Smith, Erasmus (1611–91), merchant and educational philanthropist, was baptised 8 April 1611 at Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire, England, son of Roger Smith and his wife Anna (née Goodman), of Husbands Bosworth. He was apprenticed to a London Turkey merchant, John Saunders, at the age of 17 and admitted to the Grocers Company in 1635. In 1643 his father assigned to him the benefit of a £300 investment under the adventurers' act and the sea ordinance, which were designed to raise money for the suppression of the Irish rebellion on the security of land that would be forfeited as a result of it. After the English civil war ended, Smith became involved in the supply of provisions to parliament's forces in Ireland and he continued to supply commonwealth armies in both Ireland and Scotland in the early 1650s. He speculated heavily in the purchase of adventurers' shares at a discount, raising his nominal investment to £2,995, for which he received 10,404 Irish acres in Armagh, Down, and Tipperary when lots were drawn in 1653. Subsequent acquisitions, in the 1650s and thereafter, extended his holdings to some 45,000 acres spread over nine counties. In a petition of June 1655 Smith sought official approval for a plan to set up free schools on his estates. In April 1657, by act of parliament, he was assigned land in Connacht to replace lots that had been compounded for by the original owners in Down. In the following month, he was both sworn in as alderman for Billingsgate ward and bought his discharge from the office.
Later in the year he made his first recorded visit to Ireland and completed (1 December) an indenture by which he vested the Connacht property in trustees who were charged with establishing five grammar schools on his estates – so that children could be raised ‘in the fear of God and good literature and to speak the English tongue’ – and with administering a scheme to provide exhibitions for those students ‘who shall be made fit’ to continue their education at TCD (Ronan, Erasmus Smith endowment, 40). The eighteen trustees included six clergy, five of whom were nonconformist ministers and the sixth was the maverick Dr Henry Jones (qv), and the use of the ‘puritan’ Westminster catechism of 1646 was expressly stipulated. The opportunity to secure enabling legislation did not arise and the scheme had not been implemented before the monarchy was restored in 1660. Smith was actively involved in the committee of adventurers in the late 1650s and remained so in the early 1660s, when he unsuccessfully petitioned for the post of carver in ordinary to the queen, claiming recompense for twenty-two years of service to the king and his father. His request for a royal licence to incorporate free schools was favourably received, and an undertaking that any deficiency in the lands assigned to these ‘publick pious uses’ would be made good in Co. Louth was given in section 16 of the act of settlement. He was less successful in the Irish commons, where a bill giving effect to his intentions received an adverse committee report in September 1662, because its reprisal provisions went beyond the terms of the act of settlement, and was not proceeded with. A further bill for settling the designated lands ‘for charitable uses’, transmitted in March 1665, was not dealt with before parliament was prorogued in August 1666. These lands had been protected, however, by clauses 44 and 85 of the act of explanation, passed in December 1665, which adverted to the transmitted bill in terms that were subsequently interpreted by the solicitor general as having conferred upon it ‘the effect of an act of parliament’ (Ormonde MSS, new ser., vi, 17). Smith had been elected to the Irish parliament for Ardee in Co. Louth shortly before the passage of the act of explanation. On 14 December 1665 the burgesses and freemen protested that the election was ‘undue’. The committee of privileges never reported on the dispute but Smith was fined for absence in January 1666 and there is no evidence that he took his seat. On 3 November 1667 seven of his trustees received letters patent empowering them to execute a modified version of the original scheme, which now involved free grammar schools at Drogheda, Galway, and Tipperary, omitted reference to the Westminster catechism, added an apprenticeship scheme, and required the trustees to pay £100 each year to Christ's Hospital, the ‘Bluecoat’ school in London. On 26 March 1669, on Smith's petition, the lands and the trust were confirmed by royal charter and a body of thirty-two governors was incorporated, including the archbishops of Dublin and Armagh, the leading members of the judiciary, the provost of TCD, and other dignitaries. Smith remained actively involved in the trust's affairs for some time, exercising his right to nominate schoolmasters (one of whom was later dismissed for nonconformity) and devising elaborate rules of conduct. A charter provision, giving him discretion to decide the use of one-half of any surplus revenue, gave rise to discord. After 1675, when Charles II began to take an interest in Christ's Hospital, Smith repeatedly tried to procure an increase in the annual payment to the Bluecoat school, of which he had become a governor, going so far in the late 1670s as to petition the king to revoke the charter. The governors successfully maintained that the trust money could be used only in Ireland, and the dispute was not settled till 1718.
Late in life Smith married Mary Hare, daughter of a wealthy royalist peer, Hugh, 1st Lord Coleraine, with whom he had six sons and three daughters and who predeceased him. He visited Dublin for a second time in 1672 with the intention of buying a house, but there is no evidence that he did so and he was resident at St John's Court, Middlesex, at the time of his death in 1691, between 25 August and 9 October. As guardian to his young family he appointed his nephew Sir Edward Smith, a former commissioner of the Irish court of claims.