Obituary: James Stevens Cox

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The Independent Online
If James Stevens Cox's main livelihood was to come from other sources, he remained a proud and active member of his hereditary profession: hairdressing and wigmaking.

He was bookseller, publisher, writer, archaeologist, local historian; but, although he sold the family business in 1955, he remained chairman of the Hairdressers' Registration Council, a regular contributor to the Registered Hairdresser, its quarterly journal, and one of the Chief Examiners in Ladies' Hairdressing and Wigmaking for the City and Guilds Institute. In 1966 he published An Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing and Wigmaking (the book was reissued in 1987).

There was a time when almost all booksellers were autodidacts. Stevens Cox was exceptional in that he was an autodidact before he was a bookseller, and he was, in a way, the last of his kind: those who teach themselves are few and far between (though they may become commoner).

His education thus began before he went to school. He was born in Bristol. There his parents, William George Cox and Anne Eugenia (nee Stevens) traded at "Ye Olde Dutche House", 67 Wine Street, where his grandmother, Mrs F. Stevens, "practical hair worker and wig maker", offered "All Kind of Ornamental Hair Work, Fringes, Partings, Transformations, Scalpettes, &c., kept in stock, or made to order at the shortest possible notice".

But his father was an Ilchester man, and his aunt still lived in the old family home, where the young Cox (not yet Stevens - he added the name to distinguish himself from another James Cox whose detention was unfairly inflicted on him at school) used to spend his holidays. When he was eight he found some old pottery while digging there in the garden; he took it back to Bristol, where the museum curator correctly identified it as Roman.

At Bristol Grammar School, where he went in 1910, he came under the influence of its remarkable headmaster, John Barton, who instilled taste and judgement rather than a syllabus; the BBC producer Douglas Cleverdon was another of the pupils whose lives he inspired. Stevens Cox left at 16 to join his parents' business. If he had other ideas about his vocation, he kept them to himself.

Reading books, and (for a little pocket money went a long way then) buying them, was the staple of his life. One of his favourite haunts was the premises, two houses full of books for sale, with more and a private library in yet another house next door, of a secondhand bookseller called Mathews. Every plane surface was filled with books, and the further parts could only be reached by tunnelling through book-piles. Mathews turned nothing away, and it was there that Stevens Cox acquired his remarkable knowledge of all the different kinds of book there were.

He might have remained a book-loving hairdresser, but for a strange chance: the octogenarian owner married a wife who could not abide the dusty rubbish (as she saw it) that infested her new abode. Inspiration came: Stevens Cox borrowed money from his father, raised a mortgage, and bought the two houses and 75,000 books.

A vast and dusty stock, not easily distinguishable from an almost equally large private library, remained with him throughout his bookselling career. He also became, and remained, a publisher: A Note on Henry Irving by Froom Tyler (1931) and Date (1935), Hubert Nicholson's poems, appeared under the imprint of the Coleridge Bookshop, as it now became. When the Second World War came he volunteered for the Royal Navy but was drafted into the Bristol City Police, in which he had some odd experiences. Due to his beard (a rarer feature then than now), he was once mistaken for a German spy. Bristol was badly bombed and in 1940 the Coleridge Bookshop was destroyed. Mercifully, Stevens Cox had moved himself and much of his stock to Ilchester three years earlier, and when peace returned it was there that he set up shop.

Here he branched out in other directions. An active intervention in the excavation of Roman Ilchester led to his election to the Society of Antiquaries. It also led to his History of Ilchester (1958), perhaps his most lasting memorial. In 1954 he started the Literary Repository, a combination of bookseller's catalogue and journal of antiquarian scholarship, articles (often by Stevens Cox) combining with the texts of unpublished historic documents. He became an Extra-Mural Tutor in archaeology and county history to the Workers' Educational Association and Bristol University, and Honorary Editor of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society.

Ever since he was a boy he had been interested in natural history. As well as an aviary in Dorset, he kept a jaguarondi (a South American cat), a spider monkey, dogs and a fox-cub; but, above all, a substantial number of toucans, after which he named the press that he set up in 1960.

I, for one, will never forget the toucans, under whose sardonic eye and alarming beaks I first met Stevens Cox, now at Beaminster. I had been sent by the surgeon and bibliophile Geoffrey Keynes, who had heard (to his mortification) that John Sparrow had bought there a book that had belonged to John Donne, and (more cheerfully) that there was an unexplored back room which might, possibly, contain another such book. Stevens Cox was out, but his wife received me. I thought it wiser to avoid the question of the back room, and concentrated instead on the toucans. There were many different kinds and I learnt a lot about them, particularly when Stevens Cox himself returned.

It was not difficult to take a sympathetic interest; they smelt a bit (so did the books), but otherwise were full of exotic charm. I expanded; so did the Coxes. Eventually, I brought up the backroom question; the books were not for sale, I was told, but I might look. I looked, but there were no more of Donne's books.

The Literary Repository kept me, like others, vividly in touch with Stevens Cox, and in particular his invaluable work in retrieving the remains of Thomas Hardy, in particular the recollections of those who had known him. This led in 1970 to the Thomas Hardy Year Book, which still continues to publish an annual series of articles on the great Dorset author and his work.

Pamphlets on other Dorset writers, Thomas Russell, by Edmund Blunden, William Barnes, by Stevens Cox himself, also issued from the Toucan Press; its masterpiece was a half-size facsimile of Gould's Monograph of the Rhamphastidae (toucans again) in an edition limited to six copies.

Stevens Cox retired to Guernsey, where he became immersed in the archaeology and history of the island. He started a new series of publications, "Guernsey Historical Monographs". He gave lectures and ran evening classes, kept bees as well as birds, and began a new garden (he was an expert pruner). He grew old without changing, nor did he forget Dorset, continuing to publish nearly a hundred papers on Ilchester history.

Nicolas Barker

James Stevens Cox, bookseller, publisher, writer, archaeologist, local historian and hairdresser: born Bristol 19 February 1910; twice married (one son); died Guernsey 7 February 1997.