Jonathan Cutbill, a founder of Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, central London has died aged 82. Jonathan was the foremost collector in Britain of books of LGBT relevance; there was a period in the 1970s and 80s when he was collecting not only rare volumes but everything new being published in English.
He co-founded the shop in 1979 with Ernest Hole and Peter Dorey, and became a director, installing its early stock-control system, while also working as an information systems expert at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
In April 1984 Jonathan was faced with imprisonment after HM Customs and Excise raided the bookshop. Customs officers seized 144 titles, worth thousands of pounds; he was one of nine directors and employees accused of conspiring to import and sell indecent or obscene literature.
A defence campaign set up to fight the charges and recover the confiscated stock raised large amounts of money from authors and publishers. The Bookseller was prominent in calling for public review of the behaviour of the Customs department. When at one low point it was suggested that the shop should cease trying to fight, Jonathan famously denounced any such idea: “We go on!” The nine defendants were committed for trial at the Old Bailey, but in June 1986 all criminal charges were dropped.
Born in Marylebone, London, Jonathan was the only son of Helen (nee Brook) and Dudley Cutbill, a stockbroker. He was brought up with his sister, Joan, by his mother alone, after his father did not return to the family after serving in the second world war. Jonathan went to Ampleforth, the Catholic boarding school in Yorkshire, and studied natural sciences at Peterhouse, Cambridge, specialising in geology, graduating in 1960.
After national service, during which he led orienteering expeditions on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, he returned to Cambridge, taking a PhD in 1965, and was senior research assistant and then assistant director of research in geology (1967-76). He joined the National Maritime Museum, where he was involved in the computerisation of the vast collections. He helped found the bookshop as a member of the gay support group Gay Icebreakers.
In the 80s Jonathan set out to get the truth told about the war poet Wilfred Owen. He deduced from quasi-codings in Owen’s mature work that the poet was gay, something early biographers had denied or evaded at the request of Owen’s family and misplaced “protection” of British military honour, and in 1987 he published an essay in the New Statesman entitled The Truth Untold. It is now widely accepted that Jonathan was right.
In 1993 he retired and moved to Shropshire. He had a lifelong affection for the natural world, especially birds, and chose a green burial. Arrangements are being made for the preservation of his remarkable book collection.
Joan died in 2018; Jonathan is survived by a cousin, Stephen.