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