Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington in 1812 and a plaque marks his birthplace in the High Street, near the Town House. He died in 1904 and 92 years were little enough for what this tireless toiler achieved.
The family came from Covenanting stock, his great grandfather having been a field preacher in the Cameronian Presbyterian faith. Samuel Smiles senior was a general merchant in Haddington and was father to 11 children. He died in the cholera epidemic of 1832 when young Samuel was 20 years old.
Samuel was educated at a school in St Ann's Place and then at the Burgh School, leaving at 14 to enter an apprenticeship with the medical practice on Lewins and Lorimer. He made time to read books on a wide range of subjects as well as receiving private tuition in French, Latin and Mathematics. When Dr Lewins moved to Leith in 1829 Samuel went with him. He was now able to attend university, earning his diploma in 1832. He then returned to Haddington and opened a pharmacy near the George Hotel.
Samuel Brown was a close friend who was able to explain the theory of the structure of atoms. Smiles must have made an impression on the Brown family circle because Brown's father asked him to deliver a course of twelve lectures on chemistry promoted by the Haddington School of Art. This led to other lecture engagements and it is clear that Smiles was a good communicator.
He took this aptitude a stage further in 1837 by publishing a book, at his own expense, with the title "Physical Education, or the Nurture and Management of Children" which was still in print 68 years later.
Competition in medicine was keen in mid 19th century Haddington and Smiles decided to seek both new pastures and a fresh vocation. His successful book along with some journalism he had tried pointed the way.
Smiles' first appointment was as editor of the Leeds Times. This put him in touch with radical politics; he was involved in the movement for electoral reform and worked to improve the condition of the working class.
From journalism he moved to the developing railway industry in 1845 with the local Leeds and Thirsk company. Nine years later he was appointed secretary of the South Eastern Railway. In the evenings he lectured and wrote on social subjects as well as campaigning for better education and the establishment of public libraries.
The best known of his books was written during this period. "Self Help with Illustrations of Character and Conduct" appeared in 1859 and was an immediate success, selling over 250,000 copies. Its philosophy of learning and hard work leading to self-improvement sums up the author's own experience. No-one could have foreseen that a young Haddington lad, apprenticed to a country doctor, would become secretary to one of the largest railway companies and in his spare time write one of the century's best selling books.
In 1866 he became President of the National Provident Institution but he continued to write, mainly biography as well as his autobiography. He was born at the height of the stagecoach era and died in 1904 - a year after the flight of the first powered aeroplane and on the fringe of atomic power.
Extracted from "Haddington Royal Burgh, A History and a Guide."