J.A. Allen, The Horseman’s Bookshop

A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPH A. ALLEN, publisher and bookseller.

Born 1911 died 17 Oct 2001


It was a door to another world, an equestrian Narnia, an old curiosity shop. To this equestrian holy of holies were drawn the enthusiasts of the horse world, lovers of good horse books, those whose fingers itched to touch priceless tomes bound in ancient leather tooled, ribbed and delicately gilded.  They would press their noses against the small window of the shop behind which crowded dusty tomes and latest editions all of them dedicated to the world of the horse.

You could get a taxi at Heathrow and ask for, “The Horseman’s Bookshop.” The driver would take you straight there. JAA was on the ‘Knowledge.’ Only the initiates entered and were welcomed. The less knowing were dealt with by Rita, a blond Dutch lady who bristled with efficiency.  She knew every book, every price and every regular purchaser who ever stepped into the shop. She terrified me at first, but I grew to respect and like her for her loyalty to JAA and her unending sense of sharp humour. The bookshop was my idea of paradise. The world of horses, traceable, in print, recorded, touchable, studious, fun and above all thick with passion, and all you had to do was reach out and pick up a book. I longed to work there.

I had already spent years researching the history of the training of racehorses, which is my passion. I used to go to the green North library of the British Library and there book after book on related subjects were brought to me like some feast laid before me and ready to absorb, to swell my knowledge.  The North Library’s silence was broken only by the odd cough and the burr of the trolley wheels. I loved to be buried in ancient books it was the feel of them and their scent and their secrets that fascinated me. I read, Markham and Baret and Vial de Sainbel, I found the writings of Thomas Holcroft, an eighteenth century philanthropist and jockey. I touched these valuable books and fingered the bindings and smelled the scent of ancient linen paper and listen to the tinkle it makes as you flick it through the book, it’s called ‘handle.’ I opened books that were boxes of horseshoes and books like the Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton that I knew I wanted to take them home.

Suddenly the gods looked favourably on me and I was made redundant from the Design Council. Bliss! I could realize my plan. I wanted a job at Allen’s. It was 1989. But ever cursed I fell from a galloping racehorse and smashed my leg into something of a mess. I was months in plaster. My determination grew. My imprisonment in a full-length cast finally over I set off for Lower Grosvenor Place.

I used to wait by the bookshop door and as I saw employees arrive I would quiz them, “Any jobs going?” The door operated an old bell that clanged as you pushed it open. A chandelier oversaw the proceedings. Many years later when clearing out the warehouse, I found an old photograph from a house that might have been Mr. Allen’s parent’s home. It was bristling with Edwardian ladies and gentlemen in a glass-roofed conservatory with huge chandeliers lighting up a pool table. Vast pots held huge plants. The photograph was faded sepia and mice had chewed the edges. It had been stored for years at Bloomsbury in the cellar where JAA kept his books.

Finally one day Mr. Allen called me up the narrow stairs to his eyrie and I entered the famed office with its roll top desk strewn with papers and books in every crevice and paper concertina files bulging with papers. I could not take my eyes off the books, each one with a tantalizing title. He sat me down and there followed a short lecture on the vagaries of publishing, he offered me work, two days a week. I was in!  It was 1990.

First a little about Mr. Allen’s interesting past. His father published the ‘Sporting Luck.’ He died when Mr. Allen was 16 in 1926 leaving his son a legacy of a building in Bloomsbury (rented) a collection of equestrian books and probably, judging by JAA’s fondness for it, a large quantity of dust. JAA found himself a bookseller and runner for publishers. He knew my grandfather Charles Spon of E & FN Spon. He published a book of poems by Lawrence Durrell and thereby began a career that was to become a life’s work. In 1938 he took out a lease on No 1 Lower Grosvenor Place. He joined the Royal Artillery in 1940 and served in the Sudan and North Africa and France. He was duly demobbed in 1946 and married a lovely French lady by the name of Pierette. He may well have made some interesting equestrian acquaintances during his time in the Sudan; he certainly would have used any opportunities that would have come his way. He was always on the look out for what he described to me as people who will work for me for nothing. “Because they feel that being published gives them an air of importance and establishes them as an expert. Everyone wants to be published,” he said to me.

They raised a boy and a girl at No 1 in the tiny cramped rooms overlooking the Royal Mews. The kitchen when I arrived was unchanged from that period. It consisted of a tiny cooker, sink and wooden drainer and a cupboard. How did people manage in those days? Pierette was a woman of some character and the marriage was not made in heaven. She returned to France in 1963 and was killed in a motor accident in the early 70’s. Annette, his daughter, was in her twenties when her mother died. Mr. Allen had expectations of his children. Annette had her mother’ charm, looks and fire and was not about to be put in her place by anyone. Her rich smoky voice could be heard the moment she entered the building and the trail of her scented Galoise was always a giveaway as to her precise location.

Mr. Allen was not a passionate horseman, but he used his equestrian connections and his father’s books to learn the publishing trade and he knew a good book when he saw one. He also had a very good grasp of all aspects of equestrianism. He knew which books were well researched and which were rubbish and he influenced a whole raft of writers to produce for him valuable tomes such as the Bobinsky Tables and the Horse World of London, by Gordon.

As I entered each day I passed the oil painting of Frank Buckle, a stern tough eighteenth century jockey. The walls up the stair were hung with equestrian prints and photos of famous horses. The stairs were an assault course. It was the ‘Books Outward’ dept. Only Rita and Mr. Allen really understood the system. The rest of us just minded where we put our feet. The books inward and the books outward department sometimes got muddled up. One can only imagine the chaos it called never mind the phone calls to distant places like Argentina. The cellar was the storeroom and the packing department, where at the end of the day an exhausted Liz or Rita hauled up grey bags of post.

Annette’s room was upstairs and there was a wonderful photograph of the Tetrarch just inside the door. I could not take my eyes of it. His noble head and blotched coat remained a guide to the origin of the thoroughbred. I kept focused.

Working for Mr. Allen was a very Dickensian pastime. Nothing was done on computer. Lavender, his evening secretary, a generously proportioned serene lady, would come and take dictation, return home, type up the letters and bring them back the next time she came. Life was slow at JAA’s. I had an old typewriter in my room, a golf ball, I recall and I sat and typed away my quotes taking carbon copies. At Christmas we were each given a bottle of wine and a small gratuity. He would never pay us for Christmas day, which is until Elspeth Mackinlay turned up to work with us and she insisted that we were paid for the holiday. Mr. Allen was quite put out.

He remarked one day, “You can’t get the staff these days, they are all off playing Polo.” I glanced at Rita and smiled. Mr. Allen would poke me and anyone else he was talking to, with his finger demanding to be heard. He loved the intrigues of the shop and wound people up. It was his world and he manipulated it all from his tiny study. He loved to be in the centre of everything.  If you asked him about a certain book or edition he knew it all, chapter and verse. Suddenly he was in his element and out would come information about typos and incorrect indexing and addenda, and reprints and why this one was so much better than that one. Editions, quirks, authors, bindings all floated around in his head they meant something to him they were his why and wherefores, they drove him to search for editions and to publish good books which although they have never made a profit for anyone at least they were good books. The difference between a good book and an average book was, to Mr. Allen in the research. He also hated bad grammar and slack wordage. He once told me to find a small book with a pink dust wrapper in the warehouse on the third shelf to the left. I did find it. Eventually!  Two hours later.

JAA, Jo to his friends was a man who loved his food and a good glass of champagne and a whisky. He loved good-looking women and as far as I know had a few girl friends tucked away and a dear companion in Mrs. Whitehouse. He would often come back from the Italian restaurant next door with telltale stains of a good meal on his tie. He was small in stature and like so many small men made up for it by being eccentric. His little Hitler-like moustache bristled when he was cross and he always dressed in a three-piece suit, nothing but the best. His trilby hung by the office door. He must have had hundreds of them over the years.

I loved it there. It felt as if I was in the right place. I was in heaven in my little room with its shutters, and rows of books. Each one was a gem. I remember finding Louise Firouz’s paper on the Caspian horse on the shelves. I discovered Mad Madge, Duchess of Newcastle and the only women of her age to be elected to the Royal Society for her services to science. I read that she sat in an empty room and invented solutions and the existence of elements and was in fact the first person to discover, quite by accident the truth about molecular structure. My world was flooded with light when I opened the shutters every morning. The dusty shelves and the worn carpet were hardly noticed. I would go in search of my days work by checking the books inward in Mr. Allen’s room and then collect my mail.

Annette would come in smoking her Galoise, the trail of scented tobacco was curiously irresistible. I would go and find out what she was up to. We sometimes made coffee, but this meant climbing another flight of stairs and then back with the cups to and from the antiquated kitchen. Sometimes it just was not worth the effort.

Pedro was the cleaner. Pedro was Spanish. He was so considerate. He managed to keep the place looking cared for and I’ll never know how in all that muddle and piggle. He vacuumed and dusted and washed the chandelier. He swept and washed and tidied like a mother. We all loved Pedro.

I recall Mr. Allen called me up to his office one morning and when I got there it looked like the IRA had visited. There was a significant mess. The card concertina files were not exactly in their right places and they seemed to be bulging in areas in which they did not normally bulge. I sat down to take letters and Mr. Allen asked me to find that letter from the woman in South America. Well it was either Gloria Cook or Mrs. Gonzalez. Mr. Allen muttered something about Argentina. “Don’t cry for me,” I thought as I rummaged through what appeared to B’s in the G’s. Then I looked in the S’s and discovered the A’s. Oh God he must have knocked them over in the night. I pulled Mrs. Gonzalez out of the Z’s and heaved a sigh of relief. It took me about two hours to re-file all the files!

Then there were the visitors! Oh if you are a horse enthusiast you will find yourself in heaven now. I looked out of my door one day to see a small, slightly built, dapper gentleman climbing the stairs at a pace that defied his age. It was the great John Hislop the owner and breeder of Brigadier Gerard, the horse that vied with Mill Reef to claim the title of champion of the English turf. Brigadier Gerard was only beaten once in 18 starts.  John Hislop was born in Baluchistan on December 12th, 1911. John was an amateur/gentleman rider, a man as much of the past as Mr. Allen. But John left one great legacy for racing, a brood mare sire in the name of Brigadier Gerard. John died on the 22nd of February 1994, I know because I made an entry in my diary.

I saw Lester Piggott climbing the stairs one day. Mr. Allen told me later that he had complained that he didn’t understand why he didn’t make any money out of the books written about him. “Funny I didn’t get a penny out of them.” He muttered to Mr. Allen.

A slim grey haired lady came into the shop and asked to see Mr. Allen. I must have been momentarily down stairs and Mr. Allen introduced us. Joyce Bellamy a woman who dedicated much of her life to the BHS its causes and its survival. She wrote a wonderful book, “Hyde Park for Horsemanship”, which really is a classic of its time. She told me that one of the last London riding schools was behind Harrods and had only recently been demolished and turned into a car park. Joyce Bellamy had been a member of the BHS for fifty years. She was utterly dedicated to the survival of all things equestrian. I could have talked to her for hours. We still talk today about horses of course.

One day a young man came into the shop. He brought the outside inside, his leather saddle bags slung over his shoulder his hat jauntily set, he looked every bit of an adventurer his eyes had the sky in them. I looked outside to see if indeed his horse was tied to the railings. Jasper Winn is another of the equestrian worlds’ eccentrics. He writes beautifully about any journey, but when he writes about horses his language gallops like a Berber horse in the hot desert. You could hear the hoof beats and smell the sweat mingling with sand. I never forgot Jasper.

I did a bit of travelling while in Mr. Allen’s employment. In 1991, a friend asked me if I would like to cross the Atlantic in a galleon. Right up my street! I thought. They needed a cook. So I discussed terms with the ship’s owner and asking Mr. Allen if I could have a month off. He was, let it be said, a man who loved initiative. He had trod many a dangerous path himself and lived on the edge and he understood my need for adventure. So off I went to Newark, New Jersey where I was taken to a very small ship built of what looked like matchsticks, called, the Golden Hinde. During my time away battling against terrible storms, the worst for forty years in the Atlantic Mr. Allen regularly went down to the Bag of Nails pub and drew attention to the plight of his personal assistant who was on the Atlantic in terrible storms, and would she ever make it home? He got quite a few free drinks, I later learned. I was two weeks late returning to work due to the terrible storms we encountered. I only called two people on arrival in Newlyn, one was my mother the other was Mr. Allen. “You take your time.” he said, “and get over your journey. I look forward to seeing you.”

4-inside-towards-frwwwThe Racing journalists were always popping into the shop. Julian Wilson dapper and polite as always, Peter O’Sullivan, Tony Morris, were amongst our regulars. When Mr. Allen put me into No 4 with my own antiquarian bookshop I was in double heaven. There I would make coffee for the elite in the horse world and enjoy the wonderful stories that constantly leaked from the writer’s pens. I was in the old shop one day just about to go up to see Mr. Allen when a tall sunburnt blonde came in and asked for Mr. Allen. She has strong hands and a South African accent. It was the amazing show jumper Annerly Drummond-Hay. Another of my childhood heroes.

It must have been in about 1995 or 6, I was called downstairs to talk to a young man who wanted to know about horse whispering. I told him about Rarey, Monty Roberts and Henry Blake. I then promised to collect as much information for him as I could. I rushed up to see JAA. He told me about Sullivan and others who had coined the term of ‘Whisperer’.

The young man came back and I advised him to read certain books and he asked me to find a couple for him. “Your name please?” “Nicolas Evans.” came the reply, the book the Horse Whisperer was on its way.

I recall peeking out from my door and seeing a grey haired lady climbing up the many flights to JAA’s eyrie. It was Christine Pullen-Thompson. I grew up believing her horse books were my world. I lived inside those riding stables and hunts and adventures all powered by horses. She and her sisters, Diana and Josephine were the daughters of Joanna Canaan another wonder author who left a legacy of pony books that has never been bettered. These famous to me, literary giants left an ethereal trail behind them as if in their wake a herd of wild horses tossed their manes and snorted and neighed, the horse will never die!

cab-at-jaawww-1One morning I was at No 4 when a lady came into the shop. She was slim and tall; she had elegance to her that one simply had to note. Her grey hair was in a ponytail. I just knew she was, all horse! I asked my assistant to find out her name as I had just been summoned to see JAA. I rushed back only to learn she had gone. “Did you get her name?” I quizzed Toby. “No not all of it, at least I think she said ‘Louise.’ “That’s it.” I shouted in triumph, “Louise Firouz.” I ran up and told Mr. Allen and he told me that James Underwood knew her. So I phoned up James and asked him if he could speak to her and tell her I wanted to meet her. This he did and subsequently we went out for coffee. Many years later I had the privilege of riding with her from her stud in the East of Iran not far from the Caspian Sea and Alexander’s Wall. We rode up to the Turkoman border. But that is another story.

The name of Master Lorriner conjurers up a knightly vision. A Lorriner is a master of the trade of Lorrinery, the making of bits and spurs. An ancient art, an ancient trade and one practiced by a dentist from Braintree. Jo Allen and James White were often ensconced in deep theoretical discussions about early bits and the books that recorded them. James, white-haired White was a constant visitor to the shop. He was not only a master lorriner, but also an Alderman of the City of London, a Governor of the Museum of London and lecturer at Cordwainers. College He told me about the excavations of London Coliseum near the Guildhall which was built in a direct line with Southwark Bridge, which he said was one of the ancient river crossing places. James purchased the book on Mad Madge, Duchess of Newcastle. He took myself and Pat Grover, an expert on equestrian buildings, around the Guildhall, Pat and I were amazed when he pulled a wedge of cards out of his pocket, prompted by Pat asking him if he was a member of Hampton Court. He seemed to be a member of just about every historic organization other than Hampton Court. What James didn’t know about equestrian history Jo did know. They were the ultimate brain of Britain team on equestrian subjects. James was on the station in Braintree when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 65. His loss is immeasurable. His personal collection of equestrian items took Colin Henderson, then Head Coachman of the Royal Mews, hours and hours to catalogue. The White Knight passed into history, a history of his own making.

Robert Vavra wandered in one day. He told me he was photographing animals in Africa and had lost interest in horses. His books were constant sellers, Unicorns I Have Known, and “All These Girls In Love With Horses. He said that computerized images had changed forever the work of the photographer and so he had gone in search of harder prey. I gazed at him wondering if he knew how much his images meant to people. I pondered on how the eye of the photographer creates his own world and setting out on his journey finds what no one else has seen.

Mr. Allen had a great friend in Charles Harris. Charles was a regular visitor. He cheery outlook and strong voice were a tonic on days when I thought I would never finish cataloguing endless piles of books. Charles was an FBHS, who as a young man had completed three years at the Vienna Riding School. He told me there were many occasions when he raw legs bled through his jodhpurs. He said there was nothing tougher than that apprenticeship. Charles would help anyone. His wonderful advice was sought after in law courts and on the Pony Camp fields. I recall at one Christmas party he and Jo opposite ends of the room demonstrably bent their old bodies in salaams to each other to the amusement of the rest of the authors. Charles thought the world of JAA. He always ended his phone conversations with, “bless.” It was very catching. Charles had kept diaries of his time in Vienna and they were finally published. Sadly he and Ethel his wife have both died. It is the passing of great knowledge that can never be repeated.

Politesse could indeed change the world and the world would be a better place if it ruled the world. I never met a more polite and kind gentleman than Sir John Miller, the Queen’s equerry. He was another regular to the shop. He often popped in to see Jo and would pass on requests for special books. He and Jo must have been contemporaries. I was in No 4 one day when he pottered in supporting himself with a stick. “Sir John.” I exclaimed, thinking to follow it with a commiseration of some sort, but the words just did not come. He flew to my comfort and declared that he was fine he had just fallen off out hunting. How completely wonderful, I thought to be hunting at his age. (84 I believe)

Mr. Allen became more and more forgetful. He dined longer and slept longer in his father’s chair. The business changed with the Internet and computers and Mr. Allen was finally forced to retire. The flame died, the moths of equestrian literature were no longer drawn to the fires of his small but worthy publishing business. The old shop closed and there were many tears. It was the end of something so deeply special only those who really lived in it understood its true importance in the world of Equus.

Caroline Baldock

© 2008

NOTE: James White was a past Master of the Worshipful Company of Lorriners and one of their Senior Examiners, Senior Lecturer in Lorinery at Cordwainers College, Hackney, Deputy Chairman of Libraries for the London Guildhall Art Gallery and Archives and a Governor of the Museum of London, also on the Board of Advisors to the Walsall Leather Museum.