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William Henry Smith (1825–1891)

William Henry Smith, FRS (24 June 1825 – 6 October 1891) was an English bookseller and newsagent of the family firm W H Smith, who expanded the firm and introduced the practice of selling books and newspapers at railway stations. He was elected a Member of Parliament in 1868 and rose to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty less than ten years thereafter. Because of his lack of naval experience, he was perceived as a model for the character Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore. In the mid-1880s, he was twice Secretary of State for War, and later First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, among other posts.

William Henry Smith

William Henry Smith (1825–1891).jpg
First Lord of the Treasury
In office
14 January 1887 – 6 October 1891
Prime MinisterThe Marquess of Salisbury
Preceded byThe Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded byArthur Balfour
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
14 January 1887 – 6 October 1891
Prime MinisterThe Marquess of Salisbury
Preceded byLord Randolph Churchill
Succeeded byArthur Balfour
Personal details
Born(1825-06-24)24 June 1825
London, England
Died6 October 1891(1891-10-06) (aged 66)
Political partyConservative
Spouse(s)Emily Danvers
Alma materNone

Background and business careerEdit

Smith was born in London, the son of William Henry Smith (1792–1865). He was educated at Tavistock Grammar School before joining the business with his father in 1846, at which time the firm became W H Smith & Son.[1] Smith and his father took advantage of the railway boom by opening newsstands on railway stations, starting with Euston in 1848.[1] In 1850 the firm opened depots in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The business became a household name (W H Smith), and Smith used the success of the firm as a springboard into politics.[1][2]

He was elected in February 1878 a Fellow of the Royal Society.[3]

Political careerEdit

In 1868, Smith was elected Member of Parliament for Westminster as a Conservative after an initial attempt to get into Parliament as a "Liberal Conservative" in 1865 as a supporter of Palmerston. In 1874 Smith was appointed Financial Secretary to the Treasury when Disraeli returned as Prime Minister. In 1877, he became First Lord of the Admiralty. It has been claimed that Smith's appointment was the inspiration for the character of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1878 comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. Gilbert had written to Sullivan in December 1877 "The fact that the First Lord in the opera is a Radical of the most pronounced type will do away with any suspicion that W. H. Smith is intended." However, the character was seen as a reflection on Smith and even Disraeli was overheard to refer to his First Lord as "Pinafore Smith".[4][5] It has been suggested that the Pinafore character was as much based on Smith's controversial predecessor as First Lord, Hugh Childers, as on Smith himself.[6] Smith held this office for three years until the Liberals returned to power.

In 1885, a redistribution of seats led to Smith now standing for the Strand division in Westminster, and he served as Chief Secretary for Ireland for a short period in the following year. He was twice Secretary of State for War, the first time during Lord Salisbury's brief ministry between 1885 and 1886, and the second when the Conservatives won the 1886 General Election. He succeeded this appointment in 1887 as First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, and became Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1891.

He died shortly afterwards at Walmer Castle, and his widow was created Viscountess Hambleden in his honour, taking the title from the village close to the Smiths' country house of Greenlands, near Henley-on-Thames. One of the few ministers personally close to Lord Salisbury (apart from the latter's nephew, Arthur Balfour), Smith was dubbed "Old Morality" due to his austere manner and conduct.


Smith married Emily, daughter of Frederick Dawes Danvers, in 1858. They had two sons and four daughters:

He died in October 1891, aged 66.[7] The following month his widow was raised to the peerage in his honour as Viscountess Hambleden, of Hambleden in the County of Buckingham. She died in August 1913 and was succeeded by her and Smith's only surviving son, Frederick.


  1. ^ Cartoon satirising Smith as rowing and Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister, swimming towards the end of the Parliamentary year to escape the twin waves of Free Education and Land Purchase, contentious issues of the time. Smith died three months after the publication of this cartoon (Punch, 1891)
  1. ^ a b c "The First WH Smith Railway Bookstall - Research and Read Books, Journals, Articles at Questia Online Library". Retrieved 20 August 2010.
  2. ^ History of WH Smith, W H Smith plc, accessed 10 October 2012
  3. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  4. ^ H.M.S. Pinafore in Full Score. p. v.
  5. ^ Jacobs, Arthur (1986). Arthur Sullivan – A Victorian Musician. Oxford University Press. p. 115. ISBN 0-19-282033-8.
  6. ^ Carr, rev Matthew. Childers, Hugh. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  7. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "William Henry Smith", The Peerage, p. 2112, accessed 10 October 2012


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