Frank Graham – notes on a life

Frank Graham, being interviewed by Sue Todd of the Side Gallery for No Pasaran (1987), Amber Films. See

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the local interest shelves in bookshops and libraries seemed to be dominated by a wide range of short accounts of north-east history, song and humour, several from the pen and almost all from the publishing house of Frank Graham (1913-2006). Frank Graham, born in Sunderland, the son of a draper, won scholarships to Bede Grammar School and then King’s College London, but while reading Classics there spent much of his time attending politics lectures at the London School of Economics. He became involved with the opposition to Oswald Mosley, taking part in the demonstration against the British Union of Fascists rally at Olympia in 1934. Returning to Sunderland, he was active in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement before travelling to Spain to join the British Battalion of the International Brigade in 1936. He fought in the battles of Jarama and Brunete in 1937 and was seriously wounded at Caspe in 1938. After this he broadcast for Radio Barcelona until he contracted typhoid and was repatriated at the end of 1938.

Frank Graham was unfit for military service in the Second World War and worked in manual jobs on Teesside while lecturing around the north-east on behalf of the Communist Party. Following the war he left the Communist Party, ‘not for any reasons of disillusionment, but because I simply became interested in other things.’ (Evening Chronicle, 3 July 1980, page 12). He became a schoolteacher, teaching at Wharrier Street Senior School, Newcastle, for fifteen years. He also lectured on local history for the Workers’ Education Association, and in 1953 wrote on the bicentenary of Thomas Bewick for what was then the Newcastle Journal and North Mail daily newspaper. The article opens ‘What was Tyneside like 150 or 200 years ago? And its people – how did they work and spend their leisure?’ These questions and related ones would underpin much of his subsequent work. There were indications of a narrative by 1957, when he spoke on the Art and Culture of Northumberland in North Shields, in two lectures moving from the Lindisfarne Gospels to ‘the folk songs, poems and ballads of the north’ (Shields Daily News, 25 February 1957).

In 1958, Frank Graham’s first local history book appeared. Lindisfarne or Holy Island was a pamphlet which consciously avoided the pitfalls of the traditional local guides. It didn’t carry advertising, unlike many guidebooks supported by local authorities or issued by local printers. It covered a wide subject area in a comparatively short space, discussing the origins of the island’s names, the development of the priory, the origins and purpose of the castle, and importantly working life on the island as experienced by the fishing community there as well as the monks and soldiers stationed in priory and fort. It was published by Frank and his wife Vera, with Frank as author and Vera as publisher. By the mid-1960s, however, ‘Frank Graham’ was established not only as author but as the name of the publisher.

An Evening Chronicle advertising feature on 22 July 1968 celebrated the printing of Graham’s 500,000th book, and his fifty-fourth title. This was a facsimile edition of Sir William Petty’s Atlas of Ireland, 1685. Of the print run of 500, the standard edition was priced at £18 18s, with a ‘de luxe’ edition retailing at £40. Graham explained that his markets for titles like this were ‘the major libraries of Europe’ and book collectors who wanted fine books ‘to have, to gaze at, and to caress’.

Graham’s facsimile editions were well-timed for the 1960s expansion of higher education, when there was a demand for reprints of books from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which were useful for primary research. For most readers, though, the bread and butter of the list remained the history booklets which had begun with Lindisfarne. This, the Chronicle reported, had sold 350,000 copies in its first ten years.

Graham’s colophon was adapted from an engraving of the river god Tyne as depicted in stone on Somerset House in London, an indication that while Frank Graham was a north-east English publisher his books covered other localities too. Early ranges of history booklets covered Cornwall and Devon, with an eye to smuggling; old inn signs were another favourite topic. The north-east remained at the heart of the list, however, with the local guides evolving into the Northern History Booklets series, and Scott Dobson’s irreverent Larn Yersel’ Geordie (1970) selling 81,000 in its first year and providing the foundation for another successful series, the humorous celebrations of Tyneside culture known as the Geordie Beuks. Away from booklets and facsimiles, there were major academic works on north-east social and economic history too, including W.A. Moyes’s account of Easington district, Mostly Mining (1969) and Maurice Milne’s Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham (1971).

By the early 1970s Graham had almost established a repertory company of authors whose contributions to the Northern History Booklets complemented Graham’s own, including Robin Birley, T.H. Rowland, Jack Armstrong, and Stan Beckensall. A meeting on holiday in Morocco had lasting implications for the business’s reputation. Frank and Vera Graham met the illustrator Ronald Embleton. This began a long series of collaborations, most famously a series of books illustrated by Embleton depicting everyday life on Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman Empire, culminating in the 320-page Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans (1984), praised for the accuracy of its depictions of uniforms, weaponry, clothing, utensils and buildings. The integration of the Roman books with the rest of the list was epitomised by the use of Embleton’s illustration of the Roman latrine at Housesteads as the cover for The Geordie Netty (1980).

Frank Graham avoided the difficulties which saw other Northumbrian publishers, such as Oriel Press, sold to London-based houses and gradually lose their regional identity. He almost always printed his books with local firms, some with long histories, many of which – like T.&G. Allan or Wards – have since either moved out of printing altogether or no longer do the all-round work on which Graham depended. He demonstrated that there was a market into which other publishers could move, such as Sandhill Press and Bridge Studios among others, and more recently Summerhill Press and Tyne Bridge Publishing. After twenty-six years, he sold the majority of his backlist to Richard and Sheena Butler in 1986. As Butler Publishing, they have reprinted several of Graham’s books and many remain in print. Graham retained only a few books which were particularly expensive to produce – such as Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans. He published a few more books, including an account of the battle of Jarama, and a complete bibliography of the 387 titles which he published, 103 of which he had written himself (1991). He remained an active member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, and attended commemorations until prevented by infirmity.

Sources as listed in article; and Don Watson, ‘Frank Graham’, North East History 38 (2007), 186-191

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