Herbert de Schmid lived in Nymet Rowland Rectory in the early 1880s. In a career spanning more than forty years he served as a Captain in the Devonshire Regiment and a Superintendent in the county’s Constabulary. His son, Eric de Schmid, born at The Rectory in 1880, rose to the position of Chief Constable of Exeter and was later known for his involvement in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster, the worst tragedy in British railway history. Despite their public service record, the de Schmid family suffered abuse during WW1 because of their German name.
Their ancestry consequently remained a private matter but archived records reveal a quite fascinating family history. From a young German cotton spinner with a gift for drawing, and a Yorkshire boy enthused by bug-hunting, rose a family who found prosperity amidst the dangers of revolutionary Florence and who influenced European art, natural science and politics. The villagers of Nymet Rowland and Lapford would have been quite amazed to know the true story of their neighbours at the Rectory!
Peter Schmid (1769-1853)
Herbert’s paternal grandfather,
Peter Schmid, grew up as a cotton spinner in Trier, Germany. His father became bed-ridden and the family impoverished. But Peter’s natural talent for drawing was spotted and he was funded by admirers through European art acadamies. He became a Professor in the teaching of drawing and his ideas of “natural drawing”— das Naturzeichnen— based on geometric shapes, became a widespread system across European Art Schools.
William Spence (1783-1860)
Herbert’s maternal grandfather, William Spence, grew up in Yorkshire with a love of bug hunting. A local clergyman sustained his interest through lessons in botany. William became wealthy through a the successful paint company he established with his brother-in-law Henry Blundell. Oil was extracted from seed and mixed with an array of imported natural colour. Blundell Spence & Co would later propel the career of Ernest Shackleton and be a major funder of British Antarctic expeditions.
William was also known as a newspaper editor and political economist, but he made his name pursuing his childhood fascination for insects within and the new natural science of Entomology. Between 1815 and 1826 he co-authored the four volume Introduction to Entomology. It became the first significant reference work in the field. It influenced Darwin’s views on instinctive behaviour in the natural world, or at least confirmed some of his ideas. Darwin called it “the best discussion on instincts ever published”.
Due to ill health William wrote contributions to the final volumes in Exmouth, Devon. On the work’s completion he toured Europe for eight years with his principle base being Florence, Italy. Here, around 1830, William’s daughter Eliza met Louis de Schmid (Herbert’s father) and they soon married.
On his death the London Morning Chronicle called William Spence “one of the greatest naturalists of the present century”.
Baron Louis de Schmid (1783-1860)
Herbert’s father, Louis de Schmid, was the son of artist Peter Schmid. His father may have grown up impoverished, but the Schmid’s had become social climbers and Louis rose to become a Royal Chamberlain to two monarchs—Charles II of Palma and Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He became a chevalier and was later made a baron by Grand Duke Ferdinand IV.
This was a time of political unrest after the fall of Napoleonic rule with revolution in the air across Europe and monarchies in disarray. Louis lived in the strategically important city of Florence and came to prominence as a charge d’affairs, negotiating between Italy’s dukedoms in an attempt to maintain political stability. Revolution prevailed and by the time the last Grand Duke fled Florence Louis had returned to the Rhinelands of Germany where he died in 1860. His widow, Eliza (daughter of William Spence), returned to he childhood county of Devon, together with Florence-raised sons Charles and Herbert (Eric’s father).
William Blundell Spence (1814-1900)
Herbert’s uncle, William Blundell Spence (son of William Spence), was a renowned artist. Following his family’s grand tour of Europe, William settled in Florence for the rest of his life living in the grand surroundings of the C15 Medici villa at Fiesole, now a world heritage site. With William’s hospitality and the villa’s magnificent views from is stepped ornamental terraces, Villa Medici was well frequented by the Anglo-Italian elite.
William was an accomplished painter,having studied in London and Rome, but his wealth principally came from dealing expensive fine art. The villa became both a trading and cultural centre, as it had been at the time of the Medici. Amongst those using his studio was the pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt who stayed for over a year
Alfred Abid (1783-1860)
Herbert’s son, Eric de Schmid (born 1880in Nymet Rowland Rectory), married Indian born Gladys Abid. Her father was the colourful Avietick Satoor Hyrapiet, a Jewish Armenian who had grown up in India. Aspiring to western culture he used the name Alfred Abid. In 1873 he was part of the entourage of servants attending the Shah of Persia during his opulent grand tour of Europe. But Alfred struck gold when he got a job as a “dressing boy” to an even wealthier man— the Nizam of Hyderabad, said to be the richest man in the world. In time Alfred become not only the ruler’s valet but his confident and advisor.
The Nizam dressed in the finest clothes, wearing them only once, and Alfred made money recycling worn silk socks and selling them back to he Nizam as new after careful repackaging! Running the Nizam’s wardrobe was a challenge—it was the largest in the world occupying the whole wing of the palace. In 1882 Abid married Annie Evans, an English governess. Gladys, who would later marry Eric de Schmid, was their first child. Annie set up a store catering for the wives of the area’s gentlemen whilst Abid ran an upmarket tailoring business as an aside to attending the Nizam.
The Nizam had one of the biggest collection of jewels in the world and Alfred helped him in his purchases including that of the Imperial Diamond. The diamond is still one of the largest ever found but the Nizam was displeased that it wasn’t the size of the replica made to secure the sale. The diamond, now valued at £150M, was placed in a shoe and found by his son some years later who used it as paperweight oblivious to its value.
In 1894 Alfred and family moved to Devon buying the 147 acre Dulford House estate at Kentisbere. Here he fulfilled his dream of becoming an English Gentleman. He lived the archetypal gentry life—hunting, socialising and throwing himself into village affairs.
On Alfred’s death Dulford House could not be sold. It was demolished and replaced with today’s much smaller property. The bodies of Alfred and Annie were removed from the mausoleum in the grounds to the local churchyard. The grave was marked by a simple plain slab offering little clue it is the resting place of one of Edwardian Devon’s most colourful characters who once held some of the world’s most famous jewels.