Admiral Sir [William] Sydney Smith, G.C.B., one of the Royal Navy's most enduringly colourful characters, was born in London's Park Lane in 1764, in the home of his father Captain John Smyth, a Gentleman Usher to Queen Charlotte. According to contemporary sources, he joined the Navy in 1777 and was made Lieutenant in September 1780 after serving as Midshipman in, first, the Sandwich and, then, the Greyhound, both stationed off the eastern seaboard during the opening phases of the American War of Independence. Posted to the Alcide, '74, in May 1781, he was present in her at Admiral Graves's action off Chesapeake Bay on 5th September before proceeding to the West Indies where he fought at several fleet actions, including Lord Rodney's decisive victory at the battle of the Saintes on 12th April 1782. Promoted Master in May 1782 and post Captain a year later, he then spent five years ashore after the end of the American War during which he learnt French to perfection. In 1788 he visited Sweden and enlisted as a volunteer in the Swedish Navy for the war with Russia; for his services therein, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Swedish Order of the Sword in 1792 and was forever afterwards known as "the Swedish Knight". Returning home, he then volunteered for service with Lord Hood's fleet at Toulon late in 1793 until receiving his own command in April 1794.
His career throughout the ensuing French Wars soon became the stuff of legend when, in 1796, he was captured off Le Havre and imprisoned in Paris for two years before escaping. Given command of the 80-gun Tigre in 1798, he took her to the Levant and, in 1799, undertook the defence of Acre against Napoleon's army in Egypt, where he successfully held the city against overwhelmingly superior forces during the prolonged siege. Showered with honours thereafter, he continued to serve mostly in the Mediterranean and ended the War as a Vice-Admiral, K.C.B. Promoted Admiral in 1821 and made G.C.B. in 1838, he died in Paris in 1840 at the age of seventy-five.