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Last updated:29 May 2015

Travels with a Caravan

by Edmund and Ruth Frow
First published in History Workshop Journal No 2, 1976

One of us calls it a hobby. The other is under no such illusion. It is a disease. The plain fact is that collecting books is as insidious in its side effects as any debilitating germ. It dictates your life style, organises your activity and decides who your friends are. In case there are those not yet hooked, it might be useful to outline some of the major pitfalls, an avoidance of which could, possibly, prevent others from reaching the dire straits in which we find ourselves.

Cover of William Morris, his art, his writings and his life by Aymer VallanceTo give some idea of the progress of our bibliomania we have to go back to our courting days. We both had a small library of political and historical books, about a bookcase each. Unfortunately they were complementary and the temptation to put them together proved too strong to resist. Tokens of our mutual esteem began to swell the numbers. William Morris, His Art, Writings and Public Life by Aymer Vallance, bought on King's Road, Chelsea for £2 because we were unable to afford the £10 which a Kelmscott volume would have cost, cemented our engagement.

Our first joint home was a small flat in Didsbury. We brought our books together but housed them separately so that each collection was identifiable. It takes time for a communion of interests to emerge and the first years of a marriage are inevitably fraught with problems of identity. Neither partner wishes to become lost in the process of assimilation and a certain jockeying for position takes place. After a time either the books are placed on the same shelves - or the marriage breaks.

After a year we moved to our present house, and the first weekend that we were in it was spent clearing the floors of the litter that the removal men had emptied out of their tea chests. The front room was covered in books and the bookcases stood invitingly empty. One of us had to go to London for a conference; and during that time, the books were placed on shelves in a classification that only one of us has really understood ever since. Our joint life had begun.

The next stage followed the visit of an old friend who is, himself, an addict, with the additional disadvantage of collecting in a number of languages. We have been fortunate that our lack of basic education ensured that we only collect in English. He looked around our house and said with envious longing, 'All that beautiful wall space!' This was a challenge which fell easily on our receptive ears. Of course, what we needed to do was to fill the walls with bookcases and the bookcases with books, and our life would acquire an added dimension and the decorating would be much more simple.

Sitting room at Kings Road

Sitting room - Kings Road

We started in the sitting room and made one mistake. We designed the cupboards with doors which swing open. But three books get lost behind the door jamb and the book we are seeking is nearly always one of the three. Around the room there are eight door jambs and seven shelves. This means that over a hundred and fifty books hide successfully and irritatingly out of our sight.

We are fairly intelligent people and having made a mistake once we do not knowingly repeat it. In the front room, our 'best' room, we took particular care to design the cases so that each book was visible. We built the shelves of solid oak and put in sliding glass doors of plate glass. It is true that one can see the books, but the weight of the glass makes it somewhat difficult to get at them. We could remove the glass and leave the cases open, but there is the problem of storing fourteen large pieces of plate glass, so we have left them in position. After a time, we found that apart from the difficulty of moving the glass, the fact that it was there proved to be a barrier between us and the books. As we used the library more and more, we resented the obstruction that the glass proved to be and in our later developments we changed all that.

Upstairs, there was no need to use oak or worry about glass. We had the shelves made of lighter, less durable, modern material and, although we made a concession and put in beading to take glass if it was wanted, we left the shelves open. This is much more satisfactory and our experience may save others from making similar mistakes.The landing at Kings Road

The rest of the housing story is quickly told. In a recent newspaper article describing the library, the comment was made that 'every room is packed, from floor to ceiling, with bookcases containing more than 10,000 volumes. There are books in the hall, books in the dining room, books in the sitting room. There are colourful and historic trade union emblems on the stairway wall and more books in two of the bedrooms. The third bedroom is devoted to thousands of pamphlets. The only room where there is nothing to read is the loo!'

So much for the physical fact of the library. But what justification is there for allowing such a deterioration in the normal living conditions of a home where there is not even room for a television? The answer to that must lie in a deep conviction that there is a value in what you are trying to do. In our case the conviction is political. We know that eventually there will be a change in our social system; that the country will be governed by those who produce the wealth; that there will be a need and a longing to know what preceded these changes. Recognizing this we set out to gather a library of books and ephemera relating to the labour movement in its broadest aspects. To do so we have travelled the length and breadth of the country buying, taking into care and gathering together the history of the working class and its allies in the many struggles which have taken place over the past two hundred years since the developments associated with the industrial revolution.

Our first journeys were in a 1937 Morris van. We carried a small tent into which we crawled wherever we found a grass verge or field conveniently near a town where a bookseller traded. We formed then the pattern which we have followed in the main for over twenty years. In the morning when we are fresh and full of energy we comb the shelves of the unsuspecting bookseller. In the afternoon we laze in the summer sun reading and gloating over our morning purchases. In the evening we walk and possibly move on to the next wide open bookshop. When our money is gone or the van is full, we return to Manchester.

Later developments included a larger tent and a superior car, a Skoda which made down into beds, a larger van and our present combination of a caravan and car. The large tent was fine, although not so easy to site, but in the course of time it became torn and less water-proof. Advancing years warned that the dampness associated with tents was an invitation to rheumatism, so we bought the Skoda. This dealt with the damp situation, but there was never enough room for books. There was the additional difficulty that we could not cook in the car and since it nearly always rains when one needs to cook, our mealtimes became too erratic to be consistent with health. The Morris 1000 van was in many ways ideal. Certainly it had the same problems with cooking, but we became adjusted to cold food and the storage situation was solved by placing our purchases underneath the foam beds on which we slept. As the holiday proceeded and we were fortunate in our book buying forays, we slept ever nearer and nearer the roof of the van. Eventually we were only just able to crawl in the space between the beds and the roof, and books do tend to be unstable in a pile.

It was the weather that eventually solved the problem for us. After a particularly wet August, we called on a caravan dealer on our way home and bought a small caravan. This was a solution to the rain but there is no doubt that it is inhibiting our book collecting. With a caravan, you really need to be on a properly appointed site. Since camp sites and bookshops are not usually planned together, there is an element of chance and our routes are restricted. It also meant that our front garden had to be dug up overnight to accommodate the caravan. Over the years this has proved to be a blessing because with the increasing use of the library by students and others, we have been able to direct them to the house with a caravan in the front garden. Kings Road is long and somewhat unenterprising in the design of the houses. A means of identification is a useful attribute.

Frontispiece to the first volume of The Black Dwarf

The Black Dwarf - frontispiece

Our first book journey took us to London in search of David Low. We had read about David and his specialization in terms of the labour movement and we knew that his shop was in Cecil Court. When we ran Cecil Court to ground, we found that David Low had moved. We comforted ourselves by visiting Collets and making the acquaintance of Edgell Rickward who at that time ran the second- hand department in the basement. He helped us on several occasions and from him we bought the Trial of Fergus O'Connor, and the Speeches of John Wilkes. He offered us a full set of The Black Dwarf. But that proved to be beyond our pocket and we had to wait many years before comparative affluence made it possible for us to buy part of it.

We ran David Low to earth in a dream bungalow at Emmington, near Chinnor whence he and Billy Howard had 'retired'. Over the years we have visited David and Billy once or twice a year and have never come away without a treasure or without good advice as to where to go on our travels. In fact on the first visit, David lent us his copy of Shepherd's Directory of Booksellers and marked a scenic and fruitful tour in the West Country for us.

State Trials

State Trials

When we had the van we were able to go into the South West with its narrow lanes and steep hills fairly often, but a caravan presents too many problems and recently increasing traffic has stopped our journeys so far South. However, we did well while we were able to go. On one trip into Devon we bought six volumes of the State Trials for five shillings each. We left four more volumes behind but, fortunately realising what we had done, we sent for them when we returned home and the ten full calf volumes have proved their worth many times since. On the same day we visited a small shop on the main road between Torquay and Paignton and found a box full of pamphlets and leaflets dating from the early years of the century, obviously the treasured horde of a retired and politically active socialist. We were selective and only took the most interesting pieces. The ones that got away have filled us with regret ever since. Experience is dearly bought and we have never left anything behind since. Of course, money came into it. On that journey we spent two weeks away from home and allocated £6 to food, £6 to petrol and the rest of our £20 to books.

Title page of Local reports on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of England

Apart from visiting bookshops we like to look at cathedrals and marvel at the workmanship that has gone into their building. Our favourite is Wells and we never cease to enjoy looking across the green towards the magnificent symmetry of the sturdy building set off by the open space around it. The bookshop in Wells is of variable quality. We have had bargains from it, but once or twice it has been closed and we have had to retire defeated. Our Chadwick Report Of 1842 on The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of England and Wales, with its third volume published the year later on Interment in Towns, came from Wells. The last volume reads like a horror story and should not be looked at before going to bed.

Exeter Cathedral is too enclosed to enjoy fully. But it had the advantage of two bookshops nearby. In one there is an old well going back into antiquity and the other, since closed, was run by an enterprising young man who specialised in cookery and social history. In recent years there seems to have been an increase in the number of young men who have set up enterprising second-hand book businesses. Mr. Drury of Colchester has rare volumes usually in excellent condition. We can never afford much from him but we thoroughly enjoy looking at his stock. One gem that we bought was The Pauper's Advocate: A Cry From the Brink Of The Grave by Samuel Roberts. This was published as a contribution to the campaign against the New Poor Law. Michael Lewis at Croscombe near Wells is another bookseller with attractive stock. His son is a bookbinder, and the volumes in his house reflect this. We fell for Title page of Treatise on the the adulteration of foodFrederick Accum's Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons which has a modern ring about it although it was written in 1820. We pretend that we go for the content and not the binding, but we always call in at Bayntun's in Bath to look at their bindings. Bath is one of the happiest hunting grounds with a number of shops. But although we once found John Wilkes's Letter To The Duke of Grafton in Bayntun's second-hand cellar, we do not often come away with much. The other shops are well stocked, but not in our line. Cheltenham is probably the mecca so far as we are concerned. We camp on an excellent site at Bishop Cleeve. The walking is superb and there are five bookshops to comb. One day in Alan Hancox's shop we found Bruton's Three Accounts of Peterloo, a real find to Mancunians. Perhaps the one shop which reflects inflationary trends less than others is Heynes Bookshop. It is a general shop with a varied stock and you might find a gem, or nothing much, but it is always worth a visit.

Although we appreciate a plethora of bookshops in a town, one can have too much of a good thing and in Oxford and Cambridge we tend to get book indigestion. They have the same effect as shopping at Marks and Spencer. There is such a wealth of bargains that choice becomes impossible and we lose out by indecision. However, we did on one never to be forgotten occasion buy Ernest Jones's and Fergus O'Connor's The Labourer, a Chartist periodical, in Deighton Bell and Company in Cambridge.

Title page of York Castle in the nineteenth century

York Castle in the nineteenth century

In the recent palmy days of bookselling, a number of booksellers have set up home in a mansion and opened their house to the buyer and browser. Peter Eaton lives at Lillies outside Aylesbury and we have been made very welcome there while we looked at the thousands of books set out in the magnificent rooms. Young John Lawson whose father used to bring out his treasures for us at Sutton Coldfield, has a Tudor Hall at East Hagbourne, near Didcot. His books are housed in the barn. At one time, there was a castle full of books in Yorkshire. It was there that we saw a copy of Rede's York Castle in the Nineteenth Century which we badly wanted because it contained the story of the many reformers and radicals who were incarcerated in the prison. But it was part of a collection and we could not have it. We eventually bought a copy from A. J. Coombes at Betchworth in Surrey.

The only bookseller with parking space for a caravan is James Place. He lives in the middle of a disused airfield at Cow Honeybourne, near Evesham. He has divided the control tower into two flats. His daughter has one and he and his wife share the other with the books. There is no knowing what turns up at Cow Honeybourne. Mr. Place has connections in Birmingham, and cities are always likely to provide treasures.

As we bought more and more books, we found that we needed still more. Each new acquisition pointed the way to others. One or two books assumed the importance of the Holy Grail in our lives. Title page of History of the Chartist MovementWe knew of their existence but dared not hope to possess them. One of these was Gammage's History Of The Chartist Movement. Over the years we perfected the technique of going into a bookshop, one of us engaging the bookseller in idle conversation using the question, 'Have you a copy of Gammage?', as an opening ploy, while the other scanned the shelves at leisure and without interruption. After a time, the question became academic and we knew we would never achieve the happiness of owning a Gammage. But one day in Steedman's in Grey Street, Newcastle, one of us was up the ladder while the other worked over the lower shelves. Suddenly there was a strangled cry and the ladder shook. White and shaken, we both checked the top shelf and there, for a reasonable sum, was a copy of Gammage. We paid our money and went for a coffee to restore our frayed nerves. But a dimension had gone from our lives. It's not the kill, but the chase that is most fun.

This story has to have an ending. That will only come when we can no longer chase after books. We have not mentioned Edinburgh or the book village at Hay-on-Wye where nearly every building is full of books. Nor have we mentioned Southport, Preston, Guildford, Brighton, Salisbury and Winchester, Worcester or Gloucester, all of which have provided rare biblio-delights from time to time.

Possibly the real pleasure of book buying is the cooperation and friendship that springs up between seller and buyer. We have friends around the country where we are welcome to call at any time; Bill Walmsley of Shaw's Bookshop in Manchester; Michael Katanka whose four storey house in Stanmore has produced many of our most rare treasures; Arnold Muirhead at St. Albans whose garden is a show-piece in any season and whose Cobbett collection and early radical pamphlets have made us very happy on many occasions; Jimmy McGill who can always find us a book or print when we call. It is probably this relationship which accounts for the fact that David Low 'retired' from business over twenty years ago and has carried on bookselling ever since.

We have tried to repay this debt to our bookseller friends by making our library available for students and workers to use in their research. In 1959, we formed a charitable trust, The Working Class Movement Library, Manchester, to serve the interests of all who wish to study the labour movement in all its facets. We welcome such researchers at 111 King's Road, Old Trafford, Manchester. But as for selling a book - that is out of the question.

Books and journals mentioned in the text

Aymer Vallance, William Morris: his art, his writings and his public life - a record (1897) - Shelfmark: D61

The trial of Feargus O'Connor, and fifty-eight others, at Lancaster on a charge of sedition, conspiracy, tumult and riot (1843) - Shelfmark: D31

John Wilkes, The speeches of John Wilkes, one of the Knights of the Shire for the County of Middlesex - in the parliament appointed to meet in Westminster the 29th day of November 1774, to the prorogation the 6th day of June 1777 (1777) - Shelfmark: D02

TJ Wooler, The black dwarf: a London weekly publication (29 Feb 1817-26 Apr 1820; 5 Jul 1820-31 Dec 1823) - Shelfmark: D57

TB Howell, A complete collection of State trials: and proceedings for high treason and other crimes and misdemeanors from the earliest period to the year 1783, with notes and other illustrations 15 vols (1817-1826) - Shelfmark: D33

Edwin Chadwick, Report to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, from the Poor Law Commissioners, on an inquiry into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain: with appendices (1842) - Shelfmark: A34
Edwin Chadwick, Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain: a supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns (1843) - Shelfmark: A34

Samuel Roberts, The pauper's advocate: a cry from the brink of the grave against the new poor law (1841) - Shelfmark: D16

Fredrick Accum, A treatise on adulterations of food, and culinary poisons - exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, coffee, cream, confectionery, vinegar, mustard, pepper, cheese, olive oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy and methods of detecting them (1820) - Shelfmark: D10

John Wilkes, A letter to His Grace, the Duke of Grafton, first commissioner of His Majesty's treasury 3rd ed. (1767) - Shelfmark: D06

FA Bruton (ed.), Three accounts of Peterloo: by eyewitnesses Bishop Stanley, Lord Hylton, John Benjamin Smith, with Bishop Stanley's evidence at the trial (1921) - Shelfmark: D05

Feargus O’Connor and Ernest Jones, The labourer: a monthly magazine of politics, literature, poetry, &c (1847-1848) - Shelfmark: D43

Leman Thomas Rede, York Castle in the nineteenth century: being an account of all the principal offences committed in Yorkshire, from the year 1800 to the present period - with the lives of the capital offenders... (1831) - Shelfmark: D41

RG Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837-1854 (1894) - Shelfmark: D19