This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The remarkable history of W H Smith

Posted in Historical articles, Literature, Railways, Trade on Friday, 30 September 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about retail originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

Railway station, picture, image, illustration

A branch of W H Smith next to the Booking Office on the station platform

“My dear Miss Fortescue, books are not part of our business. You should persuade customers not to buy them.” “But sir,” protested the shop assistant. “Your son said we should sell as many books as we can.” “Bah!” retorted W.H. Smith senior. “My parents founded this business on newspapers and if newspapers were good enough for them and for me they should be good enough for my son.”

And with those words he stormed out of the shop, leaving the poor bewildered assistant even more confused than she had been before.

Later he continued the argument with his son, William Henry, named after himself, but to no avail. “We must move with the times, father,” his son had insisted.

W.H. senior retired from the discussion muttering under his breath. “I don’t know what the youth of this country is coming to. Over thirty years I have been in this business and now he tells me what to do. Still, I suppose I was the same when I was the same age as he is now.”

His thoughts turned back to the day in 1816 when he and his brother had taken over the business on the death of their mother.

Anna worked hard in the newsagent’s in Little Grosvenor Street, London, which she and her husband. Henry Walton Smith, had started in 1792.

A short while later, Henry Walton died. “I must have only been a few months old at the time,” mused William Henry. “It says a lot for her industry and determination that she was able to bring up myself and Henry Edward and still manage the business so well.” When she died, the prospering business trading as “newspaper agents, booksellers, and binders,” passed to the two sons and became H. & W. Smith.

The old man smiled ruefully as he recalled the arguments with his brother over the running of the business – similar in many ways to the verbal battles he was now involved in with his son. Eventually, however, Henry Edward, who had little real interest in the business, passed full control to his younger brother and in 1828 the firm changed its name to W.H. Smith.

Now that everything was under his full control, William Henry was able to develop some of his ideas for improving the business. He was determined to set up the fastest and most efficient newspaper delivery in the country.

He organised a fleet of small horse-driven carts, used them to collect newspapers from the publishers, and then delivered them, wrapped and addressed, to the various stage coach points as soon as possible after publication. In this way country readers who normally received their papers two or three days after printing were now guaranteed to receive the news within 36 hours.

W.H. could chuckled quietly to himself as he recalled another occasion when his initiative had paid off. When George IV died. William chartered a special boat to cross the Irish Sea and he brought the news to Dublin a day ahead of the official Royal Messenger. “Perhaps,” he thought, “I should not be going against my son too much for his new ideas. After all, it was I who persuaded him not to become a clergyman as he had wished but to join me in the family business.”

In spite of the argument, W.H. met his son at four o’clock as usual the following morning and they chatted quite amicably as they drove to their office in the Strand. With the clopping of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles echoing through the empty streets it was almost impossible to argue anyway.

When they arrived at the office the argument of the previous night was quickly forgotten, for they had a minor crisis on their hands. Some of the men had not turned up for work. With one accord, the two men immediately removed their jackets and set to work to help pack and despatch the newspapers.

While they were busily working together, W.H. junior decided it was an opportune moment to mention his latest idea. “Father, the North Western Railway are offering the sole bookstall rights on their stations. I think it would be a good opportunity for us to expand our business quite considerably. What do you think?” The older man wrapped up the last batch of newspapers and thought for a while before answering: “My son, the name of this firm is W.H. Smith & Son. You have been an equal partner for two years so you go ahead and do what you think best.”

Young W.H. lost no time in seizing the opportunity and very quickly signed a contract with the railway company. On 1st November, 1848, the first Smith bookstall was opened at Euston. A fortnight later another contract was signed with the Midland Railway.

Just as W.H. Smith senior had been the pioneer of rapid newspaper distribution, his son was the creator of the railway bookstalls that today’s traveller takes for granted.

In 1905, the firm’s progress received what at first appeared to be a major set-back. The contracts for the two hundred bookstalls on the Great Western and London and North Western Railways expired. The company decided not to renew them at the new high rents that were being asked. In order not to lose the valuable railway trade it was decided to open new shops. These were to be close to the stations, and would replace every bookstall that would be lost.

A high speed plan was put into operation. Within three weeks of the contracts expiring, 180 new shops had opened for business. From what could have been a disaster a new era emerged for the company; those shops formed the nucleus for today’s successful retail chain.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.