Ernest William Heffer (1871-1948)

Heffer'sThe booksellers W. Heffer & Sons, although now reduced to a single large shop from an earlier chain,  has long been a cherished Cambridge institution.  It is still a very fine bookshop, now boasting a revived second-hand department, and is a testament to the occasional longevity of the book-trade, tracing its origins back to 1876.

HeffersAd2The business began as a stationers at 104 Fitzroy Street, somehow brought into being from the most unpromising of personal circumstances by William Heffer (1844-1928).  Heffer was born at Exning in Suffolk, the son of an agricultural labourer.  At the age of eighteen, he married Mary Crick (1838-1930) at All Saints, Cambridge, on the 28th May 1863.  Mary Crick had been employed as a housemaid from the age of fourteen and subsequently worked as a cook for a local doctor.  By 1871 the couple had six (of an eventual total of nine) children to support and Heffer was employed as a humble groom.  There is some suggestion that he subsequently managed a public house, but it was apparently with the aid of a modest loan that he was enabled to set up in business as a stationer.

Heffer AdvertisementBookselling soon became an integral part of the business and by 1889 Heffer was publishing as well – a feature of the business for the next hundred years.  The provision of cheap textbooks for undergraduates was a prominent part of the business and favourable arrangements with London publishers allowed the business to expand.  In 1896 the business moved to a far more central position in Pety Cury (although still retaining the earlier premises 103 and 104 Fitzroy Street).  As the younger children grew up in the bookshop, surrounded by books, they naturally enough joined in.  By 1901 five of them were employed in the rapidly growing concern – Kate Adelaide Heffer (1867-1940), Ernest William Heffer (1871-1948), Lucy Mary Heffer (1873-1951), Frank Heffer (1876-1933) and Sidney Heffer (1878-1959).

Heffer LabelIt was as the oldest son engaged in the bookshop that Ernest William Heffer, the sixth child, became first a partner and eventually head of the firm.  On 7th September 1897 he married  Louisa Marion Beak (1869-1939) at All Saints, Peckham.  His new wife was the daughter of the late and rather splendidly named Worthey Beak, a Berkshire farmer.  She had previously been working as a nurse at the Woolwich & Plumstead Cottage Hospital.  Living first at 7 Mill Road and later at 24 Chesterton Road, Ernest William and his wife had three children of their own – Arthur Beak Heffer (1899-1931), Eleanor Mary Heffer (1903-1991) and Reuben George Heffer (1908-1995).

Heffer GraveAlongside their activities in printing, publishing and selling new books,  the business was also strong in selling older material, handling, for example, the library of the late Sir Edmund Gosse in 1929.  Ernest William Heffer served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association in 1933.  A series of lectures he gave in that year was published as recently as 2011 under the title Instructions to the Young Bookseller. Widowed in 1939, he died aged seventy-seven on 19th December 1948, his effects valued at a comfortable £35,223.6s.10d.  He was buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge (Plot: 1B1), his grave adorned by a simple wooden cross (Find A Grave Memorial# 34761969).

HeffersAdHis surviving son, Reuben George Heffer, having originally studied printing, worked in the bookshop from 1932 onwards and took charge in 1948, serving as chairman of the firm 1959-1975 (see ODNB).  His own son Nicholas, great-grandson of the founder, became chairman in 1984.  The business, although continuing to trade as Heffer’s, became part of the Blackwell Group in 1999 – merging with the Oxford-based business founded in 1879 by another ABA president, Benjamin Henry Blackwell.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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11 Responses to Ernest William Heffer (1871-1948)

  1. Thanks for this – it brought back a lot of childhood memories when I remember Cambridge being full of Heffers shops. They even had one for paperbacks only, which seems incredible now! I wrote a post about their Children’s bookshop in my blog:


    • Ann Hood says:

      I too recall the wonderful children’s book shop. It was my special treat to be able to choose my own books. I still have some from then “The Pond I know ” etc;


  2. Rob W. says:

    Great bit of research there on the Heffer family. You may be interested in my Pinterest page on Heffers


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  5. Dorothy Heffer-Hynes says:

    Wonderful to read the history of HEFFERS, being connected to my family.
    Heffer family left England around 1882 sailing to NZ on German sailing ship
    called “BULOW”.
    In 1987 Melbourne, Victoria (Australia)I met up with John & Margaret Heffer.
    We linked up our family tree.
    I know their son James, in Cambridge UK is interested in our family tree but
    I have lost touch now and would like to hear from him. Also know that Margaret
    Heffer passed away December last year.

    Regards to all Dorothy Heffer-Hynes

    Liked by 1 person

    • JEBounford says:

      Lovely to hear about your link with the Cambridge Heffer family, Dorothy. It was sad when Margaret (Bunty) died last year. Such a sweet natured lady. I interviewed her for ‘This Book is About Heffers’, which we published in 2016. Members of the Heffer family were very helpful and supportive, contributing their memories of the firm. Nicholas Heffer also kindly wrote a foreword and they all (including Bunty) attended the staff reunion and book launch. I’ve written several blog posts about Heffers and about doing the research e.g. and as I say, the book is now published. I’m also giving lots of talks on ‘The remarkable story of Heffers of Cambridge’. I especially enjoy doing those as I get to hear about other people’s fond memories of the firm. Best wishes, Julie

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you all for your comments – a topic it was a pleasure to research.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Kapali says:

    As a student in India I have privately obtained by post used mathematics books from Heffer&Sons Ltd. like Askwith’s coordinate geometry,Ramsey’s Statics , Murray’s differential equations ,Loney’s dynamics etc in 1954 when there was no email, internet etc !


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