Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

My dad picked me up and carried me around to me aunt’s house because she had a cellar, and we went down the cellar. And as he was carrying me around, I could see all these beautiful lights in the sky. And I said to him, ‘Dad, dad, stop. I want to look at those pretty lights.’ And he said, ‘Another time.’  (Dorothy Norbury, b.1934)

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy L, b.1931)

The Sheffield Blitz – the worst air-raids over the city during World War Two – happened 77 years ago this week, between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th December 1940. The city was a target because of its many steelworks. It’s thought that, by the end, over 600 people had been killed, 500 seriously injured and 40,000 made homeless. About 80,000 buildings were damaged, mostly houses but also schools, shops and offices, and thousands were destroyed.

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Our readers born in the 1920s and 1930s remember the Blitz and the war well.

Mary Robertson (right) in childhood

Working life was disrupted. Mary Robertson’s father was an industrial chemist. He worked at Vickers ‘seven days a week’. ‘The day after the blitz,’ Mary (b.1923) said, ‘he walked all the way to Hillsborough and the place had been bombed. … And his laboratories were all a mass of broken glass.’ Hazel (b.1929) was due to start work in the sewing room at John Walsh’s, the grand department store on the High Street, but it was destroyed. ‘It caught fire from a shop next door and it just went right through the building.’ Florence Cowood (b.1923) had a narrow escape on her way to work.

I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work, or walk to work. I … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked. … And there was no one about at all. And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, ‘Where have you come from?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.’ But it didn’t blow me up.

The war affected people’s leisure time too. Margaret G (b. 1924) remembered almost being caught in a raid.

I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the Blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

And Florence’s sister was caught.

And after the Blitz, I was at home with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house. … In Woodseats.  And she couldn’t come home, because of the [bombing] …

Then there was the impact on children’s education. In the early days of the war, many schools were temporarily closed to enable shelters to be incorporated. Instead they  were taught in small groups in private homes. Peter Mason (b.1929) said:

‘… after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.’

Alma (b.1928) also recalled home schooling.

Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table. I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.

Several schools were destroyed in the raids. Doreen Gill (b.1934) was living near Attercliffe:

Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out. ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.

Doreen Gill

Ted L (b.1919) had vivid memories of what he calls the ‘great raid’:

Duchess Rd [School]. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war … it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home, was it draft leave? And we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything [inside] was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

Ted L

John D (b.1927) lost more than his school:

… then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

People waited out the raids in shelters and cellars, but unsurprisingly hated the experience. Eva G (b.1925) was living in the suburb of Pitsmoor.

… of course there were a lot of incendiaries dropped around there, you know, they lost a lot of houses, and we were in the cellar. We had one of those [Anderson shelters] in the garden, but when it was raining and wet it was horrible, so we used to go down the cellar!

Not everyone bothered with shelters. Florence said:

We didn’t worry about it. I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar. And I got so fed up with it. I thought, ‘Blow it.’ So I used to just stop in bed. … I slept through it, me. I could sleep through anything.

Florence on her wedding day

But for Alma and her family in Rotherham, the shelter was a blessing on one of the nights of the Sheffield Blitz:

… we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there. There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air! So we had got an auntie – it was Auntie Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter. It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright. Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and … my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something. So that was exciting.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

The Lord Mayor visits In Praise of Libraries

 

The Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Councillor Anne Murphy being greeted by Mary Grover,  founder of Reading Sheffield.

Chatting with historian Loveday Herridge, Reading Sheffield treasurer.

With Val Hewson, Reading Sheffield social media editor.

Visitors to the exhibition perusing the books. A selection of children’s annuals, novels and factual books, pamphlets and magazines published in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Listening to the Sheffield Readers voices.

 

 

 

Librarians’ Voices: Looking Backward

After the reminiscences of Victorian Iibrarian Herbert Waterson, here are the memories of a colleague known only as ‘1905’. The article* appears, alongside Waterson’s, in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine marking the opening of the new Central Library in 1934.   

In 1905, Sheffield’s Central Library was still in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street. Unlike in the early days, when it shared space with the Council and the Institute itself, the library now occupied the whole building. The Council had moved out to its splendid Town Hall in 1897. 1905 gives us a detailed description of the library arrangements.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Lending and Reference Libraries were on the ground floor, with an entrance in Surrey St. As Sheffield Libraries still used the ‘closed access’ system#, a long counter ran the length of the Lending Library with the issues ledger – the equivalent of today’s bar code readers – in the middle. On the left there was a bookcase where borrowers could inspect a few books, including ones on approval from W H Smith. The stock room was next to Lending on the same side of corridor.

This room was shelved to the ceiling, with metal stacks….

Reference was on the opposite side of the corridor, and was furnished with ‘long tables with comfortable chairs.’ There were books shelved in this room, but the public had no access. Beyond the libraries there was more book storage.

On the first floor was an office and, in the corner, the Chief Librarian’s room. There were separate Reading Rooms for men and women, reached from Tudor Street ‘up a long flight of stairs to the first floor’. The larger room – for men – had periodicals and magazines ‘tethered in alphabetical order on wooden benches … arranged in circular rows.’ Newspapers were placed on slopes in a large square. ‘Illumination was supplied by electric lamps augmented by large gas brackets fixed on the walls.

The Ladies’ Room was on the right of the entrance to the main room, and was much pleasanter. Small square tables with comfortable seats were provided, and the number of readers who used the room was perhaps astonishing.

(Query – why was this astonishing?)

On the top floor was the book-binding department and the caretaker’s flat, which had been moved up from the basement.

The carrying of volumes of books, newspapers and patents [up to book-binding] … was heavy manual labour, but the view obtained from the windows was generally considered adequate recompense…

The basement was used for storage and the ‘staff mess room’. This sounds woefully inadequate:

‘a large table by the kitchen fireplace with a small cupboard in which to keep crockery. … The washing arrangements … were very crude, two small hand basins being fixed under [a] flight of wooden steps.

1905 doesn’t mention facilities for children, but this is hardly surprising. Although some library authorities, such as Manchester, Cardiff and Nottingham, had services before 1900, children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development. There were some children’s books in Sheffield’s 1850s library, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but no-one under 14 years could join. According to The City Libraries of Sheffield, there was some progress towards the end of the 19th century, but it sounds rather dispiriting:

…some rather timid efforts were also made to cater for a school population … At first children were only allowed to come with their teachers. Later, tickets were given out in school and signed by the teachers, and could be used individually, but only the most fervent readers persisted long in their attendance, as there was very little stock suitable for the average child.

It would be 1924 before Sheffield opened its first separate children’s library, based on the very latest thinking, in the branch at Walkley.

To staff sitting in their room in the new Central Library in 1934, idly reading 1905’s article, things must have looked very different. The Daily Independent of 6 July 1934 reports:

As Sheffield was a pioneer among Yorkshire towns to provide a public library, it is not surprising that the New Central Library and Graves Art Gallery should once more give a lead to the county and, in many features, to the whole of England.

The new Library, which is certainly an up-to-date wonder treasure-house of knowledge, contains many features that are not to be found in any other library in the country…

Sheffield Central Library, opened in 1934, not long after the establishment of SINTO

 

* Looking Backward, by ‘1905’ (Wicket, 4 (2), 12-13, 1934). Quoted in An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

# In a closed access system, borrowers choose from a catalogue and library staff retrieve the books from stock.

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part II)

…considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time. (Herbert Waterson, Upperthorpe Librarian from 1882 to 1928, speaking in 1934 about Upperthorpe and Highfield)

In Part I, we told the story of Sheffield’s first branch library, opened in 1869 at the Tabernacle Chapel, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe. It prospered and by 1874 Sheffield Council decided to move the library into its own building, and to open a new branch at Highfield, across the city.

The Sheffield Independent thought that the Upperthorpe and Highfield buildings would be ‘a great ornament to the town, and a welcome addition to the few structures in Sheffield possessing anything like architectural excellence.’ The architect was Edward Mitchell Gibbs, of the prestigious firm, Flockton and Gibbs, who also designed Firth Court, St John’s Ranmoor and the Mappin Art Galley.[1] The Upperthorpe Library was to be built on the site of an old tan yard opposite the Upperthorpe Hotel and was expected to cost £4,670. In the end, it cost around £6,000 – perhaps £500,000 today – but that figure may include fitting it out and the book stock. The Council borrowed the money and was so keen to repay it that the fund for buying books was kept low for the next two years.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Alderman William Fisher JP, who chaired the Council’s library committee, laid the foundation stones at Upperthorpe and Highfield on 28 November 1874. He used a ceremonial trowel designed by Gibbs and presented to him as a ‘beautiful tribute of indebtedness and of the esteem in which he was held’. This is now on display in the Upperthorpe building, on the reception desk. Before the stone was laid, a bottle ‘containing a document, which set forth that the building was erected by the Town Council, as a ‘branch free library’ was placed beneath it. One of Sheffield’s MPs, Anthony Mundella, then wound up the ceremony by saying that:

Twenty years hence there would be a new Sheffield – a population almost all of whom would be educated, and more or less delighting in the enjoyments and pursuits which education afforded.

After this, the party left for Highfield, where a similar ceremony took place (although Alderman Fisher was moved to remember that he had done his courting in Highfield).

Highfield Branch Library

The new Upperthorpe Library opened on 8 May 1876 and Highfield on 1 August 1876. Today they are often described as ‘twin libraries’ but it’s a fraternal rather than identical relationship. The Pevsner architectural guide for Sheffield notes ‘plain brick with Florentine windows and an elaborate doorcase; [with] figures of a workman with an axe and a factory girl reading…’ The figures, by J W Cooper, are meant to show how much people can learn from the public library. ‘Passing through this handsome and somewhat imposing entrance,’ wrote the Independent of 6 May 1876,

the lobby, which is 19 feet by 15 feet, is reached. Running around the walls is a frame which contains a catalogue of the books in the library. … Immediately opposite the entrance is the door leading to the lending department –  a spacious room 48 feet by 30 feet. Of this 24 feet by 10 feet is set apart to the public, in which to wait until the books they require can be handed to them. In this space is fitted up an ingeniously devised indicator, by which the librarian can tell at a glance what books are out or in, and even how long they have been out. This indicator is the invention of a member of the Free Library Committee at Dundee, but certain improvements have been introduced by Mr Hurst, the chief librarian here … The number of books now in the library is 8,573; the indicator is sufficiently large to work a library of 12,000 volumes.

This tells us how the library worked, using the ‘closed access’ system.[2] Until the 1920s, borrowers chose titles from a catalogue, and then asked the librarian to bring the books from shelves behind the counter. The librarian would check the indicator, a big wooden frame with a slot and token for each book, to see if it was available. The indicator was state of the art technology in 1876, invented in 1875 and known as a Kennedy indicator. If the book was in, the book assistant – they started at age 13 or 14 – went to find it on the shelves. These were often ceiling-high and climbing ladders to get them could be dangerous. In the Central Library, one assistant, Mr French, climbed up, over-reached, fell and was seriously injured. The Council then thought to put hooks on the tops of ladders and stops on the ends of the shelves.

Libraries usually had reading rooms in the 19th century, one for ladies and one ‘general’ (i.e. for men). The sexes were routinely kept separate.

Adjoining the lending department is a ladies’ reading and news room, 30 feet by 22 feet, leading out of which are a lavatory and other conveniences. The general reading and news room is on the upper floor, and is approached by a staircase immediately opposite the counter in the lending department, so that any one passing either in or out can be seen by the librarian … This room is 70 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 27 feet high. It has an open timber roof and handsome oriel window, and is a room unequalled in the town for its comfortable and effective appearance. Both the ladies’ and men’s reading rooms will be well supplied with magazines and periodicals.

All the rooms had white brick walls, with ‘a few red bricks in bands and borders … to save the expense of painting and papering, as the walls can always be washed clean.’

The Upperthorpe librarian’s house, with separate entrance

Linked to the library by an office was a substantial house for the librarian, with its own entrance on Daniel Hill. That a house was provided demonstrates the Council’s aspiration (as do the quality of the building and the up-to-date indicator). It was described in the Independent (4 October 1869) as having: ‘sitting room with bay window, kitchen, scullery, pantry, bathroom, bedrooms, and attics’. At Highfield in the 1920s, when the library was open until late evening, the librarian used to creep from his house, in his slippers, to see what his staff were up to. This was perhaps a wise move as the staff sometimes used to kick a ball around behind the indicator.

It is noticeable that there was no service for children, although there probably were some children’s books in stock. Children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development, and Sheffield’s first separate library for children opened in Walkley in 1924.

After 140 years, the library at Upperthorpe still serves the community. In 1895 public baths were added to the building, making it an early example of the ‘community hubs’ around today. In the 20th century, there was a move to close Upperthorpe, as people moved to new estates, but it remained busy and so stayed open. Today the building – much altered on the inside and, like Highfield, Grade II-listed – is home to the Zest Centre, and a focus for community activity and regeneration. The library is now an associate library run by Zest. As Alderman Fisher said in 1869,

it would not be simply a building for the present generation, but for future generations, the building, in fact, would be all they could wish.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

 

[1] Now the Weston Park Museum.

[2] Today most libraries use the ‘open access’ system, with the books on open shelves for borrowers to inspect.

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part I)

The previous post told the early story of Herbert Waterson who became librarian at Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. Here is the story of how Upperthorpe got its library.

‘…more of an experiment than anything else…’ (Sheffield Independent, 4 October 1869)

Sheffield was a pioneer of the public library movement, and as the home of its first branch library, the residential suburb of Upperthorpe had a part in that achievement.

Free public libraries were among the great social reforms of the mid-19th century. They would, it was thought, enable the lower classes to educate themselves. The Public Libraries Act 1850 allowed councils to spend a halfpenny[1] from every pound collected from ratepayers on a free library or museum. Sheffield’s first public library opened on 1 February 1856. It was located in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street, more or less where the Central Library is today. (The Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, who lived in Upperthorpe, was one of the founders of the Institute.) By the end of the decade, there were about 8,000 books and 12,000 adult borrowers (no-one under the age of 14 was allowed to join).

The library continued to grow, with almost 30,000 books and 27,000 members by 1869. It seemed the time to extend the service. The Council agreed to a branch library in Upperthorpe. On 4 October 1869, there was a grand opening by the chairman of the library committee, Alderman William Fisher JP, accompanied by other councillors. Reporting on the event, the Sheffield Independent speculated that the first branch was:

…more of an experiment than anything else … as upon the success which attends the operations of the library in that part of the town will very much, if not entirely, depend whether similar libraries will be opened in other parts of Sheffield.

The library was to have two staff: the librarian, William Bramhall, and a ‘boy assistant’, J Bunn. Opening hours were every morning from 10 am to 2 pm in the afternoon, and from 4 pm to 9 pm at night. It was located in the Tabernacle Congregational Chapel, on Albert Terrace Road, which has since been demolished. The Independent described it:

… the [schoolroom], which is used only on Sundays, has been converted into an admirable reading-room, and is well supplied with nearly 30 periodicals and magazines. One of the tables is set apart entirely for the use of young women. The room for the storing of books, and in which they are given out and returned, has been erected by the trustees of the chapel, and is capitally suited for the purpose in every respect. The number of books at present in the library is 3,603.

With so many councillors present, the opening ceremony seems to have turned into a lengthy discussion (there were no fewer than 12 speakers) about the purpose of libraries. Alderman Fisher talked of the benefits of reading non-fiction, noting:

…how the political knowledge and the patriotism of the readers had been enlarged, and how much better citizens they had been made by studying the records of the history of this and other countries.

He appears to have been rather broad-minded, thinking that novels, which were often frowned upon, had their uses:

…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … many hours of weariness, pain, and anxiety had had their sting taken out of them by the interest which a good novel excited. At all events, when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon.

Alderman Saunders thought that novels were a good way to attract young people:

If they gave them one of Carlyle’s works, or a book upon mathematics or astronomy, they would fail in giving them a taste for reading. They should induce them to come to the library by allowing them to have works of an attractive character, and then by-and-bye [sic] they would take to works of a more sterling character. It was therefore important and desirable that works of fiction should find a place upon the shelves of such a library as the one they were about to open.

Councillors Fairburn and Hutchinson were conscious of the original rationale for libraries. Fairburn thought:

there was no better way of spending ratepayers’ money than by giving facilities to the working classes to improve their minds and thus enable them to become better citizens.

Hutchinson said that one objection he had to libraries was that:

the books were not sufficiently made use of by the working classes. Sometimes they could not get the books they required, and … before the upper classes were supplied with books from a free library, the authorities ought to see that the working classes were provided with them.

There certainly seemed to be enthusiasm for the new library. On its first day, 221 people registered and 144 books borrowed.

In 1873, a new librarian took over at Upperthorpe.  Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a commercial traveller but free libraries fascinated him. He worked at Upperthorpe between 1873 and 1875. In 1886 he published the first manual of library administration, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in, and it must have influenced him.

We know that about 2,000 borrowers registered at Upperthorpe, and the Council evidently decided that the experiment was a success. The Council opened a second branch in 1872, in a purpose-built building in Brightside.[2] Then, in 1874, two more libraries were agreed – a new branch in Highfield and a permanent home for Upperthorpe.

Read the next post to learn about the new library in Upperthorpe.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

[1]   A halfpenny is about a quarter of one penny today, but it could buy much more than 1p today.

[2] The library’s name was later changed to Burngreave. It was on Gower Street. The library has long since moved out and the building is now a mosque.

Librarians’ Voices – When We Were Very Young

I turned a page and found an article by Herbert Waterson, published in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine.[1] He was writing in 1934, perhaps to mark the opening of the new Central Library. What was exciting was that he started work in 1869. Here were the reminiscences of a Victorian librarian.  

Herbert Waterson on holiday in Llandudno (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

Herbert Waterson started as a junior assistant on 27 December 1869, when he would have been about 11 years old. He followed his two older brothers into the job, he says, and already knew the library well from sitting in the reading room, devouring books like R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857) and The Dog Crusoe (1860). Perhaps his brothers let him in, as no-one under the age of 14 could join the library, although there were some children’s books in the catalogue. Or perhaps children were allowed in the reading rooms.

 

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Sheffield’s public library had opened in 1856, in the Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street, on the site of today’s Central Library. According to Waterson, the library occupied the ground floor and basement and shared premises with the Institute itself and the Council. The Council Chamber and various offices were located in the Institute. The chief librarian’s office ‘doubled as the Mayor’s Parlour’, and the caretaker and his family shared the basement with the library.

The library had few staff, we learn. There was the first chief librarian, Mr Parsonson, with Mr Hurst and Mr French and three boys. (According to the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield (1956), Walter Parsonson, a former silverplater’s apprentice, was in charge from 1856 to his death in 1873, when Thomas Hurst took over.) At Upperthorpe, a couple of miles away, there was Mr Bramhall and ‘one boy assistant, J Bunn’, looking after the only branch library. This had opened in October 1869, in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Albert Terrace Road. The building is no longer there, but here is a photograph.

The City Libraries of Sheffield says that the staff worked hard.

They were at first on duty every day during the whole twelve and a half hours that the library was open. … every effort was made by the Committee to see that each [person] in turn got a chance to go off duty at 8.00 pm instead of 9.30; and in 1859 they were each allowed half-day off a week – a good custom which continued for ten years before the Council knew about it, and, apparently, promptly stopped it. (pp.14-5)

Waterson describes the lending library, with its two counters, for lending and reference. The ‘closed access’ system was used, with the public choosing from catalogues and staff retrieving the books. There were separate reading rooms for men and women and, in time, a reference library room. The basement staff room was also the store for bound newspapers and Patents, which sounds uncomfortable.

One of Herbert Waterson’s duties was to locate books requested by borrowers. They were stacked up to the ceilings, in rooms behind the counters, and it was, it appears, hazardous work.

Owing to the system of storing the books on shelves to the ceilings of each room, we Juniors became adept at ladder-climbing…This system of ladder-climbing was somewhat dangerous as was proved by a severe accident to one of the staff, Mr French, who fell by over-reaching and was seriously injured; afterwards a grill was fixed to the shelves and hooks were attached to the end of the ladders.

The closed access system continued until the 1920s, but presumably the measures adopted after the accident made it a little safer for the intrepid boy assistants.

In August 1875, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Sheffield, to open Firth Park, given to the town by the then Mayor, Mark Firth. Waterson remembers that the library was closed for the visit, and that a formal lunch was served in the men’s reading room.

Opening of Firth Park in 1875 (public domain)

In the mid-1870s, Waterson says, a new librarian came to Upperthorpe. Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a library enthusiast. In 1886, he published the first manual of library management, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. ‘He did not ‘leave any identifiable mark,’ says the official history, but Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in so ‘it seems certain that Sheffield left some mark on him.’

Meanwhile the network of libraries was slowly developing. In 1872 a branch opened on Brunswick Road in Brightside.[2] In 1876 Upperthorpe got a whole building in place of two rented rooms in a church, and Highfield on the other side of town got a branch too. These two were known as the ‘twin libraries’, designed by E M Gibbs,in the Florentine Renaissance style, and each had a librarian’s house attached. Waterson says:

Those branches were considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Highfield Branch Library

He also reveals that Sheffield’s first female library worker started at Highfield:

The first lady assistant was a Miss Barker. She was engaged at Highfield Library in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and was very satisfactory, although the old system of ladders was in use at the time; afterwards other lady assistants were not so satisfactory.

In 1876, when he was 19, Herbert Waterson became head assistant to the chief librarian, Thomas Hurst, and his memoir stops. But we know more. The Sheffield Independent tells us that he became branch librarian of Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. He would have lived comfortably in the librarian’s house attached to the library. He was 70 years old by the time he retired and had worked in Sheffield Libraries for almost 59 years. Has anyone ever broken his record? (We suspect not.)

Herbert in Sheffield High Street (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

The librarian’s house at Upperthorpe

[1] When We Were Very Young (Waterson, H), The Wicket, 4 (2), 9-11 (1934). Appended to An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

[2]  The name was later changed to Burngreave Library. The building is now the Al-Rahman Mosque)