Story of the man who developed a world-famous music library

Ivan March played a key role in the development of the British recording industry. Historian KENNETH SHENTON takes a look back at the remarkable career of the founder of the Squires Gate Music Centre

Friday, 25th January 2019, 3:41 pm
Updated Friday, 25th January 2019, 3:48 pm
Ivan March
Ivan March

Pass by Squires Gate railway station, on the border of Blackpool and St Annes, and there remains little evidence of what was once a far more impressive station concourse. Now an unmanned halt on a single track, but prior to Dr Beeching, it was a particularly busy station.

Today all the old art deco style station buildings, built in the 1930s, have long since been demolished.

Surprising as it may seem, it was from those very buildings that local musician, Ivan March, established the Long Playing Record Library – soon to become known the world over. Later known as Squires Gate Music Centre and still operating locally, some 65 years later. Its founder, Ivan March, died late last November, aged 90.

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Whether as the founding editor of a long-running and authoritative worldwide guide to the best in recorded music, or owner of the largest commercial lending library for classical music in the British Isles, Ivan March played a particularly pivotal and vital role in the successful development of the British recording industry.

As such, his entrepreneurial outlook found him perfectly placed to become the pioneering populariser of the long-playing record. While revelling in such a role, his encounters with so many key figures in the industry brought him not only great respect both locally and nationally, but also countless lasting friendships.

Born in Portsmouth in April 1928, March was educated during the Second World War, at Colfe’s Grammar School in Greenwich, at that time evacuated to Tunbridge Wells. It was there he had a front row seat as the Battle of Britain took place in the skies overhead. Aged 13, he was taken to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

He went on to see the film 17 times – particularly fascinated by Leopold Stokowski’s treatment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. In the meantime, while working as a clerk in Woolwich Town Hall, he started his first business venture, buying and selling 78 rpm records.

However, he remained determined to become a performer.

Winning a scholarship to study the French Horn at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he later moved to the Royal Manchester College of Music. His National Service was spent as a member of the Central Band of the RAF.

His first professional engagement was as an orchestral musician on tour with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the company of Isadore Godfrey. He then spent 12 months as a member of the BBC Scottish Orchestra, under both Alexander Gibson and Ian Whyte.

Two extensive tours followed, but with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. While there he met and married one of the company’s leading ladies, Kathleen Forsyth.

When appearing together in the Potteries, the couple came across the North Staffs Record Library.

They were somewhat surprised to be allowed to borrow a dozen LPs at a modest charge and with no deposit. The records were provided with only the minimum of protection, yet were all in remarkably good condition. It set the pair thinking how they might be able to refine and develop this idea.

Thus in the autumn of 1954, from their home in St James Road in Liverpool, the couple launched The Long Playing Record Library. In return for a small fee, music lovers could borrow a number of recordings for weekly or fortnightly hire. They then had the option of returning the discs or buying them.

Moving to the Fylde coast, there the business was soon housed in the concourse buildings at Squires Gate Railway Station, formerly occupied by the newsagents, WH Smith.

Once the arrival point for thousands of holiday makers travelling to the nearby Pontins Holiday Camp, it soon became the departure point for thousands of LPS, CDs and cassettes, sent not only all over Great Britain, but worldwide.

Quickly becoming the market leader, the LPRL met the needs of thousands of individual music-lovers, record libraries, broadcasters and specialist enthusiasts.

When rebranded as Squires Gate Music Centre, it had branches in Manchester, London, Bristol and even, America.

The Long Playing Record Library first produced a selective catalogue in 1958, which they sold for three shillings. It was in effect a list of the best currently available LPs, the vast majority of its recommendations still in mono. Some 321 pages long, from this evolved their very first record guide.

With Kathleen as proof reader and March as editor, they were initially joined by Edward Greenfield and Dennis Stevens.

When Stevens departed for America, Robert Layton took his place. Easy to follow and noted for its high standard of accuracy and critical acumen, this annual guide, a bible of sound advice, became a trusted golden treasury, a modern Palgrave of the record world.

Such was its popularity year-on-year that in the 1970s, Penguin took over publishing responsibilities.

First appearing in 1975, the Penguin Stereo Record Guide, was by now was 1,100 pages long – covering 435 composers and 4500 recordings. It became an annual publication thereafter, together with an addition guide to bargain CDs in 1992 and 1998 and a further one devoted to cassettes.

The 1984 publication, compiled by the usual team, heralded the arrival of CDs and covered all three formats, LPs, cassettes and CDs. It was huge best seller. From 1989 onwards, the main guide appeared biannually, with DVDs making their debut as an appendix to the 2002 edition.

During the early 1960s, March and his wife played host to a number of ground breaking conferences on the recording industry.

Each event, held in Blackpool at the Norbreck Hydro, was able to attract such major figures as Donald Aldous, Stanley Kelly, Ralph West, Kenneth Alwyn, VC Clinton Baddeley, Tony Pollard and John Culshaw. In addition, March himself was much in demand – not only as a guest speaker at recorded music societies throughout the country, but as a valued adviser, operating throughout the local authority library sector. Such advice became the centre piece of a seminal volume, published in 1963, Gramophone Record Libraries: Their Organisation and Practice.

Able to write with ease and authority on subjects as diverse as the choral music of Heinrich Schutz or the piano quartets of Richard Strauss, over the years March would regularly contribute a wealth of finely written and knowledgeable critiques to a range of periodicals.

He remained one of the few critics who made recording the prime medium of their work. Joining the reviewing team of Cassettes and Cartridges in 1973, when that magazine ceased publication four years later, he joined The Gramophone.

There, initially compiling Cassette Commentary, this evolved into Collectors’ Corner, March focussing on reissues of older recordings that continued to fascinate.

While remaining with the magazine for more than 40 years, in 2000, as the station was being redeveloped, Squires Gate Music Centre moved premises, March handing over responsibility for the business to long serving colleagues Kathleen Singleton and Carole Riches.

This allowed him far more time to indulge his numerous other interests, particularly skiing. March also revelled in the time spent chewing over new ideas with musicians he had come to know and respect.

After all, for him, this sharing of experiences was what the job was all about. Particularly sensitive to mood, he was always quick to appreciate difficulties and even quicker to give practical help and support.