Off to parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria tomorrow in search of bookshops and booksellers – a report to follow next week. In the meantime, here is another in the series on old booksellers and former presidents of the ABA. This pre-war catalogue in fact made an appearance in ABA Newsletter No. 352 a while ago (in 2009). The editor then noted, “It’s one of those old ‘Frank Juckes’ style two- column catalogues of Miscellaneous Books … that turn up when a big lot comes in. This is 644 items in 32 pages; catalogue 230, 1938, from G. H. Last of High Street Bromley, Kent: “Closed at one o’clock on Saturdays … Telegrams: “Last, Bromley, Kent” … Terms – Strictly cash on receipt of Goods. Preference will be given to Orders accompanied by remittance …”.
What made it of particular interest was that tucked inside it was “a letter written from the Warden’s Office of the University of London Union to ‘Dear Leslie … I feel compelled to send you the enclosed. Last is an old scoundrel and charges excessively for books of the periods he specialises in, but he has never listed 18/19 Cent. plays before and some of the items are certainly snips and thoroughly worth getting at the price … New customers sending cash or banker’s reference is all blah. Just order the books if you feel inclined and Last will send ’em along like a shot …”.
It’s a missive I still find rather distasteful. It almost certainly tells us a good deal more about its author and not entirely outmoded class attitudes than it does about the so-called ‘old scoundrel’ of a bookseller, George Herbert Last of Bromley, who was in fact our ABA President in 1937. The extraordinary number of libraries worldwide who bought from and had their collections enriched by Last – the Rylands, the Bodleian, the National Archives, the National Library of Australia, so many more – would seem to tell a different story. He was too a bookseller who advertised that his catalogues always contained numbers of “low priced items”, especially in history, literature and topography.
His life was not an easy one. He was born at Rougham, near Bury St. Edmund’s, in 1877. His father, Albert Last, had a rural combination of occupations – gardener and part-time sub-postmaster. His mother, Sarah Lucy Carbery, was the London-born daughter of a lawyer’s clerk. They had married in 1863. We catch the family on the 1881 Census Return, living in Rougham – George Herbert Last the sixth of seven children, of whom the eldest was already a postman at the age of sixteen.
Last’s father died when he was eleven. His widowed mother was, I suppose, fortunate enough to become the village postmistress and by 1891 an elder sister was a telegraph clerk and another brother a postman. Last himself, at the age of just fourteen, was already done with any kind of formal education and employed as a grocer’s assistant. And a grocer he became. This was how he described himself in 1905 when at the age of twenty-eight he married Annie Elizabeth Carbery (1875-1945), a dressmaker and presumably a cousin of some sort on his mother’s side. She was the daughter of a bellringer at St. Paul’s Cathedral, later a verger.
By 1911, Last and his wife were living at 100 London Road, Bromley, with their infant daughter May Gladys Last (1910-1961) – an earlier child having died in infancy. But by now Last had become a bookseller. Quite what programme of self-education he must have adopted to master the kind of material he was later to deal in I do not know. Somehow he did and his shop at 25 The Broadway, (later at 21A High Street), in the middle of Bromley, together with his long series of almost 300 catalogues became well-known across the world.
Last died on 25th October 1949 – his effects valued for probate at £13,413.12s.4d – hardly the fortune that real scoundrel might have amassed in the book trade at that time. His son, Eric George Carbery Last (1911-1996), had earlier joined the business, which traded as “G. H. Last & Son” in its latter years, Eric continuing to produce catalogues after his father’s death until at least 1951.
Outside of his book career, Last was a stalwart of the Bromley Bowling Club. It was he who in 1929 first proposed the Kent County Bowling Association Benevolent Fund. It came into being the following year and he served as one of its trustees from then until shortly before his death. An ‘old scoundrel’ who at the same time both knew too little and knew too much – I rather doubt it.
GH Last played a significant role in my family’s history (though he never knew it). My father reluctantly left school at 14 but found a source of continuing self-education in Mr Last’s bookshop. It was to begin a lifelong love of learning and writing. In his memoirs my father wrote: “One huge slice of luck which came to me was by way of an old man in an old bookshop. In Bromley, in Kent, it was GH Last where I spent most of my Saturdays. Leading off the High Street was a long passage lined with books. It led to three steps down to a room with a couple of desks piled with books looking like squat, square mushrooms. Upstairs were two floors with bookcases full, the top floor being the rare room with locked cases. GH sat in the lower room, holding court behind his huge old desk. I would choose books I knew nothing about and had never heard of. Chaucer, Voltaire, Montaigne, the Iliad. Poetry of Milton and Byron, a life of Shelley and, of course, always Shakespeare. The old man would take them from me and question what I knew of them, which was always nothing. He seemingly knew something of every volume in his collection and patiently explained my ignorant choices to me and pointed me to further reading. He was my teacher and guide, I owe him my literary education.” We can only surmise that Mr Last saw something of his own ambition for self education in my teenage father (and perhaps others). My older sisters and myself all went on to university and so we can say that we all owe Mr Last a debt of gratitude for his kindness to a young man with a thirst for learning and a love of books.
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Thank you so much for this – a memorial to which every bookseller should aspire.