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Giant map showing WH Smith’s 1931 empire goes on sale for £30,000

When the high street was booming! Giant 7ft by 7ft map revealing WHSmith’s vast commercial empire across Britain and Europe 90 years ago goes on sale for £30,000

  • Giant map showing 200-plus WHSmith shops and stalls from 1931 goes up for auction for £30,000 tomorrow
  • 7ft by 7ft painted display was created by prominent graphic designer of the time MacDonald Gill
  • Mr Gill used colour-coded key to show stalls, shops and wholesalers alongside quirky illustrations
  • The painting hung on the walls of the firm’s Swindon headquarters before being sold by archive department 

A giant map revealing WHSmith’s vast commercial empire in the 1930s when high street trade was booming has emerged for sale for £30,000.

The 7ft by 7ft painted map was commissioned by the newsagent to show more than 200 British and northern European branches on March 31, 1931, including outlets in Brussels and Paris.

It was produced by MacDonald Gill, one of the leading graphic designers of the age, and hung in the retailer’s boardroom in Swindon, Wiltshire.

The headquarters remain in Wiltshire today although its operations have expanded to more than 1,400 stores in 28 countries.

According to Mr Gill’s ledger he was paid £765 for the project, which works out at around £42,000 in today’s money. 

The colourful map, which includes the old WHSmith red and gold logo, has different symbols to mark the chain’s different outlets – yellow for wholesale branches, red for bookstalls and green for bookshops.

A giant map showing WHSmith’s empire of more than 200 stores around the UK and mainland Europe in 1931 has gone up for auction and is valued at £30,000. According to the inscription, it shows the location of every single WH Smith book shop, stall and wholesaler, using different colours to show each – red for stalls, yellow for wholesalers and green for shops

The map, created by graphic designer MacDonald Gill, a prominent graphic designer of the time, shows how the business rose out of trading at railway stations in the 1800s to become Britain’s leading bookseller with outlets at ports and major cities across the UK. The map also shows the then head office in Strand House, Holborn, London, which served as its base from 1914 to 1956

Mr Gill illustrated the map in an Art Deco style complete with wavy lines to represent the sea and steam ships sailing between Britain and France. The map was commissioned in 1931 and hung on the walls of the head office both in London and when the business moved to Swindon in 1967, where it remains today

The bulk of the stores are in London and the south east, but there are also outlets in Swansea, Belfast, on the Isle of Man and even in Brussels, Belgium.

The cities of London, Manchester and Newcastle have been magnified to provide more details on their shop locations, and Gill has added decorative details with Art Deco style shoals of fish and drawings of paperboys.

The map has been consigned for sale by the WHSmith Archive and goes under the hammer at Chorley Auctioneers of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.

Auctioneer Thomas Jenner-Fust said: ‘The map would have hung in the WHSmith boardroom for many years before being placed into their archive.

‘It is incredibly detailed and there is wonderful added decorative detail from biplanes and horse-drawn vehicles to shoals of fish in Art Deco waves off the coastline.

‘At this time, WHSmith was going international so in addition to their British wholesale branches, bookstalls and bookshops they have marked their bookshops in Paris and Brussels.

‘It is an extraordinary map.’

The map still features the company’s old red and gold logo, named after William Henry Smith, the son of founder Henry Walton Smith who opened it as a news vendor in London in the late 1700s alongside his wife Anna. The firm built up its empire at railway stations throughout the 1800s until 1905, when rows over stall rentals at stations prompted a change in business model, with the business setting up 150 shops around the UK in just three months targeting locations near stations to keep on top of the commuter trade

The map is described as ‘incredibly detailed’ by Chorley Auctioneers of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, who are selling it tomorrow. It features illustrations of various forms of transport of the day including trains, early motor cars and horses and carts


The map includes more detailed drawings of prominent shops, including the London head office and the Brussels outlet, left, which was opened 11 years before in 1920 and was only the second international branch after Paris. It also shows how shops were opened along railway lines to London 

WHSmith was founded in 1792 and began as a small news vendor in London run by Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna, and passed to their sons Henry Edward and William Henry Smith in 1816.

William Henry proved the more astute businessman and so the shop became WH Smith & Son in 1846, when his son of the same name also became a partner.

The first bookstall was opened in November 1848 and the Smiths began expanding to railway stations first in London and then across the UK to target commuters, selling cheaply printed version of popular publications called ‘yellowbacks’.

By 1860 the younger WHSmith had taken full control and he eventually moved into politics, becoming an MP in 1868 and eventually the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1877 and First Lord of the Treasury in 1887.

Upon his death aged 66 in 1891, his wife was created as Viscountess Hambleden and his eldest son, William Frederick, who became the second Viscount Hambleden in 1913, took over the business.

By the early 1900s the business had expanded across the country with stalls and shops, and opened its first international branch in Paris in 1903, followed by Brussels in 1920.

In 1905 the company rapidly expanded by opening 150 new locations in just three months in reaction to a dispute over rents for stalls at stations on the Great Western and London and North Western Railway lines.

Rather than pay higher rents, the business model was changed to operate shops nearby to keep on top of the commuter trade. 

WHSmith continued to buy out smaller chains over the next few decades but the most significant expansion did not come until the 1970s when the business expanded into other sectors including music and film.

The cities of London, Manchester, pictured, and Newcastle have been magnified to provide more details on their shop locations, and Gill has added decorative details with Art Deco style shoals of fish, sailboats and drawings of paperboys

A travel branch was created in 1973 and DIY chain Do It All was purchased in 1979. WHSmith then bought Waterstones in 1989 and in the 1990s it snapped up some of Virgin Megastores smaller shops.

But by the 2000s the travel department was closed and Waterstones and Virgin concerns had been sold on, while the company has struggled to compete with the rise of Amazon and other online retailers since the turn of the century. 

Today operates over 1,400 stores in 28 countries, including more than 100 Post Office branches in the UK after it began combining its stores with them in 2007.

Internationally, the chain still operates several shops in airports around Europe as well as branches in Canada, India and Australia. It ran shops in US airports between 1985 and 2003.

The sale of the map takes place tomorrow.

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