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Obituary: Howard Blackmore

HOWARD BLACKMORE was the leading authority on the history of firearms in Britain and on London gunmakers.

His first book, British Military Firearms, was published in 1961. It is difficult now, when so many works on the history of firearms are available, to realise what a landmark this was. Everything previously written on its subject had been the work of amateurs and based almost entirely on printed sources. This was a thoroughly professional piece of work, written to the highest academic standards, and - as one reviewer wrote - containing "hardly a page . . . that does not contain information that has not previously appeared in print". It not only revolutionised its own subject, but it set completely new standards for research into the history of firearms in Britain.

It is a minor tragedy that the publisher made Blackmore shorten his original text, and, also, that his lack of a first degree disqualified him from offering it as a thesis for a doctorate.

Born in Wallington, Surrey, in 1917, the son of a clerk with the Southern Railway, Howard Loftus Blackmore was educated at Emmanuel School, Wandsworth, in south-west London. Family circumstances prevented his going on to university and, having taken the Civil Service examination, he began his adult career with the Inland Revenue.

Called up into the Pioneer Corps in 1940, he eventually became an Armourer Sergeant with the Pay Corps in London, though for a time was seconded to the Royal Artillery (Heavy Anti-Aircraft). After demobilisation in 1946, he took a further examination that qualified him to transfer to the Customs & Excise, where he eventually became a Purchase Tax Officer with responsibility for an area that included Hatton Garden.

It is characteristic of Blackmore that, finding himself at a disadvantage when dealing with members of the jewellery trade there over technical matters, he should have studied in his spare time to acquire the professional qualification of a Fellowship of the Gemmological Association, which he did in 1957, the year in which he also became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Blackmore developed an enthusiasm for studying and collecting antiquities of various kinds, including flint implements as well as early firearms, while still a schoolboy. In this he was much encouraged by G.F. Lawrence (a.k.a. "Stoney Jack") - the dealer in archaeological antiquities - whose shop in Wandsworth he used to visit on his way to and from school.

During the Second World War, most of which he spent in or near London, he also became one of several collectors of antique arms who frequented the firm of Bapty & Co, whose main business is the hiring out of weapons for theatrical and film performances, but who at that period also bought and sold them. They were one of only two specialist dealers in central London who did so during the war, which led to their premises, then in Whitcomb Street, becoming a meeting-place for arms collectors. It was here that Blackmore first entered the world in which he was eventually to make a distinguished career.

Immediately after the war there was a great upsurge of interest in antique arms and armour. The market was flooded with examples at prices that even the most hard-up collector could afford, while the reorganisation and re-opening of the Tower of London Armouries by the late Sir James Mann and a young team of enthusiasts provided, for the first time, a British centre for its serious academic study. It also provided a catalyst for the foundation in May 1950 of the Arms and Armour Society by eight friends, who included Blackmore, as well as three members of the Armouries' staff.

The early days of the infant society were less than smooth, mainly because of personality clashes, and it came near to foundering. Much of the credit for saving it is due to Blackmore, who became Honorary President in 1952. He took a firm grip on its proceedings, controlled the monthly meetings with firmness and tact, and was among those members who advocated that it should do more for its subject than provide a semi-social club for collectors. One result was the publication in March 1953 of the first issue of the Journal of the Arms and Armour Society, which now has a high reputation as the only learned periodical of its kind published in English.

The area of Blackmore's work as a Purchase Tax Officer was divided into sections, each of which he had to cover in turn during a period allocated to it. If he was able to cover a section during a shorter period he was at liberty to do what he liked with the time saved until he had to start on another section. He chose to spend this time doing research on firearms in manuscript sources in the then British Museum Library, Guildhall Library, and, above all, in the vast records of the Board of Ordnance in the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, a then almost untouched source of information.

The publication of British Military Firearms in 1961 established Blackmore's reputation as the undisputed leading authority on its subject, a reputation he continued to enhance by the publication of numerous articles. Nobody in the field was surprised, therefore, when in 1967 he was invited by the then Master of the Tower of London Armouries, the late A.R. Dufty, to transfer to his staff from the Customs and Excise, though there was apparently considerable surprise among his colleagues in the latter organisation. He remained in the Armouries until his retirement in 1981, eventually becoming Assistant, and then Deputy Master.

During this period he displayed not only considerable abilities as an administrator, but also an aptitude for museum display which produced two galleries for the Armouries, one on the Board of Ordnance, which had had its headquarters in the Tower, and the other on hunting weapons. The demolition of these when the Armouries moved to Leeds caused him considerable distress.

During his time at the Tower Blackmore published three significant works, a book, Hunting Weapons (1971), and two catalogues, Royal Sporting Guns at Windsor (1968) and The Armouries of the Tower of London - Ordnance (1976). He also continued to write articles, as he did until the week before his death. The outstanding work of his retirement, however, and the one for which he will always be remembered, since it will never be supplanted, is his A Dictionary of London Gunmakers 1350-1850, and its Supplement (1986 and 1999).

Throughout his second career and retirement he was in demand as a lecturer, especially in North America, where he was made an honorary member both of the American Society of Arms Collectors and the Canadian Guild of Antique Arms Collectors. He had already been made an honorary member of the Arms and Armour Society on his retirement from the Presidency in 1972, and in 1984 he was one of the first recipients of the society's medal.

One of Blackmore's most engaging characteristics was the way in which he retained his enthusiasm for the subjects that had interested him in his youth right to the end. He was gregarious, and there was nothing he liked better than to talk with like-minded friends. They will long remember him for his kindness, his modesty, and his sometimes Rabelaisian sense of humour.

Howard Loftus Blackmore, historian of firearms and antiquary: born Wallington, Surrey 27 October 1917; FSA 1957; married 1939 Kathleen Baylie (two sons); died Caterham, Surrey 24 November 1999.