Who Do You Think You Are?

On Thursday 15 June 2023, the BBC programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” features Bear Grylls, the adventurer, tv presenter and Chief Scout.

The programme is awaited with anticipation for any mention of Bear’s great-great-grandfather, Samuel Smiles.

Samuel Smiles

Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington on 23 December 1812 and is best known as a social reformer and author of “Self Help”.

Smiles was one of 11 children of a Haddington papermaker and general merchant. His paternal grandfather was a field-preacher and office-bearer in the Anti-burgher Church in Haddington.

Samuel Smiles was born in a house in High Street. While the house no longer exists, the site is marked by a plaque on the wall outside Diggory’s coffee-shop.

Smiles’ earlier education was at a school in St Ann’s Place, before he transferred to the burgh school. In 1826, Smiles was apprenticed for 5 years to Robert Lewins and Robert Lorimer, medical practitioners, who were in partnership in Haddington.

Later, Smiles attended medical classes at Edinburgh University. On obtaining his diploma in 1832, he returned to Haddington and operated a drugs store, next to the George Hotel. However, with 7 other doctors in the town, Smiles found it difficult to make a living. In 1838, he left Haddington for a tour abroad, before settling in Leeds. There he became involved in politics, advocating for extension of the franchise and repeal of the Corn Laws.

After writing several biographies, “Self Help” was published in 1859 and sold more than a quarter of a million copies. The book aimed at encouraging young people towards well-doing and was translated into several languages. Many other books followed across a range of subjects. Finally, Smiles wrote his autobiography, with the first 6 chapters covering his life in Haddington and offering glimpses of the town, its inhabitants and social life.

Smiles died on 16 April 1904 at his residence in Kensington and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.

A summary of Smiles’ life is given in “East Lothian Biographies”, which was published by East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalists’ Society in 1941. The book is available to consult on-line under the “Other Publications” section of this website.