Elsie Bertram

Co-founder of Bertrams, wholesalers to the book trade

Saturday 08 November 2003 01:00

Elsie Hacking, wholesale bookseller: born Norton-on-Tees, Co Durham 6 June 1912; company secretary, Bertram Books, 1971-99; married 1935 Edward Bertram (died 1987; two sons, and two children deceased); MBE 1987; died Norwich 26 October 2003.

From premises on a hillside overlooking Norwich Cathedral, Elsie Bertram played a major role in transforming book distribution in the UK.

The process began in 1968 when she and her son Kip were in energetic but modest measure supplying retail outlets on the Norfolk coast with children's books and paperbacks. In the autumn of that year, when wholesaling had been 15 years in the doldrums because publishers were stingy about discounts, the Bertrams stepped into the breach to assist the publisher Paul Hamlyn.

Union troubles beset Hamlyn's mammoth enterprise; his books were not reaching a public which clamoured for them. Paul Hamlyn (a lifelong Labour supporter) and Elsie Bertram (almost certainly not) combined to break the picket line and hired vans to supply booksellers, hundreds of whom thereafter remained loyal customers of Bertrams.

The service provided for one publisher became available to all once they had agreed viable terms with Elsie and Kip Bertram, who worked prodigiously to expand the company they formed. He became managing director, she company secretary. She was seen, erroneously, as in command but they were two forceful personalities who, amazingly, held the reins together and stayed on course, to achieve immense prosperity, for themselves and the book trade as a whole.

Undoubtedly Elsie Bertram, for booksellers, was the front woman. We knew her on the phone long before we met her. She chatted and gossiped to us, nagged if we were behind in payment, recommended titles she said were moving. But she was not at all literary; books had not played much part in her first 50 years. In an interview in 1999 for the National Life Story Collection, she could not even remember the title of the one volume of short stories she had read and when I visited her home there wasn't a book on the entire ground floor; not even a Delia Smith in the kitchen. Books were items she sold.

She was born Elsie Hacking in Co Durham, was brought up on Teeside and liked to call herself a Yorkshire woman. (Her parents were actually Lancastrians.) She did not shine at school and took a clerical job with ICI, where she met Edward Bertram, later marrying him. They suffered the loss of two children in extreme infancy and moved to Norfolk before the Second World War, in which Eddie served in army intelligence. (Always, in introducing him, Elsie would say, "That's why it took so long to win.") She became a voluntary ambulance driver and won an award; she also had two sons, both of whom were diagnosed as diabetic. This led her to devote much of her spare time in latter years to raising money for research into that ailment; she also vigorously supported the friends of Norwich Cathedral.

Bertrams outgrew its first premises in the chicken shed of the family garden and moved to a site where Norwich City had once played football. From there, every morning its vans were driven across the British Isles, giving next-day delivery on orders taken by post or phone. Elsie was at her desk every morning by 7am to open the post, and remained until 6.30pm, although once I recall being allowed to take her to a brief pub lunch. One publisher accused her of running a sweat shop, yet I never heard of any industrial disputes. She loved to relate how she promised one man who left, disgruntled, that she would keep his job open. "Within a week he'd changed his mind. He was back."

On Elsie Bertram's 80th birthday, Kip and his wife, Alison, by then owners of a manor house in a village near Norwich, gave a lunch for hundreds. A medieval throne (Elsie thought it looked like a commode) was unveiled. The guest of honour, neat, petite, as always impeccably coiffeured, moved bashfully to sit on its edge, overcome by the tide of affection and admiration shown by the assembled book trade.

By 1999, Bertrams, with a staff of 750 and annual turnover of £70m, was sold for around £50m.

Ian Norrie

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