Penfriends through the Public Library? (Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 16 August, 1939)

In August 1939, two young American women, Meredith Hall and Dorothy Pawlicki, of Holland, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, sent a letter to Sheffield Libraries. They wanted to find English penfriends:

To whom it may concern

We are two young ladies, married, and interested in England, and would like to correspond with someone likewise interested in our US.

Would it be asking too much to have you give the addresses below to two other persons, preferably ladies ranging in ages 25 to 40.

The City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, passed the letter on to the Sheffield Star and, never one to miss an opportunity for publicity for the library service, got an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.

Sadly, we have not been able to find out why Dorothy and Meredith chose Sheffield or if they ever made friends locally. There don’t seem to be any further newspaper articles. Perhaps the outbreak of World War II in Europe, just three weeks later, put paid to any correspondence. But perhaps not. It would be good to think that transatlantic friendships were made, particularly in wartime.

Following Dorothy’s and Meredith’s enterprising example, we contacted the Holland-Springfield Journal. Thanks to the Journal and the local historical society, we have been able to find out a little about the two women.

Buildings Dorothy and Meredith would have known.: the Hotel Secor (top) and the Ohio Bank Building (above), Toledo, Ohio (both public domain).

Dorothy was born Dorothy Stirn on 24 November 1910 in Paulding, Ohio and died 27 March 1979 in Toledo. She married Alfred F Pawlicki in 1930 and they had two children, Janet (b. 1931) and Jerry (b. 1939). In later life she worked as a secretary at a law firm. Meredith was born on 27 March 1907 in Swanton, Ohio and died in Florida on 30 November 1993. She was married three times, including to Canadian Myrven Hall and had one son, Charles Wyant (b. 1924). She worked most of her life as a telephone operator for the Riverside Hospital in Toledo.

Columbus Drive, Holland, Ohio today (public domain)

Not perhaps a very successful piece of research, but it does illustrate the unusual requests sometimes made of public libraries.

‘The most important tool of industry’ (J P Lamb, Yorkshire Post – Monday 26 September 1932)

Libraries are under threat today. Councils say there is not enough money. People claim that, with Google, Kindle and the like, there is simply no longer a need for buildings filled with paper or the librarians who look after it. Sometimes the lack of funds and the redundancy of print are combined, justifying cutbacks or closure in an unconvincingly circular argument. Meanwhile, defenders[i] (they are many and we at Reading Sheffield are of their number) point out that libraries are safe, social spaces. They secure and organise knowledge efficiently, impartially and to accepted standards. The information they hold is available to all, in support of democracy and free speech. Librarians are expert guides who help us find what we need. (This is not to dismiss the internet, which is powerful but altogether less discriminating.)

Librarians have always had to promote their services to potential users. At its annual conference in September 1932, the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux[ii] discussed how to encourage businesses to use libraries. According to a report in the Yorkshire Post on 26 September, Bertie Headicar, the librarian of the London School of Economics, commented on the need to win business trust. There was the ‘difficulty of the library user who dare not tell the librarian what books he wants’ for fear of appearing ignorant or giving away secrets. ‘No true librarian,’ asserted Headicar, ‘was capable of [such betrayal].’ (You can hear the ‘harrumph’.)

The City Librarian of Sheffield, Joseph Lamb, said:

The ordinary man completely fails to grasp the fact that in these days, when national economic survival is largely a question of applied and organised intelligence, the book has become the most important tool of industry. … The public library can provide material and an organisation which will help industry in the unceasing fight to maintain its position, and further developments are possible. But we are faced with the problem of convincing commerce and industry of the library’s ability to do these things.

Lamb lamented that only rarely did industrialists use scientific and merchants, commercial libraries.

In the year 1932, a great firm in my city was not aware that British patents specifications were stocked at the library, though they had been there for fifty years.

Headicar and Lamb agreed about the contribution made by the thoughtful, professional librarian. ‘Nothing mechanical could take the place of the human element…and the personal contact with the librarian,’ said Headicar. (Today’s librarians, mindful of the search engine, might substitute ‘technological’ for ‘mechanical’.) Lamb thought that public librarians could be better at selecting reference library stock. Many, he said, still thought ‘in terms of pure literature.’ He went on, in typically trenchant tones:

They brought to their task of keeping up to date a modern scientific library the outlook of the cloister and shrank from the ruthless modernity of weeding. The staggering pace of research, the extraordinary development of the application of chemical processes to industry, left them a little bewildered.

The Yorkshire Post article notes that there had been meetings with businessmen in Yorkshire, to tell them what libraries could do for them, but these had been poorly attended. ‘Our Yorkshire business men must be assured of value for money.’ (It was ever thus.)

Back home in Sheffield, Lamb did not give up the fight to convince businesses of the value for money of the library service. He must in fact have been planning his next move as he spoke at the conference. Sheffield’s ‘economic survival’ depended almost exclusively on steel and other metals. Lamb’s innovative Scheme for the Interchange of Technical Publications, introduced in 1933, was a partnership between his library and local industry for collecting and exchanging technical and commercial information. SINTO (the Sheffield Interchange Organisation), as it later became known, lasted into the 21st century. Lamb also oversaw the establishment of the World Metals Index (WMI), a comprehensive listing of grade names, trade names, series numbers and abbreviations of metals, which survives to this day. Finally, in 1955, he wrote Commercial and Technical Libraries, a handbook published by the Library Association.

Here is an example, from librarian Alysoun Bagguley’s memories, of SINTO helping local industry.

In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge.

What lessons are we to take from this story? Libraries have knowledge in depth, curated by experts. They gather their holdings over time (weeding as they go, as Lamb advised) and without bias. They change and develop, according to the needs of their borrowers. They are, not stuffy mausoleums, but living institutions. They lived in the days of Lamb and Headicar, and they do now.

 

[i] Ironically, of course, many of us use the internet to promote our views.

[ii] Founded in 1924 and now known as ASLIB, the Association for Information Management.

On the BBC: ‘The more we read the more we live.’

The more we read the more we live. The better our reading is the better our living is sure to be. Food, clothing and shelter are requisites of life, but reading is necessary for complete living.

This sentiment – authoritative, clear and aspirational – is at the heart of a talk given on the BBC’s first Sheffield station, 6FL, on Thursday 27 January 1927.[i] The speaker was the city librarian, Richard J Gordon (1881-1966), and the broadcast was for a series entitled ‘How Sheffield’s City Departments Work’. As a whole, this sounds worthy, even dull, but Gordon, who had, a colleague said[ii], ‘an innate flair for saying and doing the right thing at the right time,’ is fascinating for what he tells us about the ambition felt for public libraries by the people who ran them in the early twentieth century.

Sheffield was lucky to have Richard Gordon. A ‘dynamic person who believed so passionately in the civilising mission of public libraries’, he ‘added lustre to his profession,’ say his obituaries.[iii] His lifetime contribution was recognised when he was chosen as President of the Library Association in 1947.

The converted music hall on Surrey St, which served as half of the central library in Gordon’s day. It was inconvenient and unsafe.

Gordon arrived in Sheffield in 1921, when the public libraries were stagnating (a strong word but the one used in the official history[iv]). Sheffield had made a good start: in 1856 it was the first city in Yorkshire to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act allowing corporations to establish free libraries. For the next half century, things went quite well, with central lending and reference libraries and  branches opening. But then the service declined, to the extent that in 1920 the Council shamefacedly asked the chief librarian of Leeds to assess the problems and recruited, from 60 applicants, the chief librarian of Rochdale, Richard Gordon, to rebuild the service. The challenge is set out in City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956:

… the bookstocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind … What little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding… The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally… The staff … had been actively discouraged from attempting to qualify in their profession …

A letter to the Sheffield Independent in April 1920 said that the libraries were a ‘disgrace to a city of such importance’ and blamed the ‘Council’s absurd policy of parsimony’.

By 1927, when he spoke on the radio, Gordon was revolutionising the libraries. New books were bought and old, worn-out ones removed. The staff were re-organised and new systems designed. Open access shelving was introduced.[v] Information and publicity campaigns were initiated. The central libraries were reformed, five branch libraries attractively renovated, a children’s branch library opened, the school library service expanded and plans laid for a much-needed, new central library building.

Walkley library – where Gordon opened a  children’s library in 1924, which was used by many of our readers.

Highfield Branch Library, renovated and re-opened in 1923.

These achievements are evident in Gordon’s radio talk: ‘Much has been done to make the libraries worthy of their name, but much more remains to be done.’ More importantly, Gordon used the opportunity to make the case for reading and for public libraries. (Although our situation today is very different, his arguments still have merit). Libraries were, he said, ‘community schools where all may increase and supplement their education’, although their contribution to the ‘national educational structure is but, as yet, dimly recognised.’ An experienced local authority man, Gordon pointed out that the libraries were good value (11d – £4.70 today – per head, less than in other northern cities), offering ‘[information] freely placed at the service of the public; competent counsel in the choice of books; [and] where to look for the required information…’ He aimed, he said, to ‘attract and cultivate readers’, including children, and to anticipate and supply people’s needs:

If we have not the book wanted don’t hesitate to say so. If you do not tell us what you want, we are only able to guess at your requirements …

He went on:

Please do not mistake my meaning regarding this, I mean requirements of books of real value, and not merely of recreational interest.

‘Books of real value’ is an important phrase for Gordon and other librarians of the day. Free libraries were part of the great social reforms of the mid-19th century, founded with a view to the improvement, the self-improvement, of the working classes. Reading for pleasure and reading fiction (particularly the cheaper sort) were frowned upon. By the 1920s, librarians had mellowed somewhat, but the focus on education remained, along with the feeling that ratepayers’ money must be spent on the worthwhile, rather than the entertaining. So Gordon said:

[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should happen to be the work of a novelist of admitted quality. In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

And:

Too often the public library is only thought and spoken of in connection with the reading of novels, and without detracting in the slightest degree from the value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading, yet I would emphasise the contribution it offers to the raising of the standard of general intelligence which is the library’s greatest value to the city.

Gordon concluded: ‘I believe the libraries have something for everybody … I hope many more will … find pleasure and profit in [them].’ The broadcast was clearly part of a communications strategy, aiming to draw Sheffielders in. There were also updates in the local press and trade papers, public lectures, reading lists, exhibitions and slogans such as ‘The Library exists for Books, Information, and Service’. But it seems likely that Gordon was also talking to his employers, the Council. He emphasised the benefits of the library service, including as a means of profiting local industry, and he talked confidently of growth: ‘…when our library service expands, as it must expand…’ A library, he said, is ‘books made productive’.

1927 was to be Gordon’s last year in Sheffield. Shortly after the broadcast, he started a new job as chief librarian in Leeds. There were press suggestions that Sheffield had itself to blame, as the salary offered was well below that of other northern cities. He stayed in Leeds for the rest of his career, and was much praised for its libraries. In Sheffield, he was succeeded by his equally energetic and insightful deputy, Joseph Lamb, whose work is explored elsewhere on this website.

Gordon presided over an increase in borrowing in Sheffield from 711,000 books in 1921 to over 1.5 million in 1926.  His friend Lamb wrote of him: ‘when he was in charge libraries became marvellously alive’.[vi]

 

[i] The script can be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

[ii] Obituary by J P Lamb, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.418.

[iii] Obituaries by E Hargreaves and A E Burbridge respectively, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.420.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield, 1856-1956 (Sheffield, Libraries Galleries and Museums Committee, 1956).

[v] Open access, i.e. shelving accessible to the public, is almost universal today. In the early twentieth century, closed access, where books are chosen from catalogues and brought to borrowers by staff, was the norm.

[vi] From (ii) above.

The Twopenny Library: ‘A home without books is like a room without windows!’

Where did you go in Sheffield in the 1930s if you wanted an entertaining read? An Agatha Christie? Perhaps The Murder at the Vicarage with its unlikely detective, Miss Marple, or the more glamorous Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe one of Zane Grey’s Westerns? Wasn’t that one of his films at the Abbeydale Picture House?

With this in mind, you might well have headed to the ‘Novel’ Library. ‘A home without books is like a room without windows! May the ‘Novel’ Library let the sunlight into your house?’ and ‘A Book a day keeps the blues away’, said its adverts. It was one of the ‘twopenny libraries’, a commercial venture common in the 1930s. They specialised in popular fiction and got their name from the cost, 2d (about £1 today), of borrowing a book. The Sheffield branch was on the corner of the High Street and George Street. This was a good location, next to the prestigious Walsh’s department store, although on one occasion in September 1935 it led to trouble, when the library was invaded by cattle. (Yes, cattle. You can read about it here.)

The Corner of George St and High St, Sheffield – the site of the ‘Novel’ Library in the 1930s

Sheffield’s ‘Novel’ Library, one of around 25 branches across England, opened in 1934, supported by a campaign in local papers. The first advert appeared in the Daily Independent on the opening day, Saturday 10 February. ‘Something new in book lending’ was promised, with a flat fee of 2d per book per week and no deposit or subscription. Another ad appeared the next week, saying that 5,000 readers had joined on the first day[i] and announcing special opening hours – 8.30 am to 11 pm – to cope with the demand.

Later that week, the new library was mentioned in the Daily Independent’s ‘Mrs Vulcan’s shopping diary’, along with sale bargains such as ‘charming reading lamp shades in silk and parchment’ for only 3s 11½d (about £20 now) at Walsh’s. ‘Opening shortly. What is most needed in Sheffield,’ said another article, explaining that these words on a poster in the empty shop window had attracted much attention. There were already 8,000 books in stock, it went on, and the plan was for 15,000: ‘thrillers, love stories, biographies, serious works and every type of fiction’. The authors named were chosen no doubt for broad appeal: J B Priestley, Edgar Wallace, Ruby M Ayres and Warwick Deeping. All were well-known in the 1930s: Yorkshireman Priestley had local appeal and literary merit; thriller writer Wallace was one of the most popular authors in the world; Deeping’s novels dealt with serious themes like alcoholism; Ruby M Ayres was a prolific romantic novelist. None was highbrow or avant-garde.

The ‘Novel’ Library was set up by George Berthold ‘Bertie’ Samuelson (1889 – 1947). He had been a successful film director and producer, but ceased production for a time after being sued by an actor. According to his biographer, Gabriel A Sivan, Bertie Samuelson then ‘set up a number of “tuppence a week” lending libraries that ensured him a reasonable income for the next few years’.[ii]

The ‘Novel’ Library was not Sheffield’s only private library. There was a branch of Boot’s Booklovers’ Library and the local Red Circle Library had branches across the city. Reader Judith G remembers her mum using the Red Circle’s Moor branch in the late 1940s, borrowing books ‘written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing’.[iii] There were also smaller ventures, like Abbett’s Library run by Sir Norman Adsetts’ father alongside his sweetshop shop in Derbyshire Lane. W H Smith supplied his stock.

It was in this library, surrounded by delectably long runs of Nat Gould, Zane Grey and Ethel Boileau (a favourite of his mother’s), that the four year old Norman learned to read and to acquire his life-long passion for reading of every kind.

The economics of the twopenny library are interesting, as Reading Sheffield explored here. They cost the keen reader in depressed 1930s Britain much less than, say, the Boots libraries, which charged an annual subscription or a deposit and a borrowing fee.[iv] But why didn’t more people make use of the free public library? (Bertie Samuelson cheekily asked in one advert: ‘Why borrow a book at the free library for nothing when you can come to the ‘Novel’ Library and pay 2d?’) Sheffield, after all, had a new Central Library which opened the same year as the ‘Novel’ Library. In fact, more and more people were using it – the annual issue rose from 365,000 in 1925-26 to 3,640,000 in 1932-33. But for some it was perhaps too intimidating. Judith G remembered her mother:

‘ … for some reason she decided to join the [public] library, the big library in town … Because my mother was quite timid and I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.’

There were other factors in the popularity of twopenny libraries. They were apparently places where people socialised.[v] They dealt in ‘the kind of popular fiction insufficiently improving to pass muster on the shelves of the municipal libraries’. Graham Watson said (rather sniffily) in an article in The Spectator in 1935:

When the twopenny library first came on the scene it made an instantaneous appeal to an entirely new reading public – a public which was largely unable to afford either to buy books or to subscribe to the circulating libraries. It was a public which was largely State-educated, which had only just ‘discovered’ books, a public which wanted popular, very popular, fiction.

Public libraries had been founded, in 1850, to improve the working classes. Non-fiction, ‘books of information’ and great literature were their prescription. In 1927, Sheffield’s chief librarian, Richard J Gordon, said in a BBC talk: ‘[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should be the work of a novelist of admitted quality.’ By the early 1930s, the then City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, was experimenting in branch libraries. What people wanted, said Lamb, was ‘a book, preferably an attractive one’, which they generally chose ‘at random’. He deduced that ‘the provision of quantities of popular fiction [would attract] non-readers.’ He bought and promoted multiple copies of books by Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Ethel M Dell, Rafael Sabatini and others. He was right: issues increased by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000. (Compare this with the ‘Novel’ Library’s claim of 5,000 readers in a single day.)

The Novel Library chain folded in 1936. Bertie Samuelson was bankrupted by the enterprise early that year. He said in court that only two branches had failed and that the trouble had come when he had sold the business in good faith to someone who then defaulted, leaving him with liabilities of over £5,000 (about £248,000 now). In his best year, he said, the libraries made him £1,400 (about £70,000 now). The court suggested he had been unwise. The assets were sold and the bankruptcy discharged in November 1936.

Apart from the surviving 18th and 19th century subscription libraries (such as Newcastle’s Lit and Phil), private circulating libraries had died out by the 1960s. Today, as public libraries endure cuts and closures, perhaps the twopenny library will yet return in some form.

 

 

[i] This figure is not convincing when you learn that the same claim was made for the Leeds and Bradford branches in the Yorkshire Evening Post in November 1933; and that the ‘Novel’ Library claimed to have registered over 9,000 readers in a five week period in Eastbourne.

[ii] Gabriel A Sivan, George Berthold Samuelson (1889–1947): Britain’s Jewish film pioneer, Jewish Historical Studies, volume 44, 2012.

[iii] We would love to know more about the Red Circle libraries. Please leave a comment below if you have any information.

[iv] According to an advert from November 1933, the Hastings ‘Novel’ Library offered, ‘in response to countless requests, a season ticket for 10/6 (about £5) which allowed the holder to change books ‘as often as desired’.

[v] Robert James discusses this in Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930-39: A Round of Cheap Diversions? (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010).

Library ‘Books’ That Talk (Sheffield Daily Independent, Saturday 14 August, 1937)

In August 1937, a reporter on Sheffield’s Daily Independent asked the city’s blind residents about the books they were reading. Enquiring at the Council’s Workshops for the Blind on Sharrow Lane, the reporter wrote that they liked ‘thrillers and Western novels’ and, in particular, books by Agatha Christie, Zane Grey and Edgar Wallace. The article continued:

Just recently they have ‘read’ two of George Bernard Shaw’s books, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’.

‘The Black Tulip,’ by Dumas, ‘I Was a Spy’ from which the film was made[i], ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and ‘Revolt in the Desert’ written by the late Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) are only a few of the books they have ‘read’ and greatly enjoyed.

At the moment they are reading one of Zane Grey’s novels, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage.

Notice how the reporter used quotation marks around the word ‘read’ in the first sentence of the extract. That’s because the books being read by the blind people were talking books:

A novel library book service is at present in operation in Sheffield – the books being ‘talking’ ones consisting of from 10 to 15 single-sided gramophone records …

Talking books and the technology behind them were recent innovations in the 1930s, a time when there were, according to the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, around 68,000 registered blind people in England and Wales. The idea had come from a First World War soldier, Captain Ian Fraser (1897-1974). He was blinded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and learned Braille at St Dunstan’s, the charity set up in 1915 to support visually-impaired ex-servicemen. Fraser, who went on to serve as St Dunstan’s chairman for over 50 years, realised that recording books would enable people to read books through listening. It took St Dunstan’s years of experimentation, in partnership with the then National Institute for the Blind, but by 1935 talking books were becoming available.

Mat-weaving at St Dunstan’s (public domain, Project Gutenberg e-book Through St. Dunstan’s to Light, by James H. Rawlinson, circa 1919)

The Daily Independent article was perhaps prompted by a gift of £35,000 that month from the founder of Morris Motors, Lord Nuffield (1877-1963), to help develop talking books. Nuffield was a celebrated philanthropist, who gave money to a wide variety of causes. The donation was widely reported around the country, including in the Sheffield Daily Independent on Wednesday 11 August. The follow-up feature at the Sharrow Lane Workshops seems to have been an imaginative move by the newspaper, to provide some local colour.

As the Daily Independent noted, the first talking books were ‘records … of the 12 inch size’, would ‘revolve for 25 minutes’ and contained ‘about six times as much material as the ordinary record’. They required special equipment to play them at reduced speed:

A special machine has to be used, for a gramophone whose speed is about 78 revolutions a minute would render a ‘book’ unintelligible …

In other words, the talking books were among the first LPs, or long-playing records. There was one of the special machines at the Sharrow Lane Workshops:

Most of the records at the workshop in Sheffield are played during the dinner hour and the machine is operated and records changed by the listeners themselves – the titles and numbers being printed on the records in Braille.

Some blind people in Sheffield had their own special gramophones (the RNIB says there were about 1,000 machines across the country by this time) and there was an arrangement for the books to be shared around, to enable as many people as possible to enjoy them.

The first talking books were: Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Gospel According to St. John. As the Daily Independent article shows, plenty of books by popular and well-known authors were recorded and made available, although there were suggestions of censorship, with authors thought ‘unsuitable’ not being recorded.

In recent years, talking books, developed to help people with a disability, have become audiobooks, and are listened to by millions, sighted and visually impaired..

 

If you would like to know more about talking books, visit Matt Rubery’s blog, Audiobook History.

[i] I Was a Spy (1932) was written by Marthe Cnockaert, a Belgian who spied for the United Kingdom in World War One. This was filmed in 1933, with Madeleine Carroll.

Biggles – but for girls!

“We have come here to make a landing ground for British aeroplanes,” replied Worrals. …

Louis stared. He clicked his tongue. “Nom de Dieu. This is a mission dangereux. Why do the English send women on such work?”[i]

In the middle of the 20th century, there were schools for boys and schools for girls and, where schools were mixed, there were often boys’ entrances and girls’ entrances. There were toys for boys (guns, Meccano sets, model railways) and toys for girls (dolls and all their impedimenta). There were games for boys (Cowboys and Indians) and games for girls (‘let’s play house’). And there were books for boys and books for girls and even sometimes, to avoid confusion, separate shelving in libraries, with girls and boys admitted on alternate days.  .

A small survey of children’s reading, carried out by the public library in Sheffield in 1937-38, reported that girls read more than boys. They liked school, fairy and ‘domestic’ tales, while boys chose air travel, adventure, school and the sea. In non-fiction, boys read about machinery and engineering, science and ‘things to do’, while girls were ‘naturally less interested’ in these and enjoyed poetry and plays.[ii]

But there were exceptions to the gendered norms of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, just as now, when books are less obviously for boys or girls, but there is an awful lot of girly pink everywhere.

Worrals knew it would be a hazardous business to try to get out of the cave without a guide. (Picture by Stead)

One such exception in the world of books was Worrals, Flight Officer Joan Worralson or Worrals of the WAAF. Worrals was the creation of Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), author of the popular books about air ace and adventurer James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles. Johns was a pilot in World War One and was shot down and imprisoned in 1918. By the 1930s, he was an aviation correspondent for newspapers and writing books too, including the first Biggles story in 1932[iii]. It is hard now, when air travel is routine, to appreciate just how aviation held public attention then, with technological advances, international air races and pioneers like Charles Lindbergh. The Sheffield Library survey cited above reports that books about flying were easily the most popular with boys.

Peter:  Oh, I could read those again.  I could enjoy them again because in it a person can sort of lose himself and you can become Biggles for say half an hour and it’s great to read these stories.  But at the same time I used to like to read about the air aces of the First World War, the real ones, and I was always sorry when I came to when they were killed because invariably they were, but I used to think they’ve had a damn good life, they’ve enjoyed it, what they were doing, and that’s it and I do find that’s, shall we say? an example to the rest of us and, y’know, I don’t know, I suppose reading is my way of escape.

What about girls then?

‘…I remember I read all the Biggles books,’ said Erica.

In the early days of World War Two, to aid recruitment, the Air Ministry asked Captain Johns to write about women in the services (even if service life would never be as exciting as he would make it seem). Worrals duly appeared in 1940, wearing a flying suit and aged about 18, in a serial in the Girl’s Own Paper. As the Daily Mail said, there was ”Worrals” – a woman of wit, courage and resource – a worthy ‘sister’ to “Biggles”.

The first fifty yards was so bad that in her heart Worrals became convinced that it would take hours to get to the bottom. (Picture by Stead)

Worrals appeared in 11 books and three short stories between 1941 and 1950. In wartime, she effortlessly shot down enemy aircraft, routed and unmasked German spies, outwitted the Gestapo, escaped from countless traps and near-death incidents, carried out daring missions in France, Syria, Australia and various Pacific islands and rescued French Resistance fighters and British soldiers. After the war, her adventures continued. She rescued people from certain death, thwarted opal thieves in Australia and tracked down war criminals and gun runners.

‘… the older ones loved Biggles and Worrals …’ said Margaret, who worked in Sheffield’s school library service.

Like Biggles, Worrals had allies. There was her friend, Frecks, who was brave but not quite as resourceful as Worrals; Spitfire pilot Bill Ashton, who was sweet on Worrals but was firmly rejected as there was after all a war to be won;[iv] and superiors like Squadron Leader McNavish, who deplored her actions but respected her abilities. But there was never any doubt who was in charge. In Worrals of the WAAF it was her decision to chase and shoot down an enemy fighter.[v] Worrals on the War-Path showed her typically taking the initiative – she had the idea for a secret landing-strip in France and she argued successfully for the opportunity to establish it. In Worrals Goes Afoot (1949) she set up a fake drug deal to make contact with gun-runners.

How unusual was Worrals? From the mid-19th century onwards, unconventional girls like Jo March started to appear in fiction, although they were outnumbered by their obedient sisters. Later there were all those plucky schoolgirls rescuing each other, foiling jewel thieves and so on in books and comics. Books like the Sue Barton series, which started in 1936, described girls training for careers, albeit ones associated with women, like nursing and teaching. When they grew up, of course, many of these unconventional girls settled for matrimony and motherhood. Worrals, who never did settle, was not unique but she was extraordinary.

‘Mademoiselle is aware that the bulls are dangerous – ?’ (Picture by Stead)

This was a time when women’s lives were changing rapidly. They had taken on men’s roles in war (and been encouraged to return home in peacetime). Movements like the Guides gave girls new opportunities, although not the same ones afforded to Scouts. More women were going to university. More were getting the right to vote. All these developments might have had some unconscious influence on Captain Johns.

More important in the writing of Worrals were two pioneering women fliers. Amy Johnson (1903-41), the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, was an icon in 1930s Britain. Pauline Gower (1910-47) established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary, where Johnson was serving when she crashed to her death in 1941. Johns knew both of them. Worrals’ adventures are more ripping yarn than realistic but her skill, courage and determination were grounded in reality.

Amy Johnson (public domain)

Pauline Gower (Women’s Engineering Society Archives. Creative Commons licence)

The greatest influence, however, was fictional: Biggles. Worrals was Biggles. Both were daring pilots, good shots, natural leaders. Both were uninterested in romance or family. Both were patriotic, clear-headed, decisive, even ruthless. Both were responsible for deaths, but felt little remorse. Captain Johns seemed to see no reason for changing his winning formula just because he was now dealing with the female sex (although it is interesting that he kept writing about Biggles until his death but gave up on Worrals 20 years before).

‘… I’ve not said Biggles, and Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, because I was reading those books as well. Those ‘Captain Johns’ and you know, the others, I would’ve sought out them in the central library,’ said Shirley.

Captain Johns’ prose can be purple (‘Deep night lay across the fair land of France, night as black as the soul of its Nazi conqueror.’[vi]), his plots formulaic and his characterisation superficial. There is little subtlety or depth in his writing. To the 21st century reader (both Biggles and Worrals are still in print), his attitudes can seem dated and occasionally offensive. Sheffield reader James Green reflects now:

… Well, Biggles, I think. … It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … ‘Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it. … through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very Gung Ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’

But Johns was successful because of his thrilling plots, vivid characters and ability to spin a yarn. Boys and girls in wartime, seeking excitement or reassurance or distraction, were caught up by the adventures of Biggles and Worrals. For boys, this was the norm but it must have been a relatively new experience for the girls. ‘The boys had the best of it with their air ace “Biggles” until “Worrals of the WAAF” came along,’ says the slogan on Worrals Flies Again (1942).

[i] Worrals on the Warpath (1943).

[ii] A J Jenkinson’s survey, What Do Boys and Girls Read? (Methuen, 1940), involving almost 3,000 children, reported similar results.

[iii] The first Biggles novel is The Camels are Coming. There are about 100 books in total.

[iv] In a 2007 graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, it is implied that Worrals and Frecks are more than friends.

[v] There were no women fighter pilots in the British or American armed forces until the 1990s. Russian women flew fighter planes in World War Two.

[vi] Worrals on the War-Path (1943).

Sue’s reading journey

Here is another reading journey from one of the Reading Sheffield team, Sue Roe. 

Reading has been important to me from my earliest memories (I only remember from the age of about eight or nine). I was always a bookworm, always with my nose in a book, though these were almost invariably library books. I don’t remember many books in the house but my dad was interested in reading and used to buy second-hand ones from the ‘Rag & Tag’ open-air market in town and keep them in a small bookcase. I have distinct memories of a book on the Phoenicians – I can’t recall much about the content – just the glossy pages and the pictures. Aesop’s Fables is another one I remember: a yellow hardback with thick pages and rough edges.

One of my first memories of reading is sitting on a stool behind the door in a neighbour’s kitchen, reading comics like Beano and Dandy.  The neighbours had a wholesale newsagent’s in West Bar and didn’t mind me taking advantage of their spare copies.

Park Library

I progressed to Park Library on Duke Street: I used to nip over the waste ground beyond the ‘rec’ at the end of Boundary Road, Wybourn. This brought me out just above the library (where I also learned to swim: Park Baths was on the same site).

What did I read then?

One favourite when I was young was Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson, with its memorable cover.

It was a fairy story with clearly identifiable ‘goodies and baddies’. I have read it again as an adult and still enjoyed it.

I read the Nancy Drew mysteries, as well as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and her lesser-known Five Find-Outers stories with Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville – as the leader. Fatty was a ventriloquist and master of disguise! Detective novels are still one of my favourite genres – a way to relax. I love a good detective story!

I also had an unlikely fondness for boarding school novels such as the Malory Towers series. I was attracted by the fun and excitement of this other world, though those who have actually been to boarding school are quick to disabuse me.

Anne of Green Gables was a favourite of mine, along with another, less well-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, set in the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana.

I identified with both books, and especially the latter – its heroine, Elnora, was an awkward outsider, poor and finding it hard to fit in. That’s how I felt, especially when I changed schools at the age of ten, when we moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road. I was from a family of eight girls and we were not well-off! This feeling was even more pronounced when I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school.

When we moved, I also changed libraries. I now caught the bus to Highfields – a wonderful library with the children’s section upstairs. How I longed to be flicking through the tickets, stamping the books and filling the shelves. What with homework and reading for pleasure, my mum would often have to shout me downstairs to help with housework.

Highfield Branch Library

I read to escape into another world, a different, more exciting world. I read books set in the nineteenth century, in America: What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, What Katy Did At School and, obviously, Little Women.

Little Women, the story of four sisters, appealed to me, the fifth of eight girls. Jo was always my favourite – she was a tomboy like Katy, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t accept Laurie’s proposal or why she married the Professor!

I enjoyed stories from nineteenth century Britain too: I read and probably cried over Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Books as prizes

When I moved house at the age of ten, my new friend, Janet, was a Methodist. Every Sunday I went for tea at her house and then to church for the evening service. I also went to Sunday School and took the Scripture exam. To me, learning Bible stories for the exam was just like history, one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember getting 92 per cent and a prize: Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter.

At grammar school, the prizes given to top pupils for end-of-year exams were books chosen by pupils. I managed a prize twice, in Year 2 when I asked for the Bible and in the sixth form when I chose T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. My tastes had clearly evolved.

Set books

At grammar school, books were read as part of the English syllabus. I have clear memories of Dotheboys Hall, an abridgement of Nicholas Nickleby, which introduced the unforgettable character of Squeers. I cheered along with the boys when he got his thrashing.

Another book we read in class was one set in the South Seas. I had to research on the internet to re-discover this one. It was A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, set in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I wanted to be a missionary for a while after reading it!

The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis, was another set text but I can’t remember much of the plot. I do recall the drawings, by Edward Ardizzone, whom I encountered again when looking for picture books for my children.

Teenage books

As I got older, I did read some of the classics, often choosing to read several titles by authors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Far From the Madding Crowd and A Christmas Carol stick in my mind.

I enjoyed different genres, though I would not have used that word. There was science fiction: I particularly remember John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic world where any type of mutant is killed or banished and telepathy is common. The front cover shows a key moment when a child steps in wet sand and leaves an imprint of a six-toed foot – a clear indication of a mutant!

My father was a big fan of Rider Haggard and would often mention King Solomon’s Mines, both as the book and a film. The 1936 version had Paul Robeson as Umbopa, and Robeson was one of my father’s singing heroes. Unsurprisingly, I read that book, as well as others by Haggard, including She and Allan Quatermain.

I didn’t really discuss my reading with my close friends. An exception was the Molesworth books. I still find them funny and can recall the memorable lines we used to quote to one another: ‘As any fule kno’ (a phrase which regularly pops up in some newspapers), ‘Hello clouds, hello sky’ and of course, with reference to the Head Boy, Grabber Ma, ‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. Strange that three girls could enjoy tales of Nigel Molesworth, the ‘curse of St Custard’s’, a boys’ boarding school, but some things are universal: the boredom of (some) lessons, the bullying, the fear of teachers!

I was, and am still, a lover of history, so I did enjoy historical novels. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels with their period detail especially appealed to me. Anya Seton’s novels were also historical fiction and Katharine was my favourite. The intricacies of royal family trees which emerge in this novel were to appear again when I taught A level History, especially the Wars of the Roses.

Looking back, I can see how crucial public libraries were for me: not just somewhere to do school work, to revise for exams but a doorway to explore other worlds, past and present. This passion has never left me and informed my choice of degree and career. Even after 38 years of history teaching, I still love a good historical novel!

 

By Sue Roe

A walk through Park with Jean

Jean Mercer was born in Sheffield in 1925 and has lived in the city all her life. In 1950 she married local boy Malcolm who became a teacher. 

Above Sheffield Station lies an area called Park. Beyond it spreads the Manor Estate, built in the 1930s on the fields surrounding the Queen’s Tower, where the Earl of Shrewsbury guarded Mary Queen of Scots during her period of imprisonment in Sheffield. On the deer park of the castle was built in 1957 the austere Park Hill flats dominating the ridge above Sheffield station and ‘hailed universally in the technical press as a visually as well as socially satisfactory conception’ according to Nicholas Pevsner. As an architectural historian with a taste for modernist brutality, Pevsner admired the Council’s vision of a village in the air, but sadly, as he predicted, Park Hill soon became a slum.

Park Hill and Sheffield Station today

The partly-renovated Park Hill Flats today. Park Library is behind the flats, up the road on the left. (Creative Commons licence)

Jean and Malcolm Mercer have lived in this area all their lives. They grew up in the streets bulldozed to construct Park Hill. Then, after the Second World War they married and moved to the Manor Estate, then a thriving community when the working classes it housed were actually in work. When we interviewed them, they had moved off the estate and were living in a house in one of the Victorian terraces which are a remnant of the old Park district.

Since 1903, all the communities around Park have been served by a glorious complex of buildings which used to house public baths, a laundry, a swimming pool and a library, all heated by the furnace whose red brick chimney still rises against the hill behind it. The library has survived all this time, rather against the odds: in the 1930s it was almost closed because of its proximity to the splendid new Central Library; and now it is run, not by the Council, but by community volunteers.

Park Library now

Park Library then

Jean Mercer has been a member of Park Library since she was two years old. She remembers the delights on offer when she visited the library with her class from school.

When I was a girl they had story-time. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epanimondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epanimondas was lovely. [Miss Heywood] she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

Though Jean passed the scholarship exam she was not able to take up a grammar school place. But there is no trace of bitterness or any sense of loss in the way she describes her secondary school education.

At Standhouse School and Prince Edward as well, I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

Like many pupils from elementary schools, Jean treasures the poetry she learned by heart. Elementary schools seemed to set much more value on reading and reciting poetry than grammar schools. Elocution lessons were also part of Jean’s school experience.

Jean can’t remember a school library. Instead the children were marched down to Park Library and encouraged to use it regularly.

Park Library – all that it is left of the spiral stairs which used to lead to the first floor children’s library

Her parents also encouraged her reading. They were chapel-goers. Jean’s father’s health had been damaged in the First World War so he was found a job in the fruit market by his uncle. Though this was a physically Iess strenuous than a job in a steel mill, it did mean a very early start. So he would get home from work early and spend the early evening reading. She can remember him reading westerns by Zane Grey and then The Man in the Iron Mask.

As for her mother,

she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

The passion for reading that Jean shared with her parents prepared her for a life-time of supporting Malcolm while he wrote books of his own. Jean would field the phone calls and the children while Malcolm prepared his lessons, researched and wrote his histories of Sheffield schools. Like her mother, Jean took delight in the margins, always finding time to explore new novels and read to her own children.

Jean never bought the novels she read because Park Library was so handy.

And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask they’re still very helpful.

 

‘Thmile, thmile, thmile!’ Sheffield’s Gloops Club

By Sue Roe

The GLOOPS CLUB was mentioned by several of our interviewees – Florence Cowood, Mary S and Doreen Gill – and they had fond memories of it.

Gloops was a cartoon character created by an employee of the Sheffield Star in 1928. The Gloops Club was launched in 1929, when the Sheffield Star started a children’s section to the Saturday supplement and continued until war broke out in 1939. The Club was run by children’s columnist ‘Aunty Edith’, and allowed members aged up to 14. Lists of members with their names and addresses were published regularly in the newspaper with an update on numbers.

There was also a membership card outlining the rules of the Gloops Club. Every junior Glooper was given a number and a badge (see above. Doreen Gill remembered ‘a little teddy, fat teddy’, while Mary S thought of a ‘cartoon cat’). In return they had to perform at least one act of kindness every day. We can see from the rules the values the club was promoting: friendship, equality, compassion. Members also had to donate money from their savings or pocket money to help children less fortunate than themselves. Gloops members could earn medals for: heroism, scholastic and athletic success, school records, acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. For example a Silver Disc was awarded to children who attended school or Sunday School for three years with no absence, and a Silver Star for life-saving acts or acts of bravery

The Gloops Club was hugely successful. By 1939, it had 365,000* children as members and by 1957 it had raised more than £25,000 for charity. In 1928, a Gloops Holiday Home was opened in Skegness, which could accommodate 60 sick children each week, and there is evidence of another home opening in 1931 in Mablethorpe. In addition, the Club funded 12 hospital beds in the Sheffield area. Members sent chocolates, toys and comics to children in hospital.

A Gloops holiday home

There were other Gloops clubs in other newspapers, including the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside (the mother of website editor Val Hewson was a member in 1930s Newcastle). The Gloops character was revived after the Second World War and continued into the 1950s and possibly even the 1960s. In 1972, in another revival, and in a new costume created by the Crucible Theatre, Gloops switched on the Sheffield’s Christmas lights. In 1984, Gloops Superstar did everything from skydiving to escaping from a mock fire. Gloops then toured Sheffield in a vintage Star van to entertain children at summer parties and fetes.

In the 1980s, The Star asked readers to share their memories. Patricia Ellis said:

Gloops has very special memories for me. As a little girl I spent many happy hours touring round with the Gloops concert party. The climax of the concerts was the Gloopers’ Motto, which I still sing today if I’m feeling downhearted:

Smile, Smile, that’s the Gloopers’ motto

Always happy, always gay

Always smiling all the day

Never be downhearted

It isn’t worth your while

So be like Gloops and smile, smile, smile.

The Star reported that ‘smile’ was pronounced ‘thmile’, until Sheffield Council suggested changing it because children were copying the incorrect pronunciation.

 

* This figure must be a national one. The total population of Sheffield at this time was between 560,000 and 570,000. At any rate, 365,000 children is an enormous number.

Gillian Applegate’s Reading Journey

Gillian Applegate was born on 27 October 1941, in Frecheville which was then in Derbyshire but is now part of Sheffield. Gillian worked first in banking but later became a college librarian. She married in 1964, and her husband, Norman, died suddenly, at the relatively young age of 63. Gillian has one daughter, Jane, and a grandson.     

 

For Gillian, books have brought not only passing pleasure but also lasting fulfilment and content.

When Gillian retrained as a librarian, she qualified with distinctions and merits and her husband Norman said: ‘Oh, I knew you’d pass. It’s as if you were rehearsing all your life.’ He meant of course that books had always been part of Gillian’s life. Her parents encouraged her from the first as they wanted their daughters ‘to read and be educated’.

I remember at school – I don’t know whether they do it now – but on a Friday afternoon, always the teachers read you a story – Milly Molly Mandy, Worzel Gummidge – and I absolutely adored it and I think that from when I could read, I’ve always had a book in my hand.

I got into libraries later in life. I worked at Castle College as a cashier … and I … was offered a job in the library which I adored.  I’d found where I belonged, I think.

The time came when Gillian was very grateful for books. Gillian’s husband, who ‘had rheumatic fever as a child [and] was left with a murmur in his heart’, died suddenly and left her grieving. But books, says the interviewer, ‘seem to have opened the door to social activities.’ They came to the rescue, both socially and for comfort.

I’ve always had books and sort of read at home but not a lot. But I think it really came back when I was widowed ten years ago. He’d gone out walking, my husband, and had a massive heart attack. At least I didn’t see him ill, but it was such a shock and devastating.

When I was older, when I was widowed, a friend invited me to go to a book club. My sister … said “I think you should, because you always had a book in your hand.” And it saved me really, in bereavement.

If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d got a book on the go, rather than get upset, just switch the light on and read the book.

‘Everybody was so kind,’ Gillian says, ‘and asked me to go to things and I went to everything.’ This included two book clubs: Sundays at Waterstone’s Sheffield bookshop and Wednesdays at the City Library. One of the first books Gillian read this way was Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring:

[It] was a bit tedious and everything but then a lady said, ‘There’s a film and they’re having it at the Anvil [a Sheffield cinema]’ and about six or seven of us went to the film and it sort of got me into circulation again after I’d been bereaved because this little nucleus started going to exhibitions. We read a book about the plague, I’d never been there and we went to Eyam,* and it sort of started life beginning again, shall we say.

In time, Gillian found a new partner (‘I’m certainly lucky to have met my partner. … And we do have fun together, laugh a lot’) and so resigned from these book groups. But she found herself starting and running another group:

… for three years I’ve been running the book club for the Oddfellows. … We meet at Crucible Corner: it was buzzing with the snooker and we’re again using the libraries: we borrow them at the libraries, so it can only be ten members because they only lend you ten books.

Oddfellows is a national social and support group. Gillian joined through a friend.

[Oddfellows] evolved from the guilds when everybody bound together and helped each other. They helped if you were ill and everything like that. … So when we meet it is really to help people meet people, meet together and have holidays. … They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We help each other and do different things.

The Oddfellows book club was Gillian’s own idea:

… I just thought ‘They haven’t got a book club’ because we had walks, different things, and I said to the secretary, ‘Can I start a book club?’ and he said, ‘By all means, it’s in the diary’. It was quite slow at first and then people, it wasn’t what they wanted and they dropped out. It’s all women, unfortunately. We’ve had men but it’s all women. We’ve got a lovely nucleus of nice ladies and we meet there and he supports us very much.

The members choose books in turn, ‘so we’ve all sorts’. At the time of her interview, Gillian had just got from the library copies of Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love (2009), a modern romance, but the group has also read: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (‘that was hard going and a lot of violence. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite book’); and Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth (‘we’d actually read that before it came on television.’)

The book group also has occasional outings, linked to the books being read, and entertained visiting authors:

… we’ve had Bryony Doran who wrote The China Bird (2011), and she came and that was lovely.  And one our members is Marjorie Dunn. Again, my love, she writes historical novels, so she’s come and visited us.

The book club helps Gillian indulge her lifelong love of history. She mentions enjoying Hilary Mantel, Helen Dunmore, Catherine Bailey and, in her youth, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Mitchell. ‘I’ve always had a love of history. Even now, if we’re in quizzes, I’m pretty on the ball if they ask historic questions.’ Her teachers hoped that she would study it at university, but her mother, ‘a very strong woman’, put a stop to this:

Silly now, but she said girls don’t need an education. You’ll get married – which you’re not forced to, are you? – you know, or you could get married and lose your husband in various ways, or never get married but at the time I think she actually got me my first job, in the bank, because she was a legal cashier and paid in and asked if they’d got any vacancies. So I went to what was the National Provincial Bank and became the National Westminster Bank near the Cathedral.

We were all so busy, we were young. It was actually a good time, although it wasn’t the job of my dreams I did enjoy it.

When the interviewer wonders ‘if reading comes into people’s lives very often when there aren’t other things to grab them’, Gillian agrees:

Yes, I think so, but now I shan’t let it go, now I’m back to it.

 

* Eyam is a small village in Derbyshire, not far from Sheffield. In 1665 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague and the villagers quarantined themselves to prevent the disease spreading. They were shut away for 14 months and only 83 residents survived, out of about 350.  The book Gillian read may have been Year of Wonders (2011), by Geraldine Brooks.