Richard Ollard

Publisher's editor at Collins, Civil War historian and biographer of Samuel Pepys and A. L. Rowse
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The Independent Online

Richard Laurence Ollard, writer and editor: born Bainton, Yorkshire 9 November 1923; Lecturer in History and English, Royal Naval College, Greenwich 1948-59; Senior Editor, William Collins 1960-83; FRSL 1970; married 1954 Mary Buchanan-Riddell (two sons, one daughter); died Dorchester 21 January 2007.

Historian of the 17th century, editor at William Collins, biographer of Samuel Pepys and A.L. Rowse - Richard Ollard was a "gentleman scholar" before he was a "writer publisher", but he epitomised what was best in both these distinguished hybrids.

Following service in the Second World War and a degree at Oxford Ollard had begun his career teaching history and English at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. His first published work was a textbook for A. & C. Black, A General History of England, 1688-1832 (with W.A. Barker and G.R. St Aubyn, 1952). But in 1960 he went to work for the publishers Collins, where he established a reputation as an editor of flair and integrity.

Teaching, as well as the example of his father and the authors he now dealt with, inspired him to write books solo, and in 1966 he brought out The Escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester, still the definitive account of Charles's flight in 1651. From then on Ollard managed to combine publishing other people's books with producing his own superlative histories, biographies and topographical studies, culminating in his 80th year with his edition of The Diaries of A.L. Rowse (2003). In 1998 he was awarded, jointly with Norman Lewis, the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime contribution to literature.

Indeed, he was still writing articles and reviews (and superb obituaries) in his west Dorset farmhouse, as well as providing editorial advice based on a lifetime's experience, up until his final illness in 2006.

Richard Laurence Ollard was born in Yorkshire in 1923. He was the son of the distinguished ecclesiastical historian S.L. Ollard, former Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, a country rector and, later, Canon of St George's Chapel, Windsor - by which time Richard was a King's Scholar across the river at Eton. In 1942 he joined the Navy, meeting James Callaghan, who remained a lifelong friend, wont to tell how he had had to fold up Ollard's hammock for him when they were both ratings on HMS Victory at Portsmouth. The following year, after a brief spell learning Japanese at Soas, he was commissioned and sent to Ceylon to help intercept enemy communications.

After the war Ollard went up to New College, Oxford, where he read History, remaining ever grateful to his tutors, Alan Bullock, Harry Bell and David Ogg (for whom he co-edited, with Bell, a Festschrift, Historical Essays, 1600-1750, 1963). Though he might have preferred to teach at Oxford he found a post at Greenwich, where he developed his interest in maritime history with special reference to the 17th century.

In 1953 he met the charming and witty Mary, daughter of Sir Walter Buchanan-Riddell Bt, whom he married the following year. Six years later, his teaching job was terminated as a consequence of defence cuts, and, with one small child and another on its way, he taught at a variety of London schools until he found his post as editor at Collins. The first task he was given there was the editing of Prince Philip Speaks (1960), a selection of the Duke of Edinburgh's speeches in 1956-59.

One might not guess from his otherwise comprehensive obituaries of Penelope Fitzgerald or Carlo Cipolla, or his articles on Fernand Braudel or Patrick O'Brian, Ollard's pioneering role in publishing such authors. That his identification and retention of the best of them was of such a long-term benefit to Collins was largely due to his encouragement of a younger generation of editors who thus maintained continuity. The only time he blew his own trumpet was when he protested at the "resignation" of a former protégé as editorial director of HarperCollins after Rupert Murdoch, deferring to the Chinese, abandoned Chris Patten's memoirs. He then felt it appropriate to emphasise the quality of the Collins backlist in the cause of encouraging "the cobbler to stick to his last".

Dedicated to his wife Mary, The Escape of Charles II was published by Hodder and Stoughton and received excellent reviews. These encouraged Hodder to publish his second book, a life of a piratical Royalist, Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration navy (1969). Ollard had used the Pepysian Library manuscripts at Magdalene College, Cambridge, for The Escape of Charles II and Man of War now exploited Samuel Pepys's diary and correspondence to excellent effect.

Pepys would remain a leitmotif in almost all Ollard's writings, his third book - after a "Jackdaw", Pepys & the Development of the British Navy (1971) - being a masterly life of the man himself (Pepys: a biography, 1974; reissued in a splendid illustrated edition in 1991). By the time this appeared he had already started writing about the phenomenon that lay behind all three works, the Civil War or Great Rebellion, which he wisely problematised even in his poignant title, derived from a letter by the Parliamentarian Sir William Waller to his Royalist friend Sir Ralph Hopton: This War without an Enemy (1976).

The Image of the King (1979) perfectly topped and tailed his account of the Civil War. This analysis of both the character and what is now called the "reception" of Charles I and II remains one of his most admired works, thanks to the judicious analysis of both the contemporary prose and the visual iconography, concluding with a still very useful account of the 18th- and 19th-century historiography.

Ollard exploited this retrospective method, close to what we now call "cultural memory" to fine effect in an account of his old school, An English Education: a perspective of Eton (1982), its title echoing Thomas Gray as it justifies a personal view.

Veronica Wedgwood had written an enthusiastic review of The Escape of Charles II and, as well as publishing her work with Collins, the recently retired Ollard now reciprocated by editing (with Pamela Tudor-Craig) and publishing (via Stuart Proffitt, who succeeded him at Collins) a Festschrift in her honour. Remarkable for including important essays by both Christopher Hill and his arch-critic J.H. Hexter, as well as Oliver Millar and Roy Strong, Austin Woolrych and A.L. Rowse, For Veronica Wedgwood These: studies in seventeenth-century history (1986) risks outlasting the usefulness of the works of its dedicatee.

Ollard was meanwhile hard at work on what may be his most important biography, Clarendon and his Friends, a phrase he derived from his own friend Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose complementary masterpiece, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans, also appeared in 1987. This was followed two years later by an edition of Clarendon's Four Portraits which Ollard rediscovered in the process of writing the biography.

Confirming his mastery of the longue durée of naval history, Ollard now produced his comparative study of two admirals, Fisher and Cunningham (1991), in part inspired by his friend and Dorset neighbour, Michael Culme-Seymour, who had served in the Mediterranean under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.

With his next book he remained with naval history but returned to his beloved 17th century, marshalling the full range of his expertise in his life of a cousin of Pepys who was the most crucial figure in the diarist's career: Cromwell's Earl: a life of Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich. By 1994, when this was published, the author and his wife had long since left their three adult children in employment in London and had "retired" to their beautiful farmhouse in Morcombelake, in west Dorset. Ollard was now driving, walking or riding the fine horse he kept on the neighbouring farm with a view to writing a personal book, Dorset (1995), on the county that had featured so prominently in his first book on the fugitive Charles II.

Negotiations were already under way, via their mutual friend Raleigh Trevelyan, a former Collins editor, to write the life of A.L. Rowse. Though they had met when Ollard was a student as Oxford, even this project may have been encouraged by a Pepys connection, for in 1974 Rowse had published an enthusiastic review of Ollard's biography in The Spectator. Friends, including Hugh Trevor-Roper, wondered whether the tender-hearted but absurdly irascible Rowse deserved so much of Ollard's now limited time but, once committed, Ollard was stubbornly loyal.

Ollard clearly considered Rowse, like some of his 17th-century subjects, an undervalued figure, not in this case because inadequately known but because misunderstood, to some extent due to being his own worst enemy (in the profoundest sense). But Ollard's sympathy and extraordinary industry prevailed. He not only wrote Rowse's authorised biography (A Man of Contradictions: a life of A.L. Rowse, 1999), but then edited the necessarily abridged but still 462-page Diaries.

If anyone thought Ollard had been too discreet about Pepys's sexual peccadilloes, 30 years on this 20th-century diarist's angrier indiscretions required expertise on libel laws as well as a mere politesse. Rowse was fortunate in having a man of Ollard's diplomatic skills as his biographer and editor. Goronwy Rees remains "very good in bed" (according to Rosamond Lehmann via Rowse) but, thanks to Ollard, Rowse's reputation and a host of variously deserving victims were spared more lurid (and recent) revelations.

Despite never having "held the security of university tenure" (as he wrote in The Independent of Penelope Fitzgerald), Ollard produced a more substantial body of work than most "research-active" academics (the rest being bribed or bullied into administration rather than publication). This was despite (again like Fitzgerald) having begun writing relatively late in life.

Both when he was living with a growing family in Blackheath and latterly in west Dorset he always put people in touch with one another with great skill and generosity, usually via warm but succinct and business-like letters. He would combine his expeditions to London libraries with lunch or dinner at Brooks's, where he clearly enjoyed networking on behalf of old friends and new friends alike. Long after he had ceased full-time publishing he continued to act not merely as impromptu editor but as unpaid literary agent. He would insist that an influential friend or publisher read an unknown's recent article, lecture or PhD, thus often initiating life-enhancing personal and professional relationships.

At Brooks's, a lonely-looking Patrick O'Brian, on seeing Ollard enter the dining room, would leap up to transfer to his table and thus be introduced to a friend who had only ever read him on Picasso. The younger friend would then be treated to an evening of first-hand reminiscences of a modern painter by an author whose cult followers (and original publisher) would no doubt have preferred a conversation on the 19th-century British navy.

It was Ollard's instinctive courtesy and generosity that made his gentlemanliness so authentic. He was essentially a liberal, his best-known political friends being Callaghan and Roy Jenkins; but he was in the best sense also a conservative, following Lord Falkland (as quoted by his hero Clarendon) in believing that "if it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change".

His scholarship and the quality of his writing flowed from his curiosity, his integrity and that respect for others and for tradition.

Edward Chaney