Smiles, Samuel (DNB12)

SMILES, SAMUEL (1812–1904), author and social reformer, born at Haddington on 23 Dec. 1812, was one of eleven children of Samuel Smiles, at first a paper maker and afterwards a general merchant, who died of cholera early in 1832. His mother was Janet, daughter of Robert Wilson of Dalkeith. His paternal grand-father was an elder and field-preacher of the Cameronians, the sect which suffered persecution in Charles II' s reign.

After education at Haddington grammar school. Smiles was bound apprentice for five years on 6 Nov. 1826 to a firm of medical practitioners in the town. Dr. Lewins, one of the partners, moved to Leith in 1829 and took Smiles with him. The lad matriculated at Edinburgh University in Nov. 1829 and attended the medical classes there. John Brown [q. v.], author of 'Rab and his Friends,' was a fellow student. On the expiration of his apprenticeship he took lodgings in Edinburgh and, pursuing his medical education, obtained his medical diploma on 6 Nov. 1832. Thereupon he settled as a general practitioner at Haddington, but his ambitions travelled beyond the routine of his profession, and he soon supplemented his narrow income by popular lectures on chemistry, physiology, and the conditions of health, as well as by contributions to the 'Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle.' In 1837 he published at Edinburgh, at his own expense, 750 copies of 'Physical Education, or the Nurture and Management of Children' (2nd edit. 1868). The work was generally commended. A new edition with additions by Sir Hugh Beevor, bart., appeared in 1905.

Discontented with the prospects of his Haddington practice and anxious to widen his experience. Smiles, in May 1838, sold such property as he possessed and left Haddington for Hull, with a view to a foreign tour. From Rotterdam he went to Leyden, where he submitted himself to examination for a degree. A pedestrian tour followed through Holland and up the Rhine. In Sept. 1838 he paid a first visit to London, lodging in the same boarding house (in Poland Street, Oxford Street) as Mazzini, and presenting introductions to (Sir) Rowland Hill. On his way north he visited Ebenezer ElUott at Sheffield. Thence in answer to a newspaper advertisement, he passed to Leeds to fulfil an engagement on the 'Leeds Times,' an organ of advanced radicalism, from the editorship of which Robert Nicoll [q. v.] had just retired. In Nov. 1838 Smiles became editor at a salary of 200’'l. a year.

At Leeds Smiles combined with his editorial duties an active share in political agitation in the advanced liberal cause. He was the first secretary of the Leeds 'Household Suffrage Association' for the redistribution and extension of the franchise. At public meetings in the city and its neighbourhood he advocated the anti-corn law movement. He corresponded with Cobden and enthusiastically supported Joseph Hume's abortive candidature for the representation of Leeds at the general election of 1841. While he opposed chartism, he urged the social and intellectual amelioration of the working classes, and interested himself in industrial organisation and the progress of mechanical science. In 1842 he resigned the editorship of the 'Leeds Times.' Devoting himself to popular lecturing and literary haclc work, he prepared guides to America and the colonies, and brought out in 1843, in monthly numbers, 'A History of Ireland and the Irish People under the Government of England,' which was published collectively in 1844.

In June 1840 Smiles had attended the opening of the North Midland railway from Leeds to Derby, and met for the first time George Stephenson. When, at the end of 1845, the Leeds and Thirsk railway was projected. Smiles was appointed assistant secretary. He was closely associated with railway enterprise for the next twenty-one years. The new Thirsk line was opened on 9 July 1849. In the same year Smiles published an essay on 'Railway Property, its Conditions and Prospects,' which ran through two editions. Smiles also acted as secretary of the board which managed the new Leeds central station, into which many companies ran their trains. He was prominent in the negotiations for the amalgamation of the Leeds and Thirsk railway with the North Eastern, which was effected in 1854 and abolished his own office. Thereupon he left Leeds for London on being appointed secretary to the South Eastern railway (11 Nov.). He held the post for twelve years, in the course of which he successfully arranged for the extension of the line from Charing Cross to Cannon Street (1858-9).

Smiles's railway work had not blunted his energies as an advocate, in the press and on the lecture platform, of political and social reform, in agreement with the principles of the Manchester school. In the 'Constitutional,' a Glasgow paper, he urged the transference of private bills to local legislatures. He wrote much in behalf of workmen's benefit societies in the ’Leeds Mercury' and elsewhere, and for a time edited the 'Oddfellows' Magazine.' He championed state education. The formation of public libraries was one of his strenuous interests, and he gave evidence in their favour before a House of Commons committee in 1849, welcoming the permissive Library and Museums Act of the following year. From 1855 Smiles wrote occasionally on industrial subjects to the 'Quarterly Review' ; an article on 'Workmen's Earnings, Strikes, and Savings' was reissued as a pamphlet in 1861. A speech at Huddersfield on the ’Industrial education of foreign and English workmen' was published in 1867.

Smiles was drawn to the study and writing of biography, in which he made his chief reputation, by the sanguine belief that concrete examples of men who had achieved great results by their own efforts best indicated the true direction and goal of social and industrial progress. On the death in 1848 of George Stephenson, with whom he had come into occasional contact at Leeds, he wrote a memoir in 'Eliza Cook's Journal' in 1849, and afterwards persuaded Stephenson's son Robert to allow him to write a full life. The book appeared in June 1857, and was received with enthusiasm ; 2500 copies were sold before September, 7500 within a year. An American reprint appeared at Boston in 1858. An 18th thousand was reached in 1864, and an abridgment came out in 1859. The biography fully maintained its popularity in subsequent years. Fresh work on the same lines soon followed. In 1861-2 he produced 'Lives of the Engineers' (3 vols.); in 1863 'Industrial Biography: Iron Workers and Tool Makers' ; and in 1865 'Lives of Boulton and Watt.' A new edition of the 'Life of George Stephenson' in 1868 contained an account of the son, Robert Stephenson. All these volumes were reissued under the single title of the 'Lives of the Engineers' in 1874 in 5 vols, (popular edit. 1904). Smiles had full access to manuscript sources, and the books are standard contributions to English biographical literature. A French translation of all the volumes came out in 1868. A supplemental compilation, 'Men of Invention and Industry,' appeared in 1884.

As early as March 1845 Smiles had delivered, at a small mutual improvement society at Leeds, an address on the education of the working classes, in which he showed how many poor men had created for themselves, with beneficial effect on their careers, opportunities of knowledge and culture. The lecture, which owed something to George Lillie Craik's 'Knowledge pursued under Difficulties' (1830-1), was constantly repeated with expansion, and was received with great applause in many parts of the country. By degrees Smiles enlarged the lecture into a substantial treatise under the title of 'Self-Help, with Illustrations of Character and Conduct.' The MS. was refused in 1855 by the publisher Routledge, but in July 1859 John Murray, who published Smiles's 'George Stephenson' and the other engineering biographies, undertook the publication on commission. An immense success was the result: 20,000 copies were sold in the first year; 55,000 by 1864; 150,000 by 1889, and 120,000 copies since. The book impressed the public to whom it was especially addressed, and Smiles was in constant receipt of assurances of the practical encouragement which he had given artisans in all parts of the world. 'Self-Help' was translated into almost all foreign languages — including Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, and the native tongues of India. In succeeding volumes, 'Character' (1871), 'Thrift' (1875), 'Duty' (1880), and 'Life and Labour' (1887), Smiles pursued his useful scheme of collecting biographical facts and co-ordinating them so as to stimulate good endeavour. Repetition in these volumes was inevitable, and the triumph of 'Self-Help' did not recur. 'Character' approached but failed to reach the great sales of its predecessor. Yet all but the latest of these books achieved exceptional circulations in English-speaking countries as well as in foreign translations In 1875 Smiles successfully brought an action against a Canadian publisher named Belford for smuggling into the United States pirated copies of 'Thrift.'

On 30 Aug. 1866 he left the South Eastern railway, receiving a service of plate from the directors and staff with a pass over the company's lines. He thereupon became president of the National Provident Institution, and in that capacity travelled much about the country. A lecture on a fresh topic, 'The Huguenots in England and Ireland,' which he delivered at Dublin to the Young Men's Christian Association, while on a business journey, was developed into a volume on 'The Huguenots : their Settlements, Churches and Industries in England and Ireland' (published Nov. 1867); 10,000 copies were rapidly sold.

A sharp stroke of paralysis, the result of overwork, in Nov. 1871 disabled Smiles for a year, and he retired from the National Provident Institution. But he made a good recovery, and thenceforth divided his time between literature on much the same lines as before, and travel during which he amused himself by close observation of racial characteristics. Besides tours in Ireland and Scotland, he visited the Huguenot country in the south of France, and embodied new researches in 'The Huguenots in France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; with a Visit to the Vaudois' (1874). He returned to the south of France in 1881 to study the Basque people and language, and in the Gascon country during 1888 he collected details of the biography of the barber-poet of Agen, Jacques Jasmin (1798-1864), whose career illustrated his favourite text and of whom he published a memoir in 1891. In 1871 and 1881 he made a tour in Friesland and neighbouring lands, and in 1884 through the west coast of Norway. He thrice visited Italy, where his works enjoyed a wide circulation, and on his second visit in the spring of 1879 he was accorded a great reception in Rome, where he visited Garibaldi and Queen Margherita. Next year he received the Italian order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus. On visits to Scotland he found fresh biographical materials of the kind which specially appealed to him, and he brought out lives of the self-taught Scotch naturalist, Thomas Edward of Banff, in 1876, and of Robert Dick, a baker of Thurso, who was also a botanist and geologist, in 1878.

Smiles lived at Blackheath until 1874, when he settled in Kensington. In 1878 he received the hon. degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh, and in the same year he issued a life of the philanthropist, George Moore, a task which he undertook reluctantly, but which was more popular than any of his later publications. He printed for the first time James Nasmyth's autobiography in 1883, but the edition had a scanty sale. Subsequently, for his friend and publisher John Murray, Smiles produced in 1891 'A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir and Correspondence of the late John Murray, with an Account of the Origin and Progress of the House, 1768-1843' (2 vols.; abridged edit. 1911). In 1894 there followed 'Josiah Wedgwood, F.R.S., his Personal History.' His last years were mainly spent on an unpretentious autobiography, bringing his career to 1890; it was edited for posthumous issue in 1905 by his friend Thomas Mackay. Smiles' s powers slowly failed, and he died at his residence at Kensington on 16 April 1904, being buried at Brompton Cemetery.

Smiles married at Leeds, on 7 Dec. 1843, Sarah Ann Holmes (d. 1900), daughter of a Leeds contractor, and had issue three daughters and two sons. He edited in 1871 'A Boy's Voyage round the World in 1868-9,' by his younger son.

A portrait painted by Sir George Reid is in the National Portrait Gallery; it was etched by Paul Rajon. A sketch of Smiles was made at Rome by Guglielmo de Sancto in March 1889. Rossetti, an Italian sculptor, also executed a bust at Rome in 1879.

[Smiles' s Autobiography, ed. Thomas Mackay, 1905; The Times, 17 April 1904; T. Bowden Green's Samuel Smiles, his Life and Work, with pref. by Mrs. Alec Tweedie, 1904 (a slight pamphlet with portraits); Sarah Tytler's Three Generations, 1911.]

S. L.