Betty Newman

Betty Newman

Betty was born on the 9th September 1935.

She is being interviewed by Ros Witten.

RW: This is an interview conducted by… can you tell me your name?

BN: Betty Newman

RW: Can you spell that please

BN:  B E T T Y N E W M A N

RW: And today’s date is Thursday the 13th October

[some discussion over date]

RW: And you were born…?

BN:  1935.

RW: What was the month?

BN:  September.

RW: September the…

BN:  20th..

RW: And you lived in which area of Sheffield?

BN:  Mm, my home was at Norton Lees but I spent an awful lot of time at Darnall.

RW: Right, so between 1945 and 65 would it have been Norton Lees.

BN:  Oh, well …

RW: Both?

BN: Both, but I mean I was married in 1958. So my mother was always ill. I can never remember my mother not being ill and I spent an awful lot of time during the war particularly at my Grandmother’s because father was away. So that was where I went and I did a lot of my young schooling at Whitby Road School.

RW: Oh right.

BN: But then mum died when I was 13.

RW: Oh right, that was quite young then.

BN:  Yes.

RW: Mind you, people left school then didn’t they?

BN: Yes, at 14.

RW: So you were treated like an adult really?

BN: Oh, well no, I was at grammar school by then, it didn’t matter. Mum being ill had a great influence on my life generally.

RW:  Oh I see, right. So did she read to you? Did anyone else read to you?

BN: I can’t remember who taught me to read but I could read a long time before I went to school. I fished this out actually, I’m quite amazed but I could read that before I went to school.

RW: That’s quite impressive isn’t it?

BN: not that particular copy, but that was my Grandma’s, and I didn’t help to clear her house out so I don’t know what happened to her copy. But I bought that in a junk shop some time afterwards. That was the first book I ever read.

RW: This was a story was it?

BN: It was a story about, a Bible story.

RWI: Quite sort of a religious background.

BN: My Grandmother’s had been a school prize, there was a bookplate for a school prize in her copy. But that was the first book I ever read and …

RW: Sorry, I was just wondering what kinds of books you were reading?

BN: Oh I see, at my Grandma’s she 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 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.

RW: Yeah, something early on. So what other kind of books were you reading when you were young?

BN: Mm.

RW: Can you remember?

BN: Yes, yes, I’ve written my notes down here actually. Umm, the first book, oh no not the first book, that was Peak behind the Scenes (?) and I read it many times. But at school one of the teachers in the infant school had Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year. I don’t know if you know, that had a chapter or section I suppose for each month of the year. A poem, a play, some nature notes for each month. And we used to do the plays at school and I, I suppose I was a bit fortunate that my then teacher and my mum were friends and mum put her name down on a waiting list on the wall for one of these books because you had to put your name down and wait. So Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year influenced me a great deal and Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book did. And I took that on, and I’ve still for those copies. And that’s how I taught my own children nature.

RW: So this was in primary school?

BN: Yes, infant school.

RW: You were quite young. And then when moving on to when you were a bit older, what were the first books that made you feel like you were reading a grown up adult book?

BN: I always had done you see, because I always read these and I’d always read Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know what, I can’t remember actually. But I like Milly Molly Mandy and I really went back and I like Milly Molly Mandy books.

RW: So I suppose in a way if you were reading the adult books, things like Strand (?) magazine and Sherlock Holmes they were the ones that were adult even though you were young.

BN: Yes, even when I was very tiny I was reading adult books. And somebody gave a me a set of Dickens but they were like potted versions of Dickens and I read those when I was young. And then I went on later to read Dickens and I’ve read all the Dickens ever written I think.
RW: So when you were a teenager, when you were at grammar school, maybe 14/15. what were you reading then that made a big impression …

BN: Oh, nothing, not very much.

RW: Nothing you can think of.

BN: I mean we had enough to do, set books, at grammar school.

RW: Yes.

BN: 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 my mother used to read poetry and 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. So I’ve always read a lot of poetry, I still do read a lot of poetry. I can’t remember my father reading very much. I know he did read cowboy books and things but I don’t think he read a great deal. My father was a musician, so we always had music and his relaxation was listening to music not reading I think.

RW: And the books that you had, were there books in the house?

BN: Oh yes, we always had books in the house. Oh, at junior school I had the potted versions of Dickens, and I had the Water Babies and Peter Pan. Somebody gave me, which I have still got, a first edition of Peter Pan. And it’s nothing like Peter Pan that you get on pantomimes, the original. So I read those at junior school, and then I say at grammar school I don’t remember reading very much independently. Except a book called Continuity Girl, and I can remember that. And I got it out of the school library and it was about a continuity girl in the film industry. And that was my short term ambition, I was going to be that. But then I say we had Woman, Woman’s Own, magazines. But those are the only two I can remember reading. It was all about make-up and agony columns and ‘O dear me’.

RW: The books that you got hold of did you get them from the library or buy them second hand, or get them from friends or as presents?

BN: They were presents mostly, so most of them were second hand because during the war you couldn’t get books.

RW: What about the library? Did you go to the library?

BN: Oh yes, I was always in the library, but I can’t remember.

RW: You can’t remember much about what you borrowed. Would that be Darnall library then?

BN: Mm, no it was Attercliffe; there wasn’t a Darnall library.

RW: Oh no, Attercliffe, there wasn’t a Darnall, Darnall’s new.

BN: We used to go to the baths, it was the same trip, the baths and the library. Grandma had a neighbour who used to give me books but I can’t remember much about them.

RW: So you got a lot of encouragement at home to read, your grandparents and your mother.

BN: Yeah, and I always read a lot of poetry because my mum, and my mum I think knew by heart every word of Tennyson.

RW: So no body in your family would have made you feel reading was a waste of time.

BN: No, except strangely enough, father would never let us read in bed, because when I eventually got married, I said to my husband I want you to promise me two things, that I can read in bed and that I don’t have to eat cabbage. (laughs) I do nearly all my reading in bed now.

RW: So that’s the main place you read at the moment. And when did you find time to read? You weren’t allowed to read in bed so would it have been after you’d done your homework?

BN: Yes, yeah, I used to read on the bus as well.

RW: And if your father wasn’t reading but listened to music would you be sitting listening to music and reading as well?

BN: Yes, it was always things we did together.

RW: He was listening to the radio and the gramophone.

BN: The gramophone mostly, well we did have a radio but it was the gramophone mostly.

RW: He bought his own records?

BN: He bought records. I used to be sent, every Saturday I used to go to Wilson’s  to buy a record. Dad had all the catalogues.

RW: were they expensive then? They must have been affordable.

BN: They were affordable. We weren’t rich but we weren’t on the breadline.

RW: Yeah, so you could afford a little treat.

BN: They used to be about 3/ 6 or something like that.

RW: Which didn’t seem too much?

BN: Well, we could afford them. And we had a new record nearly every week. Dad used to pick them out the catalogue and let me go to buy them.

RW: That’s brilliant. Was that classical music?

BN: Oh mostly, yes. Purely was really. I remember being enamoured with Donald Pearce singing By a shady nook, By a babbling brook. Father called is caterwauling [laughs] I would say the same now to some of the stuff that goes on.

RW: So did you read the books that you had, you were talking about the magazines, would you say you were slightly guilty about reading those because they weren’t quite …

BN: Oh no I wasn’t guilty at the time. It was just a part of growing up. The agony columns must have been absolutely bland but they were… you know …

RW: They were quite interesting stuff when you’re young.

BN: Interesting stuff when you’re 14.

RW: Interesting when you’re trying to find out about stuff.

BN: They wouldn’t be interesting to 14 years now!

RW: Anything you read then that you think ‘oh I wouldn’t want to read that again’?

BN: Oh there’s one or two books, mm, I can’t really remember. When I was at school I was so busy reading everything else. Always history things, anything history I was reading. I went on to do history [laughs]

RW: Would you say, when you had to read a lot of texts they were a bit high brow?
N: Oh no!

RW: You liked them? You enjoyed them?

BN: Oh yes. The only thing I didn’t like at school, but I think it was the way it was taught, was Shakespeare. But I think I was the way it was taught. I do like it now. I have read most of the plays now. Not over and over but I have read them. And I was also busy reading the Bible, because I thought one should read the Bible. And I did read that in my teens. It’s like the Forth Bridge,  I read it over and over again. I get to the end and start again. I read one chapter every night. [laughs]

RW: Would you have read any historical novels or anything like that?

BN: Oh no, I’ve never liked novels very much.

RW: Oh you’re not really a novel reader? Right.

BN: It had to be something, like this Continuity Girl. It had to be something that was tangible. I loved that. I got that out of the school library. Something this is tangible, that is credible.

RW: Something realistic. But usually not fiction?

BN: Not fiction. I suppose Dickens was the closest I got to fiction.

RW: Quite realistic fiction.

BN: I don’t think he really is fiction. [laughs]

RW: No, he was trying to fictionalise what was happening in the world.

BN: I went Tuesday night to see Caire Tomalin ….  I was a bit disappointed with it actually.

RW: Oh. And would you say that reading has changed your life in any way?

BN: Oh no.

RW: Just part of your life?

BN: Just part of my life. It’s always been part. At one time I worked in the university library. But I don’t think we read much then. One thing, we had copies of Lady Chatterley before it was released. We all read that. [laughs] We read it before anyone else had it.

RW: So was that like a guilty thing?

BN: No, it was just, you know, I was in my 20s, it was just the thing to do. Lady Chatterley was down in the stacks so we read it. I don’t think we knew it was there, really until all the court case, the hoohaa came up about it. But we all read that. And then when it was released, on general release I went to buy it and they asked me if I was old enough. (laughs) I was a married lady by then, but they asked if I was old enough.

RW: What about if, mm, you said you read some of the Shakespeare plays, but would you say films influenced your reading much?

BN: No, I never liked films much, I’ve only ever really gone if someone else, I’ve never gone of my own volition, only if someone else has said let’s go. Or you know going out with lads, they always wanted to the cinema. But I don’t think I’ve ever been under my own…? I think I’ve only seen about two films in the last 20 years. I’ve got a friend who goes about twice a week and she used to say to me oh lets go and see that. But then she says I’m not bringing you again because you either fall asleep or you wriggle. Which I do, I sit a wriggle.

RW: Not something you’re interested in particularly. So is there anything else you want to tell me Betty, I mean we’ve covered quite a lot.

BN:  Well how far do you want to go up?

RW: Well you just come up with some things you want to say.

BN: When I was 22 I bought Thomas Armstrong’s Crowthers of Bankdam It really is fiction, but, I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve spoilt, used up, warn out some many copies. It’s my comfort read.

RW: Oh that’s your comfort read, that’s interesting. What was it called again?

BN: The Crowthers of Bankdam. It’s about a Yorkshire mill family with …

BN: What’s the author?

BN: Thomas Armstrong. And I’ve worn out so many copies, and I’m worrying now because the last two or three I’ve had have been from charity shops.

RW: Have the library got a copy do you know?

BN: Oh no, it’s one of the ones they throw away. It’s in about five pieces now, which is easier to read in bed actually because I can pick a section up.

RW: It’s in sections now.

BN: But I don’t read very much fiction at all. That is my one. That is from being 22. I read and have re-read Delderfield and I’ve read his fiction as well.

RW: So that’s family saga type thing isn’t it.

BN: But I don’t read his historical novels, I read his other novels but I can’t be doing with them. Mostly I read biographies. I’ve at least three by the bed, or no the bed, and I read whichever one I’m in the mood for.

RW: It’s nice to have more than one going at the same time.

BN: Oh I’ve always got at least three books.

RW: Are you a library member now? Is that where you get your books from? And charity shops you mentioned.

BN: Yeah, if I see any that I like.

RW: And do you swap books with friends?

BN: No, no I don’t swap. I very rarely, I’ve only got one friend I lend to as well. My husband lent one of my books to somebody and I never got it back. I’ve only got one friend I lend to. My best friend lives in Blackburn, and if she comes over here, we never take books but we always start one and there’s one by the side of my spare bed now waiting for her to take back with her. I just read biographies.

RW: And you’ve got your history group, so you’re reading history from your history group perhaps?

BN: No, no.

RW: Oh, it’s an active history group?

BN: It’s a local history group, Newfield Green. And just generally do local history, not so much what’s under the ground there.

RW: Not the archaeology.

BN: No, in fact one of our members is an archaeologist.

RW: But more the social history?

BN: Yes, generally, what people do. And we do have speakers but we can’t afford speakers all the time so we take it in turns to do a …

RW:  …presentation yourselves?

BN: I tend to us a book that’s called the Sheffield Rebels.

RW: Oh yes, it’s a newish one, I know the chap who wrote it actually, he would probably come and give you a talk actually.

BN: Who’s that?

RW: He’s written the book, about the rebels. David someone. He does walks around Sheffield.

BN: David Price.

RW: That’s it, David Price, he’s done some talks in the library for Off the Shelf. The trouble makers, that’s it. He has organised walks as well

BN: Is that off?

RW: No, I can turn it off

BN: Yes, yeah turn it off.

Recent Posts

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.

And:

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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