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William Smith papers

Call Number: OSB MSS 57

Scope and Contents

The William Smith Papers document aspects of the adult life and theatrical career of the actor "Gentleman" William Smith. The papers span the dates 1760-1823, and are organized into Correspondence, Poems, and Personal Papers series.

Series I, Correspondence , is located in folders 1-47 and arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Retained copies of letters by William Smith have been listed under Smith alphabetically by recipient.

Letters concerning Smith's life in the theater and English theater in general include those by Sir George Beaumont, George Frederick Cooke, Thomas Coutts, Joseph George Holman, Edmund Kean, Thomas King, Capel Lofft, and Viscount Torrington. Kean's letter includes a discussion of his approach to the role of Richard III, while Beaumont's letters contain comments on the "Garrick School" of acting and anecdotes about the theater. The letters of William Dolben, Smith's schoolfellow, contain many compositions and Latin translation exercises as well as school and family news.

Series II, Poems , is organized into three subseries: "Addresses and Other Theatrical Pieces by William Smith," "Occasional Poems by William Smith" and "Poems by Others." "Addresses and Other Theatrical Pieces" includes manuscripts of prologues, epilogues and songs composed by Smith for his own performances, including his farewell epilogue and the epilogue he delivered after his post-retirement appearance in the role of Charles Surface at the King benefit. Folder 56 contains a song in honor of Nelson's victories in Egypt, "to the tune of'Hearts of Oak.'" "Occasional Poems" includes manuscripts of elegies, songs, and "The Death of Nelson--from the Greek."

Series III, Personal Papers , includes material related to the King benefit performance; a list of roles performed by Smith from 1753 to 1788; and two folders of David Garrick memorabilia, such as an invitation to his funeral, tributes to him, and copies of anecdotes concerning him.


  • 1760-1823


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The William Smith Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.


0.4 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of letters, poems by both William Smith and others, newspaper clippings and other material related to Smith's career in the theater and his life in retirement after 1788. The letters discuss personal news, requests for theater tickets, inquiries after Smith's health, and other matters. Letters by Thomas Coutts offer his opinion on various aspiring actors and gossip about theatrical personages; William Dolben's letters include drafts of epilogues and odes; Capel Lofft's letters contain comments on Garrick and Roscius. Edmund Kean's letter discusses his performances of Richard III.
Other papers include a list of characters performed by Smith at Drury Lane, 1753-88; his farewell address from there, 1788; miscellaneous verses; and memorabilia of David Garrick.

WILLIAM SMITH (1730?-1819)

William Smith, known during his theatrical career as "Gentleman" Smith, was born in London, educated at Eton, and admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1767, after leaving Cambridge following an incident during which he drew a pistol on the proctor, Smith returned to London, became a pupil of Spranger Barry, and made his first appearance as the title hero in Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius at Covent Garden in January, 1753. In the following year Smith married Elizabeth Montagu Courtenay, the second daughter of viscount Hinchingbroke and sister of the fourth Earl of Sandwich. The family objected strongly to the match, and Smith reportedly offered to retire from acting were he guaranteed an annuity equal to his earnings. Elizabeth Smith died in 1762; Smith subsequently married a widow named Margaret.

In the spring of 1774, Smith ended his career at Covent Garden in the role of Macbeth, announcing his intention to retire and to devote himself to a country life in Bury St. Edmunds. Instead, he went to Paris with Mrs. Hartley, who had been playing opposite him as Lady Macbeth. Several months later he returned to England and to his second wife, and joined Garrick's Drury Lane Theatre. He appeared there until his retirement in 1788, winning particular fame for his interpretation of Charles Surface in Sheridan's School for Scandal, a role he originated.

Upon retiring, Smith did settle at Bury St. Edmunds, returning to the stage only once, to perform Charles Surface in a benefit at Covent Garden. He devoted himself to fox-hunting and horseracing, and died at home in 1819.

Processing Information

This finding aid was produced from a previously existing card set in the Manuscripts Catalog, or from another inventory. All pertinent bibliographical information has been retained.
Guide to the William Smith Papers
Under Revision
by Diane J. Ducharme
June 1996
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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