I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous in thinking that if I were to say “W. H. Smith” to you, you’d think of the shop in your local high street. You might also ask me why I just came up to you and said “W. H. Smith,” but that’s outside the scope of this blog entry. If you think of W. H. Smith the person, you’d probably just think “the chap who founded the newsagent’s.” So would I have done until about a week ago.
I should explain that there were actually two W. H. Smiths, father and son. The son is more interesting, so that’s who I’m going to talk about.
W. H. Smith actually didn’t want to become a newsagent – he had hoped to study at Oxford. Failing to get in, he found himself forced to work for his grandfather’s well-established newsagent. His grandfather was H. W. Smith. His father, the first W. H. Smith, had taken over the company and made the younger W. H. Smith a partner in the firm.
W. H. Smith the younger’s first great success was obtaining a monopoly on station bookstalls with the London and North Western Railway (the one running out of Euston) in 1851. The abolition of stamp duty on newspapers in 1854 gave Smith a massive boost and allowed him to gain a similar monopoly on the other railways in England in 1862 (John Menzies getting the job in Scotland).
This made him even richer, and by 1868 he was respectable enough to become a Member of Parliament without everyone pointing and laughing. He was a member of the Conservative Party, despite which he seems to have been an alright sort of chap. In 1870 he opposed the construction of private buildings on the new Thames Embankments, which the then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had hoped would raise money for the Government and, hopefully, allow the abolition of the unpopular Income Tax.
Under Benjamin Disraeli he became Financial Secretary to the Treasury four years later. In 1877 he was elevated still further. Against the wishes of the high-ranking naval brass, he was made First Lord of the Admiralty. You may wonder what a newsagent knows about the Navy.
So did a lot of people, in fact. Probably the most enduring objection to his appointment is Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore, in which Smith is lampooned as the character Sir Joseph Porter. Gilbert and Sullivan are these days seen as terribly old-fashioned, but in the Victorian era they were pretty sharp satirists. It’s just a shame that the satire hasn’t aged well. For instance, there can’t be many people who understand the lines from The Mikado: “The idiot who in railway carriages scribbles on window panes/May only suffer/To ride on a buffer/In Parliamentary trains.” Anyway, back on topic, HMS Pinafore = dig at W H Smith. The attack on Smith is actually pretty vicious, as in Porter’s account of his rise to power he states, “I always voted at my party’s call/And I never thought of thinking for myself at all/I thought so little they rewarded me/By making me the ruler of the King’s Navy!” The satire stuck, and he was known ever afterwards as “Pinafore Smith.”
Nonetheless, he can’t have done that bad a job, as he was appointed Secretary for War in 1885 and again in 1886 before becoming Leader of the House of Commons and First Lord of the Treasury the following year. He was briefly Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (whatever that entails; most of them were barely ports at all by that time) before dying in 1891.
His house is marked with a blue plaque on Hyde Park Street.
He was known by Punch magazine as “Old Morality,” though accounts differ as to whether this was an affectionate dig at his philanthropy or an attack on his somewhat uptight demeanour. I fear it may have been the latter.
Wait a second, Tom, what did those lines from The Mikado mean?
Ah, sorry, I didn’t explain that because it was off-topic at the time. Well, buffers are the round things on the front and back of a railway locomotive or piece of rolling stock (in Britain at least) to protect it from impact. By law, in the nineteenth century, the railways were obliged by law to run at least one service each way per day with affordable fares for working folk. These services were known as “Parliamentary trains.” The railways kept to the letter of the law but not the spirit, running the Parliamentary trains at unsociable hours, using their most uncomfortable and badly-maintained carriages. Thus, to “ride on a buffer/in Parliamentary trains” would be about the worst train journey you could make that didn’t actually kill you.