Benjamin Leigh Smith

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An 1886 portrait of Benjamin Leigh Smith by Stephen Pearce

Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (12 March 1828 – 4 January 1913)[1] was an English yachtsman and explorer.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Sussex, the extramarital child of Anne Longden, a milliner from Alfreton, and the Whig politician Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (1783–1860), the only son of the Radical abolitionist William Smith. Benjamin senior had four sisters. One, Frances (Fanny) Smith, married into the Nightingale family and produced a daughter, Florence Nightingale, the nurse and statistician; another married into the Bonham Carter family. William Smith wanted his son to marry Mary Shore, the sister of William Nightingale, now a relative by marriage.

Benjamin Senior's home was in Marylebone, London, but in 1816, he inherited and purchased property near Hastings: Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge, with a house built around 1700 (extant), and Crowham Manor, Westfield, which included 200 acres (0.81 km2). Although a member of the landed gentry, Smith held radical views. He was a Dissenter, a Unitarian, a supporter of free trade, and a benefactor to the poor. In 1826, he bore the cost of building a school for the inner-city poor at Vincent Square, Westminster, and paid a penny a week towards the fees for each child, the same amount as paid by their parents.[2]

On a visit to his sister in Derbyshire in 1826, Benjamin Senior met Anne Longden. She became pregnant by him and he took her to a rented lodge at Whatlington, a small village near Battle, East Sussex. There she lived as "Mrs Leigh", the surname of his relations on the nearby Isle of Wight. The birth of their first child, Barbara, created a scandal because the couple did not marry; illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma at the time. He rode from Brown's Farm to visit them daily, and within eight weeks Anne was pregnant again. When their son Ben was born, the four of them went to America for two years, during which time another child was conceived.

After their return to Sussex, they lived openly together at Brown's and had two more children. After their last child was born in 1833, Anne became ill with tuberculosis and Smith leased 9 Pelham Crescent, which faced the sea at Hastings; the healthy properties of sea air were highly regarded at the time. A local woman, Hannah Walker, was employed to look after the children. Anne did not recover, so Smith took her to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she died in 1834. Ben was only five years old.


Between 1871 and 1882, Leigh Smith undertook five major scientific expeditions to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

In 1881, he and his crew survived for 10 months in Russian Franz Josef Land after their ship was crushed in the ice at Cape Flora, Northbrook Island. He discovered and named Brochøya, Foynøya, and 31 other points in northeast Svalbard. Despite his expertise in the Arctic, Benjamin Leigh Smith's work has received little attention[3] although he received the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1881.[4]

He brought back specimens for the British Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as live polar bears for the London Zoo. By his fourth expedition, Leigh Smith's enthusiasm for Arctic exploration had advanced to the point that he had his own vessel – Eira – specially built.[3]

Ostrov Li-Smita (Leigh-Smith Island), lying east of Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land), is named after Leigh Smith, as are the glacier Leighbreen and Kapp Leigh Smith on Nordaustlandet, Svalbard,[5][6]


  1. ^ Freeze Frame, Leigh Smith, Benjamin (1828-1913)
  2. ^ "The Hastings Connections". 
  3. ^ a b Barford, Vanessa; Feeney-Hart, Alison (28 September 2013). "Benjamin Leigh Smith: The forgotten explorer of the frozen north". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 29 September 2013. 
  4. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015. 
  5. ^ "Leighbreen". Norwegian Polar Institute. Retrieved 2 December 2011. 
  6. ^ "Kapp Leigh Smith". Norwegian Polar Institute. Retrieved 2 December 2011. 
  • Capelotti, P. J. (2006). "Benjamin Leigh Smith’s first Arctic expedition, Svalbard, 1871", Polar Record 42 (220): 1-14.
  • Capelotti, P. J. (2008). "Benjamin Leigh Smith’s second Arctic expedition: Svalbard and Jan Mayen, 1872", Polar Record 44 (3): 255-264.
  • Markham C. R. (1881). "The Voyage of the Eira and Mr. Leigh-Smith's Arctic Discoveries in 1880", Proceed. of the Royal Geographical Society.
  • Markham C. R. (1883). "Second Voyage of the Eira to Franz Joseph Land", Proceed. of the Royal Geographical Society.