2. Charles Roach Smith's Interests and Projects

Charles Roach Smith (Figure 1) was born near Shanklin on the Isle of Wight in 1806, and attended school in Southampton and Winchester. After serving apprenticeships in Chichester and London, he established a chemist's business at Founders' Court, 48 Lothbury, London in 1834, moving to 5 Liverpool Street in 1840 when his Lothbury home was purchased for the City Improvements (Rhodes 2004; Morning Post 1841, 21985, 4; Smith 1883, 121; Illustrated London News 30 August 1890: 262).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Frontispiece, Charles Roach Smith 1883. Retrospections, Social and Archaeological, Volume 1. London: Printed by subscription.

Smith had many interests, which included a passion for archaeology and antiquities. When he first came to reside in Lothbury excavations were in progress for the City Improvements; these included approaches to the new London Bridge, with deep cuttings being made to the west of the Bank of England, Moorgate Street and in Lothbury (Smith 1883, 114; Rhodes 1991):

I was brought face to face with circumstances destined to give tone and character to my future life. Of course I became at once a collector; and something more; I studied what I collected

That he preferred archaeological pursuits over business is clear in the Preface to Collectanea I (Smith 1848, v):

The plates have been prepared and the text written, not to employ an occasional leisure hour, but at moments stolen from time fully occupied by less pleasing but necessary engagements. The task has been purely a labour of love

The success of his business enabled him to devote time to archaeological activities; he was responsible for collecting and recording over 5,000 antiquities, many of which he saved from destruction during improvements to the London sewerage system. The effort that he expended in monitoring the excavations and in saving and securing the vast numbers of antiquities that were assembled in his Museum of London Antiquities was considerable. He records that he:

…bestowed incessant personal exertion and solicitude in watching the works and encouraging the labourers, by the most persuasive of all arguments, to preserve, and also to understand what to preserve (Smith 1854a, iv)

In order to ensure that 'its integrity is best ensured' he produced the Catalogue of the Museum of London Antiquities (Smith 1854a, vii). His Museum was sold to the British Museum in 1856 after a considerable period of negotiation (Smith 1857, appendix; Kidd 1977; Potter 1997, 130–32; MacGregor 1998, 134–37; Polm 2016, 212–13), and his achievements attracted significant recognition both at home and abroad. The two well-known Danish archaeologists, Christian Thomsen and Jacob Worsaae, visited his Museum and are listed as correspondents and/or subscribers to his publications (see also Gentleman's Magazine 1847, 181, Antiquarian Researches). On visiting London they were unimpressed by the British Museum's attitude to national antiquities (Rowley-Conwy 2007, 100; Wilkins 1961) and praised Roach Smith's achievements in the face of inadequate governmental support:

Remember, that the Scandinavian Museum, in Denmark, was begun with seven pieces. You, as a private man, are where we, as a Committee, were after ten years' working. Go on and prosper (Thomsen of Copenhagen, London 18th May, 1843 in Smith 1859, appendix)

He later published Illustrations of Roman London (1859) in which he aimed to 'convey a notion of Roman London from the antiquities themselves' (Smith 1859, iii); this volume attracted the largest number of subscribers (344), including well-known figures such as Charles Dickens (see Table 1), and was well received (see for example Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 7 Jan. 1890, 9, 219; Hingley 2008, 279; see Bann 1984 and Zimmerman 2008 for a discussion of the impact of archaeology and the past on literature).

Roach Smith passionately believed that British discoveries were of national significance and should be 'rendered accessible to all' (Smith 1852a, 2; see also Dunkin 1845, 29). The situation in Britain is seen as contrasting starkly with that in France, Prussia, Austria and Denmark (Smith 1852a, 3):

The day is not yet arrived when an enlightened English Ministry, following in the wake of every other European government, shall prove their sense of the value of the institutions of the country, by preserving, instead of neglecting, the monuments which illustrate those institutions (Smith 1852a, 3).

He played a key role in the establishment of the British Archaeological Association (BAA) in 1843, acting as honorary secretary jointly with Albert Way, formed to actively promote the study and preservation of national antiquities in response to the perceived apathy of the Society of Antiquaries (Wetherall 1998, 27; see Way 1844, 1–6; Rowley-Conwy 2007, 99–108; on 'radical' connotations of the term 'association' see Parsinnen 1973). In his address to the first Congress of the BAA at Canterbury in 1844, Smith rails at 'the inconsistency of our own people, who travel to hackneyed antiquities of foreign countries, which do not relate to them, and have been a thousand times transcribed' (Dunkin 1845, 32). While the situation in other countries was not always as enlightened as he suggests (for which see e.g. Effros 2012, 60 and 81–82), he repeatedly, and often aggressively, challenges government and national institutions and their priorities. He is highly critical of superficial patronage of archaeological projects and publications, and the misuse of funds; for example, regarding the Monumenta Historica Britannica (Petrie 1848), printed at great expense by the Government but accessible to only a handful of institutions (see Smith 1852a 2, x). He is similarly scathing about the membership of councils of 'learned and valuable societies which were not elected from their distinction in the various walks of antiquarian research' (Smith 1848, vi; see Hingley 2007, 180–87 on wider criticism of the Society of Antiquaries). The criticism which he and his associates directed at the Government and the Trustees of the British Museum, the support which he galvanised in relation to the purchase of his collection for the nation, and the response of the Museum, are collated in the appendix to Collectanea Antiqua IV (Smith 1857).

Smith also highlights the poor levels of expertise and decisions taken by national institutions with regard to other collections; for example, the British Museum's refusal to purchase the Faussett Collection of Anglo-Saxon grave goods (Faussett 1854; White 1988, 118–120; Rhodes 1990; see also Anglo Saxon Collection and

The Trustees refused to purchase. It was in vain that individuals, and Societies qualified to judge, represented the national importance of such a unique collection; the Trustees were not to be persuaded … Why not, it is impossible to understand; for they were incompetent to judge rationally for themselves. (Smith 1883, 68)

He describes the BAA excursion to Heppington as the first step in raising general interest in the Collection (Smith 1883, 10, 68; Gibson 1988, 10; Dunkin 1845, 187); Inventorium Sepulchrale (the Faussett archive) was rapidly compiled and edited by him at the expense of Mayer, and remains an essential work on the Anglo-Saxon period (Smith 1883, 68–69; White 1988, 120):

Mr Mayer selected me as Editor, and Mr. Fairholt as draughtsman and engraver. No expense was spared, as the work will shew; and when I and my friends advised Three Guineas as the price per copy to Subscribers, Mr. Mayer would only allow Two Guineas to be charged. To me he presented Two Hundred Guineas. Had I made a charge it would not have been more than a quarter of that sum. (Smith 1883, 69)

The Collection, which comprises some of the finest Kentish cemetery material from approximately 750 Anglo-Saxon burials, excavated by Brian Faussett between 1760–63, was purchased by Mayer and presented to the City of Liverpool (MacGregor 1998, 132). Smith's expertise was highly valued and placed him on semi-professional footing as an archaeologist; a payment of 200 guineas (£210) was a considerable sum of money at the time, given that an annual income of £150 would have supported a modest middle-class lifestyle with one servant (Eliot 2001; see also Effros 2012, 189–200).

Smith's profession, and his frequently confrontational stance, meant that he was viewed with suspicion in the 1830s and 1840s by some in 'traditional' circles, as is evident from events surrounding his election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 'There was an enemy; and he had written a letter which Sir Henry Ellis the acting secretary deemed worth consideration. The writer had stated, not that I was not a fit and proper person to be elected; but that I was in business!' (Smith 1883, 116; Hingley 2007, 174–78). However, he was subsequently elected in 1836 with one of the largest majorities recorded in a ballot, and he served on its Council between 1840–45 and 1849–51. The fact that he and the other founders of the BAA were 'tradesmen' was probably a major factor in the rift that developed after the Canterbury Congress and resulted in the formation of the Archaeological Institute (AI), with Albert Way serving as Honorary Secretary. Smith reports, in a letter to M. A. Lower (15 Aug. 1845), that Robert Willis and others were 'poisoning the minds of the clergy and citizens against us by saying we were radicals, low people, upstarts and plebeians' (quoted in Rhodes 1992, vol. 1, 195, cited in Buchanan 2013, 166). The AI was reported as having a more aristocratic membership; its congresses were certainly elaborately staged, with Way playing a key role in cultivating and celebrating its aristocratic membership (see Oxford Chronicle, 16 Aug. 1845; Smith 1883, 210; Wetherall 1998, 34; Briggs 2009, 212–15; Ebbatson 1999 and 1994; Buchanan 2013, 167–68).

Smith was nevertheless very successful in establishing a national and international reputation as an archaeologist, and in building social and intellectual networks which increasingly included individuals from a range of backgrounds. By the mid-1850s his status as a recognised scholar is reflected, and was also undoubtedly further enhanced, through his contributions to Dr Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (Smith 1857), the last in a series of classical dictionaries published by John Murray, where he is listed as a contributor alongside eminent academics, including George Bowen (Brasenose College, Oxford); George Williams (King's College, Cambridge) and William Smith (the editor), who was Classical Examiner in the University of London (see advertisement in Athenaeum, 16 May 1857, 1542, 617). That he came to be viewed as an 'expert' is also clear from the case of the Shadwell forgeries (Smith 1861, 252–60; Jones et al. 1990, 187–88), where he was called as an expert witness in the trial of Henry Cumming. In 1858 Cumming had suggested that some allegedly medieval lead objects, 'discovered' by William (Billy) Smith and Charles (Charley) Eaton, at Shadwell during the construction of a new dock, were fakes; Smith gave evidence in support of the 'genuineness of the finds'. While these objects were subsequently confirmed as forgeries, the respect in which his judgement was held is clear.

Smith's projects and publications were instrumental in establishing his reputation, and he assiduously cultivated networks of support that underpinned the development of the discipline. These networks and projects were themselves important contexts for wider social and intellectual change in the mid-nineteenth century which contributed to dramatic improvements in access to education and culture, greater recognition and support for British archaeology, increased social and intellectual opportunities for the professional classes, and greater recognition for the contributions of women. As noted by Evans (2007, 271), a key area requiring further investigation is the 'group basis' of archaeology as a scientific discipline.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.