Richard Ollard was one of the most civilised men of letters in
postwar Britain. From 1948 to 1959 he was a lecturer in history at
the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Thereafter he was senior editor
at Collins, a key figure in probably the strongest editorial team in
British publishing. When he retired in 1983, already a leading
authority on the English 17th century and the Royal Navy, he devoted
himself largely to authorship.
A series of books followed at regular intervals, bolstering the
reputation established by his already published works, not least his
masterly 1974 biography of Samuel Pepys. His writing was
recognisable for its elegance and clarity, giving pleasure to the
general reader as well as winning praise among specialists.
For many years Ollard was also a key figure in the infrastructure
of naval history, especially the Navy Records Society, where he was
vice-president. His work as a naval historian was recognised in 1992
with the award of the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Medal.
Ollard was meticulous and exceptionally well-informed. He
cherished high standards and had no time for the second rate, of
which he could be witheringly dismissive. As an editor he was
respected not just as a constructive and perceptive critic but also
as a forthright champion of his authors. If he believed in a book,
he would go to endless trouble to see it published.
Among the authors he published were Dame Veronica Wedgwood, the
French historian Fernand Braudel (whose works Ollard read in French)
and the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. Perhaps the author he took
most pleasure in publishing was Patrick O’Brian, author of the
Aubrey-Maturin series of Napoleonic War sea stories.
That Ollard should have been drawn to a writer whose enthusiasm
for, and erudition about, naval history matched his own was natural.
But what Ollard recognised from the start was O’Brian’s brilliance
as a storyteller. At a time when it was received wisdom to regard C.
S. Forester’s Hornblower novels as the pinnacle of the genre and
when historical novels were in any case regarded as slightly infra
dig, Ollard immediately identified O’Brian as a writer of the
highest class. Second only to O’Brian himself, Ollard can be said to
have been responsible for one of the most extraordinary literary
achievements of the second half of the 20th century.
Tall and rather bald, Ollard had about him an unmistakably
donnish air. He was in many ways the embodiment of the kind of
gentleman-publisher, latterly gentleman-author, courteous, scholarly
and modest, that has all but disappeared. It was entirely
appropriate that in 1998 he won the Heywood Hill Literary Prize, an
award commemorating a lifetime’s contribution to the pleasures of
reading. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of
the Society of Antiquaries.
Richard Laurence Ollard was born in 1923 and grew up in
Yorkshire. His father, a don at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, and a
historian of the Tractarian Movement, was subsequently ordained and
given the living of Bainton in the East Riding. He was also made a
canon of York.
His mother was more artistically inclined and energetic than her
desk-bound husband. It was she who gave the young Richard a love of
outdoor life, above all of riding. Until almost his eighties, he
rode whenever he could.
In 1936 Ollard’s father was made a canon of St George’s Chapel
and the family moved to Windsor. By then Ollard was at Eton. In 1942
he joined the Navy as a rating, serving for a time in HMS
Victory at Portsmouth. It was during his time on the lower deck
that he met James Callaghan, establishing a life-long friendship. In
1943 Ollard was commissioned and sent to Ceylon as an intelligence
officer, his prime duty being to translate intercepted Japanese
After the war he went to New College, Oxford, where he had won a
scholarship. If there was a disappointment to his academic career,
it was his failure to gain a fellowship of All Souls. He would have
made a natural don.
Nonetheless, as a lecturer at the Royal Naval College, Ollard
seemed to have struck the ideal balance between his interests. Naval
history had already become an abiding passion. His future wife
worked in the neighbouring National Maritime Museum. It was a
His enforced departure from the Royal Naval College in 1959, a
victim of defence cuts, was accordingly traumatic. A year of supply
teaching followed before, in 1960, he was made an editor at Collins.
There, whatever the occasional awkwardness of his relationship with
the aggressive Billy Collins, Ollard thrived.
His success as a publisher was a result not just of his
intellectual toughness and instinct for quality. He also took
endless trouble with his authors, encouraging and supporting them.
He was less at home with the commercial necessities of the business.
Even talking up books to the firm’s own sales force never came
naturally. Books, for Ollard, were to be enjoyed for their own sake
rather than as commercial propositions.
Throughout his time at Collins he continued to write himself. His
first book, The Escape of Charles II, appeared in 1966. It
was followed, in 1969, by a history of the Restoration Navy and, in
1974, by his excellent biography of Pepys. A second edition followed
Before he left Collins, Ollard published two further histories of
the 17th century: This War Without an Enemy (1976), perhaps
the best general history of the Civil War; and The Image of the
King: Charles I and II (1979). He also wrote a history of Eton.
While the 17th century continued to provide Ollard with most of
his material, including a further volume on Pepys in 1996, he was by
no means confined to it. In 1991 he published Fisher and
Cunningham: A Study in the Personalities of the Churchill Era.
At the end of the decade he also wrote a life of A.L. Rowse, a
man whose persistent selfadvertisement might have been thought quite
alien to the rather unworldly Ollard. In fact, the two were great
admirers of each other. On Ollard’s part, it was a reflection of a
life-long admiration “for those who didn’t hunt with the pack”. He
also subsequently edited Rowse’s dairies, which were published in
After leaving Collins, Ollard moved with his wife, Mary, to a
His wife, two sons and a daughter survive him.
Richard Ollard, author and editor, was born on November
9, 1923. He died on January 21, 2007, aged