Betty R

Betty R

Betty was born on the 1st of February 1925.

Betty is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 26th September 2011.

betty-r-nurse-

Loveday Herridge:  Now you were born …. Where were you born Betty?

Betty Rl:  At the Jessop Hospital.

LH:  And the date?

BR:  1/2/25.

LH: And when you were a child, Betty, where did you live? Which area of Sheffield?

BR: First of all I think I lived with my granny, but I’m not quite sure about that. What I can remember is living in North Staveley. That is on the way to Dinnington, that way. We lived there and my father was the electrician for the colliery at Aston Staveley. We lived in a colliery house, and I can remember playing there and being taken to school with my cousin, and either my cousin took us or the lady who looked after us took Keith and I to school.

LH: Keith was your …?

BR: Cousin, and we went to the little school at Aston.

LH: Right, did you see much of your dad if he was in the colliery?

BR: He was often called out to other places if they had faults and things. Yes, we did see him, and we used to have little get-togethers and mum would read us little stories and sing to us. Then we moved from North Staveley to live in Treeton, which was a little mining village then.

LH: And when you lived first of all at Staveley, how old were you when you moved to Treeton?

BR: i would be about six or seven.

LH: So you can remember your mum singing and reading to you before you were six?

BR: Oh yes, I can remember we used to have a little afternoon up in the garden. We had seats and we’d dance and play ring a ring-a-roses.

LH: Did you do that most days?

BR: No, there were days when. And I remember other times we had pencils and paper and we’d go sit on our little lawn and play.

LH: Was that before you went to school then?

BR: It was usually, before I went to school, yes, a little bit. But then, when we did go to school it was probably a weekend or an evenings we’d do this. Before we went to bed or had a bath we’d sing. My mother was a lovely person always singing, making people happy.

LH: The fun of it, and can you remember, you said she read you nursery rhymes, you remember any of the other stories she read to you?

BR: Yes, I can’t remember, but I can remember this word: ‘Aesop’s Fable’.

LH: Ah yes.

BR: I can’t remember very much of them, but I remember the name Aesop’s Fables and I remember The Water Babies.

LH: So I guess you remember Aesop’s Fables because it is such a funny word.

BR: Funny word isn’t it? Funny. But I can’t remember much about it.

LH: You can’t remember the stories?

BR: No, but I can remember the book.

LH: Was it an illustrated book?

BR: Yes.

LH: Did she show you the pictures and read the stories?

BR: Yes.

LH: And read the stories?

BR: Yes, and then we had another one. I can’t remember this one but  it was a beautiful book. The Bible. ‘In the beginning’ – pictures of angels in blue and lovely colours and she would tell us little bits about the Bible.

LH: Do you think that was the Bible, or do you think that might have been stories from the Bible?

BR: No, it wasn’t the Bible. It was a book with pictures, illustrated, and nice, you know the beginning of the words were in colours. I remember that.

LH: And, while you were with your cousin – was he the same age as you?

BR: Two years older.

LH: Was he nice to you?

BR: Yes.

LH: You enjoyed being with him?

BR: Oh yes, we got up to all sort of pranks. I cut his hair.

LH: Did you get into trouble?

BR: No.

LH: No.

BR: I was innocent. It was a wrong thing to do, but I don’t remember getting into trouble. Keith remembers now though.

LH: And does he still live in Sheffield?

BR: Yes, he lives in Stannington.

LH: Oh right, he remembers that now.

So both of you looked at your mum’s books and listened to the stories, and it might have been in the afternoon or in the garden.

BR: Yes, we’d sit at one side of her and she’d sort of lift me up onto her knee while she was reading.

LH: Do you think your cousin knew how to read at that point?

BR: Yes, I think so, because he used to teach me letters. He could write and do As and Bs and Cs, the alphabet and he’d teach me to do it and to do …. I used to do an A with the curl with just like that, and he’d say “A curl”. You know and on the Ds a curl.

LH: Do you remember at all the process of how you learned to read? Obviously your cousin helped a little bit.

BR: And my mother helped us.

We’d have sessions like “Betty went to school”. Just little phrases we were taught. Then when you went to school that’s when you really learned isn’t ir, with the other children and the teacher writing on the blackboard.

LH: So, how old do you think you were by the time you could read?

BR: I could read when we went to Treeton. Definitely it would be six. I remember when we moved I could read because I used to read to my sisters sometimes.

LH: Ah, did you have younger sisters?

BR: Yes.

LH: Right. Can you tell me about them and what you read to them?

BR: I think we just read little stories, you know, little fairy tales and made things up, or tell a little bit of poetry to them.

LH: Were there books around the house and you could pick up a book?

BR: Yes, but we had to be told to be – there were certain books we couldn’t touch and they were on the shelves.Our books were in our playroom; we could do whatever we liked with them, … as long as we tidied up. Or, even when we were small, if you had a book, you put it back.

LH: On the shelf?

BR: Yes, on a little shelf where we could reach.

LH: Right, so, in your play room there were quite a lot of books?

BR: Yes, … a dolls’ house. We used to play wooden top and shuttle cock.

LH: Was this when you were living with your granny?

BR: No, no. I don’t remember living with my granny. I think it was when I just came out of hospital and mother and father were just getting together, you know, a house and then that’s it.

LH: So you were a baby when you lived with your granny?

BR: Yes, I must have gone to granny’s while Dad and Mum were getting their house and I can remember the first house we went into, the dining table was slung onto the ceiling because we hadn’t any room to put, it was so big, the dining table.

LH: So you bought it up and down?

BR: So it stayed there and we just had a little table to eat from.

LH: So that was the first house your Mum and Dad had?

BR: Yes, just a little tiny house.

LH: And then you were born and were looked after by your granny, and then how many sisters did you have Betty?

BR: I had two, Cecily and Paula. Then we had another baby sister when we were much older. I must have been seventeen I think when Diana was born.

LH: So, you can …  can you remember not being able to read, or was it just a gradual process of absorbing?

BR: I can’t remember about that. I know we used to go running round and making pies with slap-dab and getting petals and decorating them and having a cake and inviting my aunty and nan to come for tea. We had little tea and giving them little drinks of water and giving them a bit of slap-dab cake.

LH: What do you call that Betty?

BR: A ‘Slap-dab’.

LH: What’s Slap-dab?

BR: Dirt.

LH: Oh mud.

BR:  Mud really but slap-dab cake.. I can remember once, mum brought us sandwiches  out with little bits of, … I was going to make my cousin a treat and the laburnum seeds falling off the trees and I got this and I said “oh there’s little peas”. Keith had them and I had them and it was someone coming up to bring mum some things from his garden and he saw all these things on the gate and he said, “What are those children doing? There are all these bits – I’m sure it’s laburnum. What are they doing with the seeds?” Of course we came out and said, “Oh, we’ve eaten them.” So, I was all right, didn’t affect me, but Keith, they took him to the Children’s Hospital and I think he had to be made to be sick. But, I didn’t have to be made to be sick, I was just all right. Then we took my sister; she had a big pram, big wheels, lovely and she was … and we got her out of the pram and we got some irises in the corner of the lawn – there were iris leaves. We put her in there and we said she was Moses in the bulrushes.

LH: I can just see it. So you’d read the story of Moses and the bulrushes?

BR: Yes, and I don’t remember, I think Mum just picked the stories out of the Bible that she wanted us to hear.

LH: Yes. So, when you were at school presumably there were a whole load of books, different books that you hadn’t seen before. Can you remember what any of those were that you enjoyed particularly or disliked?

BR: I don’t remember when I was in the very junior. But when; I were moved up from that grade to the next grade.  I can remember the books then. At the end of the lessons, Miss Pashley would read a story for quarter of an hour before the end of lessons finished. She’d stand up on that ledge, on the desks, with the lectern. We’d read, we’d have Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe. I don’t – I remember mum reading us, to me, about Mowgli, Rudyard Kipling. And another little bit of him in the Just So Stories. That was in my bedroom. Then this book suddenly disappeared and it was in Paula’s room and Stephanie’s room.

LH: But you didn’t steal it back again?

BR: No, I was told I had enough books and to share.

LH: Can you remember any other books that you particularly liked that you loved to read? Did you read in bed, before you went to sleep?

BR: Mmm, oh, mum would come up and read us a little story. If I was having Anne of Green Gables at school mum would read a bit of Anne of Green Gables.

LH: Right. Do you know where she got her books from that you read?

BR: No I don’t, but I do remember we used to sometimes have parcels and there were books in.

LH: Do you think now as an adult do you think that your mum ordered them from the book shop?

BR: She may have done. My mum was a teacher, in London at a private school Wynard House, in Stroud. I don’t know if she was still in contact with some of the teachers there. I don’t know what happened, but we used to always get a book at Christmas. Even if it was just a book for drawing and we’d colour, we’d always have one at Christmas. We didn’t have a lot of things at Christmas. We had an orange, an apple, a few nuts, some new pennies, a pair of socks, hair ribbon, … a pencil, a rubber and a book.

LH: Can you remember any book that was your favourite?

BR: I liked Anne of Green Gables.

LH: You mentioned that. And was there any book you were bored by? A type of book you were bored by?

BR: I didn’t really like Robinson Crusoe. I didn’t really like that one. But then of course, when you were getting bigger, you know, when we had, that Hawkins man, John Hawkins. I think it was by Robert Louis Stevenson, and he went on a boat, John Hawkins. Think he went on the Hispaniola.

LH: And you didn’t like that as much?

BR: No, it was a bit frightening.

LH: So you were really engaged in the books if you found it frightening?

BR: Yes, I remember my bedroom was decorated with the alphabet. We used to copy, … practising an A.. Then when you went to the grown up, we called it the grown up school, instead of doing print we joined our letters up then.

LH: So when you went to the grown up school, which school was that?

BR: It was still attached to …, the infants, and that is part of the play ground and we moved up and we were there. I don’t what you would call it, the second grade school.

LH: Did you read a lot when you were in what we would call secondary school now?

BR: Not so much, because we used to tend to go and play more. You know, running off, in the woods, playing more. We didn’t read as much and Mum didn’tread to us then. We went out in our own ways.

LH: Was she working then?

BR: No, not at all.

LH: When she started to have children did she stop?

BR: When she married she gave up her work because school was down in London.

LH: So, you said that the teacher always read to you for about fifteen minutes at the end of each lesson.

BR: Yes.

LH: Did that happen as you grew older?

BR: Yes, that started when we went to the bigger school.

BR: Yes,

LH: Oh, I see. Right. Was there a time when you began to choose your own books?

BR: Yes, there was a library. You could go and you could only have one book.

LH: In the school?

BR: Yes, you could only have one book and you had to return it in two weeks time.

LH: So, did you use the library? And get a book every two weeks?

BR: I didn’t always get a book, but I did use it. As I say, we were more running out playing and playing hop scotch and a bit of tennis or hitting the ball or cricket.

LH: So perhaps in the winter you read a bit more when it wasn’t so nice outdoors?

BR: Yes, or we used to do little puzzles and jigsaws and as you got older things got just a little bit different, you know. I remember and the children from round about used to call in, because we had a big enough house that we could have a play room, so they used to come and play with us. They’d do their own thing, but before they went home we used to have some toast and some Bovril. And mum would have us in the kitchen all on this mat. They’d say to mum, “Mrs Roberts sing! Sing that song that makes us cry”. They said, “Are you going to sing it, please sing!” I can remember once, I was sitting there and I said, “Don’t pull my mummy’s skirt”, you know and I flung out at somebody. I remember when they’d gone mum saying to me, “Betty, don’t behave like that. These people are your guests and you don’t behave like that.” I said “I don’t want them pulling your skirt mummy.” She said “That was all right. It wasn’t bullying. It was just trying to get my attention; you shouldn’t have been pushing people away.” Well, there were several people around saying “Do sing that song, make us cry”.

LH: What was the song?

BR: Danny Boy.

LH: Oh, Danny Boy. Well, it makes me cry.

BR: And the song, what was it called? I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen. They’d plead for her, “Sing it Mrs Roberts, sing it!” they said. And you know they were wiping the tears like this on their sleeves, ‘cause you know they didn’t have tissues in those days. [Laughs]

LH: Your mum sounds lovely.

BR: She was, and the children, remember if I see them, (one’s cremation was about a fortnight ago, and I went), and they remembered my mum singing those songs.

LH: How lovely; that’s a tribute to her.

BR: “Do you remember Betty, how we used to come up to your play room and the fire was burning.” And, do you remember she said, “Your father used to keep coming and peeking in”, [laughs], we had like a fire guard; it was open, fastened to the wall so we couldn’t pull it out. He’d let us make toast; we’d make it in the dining room fire, where we could to be seen.

LH: How old were you when you left your second school?

BR: I think I was about thirteen. Thirteen/fourteen.

LH: Then did you go to another school?

BR: Yes, I was going to Woodhouse Grammar School, and suddenly I became ill and I had rheumatic fever. I went to hospital and I was in hospital six months, flat, couldn’t do anything,couldn’t feed myself, anything! And, I can remember saying, “I don’t want to get better. I don’t want to go in a wheel chair.  I don’t want to get better.” Gradually I did get better, but I couldn’t continue at Woodhouse because it was too far, apparently, as we had to get a train and then we had this very steep hill we had to walk up. It would have been too hard work for me to do that. So, I went to, as a trial, I went to Dinnington Technical College, and that was all right because we  were collected by bus and then brought home by bus and had meals at school, and things like that. Obviously couldn’t have got my own. I did the major of my education there.

LH: How large did books figure in the school, at Dinnington, the Technical school? Was reading important at the Technical school?

BR: Not so much, not so much. You had to get on with what you were studying, you know and I decided I’d do housecraft.

LH: Was there a library at the school?

BR: Yes.

LH: And did you use that?

BR: Not so much, no. I was slowing down, in a way, I’d tend to sort of read more or less at home or take a book up to bed and at the weekends I had to rest, even at school I had to have a period at school when I had to rest.

LH: Because of your rheumatic fever?

BR: Yes.

LH: So, how did you choose the books that you read at that point Betty? Was it you who decided what you wanted to read?

BR: You know, you used to hear people saying there was a good book out, “Have you read so and so?” “No, I ought to get it”.

LH: Who would say that to you? The other girls?

BR: The pupils at school or maybe the English mistress would say, “I would advise you to get this book”.

LH: Can you remember what sort of books she advised you to get? Any of the titles?

BR: Not particularly.

LH: Do you think it might have been, I’m making a guess. Do you think it might have been people like Charles Dickens?

BR: I didn’t like Charles Dickens.

LH: But you must have read Charles Dickens to know that you didn’t?

BR: Yes, and we read Pride and Prejudice. She had all those books, or you either had one, or concentrated more or less on one. I liked Wuthering Heights.

LH: You liked Wuthering Heights?

BR: I liked  it, I did.

LH: How old do you think you were?

BR: Probably in my teens.

LH: And why did you like Wuthering Heights do you think?

BR: It was Cathy … and how Heathcliff came into their lives. It was that thing – ” Well better find out about him … oh he’s not very nice is he? “, “No”, and then that it’s “Yes”, you did. It was all what they used to get up to and that, running on the moors. And I can remember going there and we went on the moors, my Paula and Cecily, and Mum and Dad and myself and we walked on the moors a little way and then there was a stone where you sat and I said, “I’m going to walk up further up, keep turning and when you can’t see me, turn round and come back.” I went running up, and I crouched behind something, I don’t know what it was, and I was calling to Heathcliff, I was calling “Heathcliff, Cathy” and two people were walking past and I was calling and ran down past my mother and father and they said, “There’s voices up there!! And they said ! Oh, we’re so frightened.” And my father said, “I know, I think I know who is making the noises” and my father came up and I was crouched down and he said “Betty”; he grabbed me like this.

LH: How old do you think you were then Betty?

BR: I think I’d be about 15 or 16. I was able to go myself. I like Jane Eyre, then of urse you were interested because you could go around their house and the church and everything. And see.

LH: Did you do that?

BR: Yes, and you’d think about the brother. Ohm he wasn’t a very nice brother. But Mum said “Well, we don’t know. He had one way of doing things and the girls had another”. Also you had a lot to learn about the Brontes, didn’t you?

LH: Did you learn that at school, or from your mum?

BR: We learned it at school and then when you were doing your homework you were helped by your mum. You know they went to Belgium and lots of places and they changed their names to get their books published.

LH: Did you have reference books at home? An Encyclopaedia? An atlas?

BR: We did, we did. someone sent sent us these things. Someone Mum knew sent Mum the money and we got these encyclopaedias. Twelve. All sorts of information you could find, and I can remember everybody used to be coming up ,“Can we look in your encyclopaedias?” Everyone in the village used to be coming up.-

LH: Did your mum mind?

BR: No.

LH: Wasn’t a question that some books you weren’t allowed?

BR: Oh, some books you weren’t allowed.

LH: Oh, still?

BR: Still. Some books of my mum’s, beautifully leather books, poetry books, books that somebody had given her as a present and things like that.

LH: Was there ever a time when you were allowed to look at her beautiful books. When you were older?

BR: Yes, we could, and we had our own Bible. A little Bible. But no, we didn’t have a prayer book, hymns. Mum had hers and father had his, but we didn’t have ours; we had a Bible. We had to look and share Mum and Dad’s prayer book and hymn book.

LH: Were these books in a play room or did you have a bedroom of your own?

BR: I had a bedroom on my own. My books were in my bedroom on a little shelf.

LH: There were family books?

BR: Yes, in the playroom. And we used to get the Children’s Newspaper.

LH: Oh yes. Tell me about that, what was that?

BR: The Children’s Newspaper. All sorts of things were in it. Things that were happening in Australia or New Zealand and you’d get maps of them and get the animals and things they had there. You’d have little crosswords to do and writing a little story. It had various kinds of little poems that we’d never really heard of. Quite strange; a little story went on each month.

LH: So was it a monthly news paper or weekly?

BR: Monthly.

LH: Was it delivered to your door?

BR: Yes.

LH: Was there a newsagent’s who delivered it?

BR: Yes.

LH: Can you remember, as you were getting older, ever buying books for other people as presents, or for yourself?

BR: Yes. Yes. Yes.

LH: Where did you buy them?

BR: We were taken to a shop in Rotherham. I don’t know, it was a bookshop near the church.

LH: So, did you buy yourself books?

BR: Not particularly. I had a lot of books given to me.

LH: Birthdays?

BR: Yes, birthdays.

LH: uyou were about 15/16?

BR: Yes.

LH: And when did you leave the school?

BR: When I was seventeen.

LH: At that point,were you reading regularly, when you were seventeen? Or were you thinking about other things?

BR: Not so much. Sometimes you’d just take a poetry book up to bed and read.

LH: We’re coming up to the beginning of the Second World War aren’t we?

BR: Yes, yes. A lot of these things you had to give to the war effort, and they wanted paper. Paper was in great demand. I can remember Mum and Dad, (we’d still got – well it wasn’t a playroom, but was still used, but we didn’t have money to buy furniture for it then), I remember them thinking which books should go. They said, “That is for Betty, that is for Paula, that is for Cecily to decide. If they want them they won’t go, they should decide, but we’ve got to tell them it’s needed for the country.”

LH: So, did you take that as an opportunity to give away books you weren’t interested in?

BR: Yes, they had to go to somewhere in the village and a van came to take them saying it was coming on Saturday. If the van came you had to give the paper.

LH: Did this happen once or more than once?

BR: More than once.

LH: So your stock of books must have diminished in size.

BR: Well, yes it did, then you were getting new books later on. You couldn’t really buy books in the war time, not so much. I went to do my training and the books you got were really books for work.

LH: When did you start your nursing training?

BR: 1944. November 1944.

LH: 19 when you started? Where did you go to train, Betty?

BR: Royal Hospital.

LH: Here, The one that is called the Hallamshire.

BR: No, on West  Street. It’s no more, it’s pulled down now.

LH: What made you go for nursing?

BR: I don’t know, whether because my friend was a nurse or whether because I’d been sick and I’d noticed, … I’d wanted to be a nurse. But I had a terrible job getting in, I mentioned rheumatic fever, “No, no”. I said to my father, “Shall we try the children’s hospital?” And we made an appointment and they turned me down and I was so depressed. My father took me to the Mount at Broomhill for coffee and I was miserable, I don’t know whether I was crying or not. But a lady was looking at us and my father said, “It’ll be all right dear, something will happen, something will happen.” I said, “No it won’t” and this lady came up and she said to my father, “Good morning” and was I his daughter, and he said yes and she said, ” Why is she so upset?” And my father told her, said, “She’s determined and she’s not interested in anything else but nursing and she’s been turned down from various hospitals around” and we couldn’t travel far as it was war time. And this lady, we found that she was called Miss Biddle, she was something to do with – in charge with the nursing recruitment and she said to my father, “Take this to Miss Sampson at the Royal Hospital. Will you be able to go this morning? It’s getting late but will you be able to go?” My father said yes so she rang up and made an appointment and we went and Miss Sampson said, “Right, you will be accepted”, but there’s certain things I have to do. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You can’t go to the swimming baths, you can’t play tennis” and was I prepared to be examined every three months and if I became ill I’d have to leave, yes yes yes. And I did that and I continued.

LH: And so you got accepted to start nursing?

BR: I was not sick once.

LH: I am sure you weren’t.

BR: But Matron was sort of … sort of kept an eye on me.

LH: Betty, you have such a wonderful story.

[interview ends]

[second recording; interview resumes]

LH: I need to try and keep on track and ask you about reading.

Your started your training in 1944?

BR: 1944.

LH: And you mentioned having to give up books at the beginning part of the war and throughout, to be recycled I suppose by the government. So, were your studies at all affected by this sort of thing? Were there resources, was there reading matter for you?

BR: When we did our training you mean?

LH: Yes.

BR: We had a list of books we had to get; they were only very small books, about, like that, and a red folder – one was sort of anatomy of hygiene and medical history and we had to buy those ourselves.

LH: Where did you buy them Betty?

BR: I think we were in the hospital. We went to the board room to buy our books. My parents gave me money to get the books.

LH: Do you have any of those books?

BR: No, I’ve given them all away.

LH: Do you think they were Government Issue for wartime?

BR: Well, they could have been. As I say, they were very small and rough-ish paper. But they told you all we wanted to know. Those were the books we had to have. We had a book on medicine; it was a joy to read this book, I think it was called Sear’s. The surname it was Sears.

LH: What was it about?

BR: People with pneumonia, pleurisy, liver complaints, things like that.

LH:  So that was a lovely book

BR: Yes, my father bought me that book and it wasn’t from the general store. It was from somewhere else. I don’t know where. I think there was a shop somewhere in High Street or roundabout there where you could get medical  books.

LH: Can’t remember the name of the shop. And while you were studying, Betty, what happened to your own private reading? Did you not have time for that?

BR: Oh yes, for my mother and father gave me a book when we went – the Bronte’s, Jane Eyre and Charlotte and Anne and a bit of their poetry at the back.

LH: You’d read those as a teenager hadn’t you?

BR: Yes and I liked and they gave it me when I left home you see.

LH: You left home? Where did you go?

BR: Oh yes, went to the nurses’ home. On Fulwood Rd, Tapton, Tapton Court where everyone lived. Lovely grounds and beautiful place – donated by some wealthy people.

LH: Were you happy there during your studies?

BR: Oh yes, you had your own little bedroom and you were fed and watered. The only thing I sometimes think now, we were looked after so well, we didn’t know how to change a plug. Cooking, it was all done for us.

LH: So, you had this lovely collected edition of the Bronte’s? Do you still have that?

BR: No, it was falling to pieces.

LH: Do you remember reading anything else whilst you were there?

BR: Yes, we had a library. Toc H. It was really for the patients but we were allowed to get books from Toc H.

LH: On a daily basis you went to the hospital?

BR: Yes.

LH: And you were able to use the library that they had?

BR: Yes, Toc H.

LH: Just explain to me what ‘Toc H’ is?

BR: That man in the wartime, Tubby Clayton isn’t it? That person, he did some good work in the war time, First World War. He did like little clubs and things I think for the soldiers. Toc H we called him. Tubby Clayton they called him.

LH: So that was his bequest was it? His library? Or a charitable?

BR: Yes they used to come round with a trolley with books and they would sort of say “You might  like this book” to the patients and then they’d ask us if we wanted a book. I think it was a fortnight they came. Might have been once a month but I know we could get books and we used to share books, you know. ‘Cos obviously we had people who were nurses all came from very wealthy families and they could afford to bring books and share.


Toc H LIbrary in Nelson Hospital Library 1963

LH: Can you remember any of the titles of those books that you read?

BR: Yes, I’ve written some down. I thought I’d forget.

LH: Fantastic, yea.

BR: I remember, which I never read at home Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan. Dylan Thomas.

LH: Dylan Thomas let’s see, so  … poetry the plays?

BR: Under Milk Wood.

But later on than this when I’d done my training I was a sister when I had done my training then it came up on the wireless, quarter of an hour Under Milk Wood and everything stopped. You came in an evening and you had to listen to that. And then the poem he wrote. And then the poem he wrote, Do Not Go Gentle into the Night.

LH: Did you read that then when in training?

BR: Yes.

LH: That must have meant a lot to you.

BR: Yes. Yes, And there’s others which I read when I wasn’t in my training, I was trained and working.

LH: Where were you working?

BR: After I had done my training. At the Royal Hospital Annexe, the Mayfield Valley.

LH: I know down there yes.

BR: Beautiful, lovely, homely. It was like a family, you know, because all the patients stayed in a long time and kept coming and going for treatment. They could go out of our house, to the pictures to a football match.

LH: Like a home. How long was your training?

BR: Four years, you signed and trained for four years, you did that threeish then you had a commitment to give the hospital back a year when you trained. You stayed in the hospital whatever happened, for a year.

LH: At Fulwood until 1948?

BR: Yes, then I went to do several, … to the Jessop Hospital to do midwifery.

LH: When you were at Fulwood, again thinking about your reading, was there a library there for your patients that you could use?

BR: Yes, it was still Toc H. they used to come up there as well.

LH: So do you remember specifically the books your read at Fulwood?

BR: Yes because I lived at Fulwood in the nurses’ hall. I moved from the nurse’s home. We lived in the hospital. The sisters lived there.

LH: Can you remember specifically anything you were reading at that time. You were just starting out as a paid worker so may have had a bit more money. Did you spend any money on books?

BR: Not a lot. The only thing I did spend my money on I remember, The History of the English Speaking Peoples by Churchill.

LH: Then we should go on to your training as a midwife – at the Jessop’s. How long was that training?

BR: About six months, but, I wasn’t allowed to do my second part. The doctor, Dr Worth, said he wouldn’t pass me medically to do my second part training, said it’d be too much for you having to get up in the middle of the night and cycling. You couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t allow me to do it. My friends all went to do it; they left me on my own.

LH: This is still a relic of your rheumatic fever?

BR: Yes.

LH: How disappointing for you.

BR: He wouldn’t take me, so I went back to the Royal Hospital. I was a staff nurse there. Mr Heinz – I worked on the pay block at the royal hospital, the private patients looked after on a separate landing. Mr Heinz come in and you would go with him to do the dressings and things like that. One day, he came and said to me, “Nurse Roberts, I want you to be my ward sister at Fulwood on the plastic unit.” I said, “Oh Sir, I don’t know anything about plastic surgery, oh no, I couldn’t do it.” And he said, “Well, I want you to consider. I will teach you all you have to know. will you consider it?”. And every time I saw Mr Heinz I used to run away, lock myself in the lavatory, hide, anywhere to keep myself out of his way. Then one day the phone rang; it was the matron, Miss Welbeck then and she said, “There’s a chit for you to take to Atkinson’s or somewhere else. I asked”What;s this?” She said,”To go and get your sister’s uniform, and on Monday you start work at Fulwood”.

LH: So you were chosen and there was no escaping. Did you enjoy it in the end?

BR: I did, I stayed there all the time, all my nursing career. They were so different, you know, sometimes you’d get the doctors were a bit cross and demanding attention. It wasn’t like that at Fulwood. You were invited to go out on safaris with them, treasure hunts and things like that. It was a family, truly.

LH: So, with this sense of family did you ever find yourself reading to any of the patients, or helping them read orchoosing books for them?

BR: Not really, we used to get quotations and things, but the medical staff would discuss things and what they read in the paper that was interesting. They included you and they’d  have their books and they’d let you borrow if you wanted.

LH: Can you remember any of these books?

BR: Yes, there was that one about  war-time pilot in The Last Enemy – his name was Hillary. An RAF pilot who got shot down and burned and went to a plastic unit at East Grinstead and he wrote this book The Last Enemy.  … Anna Karenina, War and Peace. That took a lot of time; you read little things. Sometime we had children on our ward and then of course you had to help the children but we had a teacher. The children used to go upstairs if they could manage it (we didn’t have a lift) and if not Mrs Barr came set them work on the ward which was a bit difficult really. All of the men were around, it was really difficult for them to concentrate. They didn’t do a lot, a little bit of sums and they didn’t do as much as if they’d gone upstairs to the classroom. We used to read to them, of course, little stories. Or help them with crayoning or drawing or making Christmas cards if they were in at Christmas or Eastertime.

LH: Can you remember any other books that you read?

BR: No, well obviously I read the Da Vinci Code but later, but that’s when I;d retired.

LH: You were obviously very busy in your life as a nurse and I can see how it is difficult to find time to read, very much so. So you worked until when Betty?

BR: 1985. And my life really began when I retired. You couldn’t do it if you were working. You couldn’t say “Oh yes, I’ll come.” I went to night school, I used to go to night school when I trained and we went to wood work. Often you couldn’t because you had to be on duty and if something happened you had to stay on duty. If something happened you had to stay on duty and you would miss out. But I liked to join.

LH: So you did Woodwork?

BR: Yes.

Oh yes I went to Public Speaking.

LH: Did you?

BR: Yes, that was poetry, as well. Had to stand up and recite a poem, but, more often than not I was missing.

LH: I would think you were too tired to do evening class?

BR: Yes, but you didn’t feel it. You did all sorts of things after work, like going out to dances and things like that after 9 o’clock. Anything that was happening, the parties, the Queen. We had a party, invited everybody on your ward, invited the relatives to come up to the parties. All rushing out to see the Queen when she was coming, see her on the balcony at Cutlers’ Hall. Somebody had seen the car – they’d say, “Are you ready to come?”. If you had a report to do somebody would take you down. We managed to do things.

LH: A very full life, so you were able to do things.

BR: I were climbing up a tree, but I got fast and couldn’t get down. Somebody had to come and lift me from the tree. But of course we had to go to the cathedral services, walk in uniform. I remember when I was a young nurse, the King and Queen went to Rivelin or somewhere up there and they were coming past the Royal Hospital and the matron invited me to go and stand on the steps with her and another nurse, Audrey Robinson, and some of the doctors on he stes and we had a little Union Jack.. And I nipped down the stairs and I said to her, “They’re coming, they’re coming!” And Matron said, “Miss Roberts, now wave your flag with dignity.” I was really nervous. We used to go to the people’s houses for afternoon tea.

LH: The patients’ houses?

BR: No, no, to the steel magnates, you know. We had to have little white gloves.

LH: What was that about?

BR: And a cape. We went to afternoon tea, like Viners, the Osbornes, the snuff people on Manchester Rd, no, Shore Lane. They had that lovely house with all the daffodils – go there for afternoon tea!

LH: What was that about?

BR: They were just connected and wanted to help. I suppose the nurses, well Miss Sampson really, they invited that matron, and she would bring some of her little treasures and you had to have your cape on, the wrong way round, with the red showing. And you had to have little white gloves, which matron gave you, she had a drawer full of gloves. And the butler, they had a butler!  And there was one time, oh yes, used to go in a funny little car, don’t know where they got the petrol from.

LH: So this was in war time?

BR: Yes, while I was training. We had to go and meet the soldiers from the Midland Station.

LH: I suppose in the plastic section you had a lot of soldiers.

BR: No, no, no we would get some from East Grinstead and round there, if they lived in this area, but then they’d always go back. Youo they could see their families, and then they’d go back. A lot of them joined the Guinea Pig Club, that was McIndoe, the Australian plastic surgeon and he formed the Guinea Pig Club for the injured pilots. Burnt, with burnt faces. We had some, some quite horrendous injuries, people who’d been shooting and backfired the gun and  blown half their face off. They came to us needing care and if you had those in there, your off-duty was thrown to the wind, because you know, you had to stay and look after the patients. [Sir Archibald McIndoe was a New Zealand plastic surgeon who worked with the RAF in the Second World War and died in UK 1960.]

LH: So you said Betty, when you retired your life began, but your life seems very busy when you were working, so how did it change when you retired?

BR: I went everywhere, went everywhere. We went to the theatre …

LH: Who did you go with?

BR: Friends, or, when you were training you got free tickets to go to the theatre on a matinée day.

LH: So you continued to do all that after you retired?

BR: Yes.

LH: And what about your reading? Did you find you had a bit more time to read then?

BR: Yes, because we joined the Reformation classes with Professor Atkinson. We went to university to do these and then we joined the philosophy, the First World War and we even went to learn about to computers.But we had to give it up as a bad job! I went with my sister a lot. We went to the theatres, all sorts of things that were happening, talks. All over the place we met. And I’ve kept a book of all those things I did.

LH: Have you?

BR: We went to the Philharmonic concerts, all sorts.

LH: Did you keep a note of what you read at that time as well as all the things  you did?

BR: Some of it, some. But the one that kept me going was, and I really didn’t need anything else – The History of the English Speaking Peoples. I didn’t really need anything else. I just kept going.

LH: That’s really interesting. Did you buy that?

BR: Yes.

LH: Do you remember where you bought the books from?

BR: Blackwell’s.

LH: Blackwell’s, in town?

BR: No.

LH: Where were they?

BR: Broomhill.

There is a shop now, a Blackwell’s, but there was one round the corner.

LH: Was it expensive? It must have been quite expensive to buy the whole set?

BR: Yes, you got one book at a time. I got one book as a present.

LH: Was it a subscription? Did you pay in installments to get the different volumes?

BR: No, you went to the shop and bought each one.

LH: Do you still have those?

BR: No. No. Then I got Mary Queen of Scots and then of course you see we went on holidays after we finished work. You were able to go and do all sorts of things.

LH: You told me yesterday that the Snow Goose was your favourite book? Is it now?

BR: Yes, it is now.

LH: When did you first read it?

BR: It was I think I found it in the Toc H trolley, first of all. It’ll be 1950-ish, ‘cos I went up to work at Fulwood in 1950. I really loved that book and I take it with me when I go to the hospital and I have to wait. That book nearly always goes with me. I always read it.

LH: Why do you like it so much?

BR: It’s just the story and it’s so sad; it makes you cry as well.

LH: Why do you like to cry?

BR: If I found it really sad, when he’s going to get out in his little boat and he, you know, obviously he dies in it. This little girl is shouting to him and he doesn’t hear her. I’st sort of emotional in a way. I can cry over silly things. Oh, I liked another book: Shadow Lands, by C S Lewis.

LH: You would have read that in the last 10 or 15 years?

BR: Yes and I went to see the play. We joined little groups going and had talks about the opera. Would we set it up as we would think and we were singing the opera. I was only miming but people went to loads of things at the Crucible and the Lindsay Quartet.

LH: You’re obviously very well read. Are there any books you wouldn’t dream of reading?

BR: I don’t, well, what was it we used to read and we had to cover it up with brown paper. What was it called? That D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We had to put brown paper on it so people wouldn’t know what we were reading.

LH: That was in the 1960s wasn’t it? So, you were still working then. Even as a nurse you had to cover it up?

BR: Yes, sister on the ward ten she had the book and she said, “Would you like to read this Betty?” And she said, “Keep the brown cover on it.” We read about some mountain, Annapurna or something K about these people climbing the mountain – not Everest.

LH: Was that non-fiction?

BR: Yes, also I read books about Montgomery; I have a great liking for that man. My father, he thought General Montgomery was a great person and a lot of people didn’t like him. They grumbled about him, about his flamboyancy. My father said, “I don’t agree”, then I read a book, got it from the library here, I saw it in the paper, ‘This Book is coming soon’.And it’s to his stepson, when he’s in El Allemain and his stepsonis in the army and he gets lost and captured and then escapes and he walks back and walked into Monty’s tent or caravan and it’s called “Where the hell Have you been?” That’s how he greeted his lost step son. It was a lovely book. Yes,

LH: Do you think it was the influence of your father that made you want to read these books?

BR: Yes, I think so. Also the stepson’s son, he wrote that book and was telling you about Montgomery’s softer side.

LH: So, when you retired from work did you live all through your working life in the Fulwood buildings?

BR: Yes I lived at Fulwood and then the sisters got a home at Tapton Edge which belonged to the Towzers who were steel magnets and they gave the house to the hospital.  And I came back and lived there.

LH: You were a staff nurse?

BR: No, a sister.

LH: And when you finished work did that mean you had to move out?

BR: Yes.

LH: Where did you go to live then?

BR: I lived in a bed sitter first of all down at Endcliffe Vale. Then I moved into the flats at Storth Lane.

LH: And did you take your books with you? Gradually shedding them?

BR: Yes when I left I couldn’t take a lot of them with me. I invited my friends an people I knew tocome  see and look and see what they wanted. I said, “You can take what you want” and they did. Lots of books, lovely books, my Churchill books and Wind in the Willows, mm, Mary Queen of Scots, History of Sheffield. Lots and lots of books. I can’t remember now and then I joined Storth Oaks, the drug rehabilitation. I was on the committee there and I went to help and I babysat for the children. And that was an eye-opener.  I used to take some books to them. My sister does a very good job; she takes in books to the prison in Doncaster. It was on the wireless once that they wanted books and she said have you anything Betty and I gave her some, art books and things, some of those.

LH: They do a lot of art work there don’t they at the prison. They’d have been very grateful.

BR: Very grateful yes.

LH: So the books you have here now, are they your very favourite books?

BR: No, some of my favourite books went.

LH: Oh no. You let them go!

BR: I’ve got a bit of mythology and a book of Professor Atkinson’s that he wrote Then little poetry books. I’ve got one, called Other Men’s Flowers, by General Wavell. He wrote a poetry book. He didn’t write it, he just quoted  poems that had been sent to him that he’s remembered and he wrote a little resume about it and  I have had present, books of poems and things.

LH: Did you ever read thrillers?

BR: Agatha Christie, yes, yes. Got those from the library. And I went on the Orient Express.

LH: Oh did you? That must have been lovely. Did you read historical novels?

BR: Yes the Kings and Queens and things like that.

LH: Did you read people like Georgette Heyer?

BR: Yes, and that other one, I’ve forgotten her name now.

LH: Josephine Tey?

BR: Yes, Daughter of Time. Oo I liked that book. Yes.

LH: Do you remember how old you were when you read that?

BR: I was at Fulwood, yes, so I’d have been in my 30s.

LH: Did you ever not want to read a book because you thought it was a waste of time?

BR: Yes, sometimes I’d start reading and think, “Oh I don’t like this”, and sometimes I’d go and look at the back page and read what it said about it and then, “Oh I don’t want to read that”. And didn’t if I didn’t want to do it. And I get things from the library, I don’t pick, I let them decide and my goodness me they get me some good books. The other week I got one about Marco Polo. I couldn’t put it down.

LH: So what do you consider to be bad books?

BR: I don’t like these mm, sort of sexy type books. I mean you’ve got to read it, you’ve got to know about it don’t you, but I didn’t like James Bond books.

LH: When you were a younger woman were there any books that you didn’t want to read, that you decided you wouldn’t read?

BR: Not really, because we didn’t have an awful lot of choice and we got the books because we …. knew we were going to get them like and that it was something we wanted.

LH: That’s interesting, you’ve mentioned that people have said, “This is a good book, do you want to read this?”. Is that mainly how you found your reading because people said to you, “This is a good book”?

BR: At work yes. Whereas when you were at home you didn’t have that input to your life. There is a new book for you. You’d have a present from Aunty So-in-so, and you’d say “Oh good” and you’d always want it.

LH: So you knew that would be a good book?

BR: Yes.

LH: Are there any books you read when you were younger but thought were a waste of time that you did read but thought that?

BR: Robinson Crusoe.

LH: I think you said before that you didn’t really like adventure books.

BR: But when I listened, or read a review about it and it tells you about the man, I thought “Well perhaps”.

LH: You’d missed something? Well Betty I think we’ll draw this to a conclusion.

BR:But as I say, my life changed, I did things I wanted to do and could do them at leisure.

LH: Did that mean more reading? Or did you simply go out more?

BR: Reading, and go out more. If I went to theatre, and I did little resumés about the films I saw.

LH: Did you? Have you still got that book? Could I see it? I am going to stop the recording now Betty, is that OK?

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Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

Born in 1925, Malcolm Mercer has lived most of his life in and around the Manor estate in Sheffield, and left Pipworth Road School in 1939. After seven years in the retail trade, disrupted by three years in the Royal Naval Patrol Service – Minesweeping (1943-1946), he trained as a teacher at Sheffield Training College and taught in several Sheffield schools before being appointed Head of Parson Cross School (1968-1983). He gained a Diploma in education management at Sheffield Polytechnic in 1971 and an MA in education at Sheffield University in 1979. He contributed to two of the major histories of Sheffield city and is the author of The School at Parson Crosse 1630-1980 (1980), Schooling the Poorer Child (1996) and A Portrait of the Manor in the 1930s (2002).

Unlike his wife Jean, whom we also interviewed, Malcolm did not pass the 11+, He left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. However that never prevented him doing what he wanted to do and as a teacher and historian he has written himself into the history of Sheffield, its schools and the community to which he still belongs, the areas of Manor and Park.

Malcolm has always read and he came from a family where there were books about.

I never saw father read but I’ve still got a number of his books. He was a newspaper man and though I never saw him read he’d bought a lot of books when he was younger including Shakespeare and I’ve got them now, and Southey and poetry by Goldsmith. So yes, he must have read.  My mother read Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and I’ve still got her copy and I can remember her reading Lorna Doone. So I think they must have read when I’d been put to bed.

Malcolm’s life was rich. He was a Boy Scout, and he has always been an active member of the church community at St Swithun’s on the Manor. He read constantly, like Jean his main source of books being Park Library. There were two tuppenny libraries on the Manor in the ’30s but the thrilling tales provided by Park Library seemed to satisfy the fourteen year-old’s need for adventure when he returned from working in a shop during the early 1940s.

The one I think that struck me most was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But, I mean, I read quite a great deal, The Scouts of the Baghdad Patrol by Lieutenant Brereton, Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. The Last of the Mohicans by Fennimore Cooper, The Three Musketeers and then I read Dumas: Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask, Count of Monte Cristo, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, The Queen’s Necklace, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen, all by Alexandre Dumas and of course Conan Doyle – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Gerard.

A lot of the stories that he loved were connected with nature: the Romany stories on children’s radio. ‘A Summer Road to Wales, I‘ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times.’

He also describes being ‘enthralled’ by a geography series on BBC radio for schools, which inspired an interest in ‘South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that.’ The survival skills of Manga, a boy living in the Amazon, appealed to the Boy Scout as he prepared for his Camp Craft badge.

Malcolm’s boy scouting had practical consequences. His knowledge of signalling meant that in 1943 he was posted to serve on a minesweeper for the duration of the war. There were few books or readers on the minesweeper but Malcolm had taken Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to sea with him.

I had it throughout the war until … we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman.

After the war, Malcolm returned to Park Library where he found his favourite authors, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Though Malcolm began by reading such novels as The Tale of Two Cities for their stirring qualities, he was soon, as he began to think about the education and care of children in Britain’s cities, reading novels as social history. ‘Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and I compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse’.

Malcolm still has in his possession a little notebook in which he listed all the books he read during the war years 1941 and 1942. Each letter of the alphabet has two pages, and just a look at the page for B shows how widely Malcolm’s curiosity ranged.

Since Jean and Malcolm got married, the books they bought have been mostly for Malcolm’s work as a teacher and historian of Sheffield’s schools. Despite their regular book-borrowing habits, Jean observes that ‘in fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says “I’ll ring you back” and then he disappears.’

You can read Malcolm’s and Jean’s interview here

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