THE 'FIRST LADY' OF LOCAL INTEREST BOOKS ABOUT DORSET!
By Alan Burridge
‘When Upton Had Trains’ was published by Natula Ltd of Christchurch at the
end of November 2007. With book launches at both Upton Community Centre
and Upton Library, local councillor, Fred Drane, attended both, and at the second
event asked if I would like to consider the post of Secretary for ‘The Friends For
Upton Library’? Fred was Chairman for this newly founded circle who were keen
to organise functions to attract more people to our library; already the hours, and
likewise the salary, had been cut, resulting in two long-standing librarians ‘retiring.’
Agreement was made to attend the ‘Friends’ meeting once a month, after all, how could there be other book launches, or indeed any other events, if the library had closed? Fred asked me to “contact some of your writer friends who can give Author Talks to help raise more interest in the library!” No problem. My Creative Writing tutor, Pam Fudge and I had stayed in contact since first meeting her as tutor at the Kemp Welch school evening class in 1992. Pam’s talent had by now been noticed and several of her romantic fiction novels had already been published and others were in the pipeline, so she was the first to spring to mind.
Author and self-publisher of two books on neighbouring Hamworthy, Ann Smeaton, had been brought to my attention in the first instance by her ‘A History of Hamworthy’ book, and again by the follow-up, the history of ‘Old Hamworthy School.’ So I wrote to Ann and asked if she would give a talk, and although she had never done so; agreed.
Lytchett Matravers’ village resident, Vivienne Endecott, had written ‘The Dorset Days of Enid Blyton,’ a book about the Dorset places and landmarks Blyton had written into her stories, and she also agreed.
And Fred would not allow me to get away with anything, and of course I was happy to oblige with a talk about my fiction, non-fiction and more recent local interest output.
Poole’s resident author and historic photograph and postcard collector, Andrew Hawkes said he would provide a slide show and talk about ‘Victorian Poole;’ and I then attempted to get Dorchester’s Number One Best Selling author, Minette Walters, but she was “very busy at the time;” but hadn’t we done well so far!
Books on Dorset as a whole are in abundance by Rodney Legg, they are in every local bookshop library without exception. Rodney has been quoted as saying “I have given up counting how many, now I just measure them by the foot!” Finding his website and buying a book which looked interesting, an email and a telephone call later I had secured him. Rodney Legg was quite a coup!
The book was titled ‘Witches of Dorset’ by Rodney Legg and Olive Knott. It duly arrived and looked everything I had expected it to be, but in the middle of reading another at the time it was put to one side. Then, one day whilst on the Internet, I wanted something new to investigate, and seeing the book and having looked at Rodney Legg’s website, I ran a Search for Olive Knott to find out if she had written anything else? But the Results didn’t offer very much information other than finding this lady to be an author, so an Amazon Search followed to find that she had published quite a goldmine of books about Dorset, and had started doing so in 1950; the year before I was born!
The books Ms. Knott had published were about the people and places within our county of Dorset and of the ‘Local Interest’ genre, and despite not having such a genre at the time of her writings, books like these have become known as such in recent years. These publications are about and usually written by ‘a knowledgeable person’ or ‘expert’ who lives in the locality; and are now regarded as being ‘trendy.’ But when Olive Knott began publishing, this was not the case. And rather like Olive in her day, both Ann Smeaton and I had found that publishers didn’t readily want to print some of our books as they believed there was no market for them, and being 100% sure that they were wrong; we had self-published. Much more difficult in the late 1940’s than it is today, with digital printing where as few or as many copies can be run off, Olive Knott had bigger problems in that the typesetting and binding of the books was time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive, and she would have had to stick her neck out as to how many books she thought she could sell, and also had to use personal finance to pay for the production costs.
But she was a determined lady, and did just that with her first book - ‘Down Dorset Way’ - which she self-published in 1950 as a 28 page booklet. How many were printed we will probably never know, but Olive must have gone out there to local functions and events like summer fairs and fetes, and given talks at the Women’s Institutes in every town and village in Dorset to sell them, and her sales figures must have been impressive as the book was reprinted and published, (in an expanded form with illustrations), by Longmans at The Friary Press, Dorchester, in 1952.
As I found by collecting her books, Ms. Knott tended to include a Forward in most of them, and from these it could be ascertained that she moved from her native Sturminster Newton to an address in Broadstone in the mid-1950’s. I have yet to find out if this is where she ended her days, or if she moved back to Sturminster Newton?
The books were ordered as and when I could afford them, one or perhaps two a month, and found mainly on the Abe Books and EBay websites. It seems as if the generations who bought Olive’s books originally had passed away, and their offspring didn’t appear to be as charmed by their distinct quaintness and had sold them on. This was good news for the collectors’ market and the book sellers; and retrospectively also for Ms. Knott, who can now be regarded as a ‘very collectable author;’ but bad news in that the younger generations were driven more by financial reward than the historic and collectable value of these vintage books.
Aware that Ms. Knott would be in her 80’s, the idea of her being able to give a talk at the library didn’t enter into my thoughts, but her books now fascinated me, and the idea of phoning to ask Rodney Legg went through my mind quite frequently. Was Olive Knott still alive? He would know as it had been their book which had fired me into collecting her work. But after falling in love with her stories and those quaint old books, somehow, I felt happier avoiding reality.
After some months and again at a loose end on the Internet, I found and emailed a Sturminster Newton website to ask if they knew the whereabouts of Ms. Knot? Half expectedly, the reply told me that she had “passed away a few year’s ago now,” according to several people whom had known her from the village.
But Olive Knott needed to be remembered. It seemed like an insult that she had written and published these magnificent and pioneering books about the history, people and dialect of old Dorset, and yet an Internet Search on her name brought forth practically nothing. She had to have something for interested parties to find out more about her literary output. She had given so much not only to the County of Dorset, but to the world as a whole and I enjoyed her work immensely, so in the absence of anyone else doing so, this essay details how I discovered this lady’s fine books.
Like so many of the modern-day ‘Local Interest’ authors, though, Olive Knott probably felt pleased at just having her work published as a neat little book. None of us expect to make handsome Royalties, our biggest payment is that we have put something back into our locality for the younger generations to learn about how we lived during those times we have written about; if they ever feel the need to do so.
So this is my tribute to Olive Knott, a lady whom I found out about too late to try and meet her, for she was already gone. If you own any of her books and enjoy them and in doing so found this, then I hope it inspires you to look through the bibliography and read some of her other works. She was the ‘First Lady’ of the Local interest book long before they were known as such, and she must have sold quite a few for the Used Book Market to be fairly bristling with these charming tomes today. Olive must have sold most of them personally rather than through retail shops, as it is fairly easy to find ‘signed by the author’ editions; so avoid paying too-high-a-price for those.
By sheer good fortune, inside my ‘Dorset With Hardy’ edition, there was a cutting from the 1968 feature in the ‘Poole & Dorset Herald’ local newspaper about the book; and it is reproduced here for the now quite rare photo of Olive Knott at the gate of her Sturminster Newton home.
Olive Knott Bibliography
Down Dorset Way - 1st Edition, privately published - No ISBN - 1950.
Down Dorset Way* - Longmans at The Friary Press - No ISBN - 1952.
Safe Custody: A comedy concerned with smuggling; (with acknowledgement to Mrs. H Barnett) - 1952. (Presumably a Play written by Olive Knott?)
More About Dorset* - Longmans at The Friary Press - No ISBN - 1954.
Dorset Again* - The Friary Press - No ISBN - 1956.
Old Dorset* - J. Looker - No ISBN - 1958.
Witches Of Wessex* - Hard Backed book self-published by Olive Knott – No ISBN - 1960.
Monographs No. 46 - Hardy's Sturminster Home - 4-page pamphlet as a single folded sheet with pages numbered 113 to 116 – Toucan Press - No ISBN – 1968.
Dorset With Hardy - The Friary Press - No ISBN - 1968.
Dorset: Blackmore Vale Villages - Dorset Publishing SBN 902129 14 7 - 1972.
Pictorial History Of Sturminster Newton - Text by Olive Knott, photographs by Raymond Rogers - Dorset Publishing SBN 902129 16 3 - 1973.
Witches Of Dorset – with additional material by Rodney Legg and Amanda Allsop - Dorset Publishing - 1974.
Old Poole Town – with photos from the John Valentine collection - Dorset Publishing ISBN 0 902129 23 6 - 1975.
Tales Of Dorset* - The Friary Press - ISBN 0902043 21 8.
Tales Of Dorset* - Castle Cary Press - ISBN 0 905868 15 3 - 3rd Edition 1986.
Witches Of Dorset - Dorset Publishing - ISBN 0-948699-54-X - 2nd Edition 1996 with Rodney Legg.
Books with a * feature wood or lino cut illustrations by K.L.G, Hart.
‘Down Dorset Way’ - the 1st Edition was a 28 page publication which looked not unlike a school exercise book, privately typeset, printed, folded, centre-stapled and self-published by Ms. Knott.
‘Tales Of Dorset’ is an anthology of the ‘Down Dorset Way,’ ‘More About Dorset’ and ‘Dorset Again’ books as one volume. It was re-printed at least 3 times.
‘Dorset With Hardy’ was first published as a series of articles written by Olive Knott which had appeared in ‘The Poole & Dorset Herald’ and also possibly ‘The Western Gazette’ local newspapers in 1967 / 1968.
John Valentine, who provided the photographs for the ‘Old Poole Town’ book, owned an antiques shop in Poole’s lower ‘Old Town’ High Street, not far from the Quay.
‘Safe Custody; a comedy concerned with smuggling’ - is presumed to be a play written by Olive Knott? It is included her Amazon listings, but a copy has yet be found.