The WHSmith logo until the early 1990s, featuring the then-familiar cube of letters, revived in the mid-2010s
In 1792, Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna established the business as a news vendor in Little Grosvenor Street, London. After their deaths, the business—valued in 1812 at £1,280 (equivalent to £78,240 in 2016)—was taken over by their youngest son William Henry Smith, and in 1846 the firm became W. H. Smith & Son when his only son, also William Henry, became a partner. The firm took advantage of the railway boom by opening news-stands on railway stations, beginning with Euston in 1848. In 1850, the firm opened depots in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It also ran a circulating library service for a century, from 1860 to 1961. The younger W. H. Smith also used the success of the firm as a springboard into politics, becoming an MP in 1868 and serving as a minister in several Conservative governments.
After the death of W. H. Smith the younger, his widow was created Viscountess Hambleden in her own right; their son inherited the business from his father and the Viscountcy from his mother. After the death of the second Viscount in 1928, the business was reconstituted as a limited company, in which his son, the third Viscount, owned all the ordinary shares. On the death of the third Viscount in 1948, the death duties were so severe that a public holding company had to be formed and shares sold to WHSmith staff and the public. A younger brother of the third Viscount remained chairman until 1972, but the Smith family's control slipped away, and the last family member left the board in 1996.
In 1966, WHSmith originated a 9-digit code for uniquely referencing books, called Standard Book Numbering or SBN. It was adopted as international standard ISO 2108 in 1970, and was used until 1974, when it became the ISBN scheme.
From the 1970s, WHSmith began to expand into other retail sectors. WHSmith Travel operated from 1973 to 1991. The Do It All chain of DIY shops originated with an acquisition in 1979, becoming a joint venture with Boots in 1990. Boots acquired WHSmith's share in June 1996. The bookshop chain Waterstone's, founded by former WHSmith executive Tim Waterstone in 1982, was bought in 1989 and sold in 1998.
In 1986, WHSmith bought a 75% controlling share of the Our Price music chain; in the 1990s it also bought other music retailers including the Virgin Group's smaller (non-Megastore) shops. The 75% share of Virgin Our Price was sold to Virgin Retail Group Ltd in July 1998 for £145m. WHSmith also owned the American record chain The Wall, which was sold to Camelot Music in 1998.
In March 1998, the company acquired John Menzies' retail outlets for £68m, which for many years were the main rival to the company's railway-station outlets. This purchase also cleared the way for WHSmith's retail expansion into Scotland. Prior to the takeover, Menzies' larger Scottish shops (carrying a very similar range of products to High Street WHSmith shops elsewhere) dominated the market, and the latter's presence was minimal.
For several years, the company's retail side had difficulties competing with specialist book and music chains on one side and large supermarkets on the other. This led to poor financial performance, and a takeover bid in 2004 by Permira, which fell through. It reacted to this by disposing of its overseas subsidiaries and its publishing business Hodder Headline, in order to concentrate on reforming its core businesses.
In August 2006 the company demerged the retail and news distribution arms of the business into two separate companies: WHSmith PLC (retail) and Smiths News PLC (newspaper and magazine distribution). In September 2010 WHSmith bought The Gadget Shop from The Entertainer. That year, it also bought online greeting card retailer Funky Pigeon.
In April 2011, WHSmith agreed a deal with the legal services provider QualitySolicitors under which QualitySolicitors is to place representatives in up to 500 of its UK branches. Past Times went into administration in January 2012, and the brand name was bought by WHSmith in March 2013.
In October 2013, WHSmith announced that it had bought the ModelZone brand and will sell products under this brand through existing WHSmith shops. WHSmith subsequently announced through the ModelZone page in November 2013 that 10 shops were to carry products under the ModelZone brand name by 23 November 2013. In October 2014, WHSmith announced as part of its preliminary statement that it was planning on extending its greetings card offering by launching the value focussed brand Cardmarket on a trial basis. According to the statement, these trial shops will be in low rent areas and will be let to WHSmith under short term leases.
Late in 2017 the Company purchased Cult Pens, a UK based retailer of stationery items, for an as yet undisclosed figure.