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 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.)

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)

Esther Saunders, Sheffield’s First Female Librarian

By Loveday Herridge

The second librarian of the Sheffield Subscription Library was, very unusually, a woman – Esther Saunders. We know little about the early keepers of the holdings of subscription libraries, of which Sheffield’s was one of the first, but almost certainly they were generally male. Esther certainly made an impact on the Library.

Her tenure was a long one. She became Librarian in 1777 (the Library had been founded in 1771) when the previous, probably the first, Librarian died. This was her father, Joseph Saunders, from whom she must have learned her profession; he had worked at the Harleian Library with Humfrey Wanley. The Harley collection of manuscripts formed the basis of the British Museum’s collection and Wanley was its learned Keeper. The association with Wanley, providing a very auspicious connection to serious professionalism and important manuscripts, must have seemed attractive to the founders of the Sheffield Subscription Library looking for a Librarian. And at Saunders’ death, Esther’s skills made her the obvious replacement.

Norfolk Street today – Upper Chapel

Norfolk Street today, still with some 18th c houses

Norfolk Street today, with the Crucible Theatre on the right

The Library was housed in her father’s house in Norfolk Street, Sheffield (the exact location is unknown). Esther was responsible for all loans and the numbering of books. She could keep the fines on overdue books and was paid ten guineas for rent and attendance at her father’s house – around £16,000 in today’s money.

Esther must also have been responsible for producing the annual catalogues. These catalogues were arranged in subject groupings, such as Voyages and Travel, Authors Moral, Scientifical and Miscellaneous and Geography and Topography. Such groupings were not universally adopted and librarians evidently followed their own inclination and the dictates of the books in the collection to devise their groupings. Esther arranged the books alphabetically within each group, so the first book to appear in the first extant catalogue of 1792 is History of Abyssinia by Lobo in the History section. However, as Esther numbered the books, it is possible to tell which were the very first books purchased by Sheffield’s elite members in 1771: books numbered 1, 2 and 3 are lost, but number 4 is Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain, vol.1, and number 5 is Cawthorne’s Poems. These then were the first choices of the majority of the members of the Library.

Did Esther load the shelves in their groups, by number, or alphabetically? There was no separate reading room and the room was cramped. How did potential readers ‘browse’? Perhaps by using the catalogue at home – it appears that every member may have been issued with a catalogue – and by exploiting Esther’s prodigious knowledge of the Library. On 3 July 1797 the young Joseph Hunter, who was to become known as ‘the Sheffield antiquarian’, noted in his diary that Esther impressed him by remembering the number of a book.

But some of the problems which Esther’s long librarianship brought are also hinted at in Hunter’s diary. He mentions that she allowed him to keep Mrs Radcliffe’s The Italian for longer than he should, and allowed him to take out Varieties of Literature illegally, although she drew the line at issuing him another book when he had not brought back Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

Thomas Asline Ward, ‘one of the Sheffield elite, and the reforming president of the Library’, tells us in 1825 that by 1819, just after her death, the Library was in ‘a desolate condition’. The books were dirty and tattered, and the rules were not adhered to, so that many books were lost, because the Librarian was ‘not in constant attendance’. He said that favourite books were reserved for favourite readers, and the publications most eagerly sought after were concealed in cupboards, drawers and even in the warming pan. Ward tells us that in 1787 Esther married, and until 1805 she was paid only 12 guineas (about £11,000 in today’s money). Interestingly, he blames the Library’s problems firmly on this low wage, saying that ‘for such a small sum no one could attend constantly in the room.’ ‘The Librarian was allowed to manage her household affairs and the Library neglected.’ Indeed, this may be the first expression of the difficulty facing a female librarian on a low wage struggling to juggle work and home life!

After 1805 Esther was paid 17 guineas. In 1810 there was an attempt to pension her off as it was felt she was too old to continue with her duties, but ‘feelings of compassion’ prevailed. In 1816 Esther’s wage was raised to £30 (about £23,000), on condition she worked full time in the Library, but according to Ward it was too late. There was an attempt by a group of members to set up a new subscription library, but the opportunity for reform was seized by the committee at Esther’s death in 1818.

An affectionate poem appeared in Sheffield’s newspaper, the Iris, which mourned the death of a cheerful, honest chatterbox, who knew where every book was shelved. Esther remains a tantalising figure, who tells us a lot, but suggests just how much more there is to know about the realities of using Sheffield’s Subscription Library.

Ye book-worms, a’ wi’ sorrow meet,

Nor wi’ few tears your een be weet;

For eens, spite o’ the warld’s deceit,

By pity led,

Be yours the wail o’ Surrey-street,

Auld Esther’s dead!

 

She was a canty clattering dame,

A servant gude; abroad, at hame,

She had an honest matron’s frame;

Nor could I spread

A mickle stain owre a’ her name ‑

Auld Esther’d dead!

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Three: Park Library and beyond

Former Sheffield library worker Barbara has told us about her days at Lane Top Library and her work on School Instruction, helping groups of children learn how to use a library. Here she describes her move to Park Library and brings us up-to-date.  

Eventually the regular 9am smell of Hubba Bubba bubble gum and pickled onion Monster Munch rising from thirty excited 14 year-olds herded into the entrance hall for their School Instruction session got too much for me to bear. I joined Astrid Gillespie, Irene Collumbine and Pauline – what was her name?- at Park Branch, upstairs in the children’s library. As the other half of the building housed a swimming pool (Park is an Edwardian municipal complex, housing a library, swimming pool and public baths), we enjoyed tropical temperatures throughout the year.

Park Library

The worst thing about that job was ‘film night’. A projectionist equipped with folding benches and film equipment arrived regularly at selected children’s libraries. Admission was by ticket only, but with only me to hold back the crowds it quickly became a free-for-all. There existed a local gang of ‘children’ who were notorious and, whilst I never issued tickets to them, they always managed to obtain one. The projectionist and I would set up the rows of folding benches – which often did just that during the general rammy [brawl] – and I guarded the doorway with my heavy rubber torch held menacingly across the gap. But they always managed to smuggle their way in. I shall not name the ring leader for fear of legal action, but I heard some years later that he went down for murder, having been disturbed during a break-in.

In 1974 my then husband’s job relocated to Teesside and we moved to Guisborough near Middlesbrough. I worked in their Central Library and then Guisborough Branch Library, until my children were born.

But Sheffield City Libraries had not seen the last of me.

In 1984 my husband’s job moved again, this time to Rotherham and the family decamped to Eckington on the outskirts of Sheffield. My motherhood experience did not match up to that of Children’s Librarian, as I presented my hapless 5 year-old to the school doctor with his unreasonable (to me) behaviour. She observed me over the top of her specs:

‘Do you have a job, Mother?’

‘How could I have a job when I have two children who are as mad as a box of frogs and driving me demented?’

‘I suggest you work on Saturdays and let your husband look after them.’

So began my weekly holiday in Sheffield Central Children’s Library. I would have paid THEM to let me work there. I went upstairs for my break that first blissful, child-free Saturday – and to my amazement there were the same tables, covered in the same wipe-able cloths, with the same departmental faces gathered around them as I had last seen ten years previously. I had travelled all over the place (it seemed to me) and experienced so many things, and yet time seemed to have stood still here in this little room.

Sheffield Central Library

As my children got older, they became more human and my life settled. I no longer sought refuge down the magic staircase to Central Junior. I spent many very happy years working in the classroom with children who had behaviour problems, whilst teaching library skills in the school library.

I now live in the Scottish Borders with yet another surname – but I’ll go no more a-roaming. I have found the perfect husband, live in the perfect town with a sandy beach surrounded by rock pools at the bottom of my road and I live in the perfect house with a sea view from my lounge window.

I will never forget Sheffield City Libraries, but I still can’t stand the smell of bubble gum or pickled onion Monster Munch.