John Letts

Founder of the Trollope Society
Click to follow

John Campbell Bonner Letts, advertising copywriter, publisher and conservationist: born Cirencester, Gloucestershire 18 November 1929; joint chairman, Folio Society 1971-87; Chairman, National Heritage 1971-98, Life President 1999-2006; OBE 1980; Chairman, Trollope Society 1987-2006; Director, Earth Centre, Doncaster 1988-2000; chairman, Empire Museum Ltd 1989-2006; Chairman, European Museums Trust 1994-2006; married 1957 Sarah O'Rorke (three sons, one daughter); died London 26 March 2006.

John Letts led two lives, the first spent conventionally enough in the world of advertising and public relations, the other in swimming, slowly, firmly and with unruffled confidence, quite against the stream. After co-chairing the Folio Society for 16 years, he founded the Trollope Society, to promote and publish the works of Anthony Trollope, and set up the Empire Museum - which finally opened four years ago, as the independent British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol.

He was born in 1929 at Cirencester, where his father was the headmaster of a local school, Oakley Hall, which his son attended. This experience - forced, so to speak, to face both ways - gave him a lasting independence of mind. From there he went to Haileybury, where he spent the Second World War years, and thence to Jesus College, Cambridge, on a scholarship to read English. This strengthened an already wide knowledge of English literature, on which he held views all the stronger for not being fashionable.

As a trainee at S.H. Benson, he learned (and never forgot) the art of copywriting. His first proper job was in 1959 at Penguin Books, still then at Harmondsworth, as publicity manager, but he was quickly lured back to the advertising business, and spent the early Sixties as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. In 1964 he went to The Sunday Times as general manager of its publications, and after two years moved in the same role to Book Club Associates, the last to rise of the great book clubs that had been such a feature of post-war publishing. Two years at Hutchinson's as marketing manager, 1969-71, brought his career in new book publishing to an end.

He then became joint chairman, with responsibility for editorial and marketing matters, of the Folio Society. He found it rather as Charles Ede had left it, a book club for those for whom a visit to a bookshop was rather intimidating - who found a ready-made selection of books no longer new but now handsomely printed with new illustrations just what they wanted. With Tim Wilkinson as designer, Letts strengthened this side of the Folio Society's list, and with his old experience of advertising increased membership with shrewdly placed newspaper advertisements.

In 1971, the same year as he went to the Folio Society, and long before the word "heritage" had come into vogue, Letts had become founder Chairman of National Heritage, as a pressure group to influence public opinion and (where possible) government policy to promote what we have all now come to call "heritage matters". It organised lectures and other events and built up a body of sympathisers; its impact is still felt, in a world now transformed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies who have given "heritage" a new resonance. He was very properly made Life President of National Heritage in 1999.

Letts had left the Folio Society in 1987. Two new ideas had come to the top of his fertile mind. First, there was the Empire Museum, of which he became founder trustee in 1987. He succeeded in engaging the enthusiastic and generous support of Sir Jack Hayward and, again, a growing body of supporters (from which the Government was conspicuously absent). After many attempts, ideal premises for the museum were eventually found in Brunel's great engine-shed, next to Temple Meads Station, Bristol.

Opened in 2002, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, has grown and flourished, perennially poor in money but rich in artefacts from the days of the Raj given by hundreds of supporters, the ex-ruled as well as the ex-rulers. Its exhibitions have won prizes, and its innovative, unpartisan, vivid depiction of the British Empire has made it a national treasure.

Letts's other idea was the Trollope Society. Anthony Trollope was supposed to have sunk his own reputation with a too frank autobiography published just after his death, not to be revived until Michael Sadleir began to reprint him in the 1930s. It was not quite as simple as that, but there was still, in 1987, no complete set of the novels. Public opinion, whetted by Harold Macmillan's endorsement, was ready, and the Trollope Society, run on Folio Society lines and founded that year, was an instant success.

Four novels a year for 12 years, sales of each batch funding the next and (a typical Letts touch) those who paid "up front" for all 48 getting their money back in full at the end, put the record right, and the completion of the task in 1999 was signalled by the success of a parallel campaign to put a memorial to Trollope in Westminster Abbey.

Nicolas Barker