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Essay: Alight here for station books

W H Smith barged into bookselling 150 years ago, and has since helped shape the modern novel. By Paul Barker
These days you can buy anything at a mainline railway station: knickers, liquor, skin magazines. But in the early days of rail, moral crusaders worried about "cheap French novels of the shadiest kind" being sold on station bookstalls among bottled beer and sweet-jars.

In 1848, that changed. Enter William Henry Smith II, stage right. One hundred and fifty years ago last week, a bookstall owner licensed by the London and North Western Railway - name of Gibbs - was thrown off Euston station. New men moved in. Thus was born the first WH Smith railway bookstall.

Smith always combined fierce business dealings with high-mindedness. No more naughty French novels, but also lots of profit. His father, William Henry Smith I, had already pioneered faster newspaper distribution, switching from horse-drawn coaches to rail. Smith wanted to make his name in his own right. His first ambition was to be a vicar. His father made him join the firm. Books gave him a chance to show that his mind was on higher things. He also realised what a delectably captive audience travellers were.

In the 1960s, Private Eye began calling the firm "WH Smug," after it refused to distribute the newly launched magazine. But William Henry junior had begun as the firm meant to go on. Smith's bookshop clean-up act got him the nickname, "North Western Missionary". Later, after he entered Parliament, Punch always called him "Old Morality".

Morality went hand in hand with commerce. The ousting of Mr Gibb at Euston was the upshot of a sharp deal between Smith and Captain Mark Huish, the general manager of the LNWR. Huish's many enemies called him "a monopolistic ogre". Smith got in on the ground floor of a new trade. In 1840, Britain had only 1,331 miles of railway track. Thirty years later it was 15,310. The abolition of stamp duty in 1855 meant that Smith could put cheap newspapers on his stalls as well as books.

Professor Jack Simmons, the railway historian, notes how they strengthened national uniformity. Once Smith expanded into running a subscription library at his station shops, his London-based power became even stronger. (He started up because the established subscription library, Mudie's, wanted too high a fee). Wilkie Collins called Smith and Mudie "the twin tyrants of literature".

Smith was the sound of the middle classes arriving at Platform One. Throughout the 19th century, the working man and his family had a tough life. But the middle classes leapt ahead. Smith was a missionary (at the age of 21, he listed 17 items he should always remember in his prayers) but he was a middle-class missionary. When his bookshops were launched, and for many years afterwards, only first and second class passengers had glass in their windows. Third class sat in wind, rain and soot. Railway reading wasn't for them. Thomas Arnold, father of Matthew and headmaster of Rugby, welcomed the railways: "feudality is gone for ever." But classes were, if anything, reinforced.

Smith's influence on English literature was double-edged. On the one hand, he helped in a huge expansion of literacy. (Even the railway companies did their bit. All staff who dealt with the public had to be able to read and write). Smith's hundreds of bookshops literally spread the word. They were part of a broad social movement, which also took in Co-operative Society reading rooms and university extension lectures. Characteristically, when the 1870 Education Act established state schooling, Smith became a member of the first London School Board.

But there is an on-the-other hand. In a study of Victorian novelists, John Sutherland says that sales through WH Smith "meant golden days for fiction". But Smith and Mudie, between them, helped to neuter the novel sexually. Smith played even safer than Mudie. His first coup was to buy up the rights to unexceptionable existing novels and have them re-published by Chapman & Hall in a bright binding as "yellow-jackets" for sale in his railway shops. (In the 20th century, Victor Gollancz borrowed the same shrieking livery). Mudie stuck with the good, old-fashioned three- volume novel. Smith pushed writers towards single volumes. They took up less shelf space and were easier to read on a train.

The firm found that censorship often worked the wrong way. (But it never stopped trying). It banned from its shops a radical treatise by Mrs Beeton's husband, Samuel. Result: it sold a quarter of a million in three weeks. It tried to block George Meredith's novel, Esther Waters, about a woman seduced and abandoned. Following the usual rule for censored books, it became a best-seller.

Smith drew many moral lines. The sensationalist Illustrated Police Gazette sold 100,000 copies a week, but none of them through his shops. He was also a strict Sabbatarian and refused to supply Sunday papers. Result: these could press ahead on their own lines. For the most successful, like the News of the World, these were the same lines as the old Gazette - sex and crime. Popular culture rolled away from Smith, like spilled mercury.

He was an odd tycoon. In many ways, he was dullness personified. In newspaper distribution, what you want is absolute reliability. He delivered on this. The firm's Strand despatch room was one of the sights of London. Visitors could marvel at fifteen Daily Telegraphs being folded in a minute, in near-silence, and see special twine being tightened around the packages with a special slipknot.

Smith was one of the "geniuses of distribution" (in one historian's words) who rose during Victorian Britain as heavy industry began to wilt under American and German competition. Others were Jesse Boot and William Lever. Aptly, Smith made handsome extra profits through a contract to cover station walls with posters for patent medicines and soap powders. But in the world of books, Smith "became a synonym for stuffy puritanism, dreary bourgeois respectability, and hypocrisy".

On hypocrisy, consider Smith's election to Parliament. He bought his Westminster seat - and defeated the libertarian philosopher, JS Mill - with a scandalous lubrication of money. He escaped public censure, and kept his seat, only because of his fine "character".

He was a novelty in a Parliament dominated by aristos and their hangers- on. He brought the news that money talked. When he rose to be First Lord of the Admiralty, Queen Victoria worried about the reaction of high-born naval officers to "a man of the Middle Class". He was parodied by WS Gilbert in The Pirates of Penzance as Sir Joseph Porter. "Stick to your desks and never go to sea,/And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee."

Gilbert added a jibe about Sir Joseph's "sisters and his cousins and his aunts". WH Smith was run by family, for family, with the help of the occasional family friend. As the century ended, the firm faced harder times. Railway profits dwindled to vanishing point. The companies wanted more money from the bookshop contracts. WH Smith was forced off most stations, and withdrew into the High Street. (It reappeared between the wars, after the failing railway companies merged into four big cartels). William Henry's son, Freddie, wasn't up to all this. He brought in a rowing chum, CH St John Hornby.

And so it went on. When David Smith retired as chairman in 1975, he was the fifth successive Smith to head the firm. Until 1992, the chairman was Sir Simon Hornby, grandson of CH. Only in the last few years have all the in-laws and cousins left the board.

WH Smith's influence is still immense. The bookshop in London's Victoria station claims it sells more magazines than any other shop in Europe. As a distributor, WH Smith is now all-powerful in Britain, having bought its Scottish rival, John Menzies, earlier this year. When WH Smith started to distribute Private Eye, in the early 1980s, the Eye's sale doubled. But old habits die hard. The Eye's issue of 5 September 1997, with a sarcastic cover about the popular frenzy after Princess Diana's death, was withdrawn from sale in London shops for a while. Minds then changed. But even temporary censorship had the usual effect. Sales of the issue soared.

The firm has been flailing around recently - buying Waterstone's for example, then selling it again. I doubt if anyone goes to WH Smith deliberately: you use the shop if you happen to be near it. The Classic FM jingle still says: "Whatever you're into, get into WH Smith". But the current, non- family chairman has announced that the firm will "restructure" as "a popular specialist". We'll see. I went into their prime-site, newly restructured shop at King's Cross station. It seemed much as before, with Kit-Kats, paperbacks and skin magazines. Loaded, Maxim and Arena showed lots of breast. In one corner, "Erotica" shelves offered something straight (Pleasure's Daughter), something sado-masochistic (The Schooling of Stella) and something gay (Conquistador). I began to sympathise with old William Henry's missionary position.