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Who founded the WH Smith store empire?

WH Smith. Photo: W.H. Smith (1792-1865). Photo: University of Reading, Special Collections/WHSmith
WH Smith. Photo: W.H. Smith (1792-1865). Photo: University of Reading, Special Collections/WHSmith

High street names come and go, but there's one that's endured for more than 230 years... WH Smith. Established in 1792, the Georgian enterprise has spawned more than 1,700 stores in over 30 countries, in railway stations, airports, hospitals and, of course, the high street. It’s a reassuring and familiar presence for a global traveller, supplying news, books and convenience.

Curiously, it was not the founder, Henry Walton Smith (1738-92), who made the name. Rather, it was one of his sons, Suffolk-born William Henry (1792-1865), who put the 'WH' into WH Smith.

Great British Life: Birthplace of William Henry Smith. Photo: Adrian S. Pye/geograph.org.ukBirthplace of William Henry Smith. Photo: Adrian S. Pye/geograph.org.uk

Henry Walton Smith was raised in Somerset, but moved to London where, in 1784, he married Anna Eastaugh (c1756-1816), a humble servant girl. It was an affair of the heart that led to Henry losing his inheritance. They had three children, Henry Edward, Mary Anne and William Henry who was born in the Suffolk village of Little Thurlow on July 7 1792, the same year Henry and Anna established their news vendor business in Little Grosvenor Street, London. Sadly, on August 23 the same year, Henry died, having known his younger son for less than two months.

After being raised by his mother, in 1812 at the age of 20, William entered the newsagent business established by his parents. Supported by Anna and his elder brother, Henry Edward, William embarked on expanding it into the largest enterprise of its type in Britain. William and Henry shared the business (their sister, Mary died in 1816), although it was William's entrepreneurial acumen that led to it becoming ‘WH Smith’.

Great British Life: New Market WH Smith and Post Office, Beccles . Photo: geograph.org.ukNew Market WH Smith and Post Office, Beccles . Photo: geograph.org.uk

In 1820, the business took its first steps into wholesale newspaper distribution. Eight years later Henry departed the firm and it became ‘WH Smith’. Under William's leadership, the business grew from from a family-run newsagent to become the world’s first retail chain. It was William's brilliant idea to get the London papers out into the provinces using the morning mail coaches and local swift-horsed carts. Later, as the railway age gathered pace he chartered express trains, including, in 1847, a special from London to Glasgow and, on one occasion, a boat to deliver the news as rapidly as possible.

In 1817, William had married Mary Ann Cooper, a staunch Wesleyan. The couple went on to have eight children, although only one was a son, William Henry Smith junior born in London in 1825. He joined the business and in 1846 became William senior’s partner. The second 'WH' effectively put the ‘& Son’ into WH Smith & Son, later assuming full control of the rapidly expanding business.

Great British Life: How it was. WH Smith news-stall preserved on the heritage Bluebell Railway in Sussex. The company expanded significantly from the late-1840s when it cornered the market at the UK's railway stations. Photo: commons.wikimedia.orgHow it was. WH Smith news-stall preserved on the heritage Bluebell Railway in Sussex. The company expanded significantly from the late-1840s when it cornered the market at the UK's railway stations. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

In 1848-49 WH Smith secured the privilege of selling books and newspapers at railway stations. The first news stand was at London’s Euston station and the first bookstall contract was signed with the North London Railway in 1855. WH Smith become a familiar sight across the country as ‘railway mania’ saw a proliferation of lines criss-crossing the country. In 1860 another innovation followed, a circulating library service, which operated for just over a century. Always innovative, WHSmith is the originator of the ISBN scheme, the international system for uniquely referencing books which it began in 1966 as a nine-digit code called Standard Book Numbering or SBN.

William senior retired in 1857 and built a home in Bournemouth during 1861-62. The fledgling resort was putting on its growth spurt and Smith clearly fancied being part of it. He positioned his substantial villa property high up so he’d be able to enjoy the view and rather sweetly named it Walton House, in memory of his father, the original founder of the WH Smith concern. Sadly, William senior's retirement was short-lived; he died in London three weeks after his 73rd birthday on July 28 1865 and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.

Great British Life: Walton House in Bournemouth, built as the retirement home of WH Smith. Photo: Steve Roberts).Walton House in Bournemouth, built as the retirement home of WH Smith. Photo: Steve Roberts).

For William junior, business led to politics. He entered Parliament in 1868, became financial secretary of the Treasury from 1874 to 1877, then First Lord of the Admiralty from 1877 to 1880. Because of his lack of naval experience, he was seen as a model for the character Sir Joseph Porter in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. He was Secretary for War in 1885, and First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the Commons. He died in October 1891, just short of the company's first centenary celebration.

Today, WH Smith is a PLC, headquartered in Swindon. The last member of the Smith family left the board in 1996. It has more than 520 UK high street stores plus national and international travel outlets. The forever ambitious Suffolk-born WH would be proud.

Great British Life: The Smith family vault in Kensal Green cemetery which includes the remains of the W.H. Smith who was born in Suffolk. Photo: commons.wikimedia.orgThe Smith family vault in Kensal Green cemetery which includes the remains of the W.H. Smith who was born in Suffolk. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org



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