Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Letts lineage: a clarification

Another loose end from previous posts. I've mentioned the long-disappeared Southview, Blackgang, several times, along with its connection with Thomas Letts (see Letts, a relic). However, a skim of commentary on the topic still finds some doubt as to whether Letts was the founder of the diary company, and a factoid or two being propagated. The trail leads also to a professor's fatal accident in Ventnor.

Lancet ad, 1871 via Google Books
Did the Thomas Letts (1803-1873) of Southview found Letts Diaries? No. It's well-documented in sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that it was his father John Letts (c.1772-1851), a bookbinder turned printer and stationer, who produced the first Letts diaries - Letts's diary or bills owed book and almanack - from 1816. Thomas took over the family firm in 1835, and extended the range, and later his son Charles John Letts in turn joined the firm.

Is there a direct lineage between Thomas Letts and the present-day brand Letts Diaries? Sort of; it's a mildly tangled story. In 1870, Letts, Son & Co. converted to a limited liability company to raise capital. Thomas died soon after. The plan evidently not working, Charles resigned in 1881, and Letts, Son & Co went into liquidation in 1885. Charles, meanwhile, had set up his own firm, Charles Letts and Co., and this is the firm that led direct to the present-day branding Letts Diaries (after various ownership changes now part of the Letts Filofax Group).

There's a slight further twist in that the defunct Letts, Son & Co was bought up jointly by Cassell and Co and Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd, which produced diaries as Letts' Diaries Co Ltd. However, in 1945, Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd (who had become the controlling interest) sold its Letts brand, Letts Quickref Diaries, back to Charles Letts and Co. So, with the thread from the old Letts firm folding back into the new, there is a slim direct connection back to Thomas Letts.

remains of Shakespeare Memorial Fountain plaque
As to the factoids, a look at the Letts/Southview story finds a good example of how anecdotal historical sources need to be verified, especially when they're not contemporary. In 1963, the Isle of Wight County Press carried discussion of a proposal to renovate then-extant Shakespeare Memorial and its associated roadside fountain, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.
Ald[erman]. G.F. Mew, B.E.M., C.C., a well-known historian, says the memorial is near South View House, and was originally erected by a Professor Letts, who was professor of literature at Oxford and a great admirer of Shakespeare.
- An Islander's Notes, by "Vectensis", IWCP, Saturday, October 5, 1963, page 10 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive

Dr Williamson, of Ventnor, and others recalled that the residence Southview was erected by a Mr. Letts, who was professor of English literature at Oxford University ...
- An Islander's Notes, by "Vectensis", IWCP, Saturday, November 30, 1963, page 10 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
I'd write to the IWCP if it wasn't 50 years too late. There's no evidence of Thomas Letts ever being professor of anything, nor did he erect Southview. It was built a bit before 1845 as part of the boom in speculative building at Blackgang (see Southview goes west for a transcript of the builder's ad) and Thomas Letts didn't move in until around 1854. The professor story is repeated, with slight elaboration, in the 1999 book Follies, grottoes & garden buildings, which makes this "Professor Letts" an ancestor and backdates him to the 18th century.

Possibly the IWCP correspondents confused Thomas Letts with his son Edmund Albert Letts, who was an eminent professor (though of chemistry - the discoverer of the Letts nitrile synthesis) who came to an unfortunate end at Ventnor.
Edmund Albert Letts (… August 27th 1852 …. February 9th 1918)
Edmund Albert Letts was born at Sydenham, Kent. His father, in addition to Clare Lodge in Sydenham, owned South View in the Isle of Wight, and there Letts appears to have spent the happiest part of his boyhood, for in later years he often spoke of the place with affection.
After his retirement, he spent part of his time in the south of England, and in January, 1918, he left Belfast on a visit to Ventnor. He was a keen cyclist, and took his bicycle with him, spending his time riding about the neighbourhood in which he was staying. On the evening of February 18th he was out by moonlight, and, while coming down Zig-zag Road about 7.30 p.m., he lost control of his machine and crashed into a wall. He never fully recovered consciousness, and died the following morning about 10 a.m.
- obituary, Journal of the Chemical Society, 1918
Zig Zag Road (its actual name, not a nickname) is exactly what it sounds like, a series of steep straight sections with sharp bends, connecting Upper and Lower Ventnor. The IWCP obituary says that Letts was a keen but cautious cyclist, familiar with the area, and that his brakes were in good order. Evidently he just lost control somehow (it was a dark February evening) and crashed at one of the corners.
George Reed, dealer of Upper Ventnor, said he was in his field below Park View at 7.15 pm on Monday, when he heard the rattle of a bicycle in the road. He asked deceased, who had evidently fallen, if he was hurt, and he replied “A bit,” and walked away very slowly with the bicycle.
- Fatal bicycle accident to distinguished scientist at Ventnor, IWCP, Saturday, February 23, 1918, page 8 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
It was evidently more than "a bit", as Professor Letts died the next day of the head injury he sustained in the accident. He was buried at St John's Church, Niton (see IWFHS transcript).

The Letts's do seem to have been a quite high-achieving family. From a skim of late-1800s censuses, I'm pretty sure - subject to verification - that the author and poet Winifred Mary Letts (aka Winifred Mabel Letts) was the daughter of another of Thomas Letts's sons, the clergyman Ernest Frederick Letts.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment