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Samuel Smiles
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Samuel Smiles

Samuel Smiles (December 23, 1812April 16, 1904) author and reformer.

Born in Haddington, Scotland, Smiles was the eldest of eleven children. He left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a doctor, eventually enabling him to study medicine at Edinburgh University. While studying and after graduating he campaigned for parliamentary reform, contributing articles to the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the Leeds Times.

In 1838 he was invited to become the editor for the Leeds Times, a position which he accepted and filled until 1845. In May 1840 Smiles became Secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organisation that held to the six objectives of Chartism: universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; equal-sized electoral districts; voting by secret ballot; an end to the need of MP's to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MP's; and annual Parliaments.

In 1845 Samuel Smiles left the Leeds Times and became secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway and then, nine years later, the South-Eastern Railway.

In the late '40s, Smiles became concerned about the advocation of physical force by Chartists Feargus O'Connor and George Julian Harney, though he seems to have agreed with them that the movement's current tactics were not effective, saying that "mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society." In the 1850s he seems to have completely given up on parliamentary reform.

Smiles's writings

Smiles is best known today as the writer of books extolling virtues of self help, and biographies lauding the achievements of 'heroic' engineers. He selected the topics of his biographies as a means of emphasising his thesis of self help. These works have come to exemplify Victorian values for the modern reader.

He was a prolific author of books and articles. The following is an incomplete list of his most important work. See Jarvis, below, for a full listing of his writings

Self help topics

Biographical works

Includes lives of Andrew Yarranton, Dud Dudley, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Clement, etc.. (includes the lives of Stephenson and Boulton and Watt) Phineas Pett, Francis Petit Smith, John Harrison, John Lombe, William Murdock, Frederic Koenig,The Walter family of The Times, William Clowes, Charles Bianconi, and chapters on Industry in Ireland, Shipbuilding in Belfast, Astronomers and students in humble life The growth of industrial archeology in Britain from the 1960's caused a number of these titles to be reprinted, and a number are available on the Web from such sources as Project Gutenberg, noted below.

The reliability of Smiles's work.

Jarvis discusses this exhaustively in his book, and it is clear that Smiles must never be taken as the last word on the lives of Victorian engineers. Aside from the accuracy of his statements (it is known, for example, that he was prone to making selective quotations from documents to show his subjects in the best light), there is the balance of his coverage. He tended to concentrate on Civil Engineering, to the detriment of mechanical engineering and invention. Present-day researchers, who seem to only use Smiles and few other sources uncritically, thus get a lop-sided view of what industrialisation during the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era in Britain was about.


Adrian Jarvis, Samuel Smiles and the construction of Victorian Values Sutton Publishing, 1997, 176pp, 16 illus. (ISBN 0-7509-1128-X)

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