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Smith, Sydney Talbot (1861–1948)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sydney Talbot Smith (1861-1948), solicitor, freelance journalist and civic worker, was born on 21 April 1861 at Burnside, Adelaide, son of English-born parents (Sir) Edwin Thomas Smith, merchant, and his first wife Florence, née Stock. When Florence died nine months later, Edwin took Sydney and his 2-year-old sister to England, to be reared by relations in Staffordshire, and immediately returned to business in Adelaide. Educated at Tettenhall College, Wolverhampton, and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., LL.B., 1884; M.A., 1889), Sydney exhibited the boundless energy, wide interests, phenomenal reading speed and retentive memory that characterized the rest of his life.

While studying law, Smith attended more than 250 theatrical productions and many art exhibitions in London, Manchester and Birmingham, developed a passion for literature, cricket and soccer, did much debating, choral singing, swimming, running, hiking, cycling, sculling and coxswaining, represented his university at lacrosse and chess, became proficient at the piano, organ, languages, billiards and cards, spent summer holidays travelling in Europe and the United States of America, and wrote reviews and sports reports for two British weeklies. He also forsook his parents' Congregationalism and became a devout Anglican.

Called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in June 1885, Talbot Smith (as he was to style himself) arrived in Adelaide on 23 December that year. He spent Christmas Day serving food and washing dishes at the annual banquet his father gave for the city's poor. It marked the beginning of a lifetime of community service. Admitted to the South Australian Bar on 24 July 1886, he entered a limited-term partnership with his uncle, as (W. F.) Stock & Talbot Smith, Glenelg. On 2 June 1887 at St Matthew's Anglican Church, Kensington, he married Florence Oliver Chettle, who had been his sweetheart for many years. The couple lived in a modest house at Kensington Park, enjoyed a busy social life, and had four sons. Dubbed 'this mighty little man', Smith soon emerged as the prime exemplar of the public-spiritedness of the Adelaide gentry. For decades he served many community organizations. He presided over district cricket, football and athletics clubs, and refereed intercollegiate sports. In 1886 he had joined the education committee for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition, and the committees of the Kensington and Norwood Institute, and St Luke's Boys' Rescue (the 'Larrikin Tamers'); he also organized cycling and lacrosse competitions, appeared in amateur theatricals, and conducted Sunday services for Anglican clergymen who were absent or ill.

From 1891 Smith practised alone, chiefly as a solicitor. During World War I he was to draw up, without fee, four thousand wills for people who enlisted. More interested in world affairs and the arts than the law, he wrote thousands of leading articles and book reviews for the South Australian Register (Register from 1901) in 1886-1920 and the Advertiser in 1891-1941. He contributed light verse and 'Notes on Books' to magazines such as J. C. Wharton's Truth, and, in 1941-43, weekly reminiscences of the pre-Federation era to the Adelaide News. For more than fifty years he wrote all the reports on South Australian sporting and theatrical events for the Sydney Bulletin.

As president of the South Australian Literary Societies' Union (1904-05) and the Amateur Athletics Association (1905-07), and as vice-president (1937-45) of the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, Smith was always ready to muck in with the chores. He sat (1903-25) on the council of the University of Adelaide, and chaired its finance committee. From 1908 he wrote programme notes on 'The Play' and 'The Author' for every production of the Adelaide Repertory Theatre. Chairman (1919-24), vice-president (1929-30) and president (1931-48) of that society, he kept it afloat through the Depression.

From 1910 until his death, Smith was government representative on the council of the Institutes Association of South Australia and chairman of its literature committee. Throughout that period every one of the 420,000 new books purchased with public money for South Australia's three hundred institute libraries had to meet with his approval. He wrote a vast amount for the association's Journal and, as its president (1939-43), inspected institute premises throughout South Australia, using his own motorcar at a time when many country roads were little better than tracks. A gifted and witty public speaker, he accepted innumerable invitations to lecture in most parts of the State.

Smith's father had declined a baronetcy, saying that he 'did not approve of the hereditary principle'. He provided for his grandchildren in his will, but, on his death in 1919, bequeathed to his son a mere £2000 from an estate that was sworn for probate at £238,000. Sydney evinced no bitterness, acknowledging that he had been given a good start in life. He served (from 1921) on the board of governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, and was president in 1926-29 and 1937-39. He chaired the Libraries Board of South Australia (1940-48), and the central committee of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (1931-39) and its advisory board (1939-44). At the Adelaide Club, he waged a long (twenty-four years) and ultimately successful campaign to have some Australian wines stocked and offered as an alternative to the imported products served at club functions. A member (1913-15) of the ground and finance committee of the South Australian Cricket Association, he endowed the Talbot Smith Fielding Trophy in 1930, still awarded for the best performance in the State's A-grade district competition. In 1940-48 he was widely known and admired as 'The Man Who Remembers' for his participation in the top-ranking commercial radio show 'Information Please'. In 1941 he was appointed O.B.E.

Despite his varied skills, Smith was an appalling driver; his carelessness had caused the accident in 1935 which resulted in the death of his wife. Two delights of his latter years were serving on the South Australian advisory committee of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and having his hero (Sir) Donald Bradman as a next-door neighbour and billiards partner. Survived by three sons, he died on 3 October 1948 in his Kensington Park home and was cremated. His other son Lieutenant Eric Wilkes Talbot Smith had died on 30 April 1915 from wounds received at Gallipoli.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. Doherty, The Talbot-Smith Fielding Trophy (Adel, 1984)
  • M. R. Talbot, A Chance to Read (Adel, 1992)
  • South Australian Institutes Journal, 30 Nov 1948
  • Times (London), 4 Oct 1948
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Oct 1948
  • Smith papers (privately held)
  • information from the late Sir Donald Bradman.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Smith, Sydney Talbot (1861–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sydney-talbot-11726/text20963, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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