Samuel Smiles, doctor, writer, railway developer and insurance agent

Haddington was the birthplace of John Knox. Most small towns are content to have produced even one eminent person, but at the start of the nineteenth century Samuel Smiles was born in the town. Almost forgotten today, he was immensely influential, the leading self-help writer of his age, and a popular historian of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. He’s remembered by a bronze plaque on the wall of his house in the High Street, and by little else.

His book, Self-Help, was published in 1859. Turned down by several houses, it was effectively self-published. Smiles found someone who was prepared to accept just ten per cent of the profits and handle distribution. In return, he kept copyright but was responsible for all costs incurred. It could have been a financial disaster for Smiles, but instead was a triumph. It sold twenty thousand copies in its first year, a great success for the nineteenth century. It set the template for many books that came later, even supplying the generic name for them and eventually sold 500,000 copies worldwide.

It was translated into many languages and was particularly popular in Italian. It was, incidentally, published on the same day as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, which sold just 50,000 copies by the close of the nineteenth century

It was old- fashioned even for 1859, admonitions to thrift intercut with uplifting examples of endeavour from the lives of famous men. But it sold. Samuel Smiles became the nineteenth century equivalent of a literary superstar.

Although it made him financially secure it was only one part of a varied career, which saw him train as a doctor in Haddington (you trained on the job in 1826, starting at fourteen).

He continued his medical education in Edinburgh and, after qualifying, was forced to consider if medicine then was an overcrowded profession. Many of the medical officers from the armed services being discharged after the Napoleonic wars hoped to practise in civilian life.

When, therefore, in 1838 he was invited to become a newspaper editor in England he accepted with alacrity. His salary was £200 a year, more than he was earning from his medical work. What he considered his main work was the later Lives of the Engineers, and other books which recorded the careers of the men who, beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, undertook the civil engineering projects and railway development that made Britain ready to dominate the world with its manufactured goods.

Radical to Conservative
He moved from a radical stance to one of conservatism over the course of a long life. When he was a young newspaper editor he supported, with reservations, the aims of Chartists. These were, amongst other things, for annual general elections and a salary for M.P.s. Yet when he was old he fretted that in Britain he could not wear the insignia of a chivalric order given to him by the King of Italy.

He lived under four reigns, George III, William IV, who was succeeded by Victoria, and after her long reign by Edward VII. Samuel Smiles died in 1904 when he was 92. The length of his funeral cortège was exceeded only by that of Queen Victoria, such was the public esteem in which he was held.

He was born in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars, coming from an interesting religious background. In the Church of Scotland the worldly, deistic majority was in charge. They were challenged by the Evangelical party which supported a more literal and strict interpretation of the Bible. Samuel Smiles’ grandfather was a Cameronian, who had truck with neither. One passage in Smiles’ autobiography describes movingly the ninety year old bidding his young grandson farewell for the last time.

The Cameronians
The Cameronians were a separate denomination founded in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in 1688. They refused to have anything to do with a civil power which didn’t recognise the primacy of Christ. They were the heirs of the more intransigent Covenanters.

Samuel Smiles’ father had left the Cameronians, but was a member of the (very) minority “Associate Synod”, a splinter group which had walked out of the Church of Scotland over the issue of patronage in 1733. They later separated into the “Burghers” and “Anti-Burghers” (concerned with the taking of an oath, if you wanted to work in Scotland’s major cities). A further division was into “New Lichts” and “Auld Lichts” on the basis of whether or not you were generally theologically conservative. Thus you could, for example, be a “New Licht Anti-Burgher.”

John Knox would have been taken aback at these nit-picking divisions of his “Godly Commonwealth,” but his family membership of these small sects helps to explain why Samuel Smiles was exposed to hard-line Calvinism at an early age. The message of Self-Help has to be understood with this background in mind.

About 1820 Haddington was self-contained. Most peoples’ needs could be satisfied within its boundaries. Its port was at Aberlady only a few miles north. It was just as well it was close-by, for Samuel Smiles in his life of Telford the civil engineer, describes the difficulty and expense of moving goods around the countryside. Roads were poorer than when the Romans were here.

Changing Haddington
This would change. The Industrial Revolution was gathering speed, and would alter Haddington’s economy. Aberlady fell out of use as ships got bigger. It was these changes that would provide Samuel Smiles with a career in England.

Not everyone was content with a self-sufficient world. Jane Welsh, who became the wife of Thomas Carlyle, lived opposite Samuel Smiles. She was ten years older than Smiles. He often saw her going about Haddington with her widowed mother. When he later read, in her published letters, of how she saw Haddington, “It is the dimmest, deadest spot in the Creator’s universe…the very air one breathes is impregnated with stupidity” his local patriotism was obviously wounded, for he said, self-evidently, “Perhaps Miss Welsh was not in a very contented frame of mind.”

With his editorship of the Leeds Times his everyday connection with Haddington was at an end.

In 1842 he went from his editorship, into assorted literary work and then in 1845, rather surprisingly, into railway development. In 1866 he took another sidestep into insurance, as president of the National Provident Institution. All these posts were in England. He pursued his writing in his spare time.

He resigned his insurance post following a serious stroke in 1871, from which he recovered to have another thirty years writing.

Samuel Smiles has left a mixed legacy. His biographies of early engineers are surprisingly readable. Self-help’s message is essentially thrift, “monny a mickle maks a muckle” and self belief. Self-help and companion volumes like Thrift are dated and of their time. Early on he left the Associate Synod meeting house. “Our preacher was a combative man. He preached the narrowest Calvinism.” Smiles became influenced by Unitarianism. But although he describes the endless rigours of his Sundays with feeling, it’s been observed that one of his favourite words in Self-help was “perseverance”, which is found in Calvinist preaching in such phrases as “persevering grace.”

Interestingly the British love of romantic worldly failure has been laid at Samuel Smiles’ door (see, for example, his “Robert Dick, Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist”).

Socialists and others poured scorn on his “Gospel according to Smiles”. Perhaps his advice might have had some validity in a long-ago Napoleonic Scotland, they argued, but not in the full-throated capitalist society which Britain had become.

There has recently been a revival of interest in Samuel Smiles amongst economists. F.A.Hayek, the right-wing economist has mentioned him, and Sir Keith Joseph (remember him? A member of the Conservative cabinet under Mrs.Thatcher) produced an edition of his work.

He’s now very topical. Samuel Smiles has been quoted in the present debate over whether it is better to cut things, economise, or to spend our way out of the present fiscal crisis as the neo-Keynsians economists want.

Haddington’s son is relevant again.

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3 Responses to Samuel Smiles, doctor, writer, railway developer and insurance agent

  1. Kyle McKibben says:

    I thank Joseph Hopkins for his appreciative comments.
    Samuel Smiles owes his interest in Unitarianism to W.E.Channing. whom I presume was a Victorian divine.

  2. Joseph Hopkins says:

    Thank you for the information on Samuel Smiles. I would like to know more about the impact of Unitarianism upon Smiles. Can you suggest how I might find out more about Smiles and the Unitarians?
    Thank you for your time and attention.

  3. Margaret Gray says:


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