Victor Bonham-Carter

b. 1913 – d. 2007

Victor Bonham-Carter was a zealous champion of authors and the countryside and enjoyed a varied career as an author, farmer and publisher. Bonham-Carter wrote a number of books about rural matters, including The English Village (1952). In the field of military history he published Soldier True: the life and times of Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson (1965), and Surgeon in the Crimea (1969). Bonham-Carter was also an able scriptwriter. In 1963-64 he produced scripts for the successful BBC television series The Great War.


Victor Bonham-Carter remembered – by Philippa MacLeish

Victor Bonham-Carter had a remarkably varied career. Before the Second World War, he was successively a schoolmaster at Shrewsbury, sub-editor of The Countryman magazine and director of School Prints Ltd, art educational publishers. He served in the Army from 1939 to 1945, and from 1947 to 1956 farmed in Somerset. Subsequently, as a freelance writer, he had a number of books, articles and broadcast scripts to his credit. He also completed a major task of historical research on the Dartington Hall Estate, founded by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst in 1925.

The causes dearest to his heart were the preservation of the countryside – in particular his beloved Exmoor – and the welfare of his fellow writers. These were the subjects of two important books, The Survival of the English Countryside and Authors by Profession, a two-volume history of the business of writing since the invention of printing.

Victor was a larger-than-life personality. Six foot five in height and proportionately large, he exuded bonhomie and enthusiasm. Every project he undertook he pursued with enormous zest and vigour. This sometimes amounted to obstinacy. Once he had made up his mind on a course of action, he was unwilling to compromise, and was thus not always a subtle negotiator. He occasionally made enemies.

He joined the Society of Authors in 1963 in his capacity as archivist, with the task of organising a roomful of dusty files in the basement of 84 Dray ton Gardens – one for every member – dating back to the Society’s foundation in 1884. In a charming tribute in The Author on Victor’s retirement in 1982, Michael Holroyd wrote: ‘It needed all Victor’s military and farming skills as well as his more academic expertise, and perhaps the muscle of a coal miner, to grapple with and finally quell the monstrosity of paperwork. The archivist was lowered into the basement and was not seen again for several years.’ The files, now catalogued and in immaculate order, were sold to the British Library some years later for a substantial sum.

The campaign for writers to be remunerated for the use of their books in public libraries began as early as 1951. It gained considerable momentum when Victor took it on. He wrote articles, lectured, lobbied MPs, and made sure that everyone understood the meaning of Public Lending Right (PLR). His stint on the campaign was immensely valuable, but in the end others took up the baton in what seemed an endless relay race. PLR eventually became law in March 1979 and the first payments to authors were made in February 1984.

From 1971 to 1978 Victor was joint secretary of the Society of Authors in a triumvirate with George Astley and myself. The arrangement, although somewhat cumbersome, worked reasonably well as a short-term measure. Eventually, however, partly because George and Victor were considering retirement, we persuaded the committee of management that it was time for us to step down and that a single general secretary be appointed.

Simultaneously with his work for the society, Victor held the post of secretary of the Royal Literary Fund. There, as well as handling the day-to-day work of dealing with applications for grants from indigent authors, he supervised revision of the Fund’s Constitution, involving a fresh Royal Charter. In 1968 he also organised a reception at Stationers’ Hall, attended by the Queen, to celebrate completion of the new Charter and the 150th anniversary of the original one. An exhibition was mounted of some of the Fund’s treasures – correspondence with distinguished beneficiaries in the past, including amongst many others John Clare, Dickens and Thackeray. Victor was helped greatly in this by Cynthia Sanford of the National Book League who subsequently became his second wife.In 1983 Victor and Cynthia, both now retired, moved to a charming house in Milverton, Somerset. Victor continued his support of the Exmoor Society and became president. He founded the Exmoor Press and published, in his late seventies, a book entitled The Essence of Exmoor. Cynthia survives him together with two sons from his previous marriage.