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RETIREMENT FROM PUBLIC LIFE—ST GEORGE's
HILL, WEYBRIDGE, 1854–1860.
WHEN his official life came to a close, my grandfather retired to a house on Weybridge Heath, and he met the sudden cessation of his eager public life with the same calm courage with which he had met all the other crises in his career.
This house had been built on a beautiful spot as a gathering-place for his much-loved and somewhat scattered family, and the beauty of its position came to be a great comfort to him when he turned his quiet days to the prosecution of literary work in his little study, which, opening on to a sunny terraced walk, overlooked, through vistas of dark - green pines and yellow birch - trees, the miles of blue distance which stretched out southwards to the Surrey and Hampshire hills. Through the kindness of Lord Ellesmere, whose property adjoined, there was a small private gate leading from our own little firwood on to St George's Hill itself; and, in the intervals of his writing, frequent strolls on to its beautiful slopes were a great source of pleasure during that first autumn and in all the ensuing years. The heather banks and wooded dells brought him much joy; for, as always, it was in the presence of nature and in the stillness of the country that he gathered strength. The strain of the last few months had been great, and it was well that the closing of the year brought with it the much-needed rest.
He now gave a good deal of time to physiological study, turning to his old subjects with the vigour of a younger man, and entering with the deepest interest into the discoveries of later science. He did this with a view of bringing his early book, “The Philosophy of Health,' which at the time of its publication had made so much mark, up to the standard of modern knowledge; and though he did not live to complete this task, the reading for it gave a living interest to those years of quiet country life.
He had also much satisfaction in writing and publishing a pamphlet called 'Results of Sanitary Improvement,' based mainly on the experience obtained in the “ Model Dwellings” for the working classes, of which he had been the originator. This pamphlet, coming as it did before many influential men throughout the country, spread the good news of progress far and wide.
A further instance of the fruit of his labours was afforded him by his visit to Edinburgh, in November 1855, when he lectured on his own subject, “ Epidemics," at the Philosophical Institution, where a brilliant reception and distinguished audience awaited him. 1
I have a vivid recollection of his pleasure in the beauty of Alnwick as we journeyed north — of its old castle's warm grey walls, its lovely woods and clear running streams, during a sunny Sunday which we passed there, the gold and russet tints of autumn shining out against a perfectly blue sky; and I also remember the satisfaction he had in hearing from the Mayor, who took us round the town, of the pure water and good drainage lately introduced. Alnwick was, I believe, one of the first places which adopted the sanitary measures advised by the General Board of Health, so that here he had the gratification of seeing some of the great reforms practically carried out.
1 Epidemics considered with relation to their Common Nature and to Climate and Civilisation. Published by Edmonston & Douglas, Edinburgh, 1856.
As I am recalling the various sources of comfort which came to my grandfather during these years at Weybridge, I must mention the great happiness which arose from the opening out of the lives of two of his granddaughters, Miranda and Octavia Hill; for it was at this time that they—at the ages of nineteen and sixteen
—took the responsibilities of their lives upon themselves, and began the great and good works which they have since carried to such wide issues.
In his retirement, letters of appreciation and sympathy reached him from many of the public men with whom he had worked, expressing in various ways that which Lord Shaftesbury, who knew him as well as any, gives as his own feeling when writing to a mutual friend :
“I have known Dr Southwood Smith well, having sat with him during four years and in
very trying times at the Board of Health. A more able, diligent, zealous, and benevolent man does not exist. No work ever seemed too much for him if it were to do good. His great services will not, I fear, be appreciated in this generation.”
Such words as these cannot but have been gratifying to my grandfather; but in 1858 those who shared these sentiments resolved to make a clearer and more public demonstration of their sense of the value of the services which he had rendered to the country. At a preliminary meeting held on the 7th May 1856 it was agreed that this recognition should take the form, primarily, of a memorial bust, to be presented to a suitable public institution. This intention was communicated to Dr Southwood Smith at the final meeting held at the house of Lord Shaftesbury, 24 Grosvenor Square, on the 6th of December 1858, and was accompanied by a short address.
I give his own words of thanks, as they show not only the pleasure this recognition afforded him, but also — what is so characteristic of him
-his joy in the progress of his cause, quite apart from his personal share in it :