated into unprovided with proper clothes for the country or even the voyage. This unnatural behaviour of the father subjected the young man to such mean distresses as quite suppressed the small shore of spirits he derived from (his) constitution, as he was driven to the necessity of living on the bare ship's allowance before he had been three months at sea, which excluded him from the mess and consequently the society of the other cadets...and so unprovided what he with clothes that he was obliged to borrow of his comrades what he was deficient in before he could come ashore in Madras.

He ought however to have thought his distress at an end on his arrival in India, as I allowed him whatever money he pretended to have occasion for and had ordered my agent at Madras to equip him for camp while he had been ordered to proceed with some other cadets. On being acquainted with these orders he declared publicly that he would on no account go to camp till he had seen me and that he had been sent out by you to be under my care, otherwise he would never have come to India. He obstinately persisting in his resolution of not going to camp, began to be taken notice of at Madras which would soon infallibly have ruined him had not a friend of mine then on the spot...advised me to get him Northward. On this hint I wrote to Mr. Bourchier who kindly arranged his transfer."

Since his arrival he has given another reason for refusing to join the army than that the military life is not agreeable to his inclination and - what is only commendable in his whole conduct - frankly confesses his want of spirit. He is now at Headquarters where he has already tried Colonel Tod's patience by his dronish method of life and his aversion to improve himself. You will at once perceive he will never make a soldier not be fit for any way of life in so licentious, so dissipated a country as India. And if his father has any share of affection remaining for his son he ought immediately to send him home and preserve him from unavoidable ruin and disgrace which must otherwise be his fate."

On Oct. 24, 1768 Lieut. Thos. Palk writes to Robert Palk Esq. from Samulcottah. "Young Mr. Smerdon was with us at this place (for a few days) about 2 months since, but is at present at Ellore under Lieutenant Colonel Tod's command. I am sorry to acquaint you that his behaviour has been very indifferent since his arrival. I shall defer giving you any account of him since Capt. Madge tells me he intends writing you a long letter concerning him and another to Mr. Smerdon to advise him to send for his son home."

Capt. Madge to R. Palk May 16th, 1769 Ellore. "My judgement of the conduct of young Smerdon has proved correct. He had been ordered on detachment with Capt. Bellingham to attack a small fort in their neighbourhood when he discovered such tokens of cowardice as I am ashamed to mention. The day after the fort was reduced (it having been abandoned by the enemy) a report prevailed that a field engagement was expected: which so much terrified Smerdon that he immediately waited on Bellingham and told him that the air did not agree with him neither did he by any means approve of a military life; which induced him to demand leave to quit the detachment immediately in order to repair to Ellore (the Headquarters of the Circars) as on his arrival there he was determined to quit the service. In spite of every argument that could be made to dissuade him from so scandalous a step, he still persisted in it - and accordingly left the detachment. On his arrival at Ellore Col. Tod ordered him to set out for Samulcotah, where I at the time resided, where he advised him to consult me before he resigned the service. It was with difficulty that he was prevailed upon to make his appearance and loitered at a small village about 16 cos (an Indian measure of distance) from Samulcotah five or six days under the most frivolous pretences, till I was under the necessity of threatening to bring him to Samulcotah with a file of men.

This brought him immediately. Soon after his arrival he was appointed Ensign from Madras, a promotion that filled him with the greatest concern, as he assured me he would never take the field again as he was sure he could not support his character as an officer. Accordingly, on my being ordered into the field, Smerdon writes to either Col. Tod or the Chief of Masuliparam in which he declares his want of capacity and resolution for the station he had been promoted, and therefore begs leave to quit the service before he is put to any trail. On receipt of this letter he was ordered to proceed immediately to Madras which, sore against his inclinations, he was obliged to comply with. At Parting from me he expressed a desire of getting employed as a monthly writer in the office at Madras, but on his passion for dissipation together with an unconquerable aversion to business of any kind, would not allow me to hope he would ever be able to support himself on 10 pags ("pagoda" an Indian coin) a month when he could hardly make ends meet with double the sum, I advised him to think seriously of returning to his friends by the first opportunity. Since his leaving the Northward which was in the month of January last, I have never received a letter from him, notwithstanding he derives his sole support from my purse. All I can learn of him is from accounts sent me by a friend at Madras who informs me that he has been ordered by the Governor and Council to go to Europe by the present opportunity. I have however applied to Mr. Bouchier for leave for him to remain at Madras till the arrival of my unkle's ship when I shall ship him off immediately. To this the Governor has consented. I am sorry to assure you he is not indued with one good or even neutral qualification and what his unhappy father will do with him on his return to England I cannot divine."

1770 January 12 Condapillee - Lieut. T. Palk to R. Palk Esq. "Capt. Madge will inform you this season of young Mr. Smerdon's elopment from Madras. He took a journey there about six months since to endeavour to get home on some of the last ships, but he went off before his arrival there and has not since been heard of, I believe."

1770 February 5. Lieut. T. Palk to R. Palk Esq. "You desire me in your letter by the "Duke of Grafton" to give you some account of that wretch Smerdon. I am sorry he should have come here under your recommendation. He stayed here about a month and I believe behaved tolerably well. He then went recommended to Capt. Madge and stayed with him about two months, which he spent drinking &c. &c. What is disagreeable for me to mention and much more so for you to peruse, Capt. Madge, having tried every means to make something of him and took am immense amount of trouble, he has obliged to send him down here to Mr...I forget his name...but instead of waiting on that gentleman, he has absconded and no accounts have since been heard of him. He has squandered a great deal of money which he has left poor Madge to pay, which I believe he will do on account of Mr. Smerdon's desire, who wrote to him on the subject of lending hem a little money and his coming bare here; but without ever signing his name to the letter so that he is in doubt whether he will ever be paid."

The ultimate fate of the wretched Smerdon is not made clear but the implication is that he went over the wall and "went native". Fulwood Smerdon, though he was Vicar of Ottery from 1781 to 1794 seems to have been an even less attractive character than his son. He tutored the boy Coleridge for a short time before the poet's admission to Christ's Hospital, but Coleridge's picture of him is not a flattering one. He describes him as:

        "All snuff, and musk, and politesse.
        So thin that strip him of his clothing
        He'd totter on the edge of nothing"

       Mrs. Smerdon however sounds more formidable:
        "Large and round beyond belief
        A superfluity of beef.
        Her mind and body of a piece
        And both composed of kitchen-grease.
        In short Dame Truth might safely dub her
        Vulgarity enshrined in blubber"

So perhaps she was the moving spirit in the attempt to make an officer and a gentleman of their offspring. At any rate it is clear that the absurd pair, like so many parents, had ambitions for the lad which took no account of his own desires or his limited talents. One feels that had the military in the 18th century had the advantage of aptitude testing, both Ensign Smerdon and his parents might have been spared a good deal of trouble and the poor boy might have continued to study the Classics as he wanted to. He might even have become Vicar of Ottery St. Mary.

Geoffrey Smerdon