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William Henry Smith 

In office
14 January 1887 – 6 October 1891
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister The Marquess of Salisbury
Preceded by The Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded by Arthur Balfour

In office
14 January 1887 – 6 October 1891
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister The Marquess of Salisbury
Preceded by Lord Randolph Churchill
Succeeded by Arthur Balfour

Born 24 June 1825 (1825-06-24)
Died 6 October 1891 (1891-10-07)
Nationality British
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Emily Danvers
Alma mater None

William Henry Smith PC (24 June 1825 – 6 October 1891) was an English bookseller and newsagent of the family firm W H Smith, who expanded the firm and introduced the practice of selling books and newspapers at railway stations. He was elected a Member of Parliament in 1868 and rose to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty less than ten years thereafter. Because of his lack of military experience, he was perceived as a model for the character Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore. In the mid-1880s, he was twice Secretary of State for War, and later First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, among other posts.


Background and business career

Smith was born in London, the son of William Henry Smith (1792-1865). He was educated at Tavistock Grammar School before joining the business with his father in 1846. As a result of his involvement, the business became a household name (W H Smith), and the practice of selling books and newspapers at railway stations began.

Political career

In 1868, Smith was elected Member of Parliament for Westminster as a Conservative after an initial attempt to get into Parliament as a "Liberal Conservative" in 1865 as a supporter of Palmerston . In 1874 Smith was appointed Financial Secretary to the Treasury when Disraeli returned as Prime Minister. In 1877 he became First Lord of the Admiralty. The appointment of a man with no naval or military experience to govern the Royal Navy was satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in the character of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, in their 1878 comic opera, H. M. S. Pinafore). W. S. Gilbert's Pinafore lyrics are scathing:

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

Smith would be known by the derisive nickname "Pinafore Smith" during his three years in the post of First Lord. Smith held this office for three years until the Liberals returned to power.

In 1885 a redistribution of seats led to Smith now standing for the Strand division in Westminster, and served as Chief Secretary for Ireland for a short period in the following year. He was twice Secretary of State for War, the first time during Lord Salisbury's brief ministry between 1885 and 1886, and the second when the Conservatives won the 1886 General Election. He succeeded this appointment in 1887 as First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, and became Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1891, dying shortly afterwards at Walmer Castle. His widow was created Viscountess Hambleden, taking the title from the village close to the Smiths' country house of Greenlands, near Henley-on-Thames. One of the few ministers personally close to Lord Salisbury (apart from the latter's nephew Arthur Balfour), Smith was dubbed "Old Morality" due to his austere manner and conduct.

He was described by Henry Stratford Caldecott in an 1895 Johannesburg lecture as "[t]he doyen... of living English critics" in the matter of the Baconian theory. It was Smith's famous letter to Lord Ellesmere in 1857 which, after its subsequent publication as a small volume entitled Bacon and Shakespere: An Inquiry Touching Players, Play-Houses, and Play-writers in the Days of Elizabeth, gave the propagation of the theory its impetus.[1]


A Long Distance Swim
W.H. Smith: "Hooray - another stroke or two and we've done it."
Cartoon satirising Smith as rowing and Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister, swimming towards the end of the Parliamentary year to escape the twin waves of Free Education and Land Purchase, contentious issues of the time. Smith died three months after publication of the cartoon.
From Punch, 1891

Smith married Emily, daughter of Frederick Dawes Danvers, in 1858. They had two sons and four daughters (of whom one son died as an infant). He died in October 1891, aged 66. The following month his widow was raised to the peerage in his honour as Viscountess Hambleden, of Hambleden in the County of Buckingham. She died in August 1913 and was succeeded by her and Smith's only surviving son, Frederick.



  1. ^ Caldecott: Our English Homer, p. 6.
Pinafore did not begin the mockery of Smith: This Punch cartoon is from 13 October 1877, months before the premiere of Pinafore.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Stuart Mill
Member of Parliament for Westminster
Succeeded by
William Burdett-Coutts
Preceded by
(new constituency)
Member of Parliament for Strand
Succeeded by
Frederick Smith
Political offices
Preceded by
George Ward Hunt
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
The Earl of Northbrook
Preceded by
The Marquess of Hartington
Secretary of State for War
Succeeded by
The Viscount Cranbrook
Preceded by
Sir William Hart Dyke, Bt
Chief Secretary for Ireland
Succeeded by
John Morley
Preceded by
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Secretary of State for War
Succeeded by
Hon. Edward Stanhope
Preceded by
The Marquess of Salisbury
First Lord of the Treasury
1887 – 1891
Succeeded by
Arthur Balfour
Preceded by
Lord Randolph Churchill
Leader of the House of Commons
1887 – 1891
Conservative Leader in the Commons
1887 – 1891
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Earl Granville
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports
Succeeded by
The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava


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