On the 2nd of November 1960, a jury of three women and nine men delivered a not guilty verdict in one of the most sensational court cases of the 20th Century, R v. Penguin Books Ltd. At first glance there is very little to suspect a North Devon connection to the infamous case, however, as with so many other historical events if you look just beyond the surface you will discover one.
In the churchyard of St Nectan’s Church in Stoke, Hartland there is stone bench dedicated to several members of the Lane family. The first to be commemorated is John Lane.
John was born in West Putford in 1854 to Lewis Lane, shortly after he was born the family moved to a farm in Hartland. Although the family didn’t stay in Hartland, John considered it home and on his death his ashes were brought back to St. Nectan.
John Lane was one of many who found his fortune in London, founding The Bodley Head publishers in 1887 with Charles Elkin Mathews. In 1919 the Bristol born, Allen Lane Williams, joined the firm as an apprentice. Allen’s mother, Camilla, was the daughter of one of John’s cousins. John and his wife, Anne, had no children of their own so John suggested Allen and his family change their name to Lane to continue the family name within the business after John’s death. When John died in 1925, Allen Lane became a director before becoming chairman in 1930. Four years later, Lane was to have the idea which would change the face of bookselling and put him on the path which would lead to the Criminal Courts.
The story Allen Lane would later go on to tell was on returning from a weekend in South Devon with Agatha Christie he was waiting in the St. David’s Station, Exeter and could find nothing worth while to read. He had a light bulb moment, why not buy the rights to reprint good, quality fiction and non-fiction and sell them in paperback form using modern mass-marketing methods. He presented the idea to his brothers Richard and John, who were also now working at the Bodley Head. Initially the rest of the company wasn’t entirely convinced. However, the Penguin Books brand was launched and became a great success and in 1952 Allen Lane was given a Knighthood.
In 1960 he decided to publish the complete work of D.H. Lawrence (who had died 30 years previously) including his most controversial book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in its unabridged form. Despite the fact that it would put him on a collision course with the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, Lane went ahead and published the book. It was immediately seized and Lane was prosecuted under the act. The trial began on the 20th October and was resolved on the 2nd of November when the 12 members of the jury returned the not guilty verdict after 3 hours of deliberation.
The trial itself was a huge public relations boost for Penguin Books and the book far exceeded its original projected sales.
Many of the local bookshops ordered copies of the book and the Public Library in Barnstaple, which was occupying the ground floor of the Athenaeum building, ordered both the paperback version and hardback copies of some of the foreign versions. However, the book would “not be placed on the shelves for indiscriminate issue, but will be available for adult who make direct requests to borrow it.” [NDJH 10th November 1960 p1].
As for the Athenaeum, the librarian, Mr. A. E. Blackwell, told the North Devon Journal-Herald “We are definitely not buying copies.” [ NDJH 10th November 1960 p1]. Whether or not this was a decision made by the Board of Directors is unknown as there is no mention of possibly purchasing the infamous ‘Lady C’ in the minutes for this period.
Sir Allen continued to run Penguin Books until shortly before his death on the 7th July 1970. Just like his ‘uncle’ his ashes were taken to Hartland and St. Nectan’s. His name being listed on the bench alongside his parents and brothers.