John Roland Abbey

Birth: 1896


Major John Roland Abbey (23 November 1894 - 24 December 1969) was an English book collector and High Sheriff. He was born in Brighton, the eldest of three sons of William Henry Abbey, a brewer, and was named John Rowland before dropping the 'w'. After an accident that caused permanent damage to one of his elbows he was educated by a private tutor, Mr Möens, instead of at school.

In November 1914, at the start of World War I, he was commissioned as a regimental officer in the Rifle Brigade, serving for two years on the Western Front in the 13th and 8th Battalions. He experienced a lucky escape as part of the 8th Battalion; while he was serving in reserve, the battalion took part in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, losing all officers but one.

He was gassed in November 1916 and spent five months recovering in hospital before being invalided out in October 1917 and demobilized in 1919. His younger brother Lieutenant Noel Roland Abbey was killed on the Western Front in 1918 while serving with the Grenadier Guards. Abbey later rejoined the Rifle Brigade in November 1939, and served from 1941 to October 1943 as staff officer to the Admiral-Superintendent at Great Yarmouth. Although he left the army in 1943, he was awarded the honorary rank of Major in 1946.

After leaving the army he became manager of the Kemp Town brewery, succeeding his father as chairman in 1943 and merging the company with Charringtons in 1954. On 7 June 1921, he married Ursula Cairns, daughter of Wilfred Cairns, 4th Earl Cairns, with whom he had two daughters. In 1945, he was appointed High Sheriff of Sussex, a position he held for a year.

Abbey began his book collection in 1929, at first with an interest in modern bindings. He started buying books from various Private presses, eventually gaining complete collections of books from the Kelmscott, Ashendene and Gwasg Gregynog presses In 1931 he commissioned Sybil Pye and R. de Coverley and Sons to produce a binding to his own design for Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

Consistently stressing the importance of appearance and condition, Abbey began buying antiquarian books in 1933 and manuscripts (of which he ultimately owned 143) in 1946, with advice from Sydney Cockerell. He acquired many antiquarian books following his initial purchase of Primrose's collection. He built up his collection between 1936 and 1938 thanks to sales from the Mensing, Moss, Aldenham, Schiff, and Cortlandt F. Bishop collections, eventually holding over 1,300 books.

After World War II he had the largest private collection of his time, including 1914 18th and 19th-century books of watercolor prints. He died on 24 December 1969 in London, and, with the exception of manuscripts given to his family and a group of books donated to the Eton College Collections, his remaining texts were sold for £993,509 between 1970 and 1975.


Abbey, John Roland (1894-1969), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. []

Catalogue of The Celebrated Library of (The Late) Major J. R. Abbey, vols 1-7, London : Sotheby & Co. (1966-)1970.

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