Thomas Hardy, Toucans and Ice-Cream
Fanny Charles looks at the life and work of James Stevens Cox
Published in September ’14
In the mid-1960s, the Times Literary Supplement carried an article about a publishing phenomenon that it described as Dorset’s fastest growing rural industry: a series of monographs based on interviews and memoirs of people who had known or worked for Thomas Hardy. The publisher and author of these little booklets was James Stevens Cox, an antiquarian bookseller, historian of hair-dressing, collector of exotic animals and birds, and a serious archaeologist whose research and discoveries in the West Country are still remembered and respected.
James Stevens Cox, who was also my mother’s older brother, was born in Bristol, where his parents had hairdressing businesses; he was educated at Bristol Grammar School, where its visionary headmaster, Mr Barton, introduced the pupils to fine art and good literature, not for exams but for pure pleasure. James was apprenticed in the family business and learned how to do the famous Marcel Wave, studying in Paris where it had been invented. He retained his interest in hairdressing and compiled the encyclopaedic Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing and Wigmaking (published in 1966).
During the war he joined Bristol City Police, where his duties ranged from raiding brothels – the military hierarchy did not want soldiers catching venereal diseases – to protecting Queen Mary the Queen Mother when she visited the city. He recalled that the local antique dealers dreaded such visits, as it was considered polite to present her with any item that she had admired.
During the blitz on Bristol, James witnessed the destruction of many archives and records, unique documents lost to future generations; it had a profound effect on him. He dedicated himself to trying to publish unique documents to ensure that at least the content would survive. This commitment included his work with Professor Rothwell and the archaeologist Stephen Dewar in the founding of the Dorset Record Society in the 1960s, with the encouragement of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society (which runs the Dorset County Museum). The new society’s aim was to publish original manuscripts in order to make them accessible to the general reader.
He had his first bookshop on the historic Christmas Steps in Bristol, but after the war he moved to Ilchester in south Somerset, the home of many generations of the Cox family, and opened a shop there. His archaeological researches in Ilchester led to important discoveries about the town’s Roman past and he later wrote the History of Ilchester, which was published in 1958.
In 1953, he moved with his Scottish-born wife, Helen, and the then six-year-old Gregory, to a beautiful old house overlooking Beaminster Square, where they had their home and bookshop. More recently, the building was the Wild Garlic, and is now the Brassica, restaurant.
As a very young child I was not aware of my uncle’s many and varied interests and accomplishments – I just loved to visit him and Helen, to be dazzled by his magic tricks (he was a skilful conjuror), to meet the latest additions to his menagerie and to explore the endless overcrowded bookshelves in the rambling Beaminster house. Later I used to go with him to meet bookseller friends such as John Ruston, who had a Dickensian antiquarian bookshop in Old Christchurch Road, Bournemouth. Uncle Jim also succeeded in putting me off my romantic idea of having my own bookshop – there was no money in it, he said, only dust and hard work.
I vividly remember a visit with my parents when one of Uncle Jim’s most extraordinary creatures attacked my mother. We were sitting in the front room when suddenly a hissing, spitting gingery typhoon hit the back of her neck, spun off back to the top of the glass-fronted bookcases, raced round the room, dived down at my shocked mother and repeated the process. Not surprisingly, she screamed, and Auntie Helen called James, ‘Get hold of your cat.’
Uncle Jim, utterly unfazed, and disconcertingly unsympathetic, somehow gathered the distressed creature (the cat) and commented to my mother that it was her fault because she was wearing perfume, and the cat – a South American jaguarundi – did not like perfume, ‘for obvious reasons,’ he added (mysteriously, to me at the time). This was more than 50 years ago, and we all know better now that such a glorious, beautiful and rare creature should not be in anyone’s house; then, though, James and Helen’s home was also home to a bad-tempered monkey, a mynah bird that could mimic my aunt’s Scottish accent with uncanny accuracy, a hornbill called Henry, countless pretty finches and the toucans who gave their name to his publishing company. It was also the toucans that inspired one of his fabled culinary exploits.
By any standards, James was eccentric… and perhaps he was not always easy to live with. His bottomless appetite for ice-cream was a delight to visiting wide-eyed nieces, but the competitive edge he brought to eating ice-cream was difficult for the young Gregory.
He also loved to scandalise the easily shocked, such as a school-friend of mine who gazed in horror as he piled ice-cream on the same plate as beef, gravy, mashed potato and baked beans. ‘It all goes down the same way,’ he told her, while I (unkindly) giggled.
The monographs, published by James’s Toucan Press, included most famously an interview with Gertrude Bugler, who played Tess on stage in the dramatised version of Hardy’s most popular novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Gertrude’s sister Norrie Woodall, who also had a part in that original Hardy Players production, only died three years ago at the remarkable age of 105, having seen the successful re-establishment of the New Hardy Players as a company dedicated to performances of Hardy’s works and plays about his life.
He also interviewed Lady Hester Pinney of Racedown in the Marshwood Vale, and published her memories of Thomas Hardy and his second wife visiting Racedown, and of her voluntary work as a Guardian of the Beaminster Workhouse, where she had met people who remembered Martha Brown, the woman hanged for the alleged murder of her younger husband. Martha’s execution, the last public hanging of a woman in Dorset – was witnessed by the 16-year-old Thomas Hardy, and had a profound and lifelong effect (see p53 of May 2014’s Dorset Life for more information).
Less high profile, but equally interesting, are the memoirs that James published of Hardy’s chauffeur and his barber, of people who acted in his plays or sang the West Gallery Quire carols that he loved. Dorset life a century ago comes vividly to life in these slim volumes, printed by Creeds of Bridport, with whose founder, John Creed, James had a professional and personal friendship for 50 years, a relationship continued by James’s son Gregory, a historian and classicist.
John and Audrey Creed, who still live next to their old printing press building at Broadoak near Beaminster, first met James Stevens Cox through mutual friends, the Forbes family who owned the Eype Mouth Hotel. The Creeds printed the vast majority of the monographs – including series on minor poets, Dorset Worthies, the legends and history of Dartmoor, and researches into the history of ancient sites, such as the Cerne Abbas Giant. For many years they also printed his bookseller’s catalogue, The Literary Repository.
‘He was a real character,’ says Audrey, whose strongest memory is ‘the way he would turn up at any time of the day or night’. She also remembers his love of ice-cream and the way he would treat the three Creed daughters to the frozen delight.
John, who is distantly related to Thomas Hardy (his maternal grandfather’s mother was a cousin of the writer and his siblings), remembers James as a generous and eccentric man who, although a good businessman, was often impractical.
From Beaminster, James, Helen and Gregory had moved to a house at Pilsdon Pen and then to Morcombelake, as John Creed recalls: ‘When they moved to Morcombelake they put up a wooden shed [in which to store books and papers] on the side of the hill. There was a bit of a wind and it blew over and [the papers] all blew everywhere.’
John doesn’t think people in Dorset at the time really knew what a remarkable or unusual man James was, or how important his Hardy researches and ‘marginalia’ (as the writer Edmund Blunden called them) would be for future historians. ‘He was not only a very good customer, he was a friend. He was different – he stood out. He was a real character,’ says John.
James’s real party piece was thanks to the toucans. He observed how well they did on their diet of meal-worms and decided to give it a try. Apparently finding them tasty, he loved the effect it had on visitors when he produced a little tin from his pocket and offered them a nibble, before pouring a handful of meal-worms down his throat.
These were party tricks, entertainments for friends, family and any available audience. James was primarily a serious and dedicated antiquarian, a bookseller of formidable knowledge, an expert ornithologist, an enthusiast with a boundless capacity for discovering interesting subjects and turning them into readable monographs or books, and an eclectic polymath who could lecture on subjects from the Aztecs to wig-making. James Stevens Cox finally moved to Guernsey, where he died in 1997. He was much-loved and is still missed by all those who knew him. ◗
Hardy & hairdressing: a selection of works written and/or published by James Stevens Cox
James Stevens Cox was a prolific author and publisher. Included amongst his works are volumes showing evidence of his twin loves of Hardy and hairdressing. The following is far from
a complete list of works in which he had an involvement:
An illustrated dictionary of hairdressing & wigmaking; Dorset dishes of the 17th century; Two Dorset ballads, c. 1700; Dorset folk remedies of the 17th and 18th centuries; Marcel-waving and curling; Mumming and the Mummers’ Play of St. George; Romano-British bone hairpins and needles found at Ilchester between 1948 and 1955; The library of Thomas Hardy, O.M; Hardy’s Wessex: identification of fictitious place names in Hardy’s works; The construction of an ancient Egyptian wig in the British Museum; Ice-creams of Queen Victoria’s reign; The bird-trappers of Wessex in Thomas Hardy’s day; Max Gate, home of Thomas Hardy; St. Gabriel’s Church, Morcombelake and Stanton St. Gabriel, Dorset; Brief notes on the history of Bexington, Dorset