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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter IV. Assheton Smith


The steam-boat race at the Northern Regatta was a novelty, and it attracted the attention of a very noted yachtsman, Mr T. Assheton Smith of Tedworth. He was then about fifty years of age, and had been for a long time a prominent member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, during which period no fewer than five sailing yachts had been built for him. The idea of having a steam yacht suggested itself to him, and he made a proposition to admit such vessels into the Club. His views were not favourably received ; and some of the members went so far as to insinuate that he intended building a steamer for business purposes. Mr Smith was. naturally indignant, and resented the matter so much that he withdrew his name from the Club. Being a man of great influence and wealth, and of inflexible purpose, he determined to brave the opinion of the Royal Yacht Squadron by ordering a steam yacht for himself. Knowing Robert Napier by reputation, he wrote him a letter stating his requirements, and requesting him to come to his house at Penton near Andover. Mr Smith was quite a stranger to Napier, but he resolved to go and see him. On his journey he went first to Dublin, crossed back to Holyhead, drove down by Cheltenham to Bristol, and then proceeded to Andover. On their meeting, Mr Smith plunged at once in medias res, giving full details of his quarrel with the

Yacht Club, and explaining his proposed method of procedure, winding up with the not very reassuring remark that Mrs Smith (whom he had recently married) was very much against his building a steamer, and that Napier must overcome her objection. As he had never seen Mrs Smith, Napier demurred ; but Mr Smith would take no refusal. At this juncture dinner was announced, and he was introduced to the lady of the house. Napier had no want of tact, and made such a favourable impression on the lady that he was asked to come next morning to breakfast. At this second meeting Mr Smith gave him an order for a steam yacht costing over £20,000, and sent him on his way rejoicing. In addition to the order he also took with him something much more valuable, the lifelong goodwill and unbounded confidence of this powerful English gentleman. Such trust did Mr Smith place in his new acquaintance that he never went to see the yacht during construction, but left everything to the builder till she was delivered at Bristol. The Menai, as she was called, was over 120 feet long and 20 feet beam, with double-side lever engines; and a model of her is still to be seen in the Glasgow Art Galleries. Her owner was so pleased with her that he continued to order new yachts from Napier till he was nearly eighty years of age, the following being the names of some of the yachts thus supplied:—

1830. Menai ....    Paddle.

1838. Glow-worm . . . Paddle.

1839. Fire King . . . Paddle.

1843.    Water-Cure    .    .    Experimental    Yacht.

1844. No. 1 Fire Queen . Paddle.

1845. No. 2 Fire Queen . Paddle.

1846. No. 3 Fire Queen . Screw.

1849.    Jenny Lind.    .    .    Paddle.

1851.    Sea-Serpent.    .    .    Paddle.

Mr Smith was a strong advocate of hollow water-lines, and though Napier dissuaded him from them in the case of his first yacht, he insisted on them in the Fire King. She proved to be a very fast boat, but before her trial Mr Smith was so confident of her success that he made a public challenge in Bell’s Life’ to the effect that the vessel would run against any steamer then afloat from Dover Pier round Eddystone Lighthouse and back for 5000 guineas, or a still higher sum if required. Regarding the hollow lines, there was a somewhat heated controversy between Mr Smith and Mr Scott Russell, who claimed to be the discoverer of the “wave principle,” for which he received a gold medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1838. Mr Smith, on the other hand, while not professing scientific knowledge, contended that he was the introducer of these lines, as he had adopted them in one of his sailing yachts built more than ten years previously, and had constantly pressed their adoption on the builders of all his steam yachts.

His yacht following the Fire King he named the Fire Queen, out of loyalty to her late Majesty. One day, in reply to the Queen’s query why he had adopted this name, he said: “May it please your Majesty, I had a yacht called the Fire King which was superior to any I had before ; this is superior to that, and I call her the Fire Queen” One of these vessels was the fastest boat afloat, being able to steam nearly sixteen miles an hour. She had steeple engines with malleable iron framing, constructed from the designs of John Napier, Mr Napier’s second son, and the Admiralty thought so much of her that they purchased her for a packet. Mr John Napier had the modern ideas of light machinery with large boiler power, but these were not favourably considered by his father’s manager, Mr Elder. At that time John Napier rarely got an opportunity of showing what could be done, but in 1846 he was prepared to build steamers to go twenty miles an hour if his plans were adopted, which they ultimately were in the case of the fast river steamer Neptune.

On the introduction of the screw propeller, Mr Smith tried it in the third Fire Queen, but he disliked it; and many letters he wrote to his friend Napier, saying that “if he could not build him a paddle boat he must always stay on shore, as he would never go to sea again in a screw".

Mr Smith was on intimate terms with the Duke of Wellington and other members of the aristocracy; and he was of much assistance to Napier in his subsequent dealings with the East India Company, the Admiralty, and foreign governments.

When the Duke of Wellington was staying at Tedworth, Mr Smith communicated to him his ideas regarding small gunboats for coast defence. The conservative Duke was so impressed that he advised him to write his views to the First Lord of the Admiralty, which he did. Having had no acknowledgment, Mr Smith, meeting him one day, inquired if he had received his note, to which question that official replied in the affirmative, but added that the First Lord of the Admiralty could not pay attention to all the recommendations made to him. Upon this Mr Smith took off his hat, and, making a stately bow, remarked, “What his Grace, the Duke of Wellington, has considered worthy of attention, I think your Lordship might at least have deigned to notice.” Within a few years his suggestion was adopted, and a formidable fleet of vixen craft, many of them engined by his old friend Napier, did good service in Chinese waters.

Napier’s relations with Mrs Smith were also most cordial. He never forgot how much had depended on his first interview with her, and in token of his appreciation of her kindness he presented her with a water-engine to blow the organ at Ted-worth, similar to the one he had introduced at Shandon, a novelty with which she was greatly delighted.

He entertained for her husband the highest respect on account of his disinterested, kind, and upright conduct in all matters, and he gave expression to that esteem by adopting his motto, “Deeds, not words.”

Mr Smith died in 1858, and a very interesting memoir of him, entitled ‘A Famous Fox-hunter,’ was written by his friend Sir John Eardley Wilmot.


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