Let’s begin at Mount Carmel Chambers. Named for the Carmelite priory opposite, Mount Carmel Chambers is a Victorian block of mansion flats in Dukes Lane, a quiet turning off Kensington Church Street. For those of you who can only georeference yourselves by the relative position of the nearest bookshop, imagine emerging from Adrian Harrington’s fine emporium in Kensington (clutching fresh purchases, obviously). Cross the road, turn left, and Dukes Lane is about a hundred yards down on the right.
A hundred years ago, the electoral register suggests that the two dozen or so flats in Mount Carmel Chambers were more or less exclusively occupied by single women. At No. 11, was Mary Asbridge Banks (1845-1928), the widow of John Banks, a City of London bank manager who had died in 1904. With her, at least by inference, was her thirty-year old daughter, Maud Evelyn Banks (1884-1975), known as Evelyn – or perhaps most often simply as Miss Banks. Despite a distracting cast of characters, it is Miss Banks who is the focus of this tale for, if not already in the trade, she was about to become an antiquarian bookseller. More than that, less than twenty years later, while still in her forties, she was to become the first woman president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (International).
Next door at No. 10 was Mrs Lily Davison Cancellor (1864-1938), at this point seemingly living apart from her barrister husband – or perhaps she simply needed the flat to store her stock, for, most unusually for the wife of a professional man at this date, Mrs Cancellor was recorded on both the 1901 and 1911 Census Returns as having an occupation of her own. She was – you will have guessed – a bookseller. In 1901, when the Cancellors were living in Chelsea, she was described as both bookseller and employer. In 1911, when they were at 10 Leonard Place, Kensington, she was described as a bookseller trading on her own account. In Leonard Place they had perhaps been the tenants of Mrs Edith Hermine Glover (1860-1943), whose name continued to appear on the electoral register at that address some years after the premature death of her husband in 1905.
In 1914, the same Edith Glover was now Lily Cancellor’s neighbour at Mount Carmel Chambers. She was also the step-daughter of Mrs Banks at No. 11 – and therefore Miss Banks’ half-sister. In fact, the family relationship was slightly more complex than that: Mrs Banks was also her aunt. John Banks’ first wife, Marian Esther Taylor, Edith’s mother, had died at the age of thirty-three in 1866 having borne eight children in twelve years. Some years later, John Banks married her younger sister, Mary Asbridge Taylor, by whom he had three further children. When Miss Banks came to open her bookshop it was as Banks Sisters: as we shall see, her elder half-sister was plainly involved, although the name was almost certainly a playful nod to their stockbroker brothers over in the City, who traded as Banks Brothers.
Also at Mount Carmel Chambers in 1914, at No.23, was Miss Dora Arbuthnot Chamberlin (1869-1956), the younger sister of Lily Cancellor. She too had an occupation – in 1901 she was as a bookshop assistant in Chelsea, very possibly working for her sister. She too was to become involved in the Banks Sisters business and in the whole of Miss Banks’ life in books. I’ve not been able to trace her on the 1911 Census: this may simply be the usual matter of faulty indexing, but there was a widespread suffragette campaign of refusal to participate in the Census that year. No particular reason to suppose that Dora Chamberlin was a suffragette, except in that there was one further resident of Mount Carmel Chambers still to be introduced – the one who had lived there the longest, the resident of No.15, next door to Edith Glover at No.16 – Dora’s exact contemporary, the notorious Evelyn Sharp (1869-1955), the Rebel Woman of the recent biography by Angela V. John. Archetype of the ‘New Woman’ in the 1890s, contributor to The Yellow Book, a novelist who dealt with ‘The Marriage Question’, a writer of increasingly subversive and feminist tales for children, a twice-imprisoned and force-fed militant suffragette, the editor of Votes for Women, and now a radical journalist. Her future lover, Henry Woodd Nevinson, stumbled away head “whirling” with new ideas from the first of her evening gatherings he attended at Mount Carmel Chambers. He wrote of her in 1913, “She has one of the most beautiful minds I know – always going full gallop”. Here is how she dealt with the 1911 Census:
Impossible now to know to what extent Evelyn Sharp may have interacted with, influenced, inspired or even perhaps appalled her neighbours, but these bookish women at Mount Carmel Chambers, providing help and support for each other in very much a man’s world, cannot but have been very much aware of her.
The Banks Sisters bookshop established at 7a Kensington Church Street may perhaps have been a continuation of Lily Cancellor’s business. Both Edith Glover and Dora Chamberlin appear alongside Miss Banks on the electoral register at the business address at various times and were certainly involved. The shop was up and running by 1921 and probably earlier still. A collection of letters and postcards from the Catholic theologian Baron Friedrich von Hugel, addressed either to Banks Sisters or Miss Banks, survives at the University of St. Andrew’s. Dated 1921-1924. The missives mainly relate to books he is looking for, although one offers to reimburse Miss Banks her bus fare, presumably for collecting or delivering a book. The fact that he asked for six copies of a book on St. Thomas Aquinas in 1924 suggests that the shop was selling new books as well as old. Beyond that it is difficult to gain a sense of what kind of bookshop it was, but in February 1924 Miss Banks joined the ABA, only later registering her membership as Banks Sisters in 1927 – she must always have been the principal sister of this book-selling sisterhood.
After her mother died in 1928, Miss Banks moved out of Mount Carmel Chambers to live at 32 Chepstow Villas, where she was joined by Dora Chamberlin. The ample premises at 7a Church Street were shared in the late 1920s and early 1930s with the photographer sisters Aubrey and Leslie Elstob, whose graceful photographs of the ballet occasionally surface. And then in 1932, just eight years after joining the association, Maud Evelyn Banks was elected to the presidency of the ABA. I find it difficult to imagine that the grizzled stalwarts of the ABA Committee were particularly embarrassed that never before in the first twenty-five years of the association’s history had it chosen a woman to serve as president. It hardly bears thinking about that they may have been culpable of any kind of tokenism. Miss Banks must have been impressive.
As always, one would like to know much more. The records are reticent. Born on 12th June 1884 and baptised at the Hawksmoor church of St. Mary Woolnoth on 9th July, she was brought up over her father’s bank on Threadneedle Street, looked after with her siblings by a clutch of servants. She finished her education as a boarder at the Hastings & St. Leonard’s Ladies College, where she was reported in the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer to have topped the prize-list in 1902, with the Sixth Form prizes for scripture and music. As a bridesmaid at her brother’s wedding in 1903, the Surrey Mirror glimpsed her “gowned in blue crepe de chine”, with a black tulle hat and a shower bouquet of pink roses. In 1911, she was living at Reigate with her mother, apparently with no formal occupation. Beyond that we have to rely almost entirely on the muted evidence of registers and directories.
In 1932, the year of her presidency, Banks Sisters moved round the corner to 9 Holland Street. This is now an imposing private house, although immediately to the left is a row of shops and there may have been some re-numbering. Dora Chamberlin appears on the electoral register there alongside Miss Banks in 1932, but for the next six years there is a new name – that of Eleanor Katherine Dorothy Hughes. Miss Hughes, who had previously been living with Edith Glover, was another woman living in a man’s world. She was a practising architect with an office in Gower Street throughout this period. Dora Chamberlin returned to live with her sister, Lily Cancellor, at 7 Ladbroke Grove, where Mrs Cancellor, now a widow, was running some kind of School of Meditation in the early 1930s.
Banks Sisters probably closed its doors in 1938. Some portion of it may have been intended to survive – there is an entry for Mrs Cancellor, bookseller, at 2 Peel Street, Kensington, in the 1938 telephone directory – this must be Lily and Dora – but Lily Cancellor died later that year. In June 1939, Miss Banks was made an honorary member of the ABA on her retirement from the trade.
By 1941 she was living on the Banbury Road in Oxford, later on pleasant and well-remembered Northmoor Road, and by 1951 at Malthouse Cottage, Church Way, Iffley, a mile or two from the centre of Oxford, where she lived for the rest of her life. At some point Dora Chamberlin joined her – they were certainly both living at Malthouse Cottage when Dora died in 1956. Miss Banks’ days in the book-trade were not quite done. She pops up again in the ABA Directory for 1948 listed at the Turl Bookshop in Oxford, which some of you will perhaps recall. Anthony Garnett, in the Oak Knoll collection of essays published as Book Talk : Essays on Books, Booksellers, Collecting, and Special Collections (2006), recalled that the Turl Cash Bookshop was owned at this time by Blackwell’s – the repository of their overstock and unwanted books, which were ferried across the road in large canvas bags. There they were priced by “the two charming ladies who ran the shop and who clearly judged the books by their outsides. Sixpence or a shilling were fairly standard prices – although a first edition of Dickens would probably be half a crown …”. I suspect the ladies may have been a rather smarter than the young men of Oxford knew – anyone can sell a wanted book. Try selling an unwanted one.
S. P. B. Mais wrote an article about Iffley for the Oxford Mail in 1955 – “‘Iffley Village Only’ says the sign-post. There is no through road. There are no buses. By some fantastic miracle Iffley remains both in appearance and in character a real old, very old, English village. It has become embedded among its modern surroundings, like a pearl in an oyster, but it has, most surprisingly, not allowed itself to be submerged by them”.
The article is reproduced in full on the Iffley History Society website – and Mais met Miss Banks – who was clearly running the village: “I next called on Miss Banks at Malt[house] Cottage, who told me that the W.I. was 120 strong, had an excellent dramatic group and choir and gave demonstrations of handicraft and travel talks. “The Rose Hill Residents’ Association”, she added, “also put on socials and plays. I think our greatest need is a new village hall. We do very much enjoy our social life and by no means all of us want to be continually going into Oxford. We find that village life in Iffley completely fills our needs”. Yes – I think we can take it that she was rather impressive.
Maud Evelyn Banks died in Oxford at the age of ninety in early May 1975. Her passing was briefly noted at the ABA’s Annual General Meeting held at the Caxton Hall on the 13th May, but there was apparently no formal obituary in the ABA Newsletter or elsewhere. She received only a single, brief and passing mention in the ABA centenary volume. I suppose there is always a danger that those who outlive their contemporaries and leave no direct descendants may slip through the cracks of history. But time now to make amends.
I’ve been trying to track her down for the last couple of years. It was only a recent and quite chance discovery that unlocked the way to the brief account above. And yet, oddly enough, in a sense I seem unwittingly to have been tracking her most of my life. I bought my first antiquarian book (well, late nineteenth-century really) in the Turl Bookshop. I still buy books on Kensington Church Street. More than that, I was daily on the Banbury Road for several years. My bed-sit on Northmoor Road was only a couple of doors from where Miss Banks had lived twenty years earlier. Closer still, we must have lived within hailing distance of each other when I was sharing a houseboat at Iffley for a few months in 1968. Later on, my shop on Threadneedle Street was but yards from her childhood home. I shall say nothing of any possible common experience of the grizzled stalwarts.
The account remains partial. Is there anyone out there, anywhere, who can add more?
With thanks to John Critchley for some kind and assiduous delving in the ABA archives.
Postscript: April 2014. I’m surprised and a little disappointed that not one of you was able to point me in the direction of Andrew Block’s “A Short History of the Principal London Antiquarian Booksellers and Book-Auctioneers” (1933), which gives a contemporary account of the Banks Sisters business. Even more surprised and disappointed at myself in not knowing this excellent little book already. Why no copy in the ABA Library?
In sum, Banks Sisters opened for business in 1920, founded by Evelyn Banks and Edith Glover. Miss Banks had earlier been the first woman library assistant employed by the Royal Society of Medicine, while Edith Glover had assisted her husband in editing Hazlitt, Boswell, etc. They specialised in children’s books, games, valentines, etc. Their exhibition of children’s books from 1770 was hugely successful. The shop was opened “partly in the hope that other women would be induced to set up in what should be a very suitable and most absorbing occupation for them”. Edith Glover retired in 1923, leaving Evelyn Banks in sole charge.