The First WH Smith Railway Bookstall

Article excerpt

November 1st, 1848

The first William Henry Smith was born in 1792 just two weeks before the sudden death of his father Henry Walton Smith, who only a few months earlier had established a small `newswalk' or newspaper round in Berkeley Square, London. The young Smith remained in the news trade, opening a reading room in the Strand in 1821. `First with the news' was his proud boast, as he created a country-wide newspaper distribution network based on the mail-coach system.

His son, William Henry II (1825-91), who became a partner in the family business in 1846 at the peak of `railway mania', saw the potential of the new technology more quickly than his father. Railways offered a faster and more reliable way of sending newspapers to the farthest corners of the country, and by building up good relationships with each of the competing regional companies, Smith soon created a genuinely national business. He even demanded (unsuccessfully) that trains be held up to await late deliveries of The Times.

From the early 1840s, many stations had vendors (often superannuated or disabled railway employees) selling disreputable publications or soiled newspapers. Smith, though, who realised that reading was far less difficult on a train than on a swaying stagecoach, was convinced that the opportunity existed for a more professional business selling papers and cheap books to the thronging passengers (who made 60 million journeys between them in 1850, each visiting at least two stations). Euston, tire London terminus for the London North-Western Railway, was his first chosen site, anti in the summer of 1848 he began negotiations. …