Publishing makes headlines when authors strike big deals or new firms are floated in the City, but the extraordinary achievement of Charles Shirley and his wife Pamela was to build a respected new children's publishing company, Ragged Bears, from scratch in just one decade while Shirley was, for the past three and a half years, fighting the cancer which killed him. He proved professionally that there is still a place for a talented publisher with an eye for the book among the multinational conglomerates; and, personally, that family, friends, a twinkling sense of humour and courage can match cancer.
He was born into the Establishment in 1938, in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, as the third child of Canon John Shirley, Headmaster of the King's School, Canterbury, and godson of Sir Hugh Walpole. After St Edward's, Oxford, he did his national service in the Black Watch just before conscription ended and then went up to Cambridge to read Law. Recognising that he was not a potential lawyer he went, before finishing his degree, to serve a kind of apprenticeship with the family firm IBM UK, which had grown out of his grandfather's company, where he met Pamela Cawdron, his future wife and co-founder of Ragged Bears.
In 1964 Shirley joined Associated Book Publishers, an early huddling together of famous British imprints - Sweet & Maxwell, Methuen, Eyre & Spottiswoode, Chapman & Hall - against the chill wind of international competition from the United States. Colleagues always found him an amusing and knowledgeable person to run ashore with on business trips and, at the same time, publishers and booksellers around the world recognised his high professional and personal standards and became his friends.
He came into his element in 1969 when ABP's Children's Division became Methuen Children's Books Ltd, with Shirley as sales manager and later chairman. His responsibilities at Methuen Children's Books included dealing with Winnie the Pooh, Tintin and Babar, and launching Dick Bruna's Miffy; setting up Momentum Licensing to merchandise Norman Thelwell's drawings; pioneering the sale of children's books outside conventional bookshops and acting as the sales force for the now spectacularly successful Walker Books. His was an early voice warning about the implications for British publishers of EC competition law. In 1979 he became ABP's group marketing director.
In 1984, after one of the corporate upheavals that have now become routine in all industries, Shirley decided that his professional life was no longer fun and took the huge gamble of starting his own company long before it became fashionable to leave what was then felt to be the relative safety of big organisations.
I suspect that many of us underestimated Charles Shirley's confidence in his own knowledge and talents in setting up Ragged Bears: he knew he had publishing flair, friends in the business and a knowledge of the markets, he recognised that attention to detail and people were counted and that many of the big companies were not able to give that attention to their authors, illustrators and customers. He won Moonlight Publishing as his first client and went on the road selling.
Shirley's persistence and flair worked and he employed a sales team to cope with new clients and his own publishing. By 1990 Ragged Bears was handling nine lists and had a turnover of around pounds 750,000.
Although Shirley turned down several publishers who wanted to use Ragged Bears' sales and distribution services and thus have access to the advice he gave generously about all aspects of the business, turnover had exceeded pounds 2m when he died. He left Ragged Bears in good health and under the experienced management of Pamela and his daughter Henrietta - a co-director of the company, married to the illustrator Paul Stickland.
Charles Shirley was a well-rounded man who appreciated wine and music and loved cricket, reviving the Appleshaw Cricket Club in the Hampshire village where he lived. He was a church warden for over 10 years. There was no sharp divide between his professional and private life. He must be the only publisher of his generation of whom nobody ever heard anybody say a word of grievance or envy.
Charles Hugh Shirley, publisher: born Canterbury 11 August 1938; sales manager, Methuen Children's Books Ltd 1969-76, chairman 1976-79, group marketing director 1979-84; chairman and managing director, Ragged Bears 1984-95; married 1962 Pamela Cawdron (four daughters); died Ragged Appleshaw, Hampshire 27 July 1995.Reuse content