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.

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.

 

Margaret G’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born on 12 June 1924, and grew up in Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. Her mother stayed at home after she married and her father was ‘a clerk at the Town Hall [where] he did all the salaries for the teachers’. Margaret left school at the age of 15 and worked in Sheffield, including for the local transport company. Later she trained as a nurse. She married in 1953 and had two children. She remains a keen reader, and still enjoys books she had in her younger days. 

‘No, I can’t.’ Margaret is quite indignant when she is asked if she can remember learning to read, as if perhaps reading has always been there.

I can remember my parents read to me every night and my father used to draw us pictures of the stories and, er, we were always well supplied with books. … Some were presents and some they bought.

Margaret’s parents were readers, she thinks, with her mother particularly enjoying ‘what she called a nice murder’. Margaret and her younger sister both belonged to the Walkley branch library, built at the turn of the 20th century with funds from the Carnegie foundation and with its own children’s room. When they were ‘able to cross the road’, they went to the library alone and ‘read the Chalet School stories and things like that, Angela Brazil’, like so many girls of their generation.

Walkley Library

Reading was perhaps seen by Margaret’s parents as a safe, suitable activity for their daughters:

I s’pose we were still reading … 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.

It was around this time, Margaret thinks, that she was reading popular authors like Warwick Deeping, J B Priestley and ‘a lot of Elizabeth Goudge’.

I love her books – I’ve just been reading them all again … and er the libraries have managed to get some … I’ve got one or two myself and I got Green Dolphin Country and it’s so long I didn’t remember much and it all came back fresh. … I liked even the children’s books she wrote.

I think I read Herb of Grace. I think I read some of those early on. I know I used to go around the second hand bookshops when we were away [on holiday], especially if it was a wet day. I picked one or two books up there.

But Margaret never read ‘improving books’ or classics.

I never read Dickens or Shakespeare and that’s something I’ve never wanted to read. I suppose because I didn’t do it at school.

The war brought change. When her call-up papers came, Margaret trained as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Sheffield. While she enjoyed it, it left little time for anything else:

… when I was nursing there was no time – only for nursing books. … You had to go for your lectures in your free time for that day.

After she married in 1953, life was still busy but perhaps there was more time to read.

… my husband would probably sit in one place and I’d be in another and we might talk all evening … you know … Once we’d got the children to bed and I mean we’d only two and I used to knit and sew as well.

There were family trips to the library, the branch at Broomhill:

Yes, we all went together. My husband never read anything non-fiction. Yes, he was a physicist, so he was really more into … he did read autobiographies, perhaps, but not many.

He didn’t like novels?

Oh no, no novels!

Broomhill Library

These days Margaret says she reads ‘mostly when I go to bed, and in the morning. Make my cup of tea in the morning and I read in bed. … But I try and save my library books for bed.’  She enjoys today’s authors like M C Beaton, Jack Sheffield and Ken Follett.  ‘… the library are very good – if I ask them if they’ve got it in, they’ll send it me.’

But she also goes back regularly to the popular authors of earlier days:

A J Cronin: Shannon’s Way this is. Yes, this is the one, it says ‘To Margaret, Happy Christmas from Gladys and Dick’. Also you see, there’s a ‘1950’ in there and there’s ‘a pound’ on it. … I’ve just read this again and quite enjoyed it.

Mary Stewart: Oh, I like her.  I’m reading all those again at the moment. … Yes, I’ve got quite a few of hers there.

Patricia Wentworth: … an older one, isn’t she?  She wrote mysteries, yes. … well, I’m reading a lot of hers again with … not Miss Silver … yes, it is Miss Silver, and it’s Miss Marple. They’re quite funny really. They’re so old fashioned! They’re quite funny, quite simple stories.

And Elizabeth Goudge: … that’s what Elizabeth Goudge wrote about, families. And a lot of people would say it was fantasy but it makes good reading, and I’m finding now I’m reading properly, I’m not skipping anything. I probably did that in my younger days. I wanted to get on to see what the ending was, but I’m finding now that I’m reading more or less every word. … That is fantasy really, because it’s about a town, a small town, and everything circulates around the cathedral and the Dean and various things, and I suppose a lot of it is. But some of them write so descriptive you can feel you’re there. And that’s what I’ve found lately.

 

 

* The ‘Sheffield Blitz’ is the name given to the worst nights of German Luftwaffe bombing in Sheffield during the Second World War.  It took place over the nights of 12 December and 15 December 1940.  Margaret remembers it well:

And er I remember the night of the blitz I went to work the next day.  I walked all the way. Course when you saw the mess, I just walked all the way back because there was nowhere to go to work.  I remember that.

Sheffield’s eighteenth century library

By Loveday Herridge

As a teenager, the oldest of the Reading Sheffield interviewees, Ted L, borrowed books from the newly built ‘beautiful and spacious’ Central Library in Sheffield in the 1930s.  The books there were housed very differently from their shelving in the filthy, cramped conditions of the Central Library’s predecessor, but the public book collection itself retained strong links with the past.  For this collection had absorbed the local books of Sheffield’s Literary and Philosophical Society in 1932, when that important cultural organisation was wound up.  And in turn, the Lit and Phil’s collection had been augmented in 1908 by a merger with the Sheffield Library.

The lending library in Sheffield's new Central Library in 1932

The lending library in Sheffield’s new Central Library in 1932

Sheffield's cramped and dirty lending library until 1934

Sheffield’s cramped and dirty lending library until 1934

This institution had been founded way back in 1771 when some of the members of the most influential families of Sheffield set it up.  Its catalogues suggest that, while books were certainly lost, the collection simply grew ever larger over time, with books first purchased in the 1770s remaining available for borrowing.  In my imagination, then, in 1934 Ted L borrows a book from the pristine Central Library which was actually purchased in 1771!

The Sheffield Library was a library financed through the subscriptions and annual fees of its members (who needed to be quite affluent to afford them), and open only to them.  Sheffield’s subscription library was one of England’s earliest such institutions.  It was conceived ‘on the plan of one formed a short time before at Leeds’.  This Leeds library had been founded in 1768 by the rational dissenter and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley.  Priestley had visited Sheffield where he had been an unsuccessful candidate in 1758 for a post as minister at Sheffield’s important dissenting Upper Chapel, and was a friend of the man appointed at the Chapel in his place – John Dickinson.  Dickinson, apparently following his friend’s lead in promoting libraries as a way of improving minds, was a founder member and Sheffield’s Library President in its first year (1771), and in three subsequent years.

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rules for the Sheffield Library are to be found in the 1791 catalogue.  They indicate  that the Library was run very democratically:

  • annual meetings of members chose the committee of five members and a President
  • this committee, which organised the buying and selling of books, met monthly, and any other member could attend and vote, with two thirds of the members determining the choice of books
  • a librarian, who kept the catalogue and issued books, was chosen at the annual meeting.

Therefore the route by which books entered the Library suggests that the catalogue reflects quite closely the reading tastes and aspirations of its membership – just as the catalogue of the city libraries does now.

Did our Reading Sheffield interviewees pick books from the Central Library shelves that had first been purchased in the late eighteenth century by the members of the Sheffield Library, who were from influential merchant, manufacturing and professional families?

Imagining this scenario, I asked a twenty-first century Sheffield librarian whether she thought it was possible.  The answer was that twentieth-century standards of cleanliness would of course have consigned those ancient books to the dustbin.  But while the books themselves could not provide a physical link between those cultured men and women who set up the 1771 library and Reading Sheffield’s bookworm twentieth-century readers, what does connect them is surely the thread of curiosity and personal pleasure in books.

Harry Brearley’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

As a Christmas treat, we would like to introduce the reading journey of one of Sheffield’s most illustrious steel pioneers, Harry Brearley, who invented the process of manufacturing stainless steel.  As we contemplate the possibility of the destruction of central library provision in this city, this is a story to reflect on.  Brearley did not become one of the world’s pioneers by accident.  He was able to satisfy his curiosity and his appetite to acquire skills because he was mentored by a man who lent him books.  He came from a background which made the acquisition of formal qualifications and the purchase of books an impossibility.  However this mentor and a library gave the boy the confidence to use whatever opportunities came his way.

brearley

Harry Brearley was born in 1871 and died in 1948.  He was too frail to attend more than a few years of school, broken up by ill-health.  His father, a steel worker, was uninterested in teaching him the practical skills that would have helped him make his way in any metal working industry.  Yet throughout his childhood Harry read.

I have no idea of how I learned to read.  My father and mother and elder brothers were readers of novelettes and blood and thunder stories.  But there were no books at home, absolutely none.  There was a ballad in a paper cover stitched at the back with worsted.  It was called ‘The Story of an Unravelled Stocking’.  I knew this story before I could read.  I knew a few other stories learned from my elder brothers and sisters who had probably learned them, from my mother, when they were children. I was the eighth child and my mother was too throng to tell stories by the time I was born.

When he was eleven Harry entered the world of work.  He ricocheted from job to job, always outspoken but always observant, until he found himself, at the age of twelve, working in the Laboratory of Norfolk Works.  He came under the supervision of James Taylor, a metallurgist who recognised the boy’s intelligence and fostered it.  Harry was in awe of Taylor’s skills as a metallurgist and would do anything that he was told to do.

Taylor seemed to be a magician.  During the second week Taylor asked me what I read and I said the ‘Boys of England’, the ‘Boys Comic Journal’ and ‘Jack Harkaway’. He appeared not to have heard of any of these papers and I noticed no smile of recognition or approval when I produced copies for his inspection.  He offered me a copy of Roscoe’s Chemistry which I honestly tried to read but with a total absence of either pleasure or understanding.

Despite his apparent lack of connection with Roscoe’s Chemistry, Harry was lent numerous books by Taylor, such as The Irish National Arithmetic.  Then in 1885 Taylor bought his fourteen year-old assistant Todhunter’s Agebra, ‘a large book of 600 pages, which cost 7/6d’.

I was touched that anyone should think it worth while to give me a book costing so much money.  I can see myself proudly taking it home and showing it to my mother who was swilling down the pavement after a load of coal had been delivered.  Except the rather shabby looking arithmetic book, this was the first book I possessed, decently bound and gilt lettered on the back.  I have it still.

In 1892 the boy suffered a double blow.  James Taylor left England to work in Australia and at about the same time his mother died.  Aged 21, Harry identified with typical good judgement the girl he was to marry.  He also found another mentor.

After Harry and his much-loved elder brother had moved out of the family home, they found lodging with a man called Dacey.

He was a railway guard but had been a bandsman in the Royal Navy, and afterwards a newspaper reporter.  He was well read, he talked well, he wrote without apparent effort and he had a very good memory.  He made me a reader of ‘The Clarion’, the first number of which had just been issued, and introduced me to the writings of Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris.  He had a small library of books of which I made use.  He had visitors who cared about literature and politics … particularly labour politics.

I attended a bible class at the Sunday School.  It was one means of meeting Nellie but it had other attractions. Some of the young men were very wide-awake.  They read and talked of strange books.  They were interested in talking and a few of them talked well.  There was a mutual improvement class on Saturday evening where good speeches would sometimes be made.  I used to think Harry Harper, a brainy young man of feeble physique was an orator.  He was a very sensible, well educated chap and a good linguist.  Many of the youths wrote shorthand and so I learned it.  After a couple of months effort, well enough to report a speech.

I was so much attracted by some of Ruskin’s books, after Taylor left England, that I neglected everything else to read them and to read some of the less intelligible Carlyle. Ruskin’s ‘Unto this Last’ was a revelation.  It was a Library copy I read.  I dare not steal it and could not afford to buy it so I copied it out in my most careful hand-writing and bound it in cloth boards with leather back and corners.  Bookbinding was one of the things I learned by watching professionals bind accounts and then begging enough of their material to see me through a few trial.  My copy of Ruskin’s ‘Analytical Economics’ (‘Unto this Last’) and Todhunter’s Algebra are the two books I prize above all others.

images

This excursion into literature excited an appetite which will never be satisfied.  But I saw no living in it and I was really equally greedy to understand more of my daily work from whose interests I had temporarily separated myself.  There was some prospect of becoming an analyst which I could not afford to neglect. …. At night school in addition to mathematics and physics I had attended classes in German, Latin and literary subjects.  I had attended lectures on the English language and literature with a moulder who had a decidedly original mind.  This moulder took no man’s word for gospel and he had a disconcerting knack of asking awkward questions and putting an unconventional view.  He also was one of my teachers to whom no fees were paid to whom grateful thanks are due.

Quotations are from Harry Brearley’s autobiographical notes, Stainless Pioneer, published by British Steel Stainless in conjunction with The Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield 1989.

 

 

Without libraries what have we?*

Writing up our own reading journeys has long been the plan for the Reading Sheffield team (here is our web designer Lizz’s reading journey). The threat to libraries across the country brought the task into sharp focus for me.  Libraries have been, and are, my regular staging posts along the road.  It saddens me that so many of them are closing and so many of us will thus find the way harder.

Even before libraries, there were my parents.  My father paused his reading about Newcastle Utd in the Evening Chronicle (well, the news was often bad) to help me spell out letters, then words, from the headlines.  ‘Goal’ was probably one of my first words.  My mother, keen to give me the education she missed, taught me the alphabet – in upper case, which later irritated my teachers.  She helped me grasp narrative early on by telling me stories.  One was about how much she enjoyed ‘reading time’ at school, with Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm her favourite books.

There was a scheme allowing very young children – I was about two years old – to borrow picture books from the local library.  For us this was the Redheugh Branch in Gateshead, an Art Deco building with pale yellow doors, now a recording studio.  We went there as often as I could persuade my mother.  I remember a low table-cum-box, divided into four compartments for the picture books, with three-legged stools around it.  Table and stools were painted yellow and red.

Redheugh Library

Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

When I was four, we moved.  It was around then that I started school, and found shelves of books in most classrooms.  The Council was keen on school libraries.  There were Ladybird books, Janet and John and two books which, perhaps because they were the first ‘proper’ stories I ever read, stay with me.  First was Neighbours in the Park, about a girl who lived with her parents in a double-decker bus and made friends with a park-keeper’s daughter.  The park, bus and girls were shown on the green, black and white cover.  Then came The Bittern, which had a pale green or brown cover with, I think, a drawing of a rather mournful, long-haired girl.  I have no idea what The Bittern was about, or who wrote either book, but between them they caught me, and I was never free again.  (If anyone knows these books, I would love to hear of them.)

The nearest library was now Gateshead Central, a Carnegie library.  I had no fear of it, or sense that time reading was time wasted.  It was the first place I was allowed to go to by myself.  In holidays I would go at least every other day and, in term time, on Saturdays and a couple of weekday evenings.  Often my father was persuaded to give me a lift.  ‘You won’t be long now, will you?’

Gateshead Central Library

Gateshead Central Library

To join, I had to read a passage aloud to the children’s librarian, stern in brown tweed suit and knitted jumper.  Her hair was corrugated cardboard.  But, frightening as she was, she had the power to make me free of the books on her shelves, so it was a worthwhile ordeal.  The library was a large room, with high shelves and big, oak reading tables and chairs.  It was perhaps not very child-friendly, though this never struck me then.  It was just the library, where the books were, and I wanted to be.

anne_of_green_gables_-_cover

Here I found Anne of Green Gables and loved it as much as my mother had.  How I adored Gilbert Blythe, in common with Anne and many other readers.  Anne herself was important because we both loved stories and hated geometry, and we shared red hair and the name Anne, although mine lacked the important final ‘e’.  There were also Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth (how I cried!), Katy Carr, Rebecca and Pollyanna, who was too glad to be endured for long.  And I found adventurous children like Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys.  My Reading Sheffield colleague Mary Grover points out that these are all from across the Atlantic, and wonders if the library had any American connection.  Not that I know of.

School and ballet stories were important too.  My favourites, which were plentiful in the library, were Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series – I can still name all of Joey Maynard’s eleven children – and Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells books.  I begged for ballet lessons, to no avail, and was reduced to copying the glide of a luckier classmate.  I didn’t read about horses, the other staple for young girls.  A teacher had read Black Beauty aloud, and I was haunted by the cruelty.

What other books stay in my mind?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its brilliant opening, where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus under the lamp-post in the snow.  But I found Aslan disturbing and never managed the other Narnia books.

Any book by E Nesbit.  ‘You’re so funny!’ said the psammead. ‘Have your parents tried boiling you?’

The Changeling of Monte Lucio and other old-fashioned, Ruritanian novels by Violet Needham.  Quests, rebellions, secret societies, castles, mountains – what more could anyone want?

A non-fiction series called The Young …, about the early lives of the famous.  My favourite was The Young Mary Queen of Scots, by Jean Plaidy.  Mary, with Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston, escaped from Scotland to France, where she married the Dauphin.  The book ended with her returning to Scotland, aged about 16 and wearing white mourning for her young husband.

‘Career novels’ like Margaret Becomes a Doctor, in which girls trained for a career but always met a nice young man and gave up their hard-won jobs.  Linked with these for me were two series – American, again – about nurses Cherry Ames and Sue Barton, who had both adventures and principles.  Cherry was unique in never settling for domesticity.

Five Children and It

The Psammead: Five Children and It by E Nesbit

violet-needham

When I was around 13, I’d outgrown the children’s library but was too young for the adult.  Ingeniously, I bullied my parents into joining and then used their tickets, always ready if challenged to say I was just collecting their books.  But no-one ever asked.

Today I belong to Sheffield Library, and Newcastle and Leeds have also known me over the years.  Libraries and I have been together for over 50 years, and we see no reason to split up now.

* The answer?  ‘We have no past and no future.’  So said Ray Bradbury.

Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library

Books for Balloon Barrage Men (Telegraph and Independent, Thursday 14 September 1939)

Sir. – At various points in and around the city the men who man the balloon barrage are working in small groups.  Their hours of duty are long, and their means of recreation limited.  The YMCA are providing games and other amenities, and I have been asked to help to arrange a supply of suitable books for them.

There must be many readers in Sheffield who would be willing to give books from their private libraries, and I should be very glad to receive them at the Central Library, the Libraries Committee having kindly given permission for books to be received, selected and issued there.  Light reading is most likely to be welcomed, and there should be a ready use for fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types.

May I appeal to all who have suitable books to spare to send them to the Central Library for this purpose?

Yours etc

J P LAMB

City Librarian

J P Lamb, Sheffield City Librarian, 1927-1956

J P Lamb, Sheffield City Librarian, 1927-1956

This letter from City Librarian Joseph Lamb, dated just a few days after the start of World War II and repeated in the Star, was probably the first of Sheffield’s wartime book drives.  That such an appeal should be issued so soon after the declaration of war suggests preparedness and foresight.

256px-barrage_balloons_over_london_during_world_war_ii

barrage_balloons_near_biggin_hill_in_kent_part_of_the_defences_on_the_south-eastern_approaches_to_london_to_combat_v-1_flying_bombs_1944-_tr2161

Air-raid defences, including barrage balloons, were being put in place around the UK during the late 1930s.  Sheffield had around 70 of the huge balloons.  They aimed to interfere with an aeroplane’s flight path and efforts to drop bombs.  They might even bring it down by catching it in the cables which secured them to winches on lorries.  The balloons were managed by crews who, day and night, manoeuvred them into place and raised and lowered them to protect suspected targets.  Wind and rain made the job more difficult.  The crews were often housed in schools and other public buildings, and their lives must have been a mixture of hard work, boredom and tension.

Hence the need for books and games for relaxation and diversion.  J P Lamb asked for ‘light reading … fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types’.  This was a change from the usual calls of librarians of the period for their borrowers to read serious books.  (In fact, Joseph Lamb did not scorn light reading, stocking popular books ‘in the belief that having attracted novel readers … [libraries] are given the opportunity of leading them to better reading, or at least to informative books’.  He was criticised for this by other librarians.  Furthermore, in the lead-up to war, books which explained the international situation had been in demand from the library.)

Unfortunately, there are no records of how people responded to the appeal.  How many books were donated?  What were they?  The success of two book drives in 1943 and 1944, when over a million books were collected, suggests that this early appeal was probably successful.  And we do know that when crews moved on, they often left behind games and books for their successors; and that by October 1939 there was a library service for troops stationed in Sheffield.

In September 1939, the war was for newspapers the only story in town, and they were unsurprisingly patriotic and positive.  J P Lamb’s letter shared space with:

  • ‘Why Germany Has Invaded Poland’, a long article by Count Sforza, former Italian Foreign Minister
  • a leader, ‘Nazis’ Rage’, doubting the German war effort and mentioning the plight of Jews ‘treated … with such devilish inhumanity’
  • reviews of a book about British naval history and essays by historian Lewis Namier who was a Polish Jew by birth
  • discussion of blackout regulations and lighting restrictions as the long nights drew in.

But it was not all serious.  There was a column by the Rambling Naturalist and, by popular demand, a crossword (puzzles had been dropped to make way for war news).

Sheffield’s other main paper, the Star, was much the same: a leader entitled ‘Hitler’s War on Women’, an article by Beverley Baxter MP asking ‘Have German Plans Miscarried?’; and – lighter in tone – a snippet that research by Sheffield metallurgist Robert Hadfield had helped produce the newly essential tin hat.

Lamb’s letter was also an early indicator of his library’s important role in the wartime life of the city, for example, in public information and assistance services.  But this story is for another post.

Here are the pages from the Telegraph and Star.

14091939-barrage-balloons-daily-tel

14091939-barrage-balloons-star