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Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) Biography

Early Life

Samuel Smiles was born on December 23, 1812, in Haddington, Berwickshire, and died on April 16, 1904, in London. He was one of the 11 children of his father, who died in 1832, which instilled within him, the attitude of self-reliance.

He was in medicine at Edinburgh in 1832, a post he soon abandoned for a career in journalism, for which he moved to Leeds, where he engaged in editing the Leeds Times. He was at that post until 1845 and utilized the same in order to promote parliamentary reform, women’s suffrage, and free trade.

He left the Leeds Times in 1845 and became a Secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway. He was a staunch supporter of material progress based on free trade and individual enterprise. He worked in the railway administration from 1845-1866, wherein, in 1857 he published a life of George Stephenson, the inventor of the railways.

He also influenced Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, by his book: Self Help. There exists a copy of the book under a glass display at the museum on Sakichi Toyoda’s birth site.

According to Samuel Smiles who is responsible for widespread poverty in England?

His magnum opus Self-Help (1859), claimed that poverty was caused by irresponsible people and methodology, while also offering criticism on materialism and laissez-faire government He was against this economic system and supported the new enactment passed in the UK at the time, namely the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.

He also offered criticisms for the rich class, often writing quotes about how riches do not make the man and claimed that poverty is caused by bad habits, above all. His views on poverty and the rich class are represented in ‘Thrift” his book published in 1875.

List of Famous Works of Samuel Smiles

He published his first book in 1857, which was The Life of George Stephenson. This book was among the 20 biographical that works he published, the final one of which was his autobiography, which was published in 1905.

He was also fascinated with the works and accomplishments of engineers of the era, thus, Smiles published ‘Life of George Stephenson’ in 1857.  This increased his interest in engineering therefore, bega Smiles started working on biographies of all noteworthy engineers of Britain, of that era.

Thus he wrote about the lives of engineers. He published three volumes between 1861 and 1862, which contained detailed depictions of the educations, and works of seven of the most accomplished and successful engineers of Britain.

Samuel Smiles was an author best known for his most famous work Self-Help which came in 1859, and entrenched values associated with “gospel of work.” with its successors, Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880),

He also wrote Illustrations of Character and Conduct, which was written as the result of a series of lectures on self-improvement given in Leeds. He sold around 250,000 copies by the end of the century. His other works are Character (1872), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880), and Life and Labour (1887).

He used an individual’s lives as an example to impart the knowledge of self-work, perseverance, and self-control.


Self-Help was Smiles’ most popular book. Herein, he holds knowledge as one of the highest human pleasures and education as the path along which knowledge is acquired. He holds that in case of lack of providing education, a man is bestowed a duty to educate himself.

The book was published privateSamuel Smilesly at Smiles’s own expense. It was an unexpected hit and made Smiles into a preacher in education and business. His views on social mobility affected the business class, as it introduced the notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

The book was valued to such an extent that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to give Self-Help as a gift to every schoolchild in Britain.

Smiles became President of the National Provident Institution in 1866, but left in 1871 after suffering a serious stroke, and passing away died in 1904.


He was well known was his wise and educational quotes, most of which were from “Self-Help”. Some of these are:

  • “Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
    Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
    Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
    Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”

― Samuel Smiles, Happy Homes and the Heart That Make Them

  • A place for everything, and everything in its place.
    • Thrift (1875)
  • Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.
    • Duty: With Illustrations of Courage, Patience, and Endurance (1880)
  • Mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society. There requires a social reform, a domestic reform, an individual reform.
    • As quoted in Samuel Smiles and the Victorian Work Ethic (1987) by Timothy Travers, p. 162

Quotes from “Self-Help”

  • “Heaven helps those who help themselves is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigor and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless. “
  • The greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil is, but he who is in the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice.
  • Nothing is more common than energy in money-making, quite independent of any higher object than its accumulation. A man who devotes himself to this pursuit, body, and soul, can scarcely fail to become rich. Very little brains will do; spend less than you earn; add guinea to guinea; scrape and save, and the pile of gold will gradually rise.