Hall’s Bookshop earned its reputation as one of the premier bookshops in the South East under the ownership of the semi-legendary Harry Pratley. On this page we reproduce the text of a book published by the Hurtwood Press in 1990, shortly after his death in 1987. Introduced and edited by Richard Goffin, it contains a wealth of stories and information about Harry’s formative experiences at the shop in Tunbridge Wells during the early part of the 20th century. Anyone with any interest in books and bookshops will find it an edifying and most enjoyable read.
Harry Pratley: A Bookseller Remembers
1898 Reuben Hall opens his shop in 18 Chapel Place. (before that it had been Knight’s Lending Library and Stationery shop).
1905 Harry Pratley born.
1919 Harry starts his apprenticeship at Halls.
1922 Charles Avery takes over from Reuben Hall (29th September).
1923 Harry ends his apprenticeship.
1932 Charles Avery sells the shop to Harry.
1936 Charles Avery dies.
1938 Halls’ moves to 20 and 22 Chapel Place.
1955 Elizabeth Bateman joins as Harry’s assistant.
1959-60 Harry is President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.
1967 Harry retires. Hall’s is taken over by Elizabeth Bateman.
1983 Elizabeth Bateman dies. Sabrina Izzard takes over Halls.
1987 Harry dies.
Notable dates since publication:
1998 Hall’s 100th anniversary year.
2014 Sabrina retires. Hall’s is taken over by Adrian Harrington.
April-December 2014 Hall’s undergoes its first major renovation since 1938.
December 2014 Hall’s re-opens.
March 2015 Adrian Harrington Rare Books opens on the first floor of Hall’s Bookshop.
The distinguished antiquarian bookseller, Alan Thomas, wrote that Harry Pratley ‘was among the most highly regarded – and certainly the best loved – bookseller of his generation. All of us who experienced his friendship will not forget his charm, good humour and utter goodness – and the sense of being in the presence of a real bookseller.’ He was indeed an extremely loveable man and benevolence radiated from him. Pickwickian in appearance, he invariably engendered affection. Children were particularly attracted to him and he to them. They felt immediately confident in his company. Many booklovers owe their literary appetite to Harry’s visits with them to the nearby sweet or toyshops when as children they came with their parents to Hall’s, so at the beginning of life associating books with pleasure. My own daughters, ‘my little maids’ as he used to call them, are but two of many examples. His love of children added poignancy to one of his private griefs, the tragic death of his only child Rosemary. Nevertheless, ‘cheerfulness was always breaking in’. He rarely appeared anything but happy.
Another engaging aspect of his personality was his intense interest in a wide range of subjects. However specialised or erudite your chosen field, he would want to know all about it and in most cases could contribute something from his own vast store of experience and knowledge. He picked your brain as he had picked the brains of thousands of other friends and customers, for they were really the same. Combined with a marvellous memory, this intellectual curiosity added to his merits as a bookseller.
Harry’s own formal education had been only too short but he made himself what he became primarily because he went on learning until he died.
Harry was unanimously elected President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association for 1959-1960. According to Alan Thomas, he would certainly have been elected before, but he felt that his health was not equal to the responsibilities of office. But he served for many years on the Committee. ‘It is one of the rules of the Association that only a certain proportion of the money in the Benevolent Fund may be given to one applicant. From time to time the President would regretfully announce. that this sum was not sufficient to meet a certain need. Numerous were the times when Harry came forward and asked to be allowed to make up the difference: Typical of him! A churchwarden of St Mark’s, he was a friend of many good causes: the Bodleian Library, Canterbury Cathedral, the National Art Collection and many more. His acts of private generosity were countless. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to give away the right book to the right friend.
After retirement, the shop in Chapel Place was still of course his chief concern. His successors as owners, Elizabeth Bateman (whom he trained as his assistant) and later her assistant, Sabrina Izzard, received frequent visits and advice. They loyally preserved the layout of the shop much as he had left it. Everything remains largely unchanged and the atmosphere is essentially Pratley, so that visitors from all over the world still feel the same welcome continuity and the presence of Harry’s benevolent spirit.
His gusto for books never slackened, to the end of life he took an almost physical pleasure from a fine binding or rare text. In old age, beset with infirmities – he was blind, deaf and diabetic – he remained the same cheerful soul one remembers standing in the bitterest December cold in Chapel Place selling flags for charity, welcoming friends to tea in his home and showing them with pride his own magnificent library. He knew where each book was on its shelf and was able to relate its provenance and particular merits unerringly. When his eyes failed him, a tragedy for a bookman, he seemed to develop a special organ of locality, touch and smell.
Carlyle wrote ‘Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness’. Chance may have led Harry into book selling and this was a blessing for him. But such was his character that without asking he found other and deeper blessings in the friendship and love he inspired.
This little book, printed and published by a member of the Streatfield family (which would have pleased Harry greatly) came about in this way: Harry and his devoted second wife, Mabel, often visited us. So interested were we in his reminiscences that we persuaded him to speak into our tape recorder. Unfortunately he became too frail to continue and so we have only the story told here. I have corrected some dates, for he spoke without notes, and altered or ommitted a few phrases, but essentially these are his word in the order they occurred to him. Harry died on May 5th 1987. His fine personal library was sold at Sotheby’s who issued a special catalogue to mark the event. Hall’s continues to flourish in Chapel Place under the ownership of Sabrina Izzard.
Fordcombe, October 1990
I left school at fourteen having been promised a job at a tailor’s. And down I went to the tailor’s shop only to find that they had got somebody else and as I went home again, feeling very miserable and very apprehensive of what was going to happen, I met my old schoolmaster and he said ‘Hullo Harry! What are you doing here? I thought you were going to work for Jenkinson’s.’ I told him the sad story, that the job was no longer there and I’d got no prospects of a job. He said ‘Do you think you would like to be a bookseller?’ and from that one question the whole of my life was shaped.
He took me down to Hall’s second-hand bookshop because Mr Hall had thought of taking somebody and wondered whether I should do. Well, I was quite pleased to do anything, whether it was bookselling or anything he asked. The only important thing was that it should provide me with something to live on. I was quite a young boy and I had no parents alive so that it was very important that I should have a job.
Mr Hall asked whether I thought I should be interested in books and would I be prepared to come and that he would want me, if I did come, to serve a four years apprenticeship. Before we got to that stage he thought it would be a good idea for me to work for a month if I would like to, to see how we got on together and whether I was suitable material, and that I did. Then he decided that if I would serve as an apprentice for four years he would give me a job.
It was a very difficult decision for me to make because the wages were absolutely pitiful. I was to be offered seven shillings a week for the first year, ten shillings for the second year, fifteen shillings for the third year and one pound for the fourth year. But it was that or nothing. I very gratefully accepted the chance of becoming an apprentice and I might say that now I am a very old man I’ve never been able to find a single person who was apprenticed like me to antiquarian bookselling for four years. I seem to have been unique.
So I was legally indentured. A very grand document it was too and I can’t think what has happened to it. I would love to have it but it was signed and sealed and stamped and was all very official and that’s how it started for me.
Reuben Hall was an old man at that time and was getting near the end of his book selling life. His start as a bookseller was an unusual story I like to remember now. He was a rather dour Nonconformist, with somewhat strict views of life and yet he had to work as a clerk in a brewery at Maidstone and it always went against the grain with him that he earned his money out of drink. He was trying to do a little dealing in books on the side and in those days he took Bazaar, Exchange and Mart. One day he saw an advertisement for a number of books inserted by a bookseller in Birmingham, offering absolutely ridiculously small prices for extremely valuable and rare books and one of the books advertised for was called An Evening Walk. It was an anonymous poem published, I think, in 1793. When he was going to work Reuben Hall used to go habitually through a passageway where there was a junkshop where they had a lot of books and he saw this book, An Evening Walk there and he brought it for threepence. He sent it up to Birmingham and got five pounds. He said to himself this is going to be it, no more working in a brewery, I’m going to try and start a secondhand bookshop!
He went over on his bicycle to Tunbridge Wells to see and survey the land and he found some little premises in Chapel Place that were going at a nominal rent and he took them, having very little capital and no stock. While he was in Tunbridge Wells on that same journey a penny bazaar in Camden Road was selling up and he bought all their hymn books and religious books for a small sum and that was his first stock. It’s almost incredible to think that from that day onwards for the greater part of ten years he cycled to and fro from Maidstone to Tunbridge Wells and cycled everywhere. On Saturday nights, as he had a lending library as well as a secondhand bookshop, he didn’t close until after eleven o’clock at night and yet he cycled back to Maidstone. He was quite content to do that but he had one great stroke of luck which was really the foundation of what was to become, I like to think, a famous secondhand bookshop.
He had been in Chapel Place two or three weeks when a farm wagon drawn by three big shire horses drew up outside, loaded with old books and the carter, very taciturn, just said that the Gov’nor told him to bring these in and he’d come later to see him. He unloaded all these old books into the shop and Reuben Hall was a little bit worried and anxious as to what he was to do because he’d got very, very little capital. He was still more anxious when, in a week’s time, instead of the owner of the books coming, the carter came back with a second load. There they were in the shop and within a few days the owner came in and said ‘I sent you in some books. Would you be interested in buying them?’
Of course Reuben Hall was quaking, wondering whatever he should do. He didn’t know what their value was and he’d got very little money and he said ‘Well, what do you want for them?’ and the owner thought for a while and then he said ‘Well, 1 should think five pounds wouldn’t hurt you, would it?’ So Reuben Hall said yes, he would be willing to give five pounds for them and he bought them and that was the beginning of a very successful career. He had only an amateur’s knowledge of books and he was no great reader but he did like dealing in books. So he had to price those books just on their size. The small ones he would be quite pleased to get a few coppers for and for the bigger ones he would ask perhaps a shilling and for the folios he would ask, somewhat anxiously, two shillings. Of course it set him on his feet and gave him the capital he needed and from then on he became THE secondhand bookseller in what was a spa town which was full of retired people absolutely chock-a-block with private libraries. The books brought in by the carter belonged to the Baden Powell family, the Chief Scout’s family, who lived at that time at Speldhurst. It transpired later that the sons wanted a billiard room and the only place that could be used was the library, so they got rid of all the books and put in a billiard table instead.
I should have told you that An Evening Walk was in fact the first book published by William Wordsworth and contains poems on the Lake District and it was the beginning of the Lake School and his poetry and is an extremely rare book. Even in those days, when books were so much cheaper, it was of very considerable value and that was the book which founded Reuben Hall’s bookselling career.
When in 1919 I left school on the first available day and instead of going to a job at a tailor’s kind Fortune sent me to the bookshop in Chapel Place, Reuben Hall had already prospered. For a middle class trader he had done very well. He had bought himself a nice suburban house in Madeira Park. He had been unlucky with his family, his only son was killed in the War and his daughter had died during it and so he had got to the stage where the shop and books became less and less central to his life, and he came down there only in the morning. He was a countryman at heart as he always remained and he had a face like a pippin apple. He used to come to the shop, see that I had opened it up and then disappear on that famous bicycle on which he had travelled to and fro from Maidstone for so many years. Now he travelled down to his allotment and spent his time there.
I must try to remind you of the pleasantness that still was Chapel Place at that time. It was just before the world was flooded with cars and Chapel Place was a little thoroughfare from the Pantiles to the Highstreet. Half of it was cobbled and it was mainly used by the travellers who came in those days into Tunbridge Wells from the West Station, passed along the Pantiles, up Chapel Place to the shops in the town; the country folk who came in at weekends to do their shopping.
At its entrance there stood that pleasant Church of King Charles the Martyr, to which both Pepys and Evelyn had been badgered into giving contributions when they came along the Pantiles in its early days, before Tunbridge Wells hardly existed! Their names are still recorded on the vellum list which the church contains on its wall of those who subscribed. Behind the church was the King Charles’ Boy’s School and in my day I used to regard it as something akin to the Eton and Harrow of Tunbridge Wells because those boys all paid for their schooling – to whit, threepence a week.
Next to the school and my outlook from the bookshop, was a butcher’s with an unusual and very charming frontage, which had a tiled picture of rural scenes, sheep and oxen and so forth and inside the name ‘Charles J. Wood, Family Butcher’, all looking so much more attractive than the long counter on which stood the meat. The inevitable day came, unhappily, when Charles J. Wood was no longer there and the front was taken down and I fear destroyed. Now, of course, it would go into a museum of Victorian art for very worth while preserving it was. Next there was a little lane leading up to a very large Non-Conformist chapel, Rehoboth Chapel it was called, as sober and sedate outside as was the congregation that I used to watch as they came out. They were mostly country folk, all dressed in dark clothes and usually with very large hymn books under their arms and they came down the lane into Chapel Place I’m afraid oblivious of the Church of England next door.
A little way further up there was a charming little needle work shop, wools and things made from wools, run by two little old ladies and might have made a little scene out of Cranford. They were friendly, they had nice customers and they really did add something to Chapel Place as did the shop next door because that was a little old-fashioned bakery. A bakery where they still baked their bread in long ovens heated by wood faggots and the bread was taken out with long wooden spades. It was run by two people, Mr and Mrs Crothal, middle-aged, very friendly people, and it was there that I spent my only ‘perk’ that I got from the shop. I was always allowed to take a penny out of the till every morning and go across and get a cup of tea and a scone or a bun. With my scone Mrs Crothal would also give me an inquiry from time to time. They were keen Salvation Army people and so they would say to me as I had my bun’ Are you saved?’ I’m afraid my theology in those days was so rudimentary that this question used to puzzle me for a long time and I’m not sure what the answer is yet.
On the other side of Chapel Place and down by my corner was a very early fishmonger, early enough in fact to have been made the ‘Fishmonger to Her Highness the Duchess of Kent’ and that dated from the days when the future Queen Victoria as a young child was brought to Tunbridge Wells to the Calverley Hotel and stayed there with her mother the Duchess of Kent. That little plaque was lost in the cellar of the fishmonger’s when it passed into the hands of MacFisheries and when they too eventually closed up, 10 and behold, from the basement came the wall plaque denoting that we had the ‘Fishmonger by Appointment to Her Highness the Duchess of Kent’ in Chapel Place!
My little shop was, in fact, half of the big corner premises that were at that time Simmonds. Simmonds were men’s clothiers and they specialized in the sort of clothes that country labourers and so on wore. They were there designedly because so many of the country folk from Sussex came up on the train to the West Station on Saturdays, through into the High Street and passed their shop. I remember having one very amusing photograph of the original Mr Simmonds standing in the doorway of that shop. One of the things he sold were the bowler hats that every respectable country worker who could afford it had in those days. The bowler hats – and there might have been well over a hundred of them – were all tucked into the window like apples in a fruiterers and there was Mr Simmonds standing very proudly in the doorway, wearing a bowler hat himself and waiting for his customers. The time was to come, within a few years, when the railway was replaced by the motorbus and eventually the West Station closed down and the country people no longer came along the Pantiles and up Chapel Place. And so Mr Simmonds decided that as trade had moved up the town, he would move up the town too and he emptied his shop and went to the corner of Calverley Road and Monson Road where the present, very magnificent business, has risen from the ashes of that in Chapel Place.
After he went, the shop stood empty for two or three years and at that time Mr Dust, who was famous as the owner of Dust’s on the Pantiles, a rather grand and fashionable women’s dressmakers, died. His widow, who knew how fond he was of Tunbridge Wells and that end of the town, couldn’t bear to see Simmonds’s old shop empty and so she bought it because he would have liked it. My small shop, which was a part of the same premises, also passed into her hands. After she had been my landlady for a couple of years and the shop next door was still derelict, she asked me whether I would like to take it over and very daringly, and after much hesitation, I did so. But before we go on about that, I think perhaps I ought to say something about the most important, in my eyes, of the premises in lower Chapel Place – the shop that was then Reuben Hall’s.
It was very small. It had three rooms, one on the ground floor, one upstairs, one a cellar downstairs which had a brick floor and was always so wet that nothing could be kept down there except some bins in which we stored books and the entrance was through a place that looked like a cupboard. You held the top of the cupboard and swung down the stairs into the cellar. The Upstairs room had a spiral iron Victorian staircase to it and it was hidden from the road by a nest of bookshelves. Whenever Mr Hall was in the shop he sat downstairs and I was consigned upstairs and was supposed to amuse myself as an amateur bookseller, or apprentice bookseller, perhaps I should say, trying to learn something about books.
It was while sitting up there one day that I noticed a lady’s head appearing up through the spiral stairs, walking very slowly with great dignity, rather like a balloon rising. She came up and she bought one or two books and in due course she started on her journey downwards. Now it was very, very difficult for her to get upstairs, she was well proportioned, I might say, and when she started to go down, with a couple of books under her arms, it was difficult, if not virtually impossible. She got herself absolutely and completely wedged in the spiral stairs. After a time she got a bit hysterical and I went to the top and tried to give her a push – I was just going to say a shove – but it was impossible, I couldn’t move her and by that time she really was getting anxious and in a panic. Someone came from below and they tried to move her but no, it was quite impossible, she was fixed there seemingly for good and all. We had to fetch somebody; a workman came in and dismantled the whole of the bottom of the staircase before she could be released. By this time, of course, a very interested and amused crowd had gathered outside and wondered what was happening but fortunately her dignity was preserved by the bookcase in front of the stairs.
It is a curious thing that the staircase to the cellar should also have been the cause for me to remember the old shop, when I was in that early stage. One day a dog started howling from the cellar and as soon as it howled, its mistress in the shop started to howl too and she became quite hysterical. Firstly she told the dog what she would do to it when she got it back again and then as soon as she had some breath she told me what she thought of me for letting the dog down there. It fell to me to go down and rescue the dog, which I did but it was heavy. I always remember those two ladies who went upstairs and downstairs from the book shop in Chapel Place.
The front door itself was made to take off and when I got to the shop my first job – I had my own key and I felt very grand with a key at fourteen – was to lift the door off its hinges. Behind it was a case of bookshelves which could be wheeled in front of the door. There was no heating in the shop, no warmth at all except an oil lamp placed in what looked like two chimney pots put on end and joined at the top by a little metal bar. In the middle of the metal bar fumes from the oil lamp came up and were supposed to heat the shop. Yet the only way in which I could ever get any heat, particularly of course when Mr Hall was not there, was to sit on top of the stove. But that had the disadvantage of heating only one part of my anatomy and covering my face with soot and it was a very difficult place to get down from when customers came in. Our little desk was round there and that was the only desk there was to deal with the book-keeping. Then there was the counter and one little open till for the money.
There were no accounts kept for years. Mr Hall never knew how much money he took, or how much profit he made, if any. He just took his takings, put them in the bank and drew money to pay for things as he wanted them. It was only later, when the income tax people who, in those faraway days, began to get interested in Hall’s Bookshop and sent him an assessment that he started to worry. He didn’t know what to say he earned or what his takings were so he just paid up. Of course the next year they sent him an assessment for a higher figure and this time he grumbled but he still paid up but when they raised it once more he found at last that he must keep some sort of books and an account of his profits. Well, that was the shop in which I was apprenticed and in which he had undertaken, very solemnly on vellum and countersigned and witnessed, to teach me the trade or the profession of a bookseller.
What he didn’t mention was that on Saturday mornings I was no longer to be a bookseller. I used to go along to his house in Madeira Park, wash down the front door and gates, wash down the paths and do the shopping for Mrs Hall. It made a very pleasant change too.
Let me tell you something about one of the most important parts of running a bookshop, that is buying the books and getting them home again after you had bought them. Of course at that time one couldn’t hire a van; it was before the age of the car, just after the War, when commercial travellers who came to the railway station to visit their shops and clients in the town bought their luggage and samples with them. Outside the station there stood six licensed outside porters, as their crimson hats with gay brass lettering proclaimed. The representatives used to hire a man for the day, he would put all their cases on his truck and go round all day from shop to shop.
One of these men used to live near the shop and it was he whom we engaged whenever we bought books in the town and there were too many to be carried. The porters all had costermonger’s trucks with nice waterproof sheets. Mr Hall used to say ‘I bought some books at so and so’ and this man would disappear and fetch them and sometimes I would be sent with him. The amazing thing is, not that he did the job in the town, but that he was also willing to walk to outlying villages perhaps five or six miles away, where it entailed him starting with his truck in the morning and not coming back until late in the afternoon.
He used to bring the truck to the bottom of Chapel Place and take off his leather harness, come up and fetch me and it was my supposed job to push behind the truck while he pulled in front. The art of that procedure, I’m sorry to say, was to bend down and look as if you were pushing very hard without doing too much real pushing. I’m very sorry to say so, but that’s how it was and as I look back now I can hear the rattle of the iron wheels on the cobblestones as we brought the books up. It was a wonderful thing too that he could bring back so many nicely bound and valuable books, all without the slightest damage and the pittance that he received for what was very hard labour hardly bears thinking about.
There is one other little corner of Tunbridge Wells history that few people would know now. At that time, the big houses in Tunbridge Wells, even with their staff of servants, used to have their largest carpets taken up and engage Weekes to clean them. Weekes would contract with these outside porters to take the carpets on to the Common and spend all day in the hot sun beating them, beating them and beating them. There was a special part of the Common where they were allowed to do that, just above the fairground. I am sure that very few people, if any, realise that that was in fact the only place used to beat carpets in Tunbridge Wells in those far away days.
It so happened that only a fortnight or so after I first went to Chapel Place, Reuben Hall got a big Victorian library. It was the library of the Molyneux family who owned Molyneux Park in Tunbridge Wells and there were too many books for a hand truck to deal with, so he got one of the cabbies at the station to bring the books home and I was sent with him. It’s an odd thing to think of now, but you know all the books in the library were beautifully bound in Victorian morocco and I had to bring them out, pack them inside the cab and then sit up at the front with the driver and off we would go. I can still smell that wonderful scent, a mixture of leather bindings, the upholstery of the cab and the occasional horse droppings. I can still remember seeing a photograph of the top shelf in the shop, the gas lamp outside shining on a shelf of big leather books and for years afterwards I could go along that shelf in that photograph and name all the books that were there. It shows the oddity of a bookseller’s memory.
Later, we had Gilbert, then starting with his lorries in Tunbridge Wells and he transported hundreds and hundreds of tons of libraries for me from all over the country when I was to take over the business myself.
In 1922 Mr Hall felt tired of the shop and when a friend of his from Maidstone, who already had a small bookshop there, came over, they were walking over the Common and the subject came up and the friend asked him if he would like to sell and almost on the hop he said ‘yes, I’ll sell to you’. He named a price which both of them realized afterwards was absurdly small but it was the price and that’s how it was and thus the business passed to Charles Avery and with the business, of course, I passed as the apprentice. Since Charles Avery was already also market toll collector of Maidstone, he was away from the shop even more than Mr Hall was, so that I had an even greater chance to really learn something about bookselling on the excellent precept of having to learn as one went along. A very pleasant task it was too. After my apprenticeship ended Mr Avery became very ill and some years later, in 1936, he died of cancer. He arranged with his son that I was to value the stock and then his son was to offer to let me have it, pass over the business to me on the valuation I paid for the stock, and that I was to be allowed to pay this off as I traded. Mr Avery knew that I had never had any opportunity of accumulating savings, that I had recently married and that, I like to think, I had served him very well. It was this wonderful act of generosity which made me the owner of what I think was one of the happiest businesses and shops in Tunbridge Wells.
I’ve chatted to you about the shop and the neighbourhood in those faraway days, perhaps it would be amusing to recall some of the people who came to the shop. There was an old man that I used to watch come by the shop almost every morning shuffling down Chapel Place in old carpet slippers. He had walked a mile and a half down to the town to get his wholemeal bread at the bakers and as he came by, the same little ritual occurred almost always. He would walk past the shop and then he would hesitate and he would look back at my sixpenny rack outside as though he had seen it for the first time and over he would come. He would start at one end and pick out two or three books and bring them into the shop and put them on the counter; out he would go again and he would come back in due course with another and larger selection and he’d repeat this a third time until half the sixpenny rack was in the shop. Then he would sit down in the chair and he’d say ‘Well, my boy, I’ll have those books. Would you bring them up to me?’ as though we’d met for the first time that day. But beforehand he would say to me ‘When are you going to serve your King and join the army, young man?’ And I had to think of the answer to that before we got any further. However, he would buy all his books and it would be left to me to deliver them to his house, a large Victorian house, four storeys and a big garden which was never looked after. No door to that house, to my knowledge, was ever used, except a little side door to the tradesmen’s entrance and so time after time it fell to me to take up heavy loads of books to his house, go down the side entrance and pull a handle which rang a bell that sounded like that of doom.
Presently there would be a shuffling along the passage and he would say ‘Who’s there?’ and when I reassured him the door would be opened just enough to take in the parcel and it would then be slammed and away he would go again. He lived in that place for the rest of his life with his very elderly daughter who looked after him. I found out afterwards that he was a retired London dentist who had been a collector of very good books but as he had grown older so he had changed from a collector to an accumulator. When he died his son came down to clear up the estate and they found that all but two rooms in that enormous house were piled high with parcels of books that I had delivered for years past. I may say that this was the only occasion when Hall’s Bookshop gave birth to a child because the books that came from us were taken by his son to Chelsea where he opened a bookshop and lived on their sale for many years to come.
He was of much the same generation as the little old lady, looking very much a granny in a bonnet the worse for wear, who obviously, even in those days, I realized came from one of those many typical places in Tunbridge Wells where they received ladies, to use their phrase ‘in rather poor circumstances’. She came and she used to go through the twopenny box every day and she would she would bring me in things that interested her, tell me about them and then, after much consideration, she would decide ‘Oh, I’d like this and I’d like that, would you please put it on my account?’ which I had to do. I found out afterwards that she herself was a person of not despicable talent who had married a German diplomat, and she herself had translated into English and had had published some of the State documents of the Victorian era. But her husband had died, she’d come back to England and there she was living, poor soul, on her own and she used to be rather, I’m afraid, mocked by the children who came by. One or two of them put stones in her bonnet and so forth. It was a very sad end but the curious thing was that every so often she would come into me and give me such a dressing down and want to know why I hadn’t sent her her account which she had asked for so many times. I tried to make an excuse, knowing in fact that being of such trivial value as they were I hadn’t bothered to keep any account. However, to give her some sort of satisfaction, I thought of a few things which she might have had and I gave it to her next time she visited the shop. And then came the odd part, because she would just take the account and it would be completely ignored thereafter. I think that she simply hadn’t got even those few coppers to pay her account but in some curious way it pleased her to think that she had an account with me and that was as far as she was content to let it go.
I remember a most likeable man who used to come in almost every day with his dog, a little terrier. Grahame Ullathorne was a relation of Bishop Ullathorne. He was a great enthusiast for the political history of the Civil War and the controversies within the Church of England, . of which he was a very devout member. He used to come and sit in the chair and I would show him any material that had come in within his own field, it may be a pamphlet, it might be a folio, anything within that period. He would look at it and then he would tell me so much about the people of seventeenth century England and the history of the rival sections of the Church at that time and so on, until I think at last, over some years, I could have written about or imagined quite a good landscape of seventeenth and eighteenth century England from what he had taught me from that chair.
He was the personification of all the virtues of the Edwardian landed gentry. He was, naturally, without any equivocation, a Conservative. He was impeccably dressed and altogether a perfect example of what one thinks of now as the real English gentleman. When he sat in the chair he would talk to me and his little terrier would hide himself behind the chair and then I knew what would happen in due course. Presently the little dogs nose would poke round the corner and he’d look at me over the counter with such an odd bored look on his face and he would open his mouth and yawn with an enormous yawn, an indication to me that his interest in seventeenth century history was really rather limited. His master would realize it too because at that point he used to say to him ‘Oh yes, I know, we’ll go’ and off they went.
Now that man gathered a wonderful specialized library from my shop and he had his own individual style of binding and it was one of the most delightful libraries that came to me after his death. I still have on my shelf, which is very nice to look at sometimes, a copy of the first edition of Guy Mannering which he gave to me and inscribed for me towards the end of his life to commemorate the days that he’d had in the shop. It really is a very pleasant recollection for me.
But those of course were the days before I owned the shop and of the friends I had from then on, three at least I should like to remember. The first of these was Rupert Gunnis, a product of Eton and the Grenadier Guards. Later in life he went into the Diplomatic Service and was in Cyprus as aide-de-camp to Sir Ronald Storrs. I always remember too the glee with which he used to tell me that when he came back from Cyprus eventually, one of the ladies who was a passenger on the same boat wrote her reminiscences and in it she happened to include the remark that ‘Mr Rupert Gunnis was on the same boat and he was the man with the whitest knees of any man I’ve ever seen in Christendom.’
Well, Rupert Gunnis could truthfully be described, even with all his other interests, as a man to whom bookshops and books were central to his pleasure in life. He was a scholar himself, who had so many amongst his kin who were people with inherited big family houses and libraries. We had many happy times together when the War ended because so many of these houses had been in military occupation and the libraries had to be put in order again. I was taken down to help with what was always a very pleasant job and it often wasn’t a case of going down and just helping for a day. There were occasions when I stayed two or three days in very pleasant circumstances which I was never to enjoy again, including one occasion when I slept in a fourposter bed. Those were wonderful opportunities to see the sort of library that had been accumulated in this country over the generations and was now at last being looked through as an entity. You could see from the signatures inside the story of all those books, those of the forebears who had actually bought them and built the library up and it was a most fascinating task.
That was only one of the by-products of Rupert Gunnis’s extreme kindness to me. He used to visit the shop regularly when he was in Tunbridge Wells, always keeping an eye on what was coming in, what I had bought and often recommending people who had good libraries to sell, to sell them to me. He was one of that small panel of people who used to gather round me to watch me mark up new stock and it was somewhat of an ordeal! I had to be careful because they watched me, first of all to make sure that they didn’t miss anything that came within their particular fields, but much more they seemed to think it was their function to see that I wasn’t careless and threw away anything that should be rescued. Many. were the tussles we had in the cellar over books which they thought had either not been given due value or had been thrown away when they shouldn’t be. So, it was a very long-standing and very close association with him. Rupert Gunnis’s mother was one of the Streatfeilds of Chiddingstone and that was to lead to me having, in due course, the Streatfeild library from Chiddingstone Castle.
Inevitably a bookseller’s life brings a series of surprises, good and bad. I remember an elderly clergyman coming into the shop one day and producing from a paper bag a few eighteenth century books and asking me, very diffidently, whether they were of any interest to me. After looking at them I had, as is almost invariably the case, to say ‘I’m sorry, they are of no value, have you any others?’ and he said ‘Oh yes, I’ve got some more at the Rectory but do you think they would be worth coming to see?’ Normally, in a case like that, it’s a lost journey, but one always takes the chance so I arranged to go and see him. He told me that he was Rector of St Margaret’ s, Old Horsmonden and that his name was the Reverend Smith-Marriott. He explained to me that there were two churches there, the old church of which he was the Rector and the new church which is two miles away in a completely different village and that I must make no mistake. He told me just how to get there and to do so I had to take a lane off the main road that I had never noticed before.
I went down a hill and it led to a most charming valley and as I got to the bottom of the hill I could see the old parish church and a few small pleasant period houses round it and I thought that must be his rectory. But the first thing that was so striking was the approach to the church because it was quite unusual and must be as fine as any in Kent. Just before you arrived at the lych gate, you had to drive round a complete circle of, I should think, probably forty feet or so and that circle was completely covered by an enormous and very old walnut tree, a tree which was so old it covered the entire circle and the surrounding road. Its branches beyond that had to be supported to keep them from falling. I thought ‘this is pleasant, I’ll go in and see the church first.’ The church was beautifully cared for although it obviously was used by a very small congregation. The walls were covered with tablets which enshrined the history of the parish and those who had lived there. From them I learned that the Smith-Marriotts had, in fact, owned this valley since the seventeenth century and had provided, incidentally, a whole series of rectors for the church of which the man who came in to me was destined to be the last. There were, of course, all the local squires recorded on the tablets and one local worthy, who as his memorial tablet proudly proclaimed, was the inventor of the stomach pump. It was rather an amusing example of the many paths which lead to the fortunes of fame, I thought. However, I went out, intending to go into the next house, which I presumed to be the rectory when, to my astonishment, I saw in the other direction, a charming park. On a hill was a lovely seventeenth century brick house, crowning it, which had not been altered much since it was built, I should say, and to my amazement I found that this was Old Horsmonden Rectory.
When I drove up there, Mr Smith-Marriott came out to greet me, thanked me for coming and said ‘Well now, would you like to come and see the books?’ and whereas I had been expecting to see a bookcase or two in a parson’s study, instead I was shown into a beautiful and large eighteenth century library, a library which completely covered the four walls of the room and was encased in the original bookcases of I should say, probably 1720, that sort of period, all glazed and covered with grilles. I thought, this is exciting, and he said to me ‘Would you like to have a look at them?’ Of course I said ‘Well, yes please, I can’t do anything until I have.’ So he called a butler and when he came to open the bookcases it appeared that it had been so long since anybody had opened one of those doors that the locks had all rusted solidly. The butler had to fetch a chisel and prise open all those lovely doors before I could see any of the books.
After that rather dramatic entry it was a little disappointing to find that the books were not, by modern standards, very exciting. They were religious books that had been used by the past rectors of Horsmonden and a number of Greek and Latin classics which they’d probably had at Oxford. Those classics were beautifully bound in eighteenth century red morocco bindings and of the books which I was able to select a few were chosen just for their fine bindings and only two were really exciting to a bookseller or collector. These were two little books printed at Salisbury in 1755 and as new as when they had been sold. They were the first edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar if Wakefield which was published by Newbery when he had a press in Salisbury and that gave me some chance. I picked that out and a few of the bindings and so forth and I was able to make him quite a pleasant offer that he was pleased with and I was pleased with too.
Now, what I didn’t know when I said goodbye to him, was that the family were shortly to give up that rectory. They had, I think, fallen victims to the changed circumstances of the day and could no longer keep up a house which had been theirs for all those centuries. When a little later on, there was a sale of its surplus contents, two things turned up that would have excited me, had I known that they were there. They owned the shirt which Charles the First had worn when he went to the scaffold in Whitehall and whereas one would have thought such a thing must be of dubious authenticity, it was in fact authentic and fetched an enormous amount at the sale and was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The other thing, less exciting perhaps, but one that gave even greater regret, was a beautiful copy of the first edition of Speed’s Atlas of England, a really nice copy, bound in calf. It apparently had been tucked away in a drawer and Mr Smith-Marriott had not thought it interesting enough to show me. I had to buy it at the sale and pay a very high price. It was a lot in those days, but my word, I hesitate to think what he would have got for it and I should have bid for it now. So that was the unexpected end to an excursion which had promised to be so commonplace.
There was another interesting feature about that visit because two miles further on there was still at that time a beautiful, large stone built mansion that belonged to the Austen family, relations of Jane Austen. Jane Austen herself used to visit it most years and she wrote a series of letters from there and if she came to church, which she no doubt did on Sundays, then she would have come in her carriage along the lane that I had taken. It was a pleasant thought for a bookseller and of course, if one thinks of Jane Austen, one inevitably thinks of Doctor Chapman who knew more about her than anybody else.
He was her historian, he founded the museum to her memory at Chawton and she and Samuel Johnson’s work gave him his chief claim to fame, I suppose, amongst the book collectors of the world. Shortly after my visit to Horsmonden he came down and I brought him out there in the car. He told me all about the house and the letters that had been written there and that gave an added flavour to that really delightful day, for the little village had been effectively unchanged for the last two hundred years. People had moved away because it was so remote and the new village of Horsmonden arose on the hill beyond together with a new church.
The Doctor Chapman I remember is the man who used to come almost every year during the Oxford vacation to see his sister who lived a few miles from Tunbridge Wells. It was only partly the purpose of that visit to see her and, I am pleased to say, partly the fact that he liked to come over to the bookshop. I knew that one morning I should see him arrive outside the shop at nine o’clock on what one could only truthfully say was a very rickety old bicycle. He looked much like a farm labourer who had come in to do the shopping in the town and the ritual was always much the same. He would first of all put his bicycle against the fence and chain it and then he would roll himself a cigarette and smoke that and then from the back of the bicycle he would take a large cardboard box and bring it inside. We then went downstairs to the basement and there he would produce four flower pots, four candles and a nice comfortable pair of carpet slippers. He would put the candles on the floor and light them and the flower pots over the candles to make some sort of warmth and then in his carpet slippers he settled down to a day’s work.
What did he do? Not something for himself but something for an American university. He used to go through all my latest purchases of seventeenth and eighteenth century books and from the waste paper basket he would produce a book that he would tear up. He would then just catalogue on separate pages the various pamphlets and so forth that we had, what they were and how much they cost. These were eventually sent out to the Librarian of the William Andrews Clark Library at the University of California, with whom he was very friendly and it gave them a chance to have the pick of their own specialized part of my stock. I must have sold them hundreds and hundreds of pamphlets in that way.
He was, of course, after a time very friendly with my wife and myself and my daughter Rosemary. He used to come up and have tea with us and it was there that he was one day taken ill and we looked after him for a while until he recovered. After that we knew each other better still. He was a man who was a complete individualist. He had some odd little traits which endeared and amused people who knew him all over the world. Not the least of these was the fact that he would never use ordinary notepaper; he always used odd scraps of paper whoever he was corresponding with and he corresponded with the biggest libraries and the biggest booksellers in America and over here. You would find a letter from him written on the back of a bill or a summons to a meeting. One of his American scholar friends recalls in his reminiscences that he received a letter from him one day and when he opened it, it was a sheet from his son’s lesson book and it had got his notes on the anatomy of the frog and pictures of the interior of a frog. He couldn’t think whoever had sent such a thing to him until he turned it over and there was Doctor Chapman’s note on the outside. It was an odd trait and one which he made no apologies for. I suppose I learnt more from that man and the kindness with which he taught me about the books that came in, than any other man with one exception and that man was Claude Jenkins.
Claude Jenkins, when I first knew him, was a bachelor. He had been a curate at St Martin in the Fields. The Archbishop of Canterbury recognized his exceptional qualities and for long he had part of the task of looking after Lambeth Palace Library and the Library at Canterbury. He lived, when I first knew him, in a charming house in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral with his mother. He was quite a character in as much as he had his own values in life. He valued learning and books more than anything else in life, other than the Church which he served. Personal things, his own clothes, food and so forth meant nothing to him. He would hate to spend money except on the things that he thought were of real importance in life, that is to say books. He was Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford and the last of the Regius Professors to be appointed under the old statutes, which meant he was appointed for life. Once he was made a Regius Professor he could never be dispossessed, he had his rooms in Christ Church, Oxford, for the rest of his life unless he chose to give them up and so he became one of the great figures in the Common Room at Christ Church. His wit and extraordinary memory made him a favourite of everybody.
He had, at the back of his rooms, a little garden that adjoined the Dean’s garden and the Dean was very proud of his garden naturally, it was part of the College. He was rather put out because Doctor Jenkins’s garden was neglected. Doctor Jenkins would never allow his garden to be touched or anything altered in it in any way. The College tried by diplomacy, and as near compulsion as they could get to allow them to have it seen to. At last the Dean went in and told him what a problem it was and that he hoped that he would let them cut the shrubs down and tidy it up but Doctor Jenkins stuck to his guns and told the Dean that on no account should that garden ever be tidied up because it was a bird sanctuary.
The great thing about his tenure at Christ Church was the library in his lodgings. I must tell you first of all that when his mother died he made a practice of coming every year to Tunbridge Wells, mainly, I’m proud to say, because of Hall’s Bookshop. He stayed at a little boarding house where all the other people were elderly retired gentlefolk, mostly ladies of very modest means. It was quite near the shop so he was perfectly happy. When he came I used to give him the keys to the shop and he went down there whenever he liked, whether the shop was closed or open and that was his home for the time being. But as I told you, he didn’t bother at all about his clothes and this led to quite an amusing situation.
Very often, after dinner at the boarding house, the ladies all adjourned to a sitting room and sat down to have their coffee. He would be very polite and chatter for a little while to them and of course they all fell in love with him. He was the sort of man one couldn’t help liking. Then when he felt he had done his social duty, he used to produce his Times and sit back with the paper open in front of him so that nobody could interrupt him while he read and he would start wriggling his feet about, as men do on such occasions. Presently his slippers would fall off and the ladies would be waiting to see if this happened because when the slippers fell off they showed that his socks had neither toes nor heels to them and of course there was much consternation amongst those ladies. They all were so anxious to ask him whether they could knit him a pair of socks. Yet nobody ever dared to venture to make the suggestion and it became quite a feature of life there. It was typical of him; when he was at Oxford he wore an old suit which he wore pretty well all the time he was there.
The room in which he tutored his many pupils had started with bookcases all round which contained his library, a fine library it must have been, including books on illuminated manuscripts and palaeography, which was one of his studies. He bought more and more books and piled them up in front from floor to ceiling and all round the room until eventually when I went to see his room at Oxford, it was literally true to say that when you went in through the door you walked between walls of books from floor to ceiling, with only a tunnel wide enough to enable you to make your way to the centre of the room. Dark though it was, there was the table which had once been big enough to hold his meals and there was too a cane armchair which had almost fallen to pieces. The table was covered with books and there was just enough room on it for his pupils to show off their work. He sat there and slept there when nobody was coming and he had in his pocket, habitually, a biscuit or two and one or two lumps of sugar .. He was not the only person that knew they were there. Mice had discovered the titbits and his pocket was almost entirely one hole of nibblings from mice getting at the biscuits inside.
It was not the only room that housed books. His lodgings extended to the first, second and third floor, three floors, and all the way up the wide stone stairway books were piled as high as they could be and three or four rows deep on each side. When you got to the top the landing was full and the bedrooms; the whole place was absolutely crammed with books. When he came to Tunbridge Wells I used to put some tea chests for him in the cellar and all the while he was there he would pick out sixpenny books, twopenny books and nice books from the shelves until by the time he went back they were full. But he very rarely bought expensive books.
Only twice in all the years that I knew him did he buy anything expensive and those occasions were a matter of considerable thought all the while he was with me. I had a beautiful set of the first edition of Aristotle printed by Aldus in 1494, nine folio volumes, a beautiful copy and one of the great treasures of the book collector’s world. Of course he noticed it as soon as he came down and I saw him looking at it every day he was there but it was priced, even then, at £120 and I knew he would never spend anything like that. But when we did eventually come to settle up his account he said ‘I think I must have the Aristotle, do you think I might?’ He spoke so charmingly and so modestly and he’d obviously wanted it so much that I agreed a price for him. I was so pleased that the set was going to him. That was one of the two expensive things he bought. The other one was a very nice copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle, printed in 1484 and full of wonderful woodcuts, some of them by Durer, and that again, although it was far beyond his normal price, he did decide that he would buy. I mention those two for one reason, which I’ll explain in a moment but I must tell you the one little joke that never palled with either of us when we settled up his bill. Although so unusual in ordinary ways, he had an account with Coutts Bank and enjoyed doing so and when he used to fill in the counterfoil of the cheque it would always be ‘Harry Pratley – X pounds’ and then underneath he would put ‘to riotous living’.
He was a great friend of my wife and of Rosemary and he used to come up to us, have tea and be fussed over. Yes, I might say fussed over, one loved to fuss over him. He had a pair of wrought iron spectacles, I don’t know how long he’d had them and his eyes behind them were terribly distorted with illness and age but he would never have them seen to. Rosemary always used to persuade him to let her have the spectacles and she washed them each time he came. Then he sat down to have his tea and we put some biscuits and some sugar lumps by his plate. Nothing was said but presently they would disappear and we knew that he’d popped them into his pocket. That was part of the ritual of him coming to us. He wrote the most charming letters from time to time from Oxford to Rosemary, about all sorts of things in life, letters such as no other person could have written to her and she valued them so much.
I remember too the extraordinary way in which he came to Tunbridge Wells from Oxford because in a way, he was quite childlike. He’d no idea of how to pack up a parcel and he always wanted to bring books with him to work with and so he used to make up two parcels, as much as he could carry on each arm, wrapped up in newspaper and tied to the best of his ability. He used to come by train down to Tunbridge Wells and he wore his suit of canonical clothes that I suppose he must have had for endless years; they were all green with age and he had his wide canon’s hat. He would never let us meet him. So he struggled down from the station lugging those big parcels which were left at the shop so that he could work there.
We used to walk round the shelves together and look at fresh stock and it was absolutely amazing how much he could pick off the shelves and tell you something about either the men who had written them or known them, or their authors and their virtues or defects. Yes, he really was a travelling university and he taught me more in my bookselling life than I could have learnt from any other source. There was no other man who left me with such a feeling of indebtedness as Claude Jenkins.
When he died he made arrangements in his will for the disposal of his books. Of course, all Oxford was anxious to know how on earth they would be disposed of.
It was assumed that he was rather anti-feminist. He used to tell me of the times when he came to Oxford by train and was met there by the Dean of one of the Colleges and how they used to get in a cab at the station and pull down the blinds so that they shouldn’t be offended by seeing women undergraduates. But the extraordinary thing was that when he died he arranged that the librarians of six colleges in Oxford, in the order which he named, should be allowed to come and take every book they wanted and the first of them all on the list was the librarian of St Anne’s, a women’s college. After the six librarians had taken their pick, the University Library was given a chance and then the members of the Common Room at Christ Church. They all took what they wanted and then the graduates and undergraduates were given the opportunity. Even after all that there were still so many books in the lodgings that they had to get Blackwells to come across and buy the remainder. They took what they could sell yet there were still eighty sacks of books and papers left which had to go for waste paper, which would have broken Doctor Jenkins’s heart.
What was so personal to me, was that he had asked his executors to contact me and arrange for me to prepare the books for their dispersal and he bequeathed to me the two most precious books that he had bought, his Aristotle and his Nuremburg Chronicle. It was such a wonderful gesture on his part!
© Adrian Harrington Ltd.