Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William Henry (1825-1891)
SMITH, WILLIAM HENRY (1825–1891), statesman, born in Duke Street, Grosvenor Square, London, on 24 June 1825, was only son of William Henry Smith, newsagent, and his wife, Mary Anne Cooper. His parents were strict methodists. Smith was educated entirely at home, except for some months in 1839 spent as a boarder at Tavistock grammar school, of which his brother-in-law, the Rev. W. Beal, was headmaster. At sixteen he expressed a strong wish to go to Oxford and prepare for holy orders, but, in deference to his father's wishes, he entered the news-agency house in the Strand. Though keenly disappointed, young Smith applied himself resolutely to business, and became his father's partner in 1846. The elder Smith, by his energy and business instinct, had secured already the position of leading newsagent in the country. But his strength was failing, and the management of the concern passed gradually into his son's hands. The development of railways afforded an opportunity which the young man was not slow to seize (cf. Athenæum, 1891, ii. 486). Although the father resented any attempt to extend the enterprise beyond the confines of an agency for the sale of newspapers, the son opened negotiations with the different railway companies for the right to erect bookstalls at their stations, and in 1851 secured a monopoly of those on the London and North-Western system. From the scrupulous care devoted to excluding all pernicious literature, which had hitherto made these railway bookstalls notorious, young Smith got the name of ‘the North-Western Missionary,’ and by 1862 this reputation had secured for the firm the exclusive right of selling books and newspapers on all the important railways in England. The repeal of the newspaper stamp duty in 1854 gave an enormous impetus to the circulation of journals, and W. H. Smith & Son were in a position to derive immediate advantage from it. Previous to that, the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851 had inaugurated the novelty of open-air advertisement. Smith was first in the field, and secured, at what was considered by his father an extravagant outlay, a lease of the blank walls in all the principal railway stations. The profits steadily grew till they became prodigious. Next came the circulating library, arising naturally out of the bookstall business. At the present day it contains upwards of three hundred thousand volumes. Last of all, by arrangement with Messrs. Chapman & Hall, the purchase of copyrights and the publication of cheap ‘yellow-backed’ editions were undertaken, a branch of business which was disposed of in 1883 to Messrs. Ward & Lock. The elder Smith died in 1865, leaving his son at the head of a very large and lucrative concern.
Meanwhile the younger Smith had been taking an increasing share in public and philanthropic business. In 1849 he became one of the managing committee of King's College Hospital, in 1855 he was elected to the metropolitan board of works, and on the formation of the bishop of London's fund in 1861 he was appointed one of a small working committee. He held also the offices of treasurer of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and of the London Diocesan Council for the Welfare of Young Men. He remained, till the close of his life, a munificent subscriber to philanthropic schemes, especially those conducted by the church of England.
Naturally inclined to liberalism in politics, owing to the connection of his family with the Wesleyan body, Smith perhaps owed his first approach to the conservative party to his rejection as a candidate for election to the Reform Club in 1862. He accepted an invitation to stand for Westminster in 1865 as a liberal-conservative against Captain Grosvenor (whig) and John Stuart Mill (radical). He was left at the bottom of the poll; but in 1868 (the franchise having been extended in the meantime to householders in boroughs) he was returned to parliament for the same constituency by a majority of 1,193 over Grosvenor and 1,513 over Mill. In this year the uniform liberalism of the metropolitan representatives was broken by Smith's election, and that of a conservative for one of the four city seats. The expenditure on the Westminster election had been enormous. Smith's return was petitioned against, and the indiscretion of his agents proved well-nigh fatal to his retaining the seat; but, as the ‘Times’ observed in a leader on the verdict, ‘a good character has, to Mr. Smith at any rate, proved better than riches. It may be a question whether the latter won the seat for him, but there can be no question that the former has saved it.’
Once in parliament, Smith devoted himself with energy to social questions, making his maiden speech on a motion relating to pauperism and vagrancy. At no time an eloquent or even a fluent speaker, his reputation for combined philanthropic and businesslike qualities caused him to be heard with respect. The introduction of the Education Bill in 1870 brought him into frequent consultation with William Edward Forster [q. v.], who had charge of it; and he and Lord Sandon (now Earl of Harrowby) were chiefly instrumental in persuading the government to abandon their project of creating twenty-three school boards for the metropolis and to substitute a single large one. Smith was elected a member of the first London school board in 1871, and a resolution framed by him was adopted as a compromise on the vexed question of religious teaching in schools.
On Mr. Disraeli forming his administration in 1874, Smith was offered and accepted the post of secretary to the treasury; and in 1877, on the death of George Ward Hunt [q. v.], he joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. This office had generally been held by persons of high rank, and Disraeli incurred some sharp criticism from his own party by conferring it on a London tradesman (the incongruity of the choice found popular expression in the comic opera of ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan). But Smith's appointment belied all misgivings and proved a complete success. In the trying time when war with Russia seemed inevitable, and the cabinet was weakened in the early part of 1878 by the secession of the Earls of Derby and Carnarvon, Smith showed much firmness in council. Slow in forming a judgment, he had the enviable gift, once it was formed, of adhering to it without anxiety.
After Mr. Gladstone's great victory at the polls in 1880, the official conservative opposition in the House of Commons proved too mild and inoffensive for the younger members of the party. Of these, Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Arthur James Balfour, Sir John Gorst, and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, who were known as the ‘Fourth Party,’ made frequent attacks on their leaders, Smith, Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (afterwards earl of Iddesleigh) [q. v.], and Sir Richard (now Viscount) Cross. Mr. Gladstone's ministry resigned office after their defeat in June 1885 on the beer duties, and Lord Salisbury formed a cabinet to complete the scheme of redistribution of seats rendered necessary by the Reform Act. Smith became secretary of state for war. Westminster, which had previously returned two members, was divided by the new Redistribution Act into three single-seated constituencies. Smith appropriately chose to represent the Strand division, for which he was returned by 5,645 against 2,486 votes in November 1885. In December Lord Carnarvon resigned the viceroyalty of Ireland and Sir William Hart Dyke that of chief secretary. The latter was a difficult post to fill. Lord Salisbury turned to Smith, who at once entered upon the duties of that invidious office. He was relieved of them in the following month by the defeat and resignation of the government. Mr. Gladstone succeeded Lord Salisbury as prime minister, but was overthrown in June 1886 on the rejection by the House of Commons of his bill for conferring home rule upon Ireland. In the general election which followed Smith increased his majority in the Strand division to 3,526. As a member of Lord Salisbury's second administration, he returned to the war office, Lord Randolph Churchill becoming chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. Thoroughly as Smith had earned the confidence of his colleagues and the esteem of the house, few people suspected him of possessing the peculiar gifts essential to a leader of the house. Yet, when Lord Randolph Churchill suddenly resigned the leadership on 23 Dec. 1886, Lord Salisbury turned to Smith once more. He became first lord of the treasury and leader of the House of Commons, while Mr. Goschen joined the cabinet as chancellor of the exchequer. Despite the mediocrity of his oratorical power, Smith's leadership was an undoubted success. His judgment was admirable, and all parties acknowledged in him a conscientious politician removed by his great wealth from all suspicion of anxiety for office. The work of parliament had grown unmanageable; sittings were prolonged to extravagant hours; the Irish party had acquired a new importance by their alliance with the liberal party, and had lost none of their power of protracting debate [see under Parnell, Charles Stewart]. During four sessions and part of a fifth Smith was incessantly at his post; latterly, during the session of 1891, it was obvious that his health was giving way under the strain. His last attendance in the House of Commons was on 10 July. On 20 Aug. he was moved down to Walmer Castle, his official residence as warden of the Cinque ports, to which he had been appointed on the previous 1 May. He died there on 6 Oct. 1891.
Few men have secured so much honest respect from the House of Commons; he owed it to no brilliant qualities in debate, but to sterling sound sense and perfect integrity. ‘Punch,’ in its weekly sketches of parliament, conferred on him the sobriquet of ‘Old Morality.’
A portrait of Smith in middle age, by George Richmond, belongs to his son, and marble busts were executed after his death for the House of Commons and the Carlton Club.
In 1858 Smith married Emily, widow of an old friend, Benjamin Auber Leach, and eldest daughter of Frederick Dawes Danvers, clerk to the council of the duchy of Lancaster. She was created on 10 Nov. 1891 Viscountess Hambleden, with remainder to Smith's heirs. The eldest son, the Hon. William Frederick Danvers Smith, on his father's death, became head of the great business in the Strand, and M.P. for the Strand division of Westminster.[Maxwell's Life and Times of the Right Hon. W. H. Smith, M.P., 1893.]