OBITUARY: Tony Doncaster

Essex and East Anglia have more in common than they know - or than their devotees care to admit - and they havenow lost a familiar spirit whose qualities as a tireless and expert bookseller did much to spread the understanding of these deep local historical matters.

In the summer, Tony Doncaster, well into his 82nd year and in his clear firm italic hand, wrote to me about chamber music in Blythburgh church, about an ancient auction sale, but most urgently about the future of the Essex Archaeological Society's immensely valuable library, leading into the question once put to him by Derek Buxton, former President of the Norfolk Society: "Why does Essex always have these rows? We never have them in Norfolk."

Tony Doncaster started life in Sheffield, the first of four children of a cutler. His formative schooling was with J.H. Whitehouse at Bembridge School, in the Isle of Wight, with its Ruskin collections; here his interest in printing and typography developed.

He worked briefly, as dogsbody, at the Hogarth Press, and then merely as "estimator" with the estimable firm of Hazell, Watson & Viney. There his friendship with Elliott Viney led to walking and climbing in the Lake District, Scotland and Norway. At the Centaur Press, in Camden Street, London, he met Mary Eversley, who brought in work for the Mayor Gallery and much poetry. Doncaster was now the printer. He was earnestly involved with the Independent Labour Party. He and Mary married in 1943: she came from Coltishall, in Norfolk, and so began his first attachment to East Anglia.

When war finally came, he joined the RNVR, serving on destroyers and having command of a landing craft in the Normandy invasion. Despite a Quaker-Pacifist background, he knew this enemy had to be fought.

Married, he decided on bookselling, and, after an apprenticeship with Foyles and in Hampstead, he and his wife settled in Colchester in 1948. After 20 years of steadily increasing rents, their Castle Bookshop - an antiquarian shop with a slant towards books about Essex and East Anglian history - moved away from the castle area to more spacious 16th-century premises they bought on North Hill, the steep northern approach to the Roman hilltop town.

Three years earlier, I was asked by John Piper to write Essex: a Shell Guide (1968) and made straight for the Castle Bookshop. Knowing that I first had to form a picture of every town and village as it was before the 19th-century transformations, I came away with the 1818 Excursions in Essex (2 vols, 3 guineas) and Thomas Wright's two equally well-illustrated volumes The History and Topography of the County of Essex (1831), at an equally fair price. (How proud I was that item 1 in his first catalogue from North Hill was my Essex Shell Guide.) It never crossed my mind that those books would not be on their shelves nor so affordably priced.

Doncaster's practice was to buy collections in bulk and, if a collection came from a private seller and contained an unexpected "treasure", that seller received a generous share of the profit. Doncaster hated greed, charlatans and the National Lottery, and he had an exceptionally accurate memory, and a gift for the extensive anecdote.

It is a great pity that his only writing that survives is in letters, written mainly to Mary during the war. Their lives were not confined to bookselling. Both adored landscape and music. They were devoted supporters of the King's Lynn Festival in Mary's Norfolk, and often came to Aldeburgh and Snape. Severe internal surgery followed his retirement in 1990; yet Tony attended two of this summer's active excursions of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology.

Anthony Barber Doncaster, bookseller: born Sheffield 22 December 1913; married 1943 Mary Eversley (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Layer de la Haye, Essex 5 August 1995.