John Smith

Sir John Smith (1923-2007) was a politician, defender of Britain’s built heritage, and a director of Coutts & Co, 1950-93.

Background and early life

John Lindsay Eric Smith was born in London on 3 April 1923. He was the second of four children of (Evan Cadogan) Eric Smith and his wife, (Beatrice) Helen. He was descended on his mother’s side from the tourism pioneer Thomas Cook, and on his father’s side from the Smith banking dynasty, which had established Samuel Smith & Co, the first English bank outside London, in Nottingham in the 1650s.

By the beginning of the 20th century there were five Smith family banks, based in London, Nottingham, Derby, Hull and Newark. Through mergers in the next two decades, these banks became part of National Provincial Bank of England in 1918. National Provincial maintained its close connection with the Smith family; John Smith’s father was a director from 1929 and chairman from 1947 until his death in 1950.

Smith attended Eton, then served in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. After the war he studied history at New College, Oxford.

Banking career

When John Smith left university in 1949 his father Captain Eric Smith was chairman of National Provincial Bank, which had owned Coutts & Co since 1920. Smith went to work at Coutts & Co’s Cavendish Square office, with plans already in place that he should learn about banking business as a preliminary to joining the Coutts board.

In 1950 John Smith became an executive director of Coutts & Co. Colleagues at Coutts saw him as a forward-looking ‘ideas man’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was extensively involved in establishing the bank’s Trust Investment Department, setting up suitable systems for regularly reviewing investments, responding to developments in the news and maintaining pertinent information about portfolio investments.

Political career

In November 1965 Smith was elected Conservative Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster. He served as a member of the executive of the 1922 Committee (1968-70) and of the Public Accounts Committee (1968-9).

He became increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the lack of suitable facilities to undertake his administrative responsibilities as an MP. In June 1969 he announced that he would not seek re-election, recommending to his constituency party that ‘until the House of Commons is improved, I feel you must try to send there someone who attracts less paper.’

He left parliament in 1970.

Other business interests

John Smith served as deputy governor of the Royal Exchange Assurance. He was (like his father before him) a director of Rolls-Royce, and also of the Financial Times and the Ottoman Bank.

Support for Britain’s built heritage

Smith was a passionate defender of Britain’s built heritage. He served on various committees of the National Trust between 1952 and 1995, and was its deputy chairman, 1980-95. At the time of his death in 2007, a former director-general of the National Trust identified Smith as ‘one of the handful of people’ who transformed it ‘from the small, inward-looking society it had become after the war into the great movement’ it became in later years.

Smith was a member of the Standing Committee on Museums and Galleries, 1958-66; the Inland Waterways Redevelopment Committee, 1959-62; the Historic Buildings Council, 1971-8; the Redundant Churches Fund, 1972-4; and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1980-2.

In 1962 Smith founded the Manifold Trust, to raise money for charity by buying long leases close to the date of their expiry. The success of this venture funded many of Smith’s subsequent charitable activities.

In 1965 Smith and his wife founded the Landmark Trust as a means of preserving old buildings while also encouraging people’s interest in them, both as objects of aesthetic beauty and as symbols of the past. The Trust worked to rescue buildings threatened by destruction or decay, and to make them accessible to the public by renting them out as holiday homes. By the time Smith died in 2007 the Trust had saved over 200 buildings in Britain and overseas.

Other offices and honours

John Smith was High Steward of Maidenhead, 1966-75, and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, 1975-8.

He was appointed CBE in 1975; knighted in 1988; and made a Companion of Honour in 1994.

His honorary degrees and fellowships included:

  • Royal Institute of British Architects (honorary fellow), 1973
  • Eton College (fellow), 1974
  • New College, Oxford (honorary fellow) 1979
  • Royal Incorporation of Architects of Scotland (honorary fellow), 1983
  • Exeter University (honorary degree), 1989
  • Portsmouth University (honorary degree), 1994

Family life and death

In 1952 John Smith married Christian Carnegy. They had five children together.

He died in Windsor on 7 March 2007, aged 83.

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