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At least one Collins book can be found in nearly every English-speaking household in the UK.

Speaking personally, we have a Collins Bible, Book of Common Prayer and several dictionaries, including the incomparable Collins Robert French Dictionary. In the past, I also bought annual Collins calendar diaries.

What I did not know until reading the recent obituary of Jan Collins, one of the publishing house’s heirs, was that it was started by a Scottish Evangelical.

The Times published Jan Collins’s obituary on February 14, 2022. Jan, who died at the age of 92 on January 29, will be remembered as much for his tennis prowess as his publishing career.

Of Billy Collins, the publishing house’s founder, the obituary states (emphases mine):

Founded in 1819 by Jan Collins’s great-grandfather William Collins, an evangelical Christian, it was known primarily for its printing of Bibles, dictionaries and diaries. In the early Thirties, more than 600,000 Bibles were published annually. One sales jingle declared: “Satan trembles when he sees/Bibles sold as cheap as these.”

Jan Collins joined his family’s business, then called William Collins, after he graduated from Oxford in 1952. He was assigned to the Bible department, located in Glasgow:

At the time it was still the leading publishing house in Scotland, with some 2,500 people employed in its Glasgow printing presses in Cathedral Street, which could produce up to 15,000 books an hour.

The company’s fiction and non-fiction books were published in London:

The general fiction and non-fiction titles division was based in St James’s Place, London, meanwhile, and was being considerably expanded by Collins’s father, Billy Collins, with the addition of bestselling authors such as Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Alistair MacLean and Patrick O’Brian. In 1956 the firm’s last substantial British acquisition was Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly. In 1960, Collins published 576 new editions, the most in the UK.

Jan Collins was responsible for bringing us The Good News Bible. Love it or loathe it, I know several Americans who told me it was the only version of the Bible they could actually read and understand:

After a decade working in the Bible department he hit upon the money-spinning idea of teaming up with the American Bible Society to publish the New Testament in contemporary English, an edition known as Good News for Modern Man. A decade after that, the Old Testament was included and it was known under the title of the Good News Bible, which is still the most popular Bible currently published. More than a million copies were sold in the first year and subsequently nearly a billion copies have been printed throughout the world.

He then turned his attention to dictionaries and the printing presses in Scotland:

Jan Collins also rebuilt the Collins Dictionary business and spearheaded the modern bilingual dictionaries, forging partnerships with Robert in Paris and Mondadori in Italy. In 1971 he was appointed vice-chairman and by the mid-Seventies was in charge of the manufacturing side of the business. He was responsible for moving the entire printing department from Cathedral Street to a new site on the outskirts in Bishopbriggs, which employed 2,000 people.

When his father Billy Collins died in 1976, the atmosphere in the company became turbulent:

Collins was appointed executive chairman of the entire group but within a few years, boardroom tensions developed between the London and Glasgow-based divisions of the company, particularly because of the persistent losses in the print division and differing opinions about possible solutions. There were also questions raised regarding the management style of Jan Collins and, as a consequence, he stepped down in 1979 but remained as non-executive chairman until 1981. At this point, he and his mother sold their shares to Rupert Murdoch and he stepped down as non-executive chairman as well.

Rupert Murdoch ended up buying the company, which is now known as HarperCollins:

Murdoch held 41.7 per cent of the shares. He made a bid to take a controlling interest in William Collins, but was opposed by the new chairman Ian Chapman (obituary, November 30, 2019) and the rest of the board, which included a number of other Collins family members.

Murdoch finally succeeded in taking over the company in 1989, when he merged it with his other publishing holdings in the US and Australia to become HarperCollins, now one of the three biggest English-language book publishers in the world.

Jan Collins had a rareified upbringing in Scotland and England:

William Janson Collins was born in Great Western Terrace, Glasgow, in 1929, son of Sir William “Billy” Collins, who was head of William Collins and the grandson of the founder of the publishing house, and Priscilla Marian Lloyd. Billy Collins was considered one of the last of the benevolent despots in publishing, who scrutinised every aspect of the business. According to one employee, he combined “the necessary elements of the hustler and the showman with the more discreet and urbane attitudes of the worldly gentleman publisher”.

Shortly after Jan’s birth, the Collins family moved to a William Adam mansion on the outskirts of Troon, the favoured Ayrshire seaside resort of Glaswegian millionaires, thanks to its golf courses. The extended Collins family were all passionate sportsmen, which rubbed off on Jan, who apart from golf, took up shooting and tennis. His parents were both talented players and his uncle Ian Collins played at Wimbledon 12 times, making it to the final of the doubles and mixed doubles in the early Thirties. His father was on the All-England Club committee until late in life, while in the late Forties Jan came only one round short of making the championships at Wimbledon.

He was sent to prep school at Ludgrove, and then Eton, where he was All England Racquets champion at 14, in the first XI cricket team and president of Pop, the elite club of Eton prefects. When Collins was 15, he met his wife, Lady Sally Hely-Hutchinson, at the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lord’s.

Being president of Pop is a huge deal. Allow me to digress for a while with an article by an Old Etonian, Bill Coles, who wrote about the exclusive club for The Express in 2011, the year of its bicentenary. Coles somewhat regretted that he was never elected to be a member:

The Eton Societyor Pop as it’s known – this year celebrates its 200th anniversary and though Prince William and his uncle Earl Spencer will both have been invited to the £250-a-head party in its honour, I will sadly not be among their number.

At first glance Pop looks like nothing more than a very posh sixth form club. But Eton (with fees of £30,000 a year) is still regarded by many as the top elite school in the country – one that has provided 19 prime ministers (not least our current one) as well as old boys ranging from George Orwell and James Bond author Ian Fleming to Boris Johnson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. And if Eton is an educational elite then Pop is an even smaller elite within it – one that elects its own members, who form not just an exclusive network but one that doesn’t always admit the members you might expect.

well they looked like peacocks strutting among a horde of black crows and to a stripling teenager it all seemed rather exotic. Here, in full, was the uniform of an Eton Popper: a black tailcoat with braid piping; spongebag trousers in a houndstooth check; and a starched wing collar with a white (hand-tied) bow tie.

The uniform would usually be capped off with a thick cow-lick of hair, spit-polished black lace-ups pickers), plus a gardenia or a rose in the button-hole. While the rest of us schoolboys had been shoe-horned into grubby black waistcoats the Poppers were allowed to wear any waistcoat they pleased, at least a dozen and you can only imagine the glorious oneupmanship that was involved.

I remember waistcoats of green leather, waistcoats spangled with Pearly King buttons, and even a hideous fur electric pink number. Prince William, when he was a Popper, tended towards the staid and I believe his most daring outfit was a patriotic Union Jack. To all intents and purposes the Poppers don exactly the same sort of clothes that the gentlemen will be wearing at next month’s royal wedding

When this article appeared, David Cameron was Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was Mayor of London:

Once you realise the sheer showiness of the Pop uniform it is all too easy to understand how David Cameron came to be quite so enamoured with the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. For, if he had been elected into Pop he might never had quite such an urge to dress like a foppish Bullingdon blue-blood (though London Mayor Boris Johnson was in both Pop and the Bullingdon Club). Within Eton, Pop was a self-electing club for the sports stars, which certainly did not include me, and the hearty good guys. There were about 25 of them and they were charged with keeping the 1,300 other boys for such misdemeanours as not being properly dressed, or even “socking” (eating) in the street.

I still recall how, when I was 13, an enormous Popper accosted me in the street for not wearing any cuff links. “Have a pound in my room by lock‑up,” he told me. Ostensibly all this loot went to charity, though doubtless the Poppers were just using it for extra beer money at the school pub, Tap. Speaking to contemporaries who were members, one is struck by the fact that while Pop is exclusive it does not necessarily bother itself with the most opulent surroundings.

It was a bit like a St James’s club in that boys were put up for election but if there was a single blackball against them then they weren’t in. Things have changed more recently and now the Eton masters have a right of veto. You probably don’t get quite so many bad eggs …

One can see how Jan Collins’s sporting prowess appealed to Pop members:

Pop was predominantly filled with sports buffs and swells and that’s still pretty accurate to this day. It appeals to people who like to dress up as a peacock.” Pop was founded in 1811 and it was originally a debating society and had the name “Popina”, from the Latin for “Tea-Shop” which is where the boys used to meet. In its heyday Pop was the ultimate networking tool and could open the most incredible doors. One can even see Pop’s shadow hanging over Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when he culled half his cabinet during “The Night of the Long Knives” in the late Fifties.

It’s said that Macmillan sacked half his friends from Pop – only to replace them with the other half. Fagging at Eton is now a distant memory but in my time in the Eighties a Popper could fag off any boy on the street, sending him off to do any chore he pleased. I still remember my outrage when a Popper took offence at my smirking face and sent me to Windsor to buy him a postcard for his mother. Another extraordinary aspect of the society was that 50 years ago Poppers were empowered to deliver a “Pop tan” – where reprobate boys would be flogged by every member of Pop

One Old Etonian told Bill Coles:

One of the strange things about Pop is that it never goes away. You find it cropping up in a lot of Etonians’ obituaries. These are people who may well have won VCs or who are captains of industry – and yet for some reason the fact that they were a member of Pop is seen to be on a par with anything else that they’ve done.

And, lo, we discover that Jan Collins was not only in Pop but also one of its presidents.

Now, back to the rest of the publisher’s life.

He did his National Service as a young officer in the Coldstream Guards. The obituary has a stunning photograph of him in dress uniform.

Jan Collins married Lady Sally Hely-Hutchinson while he was reading English at Magdalen College, Oxford:

while his sporting prowess continued, winning blues in tennis, squash, cricket and fives. Later in life, he said that his family were “all frightful sporting bores”.

In 1952, they moved to Scotland:

The newly married couple moved to Troon in 1952, and he remained in Ayrshire for the rest of his life.

Lady Sally had a career as a novelist:

Under the pen name of Harriet Martyn, Lady Sally wrote three girls’ boarding school works of fiction — the Balcombe Hall stories — which were inspired by the escapades of her daughter Jane at St Mary’s, Wantage; and as Sara Healy, three historical novels including a Second World War evacuee story inspired by her own experiences. She died in 2013. He is survived by their four children, Noel, an entrepreneur, Jane who runs her own publishing company in Ireland, Tiffany, a company director, and Bryony who is in technology.

Meanwhile, apart from owning and operating three restaurants that closed in relatively short order, Jan devoted the rest of his life to tennis:

After retiring, he became a fully qualified tennis coach. He was appointed MBE for services to tennis in 2004, after raising nearly £2 million to create the largest junior tennis programme in Scotland. He was the oldest surviving member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, having first joined 70 years ago, in 1952. In fact, he had attended every Wimbledon tennis tournament since then, including last year. He was especially proud of winning the over-85 category of the British veterans’ grass court championship at Wimbledon in 2014.

During lockdown in 2021, Jan Collins raised money for charity:

In the summer of 2021, when lockdown regulations meant no golf clubs were open throughout the UK, a private five-hole course was suddenly created in the rear garden of a 90-year-old golfer in Troon. Inspired by the story of Captain Sir Tom Moore, Jan Collins raised £8,000 by playing 1,000 holes of golf in his back garden.

But his was not a totally serious life of work and tennis. Privately, he was known for his wit and harmless pranks.

There was no mention of any religious aspect to his life, but Jan Collins lived quite the life. May he rest in peace.

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