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This is the full version of an edited article that first appeared in Slightly Foxed in 2011 and was reproduced on-line in The Dabbler.

J.L Carr's pocket dictionaries

In June 1966 the Primary School Headmaster and part-time novelist J L Carr took two years leave of absence from his school in Kettering to see if he could make a living as a publisher of illustrated maps and small booklets of poetry. Both were unusual: the maps featured small, annotated drawings of people, buildings, flowers, animals and even recipes associated with places in the old English counties and were meant for framing and to stimulate discussion; while the works of British poets were presented in small 16-page booklets based on Carr's view that people could only absorb a few poems at a time.

Carr designed the maps himself which his wife Sally sometimes hand-coloured, and he wrote on his first map of Northamptonshire, designed in 1965: Travellers are warned that the use of this map for navigation will be disastrous. The maps sold initially for £1 each and the booklets for six old pence to adults or at a cost price of four pence to children, until he received orders from children with suspiciously mature handwriting. At first the small books were difficult to sell as they did not fit easily on booksellers' shelves, until Carr devised a special display box. He travelled the country to find dealers willing to stock them and by 1970 had a steady connection with about 150 bookshops. He also offered them by mail order to anyone who wrote to him at 27 Mill Dale Road in Kettering, a house now marked with a blue plaque. Carr was a rare publisher who was happy when his address was given in the press, because it brought him sales. By the end of 1967 his savings had dwindled to £400, but with six months left of his official leave he turned the corner into profitability and was able to make a living from the publications of the Quince Tree Press, which he operated from old shoe boxes stored on shelves in a back bedroom of his small, detached house in Kettering. There was a quince tree in his front garden.

The income from his maps and the small books of poetry gave Carr the freedom to give up teaching for good and also allowed him to write the novels for which he is most highly regarded: A Month in the Country won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as was his next novel, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing, published in 1985, although he started writing it many years earlier. This could be seen as a remarkable achievement for a former schoolteacher who didn't publish his first novel until he was 52. But then he was a remarkable man who wrote eight novels, all in different styles; designed nearly 90 maps; compiled six small dictionaries; published over 90 books of poetry, text, woodcuts and engravings; wrote and published a social history of the early settlers of South Dakota; wrote eight children's English language books; sculpted stone gargoyles for his local church and to decorate his garden; painted in watercolours, and created a huge pictorial record of the inside and outside of buildings in Northamptonshire, his adopted county, which is now available to see online. Carr's extraordinary life is described in an excellent biography by Byron Rogers called The Last Englishman (Aurum Press, 2003).

In 1977 Carr published the first of his small dictionaries, on Extra-ordinary English Cricketers. The book was an almost instant success and led to several other small biographical dictionaries with quirky and often improbable entries, but what give him the idea?

Brief biography

Carr was born in May 1912 in a railway cottage next to Thirsk Junction in the West Riding of Yorkshire where his father was night stationmaster. He was baptised Joseph Lloyd: Joseph after his father and Lloyd after the Welsh Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a name suggested by an uncle of socialist tendencies. When Carr donated a copy of his map of Wales to the National Library in Cardiff it was accompanied by a note:

Presented . . . by James Lloyd Carr, a Welsh patriot by proxy, who alone and without allies defended the land of his fathers (by baptism) on many a bloody-nosed Yorkshire playground while scarcely knowing that Wales existed.

If his Welsh middle name gave him grief at school, he abandoned his first: sometime in his early 20s as a student he replaced the name Joseph with Jim and, eventually, James. His family called him Lloyd.

Carr knew academic failure twice. He failed his eleven plus examination, but was sent as a paying pupil to Castleford Secondary School, something his parents could ill-afford. Then, on finishing secondary school, he failed to get into teacher's training school because, supposedly, when asked why he wanted to be a teacher he replied it gives so much time for other pursuits, a glib remark that he regretted when he was forced to take a job for a year as a lowly teaching assistant. The next year he gained admission to a teacher training college in Dudley in the West Midlands and eventually became a primary school teacher, first in Southampton and then in and around Birmingham.

After 5 years spent teaching Carr applied in 1938 for an exchange visit to teach in the USA and travelled for seven days by sea and train the 4,000 miles to Huron, a small town in South Dakota. The Great Plains of the USA seem to have enthralled Carr with its vast spaces and the rigours of life for its early settlers, but he also found it perplexing because he didn't understand Americans. Carr wrote in 1987 in a Penguin paperback copy of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing, which was set in South Dakota: In 1938/39 I taught a year in Dakota. This is the background. The message is that we should be as wary of the Americans as we are of the Russians.

After finishing the school year in Huron, Carr continued his journey eastwards, across the Pacific and mostly overland to England through Asia, India and the Middle East, arriving home just after war broke out. He joined the RAF and was sent to West Africa to work on aerial photograph reconnaissance missions, then was commissioned as an Intelligence Officer. He got married just before the end of the war in March 1945 and continued in the RAF until 1946. He then returned to teaching in Birmingham and settled back into English life by playing cricket again in the Midlands, as he had before the war. Carr had played football before he went to teachers training college for an extraordinarily successful village football team in South Milford, but his main love was cricket. In the 1949 season he scored a century for Birmingham Municipal CC and continued playing until his late 50s.

Some of these details and the origin of the Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers may be found in the Year Books of the Midlands Club Cricket Conference when Carr was in his late 30s, almost 30 years before his Dictionary was published. For the 1948 and 1950 Year Books Carr wrote a Miniature Anthology for Damp Days, several pages of notes about notable people who played cricket, many of which later appeared in the Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers published in 1977. In 1951 Carr acted as a joint editor of the Year Book and contributed more biographical details of cricketers as well as short anecdotes, seemingly to fill blank spaces at the ends of pages, some of which also appeared in the Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers. The 1951 Year Book also featured a full-page cartoon by Carr (see below).

At the end of the 1951 cricket season, during which he scored another century, Carr left Birmingham to become headmaster of Highfields, a new primary school in Kettering, the town in Northamptonshire where he remained for the rest of his life. There Carr edited the Year Books of the Northamptonshire County Cricket League from 1956 to 1961 (except 1957) and became involved with the local branch of the National Union of Teachers, editing their magazine, which he renamed The Northants Campaigner. In the teachers' magazine he published articles under the pseudonym of Polly Egerton-Moncrieff, he wrote an advice column for teachers under the name Uncle Fred, and published spoof adverts for schools and companies in Melchester.

At least one booklet of poetry was actually published by Carr in 1964 for the Northants County Association of the N.U.T. and was probably the first in his series of 101 small books. These were 16-page booklets in card covers, with dimensions of 13.0 by 9.5 cm (5 by 3½ inches), containing poems, text or engravings. Carr had chosen the work of John Clare for his first small book because Clare's grandson, Albert, was a retired milkman who also lived on Mill Dale Road, and 1964 was the 100th anniversary of Clare's death.

Carr's small books do not specifically name the Quince Tree Press, they usually just gave his address and telephone number in Kettering inside the back cover, often with the small sun-face colophon of the Press that he designed, or a flat-perspective drawing of his house in Mill Dale Road with the eponymous quince tree in the foreground. All Carr's small books were printed by companies in or around Kettering, usually in an edition of 3,000 copies and, if any royalties were due, Carr paid them in full, in advance, something he complained never happened to his novels.

Image of cartoon

Cartoon drawn by J.L.Carr in a cricket Yearbook in 1950.

Carr also published small dictionaries, one of the first of which was about English cricketers. As a life-long cricketer who had been storing up small facts and anecdotes about the game, as many cricketer-lovers do, a dictionary of unusual facts and quirky stories about cricketers and cricket was an inspired idea. It came to fruition in 1977, a compilation of 126 entries on English cricketers or people who had commented on cricket, plus an entry on a horse that seemed to know when an innings was over and would be needed to pull the heavy roller across the wicket. Here are two examples:

Dr Heath D.D., Headmaster of Eton, a perfectionist, who flogged the School XI, including (possibly unjustly) the scorer, when they returned from a defeat by Westminster School.

George Bernard Shaw, an author, on being told England had been successful in the Australian Tests enquired what they had been testing.

There were entries on many famous cricketers as well, such as Grace, Larwood and Wooley.

The Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers was well reviewed by delighted cricket writers in the national press, who mostly relished quoting the entries, including a reviewer in The Times who offered the warmest of welcomes to a delightful 20 pence booklet. The book was reviewed by Benny Green in The Spectator, who suggested some additional entries. Carr included some of them in a later impression of the title. According to Carr the Dictionary got 190 column inches of reviews in newspapers and within a month had sold 10,000 copies. The success of the Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers brought what Carr claimed was his first and only order from the bookshop chain W.H. Smith for one of his small books, an order for 4,000 copies. (1)

A second and much less common volume, consisting of 80 entries and a poem by Francis Meynell, was published later, probably in the early 1980s. Then in 1983 Quartet Books combined the two volumes in an illustrated edition issued as a small paperback for £2.50. The combined dictionaries were republished in 2005 by Aurum books and included drawings by Carr, some based on his 1951 cartoon.

More dictionaries

Carr reported that the idea for a dictionary of English Queens came from his wife, Sally, to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee. It was, in fact, his first dictionary. This small booklet contained 91 entries on English Queens, Kings' Wives, Celebrated Paramours, Handfast Spouses and Royal Changelings, according to its full title. Carr commented, somewhat tongue in cheek I suspect, that he might have sold more copies if he had used the term concubines rather than handfast spouses but, he said, I cherish my father's memory. Carr's father was a Methodist lay preacher. The Dictionary of Queens was published in 1977 and reprinted 12 times in Carr's lifetime. By 1987 Carr had sold over half a million small books in 21 years, with peak sales in 1980 of 43,369 copies.

The Dictionary of English Queens was also one of the last small books published by Carr to apply an ISBN. He had been issued with 100 numbers towards the end of 1968 and had allocated most of them by 1977: 54 for maps and 33 for small books, although not a single map or book that he piublished has been seen with a number printed on it. Perhaps Carr's initial enthusiasm for the numbering system had waned and he had became cynical about the requirement to provide a free copy to the British Library and to any of the other copyright libraries that asked for one, such as Oxford and Cambridge universities. In his last novel, Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers, A Business History (with footnotes), to use its full title, Emma Foxberrow wrote a note to her business partner George Harpole when told of this statutory requirement:

The barefaced cheek! . . . If academic spongers want books let them cut off the wine tap to their High Tables and pay for them.

The British Library does not have copies of most of Carr's maps or small books, whether they were allocated an ISBN or not, although he actually sent the Library a few very early publications of the Northants Campaigner in late 1965 or early 1966. Carr applied his last ISBNs for his final two novels, which he published himself, and for the new editions of three earlier novels that he republished, after he had bought back the publication rights. His first six novels were all published by different companies and when the last publisher, Viking Penguin, offered him the same advance as his previous novel, he decided to publish the last two novels himself. Carr reported that he had been offered only £5,000 for What Hetty Did and that he only made a profit of £500-600 on his first edition of 2,850 copies, but he obviously relished the experience of publishing a novel himself.

The lack of registered ISBNs or a year of publication in some of his dictionaries makes it rather difficult to date them accurately. It would seem likely that he followed the Dictionary of English Queens with a Dictionary of English Kings, Consorts, Pretenders, Usurpers, Unnatural Claimants and Royal Athelings. This may have been followed by Welbourn's Dictionary of Prelates, Parsons, Vergers, Wardens, Sidesmen and Preachers, Sunday-school teachers, Hermits, Ecclesiastical Flower-arrangers, Fifth Monarchy Men and False Prophets, but I am guessing. Carr's mother's maiden name was Welbourn and his life-long interest in Christianity, the Bible and church architecture, strongly suggests that he was the author.

Carr was not the author of two new dictionaries and one old one. In February 1978 Carr published a Dictionary of Eponymists, 135 entries on people whose names were applied to ideas or things, compiled by A.J. Forrest. This small book was actually dated because, unlike almost all other dictionaries, the copyright was assigned to the cricket writer and author Alec Forrest, who had actually published the first edition himself, in a similar format. Forrest compiled two further dictionaries, of Eponymous Places, which Carr also published, and Eponymous Fictions, which Carr didn't publish, presumably having become an expert on eponyms.

One wonders how and where Mr Carr came into contact with Mr Forrest and Mr Sandbach, the compiler of another curious collection. The year of publication of the first edition of Sandbach's Dictionary of Astonishing British Animals is not known, but is presumed to be in the early 1980s. It contained 105 entries collected by R.G.E. Sandbach who, Carr wrote enigmatically inside the back cover, lives in the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells. The astonishing British animals of the Dictionary were mostly dogs, cats and horses, though Mr Charles Kingsley's slow-worm is mentioned and the tortoise presented by Captain Cook to the King of Tonga is recalled. A second edition of Sandbach's Dictionary was published in about 1985 with an Appendix containing an additional 37 entries, which left no room for details of the publisher. There is a copy in the library of the Natural History Museum in London, which seems appropriate.

The last non-Carr Dictionary was a selection of misanthropic definitions written by the American journalist Ambrose Bierce for his Devil's Dictionary. I suspect that Bierce and his Dictionary were a source of inspiration to Carr, as Bierce was considered a master of pure English and the definitions he composed show his careful punctuation and economical use of words as well as his social criticism and use of satire. For example: Distance, the only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.

During the time Carr had spent in the USA in 1938 as an exchange teacher on the Great Plains of South Dakota he had attended meetings of the local historical society in Huron. On his return with his wife and son in 1956 to teach for another year at the same school, he found the notes of the society's meetings and used them as the basis for his Social History of the Old Timers and to place the story of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing. This was actually Carr's first novel although it was published as his sixth, and even when it was finally accepted by a publisher he took it away and rewrote it. To celebrate the publication of this novel, which had been more than 20 years in gestation, Carr issued another small dictionary, called Gidner's Brief Lives of the Frontier, containing 88 entries on the men and women who lived between the Mississippi and the Rocky mountains between 1810 and 1890. George Gidner was the young English narrator of the novel who had travelled to Pollocks Crossing in the Dakotas in 1929 to teach for a year at a local school, so Gidner is Carr himself.

As those who are familiar with Carr's work will know, his novels are full of parallels with his life and littered with autobiographical details or personal experiences: from his Methodist childhood in the West Riding of Yorkshire and his love of English churches (A Month in the Country); his time spent in West Africa in the RAF and his love of cricket (A Season in Sinji); his career as a primary school Headmaster (The Harpole Report); his experiences playing football for a very successful village team that won a local tournament against all the odds (How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup); and his second career as a publisher (Harpole and Foxberrow). And throughout these novels some of the same people come and go, such as the teachers George Harpole and Emma Foxberrow, to provide that intimacy with characters' lives that binds the reader into the weaving of tales. George Harpole even has an entry in Carr's Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers, so fiction is mixed with fact, perhaps.

Other dictionaries were planned. In an interview in 1990 Carr mentioned that a dictionary of alchemists had been suggested to him (2), while in 1991 he mentioned that he was thinking of compiling a dictionary of freedom fighters. This would probably have included Thomas Willingale, who saved Epping Forest from encroachment and to whom Carr dedicated one of his maps of Essex. Carr's view of a freedom fighter was probably the small man or woman who stood up to Authority and fought for social freedom, rather than military leaders. But after publishing Harpole and Foxberrow in 1992 and reissuing The Battle of Pollocks Crossing under the imprint of the Quince Tree Press the next year, he developed leukaemia and died in February 1994 aged 81 years.

A Dictionarian defined

I am not an historian of Kings, Queens or cricket, so I cannot tell you if all the entries in Carr's Dictionaries are true. Carr said that his customers liked the social gossip of history, but some entries sound so improbable that they could be pure fiction rather than fiction from a novel, if the two can be separated. Or perhaps the reductive process of dictionary writing has stripped the facts to their unqualified essentials, which then just seem improbable. Did Pierre Trudeau, a scout pursued by Cheyenne Indians really blind a rattlesnake with a squirt of tobacco juice when he was too scared to move in his hiding place? Did the Reverend Dr Siddon, a High Churchman, really train his cat, Botolph, to leap upon the bust of the Reverend Mr Busby, an Evangelical, by tossing buns, and why would he have done so? Was Richard Daft, born 1831, really the last practitioner of the underleg stroke, however that is played? Frankly I don't care, but I suspect that if challenged, Mr Carr could have pointed to a source to confirm all his entries, even if it was fictional.

When Carr was interviewed by a thoughtful reporter from Vogue magazine for their issue of May 1986, before he had published his last two novels, she cleverly asked him for a dictionary definition of himself. This is it:

James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World.

Footnote 1. A copy of the poems of William Barnes with a 10p price sticker from W.H. Smith has been seen.
Footnote 2. This dictionary is listed on the back of Forrest's Dictionary of Eponymous Places but was not published.

Text © Andrew Hall, 2019