Elsie Brownlee

Elsie Brownlee

Elsie was born on the 24th June 1925 and died on the 31st January 2015.

Elsie is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 21st February 2013.

MG: This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover. It is the 21st of February 2013 and I am interviewing Elsie Brownlee. Elsie where were you born?

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EB: 12 Warrington Rd, off Crookesmoor Rd – Sheffield of course.

MG: Thank you. What date was that?

EB: The 24th of June 1925.

MG: Thank you very much and the first question I wanted to ask was, did anyone read to you when you were young?

EB: I don’t remember that, no, I don’t remember.

MG: Yes,

EB: They may have done but I never remember.

MG: So, you’ve got this lovely book you’ve showed me. Scrubby Bear’s’Adventure.

EB: Yes [then shows Mary another book] now this was the first one I had. My grandmother gave me it. Tick, Tack and Tock. I said the other day that I thought it was about three mice but it isn’t. It is about three little men and they lived in this grandfather clock and each, well, I am not sure it is in chapters but it’s all their adventures during the night when they come out to play when the clock strikes twelve o’ clock. It’s quite interesting and I was very fond, very fond, of that book partly because my grandmother had given it me. I had only got one grandmother. My other grandmother had died before I was born. I had got a grandfather but I didn’t see him very often. My grandmother was a widow so she used to come at Christmas and spend Christmas with us and she brought us this at Christmas.

MG: It is a beautifully illustrated book.

EB: It is. Here it is ‘From Granny and Aunty 1931’.

MG: Lovely, yes! So how old were you then?

EB: I should have been six.

MG: So you must have reread that book.

EB: Oh yes, I read it time and time again. And as far as I can remember that was the only book I had. I don’t remember any others until [pause]. I think I had that Scrubby Bears’ Adventures, I think I had that in my stocking. Sometime after that I had written my name and address, but there is no date. This is about a bear who lives with a family and each chapter, as you might say, he gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, like the children decide to go and sew some dusters and he finds these dusters and he plants them in the ground. And he does something like  that, as I say, gets hold of the wrong end of the stick each time and at the end of each little chapter, it ends by saying ‘but Scrubby had learned his mistake and he never made THAT mistake again’. And then something about putting trees in shoes so of course he took the shoes and put them in the trees. Well, of course when he found out he had done the wrong thing so he was sorry but he’d never do THAT again. And there are about eight little chapters along those lines.

MG: And in the margins of every page there are these lovely pictures of Scrubby.

EB: He’s going up a tree there.

MG: So, were both books humorous, Elsie?

EB: Oh yes, yes.

MG: Is that a taste that has stayed with you later on in life? Do you still like humorous books?

EB: Well, not particularly. Well nowadays I am into historical novels. I love historical novels, the further back the better.

I was going to tell you how I got involved in reading. My parents took us all, one holiday, to Rhos Neighr [Anglesey]and we stayed with a lady called Mrs Jones.   And she had a daughter called Gwen who must have been in her twenties and she was a nurse and she was trying to go about with a man her mother did not approve of and there was a fair in the village and the daughter went to this fair and she didn’t come home. And her mother knew what had happened. She had gone off with this man. Anyway, during the fortnight we were there we had a motorbike and sidecar. We went by motorbike and sidecar. And my father found out that they’d got relations in various parts of Anglesey. He wanted – because there were no phones in those days – and he volunteered to take Mrs Jones to various relatives to see if she was living with them. Anyway, we must have come back home and I don’t know how Gwen got our address but her parents must have had a form of communication, as letter I suppose from her asking – she was thinking of coming to Sheffield – to look for a job as a nurse – could she come and stay with us? And my father was always, he would never turn anyone away from his door he thought was in need. He said, ‘Come by all means.’ And she stayed with us for, well, I don’t really know how long, quite a little time and it was while she was living here,  at Priory Nursing Home, was on the Moors at Nether Edge I suppose it is now that she introduced my mother to new world. She introduced her to Woolworth’s which had more or less just opened, everything 3d to 6d. I brightly suggested, ‘Can we buy a car?’ and she also mentioned the library and my mother said, ‘I’ll have to ask my husband about that’ because he was a bit funny about borrowing books that other people had had. But apparently he must have said yes so my mother enrolled herself at the library and she found out that there was a junior section and that was when she enrolled me and when I first went, oh, I couldn’t believe there was such a place. I just felt as though I was in heaven really, all these books round. And I can’t remember, I suppose I should have been at a school age then [unintelligible]

MG: Was that the Central Library?

EB: Yes.

MG: That was quite a trek down from Crookesmoor.

EB: Yes, and believe it or not we used to walk there and back because later on, this is nothing to do with reading, we ALWAYS walked into town and back again. At one time, I had a passion for going on a tram and one of my school friends who lived in Walkley, the end of Walkley she ALWAYS went on the tram and how I envied her going on a tram and I said to my mother when we were in town. Let’s go back on the tram, purely for the job of going on a tram, and she said ‘No, we’re walking’ and we had a little fight about it, and in later years when my mother was talking about financing, not being well off, she said, ‘Do you remember that incident when you were annoyed when I said we couldn’t go back on the tram?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and she said ‘The reason was, I couldn’t afford the fare’ and it was 1 ½ d for an adult and 1/2d for a child and she couldn’t afford it the tuppence. Well, anyway, that’s beside the point. So that’s how I got involved in reading books.

MG: So you think if Gwen hadn’t come to stay with you, you might not –

EB: Might not have done, no.

MG: Wasn’t there Walkley Library?

EB: Yes, there was. I didn’t use that. I don’t ever remember. I am sure I must have gone in but I don’t remember. I don’t know why I should have gone in because I don’t see why I should ever have borrowed anything from there. [unintelligible] I think that’s one of the ones that going to close.

MG: But Central was so brand new when you started to use it.

EB: Yes, it was. I mean as I got older just before I had to move out, start using the adult library I had ambitions to be a librarian.

MG: Yes.

EB: I thought, ‘I’d love to work in a place like this. I’d LOVE to work in a place like this.

MG: Were the librarians helpful to you?

EB: I don’t ever remember asking  for help for anything. I just used to go in, get what books I wanted and come out again.

MG: Can you remember those early choices?

EB: They were usually school stuff, The Chalet School books and there was one they called Oxenholme, Oxen- something books. There was an author. They were sort of family stories, like that.

MG: You don’t remember a schoolgirl story called Septima’s Last day at School?

EB: No, I don’t.

MG: Somebody’s just given that. Can you remember the one you loved best and perhaps took out again and again?

EB: No I can’t remember that. I weren’t a great one for rereading books. I never have been. [When I shut it up?] That’s it, I’m satisfied. If I read it again I can get a bit bored. I think ‘Oh, I’ve read all this before’. So no, I don’t remember keeping reading the same thing.

MG: So you and your mother visited libraries together?

EB: Yes, we did and she became a big reader. I’m talking about in later years because when we – I had a sister who was ten years older than me and when we were younger she had got enough on looking after the family. I mean, it’s not like it is these days. It was darn hard work keeping the home going, washing – none of the modern appliances or anything like that and my father came home for lunch. He worked at Hillsborough and he came home for lunch. I mean he expected a meal at lunch-time and then a meal at night so she’d be on the go all the time. She did all the decorating and things like that.

MG: What was your father doing?

EB: He was a clerk in the steel works. It was a branch of Edgar Allen’s. It was only a small steelworks and he was the under-manager there. There was only the manager and himself until the manager’s son left university and he came into the business, but he was nobbut a spare part, as they say. I mean all he did was go to the library across the road in Hillsborough Park and he’d come back with a load of books and sit at his desk and read them. And when my father, there were no adding machines or calculators so all the lists of figures had to be done manually and when my father asked him to check all those figures, to make sure he’d got the right answer he said, ‘I’m not bothering with that because they’re always right!’.  [laughs] Stop wasting my time.’ So that was that! [laughs]

MG: So your father was really the manager if the manager didn’t do anything?

elsie-brownlee-deckchair

EB: Oh yeah. The manager was aware that my father was in charge. And that was another thing. They had the horses in the stable there. I don’t know whether the son left for some reason. I can’t remember but I know that later – I would probably be about twelve or thirteen, when the manager went on holiday my father used to take me down there and I used to play on the typewriter. Oh I was fascinated by the typewriter, I really was. I can remember being taken into the forge with the hammers banging away and seeing the horses. It is bringing it all back to me know and that was how I got to be a typist, a secretary, because, as I say, I loved playing on the typewriter and I was more or less brainwashed into thinking that there was nothing else for me to do when I left school because when we visited relations they’d say, ‘And what is little Elsie going to do when she grows up, when she leaves school?’ and my mother would pipe up, ‘Oh she’s going in an office like her dad’. My career was mapped out for me! I should never have gone in an office.

MG: Should you not?

EB: No. I should have gone in for nursing. I got far more job satisfaction from my three hours at the Lodge Moor Hospital than I got in a week doing office work. I used to think, ‘Oh, this is a waste of time; a trained ape could do this.’ I regret it.

MG: What a shame.

EB: But it’s just one of those things, where life takes you.

MG: So, what about schooling, Elsie?

EB: Well. As I say, my sister was ten years older than me and she had been at this school with Miss Brittain in Springvale Rd and that’s another thing. In later life, a cousin of mine, she had a little girl and she lived in Derby. We’d been to visit and she mentioned that the little girl was attending school and she was only five and when I got home I just about blew my top and I said to my mother, ‘I am absolutely disgusted with Barbara with sending so-in-so to school at that age, poor little thing’ and I didn’t realise that it was play-school that she was going to and how beneficial it is for children to go to playschool because when I went, I went when I was five. I had been with my mother all the time and my mother and I were very close. I hated school. I absolutely loathed it and my sister had the job of taking me there because she was fifteen and she left and she must have reported me to my mother because she said that I was a naughty girl when I was going to school and I got to do one or two things and if I didn’t, golliwog would disappear. This golliwog, which, incidentally I’ve still got, it was made up black silk stocking and I slept with it at night and it evidently didn’t have any effect on me because golliwog disappeared. It did, eventually, come back. Oh, I hated school, I hated it, I really did. And then, about two years later – I think I was about seven when Miss Brittain said she was retiring so they found this school on Commonside run by Mrs Taylor, two spinster ladies, which was slightly bigger and I didn’t really enjoy going to school. And when I was older, exams, I can still feel that awful feeling . ‘Oh it’s exams.’ My whole stomach churning, getting all worked up but anyway, I just loathed school and when I was getting towards fourteen it suddenly hit me, ‘When I leave school, there won’t be any more exams. Yippee!’ I couldn’t wait to leave school – no more exams! Oh, I couldn’t believe there was a world where you didn’t have exams. Ridiculous when you think about it. [laughs] I must have been mad. I think that is one of the reasons, when I sort of had opportunity, take the bull by the horns and really go in for nursing because at the back of my mind, I knew I would have exams and the trouble with me is that I am a defeatist. I get it in my head, ‘It’s no good me doing these things because I’ll fail. When I said to someone I get all worked up about things, they said ‘Oh, you don’t give me that impression,’  I said, ‘Believe me, I cross bridges before they’ve even got planning permission.’ [laughs]

MG: So there’s nobody at school who inspired you?

EB: No, no, no.

MG: What  a shame.

EB: Well I didn’t get encouraged because my father took the view, ‘It’s no good getting a good education because they are just going to get married so it’s a waste of time and effort.’ Our next door neighbour, they had a daughter the same age as my older sister and I don’t know whether she was going to university then, but her aim was to go to university to be a French teacher and I do remember, before I was due to leave school, my mother asking me did I want to go on at school to senior school and perhaps going to teach and I said, ‘Oh, I m not going to work with children.’ I couldn’t bear children. [laughs] Me and children didn’t get on at all! I wasn’t on the same wave-length at all. I said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to do that’ so thinks just sort of rolled on and, of course, I left school the year the war broke out and I learned shorthand through a correspondence course, through the council because we couldn’t attend night-school because of the bombing.

MG: So, where did you go to work when you qualified?

EB: Well, there’s another thing. I was about six months before I got a job because I left it, because of the war, I suppose. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is the life for me. I am quite happy doing this for ever.’ And I kept sending to people advertising vacant office-girl jobs. And I got a reply February the following year and it was from a stockbroker’s in Norfolk Row. And I said, ‘I’m not working in a stockbroker’s and my mother was ‘Why?’ and I had confused it with a corn-broker’s . Anyway, I was offered an appointment on a Tuesday morning, probably about ten o’ clock and I said, ‘I can’t go.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, it’s wash morning.’  [laughs]  She said, ‘We’ll change wash morning. Whenever it is, we’re going.’ In those days, the mothers always went with you. So we went to this office and an aid took me into her presence and it seemed that they were quite satisfied with me and they said, ‘When can you start?’ And before I could say ’owt, she said ‘Oh, she can start straight away.’ And I thought, ‘Why don’t you keep your big mouth shut!’ anyway, they said, ‘can you come back this afternoon?’ So she said, ‘She’ll come back this afternoon.’ Oh no. However, we went home and had some lunch but this is what I was going to say. The boss of the stockbroker’s was Colonel Weaver and he was the father of Ann Mortimer. You know Ann Mortimer?

MG: Yes.

elsie-brownlee-Black-Brook-

EB: Ann and I had been in touch with one another ever since. Only through letters because she went down to Cambridgeshire. Anyway I worked for him.  To continue with this, Mum and I went  home for some lunch and I came into town and believe me, that was the first time I had been in town on my own and I was walking up Fargate and I thought, ‘What if I can’t find the place? What happens if I can’t find the place. I was panicking. Anyway I did find it and I did my afternoon stint, got home and collapsed on the sofa and thought, ‘Is this the life, till I retire? It’s awful. At any rate I was there twenty two years until he was ill and he had to give up and then eventually I got a job with the Midland Bank.

[Summary of passage: Elsie worked in Securities Dept of the Bank in Church St and was typist there. She started there in about  1962, then 1970 the secretary to the Assistant Manager left to get married, was expecting, so Elsie asked for and got her job. Ended up as Senior Assistant Manager’s secretary.]

MG: So you did very well, but you didn’t really enjoy the work?

EB: No.

MG: So, did you find time to read while you were working?

EB: Not really, not during the ‘60s and ‘70s because during the ‘60s I had to have a hysterectomy. When I joined the bank I had to have a medical. [Doctor discovered a lump.] He said, ‘Haven’t you noticed?’ Well, I don’t go round feeling other people’s stomachs so I didn’t know what they were supposed to be like. [Operated for fibroids.]

Well the Head of the Securities Department, he was a sort of father-figure to me and he said, ‘If you take my advice, if you can afford it, take three months off. Don’t intend to come back until after three months. So I took his advice. So when I was going back I realised I couldn’t work up there as well. I had had to pack that up in any case because of the operation.

MG: What was that work? At Lodge Moor?

EB: As an auxillary. So I never went back. But for ages I used – they had a spinal unit up there. Helicopters used to come over and land on the helipad down there. And for ages after I would hear them coming over. And I would go to the door and watch them, with  – what’s the word when you stop taking medicines? –

MG: Withdrawal symptoms?

EB: Withdrawal symptoms. ‘Oh, I wish as I was in there.’ It was awful really. But then my mother started being ill so when I came home I was having to look after her as well as. I didn’t really have a lot of time for reading but what reading I did, I found out that this Red Circle Library at the top of Angel St. I liked to read Mills and Boon type stories which you couldn’t get out of the Central Library but their books were far too stuffy for me and so I used to go and get the books from the Red Circle Library. Mary Burchell was one of them. And then I joined a drama group purely because I got a crush on one of the men. He was saying he wanted a ticket seller so I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do it.’ He nearly had his hand bitten off and I was roped in on the understanding that no way was I going to do any acting. I’d do anything else but no acting. I used  to spend a lot of times down at the clubrooms, well it’s not there any more; it’s where the motorway is down St Phillips Rd. You know I’d paint scenery and make costumes. I used to prompt and help the electrician. I always said that those were the happiest times of my life.

MG: Can you remember the plays that you helped with?

EB: Yes, we did The Deep Blue Sea. [pause]

MG: Terence Rattigan?

EB: Oh yes, popular plays, Blythe Spirit, things like that. Noel Coward and Christmas plays, especially for children – all sorts of effects. Mind you, I was a bit naughty because I used to rope my mother in. We were doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and the costumes they hired them from somewhere outside Sheffield and when they came, the producer was horrified at the state of them. She said ‘We can’t put a play on with children in these costumes’. She says, ‘Can I have some volunteers to make some.’ So I said, ‘My mother will do some’ so she just took it in her stride. Now, what was the last one we did? Twelfth Night I think it was. We did all the popular plays.

MG: It wasn’t at St Phillip’s Settlement?

EB: No, it was at the Library Theatre so that took up quite a lot of my time. Then in 1962 my mother started getting poorly and she was never right again. She had an over-active thyroid. She was never properly right after that so, of course, I didn’t have an awful lot of time.

MG: So, have you really taken up reading since you retired?

EB: Yes, I have [pauses while she coughs]

MG:  Can I just use this moment to recap. You had an older sister, Olive, who was ten years older. Did you have any other brothers and sisters?

EB: No.

MG: And had your father died by the time you looked after your mother?

EB: Oh yes, he died in 1952. He had flu and it turned into pneumonia. He just died at home. It was a big shock.

MG: Was there a financial difficulty for your mother?

EB: Yes, at first, it was but we coped. We managed. Surprising how you manage eventually but that’s why I took this job at Lodge Moor [the hospital] but there again, I was going to tell you about that. I was going to say, I’ve never been fond of children, especially young babies,  and my mother used to say, ‘Have you seen Mrs So-in-so’s baby and I used to say, ‘Well, it’s all right but it’s just a baby as far as I was concerned’. Couldn’t care less about children.  Anyway I decided I had to take a part-time job to get more money. So I went to the Labour Exchange, as it was called in those days. And I said, ‘I’d like a part-time job’ and she said. ‘What do you want to do?’

EB: I said, ‘I think I’d like to work in a hospital’. So she said, ‘Oh right. Matron at Lodge Moor is wanting somebody.  I’ll give you a letter and you can take it up.’ [Describes going to the interview with a Sister. Had always been worried about infection. Used to walk on the other side from the steam coming out of the boilers from the Royal Hallamshire.] I had a thing about infection. [Was given a uniform, and was taken to the ward. The notices on the doors along the corridor signalled that they were ‘infectious areas’. Went on Central 1. Sent to feed babies.] Worked till 10 pm on the ward feeding babies.  Her mother was astonished, laughed ‘had hysterics’ that Elsie should be working with babies. Elsie thought she would give it a month and she worked there nine years, only giving it up because she had to have a hysterecthomy. Worked from 9 to 5 at the office, coming home for a meal then getting up to the hospital (up the hill about 3 miles away?) then working at the hospital from 7 till 10 winter and summer.

MG: No wonder you had no time for reading at all.

EB: No, no I hadn’t. Then on the Saturdays when I was off we used to go to the city Hall Philharmonic concerts. [laughing] Very often I fell asleep in the middle of it.

MG: I am not surprised.

EB: Well, that’s the story of my life.

MG: When you retired, you managed to pick up a book again?

EB: Well yes. I don’t know. But by that time my sister was failing. We had about ten years when we lived a normal life and we used to go out for day trips to various places and we enjoyed time together and then she developed Parkinson’s and she just got worse and worse and I am afraid in the end she had to go into a home. I felt, well, I still feel, awful about it. [She talks about the pressures that made it impossible eventually to look after her sister, Olive, at home. The doctor couldn’t find any help to help Elsie to cope. Elsie agreed to go into respite but wasn’t happy where she was sent. She came home she had been rendered immobile because the home had taken her everywhere in a wheelchair.  Elsie had got a wheel chair. Elsie was getting desperate. Her neighbour felt so sorry for her that she offered to come in twice a week at nights so that Elsie could have a night’s sleep. One night, the neighbour asked Elsie to call the doctor and she was sent into hospital where she was diagnosed with a kidney infection. At this point, Elsie said she couldn’t look after her any more. Waited a long time for finance because Olive was on income support. Council had to find a home for her.  Elsie then offered to have Olive back but the authorities wouldn’t let her because it was judged to be too much for her. Olive was in a care home for six months before she died. Elsie still feels bad about not having been able to look after her sister but was reassured by her neighbour.  Elsie was in her sixties in the 1970s.]

MG: So you cared for your mother and then your sister.

EB: Yes, and now, I want care and I am on my own, completely on my own. I have got cousins up and down the country but I only see them at funerals and so on. [Talks about the different executors –three- who have all ‘died on me’.  Is considering moving to retirement complex at Loxley but doesn’t think she can afford it – where Ann Mortimer is.]

MG: Do you have the mobile and housebound library service up here?

EB: No, because I don’t need them. I’ve never had them because I’ve got so many paperback books that I realised some time ago that I will never live long enough to read them all. I’ve bought them at charity shops and coffee mornings, things like that.

MG: So you’ve tended to buy books.

EB: Yes.

MG: Elsie, as well as the lovely books you have shown me from your childhood you have also got a very old book here. Could you tell us about that?

EB: Yes.

MG: It is called A Compilation of Journals or The  Ladies’ Cabinet and the compilation is dated 1849. And it is in a beautiful leather bound volume and it starts with ‘A Ladies’ Cabinet of fashion, music and romances’. Where did you find this?

EB: Oh, it was my mother’s. You see her sister, who never married, she was a dressmaker and I suppose she acquired it from somewhere or other. My mother got hold of it and brought it. It’s been in the family, my family, ever since I can remember and I just saw it when I was looking for the children’s books and I thought, ‘Oh, I bet Mary would be interested in those’ because there’s illustrations of dresses.

MG: Beautiful engravings and someone has inked them in, in colour. And do you remember your mother reading these?

EB: I don’t actually. I don’t know whether you did or not. If she did, it was before I was aware of it.

MG: I can quite see why your dress-making ancestor was interested in it. It’s got articles on costumes from the earliest times and detailed descriptions of costumes ‘from ancient times’ here as well.

EB: Some years ago, perhaps 1950s or so, I took it to the library to ask them if it was of any value and they said no because it was only one volume of it but of course things change now and it might be quite valuable.

MG: I’ll look on the web when I get home because I had not heard of this magazine and it’s delightful. And did you mother like Mills and Boon as well, because you say that you did?

EB: I am not sure. She was a little more sophisticated in a way.

MG: Because these look like wonderfully exotic romances, don’t they? [looking at the Ladies Cabinet compilation] Beautiful, Elsie. Do you ever read them.  No? No.

EB: I really don’t know what to do with it. I mean, when anything happens to me, it will just go to the sale-room and I wondered whether if the library’s interest in it whether they could have it for the library.

MG: Shall I ask my friends? I don’t know which library. Cheryl Bailey at the Sheffield archives might be interested. Thank you very much for showing it to me and also for talking about your books.  Is there any other book that you want to describe to me that you have really enjoyed?

EB: There haven’t been many books that I haven’t read to the end, you know that I’ve had to give up. I’m very fond of Phillippa Gregory.

MG: This is The Virgin Earth.

EB: Yes, actually I am reading them the wrong way round. There is another one, something of Troy. That’s really the first one

MG: It’s about England during the time of Charles 1st. I think I read a child’s book by her, beautifully written. Did you read Hilary Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall.

EB: No, I couldn’t.

MG: Well, the last question I wanted to ask you was about The Red Circle library. Can you remember whether they were covered with sugar paper or not.  Cause at one of the branches they were covered with sugar paper, you know that coarse coloured paper or had they got ordinary covers?

ED: No, ordinary coloured covers. I got quite friendly with the woman down there because I must have gone in quite frequently because she would say, ‘I’ve got so-in-so’ and put it on one side for me. You know, things like that.

MG: So, did the stock change a lot?

EB: Well, there was always plenty of choice. As far as I was concerned, yes. Then, I mentioned the Boots Library. Now, on consideration, I don’t think I was actually a member of the Boots Library. It was downstairs in the Boots in Fargate but they used to sell some of the books off and I think I used to go and look and see what books there were for sale and if it was a book I was particularly interested in I would buy it because I came across one when I was looking for these the other day which was, I am sure, a Boots Library and it said 2s in pencil on the fly leaf. It was by Frances Parkinson Keyes. Do you know her? She was one of them that I enjoyed reading and I’ve got The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier and that’s a Boots ex-library book. I don’t think I actually borrowed them as a member of the Book Club. That was the thing, they were things you could buy because perhaps they were throwing them out because they were getting a bit dog-eared, the back were coming off.

MG: But you don’t remember being a member?

EB: I don’t actually because I would have had to have paid the subscription and I don’t ever remember having to pay a subscription.

MG: Were there any other little libraries and bookshops in Walkley?

EB: No, there was only, what do you call it? Walkley Library, right at the end there. I have a feeling I did go in there but why I should go in, was it just sheer curiosity, I don’t know. I have no idea.

MG: You said earlier on that your father was worried about germs and things. Did he not feel worried about you using the Central Library?

EB: Yes, he did. Yes. That’s why my mother had to ask his permission.

MG: Well, thanks so much. That’s great, really fascinating.

EB: I hope it’s come out.

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Access Elsie’s reading journey here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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