Samuel Smiles was born on 23rd December 1812 in Haddington, Scotland, the first of eleven children. His parents kept a general store there. Leaving school at 14 he became an apprentice with Dr Robert Lewins before going on to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 1829. While there he contributed several articles on parliamentary reform to the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle. He returned to Haddington to practice medicine but continued to write about parliamentary reform for the Leeds Times. He was eventually asked to become editor of that journal in 1838, remaining in post until 1845. In 1840 he was made secretary of the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, a Chartist organisation. By the end of the decade however he was disillusioned with the organisation, some of its leaders advocating the use of physical force to achieve its ends. He became instead an exponent of self help as the means by which individuals could escape the oppression of the industrial age and it is for his writings on self help, and his biographies of industrialists and engineers, as examples of achievement through self help, that he is remembered.
His works on self help were; Self Help (1859), Character (1871), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880), Life and Labour (1887).
His biographies include; The Life of George Stephenson (1857), The Lives of Engineers (1862), Industrial Biography (1863), Boulton and Watt (1865), Men of Invention and Industry (1884).
A criticism of the biographies is that Smiles is selective in the material he includes, so as to support his self help thesis, and his work has become identified as an exposition of “Victorian values.” Indeed he was criticised by socialists in his own time for eschewing the notion of collective responsibility and action. The chapters on Dud Dudley and Andrew Yarranton from his Industrial Biography, which would be of particular interest to Black Country readers, were published as a Black Country Classic under the title Industrial Biography – The Black Country Chapters in 2007.