Obituary: W. O. G. Lofts

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The Independent Online
W. O. G. Lofts was one of the great researchers of the century. He was assiduous in his literary explorations and excavations, almost pedantically so. If you mentioned in passing that you had had trouble tracking down the death certificate of a certain obscure author, a week or so later he would present you with the information, together with the colour of the coffin he was shuffled off in and the wood it was made of.

He was a more or less permanent fixture in the Reading Room of the British Museum for nearly 50 years, although he was equally at home trawling through the births/deaths ledgers at Somerset House, then St Catherine's House, as well as the Public Records Office, Companies House, and the British Library Newspaper Archive up at Colindale. He rarely made the kind of assumptive leaps some researchers can produce at the snap of two fingers; his watchword was "Dogged does it", and, with him, it did. Given a task - a short story to find somewhere in two decades' worth of a pre-war daily newspaper, say, or the birth-and-death dates of a minor Victorian author - he would follow it through to the end. His failures were rare.

William Oliver Guillemont Lofts was born in Marylebone, London, in 1923. His schooling, at Barrow Hill Road Elementary (adjacent to Lord's Cricket Ground) was rudimentary; in 1940, at the age of 17, he joined the Zenith Carburettor Co as an apprentice engineer, staying with them until 1968. It was the continual roar of engine in the firm's machine shops which almost certainly destroyed his hearing. In later years he was profoundly deaf, and could not function without a hearing-aid (although at times he used this aid as a weapon - slyly turning it off, or making it "whistle" - against bores, fools, braggarts and scoundrels, all of whom crossed his path quite frequently, in one way or another).

In 1968 he joined a large West End PR firm as a "messenger". This by no means menial job involved not a great deal of work (he regularly pottered around central London with quantities of cash, valuable documents, crucial legal papers needing signing), but enabled him, back at the office, to sit like a spider at the centre of his web, utilising the firm's phone to do his real business of contacting authors and gossiping with friends.

On occasion his phone calls took an hour or so to complete. The directors, however, never minded, since Lofts was always happy to do private jobs for them at the British Library, say, or Somerset House, tracking down ancestors to the third, fourth or fifth generation. One of his finest coups was discovering that one of his employer's ancestors had been deported to Australia for sheep-stealing, then hanged for highway robbery. The director in question dined out on the tale for years.

For most of the 1960s through to the 1980s he did a good deal of highly confidential work for the legal department of what was then the biggest purveyor of printed entertainment in the world, IPC Magazines (then part of the Mirror Group). This mainly concerned copyright problems, and involved much turfing around in the births and deaths ledgers at Somerset House.

Quite often, however, real and damaging secrets - whether from 80 years ago, or the previous month - had to be revealed to him; as a consequence Lofts knew where quite a few of the bodies were buried, and like the courtier at the court of King Midas had, as it were, to whisper to the trees. Thus, every 18 months or so, trusted friends would receive a letter full of the most stupendous libels - all true, but not easily provable - about various household names.

His other method of letting off steam was to announce suddenly, when visiting you, in the middle of a companionable silence: "Of course, he was had up for exposing himself in Hyde Park", or, "Of course, his father was a Nazi war criminal". As one's lower jaw thudded against one's chest and one managed to articulate the one word "Who?!" he would airily wave a hand, say, "You know - him", and then his hearing-aid would conveniently start whistling.

As a boy Bill Lofts read the Gem and the Magnet (home of Billy Bunter) as well as various D.C. Thomson papers such as Rover, Wizard and Adventure (which, in truth, he secretly preferred to the Frank Richards papers), but it was not until 1944, as a humble squaddie in the jungles of Burma, chasing the Japanese, that he had a kind of "road to Damascus" experience, stumbling across a Sexton Blake paperback in a deserted hut.

Sparked off by this experience Lofts became fascinated by juvenile literature, and after the war gained a British Library reader's ticket and began a lifetime's research into the subject, as well as popular fiction in general, although it was always the authors and their lives that attracted him rather than their work.

He was never a great reader. Or indeed a collector, although at one stage he put together the largest collection of "Number Ones" (the premier issues of story-papers, comics, women's magazines and other popular fiction journals from the 1890s through to the 1970s) in the world. Which he then sold, the price being right. When he bought old story-papers it was usually for clients - there were two or three elderly Hollywood expats who paid top dollar for quality material whose collections would not have been half as valuable without Bill Lofts.

In his younger days he made himself indispensable to the Sexton Blake crowd (both editors and writers) by acting as banker to feckless hacks such as the late Jack Trevor Story and Wilf McNeilly, cashing cheques that even the landlords of Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus afternoon drinking dens wouldn't touch. He never charged interest, and he always got his money back. Quite often he intervened in spousal rows, on more than one occasion deflecting flying crockery.

He had other adventures. While visiting the well-appointed home of one of the most celebrated collectors of Victorian "bloods" (Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood, Spring-Heeled Jack, The String of Pearls, etc), and looking for the bathroom as his host was making the tea downstairs, he opened the wrong door, to find himself in a fully equipped and clearly well-used torture chamber.

During the 1950s he fell in with another researcher into old boys'/girls' books and papers, the late Derek Adley. It was a perfect match. Adley never owned a BL reader's ticket and seldom mixed with collectors since his wife detested the breed, but he liked to keep records, building up lists of magazines, journals, comics, story-papers. Lofts supplied the raw information which Adley then collated. Over the years they issued a score or more of invaluable (though often deplorably printed) checklists, bibliographies and identification guides, including: The Rupert Bear Index (1979); "William": a bibliography (1980); The Thriller: a checklist (1983); Detective Weekly: a bibliography (1987); Origins of the Boys' Friend Library (1987).

Neither were natural writers, Lofts in particular having almost no idea how to construct a paragraph so that it neatly followed on from the previous one. Most of the editors of the journals he wrote for put in an extra hour on his appallingly typed pieces, since Lofts au naturel could be baffling. During the 1970s, as an editor at IPC and later as a freelance, I cleaned up, at times simply ghosted, countless articles for various journals; even full-length works such as The World of Frank Richards (1975) got the face-lift treatment. The one that slipped through the net was The Saint and Leslie Charteris (1970), a book so bad a whole new category of awfulness ought to have been created for it.

But then he wasn't a scholar, and he wasn't an academic. He was simply a stubborn plougher through dusty old volumes who made countless important, in some cases startling, discoveries about the kinds of writers who never appear in reference books and who, but for Bill Lofts and a few others like him (although there was never anyone remotely like Bill) would remain forever in an unjust oblivion.

Jack Adrian

William Oliver Guillemont Lofts, writer, researcher, engineer: born London 2 September 1923; died London 27 June 1997.

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