HE WAS the original self-help guru whose attempts to motivate his fellow men and improve their lives have been largely forgotten.
Now the legacy of influential 19th-century author Samuel Smiles is to be commemorated in a landmark project by the National Library of Scotland (NLS). It plans to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth by creating a digital record of all his works in its possession. By the end of this year more than 500 items linked to Smiles – including everything from his original handwritten manuscripts to “fan mail” – will be available to download from the NLS website.
Smiles – an East Lothian shopkeeper’s son who turned his back on a career in medicine to become a writer – is virtually unknown despite selling hundreds of thousands of copies of his book Self-Help.
David McClay, senior curator at the National Library of Scotland, who is in charge of the digitising process of the Smiles material held in its collections, said: “Smiles has been largely forgotten about these days, and Self-Help is largely overlooked, despite having such a huge influence on the publishing world. Smiles himself was quite a modest character, despite his success. It was part of the Victorian character not to be too boastful and he was also quite frugal.
“He was pretty much the first writer to argue strongly in favour of self-improvement, and used examples of people like his hero, George Stephenson, and others like David Livingstone and James Watt, to show what could be achieved regardless of your background. He had a very optimistic manifesto, designed to appeal to the working classes, and it genuinely changed people’s lives.
“His timing was fortunate. A lot of people were working in the trades and professions he was championing and a lot of Britons were starting to understand that ordinary people could do extraordinary things.”
Smiles wrote one of the best-selling books of the Victorian era by espousing a simple ethos of thrift, duty, perseverance and hard work. Self-Help was published in 1859 – mainly by himself – and his first motivational tome went on to sell 250,000 copies by the end of his life and was translated into 42 different languages.
Charles Darwin’s great work, On The Origin Of Species, came out at about the same time but by the time Smiles died at the age of 91, in 1904, he had outsold the evolutionary scientist’s celebrated volume by ten to one.
His book caught the attention of the rapidly expanding middle classes, citing inspirational figures such as Livingstone, the explorer, Miller, a geologist and Watt, the engineer, as role models.
It was to become influential overseas, especially in Italy and Japan, and it guided Sakichi Toyoda, the son of a poor carpenter, who founded the Toyota motor company.
NLS has original copies of Self-Help, which elevated Smiles to celebrity status overnight, foreign versions of the book and several successful follow-ups, including Character, Thrift and Duty.
Also being put online as part of its drive to raise awareness of Smiles’ life and work will be personal correspondence, photographs, illustrations from his books, sales records showing how popular he was at the time and copies of articles he wrote as a journalist.
Born in Haddington in 1812, Smiles was given an apprenticeship by a local doctor in the town when aged just 14, which helped him to win a place at Edinburgh University. While studying, he made his first forays into journalism and had work published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle.
He was an advocate of parliamentary reform and, after contributing a number of articles to the radical Leeds Times, was invited to become its editor. Four years later he became secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway and later the Southern Eastern Railway to supplement his writing income.
The origins of his most famous book lay in a series of speeches he gave to young men’s societies from 1845 onwards. The manuscript was rejected by one major publisher, Routledge, in 1851, but was picked up by another, John Murray, who was to strike up a long friendship with Smiles.
McClay added: “Unlike many other writers, Samuel Smiles got to enjoy his success. To sell 250,000 copies of Self-Help alone by the time he died was a real blockbuster success in those days, and it actually sold 20,000 copies in its first year after publication.”
Many people consider the book’s lessons are still valuable today. Rob Ritchie, founder of The Whole Works, a long-running counselling centre in Edinburgh, said: “Self-help, self-agency and self-determination are core to human health – emotional, mental and spiritual.
“The more a person can ‘own’ and ‘realise’ their own unique life – what their life means to them, what they value, who and what they love and act upon all that – the more likely they are to overcome their present difficulties.”