Samuel Smiles, the writer, political reformer and philosophising author, was born on the 23rd of December, 1812.
Samuel Smiles was one of the best known figures of the Victorian era. His career was a bit haphazard in many ways as first, he qualified as a doctor, then switched to radical journalism, was sidelined on the railways for the best part of twenty-one years, and finally found fame, if not fortune, as a writer. It’s probably fair to say he wasn’t a literary genius, nor was he a philosophical writer in the mould of his contemporary, John Stuart Mill, but he wrote some excellent biographies and developed strong opinions and wrote about them too, and to great effect. Of course, his most famous publication was ‘Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct’, which first appeared in 1859. His ‘wisdom and advice for the man of endeavour’ was a great help to many others and not only in the English speaking world. It was one of only a handful of titles circulating in Japan after the Meiji restoration, when it became a bible for Western-inspired businessmen.
Smiles’ book was a best seller in its day, having sold more than a quarter of a million copies sold by the time of his death. However, it wasn’t a handbook for the privileged. On the contrary, it reflected Smiles’ politics and the spirit of the age. Whilst in Leeds, Smiles was influenced by utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill and used his newspaper in the campaign for parliamentary reform. Amongst other causes, he called for freer trade, universal suffrage, and better conditions for factory workers. He expressed his powerful dislike of the aristocracy and called for the abolition of the property qualification for parliamentary candidates. He also advocated equal-sized electoral districts, annual Parliaments and pay for MPs – but not expenses. So his book grew out of values that were central to working class efforts at ‘getting on’ in the second half of the 19th Century.
His main themes were character, industry, independence, and thrift, directed towards personal improvement. And a key word in Smiles’ vocabulary was one he learned from George ‘the Railway’ Stephenson and that word was ‘perseverance’. Smiles also believed that endeavouring to persevere at the “life-education” to be gained daily “in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men” was far more influential than “any amount of mere literary training” that one might gain from schools or colleges or, indeed, Universities. He agreed with Schiller that “the education of the human race” was achieved in the finishing school of life. Smiles’ was a philosophy that became what those Japanese whom he’d no doubt influenced called Kaizan – continuous self-improvement.
In the 1850s, Smiles abandoned his interest in parliamentary reform and focused on individual reform, developing his concept of ‘self help’ out of a series of popular lectures that he had given during his time on the railways. He is quoted as having stated that “mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society”. He first brought his manuscript to the publisher, Routledge, who rejected it, but it was taken on by John Murray, who went on to publish many of Smiles’ books in a mutually beneficial relationship. Interestingly, however, by the end of the Century, Smiles’ approach fell out of favour and Murray turned down Smiles’ last book in the series, which was to be called ‘Conduct’. In fact, when the manuscript was found after Smiles’ death, it was destroyed on Murray’s advice. Even books suffer from the vagaries of what’s fashionable. The other books in the series begun by ‘Self Help’ were the similarly entitled ‘Character’, ‘Thrift’, ‘Duty’ and ‘Life and Labour’, all of which were written after Smiles had recovered from a debilitating stroke.
Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington on the 23rd of December, 1812, the year of the Overture. He attended the local school, before leaving at the age of fourteen to join a Dr. Robert Lewins, for whom he worked for three years as an ‘apprentice’. That experience enabled him to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, which he did from 1829. While still a student, Smiles became interested in politics and that led to him contributing a series of articles on the cause of parliamentary reform to the progressive ‘Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle’. He qualified as a doctor in 1832, the same year his father died and perhaps that contributed in some part to his later doctrine of self-reliance. He found work as a doctor in Haddington, but in 1838, a year after he began to provide articles for the ‘Leeds Times’, Smiles was invited to become its editor and so in the November, he abandoned his medical practice for journalism and headed south for Leeds. He edited that radical, progressive and reformist newspaper for four years until 1842, and in between time, in May of 1840, he became Secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association.
In 1842, Samuel Smiles stepped off the journalistic stage and onto the railway platform when he became Secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway and then, nine years later, the South Eastern Railway. But really, that was just a ploy so he could mix with engineers, particularly civil engineers; those guys who were doing so much to reshape Britain at the time. One of those was George Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive, and when Stephenson died, Smiles wrote ‘The Life of George Stephenson’, which was published in 1857. By then, Smiles was living in London and in 1866, he became president of the National Provident Institution, but he was occupied more in writing.
Smiles wrote around twenty biographies of inventors and engineers such as Thomas Telford, James Nasmyth and John Rennie, all of them Scots whom Smiles clearly admired. Smiles other famous work was his economic history text, ‘Lives of the Engineers’, published in four volumes during 1861-2. He also wrote ‘The Huguenots’ and a host of biographies, including one on Josiah Wedgewood. Unfortunately, in 1871, Smiles suffered a debilitating stroke, which slowed him down considerably, but he recovered and managed to resume writing. His post stroke output was considerable too, including an autobiography, which was posthumously published. Thirty-three years on, the indefatigable Samuel Smiles died in Kensington, on the 16th of April, 1904. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery.