Anyone attempting to pay tribute to Eddie Cass would be daunted by the challenge of covering the whole range of his work, activities and interests. A man who had successful careers in coal mining, banking and academia he was the ultimate polymath and, as the archetypal Manchester man, ever modest – more concerned with doing than in reciting what he had done. It was easy to have known him for years but not know, for instance, that he
was one of the UK’s experts on the history of playing cards.
Eddie was born in Longsight and, apart from a few years in Birmingham, lived in Manchester all his life. He grew up in wartime east Manchester, then its most industrial part, and went to the Central High School in what is now Sheena Simon College (where years later he served as governor). His first job was as a coal miner in Bradford Colliery, where he formed an attachment to the NUM (though not always its leadership); he became friends with Jim Allen, the future playwright – they would ‘adjourn’ shifts down the pit to discuss politics.
He left mining and turned to banking, a move which his father considered as giving up a ‘proper job’, and as a bank clerk for Williams Deacons and then the RBS he studied part time at Manchester College of Commerce, in the old Mechanics Institute, a building he got to know later in a different context. Manchester in the early 60s was duffle coats, the Kardomah Cafe, frothy coffee, jazz bands and folk clubs and in that milieu he met, courted and married Sheila – the rock and mainstay of his life – and they went on to raise three sons. A successful banker, he maintained a thirst for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity for a variety of subjects which sprang from the history of his home town. It encompassed industrial archaeology, architecture, canals, food and art history. Book collecting on a major scale turned him into a bibliophile and in later life he studied part time for an MA in the Manchester Studies Department of Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University).
Though bookish, he was no dry-as-dust scholar. Eddie was the most clubbable man. To walk in with him into a city-centre restaurant was to be the focus of a shower of greetings of
‘Hello Eddie’ – from all parts of the room. He had a wonderful gift for making friends and used his powerful intellectual and organisational skills to give something back to the Manchester cultural institutions, from which he and Sheila derived so much pleasure. These included Cornerhouse, John Rylands Library, the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, the ‘Lit and Phil’, the Portico Library, the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester University, the North West Labour History Society, and the Royal Exchange Theatre and many more, including the British Association for Friends of Museums, on which he represented the NW.
He served as Company Secretary of the National Museum of Labour History (the Pump House Museum), where he was a constant source of support. Joining a formidable board of trustees, including Jack Jones, Michael Foot, John Monks, and Graham Stringer, he rapidly gained respect and admiration for wise negotiation and for putting in place the solution of sometimes difficult problems.
Eddie took early retirement in the mid 90s and embarked on an academic career. In quick succession he finished a PhD on Lancashire Cotton Culture and curated a series of exhibitions on subjects ranging from North West Fiction to Elizabeth David, the food writer. His recent research focussed on Lancashire folk life; he lectured and published widely and broadcast on the radio. He wrote the definitive book on Lancashire Pace-Egg plays and was a research fellow on an Aberdeen University project which took him to the USA and Canada; he lectured and curated in Germany for his good friend, the late Detlef Hoffman. Eddie became active in the Folklore Society and the Society for Folk Life Studies and uniquely served as national president of both bodies. He was very recently honoured with the Coote Lake Medal of the Folk Life Society. Awarded for ‘outstanding research and scholarship’, he joins an illustrious list which includes Christina Hole, and Iona and Peter Opie.
Eddie’s priceless geniality and downright decency generated enormous love and loyalty from all those around him. We all mourn him and will all miss him immeasurably.
He is survived by his wife Sheila and sons Nick, Tim and Tony.
Nick Mansfield, Brian Rarity – September 2014