Editor of Which? magazine
Born: 3 January, 1911, in Caerphilly. Died: 18 March, 2008, in London, aged 97.
EIRLYS Roberts, CBE, was a pioneer in the consumer movement and ensured that the buyers in the shops or the marketplace were a potent voice in maintaining standards. Throughout her 15 years as editor of Which? magazine, Roberts confirmed that products were of a high quality and were on sale at reasonable prices. She was also heard on radio and television, and wrote several books exploring the subject of mass-consumerism. Roberts opened up the business to a wider market with numerous spin-off magazines (Which? Money etc) and she placed much emphasis on well-written copy: all opinions had to be short, concise and to the point. A major factor in the success of Which? was Roberts' insistence that the magazine helped the consumer decide between the (often confusing) advertising put out by the manufacturers. Their claims on the packets were analysed by the Which? reporters meticulously.
Her mother (who lived to be over 100) gave her a strong love of Scotland and she often visited on walking holidays. Her most public visits were, however, in 1982 when Roberts came to Glasgow to campaign with typical commitment and enthusiasm on behalf of Roy Jenkins who was fighting a by-election for the Social Democrats at Glasgow Hillhead.
Eirlys Rhiwen Cadwaladr Roberts had a Welsh father and a Scottish mother. She was brought up in south London and educated at Clapham High School where she showed an early enthusiasm for classics. She proved a gifted scholar of Latin and Greek and took a degree in classics at Girton College, Cambridge. Roberts' first job was to act as classical adviser to Robert Graves and she worked with him on Majorca for several years when he was writing I, Claudius. In the preface to the book, Graves wrote, "With help for the classical correctness, I have to thank Miss Eirlys Roberts."
During the war, Roberts worked in military intelligence and from 1945-47 for relief organisations in Albania. On returning to Britain, Roberts joined the civil service before joining the Observer as consumer correspondent. From 1958, she was head of the research and editorial division at the Consumers' Association (the publisher of Which?) and was deputy director until 1977. The social entrepreneur, Michael Young, had provided the initial spark that created the magazine, but it was Roberts who breathed life, energy and original thought into it.
It had no advertising and was viewed with some commercial concern from the outset. In fact, after the first issue 10,000 letters arrived with 10 shilling notes joining the subscription list. It was because of Roberts' zest for information (and correct information) that ensured its success. She insisted on thorough testing of products and subjecting manufacturers to a detailed series of meetings. Project officers were told to write reports in readable and accurate English. "The active not the passive voice" Roberts insisted, "short sentences, short paragraphs and short Anglo-Saxon words."
Roberts was a born leader; always encouraging to staff but expecting the same high standards she demanded of herself. All consumer investigations had to be thorough and tested exhaustively. She expected reliable information from her writers as she knew the public expected it from Which?.
When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, Roberts joined various consumer and social committees but her dedication to expanding Which? never faltered. She brought to consumer matters a wide knowledge but there was also a determination to see that the public was offered value for money. Shoddy – or over expensive – products were there to be exposed. To this end, she arranged for over half a dozen spin-off magazines: ranging from Which? Wine Guide to Which? Handiman. Then came the television (Money-Go-Round) and radio (Value for Money) programmes on which Roberts acted both as consultant and occasional contributor.
The wide list of subjects the magazine discussed (London railway stations, through contraceptives to cakes baked with cake mixes) reflected the enthusiasms of the editor. Which? had to reflect every aspect of consumerism and Roberts championed many minority interests: indeed her passion was first-class information about everything.
In 1977 she retired (and was awarded a CBE) but she continued to be involved with commercial affairs and served on the Royal Commission for the press and furthered her interests at the EU.
Roberts had married John Cullen during the war. The marriage had floundered, but they remained on good terms and she always used her married name in private life. There were no children.