Eirlys Roberts: Editor of 'Which?' magazine who became one of the most influential figures in the consumer movement

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The Independent Online

Eirlys Roberts was the creator of the editorial and research style of Which? magazine and an inspiring influence on the UK and European consumer movements. She was Head of Research and Editorial at Which? from 1958 to 1973, Deputy Director of the Consumers' Association from 1973 to 1978, and was, perhaps, the most influential figure to be thrown up by the consumer movement.

Eirlys Rhiwen Cadwaladr Roberts was born in Caerphilly in 1911. The family moved to Clapham, in south London, where Roberts was educated at Clapham High School before going up to Girton College, Cambridge to read Classics. She claimed that an accidental reason for the simple language of Which? was the fact that two of her senior colleagues also happened to have read Classics at school and university and that good teachers required that Latin or Greek text should be translated into Anglo-Saxon – "How else would they know that a pupil who translates mare caeruleum as 'cerulean sea' knows what colour it is?"

Which? was first published in 1957. Although its launch was widely reported in the press, no one expected that the tiny ex-garage office in Bethnal Green, home to the fledgling Consumers' Association (CA), soon would be awash with 10,000 envelopes containing 10-shilling note subscriptions to the new magazine. But there was a huge appetite for something that promised to be a guide to the confusing choice of brands and new products that were arriving on the market after the austerity of the Second World War and post-war years.

Roberts insisted that information must be accurate, presented in an accessible way and that the conclusion drawn must pay regard to the public interest exclusively. Her drive to simplify and communicate information turned on her desire to understand it herself in plain terms before she asked anyone else to understand it. So, no abstract nouns, the active voice not passive, short Anglo-Saxon words and short paragraphs.

After Cambridge, Roberts had a spell in Majorca helping Robert Graves, the novelist and poet, check the accuracy of classical references in his historical novel I, Claudius. Her friendship with Graves and the poet Laura Riding in an intellectual hothouse led to her rejection of élitism which characterised everything she did afterwards. After Majorca, she became a sub-editor with Amalgamated Press.

From 1943-45 she served in military intelligence, and from 1945-47 in public relations in Albania with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). From 1947-57 she worked in the Information Division of the Treasury. Here, she helped to organise a campaign of simple economic lectures for anyone who would listen. The aim of these was to encourage British shoppers to be more selective and more demanding in order to bring about higher standards. The knock-on effect of this would be to make British goods more attractive to foreign markets. Roberts also wrote freelance articles on consumer affairs for The Observer and worked with women's organisations that were conscious of their inadequacy as informed shoppers.

For 15 years or more, Roberts's tough, intelligent Celtic charm and warmth (her father was Welsh, her mother Scottish) shone from the pages of Which? and drew out from those who worked for her more than they thought they had in them. She was much loved by her colleagues.

Although Which? was not set up as a campaigning organisation, the experience gained from its comparative testing produced evidence that suggested possible improvements in legislation or voluntary standards. In its first six years, the membership of Which? rose to more than 600,000. Led by Roberts, the campaigns which originated in the magazine were having an effect on consumer legislation and the requirements of the British Standards Institution. Which? project officers contributed a consumer dimension as the result of comparative testing. Tests on seat belts led to new standards and to the belts becoming compulsory. Tests on the use of lead paint in toys resulted in its prohibition. From these beginnings, CA has continued to devote part of its resources to campaigning.

By 1973, the European dimension was beginning to make an impact. Roberts served as Chief Executive of the Brussels-based Bureau of European Consumer Organisations from 1973 until 1978. She was a member of the Economic and Social Committee, 1973-82, and Chairman of its Environment and Consumer Protection section, 1978-82, where her contribution to consumer advocacy was, as ever, strong and effective.

On retirement in 1978, Roberts established the European Research Institute for Consumer Affairs (Erica). And, as Chairman until 1997, she naturally took on the challenge of persuading the European Commission to adopt plain language in its publications, which finally and formally, the Commission has done.

Roberts had a genius for friendship. Eclectic gatherings of friends and family would be plied with good wines, interesting food and wide-ranging conversation in her flat in Islington. In the late 1990s she moved to Forest Hill to live with her sister, who predeceased her. Her passions during her long life included walking, skating, crossword puzzles and detective novels.

Rosemary McRobert

Eirlys Rhiwen Cadwaladr Roberts, editor and consumer advocate: born 3 January 1911; Head of Research and Editorial Division, Which? 1958-73; OBE 1971; Deputy Director, Consumers' Association 1973-77; Chief Executive, Bureau of European Consumer Organisations 1973-78; CBE 1977; married 1941 John Cullen (marriage dissolved); died London 18 March 2008.