George Holleyman, (1910-2004)

George Holleyman was one of our most distinguished members. Janet Pennington and Pamela Platt have kindly provided the following obituary (a fuller version of which has been published in Sussex Past and Present).

George Holleyman died at his Henfield home on 2nd October 2004, two months before his 94th birthday. He was born in Islington in 1910 and four years later the family moved to Brighton, where his grandmother lived. George’s archaeological interest seems to have been sparked off by the curator of Brighton Museum, Herbert Toms, who had been trained by Lt. General Pitt-Rivers. As a keen member of the Christian Fellowship League in Hove, George also enjoyed the annual camp at the foot of Wolstonbury Hill with its Iron Age hill-fort, where he later excavated. He also met Sussex archaeologists Doctors Eliot and E. Cecil Curwen, respectively father and son, who had excavated some of the flint mines on Harrow Hill (1924-1925); they inspired him tremendously and George became Cecil Curwen’s right-hand man. The Curwens arrived at excavations in a large Rolls Royce, while George came on his bicycle.

After working at Combridges of Hove, booksellers and stationers, George set up his own second hand bookshop in 1937 at 23 Duke Street, Brighton, part financed with £250 borrowed from his grandmother. In 1941 he was conscripted into the RAF and all his books went into storage. As a corporal in the RAF police, he is still remembered on the Hebridean island of Tiree where he became a well known figure (1941-1943), cycling round on a rusty old bicycle. He learned to read and write Gaelic in order to improve his understanding of the local people and their work methods, and pursued his own excavations, photographing and recording his finds. He recently returned much of the collection to the island, for storage and display in their new museum. His knowledge of aerial surveying and landscape was extremely useful to the RAF, as after Tiree he became a photographic interpretation officer at RAF Medmenham, eventually becoming librarian in charge of more than seven million aerial photographs.

George joined the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1946, serving on the Council from 1948 to 1984, and then as vice-president from 1987. He was elected FSA in 1947. His work in Sussex is recorded in his many publications; these, and references to him, can be found inSACSNQ and the SAS Newsletter, 1934-1976. He had resumed bookselling at 21a and 22 Duke Street, Brighton, in 1946 under the name Holleyman & Treacher Ltd. and it became the largest antiquarian bookshop in southern England. He lived in a flat above the shop, an Aladdin’s cave of archaeological finds, Sussex maps and paintings. Leslie Weller (President, SAS) comments that it was George who started him on his collecting career of works relating to Sussex. Dr. Peter Brandon records George telling of his excitement when Sir Laurence (not yet Lord) Olivier asked him to his Brighton home to value his library with a view to selling. When George arrived, the famous actor had changed his mind and instead declaimed the famous speech of Henry V before Agincourt, presumably as payment for George’s time. Perhaps his greatest coup was buying the library of the estate of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, which he sold on to the University of Washington. George retired in 1983 and the shop closed seven years ago.

Michael Meredith, the Librarian of Eton College, heard George described as ‘the most knowledgeable and most honest bookseller in England’. He adds that George ‘was … one of the last of a generation of great booksellers, men who were not just interested in making a living from books, but who loved books for their own sake’. George also helped and inspired many young archaeologists, one of them Barry Cunliffe, now Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford. George Holleyman’s influence helped to lay the firm foundations for archaeological excavation that exist in the county today, particularly in his use of field survey and aerial photography.

If George’s first involvement in Sussex history came through archaeology and the Sussex Archaeological Society, it was inevitable for someone whose professional life was centred on books that the Sussex Record Society would follow. He joined SRS in 1965 and served as Chairman of the Council from 1974-1991. It was a critical time for the Society following the death of L.F.Salzman, who had dominated its activities for over 60 years. George saw the membership expand significantly; and he set up the first contract with a commercial publisher. This led to the Society adopting a publishing style which could attract the general reader – and significantly increase the print runs. He also fostered the Society’s relationship with the two County Record Offices, which have played an increasingly important role in its activities. He is remembered with affection by Council members for his constant concern for the Society, his unfailingly genial conduct of meetings, and his delightful flow of anecdotes. After retiring from the Chairmanship he was elected a Vice President, in recognition of the invaluable role he played during a crucial period in the Society’s history.