Obituary: Christina Foyle

CHRISTINA FOYLE was the daughter of William Foyle, elder of the founding brothers of what was, for most of this century, London's largest and most famous bookshop, Foyle's, of Charing Cross Road. Her youthful "Hollywood" good looks developed into a regal presence which could instil fear into some of those she employed, despite a high-pitched, rather reedy voice that often drawled away into a register too low to be heard.

The exact date when Willie Foyle, who lived until 1963, handed over the reins to his daughter is disputable but, as early as 1930, aged only 19, she had launched the literary luncheons which made her a public figure. The 665th is being held at the Grosvenor House Hotel next week. In her 88 years Christina Foyle attended most of them. They have been addressed by authors from Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells to Barbara Cartland, by painters, actors, several prime ministers, and numerous media luminaries, and attended by hosts of subscribing ladies from Belgravia, Kensington and Chelsea.

The lunches helped to keep the firm afloat in the 1930s and still play a role in publicising the bookshop which, despite the emergence of bookselling chains on its doorstep, remains largely unmodernised, though apparently profitable.

The young woman who came enthusiastically into the family business had an undistinguished school career (partly in Switzerland because of delicate health) but enjoyed reading, dancing, travelling and playing the piano. She was an exuberant traveller to South Africa, where Foyle's had branches, and the United States, where they did not. She also went to the Soviet Union to collect bad debts.

Under Christina, Foyle's developed book clubs, a lecture agency, an art gallery and publishing. In 1938 she married a childhood friend, Ronald Batty, who was working in the rare books department. In that decade also branches were opened in outer London but subsequently closed because, Christina observed, "managers stole from us".

One branch, acquired in 1957, remained a guarded secret from the trade, including those who worked in it. Foyle's bought the tax loss of the small London chain Alfred Wilson, which necessitated keeping open the Hampstead branch, which I was managing, for the Receiver. It was renamed the High Hill Bookshop. Thus I worked for Christina Foyle without knowing it. Had I been aware I would have left, because staff welfare was not one of her priorities. Yet, during those seven years, she was an ideal, anonymous employer. I doubt if anyone else she employed could claim such long immunity from interference.

When she sold the business to me and my backers the transaction was cloaked in secrecy. Once the identity of the vendor was revealed, Christina Foyle occasionally invited me to a Park Lane lunch and was extremely friendly. "I think we did you a good turn," she said. She also lamented having no one to leave Foyle's to. Later she wrote to me, "If you were 20 years younger, I'd give it to you." A trade friend to whom I told this commented, "I've got one of those letters too."

Christina Foyle was not a good or caring employer. She engaged and dismissed according to whim. There was no pension fund, no staff room and certainly no personnel officer. The turnover of staff was extremely rapid and, inevitably, in 1965, there was a strike. Christina Foyle survived that and continued to flourish, by now in sole command, her brother Richard having died and her cousins having made Foyle's Educational into a separate company.

In 1985 "Miss Foyle", as she was always known to staff, surprised the trade by leasing one of her Charing Cross Road properties to a new competitor, Tim Waterstone, at the same time as enlarging her other premises.

After Ronald Batty died in 1994 she spent most of her week at Beeleigh Abbey, near Maldon in Essex, where she and Ronnie had taken over when William Foyle died. There she enjoyed gardening, bird watching and reading, surrounded by animals and staff.

In 1997 I put to her the question which all the book trade was asking, "Are you going to sell Foyle's?" Her reply was, "If I did, where would I get my books?" At the last literary lunch to which she invited me she said about guests who were bearing down upon her, "They're all after my money. I never think about money." Then realising, from my expression, that this remark was not PC she added, "I'm lucky, I don't have to." She also felt lucky that she had never had to cook, do housework or be a wage earner, and, on that last meeting, she admitted she was glad not to have had children.

Christina Foyle shared her first name with her mother, writes Norris McWhirter - Christina Tulloch, who spoke with the soft precision of a Lerwegian, being the daughter of a Shetland Islands seaman. Young Christina was born in Highgate and generously described her father Willie Foyle as "an adored if neglectful parent". She became steelily immune to his practical jokes.

When he died Christina and her husband Ronald Batty, moved into the family's 12th-century, Premonstratensian abbey at Beeleigh on the River Chelmer. Here her addiction to animals of all kinds was given full vent. Visitors on summer nights were bemused by slowly moving lights in the large garden. The braver souls found that these were borne by tortoises with candles affixed to their backs.

Owners of handsome, shiny cars were at particular hazard. Christina's well-fed flock of peacocks were narcissistic to a bird. The mirror-like reflections in the panels of a Rolls or a Bentley drove them into fatal attractions. The unsuspecting owners would often return to vehicles which had been distressed by severe pecking.

After a tip-off about the date of a planned burglary, the local constabulary received permission to mount an all-night guard inside the abbey. In the small hours a police sergeant nearly had a heart attack when a white ghost flitted through the refectory. Mrs Jacques, Christina's famous housekeeper of more than 70 years' service, had caught the affliction of being a practical joker.

If burglars had ever struck, they would have found a low-grade painting hanging lopsidedly on a nail in the ground-floor loo, which was boldly attributed to Rembrandt (1606-1669). Christina could not bring herself to remove one of her father's artefacts which so mightily impressed visiting booksellers, particularly those from across the Atlantic.

Christina Agnes Lilian Foyle, bookseller: born London 30 January 1911; married 1938 Ronald Batty (died 1994); died Beeleigh Abbey, Essex 8 June 1999.