Edna B

Edna B

Edna was born in 1928 in Sheffield, living first  in Wincobank and then the Flower Estate.

Edna is being interviewed by Ros Witten on the 25th July 2012.

Ros Witten: Where did you grow up Edna, which part of Sheffield?

Edna B:  Well first of all we lived at Wincobank, and then we moved up to, well, the Flower Estate, then Shiregreen.  We moved to High Wincobank.

Ros Witten: So you moved from Wincobank into another part of Wincobank?  The Flower Estate?

Edna B:  Well, the Flower Estate is High Wincobank.

RW: Oh I see.  That was a new estate then was it?

EB: Well I think they started building them during the depression (RW: In the ‘20s?) in the early ‘30s.  They were modern by our standards, yes.

RW: So that was a move from like a terraced house was it?

EB: It was a back to back house actually.

RW: Modern?  So it was a nice house to move into?

EB: Well, me [sic] mother was glad to move because we got hot water.  You see, it was quite something.

RW: And an inside bathroom?

EB: Well it was but it was downstairs but yes, yes it was.  And we’d also got a toilet of our own, you see.

RW: Not shared?

EB:  No it was a big improvement, you see.

RW: Were back to backs pretty rough at Wincobank?

EB: Well actually, the landlady, according to me mother, was very choosy about who she had and she didn’t really want me mother to go.  But, you see, houses were short then.  People were living with other people. Yes.

RW: Difficult, wasn’t it?

EB: Yes, yes.

RW: Anyway, so you got that house and then, so you were at school then?

EB: I went to Wincobank school first of all for two years (RW: Primary school?)  Yes, and then when we moved to High Wincobank I moved to Shiregreen School because it was nearer.

RW:  So that’s your primary school and did you stay there right through?

EB: Until I was eleven.

RW: Oh eleven, right. And then what happened at eleven?

EB: Well I took the 11 Plus, well, scholarship, and went to the City Grammar.  Well, City Secondary it was then.  It had been Pupil Teachers Centre.  ‘Cos they were all trained to be teachers largely it was Pupil Teachers Centre and it became City Secondary then we became City Grammar.

RW: And you were there during the Grammar?

EB:  Er yes, I stayed there, stayed there until I was 16.  And we were going to have a new school then. [Laughs].

RW: So at 16, that was late then?  People could leave at 14, couldn’t they?  Oh they could, yeah.  So did you stay and do an exam?

EB: Yeah, I took School Certificate, yeah.

RW: What did that mean for getting work then?

EB:  Well, I mean at one time you’d got to have School Certificate but bear in mind you’d got to have at least six subjects and one had got to be English Language.  If you didn’t get English Language, and I think maths, you’d to take the whole lot again and it meant waiting another year.  But you got access to sort of what we’d call ‘better’ jobs, like Town Hall or police, things like that.

RW:  A more professional job?

EB: Yes, at a higher clerical grade.

RW: Did you know what to do after you left or were there plenty of jobs around?

EB: Well I had an interview with a headmaster and I wanted to go into teaching.  Well, I rather fancied it, and, but, me mother and father – see you had to pay then. Me mother and father couldn’t afford it.

RW: There were no grants for teaching in those days?

EB:  Well, I was told by the headmaster (RW: Scholarships, I suppose they were?)  well, we had what they called the Holly Guild, and that was the old pupils association.  (RW: Oh right.)  We could’ve got a grant from that and I could have paid it back (RW: Yes.) but you see they never had married teachers at that time.  So if you got married you lost your job.  It was only during the war that they started taking married teachers.

RW: I know.  My mother-in-law told us as she was a teacher and as soon as she got married, well, of course the war broke out and she was actually married just before the war and then went back and got her job back.

EB: So that was, you know, a deterrent.

RW: You were 16 at this time.

EB: 16. Yes, I should have had to stay on until I was 18, you see, for the Higher School Certificate.

RW:  And then do the training for another two or three years.

EB: Yes, I think, I don’t know if it was three at that time.

RW:  And five years before you were finished.

EB:  Yes.

RW: So you’d be 21 by the time you’d finished.

EB: You see, my mother wasn’t a young woman when I was born.  She was 33 when I was born so, you know, she always had a little job, so really I was always conscious that, er, we had everything that the others had but it was a struggle with us.  If I left school at that time, lots of children – they’d been to private schools to get to Grammar School.

RW:  Really?

EB: They’d been to private schools and they were from professional backgrounds, and the difference showed.  You know, I mean they’d have an expensive fountain pen and you hadn’t, but I mean, we enjoyed it.  I enjoyed school.

RW: So that would be where you started reading?

EB:  Well I read before then.

RW:  You enjoyed school and reading, so can you remember… these are children’s reading.  Can you remember any of your children’s …?

EB: Well, when we went to High Wincobank, I can remember me dad taking me to Firth Park Library.

RW: Oh right, that was your nearest library?

EB:  Yes.  And we walked across these allotments to get there.  And me dad took me and the first book I really remember reading was a book called Little Anne of Canada [repeats title] and it was illustrated, this book, and this girl must’ve lived near, in Alaska probably and I was fascinated by this story and we seemed to get it out several times ‘cos I liked it.

RW: A favourite then.  Were you quite young then?

EB:  I’d only be about six.  I probably couldn’t read every word, but I was only about six.

RW: And so he would take you to the library…

EB:  On a Saturday. It would be on a Saturday afternoon.

RW:  You’d go there most weeks, would you?

EB: Well, we always seemed to go. I always seemed to be in Firth Park library, yeah.

RW: So that’s quite a good introduction then.  And your father was keen as well as your mother?

EB: Well, his mother couldn’t read and write. (RW: Really?)  He was always conscious of what an education would do.  Well to even read.  I mean, he could read and write, but I don’t think he ever sat down and read books.

RW:  Newspapers, perhaps?

EB: Yeah, me mother was more literate than him.

RW: She was?  Was she interested in books?

EB: She was.  They would’ve gone on further but her father was alcoholic but she should’ve been quite well off.

RW: So they could’ve been educated quite a bit more?

EB: Well she could because her aunty was privately educated.

RW:  Right.  There was money in the family then at one time.

EB: Well, half of Woodhouse was owned by their family. (RW: Really?)  Yes, ‘cos they were builders.  And in fact, me grandad’s niece, she became Head of Science for Education in Schools at the BBC.

RW: Oh my goodness!

EB: She went on a long, long way.

RW: That’s your grandmother’s … ?

EB:  Well, me grandfather’s sister, er, me grandfather’s niece yeah.

RW: So that’s … It would be a cousin of yours?

EB: Well, it would be a second cousin.  It was me mother’s cousin, yeah.

RW:  So your mother, although she didn’t have the education her family could perhaps have afforded.  Lost their money?

EB:  Well they got smatterings of culture, I’d say.  I mean, they discussed politics and I remember I went to me father’s mother’s, and they read these trashy magazines and me mother said ‘Don’t be reading those’.  Now Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Illustrated were a little bit more posh.

RW: Upmarket, yes!

EB: You know, and er, yes.

RW:  So what would your mother have read?

EB:  Well, I do remember, well, someone used to give her the Woman’s Illustrated and Woman’s Weekly, when she had time.  I do remember her talking about this writer called Ethel M Dell (RW: Oh yes, Ethel M. Dell.] and I read a few.  Somebody lent me a few, but I mean they were all tragedies, weren’t they?

RW: Light. They were a bit sort of melodramatic, I’d say.

EB: Yes they were.

RW: Would you have been in your teens reading those, do you think?

EB: I’d probably be from about 10 or 11 ‘cos I was the sort of, I wasn’t a very good mixer for a start and I’d have me head in a book, you see.

RW:  Oh right, so you’d be more interested in sitting at home reading rather than out and about.

EB: Yes and I remember standing at Firth Park bus stop waiting for a bus from school and I was reading this Ethel M Dell stood at the bus stop.  He said, ‘Do you like those?’ I said, ‘Oh I love them’ but I’d only be about 12 or 13 and he was an elderly man.  And when I look back, I think well there was a tragedy on every page!

RW: I have heard of them but I don’t think I’ve ever read one.  So did your mother have those in the house or would someone have lent them?

EB:  No, somebody would’ve lent her those.  I’ve got one or two books, I put them on the stairs, that, er, they were, I think they were me dad’s prizes from school, well, from Sunday School.

RW: And so if your mother was interested would she have gone to the library with you and borrow for herself?

EB:  I don’t think she would’ve borrowed any.  She wouldn’t have had time when she had a job, and knitting and sewing.  She was ever so industrious.

RW: So she had a job outside.  What did she do outside?

EB: Well, in the depression she would be doing cleaning and things like that.  Then when the war started, she got sort of a job.  It was part office work – between the office and the works – but it was office work.  But she worked shifts.  It was the first time they ever had any money.

RW: ‘Cos they got good pay during the war.

EB: Yes but you see when you were doing a little job on the side, they didn’t pay very well and it’s the first time, the beginning of war, I can really remember us not having to count money, count coppers.

RW: But everybody was rationed so everybody was getting the same amount of food and everything like that?  So it wasn’t like, it wasn’t so obvious that people had different incomes, was it?

EB: Well, [pause] no, I don’t suppose so.  I mean, I’ve got a friend I was at school with.  I sat next to her at City Grammar, and her father was a policeman and she said, ‘Oo your mother was a friendly little woman’.  So she said always, ‘Oh, come in’. So I said to her, ‘You know, we were ever so poor’.  She says, ‘I’d never got that impression’.  I said well they were always out at a job. [Not certain this is what was said.]  Now her mother, her father was a policeman.  They seemed to live in luxury compared to us.

RW: He got a good salary, being a policeman.

EB: Well he would and they got their rent paid and things like that. Her mother had got time to go to the library and things like that.  But, I mean, we had standards, and me mother was a bit [pause] … she liked us to speak properly and we always said Grace, you know.

RW: Quite religious.

EB: No, not really, but before we always, before we got down from that table, we had to say a little Grace.  And we went to Sunday School.  And … she was a believer, but she, we weren’t, well she hadn’t time, (RW: Not too churchy) but they did go on High Days and Holidays.  But we always went to Sunday School.  We nearly lived there. [Laughs.]

RW:  I think a lot of people did that, didn’t they – send their children to Sunday School?

EB:  Yeah, yeah, but … yeah, and you know if there was anything going off, if they were putting something on, we were expected to join in.

RW: That sounds good.  And that’s so, you were still going to the library and it would’ve been Firth Park all the time, would it?

EB:  It would’ve been Firth Park until possibly I went to City Grammar and then I’d have gone to Central Library.

RW: Yeah, you’d have gone there.  And would you have gone on your own?

EB: Well perhaps go with a friend at dinner time yeah.

RW: Oh you’d come into town.

EB:  Well you see City Grammar was on Leopold Street.

RW:  Oh that one, not City School, of course.

EB: Oh no, on Leopold Street.

RW:  Where the Education Department was, that’s now a hotel.

EB:  Yes.

RW:  I was thinking of City School being out here.

EB:  I started there at 11.

RW: So you could go to Central Library and that was easy.

EB:  Graves Art Gallery.  We took sandwiches in there!  Well you got away from school, you see.

RW: So when you were then at grammar school, can you remember what sort of books you’d have been reading then?

EB: Well, I remember reading Dimsie books.

RW:  Oh yes, I remember her – the school stories.

EB: Yes. Chalet School books.

RW:   Oh Chalet School yeah.  And would you have been reading those when you were at secondary school?

EB:  Oh I’d start at 11 or 12, yes I’d be reading those.  And before that … when I was at junior school, I had a very far-seeing teacher and she had a little library and we used to borrow those books from her bookshelf.  We were supposed to write a little commentary about what we thought but I can’t remember doing it.  But they’d have Swallows and Amazons, William books and those sorts of books.

RW: Sort of good quality children’s books of the day.

EB: Yes.

RW: Did you like William?

EB: Well yes I did, but I preferred Swallows and Amazons.  And well, we read Katy books, you know, and what was that one?  Anne of Green Gables.  I read all those, yes.

RW:  Did you ever read, there was a girl’s equivalent of William called Jane.  Did you ever come across Jane books?

EB: No.

RW: Not many people know about it.  They’re very hard to find, actually.  But I was introduced to them, a friend of mine, her mother had given her them when we were students.  She’s just the same as William, exactly the same but she’s a girl.  So can you remember when you were a bit older like joining the adult library and getting moving onto adult books?

EB:  Well, when I was, mm, about 22, when I was married, we rented a furnished, part furnished cottage, in Derbyshire.

RW: Oh yeah, what, holiday?

EB: No, we rented it to live in.  Yes, well, it was a mile from the nearest bus and we’d no car.

RW:  So you had to walk a mile to get to the bus?

EB: At Holmesfield, we had to catch the bus to Holmesfield. And a mobile library used to come to us in Derbyshire and you know, sometimes I’d ask him if he’d got anything.  I think they called this chap Furber or Thurber.

RW: James Thurber?

EB: Yes, quite humorous. He said if you want a bit of something more lighthearted he’d get them and he’d bring me those. I can’t remember much about them but I remember him.  You see when they came to these isolated places they’d stop and chat a bit.  But I read all sorts from there.  I read books on antiques, I hadn’t a hope of having an antique!  I read those, I read gardening books and thrillers but me sister was in the Book Club.

RW:  Oh right, was it one of those postal?

EB: Yeah.  And she passed the books on to me.

RW: That was when you paid so much a month.

EB: So much, yes and you got a book.

RW:  But you actually paid and owned it then. It wasn’t like a library.

EB: Yes.  And I can’t remember any of the titles but I remember there was one and it was quite tragic.  My husband came home from work and I’d obviously cried all day!  Well he wasn’t a reader.  And he said, ‘Who’s upset you?  Who’s upset you?’ I said, ‘That little dog’s died’.  You know I really lived it!  I lived it!

RW: You don’t remember which one it was?

EB:  No I can’t remember but I’d always got me nose in a book.  Anything else would stand back, yeah.  That’s really good.

RW: So have you got any favourite authors from when you started moving into the adult library?

EB:   I can’t say I have really.

RW: No.  Not even over the years, nobody that you like?  Dickens or …

EB:  Well I liked Dickens, but they’re always tearjerkers aren’t they?  [Laughs.]  What is that, mm, read a lot of his books, er, [pause] not very good on authors, [pause] Our Man From Havana?

RW: Oh, Graham Greene.

EB: Graham Greene. I read a lot of his.

RW:  You’re talking literature now, aren’t you?

EB: Yeah a lot of Graham Greene books I read.  What about other people of that type? Priestley?  Did you read any?  I read Good Companions.

RW:  Yeah that’s a good one, isn’t it?

EB: Yeah, I read that.

RW: Yeah, I like that. I like a lot of his actually.

EB:  I can’t really remember a lot of authors …

RW:  What about Somerset Maugham?

EB:  No I can’t remember reading any of those but what do they call that author who wrote those books about the Five Towns?

RW:  Oh Bennett, Arnold Bennett.

EB: Arnold Bennett, yes, I like those.  And of course I read Gone with the Wind.

RW: Oh yes.

EB:  We all read that.

RW:  That was a big one, wasn’t it?  Came out just at the end of the war or just before.

EB: I think I got those Bennett books from the library.  Central Library, possibly.

RW: Obviously if you were getting things from the mobile library, you were getting whatever they could get for you.

EB: But they weren’t those sort of books.  They were, you know, bestsellers.

RW: Okay, but then you got them to get you Thurber so you see you could ask for things, couldn’t you?

EB: Yes, you could ask but that was when we came back, you know, when I’d be much older when I read Graham Greene.

RW:  Oh I see.  Was that when you lived back in town again?

EB:  Well when I was living here, because I did a course at Richmond College

RW:  So you were at Holmesfield for a while.

EB: We stayed there four years.

RW:  Four years and then you came back to Sheffield.

EB: Sheffield, yes.

RW:  And that was to here?

EB:  Possibly, yes.  But I possibly didn’t do a lot of serious reading then ‘cos I’d got young children then, yes.

RW: And from here would have been Manor Library yes?  No?  It would’ve been Woodhouse.

EB: It would’ve been Woodhouse, yes.  But before that …

RW: Perhaps with the children then would you have taken them to Woodhouse?

EB: My children, funnily enough, were not readers.  And yet, the elder one, the teacher said this boy has a wonderful fund of general knowledge.

RW:  Yes?

EB: Well it’s not because he reads.  I bought that Children’s Newspaper (RW: Oh yeah I used to get that.) and I got the articles out of it, not him.  And … me daughter read more but they didn’t read as much. (RW: Weren’t real readers?) No.  And I said to him, I said, ‘She says you’ve got a wonderful general knowledge but you don’t read.’ He says, ‘Well, mother, you have.’ You know if we went anywhere (RW: You’d talk to him a lot about things.) Yeah, yeah, I would say so-and-so lived here.  John Bunyan lived here or so and so.  And also I’d get a guide book so I knew little bits.  So he had ever such a general knowledge but yet, he reads ever such a lot now.  And me daughter went into teaching (RW: Okay.) but, the younger one, he’s practical.  He’s got to have a practical book or he doesn’t read.

RW: Well, boys are like that.  A lot of boys are like that, aren’t they?

EB: Yes. Me husband was like that.  I can’t remember him ever reading, well, books right through, no.  Practical stuff.

RW:  My husband moved on from that.  He reads a lot of fiction now.  He only ever really reads travel, not travel books, but archaeology, history, things like that.  I think they do change, don’t they?

EB:  Yeah, I like history books.

RW: So the stuff you were reading in the early days when the children were growing up.  You didn’t have that much time?

EB: Mm, when David was doing A level I did an O, er, an A level course up there in Literature.

RW:  An O level course?

EB:  An A level course.

RW:  In English Lit?

EB: Yes I’d been to different short courses and then I got on to – we did a Shakespeare and a serious novel.

RW:  Do you remember what you did?

EB:  I did, one book we studied was Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

RW: Oh James Joyce.

EB: James Joyce, I hated that one.

RW: Yeah, it’s not the best one.  It’s not the one I read.  The one I like is The Dubliners, actually.  That’s the short stories.  They’re really easy to read.

EB:  I felt they were so, you know, repressed.

RW:  Well he’s very experimental, isn’t he?

EB:  Yes it was so repressed.  And we did a, now, which we did, we did The Tempest for Shakespeare, and also I studied Othello up at college classes for Shakespeare.  And also I went to some classes, I went all the way to Meadowhead, to that school, and it was called Reading and Writing for Pleasure.  And we read Gorky and I read The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck.  Oh I absolutely adored that.

RW:  It’s an amazing book, isn’t it?

EB: Yes.

RW:  I don’t think I could read it again, it’s so sad!

EB:  It was eye opening.  That teacher was brilliant.  I didn’t do much of the writing.  I didn’t feel up to that, but the books I really could read, yeah.

RW: And so since then, you’re still using Woodhouse Library aren’t you?

EB: Well I’m in the readers’ group but I don’t get many other books. Only the set books.

RW:  Right, so the reading group is most of your reading now, is it?

EB: Yes the set books.

RW: So apart from that, you don’t borrow that much.

EB: I don’t borrow books, no.  I’ve got a friend who passes books on.

RW:  Oh right.

EB:  He’s always buying books.  I’ve got one here, I’ve had thrillers, you know, sometimes a tray or two.  Got one on here, I think [gets up to find the books].  ‘Cos sometimes, he doesn’t want to read them again.  I’ve never come across someone who read as much as him.  … Peter Robinson.  (RW: Oh yes, yes.)  I like those.  And … and at the moment he’s passing these on.  They’re all right for a light reading.  Oh I don’t know her at all, Audrey Howard.  They’re usually like a theme, like the Crowther.  Oh, I tell you what I used to read, quite a good bit back, I think they called him Frank Tilsley.  And then there was a … (RW: Frank Tilsley.)  Yeah, his books were a bit racey, but I think he committed suicide, that chap.  There was another series and they called them The Crowthers of Bankdam and they’d got wool factories in (RW: What was it? Bank?)  Bankdam.

RW:  So a bit like Catherine Cookson type thing, were they?

EB:   Yes but not as, oh what can you say? Well you can’t call it trashy, but a bit earthy.  But these people, they were mostly, had [a] wool factory.  You know, they made wool, and the boys played rugby.  I mean, as opposed to football.

RW:  Set in Yorkshire, was it?

EB: Yes, yes.

RW: North Yorkshire, I guess.

EB:  They were middle class people, you know.  The girls would have a reasonable education and perhaps went to boarding school but they were, hierarchy, and it was a series.  You could follow them on. (RW: Yeah.)  You see.  Family.  Family sagas.  Who was the author for them?  [Editor’s note: Thomas Armstrong]  Do you know, I can’t remember.  I’d have to ask my friend – he’d know.  He’s got phenomenal knowledge. [Laughs.]  We read all those.  They seemed to go through him.  Fashions.  Yeah.

RW: So of the reading group ones, can you remember any favourites that you liked?

EB:  … Snow Among The Cedars.

RW:  Oh yes.

EB: Oh, I thought that was wonderful.

RW: Was I still doing the group when you did that one, cos I was doing it for a while?

EB: I can’t remember, but I learnt a lot from that.

RW: That was an early one.

EB: Yes and we didn’t discuss it much and there was another one.  They called it Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  Well I thought that was hilarious!

RW:  It’s fantastic.

EB: Absolutely hilarious. Yes I did like that.

RW: Some of those books that we bought, obviously I’ve been out of it for a while, but I think some of those early ones we bought were really good selections, weren’t they?

EB:  Well you see that Snow among the Cedars, I didn’t realise how many of the Japanese had settled in America and you see the other side of the war.

RW: Exactly.

EB: And I learnt, and I discussed this with me eldest son, and er, I said you know I’ve got know a lot more about the world – the background – from what they come.  And there was another book. I know they acclaimed it, but, mm, what’s that?  That’s about a bird.

RW: A bird?

EB: That one that was a big trial.

RW: A trial?

EB: Oh, something about, oh I can see it now, it’s been filmed no end of times.  There’s this black man accused of murder.

RW:  Oh I know the one, To Kill a Mocking Bird.

EB:  Yeah.  But I didn’t like that.

RW:  Oh I love that.  You didn’t like that one?

EB:  No a bit too tragic for me.

RW:  It was tragic, yeah, but it was good.

EB: Yes, yes.  But that Snow Among the Cedars stayed with me all the time.

RW:  There’s a film of that.  You can get a DVD.

EB:  Oh is there?  I’ll try and get that.

RW: Ask at the library and see if they can get it.

EB:  Yes I’ll try that.  They may still have it in the library, actually. It’s a really good film. It was really close to the book.  [Editor’s note, it may be called Snow Falling on Cedars.]   But that one Behind the Scenes at the Museum I thought really, the humour. It was a bit off the wall wasn’t it?

RW: It was. But the thing about that one is if you read it once, you like it, but if you read it again, you see things.

EB: Yes.

RW: There are clues all the way through and you don’t realise until the end.  Oh that was talked about at the beginning.  That’s what it meant.  And if you go through it again, you can spot them.

EB:  But I tell you what the funniest thing was, the father came back, and he, sort of, had his tail between his legs a bit.  And then the old parrot came back with all its dishevelled feathers and, you know, they’re comparing the two. Two dejected bodies, as it were.  And I could’ve howled with laughing, you know.

RW: I know, it’s hilarious.

EB:  Just a time when you think I wish I could share this with somebody.

RW: I know, I know.  Isn’t that the nice thing about the reading group that you read a book and (EB: Yes.) depending on whether you really like it, or you don’t like it, you can exchange views with people and decide at the meeting what you think?

EB:  Daniel, we read that book, I think they called it Gypsy Boy, or something like that.

RW: Oh I’ve not read that one.

EB: Oh well actually, he’s brought up in a gypsy community and he is a homosexual.  And of course they’re taught, they’ve got bare knuckle fighting and all that, and he couldn’t do it.  And he was really quite abused.  And I could feel for that boy.  I really could feel for him.  And Daniel, oh, he didn’t care for it at all.  Daniel, he didn’t like it at all and I thought, well, it’s a man, see.  But, anyway, it was serialised on Radio 4.

RW:  Oh was it?

EB: Yeah and he spoke, the … author.  It was a true story.  And anyway, I said to Daniel, it was on Radio 4 and he said I’ve been listening to it in my van.  He says, you know, how I sympathise with him, empathise with him, really, he says, I could see what you meant. He says, I thought, he began to feel sorry for him.  He realised what it had been.

RW: He understood.

EB:  Yes.  I was ever so glad … (RW: … that he’d come round, yeah.)  Yes, and, and I thought … now a man friend.  Huh!  You know he would have gone off it.  I just, I felt so sorry for him.  I can imagine he had to go out and try and sell asphalting to unsuspecting folk.  And he didn’t like doing it but it was very much a man’s world.

RW: Yes, yes, no place for him in it.

EB: No, no.  But he did learn to read and write.  Because they never stayed at school long enough.

RW: ‘Cos they were moving around all the time, yeah.

EB: Yes, yes.

RW: Right.  We’re getting on very well here.

EB: Frankie Boy, I think they call it.  Frankie Boy, or something like that.  [Typist’s note: Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh.].  I used to write them all down but I don’t now.

RW: Oh yes, that’s the other thing we haven’t … we’ve talked using the library and obviously that’s where you got a lot of your books, and you also borrowed books from friends and your family.  What about buying books?  Did anyone have enough money to buy books?

EB:  Well I don’t buy. I very rarely buy a book.

RW:  When you were growing up, would people …

EB: Oh no.  If I particularly asked for one, and …

RW: Books for Christmas?

EB: Mm, well, they buy me books now for Christmas.  I’ve read, I’ve just … I think I’ve lent it out, but it’s the Duchess of Devonshire, Dowager, yeah, that’s very, very good.

RW:  My husband is actually reading her books.  He’s had a few.  There’s a good one of letters that she wrote between this friend of hers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

EB:  Oh did she?

RW:  Yeah, that’s supposed to be very good.

EB: But I’ll tell you one book I did buy quite early on and that was Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

RW: Yes, remember when it was on TV?  Did you ever watch it?

EB:  I saw some of it.  That was one of them.

RW: That was a really tragic story, wasn’t it?

EB: Yes, yes.  But my mother was brought up during the war, First World War, and that’s why she married late.  Her fiancé died.  Yes, ‘cos they were all away, weren’t they, the men?  And we knew every step, she talked to us, we knew every step of the way.  I’ve always got one foot in the past, you know.

RW: I think I didn’t know anything about the First World War until I saw that.

EB:  Oh it was terrible. It was tragic.

RW: And the way they couldn’t talk about it. You know she went off as a nurse, and her brother, her boyfriend, and all her friends went off and got killed. But they came back home.  The parents didn’t really want to know and they couldn’t talk about it.  It was so sad.

EB: Well, apparently, when she was a young woman, they didn’t have talking pictures.  They had silent pictures.  She said whenever you went to the cinema, they’d got the Roll of Honour.  You know, another one added.  And she said you’d look at it and think, oh that was another lad I sort of quite fancied or somebody who’d actually fancied her.

RW:  Yeah.

EB: And … she was engaged to be married, and she was 32 then, and this chap had come through the war and … he got TB and died.  So you know, well at 32, 33, and one after the other, and they were bringing them in.  Oh it was sheer slaughter, First World War, yes.  So you see, she always talked to us.  In fact I’ve got letters upstairs between her family.

RW: I’ve actually got letters.  My cousins got letters from our, he’d be our uncle, yeah, my father’s brother, half brother, from the First World War.  And she’s got copies of letters that she sent me.  It’s quite sad when they’re writing to us from the front.

EB: Well, Walter, he must’ve come out of the forces.  He met her when he came out and he was looking for work. And he wrote to her.  He was living, she must’ve been living in somewhere then.  And he wrote to her and said he’d not managed to get that job but perhaps he’d get something else.  But you see they were struggling against that. Yes, yeah.

RW: So you said that you had books that you’d bought, but that you wouldn’t have bought many books. As a young woman.

EB: Well when I was doing those courses up at Richmond, I bought the books for them.

RW: Yes, but in the early days.

EB:  No I don’t think I would buy very many, no.  But there were local bookshops like in newsagents and things like that.  Did you go in those?  Well I used to go to a newsagents every week, ‘cos I used to get the Girls’ Crystal.

RW: Oh yes!

EB: And what was the other one?  School Friend?  No not School Friend.  Oh there was another one.  Girl?  Just Girl?  Something Week, no?  There were two, there were two, but you see they were frowned on as poor.

RW: ‘Cos it was comics. Cartoons.

EB: They weren’t! They were entertaining. Yes.

RW:  They were just good fun, weren’t they?  Did those newsagents have a library?  Some of them did.

EB: No they didn’t. There used to be a kiosk and I think it was at the end of Leopold Street if I remember rightly.  There was a kiosk and I used to go and get it there every Friday.  Oh that was just a newsagent, yeah.  Apparently there were little newsagents that had little libraries.  Boots had one.

RW: Yes, Boots had a library, yes.

EB:  They had one, didn’t they?

RW:  But you didn’t use those.

EB:  No.

RW: You just used the public library, yeah.  Yeah? All right I’ll just get, we’re getting on quite well here, so, you wouldn’t bother to buy secondhand books would you?  Secondhand shops?

EB:  Well, there was a shop up Devonshire Street and they had a lot of secondhand books there.  And if you’d lost a school book, you’d got to go back and replace it.  I might have bought a second hand one if I liked it.

RW: There’s a couple mentioned here, but not Devonshire Street. There’s London Road, Patnicks and Norfolk Market Hall.  I don’t know where that is.

EB:  Oh Norfolk Market Hall?  That’s on Norfolk Street. Yeah, Norfolk Street, wasn’t it?

RW: Was there one down in the centre of town like that then?

EB: No, Norfolk Market Hall would be on Norfolk Street I would think.  Oh, I think Norfolk Market Hall, no, Norfolk Market Hall, I sort of, partly where the market is now.

RW:  Oh Castle Street?

EB: It was somewhere around there.  It was glass.  I can’t remember going in there very often.  [Editor’s note: see http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/way/nc88/norf1.htm].  ‘Cos they seem to have, after the war they’ve been changing, and changing and changing.  I know.

RW:  So second hand books weren’t something you bothered with.

EB:  No.  I used to go in Ward’s bookshop quite a bit. On Chapel Walk.  And there was a Methodist bookshop there.

RW: I think that’s even in my day.

EB: Yes a Methodist’s bookshop.

RW: And Applebaum’s there was down there as well wasn’t there?

EB:  I don’t know if Applebaum’s was down there. I thought they were on the end of Division Street.  You know where Coopers is?

RW: I think they moved from there.

EB:  Oh did they? Well I don’t know I remember where they were when I first came.  Well they used to have a lot of racy books as I seem to remember!

RW: Oh did they?  Right.

EB:  You know, top shelf things.  [Laughter].  I can’t remember ever going in there.

[Editor’s note: Applebaum’s was at 208 West Street].

RW: That’s great.  I think we’ve more or less, unless there’s anything more you want to add yourself, Edna, that, you know, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything we need to.

EB:  But I must say, when I went up to Richmond College I was nearly up the wall, I was so frustrated.  They were wanting to train mature people for teaching. (RW: Really?) They were trying to catch up again.  (RW: Yeah.)  And if you’d not got sufficient O levels you could take others.  (RW: Access courses and things.) I did but you see I’d got School Certificate so I did Social History (RW: Oh yeah.) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A lot of it I lived through.  Did social history and then I decided to do this A level course for Literature.  Now lots of them did go on to teaching but I’d still got a little boy, ‘cos I’d had one boy later than others.  And I sort of got that thirst for knowledge again, you know.

RW: How old was your child when?

EB: Well Andrew, he wouldn’t be 12 months old when I used to go there.

RW: Oh right he was still a baby, wasn’t he?

EB: Yes and me sister lived at the top of Woodhouse Road.  So I used to push him up in the pram to Woodhouse Road, go across to Richmond College, and me other son who was at school at the top of Intake, he was 15, would push baby in the pram, home.  And they’d be saying, the lads would be saying, you’ve started early haven’t you or something like that.  And my mother went mad.  You’ve had three children and there you are going to college.  I thought mother, I’m nearly going out of my head here.

RW: That’s a shame, isn’t it, as it would’ve been a long time, wouldn’t it, with little ones to have to go through it?  Would’ve been really hard to do a course and then go teaching.

EB: Yes, yes.  My mind was working a lot on wrong things, I was in a black hole, and then when I was doing the essays up there, I’d be putting the washing in the washing machine and I thought he said for this essay we’ve got to have a good start, a wholesome middle and a good end. And I’d be planning it in me head and me mind worked on more healthy things.  It was a life saver going up there.

RW: Yeah, well I was the same as you actually ‘cos when Michael was a baby, I was doing courses as well. And then I went back to work part time and then I did some courses as well while he was quite little but, you know, it just depends on whether you can do that or not. Whether you’ve got someone to help out.

EB: Well, do you know I used to be doing the well …

RW: I’m going to stop this now cos I think we’ve done enough.

EB:  Well it didn’t do me marriage any good I’ll tell you but it kept me sane.

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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.

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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