Obituary: David St John Thomas, journalist and publisher

Born: 30 August, 1929, in Romford, Essex. Died: 19 August, 2014, at sea on the Queen Victoria in German waters, aged 84

David St John Thomas: Prolific journalist and publisher who understood nations love of hobbies

David St John Thomas is best remembered for his publishing interests that summed up middle Britain and the nation’s love of hobbies.

From needlework to gardening, photography and equestrian pursuits, he catered for a diverse range of up to 250,000 enthusiasts through his acquisition of the Readers Union book clubs.

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Once a cub reporter with an ambition to own his own business, he had succeeded by capitalising on his own specialisms – covering the railways, amongst other issues – and diversifying into two entirely different fields: a fruit farm and the book industry.

Known for his radical publishing decisions, he built a business employing more than 300 staff until finally selling it off and moving from Devon to the Moray Firth with his new venture, Writers News, the main support system for writers in the UK.

The son of the literary journalist and author Gilbert Thomas, he grew up surrounded by books and a model railway. Though born in Essex, he moved to Devon as a boy and was educated at Teignmouth Grammar School during the Second World War. He developed a fascination for railways and their impact on society and, as a teenager, unofficially drove locomotives and operated branch line signal boxes. Those experiences would later help to make some of his own books bestsellers.

His first job offer came from the Exeter excursion department of the Great Western Railway but by that time he had already started dabbling in feature writing and book reviews and turned it down.

National Service then loomed but he was a conscientious objector to the requirement for all young men to do some form of military training and as a result he completed his compulsory spell of service on the land.

From there he joined his local paper, the Western Morning News, as a junior reporter and quickly made his mark covering subjects including railways, tourism, rural electrification and water supplies. He built up such a specialist knowledge of his subjects and loyal readership that, when he turned freelance and also began broadcasting on the topics, his paper continued to pay for his services.

Determined to set up his own business, he started saving and subsequently established two ventures, the fruit farm and the publisher David & Charles, the latter with canal historian Charles Hadfield who left the enterprise four years later but remained a loyal author over the next quarter of a century.

The publishing firm, which he began on April Fool’s Day 1960, was initially run from a hut on the Devon fruit farm and for many years its address was simply “Railway Station, Newton Abbot”. However, it expanded rapidly, servicing a range of markets, including publishing the first book on how to buy and restore a country cottage.

He believed that the interests of the country’s hobbyists and enthusiasts were being routinely neglected by London publishing houses and in the 1970s he bought the Readers Union group of book clubs catering for a huge variety of hobbies. His business also encompassed subjects such as railways, canals, different areas of Britain, its countryside and natural history.

Puzzled bankers reportedly told him they could not understand who bought his books but then confided they had taken the advice of a volume on ferret-keeping or on how to restore a steam organ.

Many titles, such as the world’s first illustrated dictionary of herbs and spices, were popular overseas and he spent months each year travelling the English-speaking world to secure sales.

He also opened a branch of David & Charles in Vermont and at its height the business employed a staff of more than 300. Mr St John Thomas was publishing more than 300 books a year and became renowned for his radical approach to the industry, selling to non-bookstore outlets and reprinting items of historical interest, such as the Bradshaw’s Railway Timetables and Harrod’s Victorian shopping catalogues. Innovations included consolidating notes at the end of a volume with reader-friendly cross-referencing and abolishing galley proofs, setting texts straight into made-up pages.

Although his venture rapidly expanded, he was always adamant that the customer was king and ensured that books ordered from Scotland on a Monday would be delivered on Wednesday. However, the booming business also had its downside, especially with the advent of rapid inflation, and it was twice on the verge of going under. An unhappy period of bank intervention coincided with a less-than-united management team and in the early 1980s the company almost agreed to a Reader’s Digest takeover. But during protracted negotiations the management team pulled together and David & Charles was reinvigorated, thriving once again. It was eventually decided that the company would be sold when, on the firm’s 30th anniversary, his son Gareth announced he no longer wished to head the publishing arm. Readers’ Digest won the bidding at a price many times higher than the earlier offer.

Mr St John Thomas then moved to Scotland with Writers News which he had set up a year earlier. The division included Writing Magazine, home study courses and a book club. He also established a charitable trust in his name, which provides prize money for writing competitions and supports other causes including sponsoring gap years to developing countries for young people who are encouraged to write about their experience. Over the years he too had enjoyed much success as an author with 50 titles to his name, including many about railways such as The Country Railway, which sold 160,000 copies, and Great Western Railway: 150 Glorious Years, which has amassed £1 million worth of sales. His latest book, Farewell to Trains, was published only last year.

His professional success was eventually mirrored in his private life with his third marriage, to his childhood sweetheart Sheila Twemlow, in 1997.

Although he was well known for being a railway enthusiast and loved travelling by train, he maintained that his most important interests were music and gardening. At his home in Nairn over the last 25 years, he created a large and productive garden and, to the end, loved growing fruit and making jam.

He is survived by his wife, daughter Alyss Clare, son Gareth and grandsons Nathan and Joshua.