WHSmith Retail pioneer William Henry Smith and one of the station bookstalls that spread across the UK in the last century
1 November 1848 — WHSmith, one of the most famous names in British retailing, opened its first railway bookstall on this day – at Euston Station in London. It was a smart move that led to a booming business and within 50 years the company was running more than a thousand such outlets.
But there was no sign at the beginning of its life that today’s prominent seller of books, stationery, confectionery, magazines, newspapers and entertainment products such as DVDs and computer games would ever make it at all.
It started in the 18th Century as a news vendor shop set up by Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna. Named after him, the shop traded as HW Smith but it was far from successful, bringing in a profit of just over £1 a week – a meagre return even in those days.
Henry died from influenza in 1792 leaving Anna, the mother of two sons, wondering what to do about the business. “Sell” was the obvious option and she put out advertisements for an “industrious person” to step in. But there were no takers.
Had it not been for Anna’s determination that could have been the end of the story. But she decided there was nothing for it but to throw herself into making something of the venture and gradually she built up trade.
By 1812 it was a going concern and after Anna’s death in 1816 her youngest son William Henry took over the business. He was bright and quickly came up with a revolutionary idea.
In those days newspapers were a day old by the time their readers received them simply because after being printed they would have to wait for evening stage coaches to distribute them around the country.
Instead, William sent employees to collect the papers straight from the newspaper presses, allowing them to be rushed onto early morning coaches, thus delivering them the same day. He soon had thousands of grateful customers across the country.
Today, WHSmith is an international business, having dipped its toes into the United States and Canada and now trades in countries as diverse as Finland, China and Australia. In 1936 a branch was even opened on Cunard’s luxury liner Queen Mary.
Trading for much of its life as W.H. Smith & Son (William Henry’s son, also named William Henry, was taken into partnership on his 21st birthday in 1846), the company is now styled simply WHSmith.
According to its website, it operates over 1400 stores, primarily in the UK, comprising 867 outlets at airports, train stations, hospitals, workplaces and motorway service areas, and 607 High Street stores. It employs about 15,000 people.
Nine out of ten people in the UK live within a 20-minute drive of a WHSmith store, the company claims. It sells 1.1 million magazines every week – 18,000 each hour it is open.
With a turnover well exceeding £1 billion, WHSmith also sells more than 30 million books every year. And all because a troubled but determined little 18th Century lady refused to give up.