Saturday, February 14, 2015

OXFORD BOOKS: Blackwell's Office

Peter Berry showing how Basil Blackwell (see
portrait) would whistle downstairs for help. 
OXFORD, UK– I was one of only two people to take the half-hour tour of Basil Blackwell's office in Oxford one day last week.

So I can tell you what a great tour it was without fear that for the time being it will be too crowded when you show up (tour times are at the end of this review).

First, our tour guide, Peter Berry – an official Oxford guide – showed us the original footprint of the Blackwell's second-hand bookshop founded in 1879 by Basil Blackwell's father, Benjamin Henry Blackwell (1849-1924). It is marked on the floor in black.

When more than one customer at a time came into the original shop, says Peter, the piled-up books left no room for Mr. Blackwell. His solution was to retreat through the rear entrance and wait until it became clearer which of the two customers was serious about buying a book.

Blackwell's expanded first by taking over the shop next door.
The Whistler tube. A photo of the
Merton crew on which Basil
Blackwell rowed is on the wall.

Basil Blackwell

It was left to Basil Blackwell (1881-1984), Benjamin's son, to turn the company into an empire.

Basil was the first in the family to go to university. He attended Magdalen College School and then Merton College, where rowed for the first eight.

From various accoutrements of his office it is clear he was proud of his rowing days.

Basil Blackwell's Merton
College oar as pen.
Basil Blackwell apprenticed to booksellers in London, then joined his father's firm in 1913. He stayed on in his father's business and brought it upmarket, selling new books and then becoming a publisher of b ooks and journals, to the point where it became a giant conglomerate within the English-Speaking world.

Benjamin Blackwell died in 1924. Basil  Blackwell went to work adding shops, expanding them, and publishing books and journals.
The Gaffer's fireplace, with Delft
tiles all round.

Basil Blackwell was called "the Gaffer", an English colloquial reference to someone who is older and is the boss. J. R. R. Tolkien has a character in The Lord of the Rings named Gaffer. The character is probably named after Basil Blackwell because Blackwell was Tolkien's first publisher. They both went to Merton...

The original two Blackwell's shops.
Gaffer had his office on the second floor of the original bookshop, overlooking the Broad and the Sheldonian Theater. He had a sign saying "GAFFER" on his desk. He used a whistling tube to call for help from the staff downstairs. He had his own telephone switchboard, which had toggles for answering, muting and transferring.

The Record-Setting Norrington Room

With nowhere to go to the left or the right (hemmed in by the White Horse on one side and the New Bodleian Library, now called the Weston Library, on the other), Blackwell's was forced to expand to the rear.
The Gaffer's desk.

Eventually, Sir Arthur Norrington, President of Trinity College when I was in residence there, negotiated a hugely beneficial deal for both the shop and the College. The Norrington Room is built underneath Trinity College's library – a solution to Blackwell's space needs that provides a healthy source of rental income to Trinity.

The Norrington Room is listed by Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest single room selling books, with 160,000 books for sale on three miles of shelving.

At its peak in perhaps 2002, Blackwell's had 70 bookshops and at least 800 journals.

The other member of our tour
checking out the phone system.
Sir Basil's Honors

Sir Basil Blackwell died in 1984. He is remembered and honored for many causes, mostly public-spirited, that he championed:
  • He was the bookseller who helped break the infamous "Ring" that colluded to close off open competition in auctions, "taking bread from the mouths of the widows and orphans" of Oxford scholars. 
  • He was knighted in 1956 by Queen Elizabeth II, the only bookseller ever to receive that honor.
  • That year he was given the honorary Freedom of the City of Oxford. 
  • In 1959 he was elected to an honorary Fellowship at Merton. 
  • In 1979 he was awarded a Doctorate of Civil Law honoris causa at the Oxford Encaenia.
  • In 1966 he was a prosecution witness in the private prosecution attempt to bar the book Last Exit to Brooklyn from UK publication
The Sheldonian, viewed from the Gaffer's office. 
After his death,  Basil Blackwell's heirs sold off the journals publishing arm to Wiley-Blackwell for close to $1 billion. Only one member of the family, Toby Blackwell, was eventually left in the business, which is now partly employee-owned.

Tour Information

Tours are conducted from mid-January through the last Friday in March. They are offered six times per week - Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, at 11 am and 2 pm. The tours meet in the front of the original store, marked out in black on the floor.

More Oxford Bios.


  1. Hello,

    I want to contact the Basil Blackwell Publishing House for a copyright permission. Please, can you help me with an email adress? Many thanks (my email is

  2. Hi - Just got this query. I went online to the Blackwell's web site and got a phone number. Tel: +44 (0) 1865 792792. I hope this is helpful. John