Born in 1789 to a small landowner and farmer in Morayshire, in the North-East of Scotland, who died young, leaving his family ill provided for, George Smith served an apprenticeship with a bookseller in Elgin, the county capital, before taking the high road south to London. He found employment in the publishing house of Rivington, moving soon after to a better job in that of fellow-Scot John Murray, with whom he remained on friendly terms until the latter’s death in 1843. In 1816, Smith joined with Alexander Elder, another immigrant to London from Scotland’s North-East (Elder was a native of Banff in Aberdeenshire) in setting up a partnership as Smith, Elder & Co., booksellers and stationers, with a small shop in Fenchurch Street. For the first three years the business kept to this original design, selling paper, pens, pencils, ink, account books, and similar stationary items, as well as books, new and used (Fénelon’s Works, MacKenzie’s Works, Burns, Scott, The Beauties of Sterne), journals (the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh Review), and musical scores, especially Scottish airs. An intense and profitable trade was developed with officers in the service of the East India Company and this growing connection contributed significantly to the firm’s financial strength and success over the years. In the words of Smith’s son, George Murray Smith, who took over the leadership of the firm and brought it to prominence, “sixty years ago, the business of Smith, Elder & Co. consisted chiefly of an export trade to India and our colonies. There was also a small publishing business, occasionally involving a certain amount of enterprise” (Lee and Smith, p.71). Or, as a more recent historian of the company explained, “For half of its existence,” publishing “was but one department of a vast business, one enterprise among the many which were directed by the same head.” Smith, Elder & Co were “East India agents, bankers, and publishers” (Huxley, p. 1; Lee and Smith, pp. 5-6, 25-26). There was certainly no reason in 1816 to anticipate that a relatively poor lad from Morayshire and his slightly less impecunious friend from Banff would turn out to have founded a business that did as much as Smith, Elder was to do to promote English literature in the nineteenth century.

Three years after setting up their stationary business the partners added publishing to their other activities -- in a still modest way -- when they put out Sermons and Expositions on Interesting Portions of Scripture by John Morison, a Congregational minister (1819). Five years after that, in 1824, the firm having acquired a third partner, one Patrick Stewart, and renamed itself Smith, Elder and Company, and a son, George Murray Smith, having been born to George Smith, the Smith family and the business moved to more commodious quarters at 65 Cornhill. As gift books or keepsakes were popular with well-to-do readers in the 1820s and 1830s, the new company made the decision in 1828 to take over production of Friendship’s Offering, a fashionable and elaborately illustrated annual gift book, first published in 1824 by a neighboring publisher, Lupton Relfe, of 13 Cornhill. This venture proved extremely successful. Featuring poetry and prose by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the so-called “peasant poet” John Clare, James Hogg (“The Ettrick Shepherd”), John Ruskin (his first publication), and Robert Southey, it sold between eight and ten thousand copies annually over the years from 1828 to 1844, despite its relatively high price of twelve shillings. The firm also published a couple of expensive books of illustrations — Views of Calcutta, engraved by Robert Havell (1824-26) and Richard Thomson’s Chronicles of London Bridge (1827), made up of 56 wood engravings — the former at the extremely high price of 16 guineas and the latter at a still fairly steep 28 shillings. In 1826 A New Greek and English Lexikon was published jointly with Chalmers and Collins of Glasgow and won favor as a useful and reliable work of reference. In contrast, a “Library of Romance,” launched in 1833 and intended to be a series of novels, each one presented in a single volume, at the relatively modest price of six shillings, as distinct from the customary practice of three-volume novels, was a failure and had to be discontinued. Only fifteen volumes were published, most by little known authors, with the exception of Victor Hugo (The Slave King, a translation of his Bug Jargal), and John Galt (The Stolen Child) (Huxley, pp. 16-17; Chittick, p. 67).

The first major original publication of Smith, Elder and Company came a decade later, thanks to Smith’s son, George Murray Smith, who had joined the firm in 1838, at the age of fourteen, and worked his way up in it until, at nineteen, he was made head of the still very modest publishing department and given £1500 to use at his discretion. A 30-year relationship – more than that, a close friendship -- with Ruskin began when George Murray Smith agreed to publish the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, after Ruskin’s father undertook to compensate the firm for any financial loss. This was followed by the second volume in 1846 and the third and fourth volumes in 1853 and 1856; by The Seven Lamps of Architecture (complete text) in 1849; the three volumes of The Stones of Venice in 1851 and 1853; the provocative essay volume Unto this Last (originally a series of articles published in 1860 in Smith and Elder’s Cornhill Magazine) in 1862; and Fors Clavigera in 1871. Between 1843 and 1872 Smith, Elder put out forty volumes by Ruskin (Lee and Smith, pp. 26-27, 51).

The year 1844, saw the publication of Leigh Hunt’s Imagination and Fancy; or, Selections from the English Poets with an Essay in Answer to the Question What is Poetry. Three years later a significant new presence entered George Murray Smith’s life and career as a publisher. After turning down, as several other publishers had already done, Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, Smith — by now, at age twenty-two, following the death of his father, the retirement of Alexander Elder, and the withdrawal of the third partner, the single head of the firm -- accepted the manuscript of Jane Eyre, which Brontë submitted to the company because of the “courteous” and “considerate” rejection letter she had received for The Professor, and which Smith spent one entire Sunday reading without being able to “put the book down” (Lee and Smith, p. 88). He succeeded in bringing the novel out, under the pseudonym, on which Brontë insisted, of Currer Bell, in only six weeks, in time for the 1847 Christmas trade. Jane Eyre was followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853. In 1857, two years after Brontë’s death, Smith and Elder published The Professor. In addition, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (pseudonyms of the three Brontë sisters), originally published privately in 1846, was republished by Smith, Elder & Co. in 1850. Almost from the start the relationship between publisher and author, George Murray Smith and Charlotte Brontë, was an intensely personal one, with affection and admiration on both sides, and much time spent in each other’s company (Lee and Smith, pp. 19-22, 82-105; Wise and Symington, II, ch. XVI, pp. 139-256). In June 1850, when Brontë was visiting Smith and his mother, then living at Gloucester Terrace in the West End of London, Smith persuaded the writer to sit for a portrait by the fashionable artist George Richmond and sent the finished painting as a gift to her father (Lee and Smith, p. 103).

After Brontë’s death, for a fee of £600 (raised subsequently to £800), Smith commissioned Mrs. Gaskell, the admired author of the highly successful novel Mary Barton (1848), to write a Life of Charlotte Brontë, which came out in 1857. Mrs. Gaskell then switched from her previous publisher, Chapman and Hall -- who had paid her £100 for the copyright of Mary Barton and, following the popular and critical success of that first novel, had also published North and South (1854-55) and Round the Sofa (1859) -- to Smith, Elder & Co. Sylvia’s Lovers was published in 1863, A Dark Night’s Work also in 1863, Cousin Phillis in 1864, and Wives and Daughters in 1865. Both the Brontë novels and those of Elizabeth Gaskell went through many editions.

George Murray Smith also managed to draw Robert Browning, William Makepeace Thackeray, and, for a brief period, Anthony Trollope from Chapman and Hall to the house of Smith, Elder and Company. All three became his friends as well as his authors and the first two benefited considerably from the change (on Browning, see Waugh, pp. 78-79, Lee and Smith, pp. 49-50; on Thackeray, Waugh pp. 70-73, 92, Lee and Smith, pp. 21-23, 28-35; on Trollope, Waugh, pp. 89-95; Lee and Smith, pp. 32-33). Smith’s publication of Browning’s The Ring and the Book in 1868, it has been said, with a second edition in 1869, transformed a hitherto neglected poet who had not been well treated by his previous publisher, into “a star of the first magnitude” (Huxley, p. 156). Fifteen further volumes of work by Browning were put out by Smith between 1871 and the poet’s death in 1889, with a collected edition in seventeen volumes in 1888.

In 1859, Smith decided to start a monthly literary magazine, to be called The Cornhill (after the firm’s address), and persuaded Thackeray to provide a serialized novel for it. After his first attempts to find an editor for the new venture were unsuccessful, Smith asked Thackeray, whose The Kickleburys on the Rhine, Henry Esmond, English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, and The Rose and the Ring he had published in 1850, 1852, 1853 and 1855 respectively, if he would take on the job himself and Thackeray agreed to do so, provided his responsibility was limited to the editorial side of the magazine and did not extend to the business side. Smith was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that “a shilling magazine which contained, in addition to other first-class literary matter, a serial novel by Thackeray must command a large sale.” In addition, he had resolved to recruit “the most brilliant contributors from every quarter” and, buoyed by his lucrative India trade, to offer them lavish payments. As he himself recalled, “No pains and no cost were spared to make the new magazine the best periodical yet known to English literature. Our terms were lavish to the point of recklessness” (Lee and Smith, p. 108). Thackeray’s salary as editor, for instance, was to be £1,000 a year, while for rights to his own contributions of one or two novels in twelve monthly installments and their subsequent publication in separate volumes he was to receive £350 each month (Lee and Smith, pp.106-108). For the first year’s issues of the magazine, Thackeray as editor commissioned Trollope to write the second serial to accompany his own. The first volume of The Cornhill (six handsomely illustrated issues from January to June 1860) thus contained both Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, for which he was paid £1,000 – twice as much as he had ever received previously -- and Thackeray’s own Lovel the Widower (published by Smith, Elder & Co. in book form the following year), as well as essays by Thackeray and, among others, George Henry Lewes, the companion of George Eliot. Many stories and essays were unsigned, and that policy continued into the 1890s. As the historian of the company notes, anonymity was usual, except for eminent poets or deceased authors, such as the Brontës (Huxley, pp. 110-11). Even Trollope’s serial in the early issues was anonymous, his name appearing only in the last instalment (1864). Thackeray also wrote The Adventures of Philip and The Roundabout Papers for early issues of the new magazine. Though Chapman & Hall did not lose him completely, it was his being published in the Cornhill that raised Thackeray’s literary reputation and his earning power, and he remained in his editorial position for another two years, until 1862 (Waugh, pp. 92-93).

The first issue of the magazine was a phenomenal success. “Some 120,000 copies were sold,” according to Smith himself, “a number then without precedent in English serial literature” (Lee and Smith, p. 113; Huxley, p. 99). In addition to the novels of Trollope and Thackeray, the first year saw the appearance of Ruskin’s Unto this Last, the opening chapters of Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished novel Emma, with an introduction by Thackeray, and poems by Matthew Arnold (“Men of Genius”), Charlotte Brontë (“Watching and Wishing”), Emily Brontë (“The Outcast Mother,” published posthumously), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“A Musical Instrument” and “A Forced Recruit at Solferino”), Washington Irving (“Written in the Deepdene Album”), and Tennyson (“Tithonus”). Like Murray and Strahan before him, Smith was deeply involved personally with his authors. As already noted, Charlotte Brontë became a close friend and frequent visitor to the home of Smith and his mother. Smith in turn was a frequent guest at the homes of the Ruskins, both father and son, and they were likewise guests of his. Browning and Smith were on intimate terms and on his deathbed Browning bade his son seek George Smith’s advice whenever he had need of good counsel. Smith superintended the arrangements for Browning’s funeral in Westminster Abbey on December 31, 1889 and served as one of the deceased poet’s pallbearers. (Lee and Smith, p. 50)

In the first year of the twentieth century, shortly before his own death, Smith recalled with obvious pleasure how “we lightened our labours in the service of the Cornhill by monthly dinners. The principal contributors used to assemble at my table in Gloucester Square every month . . . and these ‘Cornhill dinners’ were very delightful and interesting. Thackeray always attended, though he was often in an indifferent state of health” (Lee and Smith, p. 119; Huxley, pp. 46-81, 104, 157). In 1863, the hospitality Smith offered his authors and collaborators took a new form. Having acquired a house in Hampstead called Oak Hill Lodge, where he spent the summers, he and Mrs. Smith issued a general invitation to their literary friends to dine at Hampstead on any Friday they chose without giving notice. The number of guests varied, reaching as many as forty. Among the most regular were Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, the painter John Everett Millais and the illustrator and caricaturist John Leech. On one occasion the guests included Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. Smith’s warm relationship with his authors is well summarized by Spencer L. Eddy Jr.:

His clients were attracted to his practical attitude, his sound counsel, his consistent generosity, courtesy, and honesty in his dealings with them. It is almost impossible to find an instance when a Smith, Elder writer looked back with anything but affection and respect for his publisher. In the highly competitive London publishing market, Smith was able to secure long-standing loyalties from Charlotte Brontë, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Ruskin, Charles Darwin, the Brownings, Arnold, John Addington Symonds, and others of equal prominence. Beginning his direction of publishing affairs at age nineteen, he became Charlotte Brontë’s publisher at age twenty-four, one of Thackeray’s publishers by the time he was twenty-six, and Mrs. Gaskell’s family friend and adviser before he was thirty. [pp. 2-3]

Within a few years, however, circulation of the Cornhill began to drop. By May 1862, only 60,000 copies were printed, and Thackeray resigned as editor, in part because he was unhappy with Smith’s intrusions into editorial matters (his acceptance, for instance, of novels Thackeray would not have accepted and his habit of often enclosing money in the rejection letters sent to indigent women writers) and disapproved in particular of Smith’s extravagant offer of £10,000 to George Eliot for Romola. (In fact, she received £7,000, but that was still an exceptional sum.) After vainly attempting to replace Thackeray with Robert Browning and Lewes, an editorial committee of three was formed, of which Lewes and Smith himself were stable members. Even though the magazine was now (since 1863) losing money, Smith continued to support it with funds from his other successful businesses (among them Appolinaris, the popular “Queen of Table Waters”!) and it did continue not only to publish old contributors, such as Ruskin, Trollope (The Small House at Allington, 1862-64), Arnold (Anarchy and Authority, 1868), and Thackeray himself (posthumously, in 1864, the uncompleted Denis Duval), but to recruit new novelists and essayists, such as Mrs. Gaskell (Cousin Phillis, 1864, Wives and Daughters, 1864-66), Wilkie Collins (Armadale, 1864-66), and Charles Reade (Put Yourself in His Place, 1870), while also attracting others to the firm’s book publishing business, not least Queen Victoria,, whose Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands was published by Smith, Elder in December 1867 and again, the following year, in a relatively inexpensive popular edition costing two shillings and sixpence. More Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands from 1862 to 1882 followed in 1884.

In 1871, Smith persuaded Leslie Stephen, not yet the father of Virginia Woolf, to take on the editorship of The Cornhill. Under Stephen’s direction, the magazine published Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1871-74), George Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871), Henry JamesDaisy Miller (June and July, 1879) and Washington Square (June to November, 1881), and, at a later stage and under different direction Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company (1891) and Joseph Conrad’s short story “Lagoon” (1897).

Meantime, beginning in the mid-1860s, Smith, Elder opened up another new path in literary publishing with a series of standard novels by contemporary authors such as Thackeray, the Brontës, Wilkie Collins, and Meredith, in a variety of formats at various, but relatively modest prices: an “Illustrated Library” edition in 22 volumes (1867-70), a “Popular” edition in 12 volumes (1872-73), a “De Luxe” edition in 24 volumes (1879), and a “Pocket” edition in 27 volumes (1886-87). The company founded by two lads from the North-East of Scotland was thus a major influence in both the promotion and the dissemination of nineteenth-century English literature.

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900


Chittick, Kathryn. Dickens in the 1830s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Eddy Jr., Spencer L. The Founding of the Cornhill Magazine. Ball State Monographs, No. 19. Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, 1970.

{Huxley, Dr. Leonard]. The House of Smith Elder. London: Printed for Private Circulation, 1923. (The author’s name is mentioned only in an untitled opening note by “IMS,” the widow of the last Murray Smith to direct the firm.)

Lee, Sidney and George Smith. George Smith. A Memoir with Some Pages of Autobiography. (London, 1902, “For private circulation”). Lee, pp. 1-67; Smith, pp. 69-143.

Schmidt, Barbara Quinn, in The British Literary Book Trade 1700-1820. Ed. James K. Bracken and Joel Silver. The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 154. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Waugh, Arthur. A Hundred Years of Publishing, Being the Story of Chapman & Hall, Ltd. London: Chapman & Hall, 1930.

Wise, Thomas James, and John Alexander Symington, eds. The Brontës, Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence in Four Volumes. Shakespeare Head Press, 1931.

Last modified 20 October 2018