Smith, Smithe, Smyth and Smythe ... the Dictionary of National Biography for these families, spells the surname as Smith in every case. The y and e are archaic spellings and not a modern distinction.
The 17th-20th centuries saw various branches of the family (Smyth) add a final letter 'e' - some with the changed pronunciation to the long vowel - rhyming with 'scythe'.
The Norse letter y constituted a long 'oo' sound - thus 'smooter' (old English 'smote') bears analysis. Saxon craftsmen who could smyte were called Smythes. It is said that they became the first to adopt the Norman custom of using a family surname to accompany the Christian name. The variation 'Smythe' can also mean someone who lived near a Smith's forge.
Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist skills were required, and its importance ensured the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe. Medieval smiths were important not only in making horseshoes, ploughshares, and other domestic articles, but above all for their skill in forging swords, other weapons, and armour. From the Middle Ages the name Smyth(e) was frequently presented as Smith.
During the English Civil War, the Smyth(e)s were Cavaliers and the Smiths Roundheads. Smith (Petulengro) has also been a gypsy name for more than a 1000 years. The Smithsonian in Washington was founded with a bequest from the English chemist and mineralogist James Smithson (1765-1829). He was James Lewes Macie, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson Percy, Duke of Northumberland. His mother, Elizabeth Macie, a widow, was a direct descendant of Henry VIII.
Traditionally, in Scotland, many Smiths are given as a sept of the Clan Macpherson, a principal clan within the Confederation of Clan Chattan. According to legend, these Smiths, or Gows - the Gaelic equivalent, were known as 'Slioch Gow Chruim' (the race of the hunchbacked smith), and are reputedly descendants of a 'smith' of Perth who was enlisted to fill a vacant place in the Clan Chattan ranks when they participated in the celebrated 'trial by combat' on the North Inch at Perth in 1396.
In Perthshire, Scotland, Smyth(e)s held Methven Castle, of whom Thomas Smythe was principal physician to James III c.1477 - descendants acquired other properties, including Braco, in the same county. Other families became established in Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, and Stirlingshire. Of the latter, John Smith of Craigend in Strathblane founded Scotland's, oldest surviving bookshop c.1750.
In Ireland, many Smyth/Smith families of English origin are found, especially in the area around Dublin. These included Smith of Maine, County Louth and Smith of Annsbrook, County Meath (a branch of Maine). In 1646 William Smith started his fifth term as Lord Mayor of Dublin. He was a Colonel in a regiment of foot that protected the city and was of a Yorkshire family that later settled in Suffolk.
Several other members of this Yorkshire family are also recorded in Ireland. In 1677, John Smyth/Smith was Lord Mayor of Dublin. He was of the same family as the Carrington-Smyths, whose ancestor was on the Crusades with King Richard. The Prendergast-Smyth family held the title of Baron Kiltartan and Viscount Gort. This family was originally from county Down and included several clerics - Thomas Smyth was bishop of Limerick 1695-1725 and his son, Arthur, Bishop of Dublin in 1766. It was the grandson of the Bishop of Limerick, John Prendergast-Smyth, who received the titles. This family claimed to be descended from the O Gowans of county Down, however, they bore a quite different coat of arms. Another prominent English family of the name was centred in Waterford.
Edward Smyth (1662-1720) of Lisburn, who was a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and was expelled by James II in 1689. He was Dean of St Patrick's, Chaplain to William III (of Orange) and, in 1699, Bishop of Down and Connor.
Charles Smith (1715-56) of Waterford wrote histories of the countryside and pioneered Irish topography. He took his medical degree at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1738. He devoted most of his time to historical and topographical researches, and was the author of county histories of Waterford, Cork, and Kerry. They were published in 1746, 1750, and 1756, respectively, under the patronage of the Physico-Historical Society of Dublin, which was formed for the purpose of collecting materials for a work on the plan of Camden's Britannia and to be entitled Hibernia, or Ireland Ancient and Modern.
James Smith (c. 1720-1806) emigrated to America with his father and was educated in Philadelphia. He was a lawyer, and also raised the first volunteer company in the state to resist the British. He lost all his money supporting the revolution. He was one of several Irish-Americans who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Henry John Smyth/Smith (1826-83) of Dublin was educated at Rugby and Oxford. He lectured at Balliol College until 1861. He was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and, despite many commitments, came to be acknowledged as "the greatest authority of his day on the theory of numbers".
Vincent Arthur Smyth/ Smith (1848-1920), born in Dublin, entered the Indian Civil Service. He retired early to devote himself to writing and was renowned for his History of India, Ceylon and their Fine Arts. Brigadier-General Thomas Smyth served under the former Irish patriot, Major-General Thomas Meagher, in the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865.
Smithson is yet another variant of Smith. Harriet Smithson (1800-54) of County Clare, daughter of a theatrical family, had great success on the Paris stage, where she caught the eye of the composer, Berlioz. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her for several years. His Symphonie Fantastique was written for her. Alas, seven years of marriage was as much as their clashing temperaments could endure.
Annie Smithson (1873-1948), born in Dublin, was a district nurse for many years. A republican sympathizer, she nursed the wounded during the 1916 rising. When she retired from nursing to write romantic novels, she produced a series of best sellers including Her Irish Heritage and The Walk of a Queen.
Although the Smiths-Smythes, MacGowans or O Gowans-have not towered in the pages of Irish history, a study of Burke's Guide to Country Houses, reveals a remarkable number of country estates belonging to various wealthy bearers of the name. Like the innumerable Kellys, the Smiths have assumed a variety of extra names to make it simpler to distinguish one family from the other, for example: Cusack-Smith of Bermingham, Tuam; Dorman-Smith; Murray-Smith of Belline; Quan-Smith of Bullock; Holroyd-Smith of Ballynatray; Smith-Barry of Fota - and many more.
Berlioz was professionally connected with the Jullion/Jullien family - a major family line of this site.