"An intense anticipation itself transforms possibility into reality; our desires being often but precursors of the things which we are capable of performing.""Enthusiasm... the sustaining power of all great action.""He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.""Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.""Hope... is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for who so hopes has within him the gift of miracles.""I'm as happy a man as any in the world, for the whole world seems to smile upon me!""It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failures. Precept, study, advice, and example could never have taught them so well as failure has done.""It is energy - the central element of which is will - that produces the miracle that is enthusiasm in all ages. Everywhere it is what is called force of character and the sustaining power of all great action.""Knowledge conquered by labor becomes a possession - a property entirely our own.""Labor is still, and ever will be, the inevitable price set upon everything which is valuable.""Life will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make it.""Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.""Man cannot aspire if he looked down; if he rise, he must look up.""Men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.""Men who are resolved to find a way for themselves will always find opportunities enough; and if they do not find them, they will make them.""Practical wisdom is only to be learned in the school of experience. Precepts and instruction are useful so far as they go, but, without the discipline of real life, they remain of the nature of theory only.""Progress however, of the best kind, is comparatively slow. Great results cannot be achieved at once; and we must be satisfied to advance in life as we walk, step by step.""Progress, of the best kind, is comparatively slow. Great results cannot be achieved at once; and we must be satisfied to advance in life as we walk, step by step.""The apprenticeship of difficulty is one which the greatest of men have had to serve.""The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honor. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved.""The duty of helping one's self in the highest sense involves the helping of one's neighbors.""The experience gathered from books, though often valuable, is but the nature of learning; whereas the experience gained from actual life is one of the nature of wisdom.""The reason why so little is done, is generally because so little is attempted.""The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once.""The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual.""The very greatest things - great thoughts, discoveries, inventions - have usually been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty.""The wise man... if he would live at peace with others, he will bear and forbear.""The work of many of the greatest men, inspired by duty, has been done amidst suffering and trial and difficulty. They have struggled against the tide, and reached the shore exhausted.""We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.""We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.""Wisdom and understanding can only become the possession of individual men by travelling the old road of observation, attention, perseverance, and industry."
Born in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, the son of Samuel Smiles of Haddington and Janet Wilson of Dalkeith, Smiles was one of eleven surviving children. The family were strict Cameronians, though when Smiles grew up he was not one of them. He left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a doctor, an arrangement that eventually enabled Smiles to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His father died in the cholera epidemic of 1832, but Smiles was enabled to continue with his studies, supported by his mother who kept running the family shop selling hardware, books, etc., firm in the belief that "The Lord will provide". Her example, working ceaselessly to support herself and his nine younger siblings, was a strong influence on his future life, though he developed a more benign and tolerant outlook somewhat at odds with his Cameronian forebears . While studying and after graduating, he campaigned for parliamentary reform, contributing articles to the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the Leeds Times.
Samuel married Sarah Ann Holmes Dixon in Leeds on 7 December 1843. They had three daughters, Janet, Edith and Lillian, and two sons, William and Samuel. In his late teens, Samuel junior contracted a lung disease, and his father was advised to send him on a long sea voyage. The letters young Samuel wrote home, and the log he kept of his journey to Australia and America between February 1869 and March 1871, were later edited by his father and published in London in 1877, under the title 'A Boy's Voyage Round the World'.
Samuel senior's grandchildren include Sir Walter Smiles, an Ulster Unionist Party MP. Through this family, Samuel Smiles is also the great-great-grandfather of popular explorer Bear Grylls.
In November 1838, he was invited to become the editor for the Leeds Times, a position which he accepted and filled until 1842. 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 MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MPs; and annual Parliaments.
As editor of the Leeds Times, he advocated radical causes ranging from women's suffrage to free trade to parliamentary reform. But by the late 1840s, 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 and other structural changes as a means of social advance. For the rest of his career, he advocated individual self improvement.
In 1842, Samuel Smiles left the Leeds Times and became secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway and then, nine years later, the South Eastern Railway.
The origins of Smiles' most famous book, Self-Help, lay in a speech he gave in March 1845 in response to a request by a Mutual Improvement Society, published as The Education of the Working Classes. In it he said:
I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses...Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.
Routledge rejected publishing Self-Help in 1855. Twenty years later Smiles was seated next to George Routledge at a dinner, and he said to him: "And when, Dr. Smiles, are we to have the honour of publishing one of your books?" Smiles replied that Mr. Routledge had had the honour of rejecting Self-Help. Although John Murray was willing to publish Self-Help on a half-profits system, Smiles rejected this as he did not want the book to lose its anecdotes. In 1859 he published the book at his own expense and risk, retaining the copyright and paying John Murray ten per cent. commission. It sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles' death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million. Self-Help "elevated [Smiles] to celebrity status: almost overnight, he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru". Smiles "suddenly became the fashion and he was deluged with requests that he should lay foundation stones, sit for his portrait, present prizes to orphan children, make speeches from platforms. The simple fellow was pleased with these invitations, but naturally he could not accept. He had his work to do...his duty did not lie on any public platform...It lay in his office with his Work".
Smiles wrote articles for the Quarterly. In an article on railways he argued that the railways should be nationalised and that third-class passengers should be encouraged. In 1861 Smiles published an article from the Quarterly, renamed Workers Earnings, Savings and Strikes. He claimed poverty in many instances was caused by habitual improvidence:
Times of great prosperity, in which wages are highest and mills running full time are not times in which Mechanics' Institutes and Schools flourish, but times in which publicans and beer sellers prosper and grow rich...A workman earning 50s. to 60s. a week (above the average pay of bankers' clerks) was content to inhabit a miserable one-roomed dwelling in a bad neighbourhood, the one room serving as parlour, kitchen and sleeping-room for the whole family, which consisted of husband, wife, four sons, two cats and a dog. The witness was asked: Do you think this family was unable to get better lodgings, or were they careless? They were careless, was the reply.
In 1866 he resigned as secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway to be president of the National Provident Institution, but left in 1871, after suffering a debilitating stroke. He recovered from the stroke, eventually learning to read and write again, and he even wrote books after his recovery.
In 1875 his book Thrift was published. In it he said that "riches do not constitute any claim to distinction. It is only the vulgar who admire riches as riches". He claimed that the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was "one of the most valuable that has been placed on the statute-book in modern times". He also criticised laissez-faire:
When typhus or cholera breaks out, they tell us that Nobody is to blame. That terrible Nobody! How much he has to answer for. More mischief is done by Nobody than by all the world besides. Nobody adulterates our food. Nobody poisons us with bad drink. Nobody supplies us with foul water. Nobody spreads fever in blind alleys and unswept lanes. Nobody leaves towns undrained. Nobody fills gaols, penitentiaries, and convict stations. Nobody makes poachers, thieves, and drunkards. Nobody has a theory too—a dreadful theory. It is embodied in two words—Laissez faire—Let alone. When people are poisoned by plaster of Paris mixed with flour, “Let alone” is the remedy. When Cocculus indicus is used instead of hops, and men die prematurely, it is easy to say, “Nobody did it.” Let those who can, find out when they are cheated: Caveat emptor. When people live in foul dwellings, let them alone. Let wretchedness do its work; do not interfere with death.
In 1881 he claimed that
Labour is toilsome and its gains are slow. Some people determine to live by the labour of others, and from the moment they arrive at that decision, become the enemies of society. It is not often that distress drives men to crime. In nine cases out of ten, it is choice not necessity. Moral cowardice is exhibited as much in public as in private life. Snobbism is not confined to toadying of the rich, but is quite as often displayed in the toadying of the poor...Now that the “masses” exercise political power, there is a growing tendency to fawn upon them, flatter them, speak nothing but smooth words to them. They are credited with virtues they themselves know they do not possess. To win their favour sympathy is often pretended for views, the carrying out of which is known to be hopeless. The popular agitator must please whom he addresses, and it is always highly gratifying to our self-love to be told that someone else is to blame for what we suffer. So it rarely occurs to these orators to suggest that those whom they address are themselves to blame for what they suffer, or that they misuse the means of happiness which are within their reach...The capitalist is merely a man who does not spend all that is earned by work.
When in 1892 Gladstone returned to power and introduced his Second Irish Home Rule Bill, Smiles wrote to his son in Ulster: "Don't you rebel. Keep quiet, though I see your name among the agitators...Your letter is frightfully alarming...Gladstone has come into power and we are threatened with Civil War. This cannot be the result of good statesmanship. Yet there are Liberal members to cheer on the maniac. Alas, alas for Liberalism!...Must I give you six months notice to withdraw my loans to the B.R. Co., for I want to keep the little money I have for wife and bairns, not for arming the Ulstermen". Smiles wrote to Lucy Smiles in 1893: "This Home Rule Bill is horrid...I am quite appalled at that wretched hound, miscalled statesman, throwing the country into a state of turmoil. I cannot understand how so many persons in this part of Britain follow that maniac, just like a flock of sheep. He is simply bursting with self-conceit. Alas! Alas for Liberalism!"
Smiles intended to publish a book on Conduct in 1896 but John Murray declined. In 1898 publication was again denied. After his death the manuscript of Conduct was found in his desk and on the advice of John Murray was destroyed.
He died in Kensington and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.
The Liberal MP J. A. Roebuck in 1862 called Smiles' Workmen's Earnings, Strikes and Savings "a very remarkable book" and quoted passages from it in a speech. George Bernard Shaw, in his Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), called Smiles "that modern Plutarch". The late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century saw the rise of New Liberalism, Keynesian economics and socialism, which all viewed thrift unfavourably. The New Liberal economists J. A. Hobson and A. F. Mummery in their Physiology of Industry (1889) claimed that saving resulted in the underemployment of capital and labour during trade depressions. John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) attempted to replace classical liberal economics. In 1905 the Bishop of Ripon, William Boyd Carpenter, praised Smiles: "The Bishop said he had noticed a little tendency in some quarters to disparage the homely energies of life which at one time were so highly thought of. He recalled the appearance of "Self-Help," by Samuel Smiles, who 40 or 50 years ago gave lectures at Leeds encouraging young men to engage in self-improvement. His books were read with extraordinary avidity, but there arose a school which taught the existence of the beautiful and to do nothing. That school disparaged thrift and did not pay much attention to character and, perhaps, not much attention to duty". The Labour MP David Grenfell, in a debate on the Transitional Payments Bill, claimed that the Bill "discriminated not against the unthrifty, the idler, and the waster, but against the industrious, thrifty person, who had to pay a heavy penalty. The Minister of Labour penalized self-help. He poured contempt on Samuel Smiles and all his works". The liberal Ernest Benn invoked Smiles when praising the virtues of self-help. In 1962 the director of the British Institute of Management, John Marsh, said that young men who entered industry needed a sense of service and duty; they must be "men of character who know how to behave well as in phases of success"; they must possess self-discipline in thinking and behaviour: "There is something still to be said for Samuel Smiles's doctrine of self-help". The liberal economist F. A. Hayek wrote in 1976 that: "It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles...have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the future of the market order that this seems to have become the only defence of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular".
The Story of The Life of George Stephenson, London, 1859 (abridgement of the above)
Brief biographies, Boston, 1860 (articles reprinted from periodicals such as the Quarterly Review)
Lives of the Engineers, 3 vol, London 1862
Vol 1, Early engineers - James Brindley, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, Sir Hugh Myddleton, Capt John Perry
Vol 2, Harbours, Lighthouses and Bridges - John Smeaton and John Rennie (1761—1821)
Vol 3, History of Roads - John Metcalf and Thomas Telford
Industrial Biography, London, 1863
: Includes lives of Andrew Yarranton, Benjamin Huntsman, Dud Dudley, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Clement, etc..
Boulton and Watt, London, 1865
The Huguenots: Their Settlements, Churches and Industries in England and Ireland, London, 1867
Lives of the Engineers, new ed. in 5 vols, London, 1874
: (includes the lives of Stephenson and Boulton and Watt)
Life of a Scotch Naturalist: Thomas Edward, London, 1875
George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist, London & New York, 1878
Robert Dick, Baker of Thurso, Geologist and Botanist, London, 1878
Men of Invention and Industry, London, 1884
: Phineas Pett, Francis Pettit Smith, John Harrison, John Lombe, William Murdoch, Frederick 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
James Nasmyth, engineer, an autobiography, ed. Samuel Smiles, London, 1885
A Publisher and his Friends. Memoir and Correspondence of the Late John Murray, London, 1891
Josiah Wedgwood, his Personal History, London, 1894
The Autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LLD, ed. T. Mackay, London, 1905 - New York edition
The growth of industrial archaeology and history in Britain from the 1960s 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.