Obituary: John Dawson

Tim Bullamore
Wednesday 21 September 2011 15:27

The South American Handbook is the oldest and most famous travel book in the English language. In continuous publication for 76 years, it has survived wars, revolutions and - more traumatically - the dawn of the jet age.

In 1971 the rights to this annual publication were acquired by John Dawson, a West Country printer and publisher. Over the subsequent years, Dawson built the publishing side of his business - now known as Footprint Handbooks Ltd - into one of the most successful travel guide publishers in Britain. Each title is filled with regular updates and contributions from a wide variety of sources.

Graham Greene once successfully addressed some observations and updated information to: "The publishers of the best travel guide in the world, Bath, England." More recently, Michael Palin read The South American Handbook every night for two and a half months while filming the length of the Pacific coast for the BBC series Full Circle.

Dawson had suffered the amputation of a leg in 1927 due to osteomyelitis. His disability was never something upon which he dwelt, but he campaigned vigorously for the introduction of the orange card scheme for disabled drivers and improved access and equal opportunities for the wider disabled community. In 1977 he was awarded the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal for his work with the Bath and West Wiltshire Disablement Advisory Committee.

Born and bred in Bath, John Dawson was apprenticed into the family-run printing firm W. & F. Dawson, where he joined his father and grandfather. The company was a general printers that produced railway timetables, books, posters and publicity for local companies. It had survived for many generations and, in 1934, it expanded to become Dawson and Goodall.

In the mid-1980s, Dawson was faced with tough competition from cheaper overseas printing costs. This, combined with the effects of the heyday of the printing unions and their ever more unpalatable demands, gave him no option but to let the firm fold. It was a desperately sad moment for him but he kept his spirits up by throwing an enormous amount of energy into his publishing business, Trade and Travel Publications, and its famous guidebook.

The Anglo-South American Handbook was originally written by W.H. Koebel, the most prolific writer on Latin America of his day, and first appeared in 1924. Travel in those days was, of course, by sea and the book - price half a guinea - explained in detail all the traveller needed to know for the long voyage from Europe: what to wear for dinner, how to arrange a cricket match on the Cape Verde Islands, and a full account of the journey from Liverpool up the Amazon.

Remarkably, the handbook continued to appear annually throughout the Second World War. However, with the coming of the jet engine, the Royal Mail, which owned Trade and Travel Publications and published The South American Handbook, felt its days were numbered. Royal Mail also ran the steamship line from Britain to South America. When the guide's then editor died in mid- Atlantic, its printer - Dawson and Goodall - was left with a stack of uncorrected proofs and the Royal Mail was no longer interested.

John Dawson acquired the business in 1971 for a nominal sum. He believed that with a little nurturing, The South American Handbook could feed the demands of a new generation of hungry-to-learn travellers. A new and energetic editor was appointed to expand the coverage and widen the book's appeal.

Within 20 years, and aided by his equally enthusiastic sons James and Patrick, Dawson had turned The South American Handbook into a publication with a cult following. By the time he began to ease into retirement, Dawson handed over to his sons a company that was starting to produce a whole series of guide books.

Printed on extra-thin "bible" paper, the guides differ from their major rivals by offering a more comprehensive, perhaps sometimes bewildering, selection of information. In 1996 Trade and Travel changed its name to Footprint Handbooks. Today it publishes 37 different guide books, including South American Handbook (the "The" was dropped from the title in the 1970s), the 76th edition of which has just appeared.

Dawson always felt there was more to life than work: in the scouting movement, he rose to become city commissioner for Bath; he was secretary of the local Rotary Club for eight years; and for 20 years served as a trustee of St John's Hospital Trust, an almshouse charity.

Sadly, and largely because of his disability, Dawson never visited nor saw for himself the wonder, the colour and the majesty of South America. But thanks to his enthusiasm a great many people have benefited immeasurably for having done so.

Frederick John Dawson, publisher: born Bath 9 September 1910; married 1937 Joan Warwick (two sons, and one son deceased); died Bath 8 December 1999.

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