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History of WHSmith

Click on the eras below to learn more about the key events in WHSmith's history.

1792 - 1900


  • Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna opened a small newsvendors in Little Grosvenor Street, London. Henry Smith dies a few months later leaving Anna to run the business.
  • Anna Smith goes into partnership with Zaccheus Coates. This lasts until his death in 1812.


  • Anna Smith dies and H W Smith, trading now as newsagents and stationers, is passed to her two sons, Henry Edward and William Henry Smith.


  • William Henry Smith was the more capable businessman of the two brothers and the concern becomes known as WHSmith.


  • The enterprise changes its name to WHSmith & Son when William Henry's son, William Henry also, was taken into partnership on his 21st birthday.


  • WHSmith opens its first bookstall at Euston on 1 November. Other station bookstalls followed, taking advantage of "railway mania" in England. These bookstalls become outlets for cheap editions of other publications which were produced for railway travellers, the popular "yellowbacks".


  • WHSmith & Son, now recognised as the principal newspaper distributor in the country, acquire wholesale distribution warehouses in Dublin, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. A substantial network of newspaper distribution is established across the country.


  • Mr W H Smith I retires and William Henry Smith II succeeds as head of business.


  • WHSmith starts a lending library venture which lasts until 1961, when changing social habits bring it to an end.
  • The firm acquires its own printing works.


  • Mr W H Smith II takes on a partner, barrister William Lethbridge, so he can devote more time to politics.


  • Mr W H Smith II became an MP.


  • Mr W H Smith II retires from active partnership and devotes his time to politics. The Gilbert & Sullivan song with the famous line "now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Nav-ee" from HMS Pinafore was aimed at his appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty.


  • Mr W H Smith II dies. His widow is created Viscountess Hambleden and his eldest son, who became the second Viscount Hambleden in 1913, becomes the head of the business.


  • A superannuation Fund for clerical workers is founded.


  • A Pension Fund for manual workers is introduced.

1901 - 1989


  • First overseas branch opens in Paris.


  • A dispute with the railways over bookstall rents results in contracts for station sites on the Great Western and London and North Western Railways being lost. The firm reacts rapidly by opening shops near stations. In three months, by 1 January 1906, 150 new shops come into being. Shopfitting (Estate) Department established.


  • Publicity Department set up.


  • World War I sees more than 4,000 WHSmith people serving their country. The new Head Office, Strand House in Portugal Street, is used as the Postal Censor's office in 1918.


  • English bookshop opens in Brussels.


  • WHSmith aquires Truslove & Hanson bookshops in London.


  • Second Viscount Hambleden dies and is succeeded as head of the business by his son, the third Viscount. The death duties payable necessitated the formation in 1929 of a private limited liability company in which all the partners became the directors.


  • Bridge House, Lambeth, is purpose-built to house the Bookbinding Works and Stationery Department.


  • World War II - more than 5,000 men and women from WHSmith go into the forces.


  • During the 'blitz' the first travelling bookstall appears to replace bombed-out bookstalls.


  • WHSmith aquires Sherratt & Hughes bookshops.


  • Following the death of the third Viscount Hambleden in 1948, another change in the Company's constitution takes place. As Viscount Hambleden owned all the ordinary shares and the death duties were so heavy, a public holding company was formed to buy up all the share capital of WHSmith & Son Limited. The shares of the holding company are subscribed by the family, staff and public. On 1 September 1949, WHSmith & Son (Holdings) Limited is formed. Its Governing Director, and later first Chairman, was the Hon. David Smith, brother of the third Viscount Hambleden.


  • WHSmith expands into Canada (subsidiary incorporated sale in 1949).


  • WHSmith acquires Bowes & Bowes bookshops.


  • Book Department moves to Bridge House, Lambeth from Strand House, Portugal Street.


  • WHSmith and American publishing firm, Doubleday, establish Book Club Associates, the biggest book club operation in Britain.


  • Centre of book and stationery distribution moves to Swindon from Bridge House, Lambeth.


  • CHW Troughton becomes Chairman, the first head of business from outside the Smith family.


  • First WHSmith Travel Agency opens. Brown and Orange identity developed.


  • Peter Bennett becomes head of business.


  • WHSmith acquires LCP Homecentres, later to become WHSmith Do It All.


  • Simon Hornby becomes Chairman.


  • Cable Services, later to become Television Services Division is established, involving WHSmith in the growing cable and satellite TV industry. Screensport is launched in 1984. Lifestyle is launched in 1985.


  • WHSmith acquires US company Elson's Holding Inc (later to become WHSmith Inc) - a retail business for the travelling public. Over 300 stores and shops in operation.


  • WHSmith acquire Paperchase stationery stores.
  • Hambleden Press, descended in part from the printing works of 1860, is sold to Satellite Press.
  • WHSmith acquire Our Price Music, the recorded music chain.


  • WHSmith dispose of Book Club Associates.
  • Heathcote Books, Britain's biggest distributor of paperback books to the bookselling trade, is established in Warwick by WHSmith.


  • WHSmith, by a programme of targeted acquisitions, establishes an office supplies division, WHSmith Business Supplies. Companies acquired are Pentagon Group, Satex, Sandhurst Marketing, Cartwright Brice, H J Chapman and W H Hayden.
  • The bookshops of Bowes & Bowes, including City Centre Bookshops, Truslove & Hanson and Sherratt & Hughes are extended with the acquisition of a controlling interest in Waterstone's, forming Waterstone's Booksellers Ltd., the largest chain of specialist bookshops in the UK.
  • WHSmith acquire Wee Three, 19 recorded music shops in Pennsylvania, USA.
  • WHSmith dispose of 86.5% shareholding in WHSmith Canada.

1990 - Present


  • The Boards of Boots and WHSmith announce the formation of a joint venture in the UK DIY retail market. The joint venture acquired the Payless (Boots) and Do It All (WHSmith) businesses, to trade under the name Do It All Limited.


  • WHSmith dispose of WHSmith Travel Agencies and Television Services Division.
  • Waterstone's store opens in Boston, USA.


  • WHSmith Group celebrates its Bicentenary.
  • WHSmith Group acquires 50% of Virgin Retail Ltd to operate its chain of 14 megastores and 12 computer games centres.
  • WHSmith Music Inc acquires 59 stores from Record World and 20 stores from National Record Mart.
  • The Wall music retailer is formed.


  • Michael Orr joins the Board as a non-executive director.


  • The businesses of Our Price and Virgin Retail are merged, with WHSmith establishing a 75% share of the business.
  • Jeremy Hardie becomes Chairman.
  • Patrick Lupo joins the Board as a non-executive director.


  • WHSmith take the UK's first secure online order on 27th April. This is recognised as the start of online shopping in the UK by the IMRG. Read more on our blog


  • Bill Cockburn is appointed as Group Chief Executive and starts a major strategic review resulting in the sale of WHSmith Business Supplies to French office supplies company, Guilbert, for £142 million and WHSmith's 50% holding in Do It All to Boots PLC.
  • Paperchase and Heathcote are sold.
  • Hon. Philip Smith stands down from the Board, ending the Smith family involvement with the management of the Company.


  • UK Travel Retail is created as a separate business.
  • Bill Cockburn resigns as Group Chief Executive and Richard Handover is appointed three months later.
  • WHSmith announces plans to focus on a core of integrated businesses comprising; WHSmith High Street, WHSmith Europe and International Travel Retail and WHSmith News. Following this, a demerger of Waterstone's and a divestment of interests in specialist music retailing, namely Virgin Our Price and The Wall is announced.
  • The Wall is sold to Camelot Music Inc for £28m.


  • Waterstone's is sold to a company jointly owned by EMI Group plc and Advent International for £300m.
  • WHSmith's 75% share in Virgin Our Price is sold to Virgin Retail Group Ltd for £145m.
  • WHSmith purchases the John Menzies Retail chain and the leading European internet bookshop,
  • .


  • WHSmith purchases Hodder Headline, a leading UK consumer and educational publisher.
  • WHSmith Online, is launched.
  • John Barton joins the Board as a non-executive director.
  • Jeremy Hardie retires and Martin Taylor is appointed as Chairman.


  • WHSmith acquires Hazelwood Enterprises Inc. for $19m and the Benjamin Company Inc. for $19m.
  • John Warren is appointed Group Finance Director, succeeding Keith Hamill.


  • WHSmith acquires the Blue Star Consumer Retailing Group, the leading bookseller in Australia and New Zealand, for £38m.


  • WHSmith announces the sale of Helicon to RM plc for £0.7m and acquires John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, a leading educational and consumer publishing house founded in 1768.
  • M T Rainey is appointed a non-executive director of the Company.


  • Martin Taylor retires as Chairman of the Group and Richard Handover takes over the role, having been Group Chief Executive since 1997.
  • Kate Swann is appointed as Group Chief Executive.
  • WHSmith announces the sale of its US Airport and Hotel retailing businesses for £41m and £8m respectively.


  • WH Smith receives a preliminary approach from Permira, a venture capitalist group, regarding a possible offer for the Company. The approach is subsequently withdrawn.
  • The sale of WH Smith's ASPAC Retail business to private equity group Pacific Equity Partners is announced.
  • Hodder Headline, WH Smith's publishing business, is sold to Hachette Livre, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lagardère S.C.A. Following the retirement of Richard Handover, Robert Walker is appointed non-executive Chairman of WH Smith PLC.


  • Alan Stewart is appointed Group Finance Director in succession to John Warren who stepped down from the Board on 3 March.
  • Mike Ellis is appointed non-executive director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of the Board on 30 March.
  • Luke Mayhew is appointed non-executive director on 25 July.


  • Demerger of Retail and News Distribution businesses becomes effective with the creation of two separately listed entities - WH Smith PLC (formerly the Retail business) and Smiths News PLC (formerly WHSmith News).
  • WH Smith PLC announces agreements with Moto Hospitality Limited and Swayfield Group to open travel stores in UK motorway service areas.


  • WH Smith PLC announces its intention to open Post Offices in 71 High Street stores following the successful trial of Post Offices in six WHSmith stores in 2006.
  • Travel establishes a strong presence in the motorway service area sector, opening franchise units in 50 Moto and 35 Welcome Break locations.
  • In the annual Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index, WHSmith improves its performance for the fourth successive year, achieving a Gold ranking.



  • WHSmith announces the acquisition of UNS Group Ltd comprising 72 retail units and 8 Caffe Nuovo coffee shops in 62 hospitals. WHSmith also announces a franchise agreement with RoadChef to open Travel units in all 29 RoadChef motorway service areas.
  • WHSmith acquires 23 units in 11 airports from Alpha Retail UK.
  • WHSmith completes the integration of Post Offices into 82 High Street stores. In addition, Bureau de Change units are opened in a further 50 High Street stores.
  • WHSmith acquires 7 High Street stores from Martin McColl.
  • Following the retirement of MT Rainey from the Board in January, Drummond Hall is appointed as a Non-Executive Director.
  • In the annual Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index, WHSmith improves its performance for the fifth successive year, achieving a Platinum ranking.


  • Travel opens 51 units in the year, successfully completing the integration of the acquisitions in 2008 of hospital units from UNS Group Ltd and airport stores from Alpha Retail UK Limited.
  • In the annual Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index, WHSmith retains its platinum ranking.
  • WHSmith named Bookselling Company of the Year and General Retailer of the Year in the Bookseller Retail Awards 2009.


  • Following the retirement of Robert Walker, Walker Boyd is appointed non-executive Chairman of WH Smith PLC.
  • Luke Mayhew, Non-Executive Director, steps down from the Board and Henry Staunton joins the Board as a Non-Executive Director.
  • WHSmith named Children’s Bookseller of the Year in the Bookseller Retail Awards 2010.
  • Richard and Judy Book Club launched exclusively with WHSmith.
  • WHSmith launches eBook apps for the iPad and iPhone.
  • WHSmith acquires the brands Funky Pigeon and The Gadgetshop.


  • WHSmith acquires 22 High Street stores from British Bookshops and Stationers (in Administration).
  • John Barton, Non-Executive Director, retires from the Board and Jeff Harris joins the Board as a Non-Executive Director.
  • Following the success of the Funky Pigeon brand online, WHSmith starts to trial standalone Funky Pigeon stationery stores in high traffic urban locations.
  • WHSmith announces new partnership in the UK and Ireland with Kobo Inc. to sell a range of Kobo eReaders in its stores, including the first touch screen eReader widely available in the UK.
  • In the annual Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index, WHSmith retains its platinum ranking.


  • Following its success in the UK, WHSmith launches Funky Pigeon online in the Irish Republic –
  • WHSmith opens Kobo shop-in-shops within their 100 largest High Street stores
  • WHSmith acquires a café business, ‘Fresh Plus’, consisting of 5 cafés in hospitals in Australia.
  • WHSmith reaches a total of over 100 international units either open or won


  • Stephen Clarke is appointed Chief Executive.
  • Henry Staunton is appointed non-executive Chairman of the Board, and Susan Baxter and Annemarie Durbin join the Board as non-executive directors.
  • A further 19 Post Offices open within WHSmith's High Street stores, giving a total of 103.
  • Trial of WHSmith Local announced as a franchise model for independent newsagents.  


  • WHSmith reaches a milestone with a total of 600 high street stores open.


  • WHSmith launches a book club with Zoe Sugg, more commonly known by her YouTube username, Zoella.


  • WHSmith acquires, a leading online specialist pen retailer with over 18,000 products, complementing WHSmith's existing stationery ranges in both high street stores and online at


  • WHSmith announces the acquisition of InMotion, a pure play travel retailer, marking a significant step in WHSmith’s international travel growth strategy.


  • Carl Cowling is appointed Chief Executive.