Samuel Smiles, the eldest of eleven children, was born on 23rd December, 1812. Samuel's parents ran a small general store in Haddington in Scotland. After attending the local school he left at fourteen and joined Dr. Robert Lewins as an apprentice.
After making good progress with Dr. Lewins, Smiles went to Edinburgh University in 1829 to study medicine. While in Edinburgh, Smiles became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform. During this period he had several articles on the subject published by the progressive Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle.
Smiles graduated in 1832 and found work as a doctor in Haddington. Smiles continued to take a close interest in politics and became a strong supporter of Joseph Hume, the Scottish radical politician from Montrose. Hume, like Smiles, had trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University.
In 1837 Samuel Smiles began contributing articles on parliamentary reform for theLeeds Times. The following year he was invited to become the newspaper's editor. Smiles decided to abandon his career as a doctor and to become a full-time worker for the cause of political change. In the Leeds Times Smiles expressed his powerful dislike of the aristocracy and made attempts to unite working and middle class reformers. Smiles also employed his newspaper in the campaign in favour of factory legislation.
In May 1840 Smiles became Secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organisation that believed in household suffrage, the secret ballot, equal representation, short parliaments and the abolition of the property qualification for parliamentary candidates.
In the 1840s Smiles became disillusioned with Chartism. Although Smiles still supported the six points of the Charter, he was worried by the growing influence of Feargus O'Connor, George Julian Harney and the other advocates of Physical Force. Smiles now argued that "mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society." Smiles stressed the importance of "individual reform" and promoted the idea of "self-help".
Samuel Smiles began to take a close interest in the ideas of Robert Owen. He contributed articles to Owen's journal, The Union. Smiles also helped the co-operative movement in Leeds. This included the Leeds Mutual Society and the Leeds Redemption Society.
In 1845 Samuel Smiles left the Leeds Times and became secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway. After nine years with the Leeds and Thirsk Railway he took up a similar post with the South-Eastern Railway.
In the 1850s Samuel Smiles completely abandoned his interest in parliamentary reform. Smiles now argued that self-help provided the best route to success. His book Self-Help, which preached industry, thrift and self-improvement was published in 1859. Smiles also wrote a series of biographies of men who had achieved success through hard-work. This included George Stephenson (1875), Lives of the Engineers (1861) and Josiah Wedgwood (1894).
Samuel Smiles died on 16th April, 1904.