Today is the birthday (1812) of Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author and government reformer who campaigned on a Chartist platform, but who became an almost overnight celebrity for his book Self-Help (1859), which promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits, while also attacking materialism and laissez-faire government. In some ways it was a testament to Victorian morality.
Born in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, Smiles was the son of Janet Wilson of Dalkeith and Samuel Smiles of Haddington. He was one of eleven surviving children. While his family members were strict Reformed Presbyterians, he was not religious. He studied at a local school, leaving at the age of 14. He apprenticed to be a doctor under Dr. Robert Lewins. This arrangement enabled Smiles to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1829. There he also developed an interest in politics, and became a strong supporter of Joseph Hume (a strict fiscal conservative in Parliament). During this time, he contracted a lung disease, and his father was advised to send him on a long sea voyage.
His father died in the cholera epidemic of 1832, but Smiles was enabled to continue with his studies because he was supported by his mother. She ran the small family general store firm in the belief that the “Lord will provide.” Her example of working ceaselessly to support herself and his nine younger siblings strongly influenced Smiles’s future life.
In 1837, he wrote articles for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the Leeds Times, campaigning for parliamentary reform. In November 1838, Smiles was invited to become the editor of the Leeds Times, a position he filled until 1842. In May 1840, Smiles became secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organization that held to the six objectives of Chartism: universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; equal-sized electoral districts; voting by secret ballot; an end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MPs; and annual Parliaments.
As editor of the Leeds Times, he advocated radical causes ranging from women’s suffrage to free trade and parliamentary reform. By the late 1840s, however, Smiles became concerned about the recommendation of physical force by Chartists Feargus O’Connor and George Julian Harney, although he seems to have agreed with them that the movement’s current tactics were not effective, saying that “mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society.” In 1845, he left the Leeds Times and became a secretary for the newly formed Leeds & Thirsk Railway. After nine years, he worked for the South Eastern Railway.
In the 1850s, Smiles abandoned his interest in parliament and decided that self-help was the most important avenue to reform in society. In 1859, he published Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. The origins of Self-Help lay in a speech he gave in March 1845 in response to a request by a Mutual Improvement Society, published as, The Education of the Working Classes. In it Smiles said:
I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses … Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.
The newly founded Routledge publishing house rejected publishing Self-Help in 1855. Twenty years later Smiles was seated next to George Routledge at a dinner, and he said to him, “And when, Dr. Smiles, are we to have the honour of publishing one of your books?” Smiles replied that Mr. Routledge already had the honor of rejecting Self-Help. Although John Murray was willing to publish Self-Help on a half-profits system, but Smiles rejected the offer. In 1859, he self-published the book, retaining the copyright, while he paid John Murray a ten percent commission, for distribution, I presume. It sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles’s death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million copies. Self-Help brought almost instant celebrity status and he became a much-consulted pundit. He was also deluged with requests to lay foundation stones, sit for his portrait, present prizes to orphan children, make speeches, and so forth, but he declined them all.
Smiles wrote articles for the Quarterly. In an article on railways, he argued that the railways should be nationalized and that third-class passengers should be encouraged. In 1861 Smiles published an article from the Quarterly, renamed Workers Earnings, Savings, and Strikes. He claimed poverty in many instances was caused by habitual imprudence:
Times of great prosperity, in which wages are highest and mills running full time are not times in which Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools flourish, but times in which publicans and beer sellers prosper and grow rich … A workman earning 50s. to 60s. a week (above the average pay of bankers’ clerks) was content to inhabit a miserable one-roomed dwelling in a bad neighbourhood, the one room serving as parlour, kitchen, and sleeping-room for the whole family, which consisted of husband, wife, four sons, two cats, and a dog. The witness was asked: Do you think this family was unable to get better lodgings, or were they careless? They were careless, was the reply.
In 1866, Smiles became president of the National Provident Institution, but left in 1871, after suffering a debilitating stroke. He recovered from the stroke, eventually having to learn to read and write again. In 1875, his book Thrift was published. In it, he said that “riches do not constitute any claim to distinction. It is only the vulgar who admire riches as riches.” He claimed that the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was “one of the most valuable that has been placed on the statute-book in modern times.” He also criticized Victorian laissez-faire:
When typhus or cholera breaks out, they tell us that Nobody is to blame. That terrible Nobody! How much he has to answer for. More mischief is done by Nobody than by all the world besides. Nobody adulterates our food. Nobody poisons us with bad drink. Nobody supplies us with foul water. Nobody spreads fever in blind alleys and unswept lanes. Nobody leaves towns undrained. Nobody fills gaols, penitentiaries, and convict stations. Nobody makes poachers, thieves, and drunkards. Nobody has a theory too—a dreadful theory. It is embodied in two words—Laissez faire—Let alone. When people are poisoned by plaster of Paris mixed with flour, “Let alone” is the remedy. When Cocculus indicus is used instead of hops, and men die prematurely, it is easy to say, “Nobody did it.” Let those who can, find out when they are cheated: Caveat emptor. When people live in foul dwellings, let them alone. Let wretchedness do its work; do not interfere with death.
In 1877, the letters young Smiles wrote home during his teenage sea voyage and the log he kept of his journey to Australia and America between February 1869 and March 1871 were published in London in book form, under the title A Boy’s Voyage Round the World.
In 1881 he claimed that,
Labour is toilsome and its gains are slow. Some people determine to live by the labour of others, and from the moment they arrive at that decision, become the enemies of society. It is not often that distress drives men to crime. In nine cases out of ten, it is choice not necessity. Moral cowardice is exhibited as much in public as in private life. Snobbism is not confined to toadying of the rich, but is quite as often displayed in the toadying of the poor… Now that the “masses” exercise political power, there is a growing tendency to fawn upon them, flatter them, speak nothing but smooth words to them. They are credited with virtues they themselves know they do not possess. To win their favour sympathy is often pretended for views, the carrying out of which is known to be hopeless. The popular agitator must please whom he addresses, and it is always highly gratifying to our self-love to be told that someone else is to blame for what we suffer. So it rarely occurs to these orators to suggest that those whom they address are themselves to blame for what they suffer, or that they misuse the means of happiness which are within their reach … The capitalist is merely a man who does not spend all that is earned by work.
Karl Marx he was not. The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the rise of New Liberalism, Keynesian economics, and socialism, all of which viewed thrift unfavorably. The New Liberal economists, J. A. Hobson and A. F. Mummery in their Physiology of Industry (1889), claimed that saving resulted in the underemployment of capital and labor during trade depressions. Over time Smiles fell out of vogue and now he is mostly seen as a Victorian curiosity although some of his ideals are still valuable. Certainly the self-help movement is alive and well.
On 16 April 1904, Samuel Smiles died in Kensington in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery. Shortly before his death, he was reportedly offered a knighthood, which he declined to accept.
Mrs Beeton sounds almost like Smiles in the following passage, down to vaunting the Scots over the English for their legendary thrift. If you are not a Brit you probably don’t know that the English make fun of the Scots for their frugality.
- IT HAS BEEN ASSERTED, that English cookery is, nationally speaking, far from being the best in the world. More than this, we have been frequently told by brilliant foreign writers, half philosophers, half chefs, that we are the worst cooks on the face of the earth, and that the proverb which alludes to the divine origin of food, and the precisely opposite origin of its preparers, is peculiarly applicable to us islanders. Not, however, to the inhabitants of the whole island; for, it is stated in a work which treats of culinary operations, north of the Tweed, that the “broth” of Scotland claims, for excellence and wholesomeness, a very close second place to the bouillon, or common soup of France. “Three hot meals of broth and meat, for about the price of ONE roasting joint,” our Scottish brothers and sisters get, they say; and we hasten to assent to what we think is now a very well-ascertained fact. We are glad to note, however, that soups of vegetables, fish, meat, and game, are now very frequently found in the homes of the English middle classes, as well as in the mansions of the wealthier and more aristocratic; and we take this to be one evidence, that we are on the right road to an improvement in our system of cookery. One great cause of many of the spoilt dishes and badly-cooked meats which are brought to our tables, arises, we think, and most will agree with us, from a non-acquaintance with “common, every-day things.” Entertaining this view, we intend to preface the chapters of this work with a simple scientific résumé of all those causes and circumstances which relate to the food we have to prepare, and the theory and chemistry of the various culinary operations. Accordingly, this is the proper place to treat of the quality of the flesh of animals, and describe some of the circumstances which influence it for good or bad. We will, therefore, commence with the circumstance of age, and examine how far this affects the quality of meat.
I’ve picked rumbledethumps as the dish to honor Smiles, partly because it’s Scottish, partly because it is a thrifty dish, and partly because I love the name. Rumbledethumps is a traditional dish from the Scottish Borders. The main ingredients are potato, cabbage and onion. It is similar to Irish colcannon, and English bubble and squeak, either served as an accompaniment to a main dish or as a main dish itself. I’ll also follow Smiles in recommending that you employ a little ingenuity in working out how to make rumbledethumps. You don’t need a recipe, just the idea (and I’ll give you a photo too).
Begin by shredding some cabbage and slicing an onion. Also boil some potatoes. Fry the onions and cabbage in butter until they are soft. Mash the potatoes with a little butter plus salt and pepper to taste. Combine all three well and place in a baking dish. Covered with shredded melting cheese of your choice, and bake in a hot oven until the top is golden and bubbly.