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Smith, Horatio Nelson (1874–1960), entrepreneur, was born on 1 June 1874 at 34 Ackers Street, Chorlton upon Medlock, Lancashire, the third and last child of George Frederick Smith (1832–1906), paper merchant, and his wife, Lucy Harding. Although his elder brother, Thomas Brooks Smith, entered his father's paper business, when H. N. (as Smith was called) was nine, he was sent to Hornsea, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to live with his uncle, , and his spinster aunt, Amelia Ann. He was educated in Hornsea for four years and then attended the City of London School.

In 1890, at the age of sixteen, Smith started work for £12 a year with a London wholesale draper's and woollen manufacturer's business. On being refused a rise, in January 1896 he joined his uncle's cod-liver oil business in Hull, taking it over entirely after T. J. Smith's death in October that year. He then set a course that made Smith & Nephew a major player in the world health-care market by the end of the 1980s. When Smith began managing his uncle's firm, the principal business was the wholesale supply of cod-liver oil. During his first year of control he quickly changed direction towards medical dressings. By his twenty-fourth birthday, he felt secure enough to marry, at a Baptist chapel in Bromley, Kent, Margaret Syme, the daughter of a builder. Of their three children, Alister, Margaret, and Neil, only Alister, who predeceased his father, held executive positions in the business. However, Margaret became the first female director of Smith & Nephew.

Smith at first shared Hull business premises with his father and brother, and until 1916 worked with their paper firm to the extent of undertaking business for them when visiting the United States. Orders from the Turkish war office on the outbreak of the Turkish–Bulgarian War in 1911, and later from allied governments during the First World War, set Smith & Nephew on an exponential growth path. After the post-war slump Smith began acquiring brand names that would allow continued expansion.

Both Smith and Ernest Buckley, his protégé and long-time accountant, were fluent German speakers, with close friends and associates in Germany, from whom they, and the company, gained greatly. Most important was Johannes Lohmann, from whom Smith acquired the rights to Elastoplast and the plaster of Paris bandage Cellona/Gypsona, respectively in 1930 and 1932. ‘Coming to Fahr [Lohmann's home district] is like coming home’, he wrote.

Smith was a natural entrepreneur with a flair for making friends and spotting opportunities, though not all of them were profitable. His business exploited medical research and experience, particularly in Germany and in British hospitals, without undertaking any research itself until after the Second World War. He played bridge regularly with medical men such as Arthur Dickson Wright, who provided useful means of test marketing new products. A former chairman of the Filey Road Tennis Club, Scarborough (home of the North of England Tennis Championships), Smith was an enthusiastic player of tennis, table tennis, and bridge. His attachment to table tennis—he was vice-president of the English, and president of the Yorkshire, table tennis associations—led him to employ two officials of the Table Tennis Association.

Smith's love of travelling provided him with many sales opportunities and firmly established Smith & Nephew abroad. He first crossed the Atlantic in 1906 to Boston, obtaining Canadian hospital orders for surgical dressings. Later, during the 1930s, his travels were not always so helpful to company management. Smith took a keen but, owing to his frequent and long absences, spasmodic interest in many details of company business, the board was told in 1937, the year that Smith & Nephew became a public company; it accordingly withdrew his executive authority, placing management in the hands of the chief executive, while Smith continued as chairman. When Smith & Nephew shares were traded on the stock exchange Smith was able to free some of his capital from the business and to channel it into charitable activities. The Smith & Nephew Trust was created the following year.

Smith's parting gift to his company was, in effect, a greater commitment to textiles, just as that industry was contracting in the face of foreign competition. During the First World War he had owned an integrated textile and medical dressing company, which he sold in 1920. His interest initiated the purchase in 1953 of Glen Mills by Smith & Nephew, bringing into the company a management team that was to influence strongly the pattern of development. Smith was introduced to the managing director of Glen Mills, George Whittaker, at a social at the Methodist church at Colne, Lancashire, in 1948. This introduction ultimately culminated in Smith & Nephew's acquisition of Whittaker and his business, and heavy investment by Smith & Nephew in textile production.

Smith was variously described as ‘the rudest man you have ever met’ (by Stanley Duckworth of Colne), and as having ‘the most inquisitive and penetrating mind I had ever come across’ (by George Whittaker). He had something of the pirate about him, according to Johannes Lohmann, but that was more than compensated for by his warmth and genuine concern for people, especially, but not only, those who worked for him. He was uninterested in display for its own sake and had simple tastes. His contemporaries appreciated his humour, his insatiable curiosity, and his humanity. He died at his house, Greenacre, Ringmer, near Lewes, Sussex, on 1 September 1960.

James Foreman-Peck

Sources  

J. Foreman-Peck, Smith & Nephew in the health care industry (1995) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Foreman-Peck, Smith & Nephew, pl. 2

Wealth at death  

£240,370 16s. 3d.: probate, 24 Nov 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales