Not many businesses can claim to have survived the devastation of two world wars, and we regard this period of our history as one of immeasurable sadness, but also with great pride. As was the case for everyone at the time, WHSmith was deeply affected by the two wars, not least because 4,000 members of our staff joined the forces in WWI, and another 5,000 in WWII. But that wasn’t the only way that we contributed to the war effort. From distributing news and domestic propaganda to giving up our head office, we did everything possible to support our country and its troops. So much so, that we were deemed to be of ‘national importance’ by Neville Chamberlain’s government.
Read on to read some of the most fascinating stories about our company that emerged during those turbulent times…
World War I
The turn of the 20th century had already seen huge changes for WHSmith. Disputes with railway companies led to many contracts not being renewed and WHSmith vacating the bookstalls which we had operated for half a century. As part of development plans to counteract this, 144 new shops were opened in just ten weeks at the end of 1906 in the ‘great upheaval’. Strategically located on streets that approached the train stations, the operation was a success and 90% of customers expressed their intention of dealing with WHSmith as before. These 144 new stores added to the existing 25 highstreet shops, 1,500+ railway stalls (many including lending libraries) and 21 wholesale houses outside London alongside offices, printing and binding works. When war broke out in July 1914, operations were severely disrupted, although the firm’s motto remained ‘business as usual’.
Staff sent to fight
More than 4,000 members of staff and the majority of the firm’s horses would join the forces during the war, with women stepping up to fill many of the empty positions in stores and at head office. Even the head of the business W.F.D. Smith himself – the 2nd Viscount Hambleden and founder Henry Walton Smith’s great-grandson – left to fulfill his military duty, along with three of his partners at the firm. As many as 400 people from our workforce are thought to have lost their lives, including civilians and partner C.S. Awdry.
Stationery (quite literally) saves lives: Legend has it that a soldier fighting on the front line was saved by a WHSmith diary that he was carrying in the pocket over his heart. The diary took the impact of a bullet that could have killed him.
Head office repurposed
Work had just been started on an impressive new head office in Portugal Street, London; but like many things, this had to be sacrificed to help the war effort. Once completed, on the 3rd January 1916, Strand House was claimed by the government and used as the Postal Censor’s office. By 1918 it was occupied by 4,860 staff (nearly 75% of which were women), censoring an average of 375,000 letters a day. It would be returned to WHSmith in 1920.
Surge in stationery, book and newspaper sales
Sales of stationery, books and newspapers unexpectedly rocketed during World War 1. With so many soldiers away from home, there was increased demand for writing materials as millions of letters were sent by families and loved ones. There was also a sudden demand for reading as more people stayed at home, recovered in hospital, or passed the time in camps and trenches overseas. News boys and girls and bookstall workers were often in danger as crowds swarmed their stalls. In 1916, workers in Swanage had to lock themselves inside an empty carriage and sell newspapers from the windows for safety!
Paris shop flourishes
Another unexpected result of the war was that the WHSmith shop and tea room in Paris became something of a famous landmark, to local Parisians and tourists alike. It was one of the few English shops that remained open during this troubled period, and became a popular meeting point. It was this success that led us to open a similar English bookshop in Brussels, in 1928.
Moments of peace
Before the war, Alfred Alexander Irish was a shop worker at WHSmith in London’s Strand. He served as a lance corporal in the 1st Hampshire Regiment of the British Expeditionary Force, where he was awarded the Distinguished Military Conduct medal for bravery, before his untimely death in 1915. In one of his letters home, Alfred described his experience of the now-famous Christmas ceasefire of 1914:
“The Germans had cornets and mouth organs…they played Home Sweet Home and finished up with the National Anthem.”
“We met them halfway between the trenches. We gave them cigarettes and jam and they gave us cigars, whiskey and chocolates.”
Delivering information cross-country
We also helped to distribute materials from the Ministry of Information’s National War Aims Committee (NWAC), responsible for domestic propaganda. The NWAC’s Publication’s Department produced articles, leaflets, posters, pamphlets, postcards, calendars and two weekly papers, which were placed in local newspapers and mostly printed and distributed by us, free of charge, through our nationwide network. Over 100 million items were distributed by the end of the war.
World War II
Having played an important role in the war effort during the Great War, WHSmith was equally prepared to serve Queen and country when news of a Second World War broke.
Government says WHSmith is of ‘national importance’
In the spring of 1938, when the threat of war with Germany was high and the Government was introducing air raid precautions, WHSmith held a meeting at Strand House to discuss the measures it would take to protect the business and staff during such a crisis. Department managers met with nursing organisations and members of the fire brigade, fire police and first aid. They were told by Sir William Acland (W.F.D. Smith’s brother-in-law) that the company was in touch with the Government, who had recognised that the continued business of WHSmith was of “national importance” – particularly in regards to the News Department. In the event of war the company would aim to carry on, as far as humanly possible, along normal lines and to protect staff who carried on the business as best they could.
Even more staff sent to fight
Between 1939 and 1945, more than 5,000 men and women from the WHSmith workforce joined the forces. Those who stayed at home continued to work in our shops, bookstalls and warehouses, as well as Strand House and Bridge House in London.
Travelling bookstalls set up
Bombs that fell during the 1941 Blitz damaged and ruined countless buildings throughout Britain, including our head office at Strand House, WHSmith shops and bookstalls. In response, we set up the first travelling bookstall as a temporary replacement; these roaming newsstands became increasingly popular, sending out bundles of newspapers to servicemen all over the world.
Wholesale houses decentralised
Our wholesale houses were also put to good use during the war. By decentralising 25% of newspaper supplies that were usually sent from head office, hundreds of shops were able to get supplies from their nearest wholesale house. We also combined the distribution of supplies such as stationery and books, achieving significant cost savings in labour, petrol and vehicles. The spirit of rationing at its best.
Nazi occupation of Paris shop
Our iconic bookshop and tearoom on the Rue de Rivoli, Paris, which had become such a landmark during World War 1, was renamed the Frontbuchandlung (Front Book Shop) when the Nazis invaded and occupied the French capital. Huge Nazi flags were hung along the arcade, and our English-language books were replaced with Nazi literature and propaganda. You’ll be pleased to know the shop re-opened as a WHSmith after the war, and the tearoom has re-opened again just recently. There is still stencilled German writing in the stockroom basement.
Secret hideout for Winston Churchill
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill prepared the country for any potential invasions by the Germans by placing machine gun terraces along the river Thames, barricades of barbed wire in Parliament Square and a pillbox with a manned machine gun disguised as a WHSmith bookstall!
According to the papers of Lawrence Burgis – who worked as an assistant to the deputy secretary to the War Cabinet between 1939 and 1945 – he was certain that if Germany had invaded Britain in 1940, the prime minister would not have gone underground, but he “would have mustered his Cabinet and died with them in the pill-box disguised as a WHSmith bookstall in Parliament Square.”
We love discovering and sharing stories about our history. Do you have any interesting family stories from the wars? If so, we’d love to hear them!