9781108074308fc3dSelf-improvement for the humble classes

1859 was a remarkable year for publishing. The first edition of On the Origin of Species by the somewhat reclusive naturalist Charles Darwin was published by John Murray on 24 November, and sold out almost immediately, the bulk of the print run having been purchased by booksellers and circulating libraries two days earlier.

Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Isabella Beeton had begun to write monthly supplements to one of her husband’s many publications for the emerging middle classes, The  Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. (In 1861 they were collected in one volume, entitled The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper,  Cook, Kitchen Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nursemaid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc. — also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.)

And John Murray (again) brought out Self-Help, by Samuel Smiles, which later became a sort of exemplar of everything which the early twentieth century disliked about the Victorians: solemn, pompous, and distastefully (or ludicrously) patronising of the poor and gratifyingly humble classes whose betterment Smiles so earnestly sought.

Samuel Smiles, encourager of perseverance

Samuel Smiles, encourager of perseverance

At the time, however, Smiles’s book was enormously successful, selling 20,000 copies in its first year and more than 250,000 in the next half century. It would be interesting to know whether it was bought more by those who gathered together to seek self-improvement, or by those who approved of the idea that they should do so.

In his introduction, Smiles recalls that he was prompted to write the book by his experience of addressing a group of young (and not so young) men in ‘a northern town’ (presumably Leeds: see below) who had been congregating, first in their own homes and then in a large, dingy apartment formerly used as a cholera hospital, which they cleaned up to use as a meeting room. They would gather to discuss books, read and exchange books, and teach each other. ‘Those who knew a little taught those who knew less – improving themselves while they taught the others.’

The group grew, and grew more ambitious: the decided to recruit lecturers, and approached Smiles, who (writing in the third person), ‘could not fail to be touched by the admirable self-helping spirit which they had displayed; and, though entertaining but slight faith in popular lecturing, he felt that a few words of encouragement, honestly and sincerely uttered, might not be without some good effect. And in this spirit he addressed them on more than one occasion, citing examples of what other men had done, as illustrations of what each might … do for himself’.

Smiles was born in Haddington, East Lothian, in 1812, and apprenticed to a medical practice in the town. Thence he studied medicine in Edinburgh, and returned to Haddington to set up his own practice. In 1838, he sold up, apparently bored by provincial life, and set out on a walking tour through the Netherlands and up the Rhine. On his return, he obtained the post of editor of the Leeds Times, then well known for its radical sympathies.

In 1840, he met the railway engineer George Stephenson at the opening of the North Midland Railway from Leeds to Derby. He was enormously impressed by the trajectory of Stephenson’s life from ploughboy and collier to engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. He became closely associated with railway development, becoming secretary of various boards for extending the network around Leeds and for managing the new Leeds Central station. He had given up his editorship for freelance writing and lecturing in 1842, and in 1854 was made secretary to the South Eastern Railway and moved to London.

Eliza Cook, author, editor and poet

Eliza Cook, author, editor and poet

George Stephenson, self-taught railway engineer

George Stephenson, self-taught railway engineer









After Stephenson’s death in 1848, Smiles wrote a memoir of him for Eliza Cook’s Journal, one of the many publishing ventures of a poet famous in her own day but almost completely forgotten now, but who, like Smiles, believed that ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’. With the consent of Robert Stephenson, he extended this essay to a full-length biography, published in 1857. He went on to write the three-volume Lives of the Engineers, and many other biographies of industrialists and businessmen, many from ‘humble’ backgrounds.

Smiles’s original lectures on self-help proved extremely popular, and he took to noting down ‘occasionally in his evening leisure moments … the results of such reading, observation, and experience of life, as he conceived to bear on it’. He first offered a version of the book to Routledge in 1855, but was rejected, but in 1859 Murray (whose biography Smiles later wrote) brought it out, to almost immediate acclaim and best-sellerdom.

Under such chapter headings as ‘Application and perseverance’, ‘Workers in art’ and ‘Energy and courage’, Smiles drew examples from the lives of the famous and successful of the importance of self-reliance, ambition, and hard work, even claiming that these are particularly English virtues (though he does later acknowledge that great men have also sprung from ‘the Scotch hillside’). He emphasises humble beginnings: ‘Take, for instance, the remarkable fact, that from the barber’s shop rose Sir Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning-jenny, and the founder of the cotton-manufacture of Great Britain; Lord Tenterden, one of the most distinguished of English Lord Chief Justices; and Turner, the very greatest among landscape painters.’

Other trades, such as butcher, weaver and even day-labourer, brought forth similar great men; even wealthy and aristocratic families have harboured geniuses in their midst: Bacon, Cavendish, and the earl of Rosse, of whom Smiles tells a nice story: ‘So thorough is his knowledge of smith-work that he is said to have been pressed … to accept the foremanship of a large workshop, by a manufacturer to whom his rank was unknown.’

John Punds in his cobbler's shop. This engraving hung in my primary school about 100 yards from the site of Pounds's shop, and we performed our nativity plays in the Unitarian chapel built on the site.

John Pounds in his cobbler’s shop. This engraving hung in my primary school, about 100 yards from the site of Pounds’s shop, and we performed our nativity plays in the Unitarian chapel built on the site.

Edward Jenner, expert on cuckoos and smallpox

Edward Jenner, expert on cuckoos and smallpox










From Granville Sharp to James Watt, and from Edward Jenner to John Pounds, the humble Portsmouth cobbler who brought street children into his workshop to feed and educate them, it’s difficult to find a man from whose life Smiles can’t draw a moral. Pity about the lack of women…


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