“Old Morality” and the rise of recreational reading

We have recently acquired some interesting publications from W.H. Smith & Son. You may wonder why as, on the face of it, the railway connection is rather tangential.

However, this famous stationers and bookshop has been part of the station landscape since 1848 when a young Smith submitted a successful tender to operate bookstalls from London & North Western Railway stations. His bookstall wasn’t by any means the first, but his was the most successful – in part due to securing a virtual monopoly with L&NWR and many other railway companies, but also because he also made railway bookstalls ‘respectable’. Previously bookshops had pandered to the travelling public’s lowest tastes. Smith did not want such publications in his bookstalls, earning himself the epithet “Old Morality” by Punch for keeping such a steady eye on the morals of his customers.

W H Smith's newsagents at Liverpool Street station, 23 June 1955.

W H Smith’s newsagents at Liverpool Street station, 23 June 1955.

Whether this censorship was successful, I’m not sure, however, the firm’s takings soared and the demand for reading material grew. Publishers such as Routledge and Longmans saw this opportunity and produced cheap versions of the classics and sensational literature in their “Railway Library” series. These books, which were often known as Yellowbacks, due to their bright yellow covers, became a literary phenomenon. (We have one in the library).

The interesting thing here is the fact that our Yellowback, which almost certainly would have been sold in W.H. Smiths, was published in 1893, and doesn’t seem particularly “moral” if covers are to be believed, so it would perhaps imply “Old Morality” didn’t have it all his own way.

Book. Baron Montez of Panama and Paris : a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. Published in London by George Routledge and Sons, 1893. Routledge's Railway Library issue 11. A

Book. Baron Montez of Panama and Paris : a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. Published in London by George Routledge and Sons, 1893. Routledge’s Railway Library issue 11. A “Yellowback” book.

Morals aside, the publications that we recently acquired are suggestive of the rise of demand for reading matter whilst travelling on the rail network and the best ways to tap into this demand. This privately published list of W. H. Smith & Son’s branches is a quite a large tome and gives details of all the main station bookshops as well as the smaller stalls and “agents”. The owning railway companies are also listed and – of particular interest perhaps to family historians – managers’ names are listed along with their date of appointment. If anybody wished to analyse this list to discover how comprehensive their coverage was, then this volume would be a good place to start.

List of W. H. Smith & Son's branches, 1914-1933

List of W. H. Smith & Son’s branches, 1914-1933

Another publication we have is the guide W.H. Smith produced for their customers on what books are available; popular choices for all the family (there’s a woman’s page and a children’s page for example) and interviews and gossip with famous literary personages.

W.H. Smith, by this time, had also become a high-street name and this guide shows their business acumen in identifying that their customers needed support in choosing which titles to purchase.  It also gave them a communication channel with which to allay customers reticence over purchasing, such as this example below, coercing the public to part with their hard-earned.

Everyman advert. Taken from: The book window, 1927-29.

Taken from: The book window, 1927-29.

And we have various booklets and publications on advice to bookshop managers on ways to promote their titles to their customers. This one below has singled out how they promoted this 1910 railway publication.

This collection we’ve acquired is really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available on this firm.

A comprehensive list of archival material relating to W.H. Smith and its railway connection can be found on the National Archive’s Discovery catalogue. We also have histories and biographies that you can read for yourself in Search Engine. 

Clear, Gwen. The story of W. H. Smith & Son. London : Printed for private circulation, 1949.

Maxwell, Herbert. Life and times of the Right Honourable William Henry Smith, M.P.  Edinburgh : William Blackwood & Sons, 1893.

Wilson, Charles. First with the news : the history of W.H. Smith 1792-1972. London: Jonathan Cape, 1985.


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