Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

W.H.Smith

Greenlands
Greenlands

Beyond Temple Island the river starts to sweep to the right, turning two-thirds of a circle towards Hambledon Lock. Across on the far bank there is the beautiful Italian style mansion known as “Greenlands”. This was built in 1853 for a certain William Henry Smith, who later became Viscount Hambledon.

“Ah yes”, I hear you say, “Know him. He was the man who started up the newsagents”. Not quite, for if it was named after the founder it would be H.W.Smith. Let me explain.

Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna thought it would be a good business opportunity to start a small newsagents business. They opened a shop in Little Grosvenor Street, London and started to sell newspapers. Unfortunately Henry died after only a few months, and the business was continued by his widow.

The business thrived, and expanded into supplying stationery in addition to just newspapers. When Anna Smith passed away in 1816 the business was inherited by her two sons, Henry Edward and William Henry.

As in all things in life, there are seldom two equal parts, and the Smith brothers were no exception. William was by far the more competent businessman and in the way that these things evolve the business gradually became known as W H Smith.

The name changed again when William’s son, also known as William Henry, reached the age of majority. He was made a partner in the company and it became known as W.H.Smith & Son in 1846.

The Smiths knew a business opportunity when they saw it. The railways were rapidly taking over the country, and they could see the future. The world and his wife would soon be standing around on station platforms waiting for yet another delayed train to make an appearance. How would people pass the time when they got bored? Answer; they would buy a book to read.

The first platform bookstall started trading at Euston Station on 1st November 1848. Then the Smiths opened a stall at another station, then another, and another.

Within a short period of time there were W.H.Smith bookstores everywhere across the network. To supply the stalls the Smiths developed their own distribution network with warehouses in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Dublin. W.H.Smith and Son soon became the number one book and newspaper distributors in the country.

So what do you do after you have achieved all that? Well, Smith Senior took retirement and Smith Junior decided to enter the world of politics. He was elected MP for Westminster in 1868, and in 1874 brought in a partner to the business, William Lethbridge, so that he could devote all of his energies to his political career.

In 1877 Smith was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Such an appointment to a man with no experience of the navy was somewhat controversial. Today we may expect our politicians to have no experience of life outside of being a Westminster “researcher” or professional politician, but in those days they expected rather more. Smith found himself the object of ridicule when Gilbert and Sullivan satirised him as the “Ruler of the Queen’s Navy” in their comic opera “H.M.S.Pinafore. Indeed he allegedly became known as “Pinafore Smith” until the Liberals gained power at the next election and he found himself temporarily out of office.

The General Election of 1886 saw the Conservatives return to power, and Smiths political status grew. He was appointed Minister for War, then Leader of the House, and finally Warden of the Cinque Ports.

The business was handed down through two further generations of Smiths until mounting death duties became too much, and the family had no alternative than to sell shares in the business to the public. Over the years the family influence dwindled, and the last Smith to be on the board departed in 1996.

The rise and fall through so many generations. Three generations to build it all up, and then watch it slowly slip away. The house itself is now part of Henley Management College, so the business spirit started by Smith still continues to inhabit the grounds.

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