Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Letts: a relic

Shakespeare Memorial Fountain: Oct 29, 2011
I find the Blackgang Undercliff - see previously - fascinating for its post-apocalyptic flavour. What would Macaulay's New Zealander, wandering into an overgrown relic of civilisation amid geological desolation, make of an enigmatic and eroded plaque saying "-TAR AND THE RO-"?

As described at Chine Cats' page on Flickr, this is the now-dry Shakespeare Fountain. We know from records and old postcards that the inscription is actually from Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, Scene 4: "The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold".

Behind it was a folly in the form of a Doric temple - see the British Listed Buildings entry Shakespeare Memorial in Grounds of South View, Chale - and both were built in the grounds of South View House, the residence of Thomas Letts, to commemorate the tercentenary of the birth of Shakespeare. The memorial is regularly mentioned in guidebooks well into the 20th century; it wasn't destroyed by landslip, but dismantled at some point post-1950. There are various rumours about where the bits went; Headley & Meulenkamp's 1999 Follies, Grottoes & Garden Buildings tells
Reports filtered through about destruction by 'some lads on scooters' and the subsequent removal of the remains to Godshill. Others said it was still there in the undergrowth but collapsed. The last report, however, was that it was, indeed, continually under attack by vandals, but the owner of the temple eventually took it down himself and removed it to a garden in Ryde, although the base is still in its place.
Thomas Letts was one of a number of Victorian enterpreneurs who acquired houses in the southern Isle of Wight's Undercliff (I've already mentioned Walter Spindler, of Old Park, and John Morgan Richards, of Steephill Castle). The others, however, lived on the mostly stable St Lawrence Undercliff. I've no idea if Letts was fully aware of the geological setup at Blackgang; there had been signs of instability with a collapse in 1799 that destroyed a farm called Pitlands, and further landslides in 1810 and 1818. His home too - Southview House - is long gone, but its adjacent coach house remained as the only significant intact building left standing in the slip zone until Christmas 2011, when it was destroyed by fire.

Letts was a stationer, part of the dynasty behind the still-extant Letts Diaries - a product so ubiquitous that we don't tend to think that at some point they were invented.  I can't really improve on the Wikipedia biography:
Thomas Letts (1803 – 1873) was an English stationer and printer who popularised the diary. He was born at Stockwell, London, the son of John Letts, a bookbinder and printer of the Royal Exchange. In 1816 his father published, ‘Letts's diary or bills owed book and almanack’ as the first commercially-produced diary, which Thomas developed into of dozens of differently-printed and bound, annual publications.

Thomas took over the family-owned company in 1835, printing a range of diaries that stretched from small pocket diaries to commercial foolscap folio one-day-per-page editions. Additionally, his factories at North Road, New Cross printed interest tables, specialist clerical and medical diaries, calendars, parliamentary registers, ledgers, and logbooks.

Letts' publications became ubiquitous, being used by many of the well-known Victorian writers and diarists who were well-acquainted with the product range. For example, writing in the Cornhill Magazine, William Makepeace Thackeray noted he preferred a Letts No. 12 diary.

Thomas was joined in the family business by his son, Charles, and together they raised capital for expansion into a limited company in 1870, trading as 'Letts, Son & Co.' However Thomas died soon afterwards, being buried in West Norwood Cemetery in a Grade II listed monument.

The public company lost direction and went into liquidation in 1885. Charles reformed the company privately as Charles Letts & Co., trading profitably for the next century. In 2001, Letts acquired the Filofax Group.
Thackeray's testimonial is impressive ...
Mine is one of your No. 12 diaries, three shillings cloth boards; silk limp, gilt edges, three-and-six; French morocco, tuck ditto, four-and-six. It has two pages, ruled with faint lines for memoranda, for every week, and a ruled account at the end, for the twelve months from January to December, where you may set down your incomings and your expenses.
- William Makepeace Thackeray, On Letts's Diary, Cornhill Magazine, 1862

... and gives a clue to the groundbreaking nature of Letts's products. Pre-computing, there was a vast demand for specialist data-keeping stationery, not just for record-keeping but appropriately structured for analysis of that data. Fortune's Epitome of the stocks & public funds (E F Thomas Fortune, 1851) has a full catalogue (page 322 onward), and it's amazing list of ultra-specialised products, with diaries in hundreds of layout formats, customised for trades such as clergymen and physicians, and for tasks from winecellar management to records of sermons.

Addendum: At the end of October 2011, I visited the Fountain - see On the lost road.

- Ray


  1. Throughout my first 20 years in Medicine I used Lett's pocket diary, or more correctly a scheduler. A tiny book with a red ribbon page marker. It was perfect. I still have them all.

  2. I always had a Letts diary from the year I started school until my late twenties ... and usually thereafter, depending on where I was.

    Unlike Dr C, I do not have any of them now ... each would be discarded as their year ended.

    They were of different types ... I particularly remember a "schoolboy's diary" (given to me by by parents) with school timetable pages, tables of common weights and measures, dates of Kings and Queens of England, an interesting fact on each page and dates such as The Schoolboy's Exhibition at Olympia (to which my father took me, as a direct result) and an "electrical engineering diary" (present from a girlfriend who dumped me for someone more interesting just after new year) with tables of mysterious and fascinating (though not always obviously useful) information from which I learnt many things.

    Each of them would be filled in religiously for between a week and a month and then be used as a scheduler and calendar reference for the rest of the year.

    Then, in the eighties, I discovered the Filofax ... and, in the late nineties, the pocket computer ... so no more Letts diaries. i miss them, in a nostalgic way.

  3. In my teens, I went through a phase of trying to keep a diary. I'd get one of those chunky hardback A5ish ones and, as you say, fill it in until the enthusiasm wore off, which was quickly, because I didn't have a terribly interesting life then.