Obituary: Roy Shipperbottom

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Roy Shipperbottom was in the fullest sense of the word an autodidact. He was not just self-taught - he had an excellent school education, which was the basis of his own capable teaching - but his intellectual curiosity stretched beyond the limits of conventional scholarship, and to satisfy it he learnt how to teach himself.

He was also a brilliant conjuror, and an authority on the history of conjuring. He was a modest but enthusiastic collector of books on local history, trades and industry, and all the other subjects that interested him; and he studied bookbinding with Lawrence Town, author of Bookbinding by Hand (1951). He researched University Challenge for television. He wrote a best-selling collection of howlers and freelance journalism, including some entertaining advertising copy in the Guardian for Sam's Chop House.

Food and its history were his speciality, and he contributed papers at conferences on subjects as diverse as "Precious Metals on Food", "The Adulteration of Spices", "Disappearing Foods: Tripe" and "The History of Temperance Bars". If he had lived, this year's Oxford Symposium on Food History would have heard him on a favourite subject, "Fish and Chips".

His special and abiding interest was Mrs Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781). This remarkable woman was the Mrs Beeton of her day, and something more. Born in Doncaster, she spent 15 years in service, during which she met and married her husband, an able but dissolute gardener. They settled at Manchester, where, besides having 16 daughters, she kept the famous Bull's Head Inn, gave lessons in cookery and housekeeping, opened the first registry office for servants, ran two newspapers, and published in 1772 the first Directory of Manchester and Salford. Her great work was The Experienced English Housekeeper, for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c, Wrote Purely from Practice (1769), of which 13 genuine and many more pirate editions appeared; she was reputed to have sold the copyright for pounds 1,400.

Shipperbottom knew all about the publication history of her works and everything else there was to know about her. The acquisition of new and out-of-the- way editions of her magnum opus was a continuing delight. Happily, his life's work will be preserved in the introduction to the forthcoming Southover Press edition of The Experienced English Housekeeper.

Roy Shipperbottom was born at Bolton in Lancashire in 1930. His father, Reuben, had been a cotton-mill worker, but in the Depression he turned to building, specialising in laying concrete. From him his son acquired his passionate interest in how men and machines worked; from his mother, Hilda, he got his independence of mind. The family moved to Stockton-on- Tees soon after he was born, and there he grew up with two sisters and a brother whose death at the age of seven was the only cloud on a happy childhood.

When war broke out, the family returned to Bolton to live at Tonge Moor Road, right opposite Tonge Moor Public Library. This rapidly became a second home, and finding his way about the library and the books in it laid the foundation of his gift for discovering and absorbing all that could be found out about the most unlikely range of subjects.

He went to school at Bolton County Grammar School, leaving in 1948 to do his National Service in the Intelligence Corps as a dispatch rider; inevitably, he acquired an exhaustive knowledge not merely of the working behaviour but also the history of motorcycles. When he came out of the Army, he spent some time working with his father, mainly in Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland, but with a spell back in the North-East. This meant a lot of travelling, much of it in the back of a truck with the other workmen. He listened, picking up and remembering tales of working life and practice, which he could recall vividly in after-life - he was a very good mimic, and could catch the inflection as well as the words of what he had heard.

Then his life began to take a more serious direction. In 1956 he went to Mirfield Priory, near Wakefield, as a candidate for ordination, but, already interested in education, he changed his mind and went to St John's College, York, where he did a teacher-training course. This he thoroughly enjoyed, working with and learning from some remarkable teachers, whom he came to admire greatly.

In 1960 he got his first teaching job at Moston College of Further Education; he taught English, Geography and Social Studies to day-release students, thus adding considerably to the range of industries and professions that he knew about. Later, he added administration to his skills, producing textbooks for some courses and choosing publishers' books for others. Buying books took him to Sherratt & Hughes, then the greatest bookshop in Manchester, and there he met Olga Jackson, whom he married in 1963 and who shared all his wide interests.

Twenty years of teaching came to an abrupt end in 1982. Shipperbottom had had diabetes since childhood, and consequent circulation trouble led to serious illness and the amputation of his left leg. He made no complaint or fuss about it, and became as fascinated by the mechanics of recovery. Although a big man, he was very neat and precise in his movements, and learnt to manage his artificial leg so that no one knew it was there. Walks in the Lake District continued unabated.

All this conveys only part of Shipperbottom's polymathic and sympathetic genius. He was, and was proud to be, Chairman of the Manchester Pakistani Welfare Society. He was a great supporter of the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage. His friends will remember individual gifts: one recalls a bottle of "Danzigwasser", the history of Rolling Stone magazine and a brace of snipe, I a handbill advertising timber sold by Sir Thomas Phillipps to fuel his insatiable collection of medieval manuscripts. Countless other acts of kindness, small but characterised by the same thoughtfulness, will be his memorial.

Shipperbottom enjoyed travelling, particularly in France, and it was at the old pilgrimage town of Laon that his heart finally gave out, on the way home. In a pilgrimage, what you do on the way is as important as arriving; he did a great deal.

Roy Shipperbottom, teacher, collector and historian of food: born Bolton, Lancashire 14 January 1930; married 1963 Olga Jackson; died Laon, France 7 July 1997.