The W. H. Smith logo until the early 1990s, featuring the then-familiar cube of letters, revived in the mid-2010s
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
 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
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 W. H. Smith 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, W. H. Smith 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
From the 1970s, W. H. Smith began to expand into other retail sectors. W. H. Smith Travel operated from 1973
 to 1991. The
Do It All chain of DIY stores originated with an acquisition in 1979,
 becoming a joint venture with
Boots in 1990.
 Boots acquired Smith's share in June 1996.
 The bookshop chain
Waterstone's, founded by former W. H. Smith executive
Tim Waterstone in 1982, was bought in 1989
 and sold in 1998.
In 1986, W. H. Smith 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 W. H. Smith's retail expansion into Scotland. Prior to the takeover, Menzies' larger Scottish stores (carrying a very similar range of products to High Street W. H. Smith stores elsewhere) dominated the market, and the latter's presence was minimal.
Late in 2017 the Company purchased Cult Pens, a UK based retailer of stationery items, for an as yet undisclosed figure.
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 2006, the company decided to demerge the retail and news distribution arms of the business into two separate companies: W. H. Smith plc (retail) and
Smiths News plc (newspaper and magazine distribution). The demerger took effect on 30 August 2006.
 On 7 September 2010, W. H. Smith bought
The Gadget Shop from
 That year, it also bought online greeting card retailer Funky Pigeon.
In April 2011, W. H. Smith 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 later bought by W. H. Smith in March 2013.
In October 2013, W. H. Smith announced that it had bought the
ModelZone brand and will sell products under this brand through existing W. H. Smith stores.
 W. H. Smith subsequently announced through the ModelZone
page in November 2013 that 10 stores were to carry products under the ModelZone brand name by 23 November 2013. In October 2014, W. H. Smith 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 stores will be in low rent areas and will be let to W. H. Smith under short term leases.