Jean and Malcolm Mercer

Jean and Malcom Mercer

Jean was born in 8th September1925.

Malcolm was born in 1st May 1925.

They are being interviewed by Mary Grover in July 2010.

MG: So Jean, can I start with you? Can you remember the first book that you enjoyed as an adult when you left school?

JM: Well, I was thinking, my mother and father were very great readers and we joined Park Library when I was only about two and we have been to Park Library ever since. The first books I remember were reading as a girl, really, were the Chalet Girls by Elinor Brent Dyer. I thought they were lovely. But as I’ve grown older the one that sticks in my mind at the moment was Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell-Seekers. I thought that was wonderful. And one I’ve read by Sally Stewart recently about Venice which I thoroughly enjoyed but some books I get to read and they don’t make an impression, you know, but those are the ones that stick in my mind at the moment.

MG: Did you get most of them from the Park Library?

JM: Yes. Yes. We go mostly every three weeks. We get the books from Park Library. We’ve been once or twice to Manor Library but not to borrow them like we do at Park.

MG: And you did find fiction at Park right from the beginning?

JM: Yes, and there was at Park Library when I was a girl they had story-time which was lovely. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epaminondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epaminondas was lovely.

MG: Had she made them up?

JM: Well, I don’t think she made that up but I’m sure she did sometimes because she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

MG: So Malcolm, what about you, what was the first book you can remember reading for pleasure?

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

JM: … those were the books that father liked as well, weren’t they?

MG: Did your parents read a lot, Malcolm?

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

[JM and Malcolm laugh]

MG: So you kept them busy. What about Dickens? Did you read your parents’ copies? Or did you take them out the library?

Malcolm: The Charles Dickens that was, I think, out of the library to begin with. I’ve since read one or two more for social history background. Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse in what I was writing about Sheffield and there were schools in the workhouse in Sheffield. And compared life but occasionally like when I was reading Cranford only recently for the social background and I’ve read one or two recently by Mrs Gaskell, North and South, and Mary Barton …

JM: And Thomas Hardy.

MM: Yes, and Thomas Hardy’s books but they were all since I retired, the majority of them, but we had a number on holiday in Lyme Regis, in Hardy country and so I’m quite impressed by Hardy, I think. The Mayor of Casterbridge I also had to do when I did mature matriculation and also when I was at training college for literature background. But I can list you all Hardy’s major novels.

MG: So it triggered a real love of Hardy’s novels.

MM: Oh yes, and upstairs by my bed I’ve got a bedside Hardy. Although most recently of course I’ve been looking at Dan Brown and The Lost Symbol which I didn’t think much to but I did enjoy The Da Vinci Code and Demons and Angels so yes.

MG: So when you read Dumas you weren’t reading that for the social background?

MM: No, I was just reading it for pleasure.

MG: That was in the 1940s.

MM: Yes, 1940, ’41, 1942. I read one or two. Manga was a story about a boy living in the Amazon. I was quite interested in South American history and geography. We’d been enthralled by … at school we had the BBC geography series and they had done the southern continents and South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that. It had gone from just, well pleasure, but I enjoyed reading about the historical background. Manga was about a boy living in the Amazon. And of course at that time I was also a Boy Scout and a Rover Scout so scoutcraft was part of it and then Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

MG: Did you ever read W. H. Hudson about South America?

MM: No, I thought he was a naturalist, wasn’t he? No, I read a number of books by a chap called Pitchford Watkins who wrote his books under BB.  I’ve got the best of BB here.

MG: I’ve never heard of him.

JM: He was a bit like Mr Wainright wasn’t he? Walks.

MM: Yes. We were enthralled by radio programmes, Romany, as a child.

JM: On children’s radio.

MM: Yes, he started writing about Little Grey Men. He was a shooter and a fisherman’s bedside book. A Summer Road to Wales, I’ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times. And they’re about outdoor living and he was actually the author but most of his titles as you can see from that list are all naturalist books.

MG: So you read fiction and non-fiction equally really?

Malcolm: Yes.

MG: And did your boy scout experience lead you on to discussing books or book recommendations?

MM: No, not particularly. I read Scouting for Boys and Rovering for Success which were scouting books but the thing that interested me most was signalling. So when I joined the Navy I became a signalman for I was mine-sweeping for three and a half years and I was a signalman during that time. But I had had no what you might call tutoring or background at that period. It was only when I came out of the Navy that I started doing any form of studying and of course since then I got one certificate after another.

JM: I was going to say studying has never stopped, has it?

MM: I got a certificate in education, an advanced certificate in education, a diploma in education management from Hallam and an MA from Sheffield. So I haven’t had time for a lot of other reading.

JM: This is the study room you see. Malcolm comes in here and shuts the door and that’s it!

MM: My space!

MG: So you have never retired?

JM: Not really.

MM: No, not yet, I’m waiting until I get old. [JM laughs.]

MG: When you went into the Navy, Malcolm, did you go on reading?

MM: I took with me Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I had it throughout the war until [pause] we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman. I went on a retreat just before I came out at Ypres, Poperinghe, while I was still in the Navy. In fact it was in France and I was looked at aghast because I was the only sailor they had seen; they had seen soldiers going through France, but I was the only sailor they had seen walking about in France.

MG: Did many sailors read?

MM: I don’t reckon so. Not many. We were a very small ship. We were inshore, mine-sweeping and in the mess deck I was with there were two or three stokers, two or three seamen and I wouldn’t say any of them really read, and the steward and the skipper were Lowestoft fishermen by background and the second skipper was an Irish seaman and I never saw them particularly reading. They weren’t scholarly at all, so no I wouldn’t say that I saw much reading but you see, you could have been on a big ship and two or three hundred matelots all on the same boat whereas we were twenty four at the most almost any time. We were always inshore.

MG: So it sounds like it was your parents that got you reading most?

MM: And school I think. I am very proud actually. Elementary schools are often criticised but we both went … On Prince of Wales Road there were three schools, one at the top, Prince Edward – Jean went there. There was a primary school in the estate which Jean went to.  At the bottom of the estate was Pipworth Rd where I went but really they instilled reading and writing and mental arithmetic. I am still very happy about my elementary schooling. They certainly concentrated on the main things but we did science, we did woodwork, we did craftwork, we did swimming and I got a certificate to say that I could teach swimming later on, life-saving, and Jean did more ..

JM: It was lovely. At Standhouse School it was lovely and Prince Edward as well. I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

MM:  … and how to speak.

JM: Oh yes, we had elocution lessons and I mean it was just a small school not far from home. It was a lovely school.

MG: And could you borrow books from the school library?

JM: We didn’t have a school library then. We were encouraged to go to the library.

MM: Yes.

JM: We didn’t have a school library as such but we were encouraged to read and go to the library.

MG: And did you not run out of books in the Park Library?

JM and MM: No, no.

JM: No, we never have.

MM: You see, there was no Manor Top Library then. This was the main library for Park and of course where Park Hill Flats were there was a whole host of small houses.

JM: It was quite an area.

MM: Some people called them slums but there was some fine houses that were demolished to make room for it and …

JM: No, Park Library was very busy and at the back of it was the swimming. There was the pool as well where we used to go quite often.

MM: Yes, we had to go there until almost, just before the war they built Woodthorpe Swimming Baths at Woodthorpe. But Manor Top Library there wasn’t such a thing, it was Park.

JM: And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask, they’re still very helpful.

MG: So Jean, can you remember what books you had in the home, that your parents had?

JM: Well, Father liked Zane Grey very much, didn’t he? He’d like that very much and some of the books you’ve already mentioned – The Man in the Iron Mask. He loved reading, didn’t he?

MM: P. C. Wren – Beau Geste.

JM: Mother, really, she did more crotcheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

MG: Did he use reading in his job? Was he in the printing trade?

JM: No, he came back from the war, the First World War, not very well and he had to go … well he had an uncle in the wholesale fruit market and he took him back because he had to have a job so he worked in the market, very early in the morning, till just after lunch-time. Then he came home. And evening time it was nearly always that he was reading so it was always there. There was always a book.

MG: So the home is really important to both of you as starting you off valuing reading.

MM: Oh yes.

JM: Yes, and our parents were always very interested in schooling and education and what was happening.

MM: Yes, they backed it. Well the majority, well all the parents. It was a working class council estate but they were working. There were jobs and they were working in all sorts of jobs. There were a number of policemen on the estate. There were doctors on the estate but the workmen were steel workers, miners …

JM: Tram-workers

MM: Yes there was a very fine tram service in Sheffield which covered all the routes almost and there were quite a lot of those.

JM: And Mr Hazeldean was an insurance man. The neighbours were very interested in everybody.  Everybody knew everybody else. It was nice.

MM:  It changed after the war. After the war men came back (because a lot of the men had been taken away). After a few years some of them thought, ‘We’ll go to a more modern council estate.’ The Manor started in the 1920s. The rents had increased in new estates but they were able to afford the new rents. And some married and found a house. When we wanted to live on the Manor, there was a six year waiting list so …

JM:  … we had to save up and wait until we could buy

MM: … when I became a teacher. Not till 1950 did I go into training college and I came out in ‘53. We had just got married, in 1950, so it was a matter, as often happens, of living with a relation who had got a large house. My grandfather lived in City Rd opposite the Cemetery and he died, and my uncle was on his own so we went to live with him which was handy because of the transport links. There were about half a dozen routes come up City Rd. There’s one that came up Granville Rd which was handy for us. I often walked. I walked to town but I didn’t get a car till 1968, I think. My brother had one much earlier than I did. But I got fed up of teaching colleagues saying ‘I’ll give you a lift into town -just hang on a minute’.

JM: He felt very guilty so it was Malcolm’s brother who said, ‘Getting rid of my car so you have it’.

MG: So where were you working at that point?

MM:  I was Head of Parson Cross school on Halifax Rd, just under the bridge at Wadsley Bridge on the left hand side.

MG: So I am getting the picture that you didn’t buy very many books.

MM: I hardly ever bought a novel.

JM: Always Malcolm bought books that were for work.

MM: The Mayor of Casterbridge I did buy and I’ve got it up there but …

JM:  … we were so lucky really that Park Library is so near. We were very lucky that we were able to just go and borrow them.

MM: Apart from the Mayor of Casterbridge I don’t think there is a novel there and I’ve got a fair number. And I’ve got some now, Jude the Obscure, Pride and Prejudice.

JM: In fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says, ‘I’ll ring you back’ and then he disappears.

MG: Do you find people borrow books from you because they knew you had the information?

MM: No, that doesn’t happen.

JM: They will ask for the information.

MG: So people don’t share books in your experience?

MM:  No, not really.

JM: No, they didn’t.

MG: You didn’t belong either of you to any subscription libraries like the Red Circle?

MM: No. Our scout master worked for subscription library at one period but we were never part of it. There wasn’t one locally.

MG: Wasn’t it down Snig Hill?

MM: There was one down there.

JM: But not in our area. And Malcolm was busy with school and I had the children and we had to look after our parents so you know it was never part of it really.

MG: Going back to the Red Circle, Jean, do you think Snig Hill was the only Red Circle Library in town? It was the only one I have heard of.

JM: It was the only one I can think of.

MG: Boots Lending Libraries?

JM: Boots did have books, downstairs occasionally, didn’t they?

MM: Yes, my father and I used to go down to buy them – non-fiction, that’s what we looked for. And of course, there are one or two booksellers like Rare and Racy now. In fact, I’ve got a number here – R S Thomas, the Welsh poet who I rather admire, so I’ve gradually collected a number from there but Boots certainly did have a subscription library but it was usually the ones they were selling … I notice the City Library had a big bumper sale … also both the Park and Manor have books for sale but it’s mostly all fiction that are there. Occasionally I’ve bought …

JM: I was just going to say that since we have had a fair we’ve always had a bookstall.

MM: And the books are largely fiction and science fiction. What I would say is that our son was reading the Day of the Triffids at eleven.

JM: Malcolm could never understand that.

MM: Both my son and daughter like science fiction and they have sort of read and read – in fact he is in the library at Bradford University.

JM: He works in the library there.

MM: He has got a scientific background, a BSc in Food Sciences and Human Biology. That’s where he started and when it came to ‘What do I do?’, he wanted to go into hospital work, nutrition. But he had a practice at Airedale Hospital and they didn’t get enough time with each patient.

JM: He had to be quick and he couldn’t do it.

MM: Most of the big pharmaceutical places had the libraries in the south of England and he didn’t really think he could afford to go there and this job came up and he has been there quite a long time there. Yes, he seems very happy, doing well – of course he has to look after…

JM: …all the information.

MM: Yes. I was fortunate doing my research. I had written a history of the school and I thought, ‘What do I do with it?’  I had [a] gentleman at the university who encouraged me to take it further so I was put with the Head of the Education Department at that time, Professor John Roach, who goes to St Mark’s and is still around, and he guided me and of course he was able to let me into Sheffield University Library and I was able to spend hours and hours.  She [JM] wondered where I was when I was researching the minutes of the committee of the council for education because all the HMI reports from Victorian times are all down there so I was able to dig into them to find everything I needed.

MG: That was about Parson Cross School, was it?

MM: Ah no, I was at Parson Cross School but you can’t do an MA just on the one school.  They sent me right back to the fifteenth century to find out what schools there were in the three parishes. That’s what my thesis was – the three parishes. Since that time he’s [John Roach] done one on the whole of Yorkshire – something similar and the whole of what was the bishopric of York which covers Nottinghamshire and other places; he did it from about 14th century up to 1833. That was where he would stop but he guided me and he is still around. He’s been retired quite a long time. He’s older than I am.

MG: The next question’s a really nasty one really because it’s about cultural snobbery. I don’t know whether when you started reading books the words ‘highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow ever got used? Did you ever hear anyone use these words? Or hear anyone say, ‘That book’s too highbrow or too lowbrow?’

MM: No.

JM:  I can’t say that I did.

MM:  It didn’t come across to us as youngsters because we were still just young then and then of course the war came and blackouts and it was not so easy.

JM: …and I think when we were young you just got on with life, each day.

MM: It came to me more in music, and in listening to music. You know, if you were listening to Mahler or Schubert or Bach, that was highbrow.

MG: And did anyone say, ‘Oh I don’t like that highbrow stuff’.

MM: Well, no, I was learning the piano. That was curtailed a lot by blackouts and they used to get me to play at the Scouts – I had to play pop things at Scouts. But because I was interested in church music, I kept that purely for church and the rest of it.

JM: And when Malcolm and I met, this was when I started with the highbrow music because when we first met we went to the Empire that was there to see La Bohème and I thought it was absolute magic and from then on …

Malcolm: …she’s seen opera.

JM: …and it was lovely, wasn’t it? Mother could play but it was nearly all hymns. We had lots of singing round the piano, didn’t we? Songs Father loved to sing, but not highbrow, not opera or Mahler.

MG: Gilbert and Sullivan?

JM and MM:[together] Yes, yes.

JM: We like that very much.

MM: But when we came out of the war we had an operatic society. Father had been in and done a number of operas before the war and then we came out we had only just met really and we did HMS Pinafore and Jean was Josephine.

[JM laughs.]

MG to MM: And were you the tenor?

JM: Oh yes he was. Those were the days.

MM: And Ruddigore.

JM: We did Pinafore and Pirates and The Robber Maid

MM: Yoemen and the Gondoliers, and then when I went to training college I took a principal part in Iolanthe then Princess Ida.

JM: That was very much more upmarket than our local St Swithin’s but still it was lovely.

MG: My father as a boy was Yum Yum, then he became a tenor and played Nanki Poo and finally the Major General.

But you never heard the word middlebrow?

MM and JM: No. No.

MM: I think it was partly that if we had lived at your end of the city we would have. Because we were all sort of surrounded by working class people we …

JM: … everyone took us as just as friends really and it was lovely.

MM: I was the only choir boy at St Swithin’s who wasn’t a grammar school boy. Yes, there were two brothers. One taught me the piano – his father was also the organist and he had been to grammar school. His brother was at King Ted’s which had a very high reputation and we would sit watching cricket matches and he was reading Latin.

MG: Wow.

MM: And he went into the intelligence corps and the services in the war. What happened after that I don’t know; they were very intellectual boys but they were the only two that I really knew. All my friends were grammar school. At Scouts the patrol leaders were all grammar school boys.

JM: But everybody seemed to take each person as they were. It was good.  So I think that kind of thing would come more with more middle class parents who, I would think, had probably been to university, had a university background or a professional background. Very few, hardly anybody, had what you might call a professional background as parents. I mean there were a number of boys of my age who were going into teaching, but you never heard any of them going in to be a doctor. And certainly you know there were very few who were university people on the Manor.

JM: No, they were all working really. My brother went to the grammar school [MM: High Storrs] and then he had to do his National Service and when he came out, he went into the Fire Brigade and worked himself up.

MG: So he travelled all the way from the Manor to High Storrs.

JM: Yes, yes, he did.

MG: So where did most of your friends who were grammar school boys go to school?

JM: Well, there was Firth Park, High Storrs…

Malcolm: City Grammar School – there were two or three went to the City Grammar School. My brother went to Nether Edge. There was a grammar school there. He passed his eleven plus, I never did.

MG: My sister didn’t pass the eleven plus and she did English at Oxford University.

MM and JM: It just goes to show.

MG: I am amazed that your brother travelled, Jean, right across …

MM: Well, our daughter in the sixties…

JM: … she went across to St Egbert’s School [sic] at Dore.

MM: It was regarded as a girls’ technical school but the head always wore a gown.

JM: It became quite a school and she did quite well. In fact, she is teaching now.

MM: And our son went to Firth Park but he found travelling easier I think. But Jane was fortunate because…

JM: …she had a friend at church and she took her at the beginning.

MG: And you didn’t find, in your experience, that you or your children were laughed at because they were going to grammar school and in a uniform?

MM: No, no.

JM: Oh no, it was a prize. You were looked up to if you went there.

MM: Yes, they had a uniform

JM: … yes, and a school bag.

MM: Yes, Jean passed to go to grammar school but her parents couldn’t afford it. And this happened to a number of children.

JM: But Peter was important because he was a boy, you see.

MM:  If there was only a limited amount the boy had it and they wore uniforms.

JM: But there wasn’t any atmosphere like that at all. We did very well.

MG: I was asking because I had a colleague when I was teaching at college who went to a Catholic grammar school in Huddersfield in Mirfield and he had a really tough time on the bus going from his estate into the grammar school because he looked different in his uniform. So it says a lot for the community doesn’t it?

MM: Yes, but that’s changed. Our last vicar who left in 2001, he married a second time. His wife had two children; the daughter went to the Girls’ High School. She found it extremely difficult walking from City Rd, from the Manor to home. This was really the major reason why they felt they had to go. In fact, the marriage did split up later.

JM: You see, this is the thing that upsets us: when we think about our childhood, we did things and could do things and we were accepted as we were and now, I mean there is all this hostility …

MM: …envy.

JM: Yes, I think it is envy.

MM: Yes, I knew a Girl Guide leader that had to call it a day because the guides couldn’t wear uniform because there was, you know … When I was a Scout, they used to say ‘Never be a Scout with your shirt hanging out’. They’d say those sorts of things but it was water off a duck’s back.

JM: Friendly fun, you know. Nothing really hard.

MM: No, but I think the youngsters today are finding this bullying business – Facebook. At school, that was never there.

MG: My father grew up in the Welsh valleys. He was a small and very gentle little boy. He told me that he walked two miles to elementary school, it was, through this little village and he was never picked on nor was he in the army. He by then was a bit of a boffin and he was a phonetician, a linguist. I can’t believe it: he was with a load of men from Barnsley on a radar station in North Yorkshire. He used to make narrow phonetic transcriptions of all their different accents so that he could tell within a street or two which part of Barnsley they came from and he never got into any trouble with it.

MM:  I was with a number of Scotch fishermen but there were a few Yorkshire boys who I found very difficult to understand. People listening to me thought I came from the south. South Yorkshire! They were West Riding men. It seemed very different. I could understand the Scots boys better than the Yorkshire boys.

MG:  I get the feeling from what you’ve said that this tolerant acceptance meant that you would never be embarrassed by what you read. You never felt, ‘Oh, I mustn’t be reading that, they’ll laugh at me’.

MM and JM: No, no.

JM: And when you went to the library, nobody ever said, ‘I don’t think that’s any good’.

MG: That’s very good to hear. When I did my original work – on cultural snobbery – I always felt that it was only a very few people who were flinging these insults around.

MM: Yes.

MG: Just a couple of other questions: were there any books that you would be embarrassed to be seen reading?

MM: Well, Mills and Boons. [Much laughter] Jean likes them.

JM: No, no – there wasn’t enough in them. I like a book that has a story, you know. They were just trivial.

MG: What about Ethel M. Dell?

JM: No, that wasn’t my …

MM: My mother read one or two of hers that I know.

MG: I suppose they would have gone out of fashion by the time you were reading.

JM: There was somebody Barclay. Now what was her name?

MG: Florence Barclay?

JM: Yes, one or two of her books were really lovely. I enjoyed them.

MG: Did you read The Rosary, Jean?

JM: [and MM] Yes. That was the first one that I read. I enjoyed that.

MG: Did either of you or your parents read Warwick Deeping?

JM: I don’t know whether father had any?

MG: Sorrell and Son?

MM: It’s a name I know.

JM: Yes, Sorrell and Son.

MG: There was a YTV serial version of Sorrell and Son in 1973 which I’ve never been able to see because there is no copy left but it’s meant to be quite good.

MM: I knew somebody, I can’t think who, who did like Warwick Deeping.

JM: To be quite honest, we didn’t see much television because we didn’t have a television. We were too busy with one thing and another. And even so, we’ve only got a small one which we look at the news and things.

MG: So you didn’t watch television at all during the ’50s?

JM and MM: No.

MM:  It wasn’t until the wedding …

JM:  Yes, we saw the Coronation on your mother’s television. She bought one and Jane was just a few weeks old and we went round there.

MM: No, we didn’t have one, but it was a matter of affording. It was always a matter of affording really.

JM: I think the children were quite …

MM: When the children were growing up we used to meet at our parents’ house, with my brother’s family and they used to look at Dr Who and Gillian, my brother’s daughter, used to hide behind the chair.

JM: I didn’t like it at all. I never looked.

MG: So my last question is if there is one book that you wanted to have on a desert island, apart from the Bible, what would you choose?

JM: I think I would choose The Shell Seekers because I really enjoyed that. I could read that again and again and there was that Sybil Marshall book that I liked as well, about a something of Magpies that I liked. I liked that very much. I would take those two. I could read them again and again.

MM: [silence]

JM: [laughs] There are so many you’re nonplussed! It would have to be a history book. It would be no use to him, just a fiction book, would it? Although I don’t know what.

MM: No.

MG: An impossible task.

JM: Unless it was a poetry book?

MM: The book I have by my bedside is R.S. Thomas, his autobiographies which were translated from the Welsh into the English, but it covers the period. I would love to [see] the Fleet peninsular in Wales. He was the vicar at Abardaron and he writes about the natural world.  He was a priest. I pick that up when I haven’t anything else. I would probably take that but there’s different parts of the book. It’s not a novel. It’s about his life, really, born in Holyhead in Anglesey and some of where his curacy was before he learned to speak Welsh. He went to Bangor University and I think he was about the only – he was born Welsh but his parents had never encouraged him to speak Welsh. And since then have read a certain amount about his background but I should probably take that.

MG: I have just spent a holiday with two friends. He was chaplain at Bangor University and his wife is a wonderful Welsh speaker and she taught herself in adulthood. She met R. S. Thomas. He is a marvellous poet.

MM: Yes, he is very deep. He is not something I am able to recite because at one time I was able to recite certain poems, in fact you were encouraged to do that …

JM: … yes at school you just learned them off by heart and we can still remember them thank goodness.

MM: And some of the psalms – you know ‘In the year the King Uzziah died I saw the Lord lifted high and up and his strength filled the Temple’. So we learned Biblical scriptures.

MG: I was going to ask you this. Obviously you were church goers from a very young age. Do you think that contributed to your love of reading or shaped your tastes?

JM: Well, yes.

MM: I am sure it contributed. You can’t always pinpoint it, I think, but because of the kind of people, going to church three times on Sunday morning Matins, Sunday School and then Evensong, and the love of the old Authorised Version and the words of Evensong and Matins still stick with us in a way that modern prayers don’t. That’s not true but they don’t keep you in the same way. I know when I was in training college to become a teacher, people, colleagues, would criticise the Prayer Book because of its language, but this was something that I as a choir boy had to learn, which is very useful for reading anyway because you learned words there that you wouldn’t normally have learned – same with the hymns. I think it was the language of the Prayer Book that kept us there to some extent. I know that Jean being chapel it was different.

JM: It was quite a break from chapel – church, and my mother thought it was dreadful that I was going to church.

Malcolm: And she had allowed her son to be in the cathedral choir.

JM: Yes, my brother was in the cathedral choir but that was different! But marrying a churchman, oh, wanting to be married in church because Malcolm didn’t like chapel at all, did he? Being brought up in the church all the time he just thought it was church so that was it – so poor mother she got used to it.

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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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