Did you know which is the biggest bookseller in the UK in 2010? Amazon, perhaps? Blackwell? Waterstones? No, it is W.H. Smith, the ‘traveller’s friend’.Coming across this surprising statistic the other day prompted me to pick up the two-volume biography of Smith published in 1893 by the Scottish novelist, Smith’s fellow-politician Herbert Maxwell, and reissued in the Cambridge Library Collection last year.
Maxwell had access to Smith’s private papers and assistance from his widow and daughters, and although the book sometimes borders on a eulogy (one of its main themes is Smith’s philanthropy and good works), it contains fascinating snippets of first-hand documentation about Smith’s life and times. There is much detail about Victorian politics as seen from the inside, though Maxwell says he is at pains not to revive ‘slumbering controversy’ as he describes Smith’s ‘commercial, philanthropic and political affairs’.
Open a page at random, and something interesting will leap out. Maxwell introduces the year (1865) in which Lord Palmerston and Smith’s father both died, by mentioning the Northern Lights that were seen in Scotland on the night of Palmerston’s death. There are extracts from Smith’s letters about the death of his young son, and about the pitiable state of the poor in Paris, where he had gone on a fact-finding trip. Smith seems to have been genuinely moved by what he saw, particularly at a foundling hospital.
Maxwell notes that Smith was in the habit of sending journal-like letters whenever he travelled abroad, and quotes from one such account in which Smith, pretending to sound very grumpy, describes a trip to Normandy with his wife in the spring of 1877. Having coped with a rough crossing during which his fellow-passengers knelt ‘doing homage to the sea’, and being woken early by the noises of Calais while his wife ‘slept like an angel’, the couple caught the train for Rouen and it promptly began to rain. The letter continues: ‘Does it not rain in England? Was it necessary to leave the comforts of home to see Rain?’ Smith also describes his exasperation about a dog begging at the dinner table. The weather did not improve: ‘May 20. – More rain. May 21. – No rain, but a sharp, cold north-east wind, as cold as England … May 22. – Once more rain … May 23. – More rain – more north-east wind.’ I think we’ve all had holidays like that!
To backtrack to the beginning of the story, the book describes how the teenage Smith had to be ready to leave the house at 4 a.m. come rain, come shine, to make sure the newspapers the family firm was wholesaling were dispatched by the early mails. If the papers were delayed on the presses by some breaking news, the fearsomely efficient Smith senior had his own couriers (with fast horses and light carts) in place to catch up with the mails; when there was a major story breaking, for example the announcement of the death of King William IV in 1837, Smith sent messengers on horseback to his agents and customers ahead of the mail trains, and even chartered a boat to take the day’s papers to Ireland extra fast. ‘First on the road’ was his maxim, and the business secured lucrative contracts thanks to its legendary efficiency, eventually becoming sole agent for The Times in 1854.
The young W.H. Smith, exchanging the family’s Methodist beliefs for Anglicanism, longed to study and become a clergyman, but accepted his father’s wish that he join the family business. The biography describes how he spearheaded the firm’s diversification into railway bookstalls, in the face of opposition from his father. The existing vendors are described as follows:
‘Newspapers and novels were ranged in amicable jumble with beer-bottles, sandwiches, and jars of sweets.’ They also stocked ‘Cheap French novels of the shadiest taste, and mischievous trash of every description which no respectable bookseller would offer.’ The railway companies had put their stalls out to tender following complaints in the newspapers about these disreputable merchants, and Smith & Son’s venture was soon favourably compared with its predecessors, and even praised by The Times on 9 August 1851 (in the middle of the Great Exhibition). In 1854 the young Smith diversified further, into advertising billboards on stations, and soon had three profitable income streams.
In 1858 Smith senior retired, and Smith junior married. Ten years later, in 1868, Smith became a Member of Parliament for Westminster, and soon late-night dinners with prime ministers and aristocrats replaced the early mornings at the gate of the printing works, though he remained closely involved as active director of his business empire until 1877. He was an MP for twelve years, and from 1874 had responsibilities at the Treasury, and from 1877 also at the Cabinet office, all of which made heavy demands on his time. Just as with rainy holidays, there is a sense of déjà vu about the description in the book of Britain’s finances in the early 1870s:
‘The consequences of the financial disasters of 1866 had well-nigh passed away, the anxiety of the formidable troubles in France had been relieved, and the country had entered on that cycle of prosperity, the knell of which was not to be sounded till, six years later, the City of Glasgow Bank fell with dismal crash.’
In 1872 Smith travelled to Canada and America, visiting cities including Quebec, New York, and San Francisco (including its Chinese quarter, which he describes at length in very favourable terms). The book contains Smith’s descriptions of the Atlantic crossing, the Niagara Falls and the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
In the summer of 1877 Smith was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty; in May 1878 Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore opened in London with huge success, and although Gilbert insisted he was satirizing all wealthy political appointees to military top jobs, the Victorian public swiftly (if rather unfairly) identified the comic character of the self-important Sir Joseph Porter with Smith.
Smith held the post until 1891; with confrontations with Russia over the border with Afghanistan, wars in Africa and nationalist stirrings in Ireland, the economic and political climate was a challenging one (more déjà vu!). The biography describes the political manoeuvring over these and other issues in some detail, but also reports Smith’s recreational pursuits, particularly cruises on his yacht Pandora (purchased in 1880) around Scotland or in the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople, where he and his family once dined with the Sultan. It describes how the crew attended prayers on Sundays and Smith’s daughters played the piano. One of the daughters kept a journal that mentions meeting Rawdon Brown at Venice (who, the writer notes, appears in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice), and being visited on board at Trieste by the consul, explorer Richard Burton (many of whose works will be reissued in CLC during 2011), who ‘knows twenty-nine languages … [and] lived once for nine months in Mecca without their having found out that he was not a Moslem’.
The Pandora appears again in Maxwell’s account of Smith’s final weeks, which describes how Smith would have himself carried on board and enjoy watching the shipping in the English Channel. The closing section of the book quotes a telegram and letters sent by Queen Victoria to Smith’s widow, and notes that the Queen personally sent a wreath to Smith’s funeral. The Queen also made Mrs Smith, the ‘devoted wife’ who is only a shadowy presence throughout this biography, a Viscountess as a public recognition of Smith’s services to his country.
A remarkable story, and all the more remarkable for Smith’s business having remained at the forefront of bookselling in Britain, and a presence on station platforms, including the one in Cambridge, to this day.