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Cheshire, Frank Walter (1896–1987)

by John Arnold

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Frank Walter Cheshire (1896-1987), bookseller and publisher, was born on 6 June 1896 in East Melbourne, second son of Vic-torian-born parents Thomas James Cheshire, journalist, and his wife Eliza, formerly Napper, née Holland. Educated at Blackburn, Balwyn and Glenferrie state schools, at 15 Frank was employed by George Robertson & Co., booksellers, commencing with menial duties —dusting, unpacking, shelving—but quickly learning the rudiments of the trade. He also became active in the local Baptist church following the family’s move to Canterbury about 1910. His Christian principles, developed as a lay preacher and member of the Christian Endeavour movement, at first prevented him from volunteering for active service in World War I. Between 1916 and 1918 he worked in firms supplying schools with stationery and materials. By 1918 the death of his brother in action in France and the war service of many friends prompted a reconsideration of his pacifism. Rejected for the Australian Imperial Force on medical grounds, he served briefly with the Young Men’s Christian Association at the Point Cook base of the Australian Flying Corps.

Cheshire then returned to distributing educational supplies for Hutchinson’s Pty Ltd, travelling extensively, selling directly to schools, newsagencies and bookshops, and building networks that would assist his own business venture. On 20 November 1920 at Canterbury Baptist Church he married Vera Mabel Worth; they had met as Sunday school teachers. In 1925 Hutchinson’s was taken over and Cheshire negotiated the acquisition of its educational stock and equipment. On borrowed capital, F. W. Cheshire Pty Ltd, educational booksellers and stationers, opened for business on 1 April 1925 in a small office in Little Collins Street, with Frank and Vera at first the only employees. Schoolbooks remained its core business, particularly once Cheshire decided to publish his own editions of Shakespeare rather than import up to a thousand copies of set plays each year from England. He also took over the printing and distribution of arithmetic and mathematics texts compiled by a schoolteacher, Robert Wilson. According to Cheshire, Wilson’s Intermediate Certificate Arithmetic (1933) `formed the very foundations of the Cheshire Publishing enterprise’; the text sold in thousands and, by 1958, in twenty-two reprints.

Cheshire opened his first retail bookshop in 1932 and soon added a short-lived secondhand section. He promoted the bookshop by advertising on the back of tram tickets. The business moved to larger premises in 1938: a basement, at 338 Little Collins Street, which became `a cultural landmark’ (the Age recalled in 1975) and a `gathering place for all interested in books and literature’. The company’s first trade publication was Wilfred Burchett’s Pacific Treasure Island (1941). Cheshire also published Burchett’s Bombs Over Burma (1944) and Democracy with a Tommygun (1946), although with increasing discomfort at the author’s left-wing sympathies. Another author, Alan Marshall offered him the manuscript of what was to become These Are My People (1944). `Drawn to him immediately’, Cheshire agreed to publication, sealing the deal with a handshake before reading the text. It was the start of a profitable relationship: the book sold nine thousand copies in its first month and by 1957 had gone into five editions. Cheshire published several other books by Marshall, including I Can Jump Puddles (1955).

In the transition from educational bookseller to major trade publisher, Cheshire was greatly assisted by Andrew Fabinyi, who had joined the company in 1939. As general manager of F. W. Cheshire Publishing Pty Ltd (formed in 1957), Fabinyi left a lasting mark on the Australian book trade, making Cheshire’s notable for classics such as Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (1960). Through the 1950s, the original company also continued to expand, acquiring new premises in Little Bourke Street and a repository and trade counter in La Trobe Street. It opened a retail bookshop in Canberra and, by 1963, a trade room and office in Sydney. With efficient service and an established reputation, Cheshire’s monopolised the school educational market. Its new Melbourne warehouse at Abbotsford was soon dispatching some 250,000 school texts each year.

Vera Cheshire died in 1955 after a long illness; on 18 August 1956 at St Paul’s Church of England, Caulfield, Cheshire married Shirley Jean Moyes, née Mackay, a receptionist whose late husband had been a fellow Freemason and family friend. Jean’s long interest in the Church of England’s Girls’ Friendly Society (world president, 1969) complemented Cheshire’s commitment to the Burwood Boys’ Home: he had joined its committee of management in 1946 and served as its president (1955-69). He was also an active member of the Victorian Booksellers’ Association (president 1953-63) and the Australian Booksellers’ Association (president 1959-60). As president of the VBA, in 1957 Cheshire supported the close scrutiny by the Literary Censorship Board of `questionable’ books, although in 1960 he protested at the police seizure of novels already cleared by the board.

In November 1964 Cheshire sold both companies (then with 130 full-time staff and 250 titles on the list) to a partnership of British and Australian interests, remaining as general manager until his retirement in 1967. Following yet another takeover, by the International Publishing Corporation, the name Cheshire began gradually to disappear from the Australian book trade.

Described by John Hetherington as `a quietly imaginative man’, Cheshire was by nature conservative. He was a non-smoker, a teetotaller and a devoted father. His achievements were reflected in the title of his memoir, Bookseller Publisher Friend (1984). As Alan Marshall remarked, `you’d search the world for a man to equal Frank Cheshire for honorable dealings’. In 1983 he and his wife were appointed knight and dame of the Order of St John. Survived by his wife, their three sons, and the two sons of his first marriage, Frank Cheshire died on 19 November 1987 at Balwyn and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 30 Sept 1957, p 12, 22 July 1960, p 7, 28 Nov 1964, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1963, p 18, 26 Nov 1964, p 3, 5 Apr 1975, p 23
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 11 Oct 1969, p 17
  • C. E. Sayers papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Arnold, 'Cheshire, Frank Walter (1896–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cheshire-frank-walter-12312/text22115, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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