Samuel Smiles.

The autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LL. D online

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Printed in Great Britain.

*' The history of a man's own hfe is, to himself, the
most interesting history in the world. Every man is
an original and solitary character. None can either
understand or feel the book of his own life like him-
self. The lives of other men are to him dry and
vapid when set beside his own."

— Cecil's Remains.

" In old age alone we are masters of a treasure of
which we cannot be deprived, the only treasure we
can call our own. The pleasures of memory, and
the retrospect of the varied images which in an active
life have floated before the mind, compensate, and
more than compensate, for the alternate pleasures
and cares of active life."

— Sir Archibald Alison.




The followlngf pages — the autobiography of a man
whose books have been sold by hundreds of thousands
in his own country, and translated into every languagfe
of Europe, and into most of those of Asia and
America — require no apology other than that which
the author himself has seen fit to set down in the
opening paragraphs of his work. The life, as con-
ceived and chronicled by himself, of an author whose
thoughts have arrested and held the attention of more
than a generation of readers, cannot fail to be of
interest, even when, as in the present case, there is
nothing eventful, apart from the writing of his books,
to be recorded.

Dr Smiles' first book was published in 1836, and
he continued to write till nearly the close of the
century. The period of his literary labours, therefore,
is almost exactly coincident with the reign of the late
Queen Victoria, the age pre-eminently of mechanical
invention. Dr Smiles' achievement is that by common
consent he is recognised as the authorised and pious
chronicler of the men who founded the industrial
greatness of England.

His works, therefore, have a historical value pecu-
liarly their own. They are a storehouse of facts,
gathered not so mucR from books as from intercourse
with the living actors in the events which he



chronicles, and from inquiry made on the scene of
their labours. He has thus rescued from oblivion
many incidents in the lives of the great Engineers
which would have been irretrievably lost, but for his
pious and enthusiastic care.

Nor is the monument which he has raised to their
memory a mere collection of dry-as-dust facts.
Leaving the technical details to the text-books, and
to the records of scientific societies, he has introduced
his heroes to a wider public, and made them live again
in his pages. His was a new departure in biography.
He saw that the everyday work of applied science had
its romance. He grasped the fact that the million
had become readers, and required to be amused as
well as instructed. This, from the literary point of
view, is his great merit, and entitles him to be enrolled
in the honourable company of story-tellers. Apart
from the historical value of his biographies, they are
told in a manner so vivacious and dramatic that they
have proved themselves irresistibly attractive to young
and old in all countries of the world. Both in regard
to the interest of the theme commemorated, and the
literary skill with which it is presented, the Life of
George Stephenson has made good its right to rank as
an English classic. In that volume and in the Lives
of the Engineers, the didactic element is less pro-
nounced than in other of his works, and, for this
reason perhaps, they will be for some readers more
completely enjoyable.

At the same time the great popularity of the more
professedly didactic books, such as Self Help, Thrift,
Duty, is in itself a noteworthy and characteristic
episode in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In more than one passage in the following pages,
and also in the preface prefixed to the later editions of


Self- Help, Dr Smiles has noticed the remarks of
those who charge him with an excessive adulation of
mere success. Such criticism seems to recoil on those
who level it at Dr Smiles. The whole point of his
philosophy is that good work can be done, character
and independence built up, and happiness preserved,
amid humble surroundings, and notwithstanding the
absence of worldly success. A materialistic view of life
must rather be imputed to those who are contemptuous
of the merely spiritual triumphs ascribed by him to
the virtues of patience and thrift, because they have
based their hopes of progress on organic changes with
which Dr Smiles rightly or wrongly has shown no
sort of sympathy. His apology is perhaps unneces-
sary, but the reader's attention is directed to a pass-
age in this autobiography which seems, by anticipa-
tion, to vindicate even more amply than the later
apology of the preface to Self-Help, the high-minded
liberality of his attitude. On page 1 3 1 of this volume
the autobiographer has incorporated a long quotation
from The Education of the Working' Classes, the
lecture delivered in 1845, which grew in time by
expansion and addition into his volume on Self-Help.
The passage quoted contains a plain and dignified
statement of the advantages of education to the
poorer class. The man who entered on his exposi-
tion of the Arts of Thriving in this admirable spirit
must be acquitted by every impartial critic of harbour-
ing an unworthy and sordid reverence for mere
worldly, success. If any further vindication were
necessary, it is to be found in his own use of his talent
for biography. He might, as he tells us, have been
biographer in general, and have set up a factory of
biography on a large scale. This prospect, lucrative
as it must have been, he deliberately declined, and


preferred to follow his own bent. His work displays
everywhere the excessive and genuine pleasure which
he took in rescuing- forgotten worthies from oblivion,
and in recording the obscure labours of humble
enthusiasts who had found happiness and independ-
ence in the pursuit of some by-path of knowledge.

Though a Scotsman by birth, Dr Smiles took
apparently little interest in metaphysics. He is
interested in the man, his friend Samuel Brown
(Alchemist Brown as he was called by his contem-
poraries), but very little in his speculations ; and the
same intensely practical turn of mind controls his
whole outlook into life. Accordingly, we find nowhere
any deliberate appreciation of modern socialism and
its teaching. Robert Owen and his ''spinning jenny
of a universe" (see p. io6) seem too far removed from
practical life to merit more than a passing notice. He
conceived from the first that the fundamental bases of
society were permanent, and his happy optimism was
content with the situation. In the quotation which
he cites from his early lecture, and to which reference
has already been made, he says, "My object in citing
these instances," and we may here interpolate that
this remained to the end the key-note of all his work,
**has been merely to show that adverse circumstances
— even the barrenest poverty — cannot repress the
human intellect and character, if it be determined to
rise ; that man can triumph over circumstances, and
subject them to his will ; that knowledge is no exclu-
sive heritage of the rich and the leisured classes, but
may be attained by all; or at all events, that no
difficulties of situation, however great, can furnish
any reason for despair" (p. 132).

Dr Smiles was, of course, an ardent opponent of
privilege, and therefore of protective duties on corn.



but he had obviously no sympathy with the modern
attempt to create privilege for the classes to whom
Democracy has now given power. When Free Trade
had been won, a national system of education estab-
lished, and when the franchise had been settled on a
liberal basis, his interest in politics seems to have
ceased. A career, if not of worldly success, at least
of self-respect and independence, was now open to
honest industry, and the policy of laying burdens on
one class for the benefit of another class seemed to
him unnecessary, even if he did not regard it as

Though Dr Smiles has, for these reasons, ignored
the socialists, they have not ignored him. His cheerful
optimism, and the spirited attempts he makes to justify
it, are things abhorrent to them. To them he is typical
of the plain man, the bourgeois who assumes that the
constitution of society cannot be materially altered.
He encourages us to make the best of it, and shows
that the best of it is not so very bad, and his genial
and kindly exposition of the success that attends the
practice of the ordinary arts of thriving is very dis-
tasteful to those who believe in the necessity of revolu-
tionary and organic change. This is not the place to
argue out the issue, but no appreciation of Dr Smiles
and his work would be complete without a reference
to the fact that be is very properly regarded as a repre-
sentative of that sound middle class common sense
which has created for the English of all classes a very
solid fabric of comfort and contentment. The
socialist recognises that it is this measure of material
prosperity, and the common sense that has created it,
and still continues to defend it as tolerable, which bar
the way to any practical acceptance of his doctrine.
Hence the bitter and scornful reference to the



"Gospel accordingf to Smiles," which is so familiar a
commonplace in the socialist's invective against the
existing order of things.

This divergence of view reaches its limit theo-
retically, when a leading socialist solemnly appears
before a Royal Commission, and records his opinion
that thrift is a crime, and that to encourage poor
men to practise it is merely to incite them to new
privations. Happily, even those members of the
poorer class who might describe themselves as social-
ists, unconsciously incline in practice to the view of
Dr Smiles rather than to that of their own teacher.
The man who thinks at all of his own future and of
social conditions generally, will be found, through his
Friendly Society, his Co-operative Store, or his
Savings Bank, to be paying some homage to those
arts of thriving of which Dr Smiles will always be
regarded as a foremost panegyrist. It is this involun-
tary adherence to a line of conduct which identifies
them and their interests with the established economic
order which makes any thorough application of
socialist ideas an improbable and remote contingency.
It is this impenetrable common sense — stupidity per-
haps the socialist will call it — that has barred and
probably will bar the way to attempts at revolutionary
change, such as the socialist desires.

So much it seems necessary to set down, in order
to show the representative character of Dr Smiles'
work. For the rest, we doubt if any but the most
austere exponents of new ideals will be able to resist
the cheerful optimism of Dr Smiles' narrative.

It is a satisfaction to learn from these pages, that
as he wrote for others, so he found it for himself
His life was one of great contentment and of continu-
ous industry, and in his case at all events, wisdom was


justified in her children. The following- narrative,
written at different times, the later portion in extreme
old age, and with failing- powers, has, with some
omissions, been printed as the author left it. A few
verbal and grammatical corrections, such as an author
would naturally have made for himself, have been
introduced, but the sense has nowhere been altered.
The autobiography is a popular author's last
message to readers, who have been pleased and
encouraged by his work. It will be a satisfaction to
those who have praised his books, to learn how
appreciative he was of their sympathy. The simpli-
city of his character, and his enjoyment of the world s
good-will, as revealed in these pages, will, it is hoped,
increase their g-rateful remembrance of an instructor
at once so kindly and so entertaining-.

T. M.



I. Boyhood and Education
II. Youthful Recollections

III. A Student OF Medicine

IV. Reform— THE Lauder Raid — the Cholera
V. Surgeon in Haddington

VI. A Rolling Stone gathers no Moss
VII. Returns to England— London, Sheffield
VIII. Editor of the Leeds Times .
IX. Life in Leeds ....
X. I Leave Political Life
XL End of Residence in Leeds
XII. Newcastle and the Neighbourhood

XI I I. Secretary of the South-Eastern Railway

XIV. A Successful Author at Last !
XV. Railway Work— Charing Cross Line

XVI. Lives of the Engineers, and other Works
XVII. The Buguenots— Travels in France
XVI 1 1. The North Frisian Islands .
XIX. Character— Illness— A Long Rest .
XX. Thrift, The Scotch Naturalist, George Moore,
etc. .....

XXI. Visit to Italy ....
XXII. Growing Old ....

XXI I I. Appreciation from Foreigners

XXIV. Translations— Roy AT— Italy .

Index . . , • »



















Dr Samuel Smiles {from a Photograph by Messrs

Elliott (Sr» Fry)_,.- - - - . Frontispiece

Dr Smiles {from the Portrait by George Reid^

R.S.A,) ' - - - - - To face p. ig/^




I HAVE begun and finished many books, but I never
began a manuscript with more trepidation than I
now do the following narrative. I would not have
dreamt of writing out these memoirs but for the
repeated counsels of William Rolston Haigh of
H udder sfield, an old friend, whom I had known
intimately at Leeds, at Bradford, and at Hudders-
field, of which town he was a magistrate, and where
I frequently enjoyed his hospitality.

Mr Haigh was a very intelligent man, and a great
reader, especially of biography. Many years since,
he asked me, *' Have you written out your Auto-
biography yet?"

*'0h, no!" I answered, *' there is no probability of
that ever being done. I am too busy, besides, with
other things that I wish to finish. I have been inter-
viewed, it is true, like most other book writers,
artists, and men of notoriety. But my life has been
comparatively uneventful ; there is really nothing in


'* Nothing- In it ? " responded my Mentor. *' Why,
your books are extensively read in this country and
America. They have been translated into nearly
every langfuage in Europe. They appear in many of
the Indian languages, and even in Siamese and
Japanese. I am quite sure that your readers would
like to know much more about yourself than has yet
been published by your interviewers."

"That may be," I said, ''but I do not think there
are any passages in my life likely to be interesting
to the public. My books, such as they are, must
speak for themselves, without any biographic intro-

'' Well ! " he observed finally, " think of my advice :
I am persuaded that a history of yourself would be
more interesting than any of your books."

This conversation occurred in 1879. I doubted
my friend's counsel ; but he returned to the subject
again and again. He even took the trouble to tell
me how I should write my Autobiography. He gave
me the heads of it, extending to four pages. He
copied out for me John Bartram's advice to his friend
Benjamin Franklin as to the preparation of his

On Anthony Trollope's autobiography making its
appearance, Mr Haigh wrote to my wife, *'Tell your
husband to go and do likewise." My answer was,
Benjamin Franklin was a celebrated philosopher, and
Anthony Trollope was a distinguished novelist.
Thousands will read about them, while few will read
about me. They had a history, while I have none — at
least, none of any consequence. Nevertheless, I will
proceed at my leisure to write out some passages
relating to my past life, and leave them for the
entertainment of my children and grandchildren, or,


should my sons desire, for the perusal of the general

I was born at Haddington on the 23rd of
December 181 2. The house in which I first saw the
light, stood at the head of the High Street, and com-
manded a view of the Mail Coach, the Union, the
Stage Coaches, and the Friday Market.*

About the beginning of the century, when
Napoleon was at the height of his power, the town
formed the centre of a camp. Some hundred and thirty
thousand of the best troops of France were assembled
at Boulogne — with artillery, horses, and transports —
flat-bottomed boats — and threatened the invasion of
England. It proved to be but a feint, but this
country was prepared. Some thought that the Bay
of Aberlady might be the point of landing for the
foreign troops, and barracks were erected all round
Haddington, for the accommodation of infantry,
cavalry, and artillery. Other barracks were erected
at Belhaven, near Dunbar. Beacons were erected
along the coast, to give timely notice of the approach
and landing of the French. Regiments of militia
were marched into the barracks in constant succes-
sion ; for the purpose of enabling the regular troops to
keep up their forces by enlistment.

Napoleon, however, broke up ''the army of
England," as it was called, and proceeded to invade
Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The continental war
went on for several years. Wellington was now in
the Peninsula with his victorious army ; and at the
time when I was born, at the end of 181 2, Napoleon

* The house has since been pulled down and replaced by a Bank-
ing Office.


was returning to France with the wreck of his army,
baffled by the snows of Russia. Still the militia
continued to occupy the barracks around our little
town, while the regulars drummed them up constantly
for recruits.

Then came the battle of Leipzig, the retreat of
Napoleon upon France, the siege and surrender of
Paris, the abdication of the Emperor, his banishment
to Elba and his return to France in less than a year,
his assemblage of the army, and their march north-
ward. Then followed Waterloo. It seems to me
like a dream to remember the rejoicings on that
occasion — the bands of the militia, the drums and
pipes that paraded the town, and the illuminations
that followed. Such things make a deep impression
on the imagination of a child — ''Wax to receive, bu-t
marble to retain." Next year, the 42nd Highlanders
— the Black Watch— marched through the town.
That circumstance stands very clear in my memory.
They were received with extraordinary acclamations
in every town they passed through ; and when they
entered Edinburgh the enthusiasm was indescribable.

The talk by our firesides long continued to be
about wars, with remembrances of recent campaigns.
The barracks round our town were eventually pulled
down, and the materials disposed of My father*
bought a large quantity of army stores, principally
blankets and greatcoats. I remember seeing the
last of the soldiers' greatcoats sold to a ploughman
and carried away upon his back.

All articles of food were very dear in those days.
Everything was taxed to the utmost extent. Bread

* Dr Smiles' father was also Samuel Smiles. He was engaged in
trade, first as a paper maker, when paper was made by hand, after-
wards as a general merchant in Haddington. — Ed.


was sixteen pence the quartern loaf; sug-ar, ninepence
or tenpence ; tea, from seven to nine shilling's, but oat-
meal for porridge, the **staff of life" in Scotland, was
moderate; though, compared with present prices, it
was dear.

One of the things that struck me very much in
my early years, was the illness of my elder brother
John. He had an attack of inflammation of the
lungs, and Dr John Welsh, who lived close at hand,
was called in to visit him. The doctor bled him, and
I remember seeing three full cups of blood taken from
his arm, lying on the table, waiting for the doctor's
next visit. Though the boy was only seven years
old, the bleeding- at once cured him. Doctors were
not afraid to bleed in those days. A few days after,
when the boy was downstairs, Dr Welsh called again
to see his patient. He put his finger through an
unbuttoned hole in the boy's vest, and tickled him.
The boy laughed. "Oh!" said the doctor, ''his
lungs are all right ; he will soon be out-of-doors."

Dr Welsh was a most agreeable and cheerful man.
Everybody loved him. He had a comely, handsome
face, with lively and expressive features. He was the
principal practitioner in the town and neighbourhood.
Shortly after the above circumstance, Dr Welsh,
who had to encounter all sorts of risks, caught
typhoid fever from a patient he was attending-, and
died after a short illness. He was greatly lamented
throughout the country.

I remember his widow, Mrs Welsh, who continued
for some time to live in the town, and her daughter
Jeanie, afterwards Mrs Carlyle. Mrs Welsh was a
beautiful woman : tall, dark-haired, and commanding-.
Jeanie was less lovely ; her face was too angular for
beauty. Nevertheless, she had many admirers. She


might have married well in her native town ; but she
disliked the place and wished to get away from it.
In 1 82 1, two years after her father's death, she wrote,
''It is the dimmest, deadest spot in the Creator's
universe . . . the very air one breathes is impreg-
nated with stupidity."*

After all, Haddington was not so bad as Miss
Welsh painted it. It very much depends upon
ourselves whether we are miserable or not in any
condition of life. Perhaps Miss Welsh was not of a
very contented frame of mind, and her letters seem
to show this. She was not pleased with her local
surroundings, and was waiting for her Genius.

Mrs Welsh and her daughter, after Dr Welsh's
death, occupied the upper flat of Mr Roughead's
large mansion, nearly opposite the house in the High
Street which my father had bought, and to which we
had removed from the house where I was born. I
often saw Mrs Welsh and her daughter walking
about ; but as I was some eleven years younger than
Jeanie, and was then but a boy, I had no personal
communications with her. It was said that she was
fond of Edward Irving, who had been an assistant
master in the Burgh School ; but he had gone to
Kirkcaldy, and become pledged to a minister's
daughter there. So Miss Welsh had to wait. But
at last the Genius came in the shape of Thomas
Carlyle. More than enough has been written about
this union, so that it need not be further referred to.
Excepting this — that after Mrs Carlyle had removed
from Craigenputtock to London, she called upon my
mother when she came down to her native place, and
gave her to understand that she was quite as

* Early letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Edited by David G.
Ritchie, M.A.


miserable with her Genius as she had ever been at
Hadding-ton. There was a reason for this, that
cannot be described in this place.

A gfood education is equivalent to a good fortune.
My parents were both of opinion that, though they
had comparatively little money to leave to the several
members of their large family, the training- of their
minds in early life was the best possible equipment
for their encounter with the struggles and difficulties
which they would have to meet in future years.
John Knox was a native of the town in which I was
born. He was to Scotland what Martin Luther
was to Germany. " Let the common people be
taught," was one of John Knox's messages. His
advice was followed, and the results were great. A
poor and sterile country was made strong by its men.
The parish and burgh schools of Scotland, and the
education given there, are but the lengthened shadow
of John Knox. There was a good grammar school
in Haddington even in the Reformer's boyhood. He
was taught there by the monks, until he went for
further training and education to the University of
St Andrews.

My first teacher was Patrick Hardie. He had a
private school in St Ann's Place, and there I learnt my
ABC. In a few years, Mr Hardie was appointed
by the Town Council teacher of English and Mathe-
matics at the Burgh School ; and I followed him to

Online LibrarySamuel SmilesThe autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LL. D → online text (page 1 of 34)