Which?'s longest serving editor diesEirlys Roberts set principles of truth and bravery

20 March 2008

Eirlys Roberts

Tributes are flooding in today for Which?’s longest serving editor, Eirlys Roberts, who has died aged 97.

Eirlys helped to shape Which? into a highly respected and successful publication - growing membership to 300,000 in its first six years, and laying the principles for truth and bravery that remain today.

Which?'s founder, the late Michael Young, once described her as the most considerable figure to be produced by the British consumer movement.

Style

Peter Goldman, who was Which?’s director in the 1960s, called Which? magazine ‘her creation’.

He said: ‘For 15 years and more, a toughly intelligent Celtic charm shone from its pages and drew out of those who worked for it more than they thought they had in them.’

For many years, the words ‘Eirlys Roberts writes’ was one of the most familiar sights within the magazine and Eirlys is credited with creating the brisk, straightforward, style of Which?. On cleaning your teeth, one article said: ‘No toothbrush will make up for slipshod brushing.’

Which’s current Chief Executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, said: 'Eirlys shaped not only Which? the magazine but also Which? the organisation. She continued to take a keen interest in everything we did right up until her death and will be remembered as a huge influence on the consumer movement both here and in Europe.'

Warmth and charm

The announcement of her retirement said: ‘She hated sloppiness or inaccuracy, and dominated those around her. Yet she has such warmth and power to charm.’

She had warmth and power to charm

During her 15-year reign, the magazine produced ground-breaking articles showing she was fearless in tackling new and previously uncharted territory such as the 1963 contraceptives supplement. And those articles bought about real change long after she left Which?.

The first tests of seat belts featured in the magazine in 1962 and 1966, which decades later led to the compulsory wearing of front seat belts in 1983.

Friend of Robert Graves

Educated at Clapham High School, she went on to read classics at Girton College, Cambridge, and later became a friend of the poet and novelist Robert Graves helping him to research his novel I, Claudius.

During the war she served in military and political intelligence where she worked at the information division of the Treasury until 1957. She went on to write freelance articles on consumer affairs for The Observer on subjects that included cosmetics and detergents.

In those days, products weren’t tested so Eirlys interviewed technical people in firms. Of that she said: ‘The technical people were so helpful; I mean they were utterly indiscreet. I was staggered at the amount they would tell me.’

Deputy Director

From 1958 she was Head of the Research and Editorial Division at the Consumers' Association (later, Which?) and was Deputy Director until 1977 leading Which?’s advocacy work. She received an OBE in 1971 and was appointed CBE in 1977. 

Eirlys's influence extended beyond the UK, and in retirement she set up and led European Research into Consumer Affairs, where she persuaded the European Commission to adopt plain language principles for its publications.

She enjoyed mountain-walking, skating, reading detective stories and cooking meals for her friends.