Kath and Ken M

Kath and Ken M

Kath was born on the 3rd February 1928.

Ken was born on the 27th April 1925.

They are being interviewed by Claire Keen on the 16th November 2011.

 Clare: Ken was born in…

Ken: 1924

CK: 1924, right, and lived in…. Which part of Sheffield did you live in?

Ken: Firvale

CK: Between 1945 and 1965?

Ken: 1945?

Kath: Yes, we went to live in rooms at one point about that time.

Ken:  Er, 1945. I thought you were going further back than that you know.

C : Oh right, no, I’m looking at 1945.   So you were born in Firvale.  And do you know how long you lived there?

Ken: We lived there for … oh till I was about 20 years odd.

CK:  Oh right, so yeh, we are looking at that time then. And where did you move to after that?

Ken:  Well, when we were married we moved first to Eccleshall and then to, er, here really.

CK:  Right

Kath: We lived in Frecheville for a short period, in a corporation house over on the side of a hill.  And then when Ken’s mother came to live with us cos she was getting older and not able to do things we, er, bought a house here, just over the hill, sort of thing, you know.  So that was quite useful really, so we didn’t have to move away from a lot of friends and schools and so on.

CK: Yes, so you were married in Firvale?

Ken: Yes.  In St Cuthbert’s church

[Both laugh.]

CK:  Right.  So, Ken, did anybody read to you when you were young?  Anybody read books to you?

Ken: I expect me mother and father read to me. But from a very early age I can remember getting books as presents.  And everybody in the family read.  And my sister, older than me, was an avid reader and, er, she sort of passed it on to me.  And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have.  You know, Tuppenny Bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny.  By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous. And then Firth Park library opened when I was about ten, I should think.  And, er, I was first able to go and use a public library and the very first one I got was the thickest one I could find, called The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F. Westermann.  Absolute rubbish, of course, but it was a thick book so, er.. You could only borrow one book a week then.  It wasn’t till later that it got to change but of course books were always around.  I mean, from quite early on my sister would have quite…novels that my mother and father frowned on, you see, but that I used to read as well!

CK:  Can you remember what these novels were that your mother and father frowned on?

Ken: Istanbul Train and all those stories.  Er, you know, harmless by today’s standards of course.  But then – very risqué the books were.  But apart from that we always had loads and loads of books and there was a Tuppenny Library down at Firvale shops that had a huge selection of stuff and of course that’s where you read all the humorous books. [to Kath] What was the woman you used to like?

Kath: Somebody Baker.  Erm, I can’t remember now.

Ken: All the popular novels.  Lesley Charteris – ‘The Saint’ books. All those sorts of things.  Then of course there was all the technical reading to do at school, you see, Latin, French, things like that.

CK: Your school text books.  Did you have books at home?

Ken: Yes, yes, tons of books.

C K: So your parents were readers?

Ken: My mother was quite an avid reader, wasn’t she?  Those novels of the time, I’m trying to think of the woman’s name – she was a novelist of that period.  Loads of them.  And Woman’s Weekly – all those sorts of papers.

CK:  Mm.  So what were the first books that made you feel you were now reading really grown-up adult books?  Can you remember?

Ken:  I expect it’s when I went to grammar school that I first got onto other things. An English master who was a brilliant man put me onto all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke.  He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot.  You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.  But also, Kath introduced me – and I met her very early on – to all Sholokhov’s books. Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels.

Kath: And Chinese books. Famous Chinese novels.

Ken: And we were very serious then, weren’t we, about politics.

Kath: Revolutionaries, really.  I think a bit that way anyway.

CK: Oh yes, very interesting.

Ken:  And there were loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets.  They were all the rage then.  And then the war started of course.  And then my school closed down.  So I had to change my ideas and I went in the works as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman afterwards.  But during the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment.  Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.

Kath: Your Dad made the wireless, didn’t he?  Did you help him when he did it?

Ken:  Oh yes, I remember our first radios.  But the programmes were terrible.  Apart from Children’s Hour which, again, was mostly made up of reading books.  Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons and all those books. These we’ve all got upstairs.

Kath: We re-read them every now and again. So entertaining.

CK:  Did Quiet Flows the Don have a big impression on you, do you remember?

Ken: It did really, yes, cos it opened your eyes to how people lived in the Soviet Union, in Old Russia. Really suffered. A life that was so hard and tough.  Dreadful.  A life that is incomprehensible to us.  And loads of other books we read.  And Das Kapital.

Kath: I don’t think I remember reading that.

Ken:  I do.  I used to sit up in bed, ploughing my way through that.

CK: And what did you think of that?

Ken: I thought it was brilliant   [Laughs]

CK: Ah, you were revolutionaries.

Ken: Loads of quotations and things from it. Brilliant!  But, er, we’ve always read all sorts of books.  We’ve very catholic taste.  We never were tied up to one set of things.

Kath: Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family.  My niece is an avid reader.  She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops.  And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one.  What was that one, Chocolat was it called?  I thought it was a lovely story.  And the of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those.  We read one after the other of those cos they were so intriguing.  [pause ]  Is that too late?

CK: Well, yes, but it’s still interesting.

Kath: What else was there?  Oh, all those Sharpe stories, of course. Sets of three.  Have you read them?

C K: Tell me about them.

Ken: Mostly in Spain. Wars of the Penninsula.

Kath: They were very exciting books.  Did he become a Major?  I think he did in the end.

Ken: And we read a lot of science fiction – Asimov, you know, ‘Dune’.  All those things.

CK: You do have very catholic taste.  What would you say is your favourite genre?  You know, historical, political, science fiction….

Ken: I don’t really know.  In humour it’s P G Wodehouse, of course, and all his stories.  But, all the others…we’ve just read everything, haven’t we?

Kath: Yes.

Ken: Our son who lives with us, he’s got ..  his room is stacked up with books as well. He has all sorts of other books as well like Hamilton.  So we’ll try them out – see what they’re like – and if we like them we’ll read them.  If we don’t we just don’t bother.  But …

CK: Right.  So you’ll start something, see if you’ll enjoy it.  Is there any book that stands out as having made an impression?

Ken: Yes, a book by Philip Gibb – before he was Sir Philip Gibbs.  It was called European Journey.  It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War.  He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people.  You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is.  I love France.  He writes about France with real feeling.  But it was when he was a comparatively young man.  That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up.  It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs.  It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, er, read all these bits and pieces now and again.

CK:  Did he inspire you to go to France?  Or did you already know it?

Ken: Oh no.  I got it after I’d been to France.  I went to France when I was a schoolboy.  It was something I never forgot and never lost interest in.  So we’ve been lots of times since, riding our bicycles.

[Kath laughs]

Kath: Even to a few years back all of us were riding you know.  We had the whole family, grandchildren, you name it.  It was great.  I just wish I felt the same now.

Ken: We used to have a gite you know, a big gite.  Various places we’ve been to in France, exploring and messing around. And it’s been wonderful.

Kath: I tell you what we missed – other books that we’ve put down like Jane Eyre and all those books. They’ve always been favourites of ours.  And I think you can re-read them and find more things in.

Ken: Pride and Prejudice and all that series, you know, Austen..

Kath: P G Wodehouse, J B Priestly. All of those. ‘Cos he wrote quite a lot, didn’t he?

CK: Indeed he did.

Kath: Thomasine  James.

Ken:  Oh yes.  Maurice Walsh wrote that ‘The Man of No Work’.

Kath: It’s about an old Irishman isn’t it?

Ken:  Yes, it’s written in Ireland and it’s er…

Kath: He’s a gardener.

Ken: A sort of ne’er-do-well gardener, an occasional jobbing gardener and he also gets involved with all sorts of humorous episodes.

Kath:  Oh they were fun.  Really funny.  I must try and find another one, you know, get one from Ebay or something.

Ken: I’ve made a few notes here.  H G Wells and a book that he wrote called ‘The Wheels of Chance’.

CK: I don’t know that one.

Kath: It’s about cycling.

Ken: Yes, way back in the old days when safety bicycles were just sort of on the go and it’s the story of a man who worked in a drapers and he sets out and has this adventure on the roads.  Oh, very good.  Oh and Rider Haggard –all his books – Nada the Lily and all those things.

CK: Have you got a favourite of his?

Ken: Quiller Couch – he was great.   According to my English master Quiller Couch – Sir Arthur Quiller Couch –was the greatest writer of English there had ever been.  He was an essayist, you know, and a teacher.  Wrote The Art of Writing and all that sort of business.  Really good.

CK: Would you agree with your teacher then?   That he’s one of the greatest?

Ken: Yeh. Hemmingway.  Oh, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.  Fantastic book, that.  Elegant writing, you know. Really. Stunning.

Kath: We both like well-written books because, I think sometimes they…….  You hear people speaking today – they don’t sort of pick up extra words – which we used to do.  At work when I was a young lass there was a woman who was a wonderful person.   She read everything.  And every day I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that ‘d fit a certain subject.  I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know.  But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [laughs] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

CK: [laughs] So you did find that through reading you were educating yourself?

Kath: Oh yes. Definitely.  I must admit that Ken read much faster than I did.  If I don’t understand the first few lines I’ve to re-read them until it goes in here, you know.  And, er, so you could speed-read really, couldn’t you, compared with us?

Ken: Well, I had to  because I used to…  I read so many technical books you see.  And so it was a question of getting through them as much as possible and as quickly as possible.   And – about that book that we both liked – Fame is the  Spur. Howard Spring, isn’t it?

Kath: Oh yes. That was one of my favourite books.

CK: What did you like about it, Kath?

Kath: Well, it was about people, real people then. You know, making all the mistakes that they did.  ‘Cos he was an arrogant person who wouldn’t stop as a ‘nobody’ and became famous and he ended up – you know – being a disappointment.  I thought it were true to life.  ‘Cos that’s really how most things occur, isn’t it?  Really?

CK: Yes, I know.

Ken: And the detective writer, Dorothy L Sayers.  Absolute elegant writer.   And stories like er.. oh, what’s that famous one?

Kath: Lord Peter Whimsey.

Ken: Yeh, those books.  But there’s one called ‘Gaudy Night’ which is a fantastically written thing. Absolutely wonderful.  And it tells you so much about that time when women first, you know, got to go down to Oxford and Cambridge.  Well they’d just sort of been admitted to having degrees and what-not.  So. But it was written about that time – all of the prejudices and things – snootiness and nastiness that was going on.  But it’s an eye-opener.  You know, I think a lot of people get put off by the fact that  – you know – a  lot of these things are written about what they considered to be ‘toffs’ and people like that.  But that’s not the point.  You know, it’s the story that counts and the way it’s written.   I thought she was a fantastic writer.

CK: But it was the times as well, wasn’t it?  There was snobbery.  A lot of class distinctions.

Ken: Oh yes. Shocking really when you look at it by today’s standards.  But if you can’t read a book because that puts you off, it deprives you of so much that’s been written, doesn’t it?

CK: Yeh.

[Kath offers tea]

CK: So was there anybody that made you feel that reading was a waste of time?

Kath: No.  Nobody…

Ken: Not really. I wouldn’t have taken any notice, anyway.  [laughs]

Kath: No, I honestly don’t think anybody we know would say a thing like that.  They’d probably be more like us – read a lot, you know, a lot of books.

Ken: Kath is an avid newspaper reader – The Guardian – aren’t you Dear?  You read it cover to cover.

Kath: [laughs] I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in.  I read it all day, you know.  If I were sitting here not talking to you I should be reading through the paper.

CK: Is it the politics or the social comment or…?

Kath: Oh, mostly the politics. And the social, yeh, mostly that. I get angry and … [laughs]

Ken: It doesn’t matter what we think today, does it? [laughs] All our influence is gone for a burton. [both laugh]

CK: I know.  It’s all change.  Did reading, do you feel, really change your life?  How would your life be without reading?

Ken: Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it?  I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know.  Or opinions you wouldn’t have read.  Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them.  Or even imagine going to places.

Kath: Oh it would have been dreadful.  Absolutely dreadful.

Ken: I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath: I can’t. Not at all.

Ken: It’d be absolutely awful.

Kath: I mean, my mother and dad – both my parents. Well, like his parents. They both read all the time.  My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on.  But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

CK: Right. So where and when did you have time to read?  Was it noisy in the house?  Where did you read?

Kath:  Probably I’d just curl up on a chair or something and read and blot out the other people.  ‘Cos I don’t ever remember going to bed and reading. My sister – she was a bit older than me –  she used to tell me stories out of William books and things like that. And so I never learned to read until quite late for a child. You know, I must’ve been about 5 or 6 which, you know, most people could probably read by then, do you not think so?  Anyway, she used to read to me these stories and I used to then tell the kids at school the stories that I made up about the characters.  [laughs]  ‘William’ stories I knew off by heart so I could juggle all the -you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and  …  just stand there… and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

CK:  Maybe you should have been a writer, Kath.

[All laugh]

CK: Have you heard Martin Jarvis reading the William stories?  On tape?

Kath: Oh yes.  I think the William stories are really funny anyway, aren’t they?  I know it’s dated but..

Ken: Very dated, yeh.

Kath: ‘Cos they’re ‘posh’.

CK: But it’s very popular.

Kath: Yes. It’s the way children behave, you know, They’re so … And you think they’re very daring to put things in other people’s … like worms ….  I wouldn’t have dared to do anything like that.

CK: I just love it.  Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about what you read?  That it was a sort of guilty pleasure?  It was a bit lowbrow or … it was too highbrow or … ?

Ken: I used to be constantly in trouble for keeping the light on in my bedroom, reading. That’s about all. Nobody ever – apart from what we were reading, you know, er …  I think my mother and father thought that they should control what we read but of course they never could, you know, ‘cos we would always read what we really wanted to read.

CK: [laughs]   Where did you go to school?

Ken: Down at De La Salle, Sheffield.  Scott Road.

CK: Yes, you said you had a very good English teacher.  He encouraged you to read books?

Ken: Oh, absolutely. Stunning. I mean, we used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall.  You know, things like The Land  and all those famous poems.  Things I’ve never forgotten.  I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner  and “Young Lochinvar has come out of the west/Through all the wide borders his steed was the best”.  You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things.   But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen.  And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect.  He never failed to be right in what he’d said.  Well, I think so.  I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.

CK: Do you still read poems sometimes?

Ken: Yes, yes, I like poetry.

Kath: I like some poetry but not all poetry ‘cos it seems sometimes you have a job understanding it.

CK:  Mmm, oh yes.

Kath: You learn poetry at school, don’t you.  And then if it’s a good poem you  memorise it but if it isn’t, well, you forget all about it – like everything else.

Ken: Do kids still do the mechanical part of things at school?  You know, parsing stuff?  And doing all that analysing of poems and all that sort of thing?

CK: Yeh, they will study poetry.  I don’t think they will do grammar parsing like we did.

[Ken laughs]

CK: It is important do you think to learn such things at school?   Did you go to the theatre much?  Or cinema?

Kath: Cinema we probably went to once every two or three weeks but not theatres.  We could never afford it.  We never had the money, did we, to go to see things at the theatre?

Ken:  We used to see quite a bit of amateur theatre which was … I don’t know whether it was er nourishment or punishment!  [laughs] But er lots of people, when I was a kid, lots of people like my parents and my sister and all my friends were all in amateur dramatics, whether belonging to the church or the chapel or whatever it was they were mixed up with. So you always used to be going to see these things but they were pretty rubbish, you know.  They enjoyed doing it so I expect that is really what it was all about.

CK: Did it inspire you to read the play or the book sometimes?

Ken: Sometimes.  I remember going to St Cuthbert’s and watching the start of Hamlet being done. [Kath laughs]  I was doing the curtains you see. And also acting as a prompt.  And I’m pulling the curtains and they came in; they said the first three words and this bloke got up and walked out. [laughs] I’ve never forgotten it.  This bloke right at the front.  He was sort of incredulous.  He got up and walked straight out. [both laugh]

CK: [laughs] That’s pretty quick!

Kath: I mean, nowadays on telly they do plays, don’t they, Shakespeare, and it’s magic.  But, you know, somebody who’s in amateur theatricals – usually they don’t have the right sort of voices for the job.

Ken: I’ve seen plays, you know, Ibsen and all that sort of stuff but it seems very depressing really, miserable stuff, so I never really cared for that much.

CK: Mm.  And what about..  Well, you talked about the library, the Firth Park library.  Were there other libraries that you used? Or bookshops?

Ken: When I worked in town I used the Central Library a lot.  It was a place you could get the more unusual books.   Though Firth Park Library was a good place, wasn’t it Kath?

Kath: Yes.  We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently.  (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then.  I was only a young kid).  But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.   So we must have ben going soon after it opened up.  But somebody told me it had closed now.

Ken: It has, yes.

Kath: Dreadful, isn’t it. You should never shut any of those places at all.  I think it’s diabolical.

CK:  Mm. Did people choose books for you or did you always choose your own?

Kath: Oh we always choosed our own. [laughs]  But I like books where you make things. You know, I was always wanting to be knitting or sewing or making or doing. So possibly I didn’t read as I got a bit older cos I wouldn’t have the time you know. I knitted for my son and daughter and her daughter and child and so – you know – I never got round to reading in great numbers as I had done in the past.

Ken: Well that’s reminded me, what you just said, ‘cos when I was a kid one of my presents at Christmas – I’d be about nine or ten probably – was the Children’s Encyclopaedia, all ten volumes, by Arthur Mee. You know the ones I mean?

CK: I do.

Ken: I used to gobble those up because they had things in each volume (which must have been that thick I should think) things to make and do.   Things every boy can make.  [Kath laughs]  And none of them I could!  {laughter]  ‘Cos it used to say things like, “Go to your friendly optician and ask for two lenses, a concave and a convex one.  And make your own telescope out of them with cardboard tubes”.   “Go to your grocer, your friendly grocer…”  And I used to think ‘local?  friendly?  They  must live in a friendly place!’  [laughter]  And I used to know Mr Salt, the optician, but I daren’t have asked him for any lenses to make a telescope!

CK: [laughter] Oh dear. How wonderful!

Kath: What age groups did you say you were doing?  End of the war to now?

CK: Well, it’s really the post-war period that they’re interested in most. But er…

Kath:  Oh, I see.

CK: I’ve got a list of piles of authors and types of books here.  We’ve got realistic fiction, rural, historical, political..

Kath: You liked rural stories didn’t you?  Who was that chap who used to lie on the ground and study insects and things?

Ken: That’s Fabre, the French entymologist who discovered the Pine Processional Beetle [caterpillars in fact] and all those things.

Kath: They are technical books really, aren’t they?

Ken: I expect so, yes.

Kath: So his love of books really goes over and above, beyond the main, I think.

CK: Mm.  So when you talk about technical books, what kind of work?   Were you doing technical work?

Ken: Yes, yes. Mostly maths and things like that, you know, engineering principles and all that sort of business.  And also I used to do quite a lot of radio so I used to read quite a lot of radio – not magazines – but you know, instruction books and things because I used to build my own television and things like that.  Do you remember that television I built?

Kath: I do, yes.

CK: Really!

Ken: Goodness me!

CK: Well maybe Arthur Mee is to be credited for that!

[All laugh]

Ken: I used to take it to pieces every week to clean.

Kath: Are they the books people have read, on that list?

CK: These are some, yes, some prompts about people of the time.  So I’ve got H E Bates, Arnold Bennett, John Braine, Warwick Deeping…

Ken: Yes.

CK: John Galsworthy, Rosamund Lehmann …. er  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

Ken: Yes, we’ve got that somewhere.

CK: I thought you might. [All laugh]

Ken: That Evelyn Waugh, all Evelyn Waugh’s books, you know, Vile Bodies and all that business. All those.

Kath: Red Star Over China.

Ken: Howard Spring, that.

Kath: Brilliant, that.  No, it wasn’t Howard Spring.  It was a Chinese bloke.

Ken: I think it was.  It was written by an American, Howard Spring.  He went there as a reporter and he was the first one to meet the Red Chinese and go with them on the Long March.

Kath: I remember about the Long March as there were terrific privations then.

Ken: Mao Tse Tung and all those people. We went to East Germany before the wall was down you know.  We took the children to a children’s camp there and when we were there it was an amazing thing.  All these stories that were written and all these – you know- spy stories written about East Germany and the border and all that?  A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know.  Weren’t they, Kath?  Absolutely.  We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin.  They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it?  Not a bit.  And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know?  Shocking, shocking.

CK: You wonder, don’t you.

Ken: But there we are.

CK:  [Ken, Kath] Thank you so much.

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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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