5 NOVEMBER 1948, Page 9



AHUNDRED years ago this week, the firm of W. H. Smith and Son opened its first railway bookstall at Euston Station. Both the railways and the " son " were twenty-three years old ; William Henry Smith the Second had been born in the very year that Stephen- son's Locomotive No. 1 had chuffed from Stockton to Darlington. William Henry Smith the First had been quick enough to recognise and to use the advantages offered by the railways to a wholesale distributor of newspapers. He had begun by beating, with his own light carts, express coaches, and with relays of horses the mail-coaches of the Royal Mail ; in 1828 he was advertising in The Times that its subscribers in Birmingham and in Lancashire, thanks to his initia- tive, " obtained their papers 14 hours before the arrival of the London mail." By 1847 he had chartered specially nine railway engines for the traffic to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, and by 1848 his newspaper express to Edinburgh and Glasgow had touched fifty miles an hour.

So the old man was railway-minded enough, as we would say nowadays ; but books and bookstalls were another matter, and Smith the Younger had to overcome stiff parental opposition—" father is of course a little testy," writes young William to his sister Gussy- before the contract was signed with the London and North-Western Railway that made W. H. Smith and Son its official bookstall con- tractors at a rental of £1,5oo a year. A fortnight later another con- tract was signed with the Midland Railway, and in the course of the next ten years or so Smith's had set up, or taken over, the bookstalls at virtually every railway station in the country. It was the year the great railway bubble burst that Smith's took to the stations ; the biographer of Hudson, the Railway King, dates the panic as begin- ning only a week or so before the Euston bookstall opened. So young W. H. Smith showed courage and confidence in putting so much of his energy and so much of the firm's resources into the railway stations. They were not the only qualities he showed. There was that lofty notion of his moral responsibility that had led him to wish, as a boy, to enter the Church ; to write to his sister, Gussy, in his 'teens, " Who can tell the effect which our influence or that of our conduct may have upon others, and its reaction throughout future ages ? "—that earned him from Mr. Punch, in an age of moralists, the nickname of " Old Morality," and that was to lead him, nearly half a century later, in his three-day tenure of the office of Irish Secretary, to give up forthwith the firm's Irish branches.

Such bookstalls as there were, before Smith's took over, were stocked—together with " beer-bottles, sandwiches, ginger-bread and sticky sweets "—with what The Times described, sweepingly, suc- cinctly, and, possibly, a little pharisaically, as " French novels, unfor- tunately, of questionable character," and The Athenaeum summed up as " the commonest and cheapest trash." It was only a couple of years after the Euston bookstall was opened that the same periodicals were complimenting young Mr. Smith as " The North-Western mis- sionary " and on maintaining " the dignity of literature by resolutely refusing to admit pernicious publications among his stock." Good taste, as it happened, meant good business : the firm never looked back ; and Mr. Smith came, in the course of building up his book- stalls, upon such out-of-the-way knowledge as that " stations have their idiosyncrasies. Yorkshire is not partial to poetry. It is difficult to sell a valuable book at any of the stations between Derby, Leeds, and Manchester. Religious books hardly find a purchaser at Liver- pool, while at Manchester, at the other end of the line, they are in high demand."

It is agreeable to notice, by the way, that though Yorkshire may still be indifferent to poetry, and Liverpool as godless as it was, it is no longer true that the hard-headed business-men of the North are reluctant to fork out their brass for a book. The Yorkshire Pullman is the most profitable of the trains on which Smith's now runs a travelling bookstall. Not because it has the longest run—the Queen of Scots goes further and buys less—though it may be, as has been wickedly suggested, that half-a-guinea or so for a novel to read on the train goes down on many a Northern business-man's expenses.

The problem that Smith had to face in cleaning up the literature of the bookstall was that pretty well all the fiction of any quality was still published only in three-volume editions. He solved it by taking to publishing for himself, in handier, cheaper editions, and the first of his " yellow-backs "—so much for the belief that the yellow-backs were sensational trash—was none other than the gentle, blameless Cranford. It was followed by a complete Charles Lever, of which Smith's bought the copyright, though it sold under Chapman and Hall's name, and a very successful venture it was. The books cost ninepence apiece to produce, and sold like hot cakes at two shillings. Once the other, older, publishers took to " railway editions " the firm gave up a business it had never felt to be properly its own, but Smith by then had a stock of books valued at Lio,000, "of solid advantage to himself," as The Athenaeum noted, " and of permanent utility to the public."

The need to protect the stocks of books, and to provide office-space for the growing business at each station, turned the open " kitchen- dressed " array of racks of the 'forties into the elaborate, roofed-over shops we know today. And from the bookstalls sprang W. H. Smith's town shops themselves ; the rents charged by the London and North- Western and the Great Western Railways had become so high 14 1905 that Smith's decided they could not meet them. Some zoo Smith's bookstalls closed or were taken over—it meant good-bye to Euston, after more than half-a-century—and reopened as shops in towns on the lines concerned, all in a matter of ten weeks. There are now nearly 50o shops, in addition to the 1,097 railway bookstalls ; Paddington and—ironically enough—Euston are still the only two great London terminals that are served by other bookstalls than Smith's.

W. H. Smith the Younger lived into the 'nineties ; he became a Member of Parliament, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary for War, Irish Secretary, First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons. He was nicknamed by Punch, and satirised by Gilbert (and nobody was more amused than Dizzy, who had made him " Ruler of the Queen's Navee," and who rubbed in the joke himself, with " Pinafore' Smith"). His widow was made a peeress, and his descendants have been viscounts. Yet it may well be that the thousand or so railway bookstalls are his most abiding memorials —the bookstalls that he created when he was a youngster of twnty- three. The name of his firm is over them—in the style to which it was altered when he became his father's partner, in 846—in letter- ing as handsome as any of our public inscriptions. The lettering was designed in 1907 by a youngster not much older than Smith had been when he founded the bookstalls—the twenty-five-year-old Eric Gill,