An investigation of ancient documents both public and private shows the various families named Smithson to be of good old yeoman stock, and to have been long scattered over many counties far apart. The name, however, is principally and originally found in Yorkshire, and appears throughout the three Ridings. The name is of Anglo-Saxon or Norse origin, and means simply the son or descendant of the Smith. A Smith or Smythe was, broadly speaking, a smiter of metals, whether gold, silver, or iron, and played an important part when warfare was chronic and all weapons were wrought by hand, and when husbandry was the great means of living both for high and low, and when in Greece and Rome, Hephaistos or Vulcan, the celestial Smith, was thought to be the most useful of the gods.
There is an early notice of an individual named Smythson in the county of Durham. At Nun Stainton or Nun Monkton, in the parish of Aycliffe, in 1265, the Prior and Abbey of Durham had let to John Smythson a house and lands. This is alluded to in a charter of 1382 printed in a volume of the Surtees Society's publications. Also a Hugh le Smytheson and others are cited in 1260 at Liverpool to appear in an action, and William le Smythsonne of Thornton Watlas, near Bedale, is defendant in a plea for depasturing cattle there in 1265. The Newsham family of Smithsons, in the parish of Kirby Ravensworth, have, according to ancient deeds and charters, been connected with that place since the reign of Richard II. The wills in the York Probate Registry now go back to 1389, but there is no Smithson will extant before that of John Smythson of Huby (cf. Appendix), in the parish of Sutton in Forest, proved in 1504. After that there are many wills showing that in the Tudor period there were yeoman families of the name in the parishes of Malton, Norton, Kirby Misperton, Thornton-in-Pickering, Appleton-le-Street, Normanton, Altofts, Methley, Ossett, and others; while from the Richmondshire wills, of which many perished before they were transferred to Somerset House, it appears that early in the sixteenth century there were families of Smythson or Smithson, connected by blood, at Newsham, Gailes, and Dalton, in the parish of Kirby Ravensworth; also at Romaldkirk, Aldborough, Boroughbridge, Bedale, Jervaux, Burton Leonard, Kirk-Stainley, Cowton, and Richmond; also at Gatherley and Moulton, in the parish of Middleton Tyas. In the West Riding they appear to have branched out into Kettlewell, Gargrave, Slaidburn, and Horton-in-Ribblesdale, as many interesting wills as well as parish registers attest.
Some of these families were constant in their adherence to the Papal Communion long after the Reformation, their names being recorded in the Lists of Recusants, and among the prisoners in York Castle committed to prison for their faith: there were not a few before the Reformation who were clergymen, being Vicars of Middleton Tyas, Eryholme, Terrington, Hunmanby, Sherburne, and other parishes in Yorkshire, and of Clyborne in Cumberland. After the Reformation they are found holding preferment at Fewston, Berwick-on-Tweed, Headingley, in Ireland, and Lincolnshire. A Thomas Smithson was Prior of Hexham Abbey from 1491 to 1524, and held the Prebend of Salton, in York Minster, annexed to the Priory of Hexham. He was the last Prior but one. Salton is six miles south of Kirby Moorside. A William Smythson was Prebendary of Fenton, in the Diocese of York, in 1530, and is described in a patent as ' William Burbank als Smythson.' Charles Smithson was a distinguished Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and also incorporated at Oxford University. He became a Canon of Lincoln, and was Chaplain in 1672 to the Duke of Monmouth in his expedition against the Dutch. Some of the name were well known in the law. In 1636 a Mr. Smithson was a Sergeant-at-Law, and a Mr. Charles Smithson of Carlisle was a noted lawyer there in the reign of Queen Anne, and a friend of Bishop Nicholson.
In trade and commerce the Smithsons were active and successful. In those days, when nobles and gentlemen paid as much for fine dress as their wives, clothing was a very profitable line of business, and so from the reign of Henry VIII. onwards we have notices of prosperous merchants, younger sons, of the name, who in London, Yarmouth, York, Leeds, Hull, and Richmond made money and had lands. Some of them lived in the parishes of St. Michael-le-Belfry, Holy Trinity, Micklegate, and St. Crux, and intermarried with the Beckwiths, Belts, and other well-known York families. In Richmond, Yorks, Francis Smithson was a successful draper, and engaged in the working of lead-mines in Swaledale. He was brother of Hugh Smithson, who became a haberdasher in London and amassed a fortune, was an adventurer in Irish lands, and, finally, purchased the estate of Stanwick from the Cathericks, and in return for financial help rendered to Charles II. at the Restoration was created a Baronet. Another brother, Bernard Smithson, was an apothecary in London.
The family settled at Newsham, in the parish of Kirby Ravensworth, near Richmond, Yorks, were steadfast Roman Catholics, Sir Hugh and Francis, his brother, being the first to accept different views. Sir Hugh conformed after the Restoration to the Established Church, while Francis became a member of the Society of Friends (a Quaker). His will (see Appendix) is a very interesting one. Two generations previously the Rev. Anthony Smithson settled in Cumberland under his kinsman William Burbank, Archdeacon of Carlisle, and was successively secretary of Cardinals Bainbridge and Wolsey. Anthony and his brother John were the founders of families of Smithsons in Cumberland, which it is proposed to give some account of in this work. The Smithsons of Moulton Hall, near Richmond, conformed to the Reformed faith, and thus became prominent in that district before their kinsmen at Newsham, who were of the senior branch. The Newsham family was descended from an Anthony Smithson of Newsham in the time of Henry V.; and his younger brother, Robert Smithson, who was a man-at-arms at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, was the ancestor of Leonard Smithson, the builder of Moulton Hall, and ancestor of a line which intermarried with the Calvert, Fairfax, Meryton, Pepper, and Saville families, but which seems to have become crippled through extravagance, and is probably extinct in the male descent. It is, however, an interesting fact that Moulton Hall is now in the possession of a Mr. Sanderson, connected perhaps with the Sandersons of Toft Hill, who intermarried twice with the Smithsons.
Kipling Hall was the residence and property of Sir George Calvert, Secretary of State to King Charles I., and, after his secession to the Roman Church, created Lord Baltimore. His sister married Christopher Smithson of Moulton, eldest son of Leonard Smithson. This may account for a Thomas Smithson being found in Talbot County, Maryland, as a naval officer, in 1694; the Calverts, Lords Baltimore, having been Lords Proprietary of the Colony of Maryland.