Dorothy Latham

Dorothy Latham

Dorothy was born in Catcliffe, Sheffield, in 1931.

Dorothy is being interviewed by Clare Keen on 17th October 2011.



CK: It is the 17th of October 2011 and I am interviewing Dorothy Latham that is D-O-R-O-T-H-Y , yep, Latham, L-A-T-H-A-M. And Dorothy was born in …

DL: 1931.

CK: 1931, and in which area?

DL: In which, er, place?

CK: Yes.

DL: I was born in Catcliffe.

CK: In Catcliffe?

DL: Yes, so Rotherham was my nearest … town.

CK: Right.

DL: Yes, yes.

CK: Mmm and then between the years of 1945 and 1965 you lived in … ?

DL: I lived at Nab Rise on the Nab Farm Estate. There was a new estate built on the farm land and so I lived on the Nab Farm Estate.

CK: On the Nab Farm Estate? Oh right.

DL: Yes.

Before that, what was the first day you said?

CK: Er 1945 … to 1965.

DL: Yes … yes …1945 I would still be at Catcliffe I think. I’m trying to work out … I was 22 when I got married so, yeah. So yes and then you know I met my husband and he lived in Dore so that’s why I came to Sheffield. So I think when it starts I was probably not married and still at home wouldn’t it be? Yes.

CK: So Dorothy, did anybody read to you when you were young?

DL: Always, yes. My mother was an avid reader and I can’t remember my father really but my mother really was and very interested in music and reading and we … I was always read books, yes.

CK: So she read books to you?

DL: Oh yeah, when I-I have a bed-time story.

CK: What kind of books?

DL: Well … mm … Rupert [laughs] and … then you see I  … once I could read, you know,  …  I just didn’t put them down and it was a little bit difficult, the war did disrupt things and you know it was a very difficult period. I mean I can remember that when War was declared and coming home my mother was filling a big metal chest with food and … so it-it altered everything because you know you couldn’t travel, you couldn’t go out much and even at school they. It was a village school I went to first and …, they opened the school in the holidays and we used to go and draw but it was for safety. And I can remember having round my shoulders a bag with emergency things in; a small of Nestle’s milk and things and our number KSBF1684. Well, you see, we didn’t know there was gas-masks and it was war, you know, and with living at Catcliffe I was a bit protected because I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed, you know, but we were that bit away you see? Whereas my husband went in some special shelters and he’d no home, it went in the Blitz, he’d no home at all and even the schools , …  it was home tuition whereever they could manage. And, …, you see know it – it seems strange but in those days there were very few cars and travel wasn’t easy. So, …  which now, travel and the distances that we go, it – it was a different world and I’ll … yes.

CK: So, that was your childhood then really wasn’t it? And then you were growing up becoming a teen-ager and an older teen-ager, what sort of books were you reading then?

DL: My absolute passion was Ann of Green Gables and to say I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter, which I didn’t, I had two sons, she would have been called Anne, as I … were you the same? And I adored it, and I -I was just absorbed with it. And, … but I, also because I read so much I liked Dickens and-and you see I did win a scholarship to the … Woodhouse Grammar School which was quite unusual in my village because I think it was a fee paying. So, you know, I went to the grammar school and of course then you’re doing Shakespeare and … well you do don’t you, you know.


CK: So, Anne of Green Gables, yes, … would you ? …

DL: Oh I adored it, and all the series, was it, was it something about Montgomery? Was it? I can’t remember…

CK: I can’t quite –

DL: I I… I got…

CK: I’ll have a look if I’ve got it here. Now did you feel that … what about your first grown-up book did you feel that was a grown up book?

DL: I felt it was in my time, you know, I – you see when I got to be 15 and 16 I didn’t really, you know, … go out. I had a very protected life because you wouldn’t go out at night, I mean there was a black-out but my father was very strict. I don’t mean being abused but protected and even before I got married and I was engaged to my husband I had to be in by 10 o’clock.

CK: Mm.

DL: He was so patient and . . . before . . . my father thought the world of him but er, you see the last bus from Sheffield was quarter past 9. It’s a wonder he bothered [laughs] and but you see, he, he hadn’t a car, his father had but … you see there was, it was very restricted with the war. Very restricted.

CK: Where did you get your books from Dorothy?

DL: Well, I was just … I’m sure we went to the library with my mother. I can’t remember buying them.

CK: Do you remember which library?

DL: I think there must have been one in Rotherham or something. Do you know? I don’t know but you see my mum used to go to what they called – called the Workers Education … group. So she was very interested in-in education and, you know, even for me, you know, learning to spell and trying to make me speak better. I was brought up… I was encouraged really and  … and then I know she used to go to this Workers Education … I don’t know how old she’d be when she did that, my mum, but you see she…

CK: And she got books there, did she?

DL: My mum … I …

CK: She could borrow or…?

DL: Well she went, she went for herself.

CK: Mm, yes .

DL: Because, you know, … all my family even my grandma, who lived in Tinsley. I mean I know it was a totally different education but she’d been a teacher, my grandma and … my Aunty Mary was the same, a beautiful organist and my mother was very musical. So in a strange way I was brought up in … a … ordinary household but somehow I got the best.

It may sound strange but I was encouraged in …I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he-he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.

CK: No, No. There’s a library here I’ve found called the handy and Red Circle library. Does that ring any bells? It says Rotherham branch and Greenland Road.

DL: I think that’s where I went.

CK: Really?

DL: You see my mum was going so she just took me along and – er – and I- I was always brought up with … with books and … particularly Malcolm … you know, as I say he can remember his grandpa taking him, you know to visit his first one. But C S Lewis …. and … but Malcolm … and see … but my grand-daughters are … you know, very, you know, yeah.

CK: Mm.

DL: I think it must be in us that we … like a certain way of life [laughs].

CK: Did you start buying books or …? At some point?

DL: Well you see in the war it was difficult to buy things. I mean I, toys and things, I mean for Christmas. … You couldn’t get things and I know I used to get saving stamps and things. But you see … my … Uncle Walter his wife had actually been to university, which was quite unusual and of course there again she was always giving me things … and I … there always seemed books about really. I can’t remember there not and even to spelling you know? Necessary: N-E-C-E-double S-A-R-Y and you know my mother was always encouraging me, really, to … in that kind of life because I think all the family were that way inclined. You know, really.

CK: Mm. Can you talk of any of the books you read as a young adult? Maybe the 50s or so that made an impression on you?

DL: I can remember and this may sound quite strange because you see my father-in-law was very interested and I,  I can remember the excitement and it was excitement him telling me ‘I’ve found such a wonderful book and you’ve got to read it’ and it was Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier.

CK: Mm, right.

DL: And he was telling ever body … and … and it sounds crazy but he was over the moon. ‘You’ve got to read this book’. And … and, you know it was just how it was and the strange thing is my husband, I’m sure he must have been dyslexic because he didn’t read and the only book he liked … it ..i t just was interesting. I think there was a problem and I think that his mum … and I mean they were lovely and don’t get me wrong but they weren’t readers … but the excitement of finding Rebecca may sound silly … but he was, he had to tell everyone and I, I couldn’t wait to get it [gasps] ‘Oh, it’s fantastic. Yes, yes.’ And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa. And it was … and …

CK: So did Rebecca have this effect on you?

DL: I was over the moon with it. You would think … I always was and you see we used to talk about books and things and …I  mean II love me classical music and he played in the Halle and therefore we had this …’cos my Aunty Mary played the organ at church and you see my grand-daughters and my son they’re all musical and so it was quite a nice environment because I-I could listen to classical concerts and music and I could read good books which set me apart from what a lot of the young ones were doing because it wasn’t my interest and I, I just loved books and … I liked Dickens … I really like Dickens.

CK: What’s your favourite Dickens?

DL: Oh, don’t know that … I just liked them all. I loved the Brontës. I’ve changed now but Wuthering Heights was my favourite. Soooo romantic and now I just think ‘oh, not so much.’ I loved the Brontës, I …really did and, mm, what’s the other one that’s … oh dear … it’ll come in a moment.

CK: Jane Eyre?

DL: Oh yes … all those and I. To me the enjoyment … you see the trouble was I can get lost in a book and not be doing any work [laughs] and I did have the school homework to do. And you see when I went to the Woodhouse Grammar School I … I got in and you know … it was the English, it was always the English that I was good at and, … you know we did Shakespeare and things. I actually like Shakespeare, you know, … not the … not quite as much as the others but, …, yes. Jane Austen. I like Antony Trollope, … The Barchester Chronicles. And yet if you were to tell anyone, it’s the descriptions of the characters and you’ve got to … you, you can’t explain to other people. When I got a book I didn’t want to put it down, you know, I had to … when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did [laughs] but I’ve always, always loved the reading. And, … I’m just trying to think a lot of the others.

CK: I was wondering what kind of books you really liked. I mean I’ve got some categories here, like mm …

DL: I do like, I do like History.

CK: Do you like historical novels?

DL: Oh I do.

CK: Mmm.

DL: I love them.

CK: So I’ve got some writers here, I don’t know if any of these are familiar to you: D K  Broster, Georgette Heyer –

DL: Oh, Georgette Heyer. The lot.

CK: Oh yes, the lot?

DL: Yes. I didn’t, I didn’t recognise the other.

CK: Does Margret Irwin?

DL: Yes.

CK: Mm.

DL: Yeah.

CK: Baroness Orczy?

DL: Yes! Not many actually. I don’t know why. Yes.

CK: Jean Plaidy.

DL: Oh, I loved Jean Plaidy. Oh, yeah. I’m glad you’re mentioning them because  …

CK: It helps doesn’t it? Yes.

DL: Well yes, you know. Plus I was … even now I’m always reading, you know. And … yeah … and I did I even with the library I’d ask for historical, anything. I still like history programmes and everything. I’m very fascinated with history and, …, yeah, yeah. I’m trying to … Georgette Heyer.

CK: Mm.

DL: I don’t know whether you’ve mentioned that, you might have done.

CK: Do you remember any particular books of hers that you liked?

DL: I …, I mean I just don’t know. This is older, the belf-belf, …wait I’ve forgotten her name, oh dear I know it. I like Catherine Cookson, I mean I know she’s, there’s a little bit of swearing but I feel it’s you know in the context of the era that it was. I do like Catherin- oh, er…. Rosamunde Pilcher. I think she’s fantastic. I read all those.  I’m just trying to think. I think when you’ve read such a lot, you know … and, I-I, yeah, but yes.

CK: So you liked historical novels.

DL: I do.

CK: Particularly.

DL: I still study, I, you know. I mean Malcolm, you know, he likes the history and I mean, Tom Holland and that but I can’t, he’s a historian, but they don’t come over … I can’t follow them on the talking. It’s too hard for me. You know, you know, but Tom Holland. You see, I like the history of Rome and … I do like history very very much and I did read, read a lot of- and history was a subject I took, it was school certificate and you see …if you didn’t get English language you didn’t get you school certificate. It …was compulsory. Well I mean that was a doddle for me [laughs].  But history and I still am fascinated by history. Yes, but anything even now that I can listen to, even though I can’t see a lot on television and archaeology. Oh yes …, Agatha Christie [laughs] that’s another one. , yes and er, yeah, and even my youngest grand-daughter, she, actually she is doing remarkably well, Louise but she is quite severely dyslexic but she can read a bit. Agatha Christie is, you know, and in actual fact because …where she works, … because she’s done the engineering and things and done so well with her college … they’ve put her forward and she has started at the university for doing her degree and a masters. Well … you’ve got to give her credit because she is quite determined and, you know, so, Yeah, but she reads, which my husband didn’t except for Jeeves and Wooster. Who was, who was doing that? I… I can’t remember.


CK: Carry on Jeeves …

DL: Was it James?

CK: No.

DL: It isn’t is it? I like…was it P J  James, was he, or was it she? I don’t know.

CK: P D – it’s a she.

DL: It’s a she isn’t it? Yes.

CK:  Mm. P D James. Yes.

DL: I did –

CK: Detective novels.

DL: I did like those, you see, and …the one in the monasteries … Cadfael is it?

CK: Oh yes.

DL: I did, I liked those. And I liked … I like a mystery, if it’s well written. I read a wide variety.

CK: You certainly did. I’ve got some more thrillers and mysteries here, might ring a bell …

DL: James Patterson, I found fairly recently.

CK: James Patterson? Oh right.

DL: I did like his writing.

CK: But that’s a recent?

DL: It is a fairly recent find.

CK: Yes.

DL: About maybe five years ago.

CK: Right, but going back some. If we have a look we’ve got Eric Ambler, Lesley Charteris, Graham Greene.

DL: Graham Greene, yes, oh yes.

CK: Antony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda, Nicholas Monserrat, remember those?

DL: Oh yes.

CK: Is that The Cruel Sea?

DL: Pardon?

CK: The Cruel Sea?

DL: Oh yes, I … yes I have, yes.

CK: You remember that.

DL: Yes. It’s trying to remember, you know, there are so many, so many.

CK: Edgar Wallace, Dennis Wheatley.

DL: Dennis Wheatley, who was the other one?

CK: …, Edgar Wallace.

DL: I have, yes I have. Not as many, I’m trying to think.

CK: Do any of those stand out as ones that you read when you were younger and made quite an impression on you?

DL: …It’s difficult to say. If I heard them again I could kind of put them in the areas…[longish pause] … , because I’m just remembering and you see a lot of them when you remind me I think ‘oh yes’ well they were probably a long time ago. Because I have, I have read an awful lot and is one I found recently, I don’t know whether she is a modern writer, is Betty- is it Betty Neels?

CK: I don’t know her myself but I’m sure my colleagues …will –

DL: I’m not too sure. And sometimes I say ‘oh I did like that’ and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like. I did like, as I say, I did like, you know the Brontës, oh I loved them, and you know Jane Austen. I thought they were fantastic.

CK: Do you ever re-read them?

DL: Pardon?

CK: Do you re-read them?

DL: Yes and sometimes I’ve even had them back. You know, now it’s been so long that I think ‘oh, I’d like to listen to that again’. Somehow I find it therapeutic.

CK: You have audio-books now do you?

DL: I do have the audio ones.

CK: They’re great aren’t they?

DL: I can show you some of what I’ve got.

CK: Oh well, when we’re finished let’s do that. Yeah, that would be great.

… Now I’m just wondering, …so when you were a young adult; you were using the library a lot.

DL: Yes.

CK: And you went to work, was there a works library where you worked?

DL: No, you see, I went to as I say Woodhouse Grammar School and then, I, it was just starting and it’s called the Youth Employment Service and it- it was, I suppose they used to call it … it came with the West Riding county council and it was going into schools and advising them on their careers. I went with the Youth Employment Officer, because I was young, and, … you know, and then we had a problem in the mills because there was … an office in Penistone and then Ihad to go to Barnsley; it moved. I found that difficult traveling to Barnsley but the Youth Employment Officer lived across the road from me so we went on the bus together. The mills got into trouble and we had to work overtime doing the, you know, the documentation. You know, they’d been out of work and it was, it was awful and then, when I got married it was the travelling and it was difficult. I went one day, before I was married, to Penistone. I did run that office, it was in a chapel there, not a chapel I think it was the council premises. It was at Chapeltown and I went to Penistone and I thought ‘well nobody has been in today’ and when I got outside it was up to my knees in snow. I can’t to this day remember how I actually got home at nearly 9 o’clock at night and my father said I couldn’t work there anymore. I did stay at it for a little while and then I got married and I … took the civil service exam and, you know, I was in the civil service.

CK: Did you have much time for reading in those busy times?

DL: I was always reading.

CK: When did you manage to fit that in?

DL: Well, I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses. I mean you had a long journey sometimes and, … and I always, I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me [laughs]. I’ve always kind of, …  often read before I’ve gone to sleep. Read a chapter of whatever it was. I still like to do that.

CK: Did anybody ever make you feel that, or, ever anybody suggest that reading was a waste of time?

DL: No, I mean, you see, Derek was always very, very practical. He had his own business as a plumber and heating engineer but …he liked fiddling, doing things. So … he wasn’t bothered about television and I, so often at night I’d read and he’d be in the garage doing something or – and then when he really wasn’t well both my sons were married. In the end, because he wasn’t well, I didn’t like him in the cold garage because it didn’t suit him so I … took everything out of one of the bedrooms and he did all his joinery and that in there. You know, it was no trouble and he was happy upstairs and he’d come down and he’d make me a drink. No, but Derek and I just got on and he was happy fiddling and …, so you know when he wanted to be making and doing and repairing things. All the neighbours loved him because he could mend anybody’s washing machine he was just very practical.

CK: Yes, yes. Was there any time when you were made to feel embarrassed about what you read? Or, for example, did you ever read anything because you thought it might improve you in any way? You now, so were there some books that you thought were a bit low-brow perhaps? Or were you sometimes trying to read books that you know were improving you?

DL: I just, a lot of things I just didn’t like, and it – I’ve had some funny experiences because of my disabilities and my sight and it-it must be 10 years ago, maybe a bit more, because there used to be a mobile [library], and I’ve been here for about 15 years because I moved because of a hip operation going wrong and then I found out that my sight was going because I used to write. So I’d got a … book on the, I had a big table, you know, a glass top and shelving you know, I’ve forgotten what you call them in the middle of the lounge. So some friends came and I hadn’t read it, I’d popped this book underneath and they, …and the husband picked it up and he went ‘phft do you like this stuff then?’. So [laughs] I can’t even remember what it was now. Well I won’t say it was pornographic but I don’t think, I don’t know and I was so embarrassed because I’d never opened it and you see I found out that the mobile library that used to stop at the bottom I couldn’t pick, you know, I couldn’t read what they were about and I was bringing things in  … and I think I hadn’t read … this was before I came here so it must be over 15 years ago but I can’t … and when I actually started to read it I just said ‘I hadn’t read it you know’. I’d no idea [laughs].

CK: You can’t remember what it was?

DL: I’ve no idea. I’m sorry.

CK: Don’t worry.

DL: But it was very, very embarrassing. So after that, you know, they did used to help me. You know, because they knew what I liked and then in the end … you know with my spine going and that. They were lovely and they said ‘Still come and say hello’ and I said ‘I can’t’ and they arranged for me to have the home service and I didn’t know anything about it and I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.

CK: Are there any books that you read with pleasure when you were young that you wouldn’t dream of reading again?

[Long pause]

DL: I don’t know about Ann of  Green Gables, I absolutely was besotted with I t… and I mean now, I don’t want to read it. Also I thought Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now.  I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top. It doesn’t seem quite real. But as young person I was telling everyone ‘that’s my favourite book’, I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.

CK: Absolutely.

I’m just going to look at … oh, yes I was going to ask you if you were ever inspired by television or a film or a theatre play or something that you saw to then go and read the book. Did that ever happen?

DL: … No. The only thing I can say in that aspect is that if I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same. One was about a priest, now which one is that? They made it into a film.


CK: Was it a Graham Greene one?

DL: I can’t remember the author. …It was quite well known and I think it, he was a priest and he fell in love. Now, it is quite famous.

CK: Sounds like Graham Greene.

DL: It might be.

In all of them [dramatisations of books]  I’ve always felt let down. What people don’t realise is when you’re reading your mind’s working and that’s why you want the descriptions of… . It has to be well written because you don’t get it with some of the others. It’s quick, you know. They don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances and when you see it in … I can’t remember. I think the only one I thought that came up well was Great Expectations. I thought that seemed to come over, not that I think about it but a lot of them I’ve … I’ve felt a bit disappointed.

CK: Yes I know what you mean. So you’ve mostly, you’ve been a great library user.

DL: I’ve always …

CK: What about buying books? Do you ever … did you back then, buy books or ask for them as presents and so on?

DL: I did and I’ve always and I’ve asked for books but, you see, when … I got married at 22 and you see when I started work … I gave all my wages to my parents until I was 21. It sounds ridiculous now because money isn’t the same price but I had 10 shillings a week spending money which had to do for gloves, stocking and bus fares and it wasn’t a lot but I do understand my parents because my eldest brother Derek who’s 4 years older than me, … he’s very musical, I mean it was such a feather in his cap but he went to work for Wilson Pecks and it was an apprenticeship with Bechstein pianos and he was trained … with someone from Bechstein on repairing those pianos. Well his wage, up to being 21, was 12 and 6 a week which when you’re on an apprenticeship, you know. Things have altered and his bus fares were 15 shillings. Well they had to … and see that was my parents, they were proud of what he was doing and so he was supported. Do you know what I’m saying? I didn’t think anything against it, I thought that was fine, you know, because I went to the grammar school, they had to buy the uniform and things. They never grumbled. They had to go to the specialist shop in Woodhouse and it wouldn’t be cheap but you would always have to have the uniform and never once did they grumble about anything. I think they just wanted us to do well. I think we were supported to the best of their ability.

CK: Well I’m going to … sort of suggest some other writers that might ring a bell with you. Just see if you know any of these. Don’t worry if they don’t ring a bell, it’s just something we can try.

DL: Obviously I can’t remember all of them …t here’s no way –

CK: Well you’re doing better than I would Dorothy.

In sort of general fiction realist we’ve got sort of H E Bates … and Arnold Bennett.

DL: Arnold Bennett, yes, I have. Arnold Bennett I can’t just remember what it was. Yes, Arnold Bennett.

CK: John Braine.

DL: No.

CK: A J Cronin.

DL: Oh, yes. Yes.

CK: Yes, We’ve got one, The Stars Look Down is that one you read?

DL: Yes.

CK: What about Warwick Deeping?

DL: Now that rings a bell.

CK: Sorrell and Son.

DL: Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic.

CK: Oh really?

DL: I can’t tell you what age I was when I did those. Sorry, I just can’t.

CK: Don’t worry about that. Can you remember anything about Sorrell and Son and the impact it had on you?

DL: I …found It … it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down. Sometimes…and,  … you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read [laughs] and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in haven’t you?

CK: Of course, yes. Did you ever read any other of his books, he wrote quite a lot didn’t he?

DL: Mm, if you mention them … I can’t remember.

CK: If my friend Mary was here she could name all of them but I can’t.

DL: I’m not as good [laughs].

CK: I’m not [laughs].

DL: I mean I’m not really.

CK: But you do remember reading that one and thoroughly enjoying it.

DL: I did, yes. Yes, I did. I probably read others, ‘cos you see I, … I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library and got rid of the library off here. I thought it was disgusting and now, they’ve actually … we’ve got one, you know. But there wasn’t a library, I couldn’t believe it and they said ‘well you can go into town’ and I thought [laughs] I’d come here because I was disabled [laughs] and I thought ‘no library!’ and, you know, it was a beautiful old building, it was a shame and then they built all those flats, you know, so high up. I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.


CK: Well they’re under threat again aren’t they?

DL: I know.

CK: They’re always fighting. What else have we got? A book called Little Man What Now? Hans Fallada.

DL: No, I don’t know.

CK: No, me neither. What about Galsworthy, John Galsworthy?

DL: I have! Now what….?

CK: He did the Forsyth Sagas.

DL:  Oh yes, absolutely fantastic. Now that was the one I also loved on television and couldn’t put it down. Another one that I thought was exceptional on television was Pride and Prejudice, not the film. I don’t like the film. It hadn’t got the feeling of the etiquette and the … t came over loud and harsh but …, the one on television –

CK: On the BBC.

DL: I thought it was fantastic but then they did a film afterwards and there was a group of us went and there were six of us and we went and when it had finished we all went ‘no’. It started off noisy and riotous and it wasn’t the right atmosphere. They, they weren’t into the culture. But I did like that one, yeah.

CK: Right, what else have we got here? Mm, Nevil Shute?

DL: Oh yes, yes! Oh I like Nevil Shute. Yeah. Gosh I’ve read more than …

CK: J B  Priestley?

DL: Yeah, yes.

CK: Somerset Maugham.

DL: Yes. I’m sorry [laughs]

CK: Rosamond – oh well you mentioned, well did you? Rosamond Lehmann?

DL: No, I’ve not heard of them. Rosamunde Pilcher I mentioned.

CK: That’s right you did. It was Rosamunde Pilcher.

DL: I do. I found her fairly recently; The Pearl Seekers. There’s another one I like and I’d recommend … I wish I could remember the name and she didn’t like it because she said it was too involved and she’d had one or two characters. I wish I could remember the name. I thought it was fantastic and all together at the end she brought them back. But my friend felt it was too involved. I wish I could remember.

CK: That’s a more recent read is it?

DL: It must be about five or six years ago. I told my friend Erica. I can’t remember. It wouldn’t be Betty Neels would it? I can’t remember but one was called The Evening Class I think. You start off and you’ve got different lives and about four characters and somehow it all comes together. I really like, I think the first one was called The Evening Class, … I’m sorry I can’t remember.

CK: Don’t worry.

DL: I must go to the library and find it.

CK: Well, we can look these things up.

What about Howard Spring?

DL: Yes.

CK: Allen Sillitoe, H G Wells.

DL: I… think …I wasn’t too keen on H G Wells.

CK: No, no. Nevil Shute.

DL: Yes, I quite liked Nevil Shute, yeah.

CK: Um, we’ve had J B  Priestley haven’t we?

DL: Yeah.

CK: So, that’s sort of some general fiction. … Rural, I don’t know. The Green Mansions I don’t know, W H Hudson.

DL: No I don’t.

CK: Mm, we’ve looked at historical novels.

A bit of adventure? High Wind in Jamaica? No?

DL: No, I don’t know whether they has been a film about that.

CK: I think there has been a film, yes.

DL: Yeah, I don’t … I haven’t read it I don’t think, no.

CK: Oh, we’ve had lots of crime fiction haven’t we with Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

DL: Well, I mean now, Poirot is on every night isn’t it?

CK: Any Dorothy Sayers?

DL: Oh yes! Oh I do yes!

CK: You liked Dorothy Sayers?

DL: Oh I did like her, yes, yes.

CK: So did, when you found an author you liked did you tend to read all their books?

DL: I looked for them.

CK: You looked for them, yes.

DL: And I have done it even with the library now. They know exact – and I’m reading books that I never thought I would. That’s why I think that Betty Neels is one I’ve found and I’ll ask and they’ll try and look for them.

CK: That’s good.

DL: And what they bring me I don’t think I’ve had a bad one. I’ve really enjoyed what they’ve brought.

CK: It’s a good service isn’t it?

DL: I feel it would be just such a loss to me. Because, you know, I could get very bored. As I say I’m used to … as much into art and to painting. Fortunately I can get the music as well. You see, I used to go to Norton College for the visually handicapped and did a lot, made cards and things for the blind and you see I wanted to, when I retired I was going to go for water colour painting and I went to Pauline Shearstone but this is when I found I really couldn’t see, picking the colours up. I’ve heard since she’s died actually but she was a beautiful local artist.

So you see all the things I was doing and all the knitting and embroidery and the art, it’s gone, and I liked gardening, I had a lovely garden at home and you know quite big. That’s why I wanted this, you know … I’ve got … and you know, Cathy does the pots now but I’d go a long way to get a better view wouldn’t I? I can’t see in the distance, I can’t get as much but I just wanted a garden and if it’s nice I can just sit out and I just think ‘well I needn’t go driving miles’, you know. I’ve got this and Cathy is very good [sad].

CK: I’m just going to look at a few more titles here, Dorothy. Mm, Cold Comfort Farm?

DL: Pardon?

CK: Cold Comfort Farm?

DL: No, I’ve heard of it but I don’t think I’ve read it.

CK: No, not one of yours.

DL: No, I’ve not read it.

CK: What about Mazo de la Roche? He wrote some sagas The Jalna Novels.

DL: No, I don’t think I have.

CK: No. mm, any more romances? Gone with the Wind, Margret Mitchell?

DL: Oh, yes! I think everybody has watched that.

CK: What about the book? Did you read the book?

DL: Yes … and I like the film. Yes, that’s going back isn’t it?

CK: Yes, Margret Mitchell wrote the book.

DL: Oh, that’s it, yes, oh I did like Gone with the Wind.

CK: What other romances have we got?

DL: I don’t like silly romances.

CK: No. Mills and Boon?

DL: I’ve read some of them, yes. I mean … Yes, yes. Who was that one that was well known?

CK: Barbra Cartland?

DL: Yes. One or two but they’re all … I’m not mad about them but I have read some of them.

CK: A light read.

DL: Yeah, but no I’m not …S omehow they felt a bit … light. I don’t know they just weren’t, they were OK, I’ve read some of them but I wouldn’t go mad.

CK: I remember reading a book by Ethel Mannin. You don’t know her?

DL: No.

CK: Who else have we got here? Kingsley Amis, H E Bates.

DL: What was that, Amis?

CK: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.

DL: Oh yes I have, yeah. I’m amazed at all these that I’ve read [laughs].

CK: Well there are whole lists here. I mean I’d just bore you if I read the whole lot of them. I think we’ve got quite a lot there haven’t we Dorothy.

DL: We have.

CK: I’m just going to ask you if there are any ways in which reading has changed your life?

DL: [pause] Mm, in a lot of ways … particularly … as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not, but because I’m so limited because I’ve always been very busy and  worked hard, I mean I’ve had to. I had to look after my parents because my father was two months off a hundred, so I’ve always been very very busy and all of a sudden it’s, because of how I am, I …I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this. I like to be occupied. I do like to be occupied and as I say I used to do a lot of work in the garden, I loved the plants, and … and … but you see reading now and I also have the Mappin Street, [Institute for the visually impaired]  the talking news, so I keep my brain occupied and then Cathy comes and she has been working with me today and doing things. You see, but it doesn’t do me any good.  I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good.  … I’ve reached a good age I’m 80 in a month and …, and I think ‘well, I’ve done quite well really’.

CK: Certainly have. Dorothy, I’m going to say ‘thank-you very much’ and I’m going to switch you off now.

Access Dorothy’s reading journey here.



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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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