Our friend Gwyn recently shared his 2020 reading list on Facebook, having scored each book out of five. He mentioned having received the gift of a Heffers of Cambridge book subscription, a bespoke service whereby the bookshop sends a title to the recipient each month. Over the year, Gwyn read those and many more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, subscription services have become popular during periods of lockdown. It’s interesting to see what others read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges. For one year only – 2019 – I compiled monthly collages of the books I read, and in August that year, I wrote a post about my book harvest.
For Christmas 2020, we were delighted to receive a Box of Stories, from Trevor’s eldest, Ellie, who clearly understands our love of reading. It’s a subscription club and as they say on their website, every time you open a box, you will discover an author or a book you might not have otherwise come across or selected. A percentage of their profits go to charities working for literacy.
I had already read one of the selection, The Rapture by Claire McGlasson, rightly described by The Guardian as a clever fact-based debut about The Panacea Society in Bedford. Trevor and I attended a launch event at the St Neots Library, organised by Jacqui, the manager of Waterstones, St Neots. After Claire’s intriguing talk, I bought a copy of her novel and went over to where she was sitting, in order to get it signed. As I waited to attract her attention, another member of the audience decided to form a queue from the other side. After a minute or so, Claire looked up, saw me, and assumed I was trying to push in front of the (by now) lengthy line of eager fans. She asked if they would mind her signing my copy first, and they said it was fine, lending weight to the false impression that I had not been there first. Such incidents come back to haunt you.
Solace in books
I’ve always found great solace in books and concluded in recent years that reading, rather than counselling, may guide me out of the emotional torture chamber that my mind had become (needless to say, this had not been brought about by the book signing mishap). For many of us, reading is a form of therapy. In her novel, Possession, AS Byatt describes ‘personal’ readings that ‘snatch’ for personal meanings, and I’m drawn to those lines of life that, as she says, describe the indescribable, taking us out of time and towards not blindness but understanding.
The practice of bibliotherapy has a long history, although the term was not coined until 1916, by the North American Unitarian Minister, Samuel McChord Crothers. The author Ann Cleeves, who created the fictional Northumberland detective, Vera Stanhope, once worked for Kirklees Libraries in West Yorkshire, where the Chief Librarian established a bibliotherapy project, attaching three part-time ‘therapists’ to GP practices who prescribed books. Apparently, literature can relieve chronic pain and dementia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bibliotherapy is, ‘The use of reading matter for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of nervous disorders.’ I needed to open what the author, Penelope Lively, called that, ‘medicine chest of works.’ I needed to self-medicate.
Although by this time I was using a Kindle, I was not inclined towards an exclusively digital bookish experience and would put the device to one side and employ various ways and means to replenish my supply of solid, hold-in-your-hand-put-on-your-shelf books, with varying degrees of success. Initially, my strategy was aimless; going with the hype, whatever wins the prizes; making a list and playing ‘pin the book’; waiting for a sunny day and grabbing the book on the shelf with a yellow spine, or a sombre day and going for blue; searching the bookshelves of friends in the expectation of a loan that, frankly, would never be returned; picking up books left behind in cafés.
For some months in 2019, I attended a book club in a gastro pub. With each session I grew more exasperated with our club leader who juggled the scoffing and scrolling when searching for reviews on her mobile phone, but it was worth it. As I re-read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this club, I was struck by Ralph’s comforting daydream of his bedtime routine at home, where this seemingly civilised boy could reach up and touch his beloved dog-eared books, and for a brief moment, everything was all right.
Margaret Fuller Ossoli, North America’s first full-time book reviewer (and the first woman permitted to use Harvard’s library), saw books as, ‘a medium for viewing all humanity’.
Over a century later, in 1968, when the late Lithuanian scholar and human rights activist, Irena Veisaitė, encountered an American bookstore for the first time, she realised how much the Soviet government had stolen from her, by making books so inaccessible in her home country. As she would say, “All of those books and the ideas collected in them belonged to me too!”
Never imagining what it must have been like to have been so deprived, I have always taken my access to books for granted. Reading defined my universe and helped me to grow. The author, Virginia Woolf, who believed that we all learn with feeling, said that after the dust of reading has settled, we must open our minds to a fast flocking of innumerable impressions.
Through reading, I would gain greater insight into the human condition and find a way of unlocking my own emotional truth and through reading, I would learn to accept what I could not change.
Thoughts on Sue Slack’s book, ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’, interspersed with brief reflections on academic jargon, school history lessons, and imposter syndrome.
Slack’s highly illustrated and informative introduction to the Cambridge suffragist movement, presented in the style of an in-depth gazetteer, plugs an important gap in the narrative on the British votes for women campaign. Chapter One, entitled, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’, provides a useful overture, confirming the pivotal role of Cambridge in the campaign, and introducing some of the significant players, societies and events.
The book covers the topics of rural societies in Cambridgeshire towns such as Ely and March; the role of key Cambridge colleges (specifically Girton, Newnham, Hughes Hall and Homerton); suffragettes and militancy in Cambridge; the story of the Women’s Freedom League; ‘Suffering Gents’ who supported women’s suffrage; ‘Fighting Harridans’, women who opposed women’s suffrage; the impact of the First World War on the campaign; what happened after some women were given the vote in 1918, bringing the chronicle up to date by noting the issues of equal pay and opportunity in the context of The Fawcett Society’s continuing campaign for equal rights; and celebrating Cambridge women, including the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square on 24thApril 2018, one hundred years on from the Representation of the People Act.
This is not an ‘academic’ book, and is all the better for it. Slack herself says that she approached the subject from a local and family history perspective. In doing so, she tells the story through a series of portraits, cameos and reflections that are, thankfully, free from academic jargon
In 2019, Professor John R. McNeill, President of the American Historical Association, observed that obscure language is undemocratic; it reaches only a few initiates and excludes the great majority of readers (see his blog post, ‘Jargon in history writing shuts out the public’). He says that history is one of the few disciplines that allows efficient communication among specialists in ordinary language. The same cannot be said for my own discipline, sociology.
On completing my doctorate and a couple of research contracts at the University of East Anglia, I decided to quit academia in 2015 and focus on researching and writing social history, starting with the history of Heffers of Cambridge.
I now describe myself as a ‘social historian and author’, and whilst having worked incredibly hard to earn the title of ‘Dr’, I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud at gatherings when surrounded by proper historians who, unlike me, have higher degrees in History. At least the responses to my publications and illustrated talks have been favourable, and I particularly enjoy meeting fellow history enthusiasts.
From the beginning, Slack disabuses readers of the common myth that votes for women were won by the suffragettes led by the Pankhurst family, and explains the critical distinction between suffragette and suffragist. I could have done with this book as a teenage scholar in the 1970s. Whilst my secondary school history teacher, the memorable Mr Maxwell-Stuart of Chesterton, Cambridge, went beyond the confines of an unwritten national curriculum dictated by the emulation of grammar school convention, I do not recall any specific lessons on the movement for women’s suffrage. I do recall watching the television series, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ (written by a team of men) in 1974, and hero-worshipping Sylvia Pankhurst. Had I been better informed about Millicent Fawcett, I would perhaps have admired her more.
I did admire Mr Maxwell-Stuart, a colourful educator (despite turning up to school every day in a dark suit) with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. It was many years, however, before I pursued history in any meaningful way, apart from becoming an inveterate reader of biographies in my spare time. As Miss Haywood, the Principal of Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, wrote in 1978, ‘Julie seems to lack the confidence in her own ability that will in fact enable her to make the most of her gifts.’ My ‘A’ Level History grade was poor, and any plans to pursue a career in librarianship and archivism were shelved.
The confidence eventually began to bloom in late 1980, over two-hundred miles from home, at university in Bangor, North Wales, where I gained a respectable upper-second in ‘Social Administration’. Looking back at the study modules, I’m struck by their relevance to the multifarious and (conceivably) successful career I did eventually pursue, in the fields of public sector housing, equality and social policy, homelessness, victim support, higher education and social history. The modules included political sociology, crime, deviance and social control, the welfare state and the citizen, theories of social policy and income maintenance, health and personal social services, legal and political institutions, the development of the welfare state, and nineteenth century origins of social policy.
In her chapter on rural suffrage societies, Slack points out that their members were mainly made up of women with private means including ladies of the manor; members in Cambridge itself were often don’s wives or ladies associated with the University. In the villages, support was also given by shopkeepers, teachers, lawyers and doctors. Virtually no town or country working-class women signed-up.
In her foreword to Slack’s book, Emeritus Professor Mary Joannou notes that the history of the suffrage campaigns is not merely that of the socially privileged women, and refers to the ‘forgotten’ and ‘unknown’ women such as the college bedders, shop assistants, seamstresses and homeworkers. The women featured in Slack’s book were, however, mainly privileged, which may reflect just how difficult it is to research the hidden lives of those who were not. I am reminded of the invisibility of my nanna, Ethel Driver, who gave many years of loyal service as a college bedder in Cambridge, and who, according to college records, never existed. Nanna lived in a small terraced house in Christchurch Street, worked doggedly, and was devoted to her ‘boys’ on her staircase.
Watching the 2015 film, ‘Suffragette’, I was struck by the different trajectories of the mistresses and their servants who fought for the same cause. A review of the film by Dr Laura Schwartz in History Today rightly observes that it fails to address the tension between mistress and maid, ‘between the woman who didn’t wish to waste her life on domestic drudgery, and the woman she paid to ‘drudge’ in her place’. At least Slack and Joannou acknowledge the issue.
The inclusion of contemporary photographs in Slack’s book to illustrate locations, alongside a wide range of images from the archives, enhances the narrative and is especially useful to readers who are familiar with Cambridge today.
Many times in recent years, I have walked past my old primary school, St Luke’s in Victoria Road Cambridge, the location of a Women’s Suffrage Public Meeting during the campaign. Slack reproduces the poster for this meeting in her book.
Many archives are more accessible to the general public than people realise. That is, when we’re not in a pandemic lockdown doing our bit to protect those more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19, and the wonderful NHS teams who treat them. All facilities at 24th March 2020 are closed, and rightly so.
The lack of an index in Slack’s book is a significant shortcoming and, unless I am missing something, the author biography is irritating, as it refers to the author’s book soon to be published, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’.
Note to Amberley Publishing: pay more attention when checking the final proof.
In a previous post on ‘Mazes, opium and publishing deals’, I noted that anyone who wanted Heffers of Cambridge to publish their book had to be interviewed by ‘Mr Heffer’ – most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or his son, ‘Mr Reuben’. By the early twentieth century, Heffers of Cambridge, the bookseller, stationer, printer and publisher was, ‘known all over the world’.
The author and self-proclaimed mystic, Aelfrida Tillyard, described by her biographer Sheila Mann as a ‘forgotten 20th Century writer’, appeared to have had a good working relationship with Mr Ernest (son of the firm’s founder, William Heffer). Heffers published seven of her titles between 1910 and 1926.
Cambridge born, Aelfrida (1883-1959) was the daughter of nonconformists, Alfred and Catharine Tillyard. Alfred was editor of the Cambridge Independent Press and Catharine, a staunch advocate for women’s higher education (Antony Carpen writes about Catharine in his ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog).
The relevant volume of the Heffer publishing diaries is unfortunately missing and I cannot ascertain the exact contractual terms between the firm and Tillyard. I can, however, piece together a cameo that reveals yet another aspect to the fascinating history of Heffers.
The Tillyard titles published by Heffers are:
To Malise and other poems (1910) 2s 6d Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard (1913) 5s Bammie’s Book (1915) The Garden and the Fire (1916) 2s 6d The Making of a Mystic (1917) 2s 6d Verses for Alethea (1920) Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) 7s 6d and 3s 6d
To Malise and other poems
To Malise was published by subscription and, as Mann reports, we do not know if Tillyard covered her costs. The poems contained in the volume are intensely personal, detailing her husband Constantine’s courtship of her and the early years of their marriage. Mann describes Tillyard’s dedication, ‘À toi’, and inscription, ‘to my perfectly beloved husband’ as simultaneously fulsome, truthful and duplicitous. The poems revealed Tillyard’s misery and desperation for freedom from the marriage, in contrast to her professed happiness at the time; ‘I wonder if I shall ever be quite as happy again’. Anyone with the slightest inclination of Tillyard’s true feelings about her marriage would have understood, as Constantine must have done, the significance of this humiliating publication. Was Ernest Heffer aware of the situation? It is unlikely. Whilst we cannot know what Tillyard said in the ‘interview’ with her prospective publisher, we can surmise that her case for publication would have focussed upon the higher themes and her potential sales appeal as an author – she did once describe herself as, ‘better than Christina Rossetti’.
It is not surprising that the relationship between Tillyard and Constantine Cleanthes Graham continued to deteriorate. Later, in November 1917, she writes in her diary:
‘I tried not to be hurt that he was so completely indifferent to my interests & pursuits, and, incidentally, extremely rude to me over my opinions… but it is difficult not to feel chilled when one’s husband says “I do not think thy opinion is worth having.”’
‘This morning he asked me whether I expected to make any money out of my books. I answered no, not a penny. And then he suggested my doing some war work & hinted that he thought I was wasting my time.’
They divorced in 1921.
Cambridge Poets 1900-1913
Mann describes the excitement stirred up by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1913 lectures, especially his call for Cambridge to ‘take the lead in English poetry once more’ (having recently edited the 1912 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse). Tillyard was prompted to call on Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’) by appointment at Jesus College, armed with a proposal for a ‘scheme of Cambridge poets’. He approved her proposal and even agreed to pen an introduction. Tillyard reported in her diary that upon leaving ‘Q’, she ‘raced to Heffers and told [her] victory’. She also reported that she and ‘Young Heffer’ began to make plans. Presumably, she is distinguishing between Heffer senior (Ernest’s father, William) and Heffer junior (Ernest himself), seeing that Ernest was eight years older than Tillyard.
In writing about the production of the resulting publication, Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard, Mann acknowledges Ernest Heffer’s greater knowledge of the world of publishing. He would have been aware of a forthcoming title, Oxford Poetry 1910-13, and he suggested that Tillyard include poetry written by Cambridge poets between 1900 and 1913. I wonder what Ernest would have made of the Birmingham Daily Post review in which the paper, ‘contemplated with considerable astonishment, but little admiration’, the inclusion of twenty pages of poetry written by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Mann sees this as an early indication of Crowley’s influence on Tillyard, partly because his poems had most likely been written before 1900 (he was at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1895-1898) and therefore did not fit her stated selection criteria. Those who are intrigued by the story of Tillyard’s relationship with ‘Crowley and Crowleyism’, and his Ceremonial Magic, will find a comprehensive account in Mann’s biography.
For details about negotiations between the author and publisher for the publication of this anthology, we just have Tillyard’s personal diary to go on and she was clearly excited about the book. She must have felt it to be a positive omen when Heffers agreed to bear all the expenses and divide the profits with her. Ernest also sought an independent opinion on the book from Maynard Keynes prior to drawing up a contract, but this was not forthcoming and he settled instead for ‘Q’s blessing’.
By 1913, Ernest Heffer (1871-1948) was a respected publisher and bookseller. The fourth son of the firm’s founder, he had been a sickly child of a studious disposition. Ernest learned his trade at the Heffers Fitzroy Street shop which had a thriving Children’s Book Department. During the 1880s, the firm’s connection with the Cambridge Sunday School Association provided a business breakthrough when they began to supply Sunday School prizes. Ernest tells a tale of the time when he recommended Marryat’s Japhet in Search of a Father, the story of a foundling in search of his father, as a Sunday School prize. Evidently, his selection was not well received, as the vicar he recommended it to threw it back at him after having read it.
Despite such early hiccups, Ernest went on to play a significant role in building up the bookselling side of the business, overseeing the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896. He seemed equally at ease in commercial and literary circles. Ernest attended the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce in January 1917 and also served as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As his son, Reuben declared, Ernest, ‘blew the stuff of books into the firm’. His obituary in The Times described Ernest as:
‘a bookseller in charge who knew something about the insides of books. If he found you dipping into a newly published book he might strongly recommend it, having read it himself the night before, or on the other hand, he might urge you not to buy such rubbish … Both Cambridge and the book trade have lost a “character”.’
The Making of a Mystic
On 22 July 1917, Tillyard took her manuscript of The Making of a Mystic to Heffers for a meeting. Ernest quoted a cost of £40 for a 120-page publication and quickly agreed to act as the publisher. Tillyard writes on 24 July, ‘Quite an exciting day. Heffer says he thinks they will “love to publish” my book’. The contract was not signed until 13 September, shortly after the final manuscript had been submitted for printing. On 11 November, Tillyard writes:
‘I went to the works to see about some labels for Constantine, & asked about my book. “Oh!” cried Mr Frank Heffer “Fate & the Gods are against us! The machine broke down and –“ a long tale of woes. I was prepared to learn that the book would not be out before Christmas, when he added “But you can have an advance copy today”. It quite took my breath away! What is more, I got five copies. I learn too, that 130 copies have already been ordered!! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.’
Frank Heffer (1876-1933) was the second youngest son of William and Mary Heffer. He had had to have a leg amputated as a child. Ernest wrote of his brother, ‘what he lost in the leg, he made up in animal spirits’, and described him as ‘having the face of a saint; but mischief was always in his vicinity’. Frank studied Medicine at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but was brought into the business in 1900. He became managing director of the firm’s printing works, after Heffers obtained the Black Bear Press (Dixon’s Printing Works Ltd) in 1911.
Tillyard’s literary prescience
Tillyard had a number of publishers over the years. It is interesting to note her title published in 1930, not by Heffers, but by Hutchinson. Concrete: a Story of Two Hundred Years Hence, is a novel that depicts a dystopian world following the collapse of civilization in the twentieth century via various events including a revolution of the proletariat in the Western world, a plague that wipes out three-quarters of the human race, and a repetition of the Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. It is now 2126, the ‘Age of Reason’, an international civilization. Religion is banned and performance of any religious ceremony is punishable by death. Britain is governed locally by the Eugenist Party, with absolute power over human reproduction. The population is divided into eugenic groups, the lower of which are forbidden to propagate. Males are not allowed to marry before thirty. Biologically unfit individuals are euthanatized.
The president of the British Empire oversees a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Reason, headed by an official called ‘Big Brother’. There is also a Ministry of Aesthetics, responsible for propaganda. Described by American editor and scholar of science fiction, Everett F. Bleiler, as a ‘drab dictatorship’, the state in Tillyard’s future Britain is characterized by ubiquitous spying, ruthless thought control and a ready death penalty. The Western Morning News & Mercury declares that Concrete strikes a topical note as Tillyard pictures a world in which Sovietism is triumphant, religion abolished, and the reign of reason inaugurated. This new world is comfortable enough materially, but its inhabitants are thoroughly bored with life. The paper asks, will religion return and help them find a meaning in existence? As Concrete was published in 1930, it is difficult not to assume that her writing influenced both Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Tillyard’s protagonist, Alaric, works at the Ministry of Aesthetics and Orwell’s Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. Both are subversives but only one finds redemption.
Originally submitted for a religious novel competition run by Hodder and Stoughton, Mann describes Tillyard’s novel as an attempt to bring the world to light that ended in darkness – sales did not go well. Tillyard put this down to her publisher, Hutchinson, noting they were not being taken seriously and they were ‘known to be circulating library trash’. It is interesting that Mann writes about Concrete in her chapter on ‘Rubbish that will sell’. Tillyard’s indifference to domestic affairs and her failure to economise meant she needed to make money from her writing. I wonder how the novel might have fared had it been published by Heffers.
I came across Tillyard’s connection with Heffers quite by chance, when reading her 1917 diary at the Girton College Archive for another project. Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Mann’s 2013 ‘novel biography’ of Tillyard, Hints of a Perfect Splendour. It is a tour de force and a joy to read.
I continue to discover more about the history of Heffers and regularly give illustrated talks on the topic to groups and societies in and around Cambridge, and beyond. If you would like to book a talk, do get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org
I will soon visit Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, to look at the Tillyard family monuments. The cemetery is located close to where I grew up.
And finally, I have ordered a copy of Tillyard’s biography of her aunt, Agnes E. Slack (1926), as I am interested in the history of Methodism and the Temperance Movement.
It seems the older I get, the more ‘joined-up’ my research and writing becomes.
As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin.
As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.
I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.
Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read. During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.
Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.
The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.
Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.
Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999; The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.
My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.
Cambridge journalist Chris Elliott included my plea in his regular Memories feature and I keenly awaited the calls. I distinctly remember picking up the phone just a day or so later and hearing a gentle and cultured voice saying,
“Good afternoon, my name is Criddle. I understand you are seeking memories of Heffers.”
Subsequently, I spent many happy hours in the convivial company of Mr Criddle – Gerald – as he looked back upon his fifteen years at the firm. Before establishing his own Cambridge gallery in 1970, Gerald worked as an artist based at the Heffers Sidney Street stationery shop from 1955; a shop once aptly described by another former employee, Sarah Burton, as a “tower of treasures” (now a librarian, Sarah writes an interesting blog). Gerald’s office at Sidney Street was on the top floor, alongside the art gallery and boardroom, and he himself recalls the building as having, “a quality about it, you nestled into it.”
Award winning window displays
At Heffers, Gerald focussed on promotions, displays and greetings cards. His artistic talents were employed in putting together many inventive and award-winning window displays. Over the years he earned a total of £998 in prize money for the firm. Often, he would go up to London for the presentations. On one occasion he was presented with a cheque by the publisher Sir George Harrap, made out to him personally and not to Heffers. Sir George insisted that Gerald should have the money as he had done the work. However, the Heffers directors did not view it that way and insisted the money be set aside for purchasing window display materials.
This is Heffers, not WH Smith!
Gerald was also involved with greetings cards and calendars. For many years, Heffers had stocked a wide range of cards from suppliers such as J. Arthur Dixon and Valentines. In the 1950s and ’60s the industry was beginning to change with greetings cards imported from US companies such as Hallmark and Hanson White.
Gerald recalls answering his phone one day to John Heffer, who wanted to see him immediately in the boardroom (known among the staff as ‘Mr John’ to distinguish him from other members of the family working in the firm, John was a grandson of the firm’s founder and in charge of the stationery side of the business).
Whenever Mr John wanted to show someone something, he would slip it into a large notepad and fling it across the table. If the person on the receiving end side-stepped in order to avoid a collision, Mr John would exclaim, “butter fingers! On this occasion, Gerald caught the pad and inside were two Hanson White greetings cards, known as ‘slim-jims’, with black and white illustrations. One depicted a vicar at a sale saying,
‘Oh Miss Smith, what a lovely pear you’ve got!’,
to a very glamorous female holding up some fruit. The other also featured a vicar, this time standing behind a stall which held a large vegetable marrow and a lady saying,
‘My goodness, vicar, you have got a big one!’
Gerald thought they were funny. However, Mr John did not and exclaimed, “they are disgusting. This is Heffers, not W.H. Smith!” He asked Gerald to speak to Mrs Webb, the buyer responsible for cards. On doing so, Gerald discovered that whilst being pleased with the new stock of up-to-date designs, poor Mrs Webb had no clue about the innuendos.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Different Heffers shops approached sales of the new unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s controversial novel in very different ways. Gerald recalls that at Sidney Street, it was deemed that each sale would be individually handled by Mr Hobson, the store’s book buyer. Customers were to be shown the cover and then the book placed in a plain bag. After it had been on sale for a few weeks, Miss Dudley-Hay, in the Church Supplies department, had a customer enquire after the book. Her most emphatic response, heard by everyone right across the floor, was a loud cry to Mr Hobson,
“this gentleman wishes to purchase a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, will you attend to it?!”
Lunch at the Dorothy, visits to the theatre and a flight to Boulogne
While Sidney Street was undergoing another refurbishment, staff were given a voucher to buy their lunch at the Civic. Mr Court, manager at Sidney Street, one day asked Gerald for assistance during the lunch hour, and offered to pay for his lunch by way of compensation. Seeing this as an opportunity to dine somewhere nice, Gerald popped to the Dorothy Ballroom next door and had a three-course lunch for 6s 6d. Unsurprisingly, the firm refused to meet more than half the bill. (Gerald would often attend trade fairs at Earls Court in London or Birmingham, with Mr Court or Mr Biggs. These also involved dining out but, as Gerald recalls, he would be the only one drinking as both his managers were teetotal.)
Although shop-floor staff frequently worked on Saturdays, the Thursday half-day early closing had its benefits. Together with colleagues, Gerald would attend theatrical performances in London on these afternoons. These were paid for by a subscription of one shilling a week and organised by Miss Star on the Pen Counter and Mrs Snell. In the 1950s and ’60s it was possible to travel to London, go to the theatre and have dinner, all for twenty-five shillings (£26 at today’s value). I was not surprised to learn recently that Gerald was a member of the St John’s Players in Cambridge for many years.
In 1961 Heffers was feeling adventurous and scheduled an outing by air to Boulogne, France, with a charge to employees of £10 (£208 at today’s value) per head. Many had never flown before. Gerald (who went on fifteen staff outings in all), recalls the firm were so anxious about safety, that husbands and wives were asked to travel on separate planes. Some of the older ladies were full of trepidation but in the end thoroughly enjoyed it. At Boulogne they lunched in a casino and took a walk along the sea front. Dinner on the way home was at Stowmarket in Suffolk. As everyone disembarked the coach at the end of a long day they were reminded not to be late for work in the morning.
Gerald sadly passed away in January 2019.
These are a few of his Heffers stories and I’ve enjoyed revisiting them as I fondly recall our conversations. Gerald’s son, Tim, kindly told me that his father had been most impressed with ‘This Book is about Heffers’. My hope is that the book and my illustrated talks which include some of Gerald’s stories, will in a small way contribute to his legacy.
It was my privilege to meet such an interesting, talented and convivial gentleman.
An autumn 2017 commission that I received from Wellfleet Press (an imprint of US publisher Quarto) led to a winter researching and writing an illustrated history of labyrinths and mazes. I spent many short days and long evenings absorbed in the joyful task of piecing together what is hopefully an informative and engaging recitation of this fascinating 4,000-year old phenomenon.
During this time I also managed to deliver a few talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge and have more coming up in the diary. (I did however, have to pause much of the college servants research, apart from a most interesting conversation with a retired college porter from St John’s — in September last year I wrote about The artist, the college, the bursar and his cook.)
The history talks are such a pleasure for me to deliver, especially when members of the audience share their own memories of enigmatic Heffer people and places. And then, on 5thJune 2018, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for the Cambridge Publishing Society. My talk, entitled ‘Some Truths About Opium’, provided a welcome excuse to delve further into another aspect of Heffers — their extraordinary publishing history.
I chose the title because the first half of the twentieth century was clearly an intoxicating time for Heffers publishing. It is taken from a short paper by Herbert A. Giles, published by Heffers in 1923.
A British diplomat and sinologist, Giles was ‘the’ Cambridge Professor of Chinese and much of his output was published by the University Press. This title however, along with his exposition, ‘Chaos in China: A Rhapsody’, was published and printed by Heffers who produced 2,000 copies of the former and 1,000 of the latter. In 1924 Giles paid Heffers £10 to cover a deficit on the publishing costs of the opium paper and ten years later it was taken out of the firm’s catalogue.
Giles had originally sent his treatise to The Times. However, his stance on the topic directly opposed that of the broadsheet. In his sketch of opium in China as a drug from 874AD to the present day (early 1920s), Giles concluded that in view of the historical facts, we had better leave China to work out the opium problem themselves, without the interference of foreigners. Inevitably, the paper was returned as unsuitable. He then tried an academic journal, only to have it rejected once more. Finally, he approached Heffers.
This appears to have been a common scenario for authors published by Heffers. A scout through the old publishing diaries (kindly loaned by Richard Reynolds of Heffers) reveals that in many cases the firm provided a kind of vanity publishing service (a precursor of Troubadour perhaps?).
Anyone who wanted Heffers to publish their book had to be interviewed by Mr Heffer (most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or ‘Mr Reuben’ — I’ve previously written about Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley). Examples of Heffer publishing deals reveal the extent to which the financial risk was offset by some authors:
‘Agreement by letter. Author has agreed to pay £60 towards productions costs on publication and a further £20 if necessary in a year’s time.’
‘Author agreed to guarantee us against loss up to a limit of £10, and to surrender the first £5 of profit to our Firm. Thereafter, profits to be divided equally between Author and Publisher.’
‘No agreement, but Prof. Whitney called and agreed to be responsible for the costs of publication.
‘No Agreement. Author pays all costs of production. To be published but Not Catalogued. All stock to be returned to Author, and any orders for book to be passed to her.’
Heffers first described itself as a publisher in advertisements in the early 1900s and the firm’s list grew with William Heffer’s expansion into printing. Between 1889 and 1959 the firm published around 2,000 titles. The publishing was wound down in the 1960s and ceased altogether in 1975. Several publications were cast into the bargain bin, never to reappear. Intriguing titles such as,
The Problem of the Future Life (1925)
Whatsoever Things are Lovely …Think on these Things(1927)
Mathematical Snack Bar(1936)
The Delights of Dictatorship(1938)
Finland in Summer(1938)
Prayers for a One-Year-Old(1927)
The Two Coins: An English Girl’s Thoughts on Modern Morals(1931)
Those who work in the book trade may know about the annual Bookseller/DiagramOddest Title of the Year(of a book), instigated by Diagram Group director, Trevor Bounford, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978. Many Heffer publications would have been worthy contenders for the prize. (In March 2015, I wrote a post, The oddest title for a public lecture?, as I fondly remembered the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group.)
I’m pleased to report that I did not have to pay Wellfleet Press to publish the maze book. I’m also pleased to report that the book was illustrated, designed and packaged by my talented husband, Trevor Bounford whose next book, ‘Bend the Rules’, has recently been published by the Tarquin Group in the UK.
The Curious History of Mazes is due out in October 2018. I’ll be writing more about this in due course, and I’m already taking bookings for illustrated talks.
Do get in touch if you’d like me to come and talk to your group – email@example.com
The September 2017 edition of Artists & Illustrators magazine featured the winners of prestigious painting competitions. Benjamin Sullivan had top billing. His winning BP Portrait Award 2017 portrait, Breech!, of his wife Virginia breastfeeding their daughter, is not only skilfully executed but incredibly touching. As feature writer Natalie Milner observes, ‘there’s no doubt that the time and love behind this painting will outlive a casual selfie.’
Whilst I love this painting, it is a 2008 commission of his that I’m particularly drawn to. The All Souls Triptych is a portrait of the domestic and non-academic staff at All Souls College, Oxford. To execute this work, Sullivan lived and worked at the college for 18 months, observing the staff unobtrusively, taking account of ‘idiosyncrasies and nuances of character’. As Milner informs us, Sullivan wanted to give an account of people’s day-to-day activities: to celebrate them as individuals and elevate their work.
Through my research and writing on Cambridge college servants from 1900 to the present day, I’m attempting to achieve a similar result – insightful and engaging descriptions of the different roles that may be broadly described as ‘servants’, illuminated by memories and stories shared by retired and current college staff. Portraits that reflect on how the roles have changed over the past 120 years or so.
As with my illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge, the research also involves exploring archival records. Of late, I’ve been spending time in the excellent King’s College Archive Centre, reading material from the first half of the twentieth century. Guided by the Archivist Patricia McGuire, I’ve scrutinised files on, ‘College Servants (General) Private 1920-34’; ‘Correspondence concerning the appointment of a Lady Superintendent’; ’Bedmakers Bus Service, Dec 1937-May 1940’; and ’Dadie’s War Correspondence’.
I’ve been poring over index cards on bedmakers (1930-1960), typed letters, hand-written notes, annotations, and reports. Some voices from the past are coming through strongly, and I don’t just mean the more obvious, such as Dadie Rylands, already a well-known Cambridge persona who, as it happens, served as Domus Bursar at the college, thereby overseeing servants.
Take chef Arthur G. Allen, who completed an apprenticeship at Trinity College and went on to hotel work in Norwich and Lowestoft before joining the staff at King’s in October 1922. In March that year Allen writes to King’s Bursar, H. G. Durnford, enquiring about possible employment. In his enquiry Allen demonstrates a certain boldness by setting out his terms; £5 a week plus food. Perhaps the fact that he was already in a job gave him self-assurance. His maturity (he was 42 at the time) and his prior experience of college work must have helped too. Furthermore, his family were no strangers to this environment – on further investigation I discovered that his father had worked as a college shoeblack.
And no doubt Allen was in touch with the Cambridge network of college cooks. Wroth, who wrote about college servants at St John’s, Cambridge 1850-1900, acknowledges the network whereby cooks exchanged intimate knowledge of each establishment. One wonders if, in early 1922, Allen had inside information about King’s employment of a temporary chef during that Easter Term at a salary of £6 a week. Word must have been out that King’s were in need of a chef, as in March, Durnford receives another enquiry from an F. W. Wallace, who, whilst having some college experience, clearly considers his time in the ‘Merchant Service’ cooking for as many as 700 passengers, more noteworthy,
‘I have recently seen one of your every day menus & may I say that it is child’s play to what I have had to do when at sea.’
It wasn’t unusual for a qualified cook to work at establishments outside academia after serving his college apprenticeship, and then return to a college in a more senior position. Another chef, or ‘head cook’, who had served his apprenticeship at Trinity was Edwin Cash, whose career was typical of many. After qualifying he gained further experience in London and Cheltenham and then returned to Cambridge to work for St John’s where he gave over 30 years of service.
At St John’s before the twentieth century, and indeed at many Cambridge colleges, the head cook did not receive a college stipend but instead ran the kitchen as his own personal enterprise. Or maybe we should say ‘kingdom’. Wroth says,
‘There was no doubt that those who scrubbed the vegetables, carried sacks of potatoes, and kept fires in the kitchen were college servants. The head cooks, however, did not consider themselves as servants; most of them ran successful enterprises based in the college kitchens supplying both town customers and members of college. The Cambridge community did not consider them as servants either.’
However, this was different at King’s where the cooks were college employees. At the same time Cash was at St John’s, King’s employed a Mr Ernest Ing as cook on a six month trial from Midsummer 1891 at a salary of £180 a year. Ing went on to serve King’s for ten years and during his period of office acted as secretary to the Cambridge College Servants’ Boat, Cricket and Football Clubs. A busy man in the servant fraternity.
So did Allen’s approach to King’s College work out?
In March 1922 it was unsuccessful, as explained by an exchange of letters, after he and Durnford had spoken by telephone. On 15 March Durnford writes,
‘I have thought a good deal about the conditions on which you might be willing to come to this College as Chef. I am afraid I must state at once that a wage of £5 weekly plus food is more than I feel justified in offering for that particular post. I find that 90/- per week is more nearly the wage paid to College Chefs who are not entrusted with any special responsibilities of management besides their own department: and unless the cost of living increases, I [would not] not be prepared to go beyond that figure.’
Allen replies that it would not be of any advantage for him to change his present position. But that’s not the end of the story. On 23 August, Allen turns down another offer from Durnford, saying that under present conditions he is unable to, ‘do justice to the college or myself’. And then, on 31st we find that not only have they spoken once again by telephone but that Allen accepts the post of ‘Cook Manager’ of King’s kitchen, with an agreed starting date of 5 October 1922.
The position of ‘Kitchen Manager’ at King’s had been salaried at £225 in 1919 and a chef was paid £234 (£4.10s per week and food – only ten shillings less than Allen’s original terms of £5 for a chef role). Allen took over from W. Whitecross as Cook Manager at a salary of £250 per annum.
On 19 September 1922, Allen writes to Durnford, recommending a Mr Ellwood from the University Arms Hotel, for employment in his team at King’s, and assures him that,
‘the staff will soon fall in with my systems of working, and that business will go smoothly.’
The male kitchen staff at King’s had been listed at November 1921 as comprising two chefs, three cooks, a store man, a boiler man, seven porters, an apprentice, one kitchen manager, a head clerk and two assistant clerks. One hopes that Allen was able to build good relations with all concerned – unlike at another Cambridge college, where a former apprentice recalls the head chef and kitchen manager, albeit it in the 1960s, as constantly being at loggerheads.
Clearly, kitchens were, and can still be, stressful environments.
Things must have gone well, at least for a few years, because in 1930 Allen is still at the College and his salary is £325. As I continue to read King’s archives over the coming weeks, I hope to discover more of his college story (in the 1939 Register he is listed as ‘Chef Manager’ and I know that he died in 1959). Perhaps his family might read this and can tell me more?
If you work, or have worked as a ‘college servant’, or if you have a family member or ancestor who has done so, I’d be delighted to hear your story.
A previous post on ‘Looking for the tradesman’s entrance’ briefly dwells on the notion of ‘service’ in the context of college, university and town communities. In asking what we mean by ‘being in’ and ‘being of’ service, I draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary which understandably focuses on the utilitarian nature of the act. Whilst there is reference to ‘helping or benefiting’ and to ‘friendly action’, there is scant consideration of whether or not a service is provided with care. One can of course be ‘in’ or ‘of’ service without caring.
My early conversations with retired college staff however, reveal just how much they do care. I spoke recently to a retired college bedder who sounded remarkably like a parent as she vehemently declared her loyalty to her charges, saying she would, “defend them to the hilt!” There were times when this bedder performed the role of surrogate mother, as no doubt many did. I certainly remember my Nanna, Ethel Driver, talking fondly of her ‘boys’ at Jesus College in the 1970s.
Just this week, a Queen’s College alumnus described the vital role his bedder played when he came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1959. Without her prompting he would never have got up in the morning.
Enid Porter, Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum from 1947 to 1976, states in her book on Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore that the bedders of today (1969) are devoted to the undergraduates in their care and take a keen interest in their well-being. She says there are known instances of women turning up for work even though their husbands had died during the preceding night. One such woman, on being told she should not have come replied, ‘I had to; the exams are on and I had to be here to see after my gentlemen.’
In loco parentis
It’s perhaps not surprising that retired tutor Ken Riley entitled his Clare College memoire, In Loco Parentis: a light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge tutor (2016). Riley acknowledges that the expression ‘in loco parentis’, in referring to the responsibilities normally associated with parenthood, may not be totally appropriate in the light of the age of majority being reduced in 1970 to eighteen years. Technically, all university students are adults. He does, however, still see the tutor role as guide, mentor and even ‘friend at court’ if the worst comes to the worst.
There were occasions when Riley, in his role as Rooms Tutor, had to discipline students (do parents not discipline their children?). He describes in some detail one such time when he received a report from the Domestic Bursar on the state of a flat occupied by three students,
‘in many ways, worst of all, [was] their lack of concern for the feelings of the bedmaker (bedder) who looks after and cleans the flat… the Domestic Bursar would not have visited the flat at all if their behaviour had not brought the bedder near to tears; it was his duty to investigate anything that upset any member of the College Staff.’
Riley demanded written assurance that the students had apologised to the bedmaker but some three weeks later just one had done so and two had never tried to find her to apologise, even though she came into the flat every weekday morning. Their ‘insulting’ excuse was that they were never up until nearly eleven o’clock at the earliest. A written apology was then sent to the bedder but they had made it impossible for her to resume her normal cleaning duties. After further developments, the College Master became involved and the three were exiled. That is, required to move out of Clare housing to non-college property.
For many of course it’s a different story and there are Cambridge alumni who keep in touch with their fondly remembered bedder or landlady, long after moving on. Billie Allinson’s mother, Mrs Bass, was a Hostelkeeper at Clare College’s Braeside for thirty-one years and is pictured in Clare Through the Twentieth Century (2001) with some of her students at the time of their matriculation in 1959 and then at a 1989 reunion in Mrs Bass’ eightieth year. Billie, who also worked at Clare College, still receives Christmas cards from her mother’s former charges.
In this post I reflect on who cares about the bedder. There are of course different perspectives to explore on the topic of college servants and a number of themes are already emerging from my early conversations.
Collecting your memories and stories
I plan to write a book that focuses on the period from 1900 to the present day. By ‘servants’, I don’t just mean bedders but also other staff such as butlers, porters, handymen, gardeners, buttery and pantry staff, and landladies.
As with This book is about Heffers (2016), my aim is to blend living memory with the desk research in order to create what I hope will be an informative and interesting portrait.
I’d be delighted to hear if you worked at a college and would be willing to tell me about your experience. Also, if you have a memory of college servants to share, no matter how fleeting.
Or maybe you have thoughts on the topic of college servants generally?
In researching the history of Heffers of Cambridge I had face-to-face and telephone conversations with former and current staff, customers and authors. People also kindly shared their stories via letters and emails. And contributions can be anonymised.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
And do say hello to Ethel and Ivy
My Nanna worked at Jesus as a bedder for many years. And yet the college has no trace of her existence. This is not uncommon. Here she is with her sister, Ivy, who also worked as a bedder.
Three years ago we decided to set up a publishing arm for our long-established graphic design business. My husband Trevor Bounford (illustrator, artist and author) has been designing and creating books for over 45 years. With our shared interest in social history and the prospect of more ‘free’ time on my part after completing the PhD, we set up Gottahavebooks in 2015.
What we now have is very much a cottage industry. And that’s not just because we run the business from our Tudor cottage in a village near Cambridge. We like being small scale. For me this is especially appealing after many years of working in large organisations with highly rigid structures and politicised cultures. I’m loving the new freedom and flexibility of working independently as a writer, editor and micro-publisher.
Our publishing is driven by a desire to share people’s stories, and our titles and activities reflect this.
In 2015 Richard Houghton needed to publish the memories he had gathered from people who had attended Rolling Stones concerts in the 1960s. Richard and Trevor jointly devised a concept they named as ‘You Had To Be There’ and we set about getting Richard’s book to press in double-quick time. We also liaised individually with his 500 contributors, confirming their place in the book and keeping them up to date with the production. This was very time-consuming but worthwhile, and we were pleased to have helped Richard with his first publication.
Our second book, ‘Days of Sorrow, Times of Joy’ by Frances Clemmow (2016), is an extraordinary family memoire, interwoven with the grand picture of modern Chinese history from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War. Trevor had previously assisted Fran with the design, layout and production of a self-published edition in 2012. We offered to publish a new extended edition as a way of helping Fran to share her story with a wider audience, and we were delighted when historian Michael Wood agreed to contribute a foreword. Professor Anthony Bradley describes the book as a,
‘living history, in which the actors in a far-reaching drama speak in their own words. We need not today endorse all aspects of the missionary enterprise, but readers of this impressive and enjoyable book will surely long remember the vivid scenes in which one family’s commitment enabled its members to play a part in events that have helped to shape our world.’
‘Forever entwined, my young and my old mind, the voices inside me that chatter and chide, encourage and rage, as I look both outwards and in with the curiosity of a benign, yet wary stranger.’
Born in 1944, Carol spent the late 1960s and ’70s living in a ‘so-called community of freaks, immigrants and photographers, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, drug dealers, models, fashionistas, groupies and hangers-on.’
The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.