On This Day In History…1825 W.H. Smith, English newsagent and bookseller, was born.
William Henry Smith was born in London to parents William and Anna who were news vendors on a street corner. When they died William Henry took over the business and developed it, taking advantage of the booming railway infrastructure and industry to establish a news agency in every railway station, expanding to sell books and magazines as well as newspapers.
William Henry was elected to parliament in 1868 and swiftly rose through the ranks to become Financial Secretary to the Treasury under Disraeli, and later became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1877. It is said that his appointment to this role was the inspiration behind the character of Sir Joseph Porter in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera “HMS Pinafore”.
Later in his political career he was Secretary of State for War; the first time was during Lord Salisbury’s ministry in 1885/86, and the second was when the Conservatives won the 1886 General Election. His next appointment was to be First Lord of the Treasury and then Leader of the House of Commons. Shortly before his death in 1891 he became Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Following his death, his widow was created Viscountess Hambleden in his honour, Hambleden being a small hamlet close to the family’s country house near Henley-on-Thames. In the parish church there is a plaque on the wall recording the fact that William Henry Smith had been a church warden there. Incidentally, that very same church and village has been the location for numerous films and TV programmes from “The Vicar of Dibley” to “Midsomer Murders” and “Morse”.
I think there is a delicious irony that the book “Goodnight Mr Tom” by Michelle Magorian, which has been sold by W H Smith’s bookshops since 1981, was also filmed in the very village with which William Henry Smith is closely associated.
As an avid reader and hoarder of stationery, I am extremely grateful to Mr William Henry Smith for his endeavours all those years ago. Long live WHSmith!!