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The great-great-grandfather of Bear Grylls, Samuel Smiles: Wrote the first self-help book

Ian Harvey

Writing a self-help book isn’t something everyone can do the right way, especially if the writer has a larger perspective and different opinion than many others, including the government of one state.

According to psychology, people who tend to give advice and help others, are the ones who need the same advice and help. However, Samuel Smiles wasn’t one of those people, but wrote the first significant self-help book in 1859, encompassing the poverty caused by irresponsible habits of society.

Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid

Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid

He promoted thrift and attacked the materialism and laisse-fair government in the self-help book or often referred as ‘The Bible of mid-Victorian liberalism’. Thanks to this book, Samuel gained fame practically overnight.

Born in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, Smiles was a writer and government reformer who campaigned on a Chartist platform. He was one of eleven surviving children to Janet Wilson and Samuel Smiles and was named after his father. Smiles dropped out of school at the age of 14 and apprenticed to be a doctor under Dr. Robert Lewins. This enabled him to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1829.

However, his interest and passion for politics influenced his career as he became a strong supporter of Joseph Hume, a Scottish doctor and Radical Member of Parliament. At the time, Smiles was diagnosed with a lung disease and his father advised him to take a vacation to fight his battle with the disease in some peaceful place, but he refused.

Joseph Hume, 1854

Joseph Hume, 1854

His father died from cholera in 1832, which forced Smiles to quit studying in order to help and support his mother at home. Running a small family business, she believed that ‘The Lord will provide’ and take care of her family; these beliefs influenced Samuel’s future life, although he later developed a more advanced perspective of life.

With realizing that new attitudes will bring more changes and bigger progress than new laws, he came up with writing the self-help book, trying to impact the working class of Scotland.

The origins of the book that remains as one of his most influential works, lay in the speech Smiles held in March 1845, published as The Education of the Working Classes by the Mutual Improvement Society.

In the speech, Smiles explains how knowledge is one of the highest enjoyments of life, and that every human has its own mission and destiny to accomplish.

Samuel Smiles, by Sir George Reid, 1891

Samuel Smiles, by Sir George Reid, 1891

Smiles wrote many works during his lifetime, among which were the campaign parliamentary reform articles for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, and the Leeds Times in 1837.

A year after he wrote the articles, the Leeds Times invited him to become their editor. Smiles accepted the offer and kept his position until 1842.

Two years before he left the position, Smiled became secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organization covering six objectives of Chartism. Those six objectives were: equal-sized electoral districts; an end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; universal suffrage for all males older than 21; annual Parliaments; pay for MPs; and voting by secret ballot.

A year after he quit his editor position at the Leeds Times, he married one of his co-workers, Sarah Ann Holmes Dixon on 7 December 1843, with whom he had three daughters and two sons later.

In 1845, Smiles became a secretary for the freshly formed Leeds and Thirsk Railway, where he worked for almost 9 years. Five years after, Smiles lost interest in parliament and politics but revived his interest in self-help books.

He published ”Self-Help with Illustrations of Character and Conduct” in 1859 and became president of the National Provident Institution in 1866.

He quit his presidency in 1871 after surviving a stroke that forced him to start learning to read and write again.

Photograph of Samuel Smiles the author, the frontispiece of The Autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LLD

Photograph of Samuel Smiles the author, the frontispiece of The Autobiography of Samuel Smiles, LLD

 

Bear Grylls in front of an Alaska Air National Guard, 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter before heading out to Spencer Glacier to film Man vs. Wild (Born Survivor)

Bear Grylls in front of an Alaska Air National Guard, 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter before heading out to Spencer Glacier to film Man vs. Wild (Born Survivor)

However, no disease or ill health could stop Smiles from achieving his goals. In 1875, he published another book entitled Thrift, in which he explained that it’s only the vulgar who admire riches as reaches. Samuel Smiles passed away on 16 April 1902 in Kensington, London at the age of 91.

Read another story from us: Carl Jung’s “Red Book” was published in 2008, almost 50 years after his death: it explores his own psychotic experiences and the darkest depths of the unconscious

He was buried in Brompton Cemetery and remains as the great-great-grandfather of the well-known adventurer, Bear Grylls. For those interested in his work, copies of his writings can be found in the East Lothian Council.