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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Selling at Stations - The first W.H. Smith Station Bookstalls

Usually, before our train journeys we feel the urge to have something to read while being conveyed to our destination. We go in to the shop at the station, choose our book or magazine of choice, pay for it and leave. I suspect for most of us the fact that we made our purchase in a W.H.Smiths barely crosses our mind. They are just there, woven into the fabric of our travelling experience. Yes they do have a monopoly, and perhaps that that isn’t the best thing in the world. However, the fact that we do not question this monopoly is because Smiths has been providing this service so well for a very long time. Since 1848 in fact.

In 1792 Henry Walton and Anna Smith opened as news vendors in Little Grosvenor Street, London. This was on the back of the growth in newspaper titles since the mid-1750s, and by this date there were eight regular morning dailies and nine evening papers in the city.[1] In 1812 on the deaths of Henry and Anne their son William Henry took over the business. William soon expanded it, and with his brother Henry opened up a reading room at 192 Strand in 1821.[2] Their new enterprise’s position close to centre of the newspaper industry on Fleet Street and the Stamp office at Somerset House would soon pay off, and soon Smith began to expand his operation into one increasingly concerned with the ‘transmission and sale of London newspapers to the provinces.’[3] Thus, via mail-coaches the company created a nation-wide newspaper distribution network.[4]

With the growth of the railways Smith used them to distribute London newspapers across the nation. However, in 1846, William Henry went into partnership with his son, also William Henry, creating W.H. Smith and Sons.[5] The son soon saw the opportunity to place their bookstalls in stations. Prior to W.H. Smith moving in on the market, many of the newspaper vendors at stations were former railway employees (many of whom were crippled) or their widows who were trying to make ends-meat. For them, this was the best pension that they could expect receive. Generally what they sold was a mixture of soiled newspapers, ‘improper literature,’ gingerbeer bottles and tarts.[6]

The lack of newspaper vendors at stations selling quality publications was an opportunity for Smith. Thus, in August 1848 he approached the London and North Western Railway with a view to securing ‘exclusive rights to sell books and periodicals on stations.’ Smith would also endeavour to provide employment for the vendors that he replaced. Only a month later Smith’s tender was accepted. He would pay £1,500 for ‘the privilege of selling Newspapers etc. at all the Railway Stations now under the sole control of the LNWR.’ Euston was chosen as the first site for a bookstall, which opened on the 1st November 1848.[7]

Quickly, the number of bookstalls that Smith controlled grew, and between 1848 and 1863 he secured contracts with the following railways:-

1848 – London and North Western Railway

1851 - Great Northern Railway, London and South Western Railway, Eastern Counties, Lancashire and Yorkshire, London, Brighton and South Coast, North Staffordshire, North British

1852 – South Eastern, Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire,

1854 – Midland Railway

1863 – Great Western Railway [8]

Thus, by 1865 most of the main line stations and many of the smaller ones had a W.H.Smith bookstall. Smith had, in the space of a mere 15 years, created an empire which had a virtual monopoly on the reading habits of the travelling public, a testament to Smith’s business acumen and foresight. While his and his successor’s relationships with the railway companies were not always smooth, this is a dominance that still persists to this day.


[1] Wilson, Charles, First with the News: The History of W.H.Smith, 1792-1972, (London, 1985), p.10-11

[2] Wilson, First with the News, p.17

[3] Wilson, First with the News, p.37

[4] The First WH Smith Railway Bookstall -Questia Online

[5] Wikipedia Wikipedia - W.H. Smith

[6] Wilson, First with the News, p.102-103

[7] Wilson, First with the News, p.103

[8] Wilson, First with the News, p.99 and 132


  1. I've come across this in my own research on sensation fiction. It's strange to think that W.H. Smith pretty much helped to decide what fiction would be popular!

  2. I spend a lot of time on trains, and always find this blog interesting. Crippled ex employees as the first station newspaper vendors eh? Great stuff.

  3. Of course, now WHSmith is concentrating on railways and transport generally, such as Motorway services and Airports too, as demand for high street newsagents/bookshops falls. Shame they stopped distributing newspapers and magazines by rail though.


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