by ALASDAIR STEVEN
Born: 4 May, 1937, in London. Died: 9 October, 2013 in Kent, aged 76
Charles Black was a member of one of the most celebrated publishing
families who owned the famous Edinburgh firm of A & C Back for four
generations. For almost three decades Black was chairman of the company
whose reputation for high quality publishing was maintained and which he
astutely enhanced. The firm was renowned for its annual publishing of
Who’s Who and gained a deserved reputation for its accuracy and concise
As the proprietor of such an august – and profitable – publication Black
was under pressure from competitors to sell. He was also under pressure
from people he met to be included.
A & C Black was founded in Edinburgh in 1807 by Charles’s
great-great-grandfather, Adam Black, who was then a 23-year-old bookshop
owner and publisher, and his nephew Charles.
Adam rose to become a major figure in the Edinburgh business community
and society. He was twice Lord Provost of Edinburgh and represented (at
the age of 72) the city at Westminster for a decade. To this day there
is an imposing bronze statue of him in Princes Street Gardens – suitably
beside the Scott Monument.
After his death, his sons moved the firm, in 1895, to London’s Soho
Square but they would retain its Scottish identity.
The company’s involvement with publishing Scottish authors was central
to their original business – they acquired, for example, the copyright
to the novels of Sir Walter Scott in 1851. The firm has, over the years,
been responsible for such popular publications as Whitaker’s Almanack,
Wisden, Black’s Medical Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica and P G
Wodehouse’s first novel The Pothunters.
Charles Archibald Adam Black attended Winchester College where he
demonstrated a love of golf and cricket that was to remain with him all
his life. He played cricket for the Winchester 1st X1 and for the
English Public Schools. Black did his national service in the Scots
Guards and at Christ Church College, Oxford he captained the
university’s Real Tennis team. After reading business studies at Harvard
he joined A & C Black in 1968.
Black remained involved in sport – especially cricket – and became a
playing member of MCC. He was proud to get mentions in Wisden in 1955
and 1956 for outstanding performances at the crease. Little did Black
realise that within a few years his firm would own the famous title.
By far the most prestigious book the firm published was Who’s Who. When
his father retired in 1973, Black took over as chairman and was careful
to remain apart from the day-to-day running of the celebrated
publication. He left all decisions to his editors and made it a policy
never to interfere about those who were included. Significantly, he
never allowed his own name to be considered.
Black proved a shrewd businessman and brought the company to the Stock
Exchange and built a modern distribution centre in Cambridgeshire. But
he was keen to expand the firm’s area of publications and chose to
publish books connected with the arts – notably music, natural history,
fitness and children’s books. All proved commercially successful, as did
Black’s expansion into the reference book section by incorporating Peter
Collin Publishing, the dictionary specialists.
Black retired as chairman in 2000 but he foresaw the world of publishing
was about to radically change. He realised the digital revolution was
already changing reading habits and he decided, as one of his last major
commercial decisions, to find a suitable buyer for the company.
He was well aware that this would end a family connection with the book
trade going back two centuries. Black finalised a deal with the fast
expanding Bloomsbury (publisher of the Harry Potter books) which valued
his firm at £16.4 million. Black continued as a non-executive director
of Bloomsbury after his retirement.
It left him time to devote more time to his golf – he remained an
enthusiastic member for many years of Royal St George’s Golf Club in
Sandwich and acted as the club’s captain. Black was also a member of the
All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon and a keen follower of the
game. He flew to Australia in his first year of retirement to watch the
Australian Open Tennis, and combined it with a few games of golf at the
National Golf Course on the demanding Moonah Course.
In 1964 Black married Melanie Lowson, daughter of Sir Denys Lowson, a
major – and controversial – figure in the City. Her mother, the Hon Ann
Patricia Macpherson, came from an Invernesshire family, and was the
daughter of Sir James Macpherson (later 1st Baron Strathcarron) the
Liberal MP for Ross and Cromarty (1911 – 1936) and Cabinet minister.
She and their son and daughter survive him.