Charles St. John Hornby

by Sir William Rothenstein, sanguine and white chalk, 1923

1923 – National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Harold St John Hornby was the First Chairman of the Society.

He was born on 25 June 1867 at Much Dewchurch, Herefordshire, the eldest son of the Reverend Charles Edward Hornby, then a curate, and his wife, Harriet, daughter of the Revd Henry Turton, who was the vicar of Betley, Staffordshire. He was educated at Harrow and New College, Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in classics.

In 1892, Hornby was called to the bar, but his friend Freddy Smith offered him a partnership in WH Smith, the family business. He was quickly given increasing responsibility for handling the firm’s external relations. This included dealing with the new breed of newspaper and magazine proprietors, such as Alfred Harmsworth, whose brashness was antipathetic to the older partners. It also included negotiating the contracts with railway companies for the operation of bookstalls on stations and the sale of advertising spaces which at that time constituted the bulk of the firm’s business.

This most dramatic episode in the firm’s history pointed the way to the future structure of its business, centred on shops rather than stalls on stations, and established Hornby’s position as the strategist of the firm. During the First World War he bore even more responsibility, as four of the six partners left on military service. He continued to be the dominant figure in W. H. Smith, which became a private company in 1929 following the death of Freddy Smith, Viscount Hambleden.

For many years Hornby’s major relaxation outside business was his private press, the Ashendene Press. He first set up a hand press at his father’s house in Ashendene, Hertfordshire, in 1895. In 1899, the year after his marriage, he moved his press to his new home, Shelley House on Chelsea Embankment, and continued to produce highly regarded limited editions from there until 1935. He had two typefaces specially designed for his press, Subiaco and Ptolemy. His passion for fine printing and bookbinding was reflected in his attitude to the printing department of W. H. Smith.
Hornby was High Sheriff of the County of London from 1906-07.

Charles Harold St John Hornby died at his home, Chantmarle, Cattistock, Dorchester, on 26 April 1946. His clear and perceptive mind, his energetic, decisive, and determined character, and shrewd business sense, had made him the most influential figure in W. H. Smith in the twentieth century.

One of his sons, Michael (1899-1987), also became a director of W. H. Smith. Michael’s son, Sir Simon Hornby, who died in 2010 aged 75, was President of the Chelsea Society – and chaired our first “Vision for Chelsea” in 1998. He too was a director of WH Smith, and led the company during a phase of expansion and diversification. He was also a sometimes controversial chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Design Council.

His other son, Sir Roger Hornby (1904-1987), was senior partner at the stockbrokers Cazenove.

His daughter, Dame Rosamund Holland-Martin (1914-2001), led the NSPCC from (19691988), and was married to Admiral Sir Deric Holland-Martin

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