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Marius Webb, Bookseller At Foyles

June 28, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I publish an interview by Sebastian Harding with Marius Webb who worked at Foyles in 1965. Marius spoke from his home in Australia, recalling his role in the Foyles staff strike, his take on the British class system and the habits of shoplifters. Visit Sebastian’s website Chronicles of Charing Cross Rd to read or contribute more stories of life at London’s most famous bookshop.

Marius Webb in 1965

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb - None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding - Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding - What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had  worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and  told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought “Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said, “Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

Marius Webb went on to have a successful career in radio working for many years as a reporter for the Australia Broadcasting Corporation and he and his wife now live between Australia and Italy.

The Evening Standard, May 19th 1965

Marius on the front page of The Evening Standard, May 19th 1965

Sebastian Harding’s model of Foyles

Sebastian Harding in Smithfield

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Given that the Foyles were communist sympathisers & certainly had some sort of “deal” with the PRC governement, the whole thing is very curious

  2. Paul Ridgway permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Down the Ditch the Houndsditch Warehouse (I used to go there lunchtimes from Tower Hill where I worked) had a similar payment system to Foyle’s whereby the customer obtained a chit for the item being purchased, went to a cashier to pay then returned to another point to collect the goods.
    Not sure if they ever suffered what the retail trade knows as ‘shrinkage’.

  3. Richard permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Great story. Quirky old Foyles.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Greetings from London,

    GA, wonderful piece. Love Maurice’s description of the old haunts on Charing Cross Road.

    Missing London today …

  5. Malcolm permalink
    July 4, 2017

    Ah, those rose-tinted glasses through which we gaze…
    I remember Foyles as being a huge, disorganised mess of overflowing bookshelves, books piled up in every available space, weird people and bad-tempered staff. I remember Christina shouting at a hapless customer who had the temerity to ask her where he might find a particular book. “I’m not staff, I am the OWNER!” Colourful character but completely unsuited to dealing with the common customer! It was an emporium of clutter and chaos that sort of epitomised how things used to be. The paying system was a laugh too, as described. Quite a few shops used the same method of bits of paper shuttled back and forth between counters. There are still some places in Moscow that carry on the custom, mostly food shops.

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