The Farringdon Road has long been the dreariest of all the approaches to the City of London, but for devoted hunters of antiquarian and secondhand books the stretch between Clerkenwell Road and Cowcross Street possessed a romance excelled by no other thoroughfare in the world. Until last year this was home to a collection of kerbside stalls known as the Farringdon Road barrows. Early every Saturday morning, those who dabbled in, dealt in, or just doted on old books would cluster around the tarpaulin-sheeted barrows awaiting the moment when the proprietor would whip back the covers and the battle for the books would commence.
The maestro orchestrating this activity was George Jeffery, whose death aged 69 signals the end of an era. Both his father and grandfather had worked the barrows before him, setting up in East Street in 1880, then moving to Farringdon Road just before the First World War.
Born in Clerkenwell, Jeffery trained as a printer after leaving school but the Second World War intervened. Broad rather than tall, lion-hearted, and blessed with enormous strength, Jeffery made an ideal paratrooper and saw action at Arnhem. Immediately
after the war he worked as a printer in Cairo but eventually joined his father back on the barrows, taking them over in 1957 and only retiring (or taking a back seat in favour of his son) two years ago.
To satisfy his voracious customers, George Jeffery needed fresh stock of some 2,500 volumes a week, or 100,000 a year. This was bookselling on a monumental scale, hard graft demanding considerable stamina and a prodigious knowledge. Books poured into hiswarehouse in Clerkenwell (to which customers were not welcome), huge job lots initially hauled by handcart from Sotheby's late and much-lamented Hodgson's rooms in Chancery Lane.
The major auction houses frequently delegated to Jeffery the task of clearing whatever remained from the libraries of large country houses after they had taken their pick. Along with books often came dusty portfolios of engravings, maps, and chests of documents and letters. As late as 1979 a previously unknown contemporary manuscript of St Thomas More's devotional treatise of 1535, A Dialogue of Comfort, turned up on the barrows; this was an extraordinary discovery but a host of finds from a lesser firmament could be found on any Saturday morning and at prices to suit the most penurious collector.
Jeffery dispensed his books without fear or favour, an honest, generous, upright, downright dealer, the undisputed emperor of the lower reaches of the trade. Despite the open-air nature of the barrows he was rarely bothered by book thieves, for he had a reputation for meting out summary justice when he caught them at work.
Many a discarded volume which made a final inauspicious appearance on Jeffery's barrow now enjoys hallowed status in a public or private library, or upon the mahogany shelves of West End booksellers. Indeed, many now well-known dealers began their careers and found their feet scrambling profitably for books on Jeffery's barrows.