Wynne W

Wynne Wilson

Wynne was born in April 1919 and lived in the Ecclesall Rd area all her life.

Wynne is being interviewed by Jan Chatterton with the participation of Wynne’s niece, Diane H, born in 1947, and who lived first just off the Ecclesall Rd and then moved to Handsworrth in the early 1950s.

Jan Chatterton: It is October 18th 2011. I am interviewing Wynne. She was born in Ecclesall in April 1919 and lived in the Ecclesall area of Sheffield between 1945 and 1965 and indeed now today.

Did anyone read to you when you were young? Do you remember?

Wynne: No.

Jan Chatterton: Did you know that they didn’t or can you not remember?

Wynne: I can’t remember anyone reading to me.

JC: OK. Do you remember your first experience of a book? How old you were when you first became aware that there were books?

WW: No, I can’t really.

JC: How old were you when you went to school?

WW: Five.

JC: Five, so did they start to teach you to read, do you imagine?

WW: I think they probably did.

JC: It would be after the First World War, wouldn’t it?

WW: Yes.

JC: In the ‘20s. Do you remember enjoying books at that stage?

WW: I can’t really remember anything about reading myself but we must have read at school.

JC: What was the first time you thought, ‘Oh, I like doing this.’

WW: [laughs]

JC: But you’ve always read.

WW: I’ve read in later years but I can’t remember when I first started to enjoy reading.

JC: Do you remember reading when you were first married?

WW: I think probably only the magazines that used to come through … well, the magazines that seemed to be going around, Woman’s Own, The People’s Friend and all those.

JC: What was that like?

WW: Well, I used to enjoy those. I think probably it might have been a case of enjoying that more because they were short stories, not a full story or book.

JC: Was there a particular magazine you used to like?

WW: I used to enjoy People’s Friend.

JC: Can you remember why, what in particular?

WW: Probably because of the type of story.

JC: Is it still published today?

WW: I think it is, yes.

JC: Was this as a young married woman?

WW: And I’m not quite sure but there might have been stories connected with Scotland. I’m very fond of Scotland and I think that that was one of the reasons …

JC: Had you been to Scotland then, or was it the reading that interested you?

WW: I didn’t go to Scotland until after I was married – 1960-something.

JC: Can you remember owning a book? Can you remember buying a book?

WW: No, I can’t even remember me going to the library but I know I used to take the children to borrow books.

JC: Was that locally?

WW: It was the bottom of Mill Lane, [prompted] Ecclesall. It was a big house they used to have. Well the people who used to have it left so they made it into a library. [Weetwood House became Ecclesall Library]

JC: Was this after the Second World War?

WW: Well, I’ve no idea when it actually opened but I used to take the children.

JC: How old would they be?

WW: Probably when they got to be able to read. Because both Joan and Anne loved reading, wanted to read all the time.

JC: So they both loved books? Did that make you want to read more?

WW: I don’t think I ever thought of it. Really, thinking about it, I probably did read books we got from the library to them, yes, but I can’t remember doing it. [laughs]

JC: And you still love books.

WW: Oh yes. All kinds of books.

JC: When do you read?

WW: When I go to bed.

JC: What kinds of things do you read?

WW: Historical ones. I have even got on to Jeffrey Archer books. I never thought I would read his. [laughs] Sidney Sheldon, yes. So, you know when I was at school and I took the 11+ and I passed in everything, oh, not the 11+, the Merit Certificate you took your last term of school when you were 14 and I passed in every subject apart from for history. And I hated history, but since reading some of these books which are historical so there [is] a bit of truth in a lot [of] them, I have really enjoyed them and enjoyed historical things more.

JC: Is there a particular period you like?

WW: No, no.

JC: Have you read anything about Scottish history?

WW: Some of it comes in some of these books.

JC: Do you think, you mentioned before that your son didn’t particularly want to read like the girls wanted to read. Do you think that there was a difference between the sorts of things that girls read and boys?

WW: I don’t know. I think that Richard was more for enjoying outdoor life, going out with the lads and … I can’t ever remember him picking a book up and reading.

JC: But the girls did.

WW: Yes.

JC: And did you ever have to consciously encourage them to do that or did they just want to do that.

WW: Oh they wanted to do it, yes.

JC: And do you think that helped them in school, the fact that they were reading at home?

WW: I think it probably did. I suppose it depends on what kind of books they read which I can’t remember what kind they really did enjoy.

JC: Do you remember when you were growing up, anyone saying, ‘You’re wasting your time reading’.

WW: Maybe my sister. Well, of course, she was so clever, you know, and probably I was just an ordinary schoolgirl but no I can’t ever remember her ever saying get cracking and do something.

JC: Did she like reading?

WW: She liked anything connected with school.

JC: Can you remember when you had got the children small after the war, did you find time to read, the magazines?

WW: I think I was reading the magazines even then.

JC: Can you remember when you started to read a book as such?

WW: No.

JC: I was wondering whether books became more available through the library.

WW: I don’t know when I started to read all these. It might have been my daughters who eventually said, ’We’ve been reading a book, you might enjoy it. We’ll give it you and if you like it fair enough and if you don’t, don’t bother’.

JC: Are there particular kinds of books that they pass on to you?

WW: Oh, all these historical ones and all these others. It was my elder daughter who said about the Jeffrey Archer one in the first place. She said, ‘I’ll give it you. You might read it, you might not. You’ll know when you begin it’ …

JC: … whether you like it or not. Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about reading?

WW: No, no.

JC: Did the girls experience that at all?

WW: No. My husband loved reading. Oh yes definitely, he’d get a book, you’d talk to him and he wouldn’t hear you. [laughs]

JC: What sort of books did he read?

WW: Probably about the sea and things like that. I think he liked historical ones as well. Mostly about there was one author I can remember him reading and it was about the sea. Because he originated from Newcastle so he was near the sea.

JC: So it was what he knew. Are there books that you read when you were younger that you wouldn’t dream of reading now? Have your interests changed?

WW: No, I can’t even remember a lot about what kind of books I used to read. It was mostly the magazines.

JC: And were they mainly short stories or was there a serial?

WW: Yes, there was a serial, yes, generally.

JC: What sort of things were there in, were they all romance? Did the People’s Friend feel different from reading Woman’s Own or Woman’s Weekly?

WW: Yes, I thought so. Woman’s Own, those were very interesting and then again there were more adverts.

JC: So, did the People’s Friend feel more like proper stories.

WW: Yes.

JC: That’s really interesting, and do you still read those kinds of stories?

WW: No, I don’t read them now. I used to read the magazines over my meals which was naughty. [laughs]

JC: Was this when the children were little? Was that the time?

WW: Maybe, yes.

JC: So, you’d be busy. With three children. Do any of the classic authors mean anything to you? Can you remember at school at all, ‘We’re going to read Dickens’ or anything like that?

WW: I don’t think I was keen about the classics as the other types. I can’t remember, no I can remember probably the name of them, but I can’t remember reading them: Little Women, Old Curiosity Shop and all those.

JC: Do you know nowadays, you obviously know their names, do you think that’s from the television or do you think you did perhaps learn about them at school?

WW: It might have been that I just wasn’t interested that I perhaps just ignored them.

JC: Yes. But I’m really interested in how your reading interests changed because now you’re reading historical novels.

WW: Yes.

JC: Can you remember when you started doing that. Do you think it might have been when the children were growing up?

JC: No, it was more or less recent.

JC: Can you remember, ten years or …?

WW: Oh no Maybe. I mean time just flies, you forget, don’t you?

JC: Absolutely. Are there, now or then any authors who you think, ‘Oh, I’ll never read them’. [pause] Have you read biographies?

WW: I think I might have read, but I couldn’t recollect who it was.

JC: Can you try to explain to me about the historical novels? Do you remember any of the titles of any of those? Did you read Jean Plaidy, Antonia Fraser?

WW: I think I used to read those, but I’ve not read any of those for a long while. I think maybe I used to read those when I first started reading but I’ve no idea what any of them are about now.

JC: Did it make you want to find out more about that period of history?

WW: Probably because I didn’t like history and each book was about a different period that made me more interested in all those years.

JC: Did you go on to read any more serious books about history at that stage? Did you want to know, is this right?

WW: [both laugh] I don’t think so.

JC: Did you read any of the fiction about the two princes in the Tower?

WW: Yes, many, many years ago probably.

JC: I know there have been different  …

WW: … versions

JC: … yes, versions of it.

WW: Yes, I think I did once but I can’t remember any of it, quite a while ago

JC: People have made a lot of money wondering, ‘Did Richard III … ?’ [WW laughs] I was just wondering …

WW: I like Robin Hood on television. I am interested in Merlin now.

JC: So you do you think that television has replaced the kind of interest we used to get from books? Has television become the main source of entertainment?

WW: Oh I think so, yes. Yes, it’s television’s all right but it seems to have taken over with the children. Sit them in a chair and put in front of the television. I don’t agree with a lot of that. I mean I know you say, ‘You can’t stop progress,’ but a lot of it’s not for the good.

JC: What do you think reading gives you that television doesn’t?

WW: the only difference is that it sinks more, sinks more in my mind. The only problem is that after a while I forget even it. But I can’t do anything about that. [laughs]

JC: That’s the problem with us getting older – frustrating.

WW: Yes. [laughs]

JC: If we can talk a little bit about where you got books from. You mentioned the library down at the bottom. We’ve got Diane H with us as well who knows a little bit from her mum about the travelling libraries. So first Diane could come a bit nearer and perhaps she can talk to us about what she knows about that.

Diane: Well, I can remember living in Rustlings Rd area when I was a little girl, and that is also in the Ecclesall Rd area and going to a man’s house and I think he was called Mr Smith and in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child and my mother picked three books and she also picked three books for her husband, my father. And the fascinating thing was – I can’t remember money changing hands but we had a little code written in the front of the books and our code was 33 S, which I learned later was 33 Stainton Rd.  But those three books were so important to me. We could have the books for a fortnight and then when the fortnight was over, obviously, we went back to change the books.

JC: So it wasn’t a free library?

Diane: My mother must have paid but it was really well visited because we sometimes had to stand in a queue before we got to the living room, taking the old books back and pick up the new and sometime there were queues of people outside the front door so it must have been a popular venue and a source of books.

JC: And this was in the 1950s?

DH: Yes, and this would be about 1951 because in 1952 we moved across the city to Handsworth. But the son of this Mr Smith used to come in a little van which I can picture now, and he used to come and open his back doors so we could choose our books again, and we still kept our 33S which I thought was strange. But that obviously took off in our little neighbourhood and my mother’s neighbours used to borrow these books.

JC: If you had the same code, did that mean they were collected in different areas with each other?

DH: I don’t think so. I think it was that you could look inside the book and check very quickly whether you had had it before. Obviously you didn’t have a record of what you had read. So you could look down and if you saw 33S you’d know that you had read it. And he stocked all the Enid Blyton books and things like that. I think that was why it was so popular in the ‘50s so we had that for about ten years so we didn’t go to another library apart from school.

JC: This was existing alongside another library but for some reason your mum felt it was a better option.

DH: Other than going to the Central Library. As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library.

JC: Thank you Diane. I am just going to have a look down here and mention to you some names about historical novels. Did you read Georgette Heyer? Did you read them?

WW: I have done, but not recently

JC: We mentioned Jean Plaidy that you had. Baroness Orczy? Anya Seton?..

WW: Joan can reel them off like …

JC: Did you ever read or not read any books that you thought were shocking?

WW: I never used to but I’ve come to accept the world as it is today. In my younger days things that happened now were things that were considered shocking. I am not saying that things didn’t happen but they weren’t broadcast.

JC: Do you remember, for instance, the D. H. Lawrence trial when they wanted to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

WW: I never remember anything about it but I remembered it was talked about.

JC: Did that make you want to read it or not want to read it?

WW: Never bothered me. [laughs]

JC: Did you ever read any books set in America or Europe? Were they mainly set in England?

WW: Australia. I had relatives in Australia.

JC: Right.

WW: Yes, and I know that Joan got these books, a series, so many books, and it was  about Australia when they used to ship the people from England if they had done any wrong. Where was the place? I was quite interested in that series because my auntie lived in Sydney where …

JC: Botany Bay?

WW: That’s not the name I’m thinking of. What did they call the people they sent?

JC: Early days it was convicts, wasn’t it?

WW: I knew they used to send them to a place quite near where my auntie used to live.

JC: So were they set in the towns in Australia or the outback?

WW: In the towns where they lived.

JC: Were the books set in the towns?

WW: Yes, you heard a bit about the area where they lived.

JC: And were they set at the same time that the convicts were sent there?

WW:  I’ve no idea. I think they were just books that told you what actually happened at that time.

JC: And Joan had read them and passed them on to you. So do you feel that your daughters have influenced your reading?

WW: Oh yes, certainly Joan because Joan’s generally the one who’s had books. She brought a pile last week and passed them round. We pass them round you know.  They are all piled up in the little bedroom and Joan comes: ‘We’ve read that Mum,’ and ‘We’ve read that, Mum.’

JC: Do you have more than one book on the go?

WW: No, I just stick to one.

JC: You stick to one. Have there been books that you not finished?

WW: Yes, one that Joan says, ‘Well, try and pick it up, Mum’ but at the moment it’s upstairs.

JC: Can you remember what it’s called?

WW: No, I can’t, but funnily enough at the moment I am reading an unusual one about the children in the workhouse, when they were younger, you know and it was terrible really how they were treated in this workhouse. I think there must be some truth in this story.

JC:  … and is that set in Sheffield or somewhere else?

WW: No, I’ve forgotten, but there were workhouses all over weren’t there?

JC: Yes, unfortunately. Is there anything else that you want to say?

WW: No, I don’t think so except that I can help because I think it’s good that … It’s like when I was telling you, I don’t know whether you want to now this. We got a little pamphlet, only a small book, telling about Ecclesall, and the person who was doing it lived in Knowle Lane and he put at the bottom of it, ‘Could anyone who knew anything interesting to give him a ring’ and I ummed and ahhed a bit and then thought. ‘Well if I ring he can come to see me’, and he did and he was quite interested really. I could tell him that I lived in the cottage opposite the old Wheatsheaf and I could remember when this new building, which was added, was just a little tin hut when they were building the new one.  And the fun thing about it was I did mention, when they were building this place, my brother who was three years older than me used to go with lads down there and he said, ‘No, you can’t. There are rats there.’ And I didn’t want to go where there were rats and he put it in the book. [laughs]

JC: So your story is in print.  How did that feel?

WW: Well, I wasn’t bothered.

JC: But interesting that people have got to create their own books about an area.

WW: Yes. He also said she was born in this area and she’s not gone very far – she’s gone into the road.

JC: So anyone who wants to find out about Ecclesall …

WW: Yes.

JC: Where’s the nearest library to you now?

WW: It’s just at Ecclesall Terminus.

JC: Do you go down there now?

WW: No, no.

JC: Do you ever ask them to buy particular novels for you?

WW: No, I always ask my daughter to do that. She always picks my Christmas list and birthday list and it’s passed round.

JC: She sorts it for you and she’s obviously got similar tastes to you?

WW: Yes.

JC: And does your daughter Anne have different tastes?

WW: No, more or less we have the same, apart from Anne, I can’t think of the author, there’s one book and she says, ‘I don’t read hers’ but Joan and I love them and Anne says, ‘Oh, I can’t read hers,’ and I can’t think of who it is.

JC: And that is a historical writer, a writer of historical fiction?

WW: I have a feeling it is about an area near where Joan lives.

JC: So they mean something to her?

WW: I think there are about fifteen or sixteen books in fact I ‘m not sure whether there isn’t one coming out so she’s got one on her Christmas list.

JC: Where does she live?

WW: Wetherby.

JC: It might be set there.

WW: Yes.

JC: Do you ever read crime thrillers?

WW: Yes. I don’t know but I started to read them. I think I was more interested in the love stories at one time.

JC: Did you ever read Agatha Christie?

WW: I don’t think I’ve ever read her, no. I used to watch it on telly.

JC: When you dabbled with crime fiction was it modern authors?

WW: I’m no good at the authors.

JC: Is there anything else you want to say about what part reading plays and has played in your or your daughters’ lives?

WW: Oh I always say I’d hate to go blind and can’t read.

JC: Thank you, thank you.

[end of first stage of interview]

JC: Resuming interview, just to ask you, Wynne, what you have just been talking to me about China.

WW: I can’t remember the years when it happened but when I read it , I said, ‘but this was in my life time and I don’t remember a thing about that happening – this book just astounded me.

JC: And this was the Wild Swans?

WW: Yes.

JC: So it was about Chairman Mao?

WW: Is that the Chinese communist? I still think about it, that book.

JC: And about India?

WW: Yes, I enjoyed reading about other countries, how they live and what their situations are and everything.

JC: And you were saying before that, perhaps things changed when perhaps people were travelling in the sixties?

WW: It could have been. You get more vision when you’ve heard about things and where people have been. I mean, such a lot has happened in my life time.

JC: You were saying you were going to reread the books about India.

WW: Yes, I am going to ask Anne not to pass them back to Joan.

JC: Several books.

WW: Yes, there are quite a lot.

JC: Was that about the British Raj in India, that period?

WW: It must have been something like but it is quite a long time since I read them; that is why I would like to reread them because I remember they were very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went on:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[vi] From (ii) above.

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