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"The literary man exercises much power in the world.  He helps to form the opinions of other men; indeed, he makes public opinion.  All other powers have in modern times become weaker, while this has been waxing stronger from day to day.  Kings are being superseded by books, priests by magazines, and diplomatists by newspapers.  Perhaps bookmen and editors now wield more intellectual power than all the other crafts combined."

"Good rules may do much, but good models far more; for in the latter we have instruction in action—wisdom at work."

Samuel Smiles.

SAMUEL SMILES, LL.D (1812-1904)


SAMUEL SMILES is best known today as a prolific author of books that extol the virtues of self-help, character and duty, and of biographies lauding the achievements of famous civil and mechanical engineers among whom are Brindley, Smeaton, Rennie, Boulton, Watt, Telford and the Stephensons, but, oddly, not Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

    His books—particularly that on self help—were influential in their day, as is evidenced by their wide popularity and translation into other languages and a number of his titles remain available in modern reprints.  Alas, as a biographer Smiles suffers from an unwillingness to undertake an objective critical analysis of his subjects, selecting only material that presents them favourably.  But with that caveat, his books, which are very readable, provide an interesting and informative perspective on industrialisation during the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era.

" . . . . they were mainly self-educated: Smeaton and Watt being mathematical instrument makers, Telford a stonemason, and Brindley and Rennie millwrights; force of character and bent of genius enabling each to carve out his career in his own way.  There was very little previous practice to serve for their guide.  When they were called upon to undertake works of an entirely original character, and could not find an old road, they had to make a new one.  This threw them upon their resources, and compelled them to be inventive: it practised their powers and disciplined their skill, and in course of time the habitual encounter with difficulties brought fully out their character as men, as well as their genius as engineers."

Smiles on 'The Engineers.'

    Smiles trained as a doctor, but through lack of work traded his scalpel for the pen (fellow Scot Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did likewise).  In his early life he held reforming views.  In 1838 he followed Robert Nicoll into the post of Editor of the Leeds Times, a journal for which Nicoll had written radical editorials exhorting the need for sorely-needed political and economic reform.  In like manner, in 1840, Smiles became Secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organisation that supported the objectives of Chartism (universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; equal-sized electoral districts; voting by secret ballot; an end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MPs; and annual Parliaments).  However, Smiles did not endorse the policy of "physical force Chartism" put forward by Feargus O'Connor and George Julian Harney.

    During the 1850s Smiles drifted away from promoting radical parliamentary reform, advocating instead individual self improvement, as is epitomised in the book for which he is probably best known, Self Help . . . .

". . . . Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.  Even the best institutions can give a man no active help.  Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition . . . ."

. . . our socialist "Nanny State" take notefrom Self-Help

    In 1845 Smiles relinquished editorship of the Leeds Times to become Secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway; this, coupled with a meeting with George Stephenson (who he appears to have idolised), probably sparked his interest in recording the achievements of our leading civil and mechanical engineers of the era.  Nine years later he took up the position of Secretary to the South-Eastern Railway.  Smiles retired from railway service in 1866 to become President of the National Provident Institution, a position that he held until suffering a debilitating stroke in 1871.  Through perseverance he eventually recovered his ability to speak and to write, sufficiently to enable him to resume his literary career.

"Good advice has its weight: but without the accompaniment of a good example it is of comparatively small influence; and it will be found that the common saying of 'Do as I say, not as I do,' is usually reversed in the actual experience of life.  All persons are more or less apt to learn through the eye rather than the ear; and, whatever is seen in fact, makes a far deeper impression than anything that is merely read or heard.  This is especially the case in early youth, when the eye is the chief inlet of knowledge.  Whatever children see they unconsciously imitate.  They insensibly come to resemble those who are about them—as insects take the colour of the leaves they feed on."

Smiles on 'learning by example'— from Self-Help

    The following contemporary articles give brief summaries of Smiles's literary life and achievements.


Vol. 76 (May, 1888)

Taken from "London as a Literary Centre" by R. R. Bowker.

THERE is one historian, or biographer, whom it is difficult to classify, because he has made a place by himself.  Dr. Samuel Smiles, the author of “Self-Help” and “Character” and “Thrift” and “Duty”, is a man who seems to have practised what he preaches, and is a very good exemplar of those homely virtues.  His “smithy,” as he calls his study, is at West Kensington, and here, at seventy-five, of which age his white hair and white beard tell tales, he still keeps at work hammering out books.

    He began at it fifty years ago.  Born in John Knox’s town of Haddington, he started as a surgeon at his native place, and there published in 1838 a common-sense little book on "Physical Education".  His income was not large either from pills or pen; he bettered it somewhat by becoming a journalist and editor of the Leeds Times; but desiring more promising opportunity with his marriage, he found it in 1845 in the new work of railway organization as secretary of a local railway, afterward merged in the North-Eastern system.


"It was one of the last lovely days of autumn, when the faint breath of Summer was still lingering among the woods and fields, as if loath to depart from the earth she had gladdened; the blackbird was still piping his mellifluous song in the hedges and coppice, whose foliage was tinted in purple, russet, and brown, with just enough of green to give that perfect autumnal tint, so beautifully pictorial, but impossible to paint in words.  The beech-nuts were dropping from the trees, and crackled under foot, and a rich, damp smell rose from the decaying leaves by the road-side."

Smiles pictures Autumn.

    Railway work engaged his work-day hours till 1866, when he retired from the service of the South-eastern Railway on pension, and it led him to his true vocation as a writer.  Meeting George Stephenson, he resolved to become his biographer, and as he visited places on railway business often in vacation times, he looked up carefully and personally all the local knowledge of the boy and the man.  This Life, printed in 1857 by Mr. Murray, was his introduction to fame, five editions appearing within a year.

    During the free-trade agitation he had spoken much in the West Riding, and he had also become a favourite lecturer at mechanics’ institutes; these lectures he reworked into “Self-Help”, but they were rejected by several publishers, who declared that during the war (in the Crimea) no one would read books.  The success of the Life “changed all that.”  Over 20,000 copies of “Self-Help”, issued in 1859, were called for in the first year: 150,000 have been sold by the English publishers.  It has been translated into seventeen languages, including Czech and Japanese; and in Italy alone the sale has reached 47,000 copies.

"It is difficult to form a proper estimate of the influence of Carlyle on modern literature.  Doubtless it has been very great.  His books have been vehemently attacked and discussed, and scarcely defended.  He has let the noise spend itself, and left his ideas to make their own way in the world.  The influence which his writings have exercised upon others has been of a latent kind, almost a silent influence, notwithstanding the great éclat with which his works have been received.  You very often find his ideas reappearing dressed up by others in various forms, sometimes under the aristocratic, and sometimes under the democratic form; but it is easy to recognize the traces of his thoughts in the most remarkable works in modern English literature.  Tennyson is the most eminent of living English poets; who knows how much of his peculiar talent and its direction may be due to the influence of Carlyle?  Who knows how much even Disraeli may owe to Carlyle for the qualities of his political romances, though perhaps he would be the last to acknowledge the influence.  Carlyle has contributed, perhaps more than any other writer, to put an extinguisher upon the Byronic school; and, thanks to the views which he has enunciated on literature and art, to elevate Wordsworth—as much admired now as he was formerly despised—upon the ruins of the Satanic school."

Smiles on Thomas Carlyle . . . from Brief Biographies.

   During his railway years his successive books, including the “Lives of the Engineers” and the several industrial biographies, were all the work of evening hours, and this industry was continued till 1871, when a stroke of paralysis gave him warning, and compelled him to take absolute rest for three years.  He now works mornings only, taking much exercise by walking, and plenty of sleep by night, induced by the reading of novels.  From constant and wide reading he accumulates masses of material, which he gradually sorts under subjects and into chapters, and his embarrassment now is of more wealth of material than the years may give him time to use.

    Dr. Smiles at home, with his north of England wife, is the picture of the Scotchman, solid-headed, pleasant-voiced, with a bit of the burr, hearty and kindly and a little gruff in manner; for vacation he takes to travel on the Continent, finding there, however, such materials as have given us his Huguenot histories.


18th April, 1904.


We regret to announce that the veteran Dr. Samuel Smiles died at 12-30 on Saturday at his house in Pembroke-gardens, Kensington.  He had entered his 92nd year.  The biographer of the great captains of industry, was himself an admirable example of what may be achieved by industry and perseverance.  Few, indeed have passed such a long period in harness, for he spent upwards of 70 years of his protracted career in active intellectual and other labours.

Advertisement for Smiles's "Physical Education", 1837.

    Samuel Smiles was born on December 23, 1812, at Haddington.  The Smileses were descended from an old Cameronian who met his death at the hands of Charles II's Lifeguards at the battle of Pentland.  Some of his strong qualities were perpetuated in his descendants; but it is said, also, that Samuel Smiles's family owed much to the intelligence, shrewdness, and force of character at their mother, who, when left a widow with 11 children continued successfully to conduct a small business.

Advertisement for Smiles's History of Ireland, 1844.

    Samuel was educated at the Haddington Grammar School and at Edinburgh University.  Although he had literary and artistic leanings, he resolved on pursuing the profession of medicine.  Settling down in his native town, he practised as a medical man with but small success, seeing that he was the youngest of eight doctors in a remarkably small and healthy population of 3,000 persons.  He consequently sought to add to his income by lecturing on practical chemistry, physiology, and natural history.  He also studied music and painting, wrote articles for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, and produced his first work, "Physical Education," which, by the way, he published at his own expense.  Feeling that there was no prospect of succeeding in Haddington, he thought of emigrating to Australia, but finally went to Holland and Germany instead, remaining abroad for about a year.  On his return, in 1837, he became editor of the Leeds Times in succession to his friend Robert Nicoll.  His salary was only £200 a year, and he supplemented it by writing, lecturing at mechanics' institutes, &c.  He further acted as secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, and took an active part in the Anti-Corn Law agitation from its very commencement.  While at Leeds he wrote a "History of Ireland and the Irish People" (1844); he lectured at the Manchester Athenæum; "stumped" the West Riding on the Corn Law question; and conducted an adult class at the Zion School, Holbeck.

Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, 1840.

    Dr. Smiles married in 1845, and as his editorial salary could not support a wife as well a himself, he relinquished his editorship and accepted the post of assistant secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway.  This appointment he continued to hold until 1854, when he became secretary to the South-Eastern Railway, finally retiring from the railway service in 1866.  During his association with these railways Dr. Smiles not only enjoyed a satisfactory income, but he had opportunities of studying the characters of the remarkable men whose memoirs he afterwards wrote.  It is no slight tribute to his energy, however, to state that all the works which he produced between 1844 and 1866 were written in the evenings, for his position as a secretary to a great railway company fully occupied his business hours.  It was during his stay at Leeds that he came into contact with George Stephenson and conceived the idea of writing his "Life."  This task he eventually accomplished is 1857; the work passed through five editions in its first year, and it has been more or less in demand ever since.  "Self-Help," Dr. Smiles's most successful book, was published in 1859.  It was the outcome of numerous lectures on subjects related to the main issue.  Some very young men in Leeds, who met in the evening for self-education, had asked Smiles "to talk to them a bit," and though really written before, it was only after the success of Stephenson's "Life" that "Self-Help" appeared.  The fact is that it was twice refused by the publishers before the run upon the Stephenson volume gave them confidence.  Of "Self-Help" 20,000 copies were sold during the first year, and by 1889 the sales had reached 150,000 copies, while the book had been translated into 17 languages.  It drew forth tributes from all classes and conditions of men, including the Italian statesman Signor Menabrea and the Japanese Professor Nakamura.

    In 1861 Smiles produced his "Workmen's Earnings, Strikes, and Savings"; and two years later appeared his important work, in three volumes, "Lives of the Engineers, with an Account of their Principal Works."  He was now an indefatigable author and compiler, and the following books followed each other in rapid succession:—"Industrial Biography," being a description of iron workers and tool workers, 1863; "James Brindley and the Early Engineers," 1864; "Lives of Bolton and Watt," together with a history of the steam engine, 1865; and "Life of Thomas Telford," 1867.  Then he turned into a different vein for a time, and, as the result of special investigation, wrote in 1867 "The Huguenots; their Settlements, Churches, and Industries in England and Ireland."  This was followed up a few years later by "The Huguenots in France and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, with a visit to the country of the Vaudois."  "Character," which belongs to the same series of books as "Self-Help," appeared in 1871.

Lecture report, 1867.

    A check was now put upon Smiles's activity, for in November, 1871, he was stricken down by a paralysis, which for a considerable period entirely disabled him.  The doctors ordered him complete rest from literary work for three years.  It was a severe blow to the patient, but he obeyed the mandate, and the treatment pursued proved thoroughly successful.  In travelling and resting by turns, and in drawing at the Bethnal-green Museum, he passed the time of his enforced retirement from literary work.  Few indeed can be the men who have sustained a severe stroke of paralysis at 60 years of age and yet have recovered sufficiently to undertake 20 years of close mental work and to be hale and hearty when in their ninth decade.

"Those lofty gods whom we had worshipped and bowed down before,—those gifted children of genius whose eyes gazed eagerly into the unseen, and penetrated its depths far beyond our ken,—when we approach them closer, and know them more intimately, become stripped of their halo of glory.  We find that they are but men,—fallible, frail, and erring,—tempest-tossed by passion and desire,—stumbling and halt, and often blind and decrepit.  We worship no more.  The earth which, seen from a distance, looks a beautiful moon, when the foot is on it, is but rocks, clods, and 'Paris mud'!

    Sad indeed is the impression left on the mind by reading the brief records of some of these unhappy children of genius: gifted, but unhappy; loftily endowed, but fitful and capricious; with the aspirations of an angel, but the low appetites of a brute; daringly speculative, but grovellingly sensual;—such, in a few words, was the life of Edgar Allan Poe: a being full of misery, but all beaten out upon his own anvil; a man gifted as few are, but without faith or devotion, and without any earnest purpose in life."

Smiles on Edgar Allan Poe . . . . from Brief Biographies.

    "Thrift"—with its lessons of prudence for working men—the first book produced after Smiles's illness, was published in 1875, and in the following year appeared that interesting work entitled "Thomas Edward: Life of a Scotch Naturalist."  Edward was a remarkable man, who, in the midst of the humblest surroundings, made himself a great naturalist, and became a fellow of the Linnæan Society of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh.  The publication of Smiles's biography awakened so much sympathy in Edward's favour that a pension of £50 a year was conferred upon him.  The memoir of "Robert Dick, Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist," was issued in 1878, and the same year witnessed the appearance of "George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist."  Then in 1880 came "Duty," with its illustrations of courage, patience and endurance.

The Times, 25th April, 1881.

    In 1883 Dr. Smiles edited the autobiography of James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, a man of original genius.  In 1884 he published his "Men of Invention and Industry," and in 1887 his "Life and Labour; or, Characteristics of Men of Industry, Culture and Genius."  His memoir "John Murray," issued in 1891, gave a graphic sketch of a well-known and remarkable publishing house; and in the same year the author produced his biography of "Jasmin, Barber, Poet, and Philanthropist."  Jacques Jasmin was a modern Gasoon port, who in one of his own works has given a humorous account of the poverty and privations of his early life.  His poems were full of beauty and power, and were crowned by the French Academy in 1852.  His life and struggles interested Smiles deeply.  Thenceforward Smiles wrote but little.  His wife died in 1900, and he lived in retirement.

    The mere recital of Dr. Smiles's works will show what a full and active life his must have been.   And, in addition to writing his books, he found time to contribute frequently to the Quarterly Review and other periodicals.  In recognition of his literary efforts the honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by Edinburgh University in 1878, and in 1897, for the same reason, he received from the King of Servia the Cross of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Sava.

    Dr. Smiles's works are not only admirable for their simple and yet forcible literary style, but for many useful and practical lessons which they enforce.  They are wholesome and stimulating books, and their whole tendency is conducive to the inculcation of sound principles of life, and the building up of a manly and upright character.  They must long continue to exercise a salutary influence over a nation of workers such as that to which the author himself was proud to belong.

    The funeral will be at Brompton Cemetery tomorrow, at 11:30.



The following list is not exhaustive; a number of Smiles's titles
appear in different editions.


The Life of George Stephenson, 1857

The Story of The Life of George Stephenson, 1859:

(abridgement of the above)

"Self-Help," 1859

Brief biographies, Boston, 1860:

(articles reprinted from periodicals such as the Quarterly Review)

Workmen's Earnings, Strikes, and Savings, 1861

Lives of the Engineers, with an Account of their Principal Works, 3 vol,
    London 1863

Vol 1, Early engineers - James Brindley, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, Sir Hugh Myddleton, Capt John Perry.

Vol 2, Harbours, Lighthouses and Bridges - John Smeaton and John Rennie, (1761-1821)

Vol 3, History of Roads - John Metcalfe and Thomas Telford

Industrial Biography, iron workers and tool makers, 1863:

includes lives of Andrew Yarranton, Benjamin Huntsman, Dud Dudley, Henry Maudslay,
Joseph Clement, etc.

James Brindley and the Early Engineers, 1864

Boulton and Watt, 1865

The Huguenots: Their Settlements, Churches and Industries in England and
    Ireland, 1867

Life of Thomas Telford, 1867

"Character," 1871

Lives of the Engineers, new ed. in 5 vols, 1874

(includes the lives of Stephenson and Boulton and Watt)

Life of a Scotch Naturalist: Thomas Edward, 1875

"Thrift", 1875

George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist, 1878

Robert Dick, Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist, 1878

"Duty", 1880

Men of Invention and Industry, 1884:

Phineas Pett, Francis Pettit Smith, John Harrison, John Lombe, William Murdoch, Frederick Koenig,
The Walter family of The Times, William Clowes (Printer), Charles Bianconi, and chapters on
 Industry in Ireland, Shipbuilding in Belfast, Astronomers and students in humble life

James Nasmyth, engineer, an autobiography, ed. Samuel Smiles, 1885

Life and Labour; or, Characteristics of Men of Industry, Culture and Genius,

A Publisher and his Friends.  Memoir and Correspondence of the Late John
    Murray, 1891

Jasmin. Barber, Poet, Philanthropist, 1891

Josiah Wedgwood, his Personal History, 1894

The Autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LL.D., ed. T. Mackay, 1905


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