Bibliomania in the family

My grandfather was a bibliomaniac. This is my mother’s father, Charlie – Charles Bradlaugh Warwick. My grandmother threw him out sometime in 1939, just around the start of the war, and although my mother met him once more during the war and there were family sightings of him to the 50s, by the time I was born we’d lost contact and I never met him. However I heard a lot about him, growing up.

He had a number of habits and qualities, some of which were positive, but overall the stories tended to dwell on the negative ones. His philandering, his ego, his bibliomania.

One story has him coming home to the cottage at Wilmslow on the outskirts of Manchester, where my grandmother and he lived in the late 20s and early 30s, opening his coat and taking out the two or three books he had stolen from bookshops on his way home.

Charlie worked as an accountant for various employers, but as a committed socialist and paid-up member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he may not have kept his jobs very long as he was always agitating for workers’ rights. His political convictions may also have helped him justify his book thefts.

According to Mum – and to my grandmother because she told this story as well – Grandma was always nervous about Charlie’s thefts, fearing he would be caught and arrested.

Debbie, Charlie and Elsa in 1925
Debbie, Charlie and Elsa (Mum) in 1925.

My grandmother, Debbie, was born Jewish in Odessa which is now in Ukraine but between the wars was a part of the Soviet Union. Her parents brought her with her elder two brothers to England at the turn-of-the-century, fleeing poverty and the pogroms. Grandma always insisted that she had been taken to see Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege, so I place their immigration sometime around 1900 as the old Queen died in 1901. I suspect though that they were illegals as I’ve been unable to find them in the 1901 Census.

As a Russian immigrant, Debbie was always worried about the police showing up on her doorstep. A marriage certificate with a British citizen was a fair security to have – but how would it be if he was a convicted criminal? I believe she went through a second residency legalisation after 1941 (when Britain and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side in the war).

I don’t really know whether Charlie ever stole more than two or three books. Perhaps one theft was enough to generate the story, but I suppose it’s more likely that it was a habit. In a way, I hope he was a bibliomaniac and did steal books on regular basis because only stealing two or three would put him on about the same level as me. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t done it for a long time, but when I was a poverty stricken student and reading matter was not nearly as easily available as it is today, when books I needed to read were all borrowed out from the library and bookshops were more common and far less security conscious than today, I stole my share.

I never told Mum or Grandma of course. That would have only provoked a retelling of the Charlie stories and accusations of incipient bibliomania, which I already had a reputation for with all the library books I had overdue.

Grandma didn’t throw Charlie out because of his bibliomania but because of his philandering. As a 1920s Communist Charlie believed in “Free Love” and would have been perfectly happy not to lock himself into a “bourgeois relationship” (marriage), but he got Debbie pregnant and with the help of his parents she shamed him into marrying her. Not the best start perhaps.

Charlie full lengthIt didn’t stop Charlie continuing to act on his convictions, however, and for fifteen years or so he seems to have taken up annually with one new sweet young thing after another. My grandparents lived in or near Manchester, but when Charlie was having an affair, Debbie used to take my mother and move home to her parents’ in the East End of London. After Charlie’s affair had burned itself out, he would come down to London, plead with her to come back and they would all return to Manchester together.

This went on until Debbie got a job of her own. She became the warden of the Ivinghoe Youth Hostel just north-west of London in about 1937. According to my mother Charlie settled down for a year or so, but then took a shine to a guest at the hostel with whom he left. Later, he came back as in previous years to plead with Debbie, but now she had a degree of independence and she refused to take him back, so he returned to Manchester alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Mum did meet him once more during the war. She was in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps) and apparently he tracked her down and wrote to her commanding officer asking if she could be given permission to come and visit him. She was then about 22. So she travelled to Manchester by train and went home to the address she’d been given. Her abiding memory of that visit is the books. Charlie was uninterested in spending money on bookshelves and had simply constructed walls of books – a row standing upright on the floor, a row lying down on top, a row standing upright on top of them, and so on right up to the ceiling. They were also good insulation, he said.

“That was an odd meeting,” Mum says, “I never knew what it was he wanted. I have a sort of feeling there was someone else there, one of his women, and that he was meeting me because she wanted him to.”

Many years later, quite recently in fact, Mum learnt that Charlie remarried (bigamously as he never divorced Debbie) and had a son. Mum’s new interpretation of her strange meeting is that Charlie had got the invisible woman pregnant, was going to get married (history repeating itself) and that the woman had twisted his arm to get him to try to reconcile himself with his first family. That didn’t happen.

Having learnt about the existence of her half-brother, Mum tried to get in touch with him. She wrote and then as he didn’t reply she eventually phoned him. They talked and she learnt a little bit more about him, but he was “not interested” as she says.

I’m not at all surprised. The poor fellow must be in his early 70s and this crazy old woman writes to him out of the blue and then phones him to tell him she’s his sister and that his father – now long dead – was a bigamist and he’s a bastard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mum also told him about Charlie’s bibliomania. In his position, I doubt very much that I would be interested in pursuing a relationship, but Mum gets a little tearful about it now. She says she would have liked to have had a brother.


Another slice of family history this week, gleaned from my ongoing interviews with my mother (see here). The title of last week’s entry – Bibliophile – set me off thinking about bibliomania and the the only (if putative) bibliomaniac in the family.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.