Shirley Ellins

Shirley Ellins

Shirley was born in Beauchief, Sheffield in 1936.

She is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 22nd November 2011.


LH: So. I need to say first, this is an interview conducted by Loveday Herridge, it is … Golly, is it the 22nd of November? Think it is [it is]. And I’m interviewing Shirley Ellins. And could you tell me where you were born to begin with Shirley?

Shirley Ellins (SE): I was born in Sheffield in 1936.

LH: Right. Which area of Sheffield do you mean?

SE: This part of the world in Beauchief.


LH: Right, right. And in 1936. Now you’ve already told me a little bit about yourself, and I can remember from what you said you did actually begin by talking about your parents, which was great. Can you tell me a little bit about what your father did first?

SE: My father went to grammar school, in the centre of town. It was then the only grammar school, and is the direct ancestor of high schools where I went, so I’m very proud of that. He left at 16 He passed an exam called ‘The Oxford Local’ examination, which would have entitled him to go on and study further, and perhaps go to University. His father, who was a wholesale grocer, was a typical Victorian, and my father was too frightened to ask him. So he went to the Town Hall [Shirley laughs], into the city treasury department, the Loans and Stock – he was very good at mathematics, which gift I alas didn’t inherit. But he volunteered and went to fight at the very end of the First World War, in the Royal Army Service Corps. He drove a lorry with a gun on it.

SE: My mother left school at 14, and was a telephonist. Previously she had worked in Smith’s, which was a shop, so she could always make beautiful parcels. But she took the civil service exam and passed, and went down in Fitzalan Square area, to the old telephone buildings, and was a telephonist which she had to leave when she married. I’m the only child.

LH: So they met and married …

SE: Ah, church is the connection! They were both keen Methodists, attended a church in the town which alas has gone; they lived in Crookesmoor area, both of them, and they … My father’s grocery shop was in Allen Street, and my mother lived locally. They both attended Scotland Street Methodist Church.

LH: Your father’s [family], your father’s grocers shop . . .

SE: My family, my grandfather

LH: Yes, yes.

SE: A wholesale grocers.

LH: Yeah, yeah.

SE: Well yes, he had a shop too.

LH: Yes.

SE: Both wholesale and retail.

LH: Yes.

SE: And, theirs was a romance born and bred at church, that’s how they knew each other, the families knew each other, and they were very enthusiastic members, you know, morning and evening and Sunday school and I grew up the same way. I went down there too.

LH: So they married. Do you remember what year?

SE: Erm … my mother was 27 when they married. They married in 1929. And my father was … er … He was born in 1898. And my mother was born in 1901. There was three years between them. So he was older. He would have been 31 when they married and I didn’t come along until 1936. One guesses they may have had some trouble in conceiving? I don’t know. And an only child.


LH: There were no others?

SE: No, no others, no.

LH: And so your first memories of books, Shirley, can you tell me a little bit about that?

SE: Well there were books in the house, which I would see. [Pause] There was a little bookshelf which stood on the floor. I can see it now in my mind’s eye … which had the books in from the library, largely taken up by my mother. And there was the bookcase with our personal books in, some of which I read.

LH: So these were separated were they? Library books were kept in one place… That’s interesting.

SE: A little bookcase, a little bookshelf on the floor. Just like that.

LH: Now that is a … (I’ve got one exactly the same …) It’s a little oak…

SE: Wooden.

LH: Its about 15 inches wide, and the books sort of lie back (yeah) in the cradle of the shelf, with the spines on the outside.

SE: There’d be four or five books in there. Warwick Deeping [Shirley laughs]… I can remember… [still laughing]

LH: Tell me more…

SE: Novelist who mother read, you see.

LH: Yes, yes, ahh…

SE: I never read.

LH: You didn’t read any?

SE: No, no.

LH: Why?

SE: It was too old for me. I mean, I’m little! [Shirley laughs again]. I was just looking at the names once I could read, they were not to my taste. I never read her favourite author, which was Anna Buchan – O. Douglas, her pen name, until my mother died. And then I went through all her books.

LH: But you can recall seeing … Anna Buchan and Warwick Deeping …  [MKG note O Douglas was the pen-name of Anna Buchan]

SE: Those were her personal obsessions.

LH: Oh you mean the other one?

SE: They were in the large bookcase in the other room.

LH: Right.

SE: She owned those.

LH: Right.

SE: Yes.

LH: This is so interesting! There was this shelf for the library books, where was the shelf for the…

SE: It was in the dining room.

LH: The dining room. And the other bookshelf?

SE: In the lounge. Was a bookcase.

LH: Where the personal ones.

SE: At least three shelves full of books belonging to both my parents.

LH: Right, right.

SE: I mean Southey’s Life of Nelson I think belonged to my father. [Shirley laughs]

LH: Right.

SE: Arthur Mee’s Thousand Heroes – I don’t know who that was! [Shirley laughs again] Or The Water Babies. But those were the ones I read out of the collection.

L.H. Right. And so how, how, was there, were the books in the little shelf distinguished in any way that you now can see, from the books that were owned by your parents?

Well yes! Because they came and went, you know [LH: yes], they were returned to the library or you paid fines!

LH: But in terms of type, were they any different from the ones that were owned?

SE: Well the books from the library I think were all novels.

LH: Right.

SE: The other bookcase had different things, as I have mentioned, a sort of reference work like Arthur Mee’s Thousand Heroes and a biography, Southey’s Life of Nelson. And their tune books for the Methodist Church; they possessed their own tune books. They were both in the choir. It was a musical household, I inherited that. And they were in that, and The Water Babies was in there, and more I cannot remember, because they’d had three shelves. [LH: Yes]. And the famous Shakespeare that mother won as a child when she was 14 from Crookesmoor School for Progress, before she left; complete works, complete with wonderful Victorian paintings and photographs of Victorian actors and actresses. Which is my pride and joy.

LH: So would I be right in thinking that the possessed books, were the ones … were classics, as it were. And some non-fiction. The shelf of library books tended to be kept for more novels.

SE: Yes, you would be right.

LH: Okay. So. Take us back to … You were very little, and can you tell me how you learnt to read? Do you recall?

SE: I went to a little private school at the age of four. Because I was an only child, and there were in the road many children of about my age, I had a number of friends who were virtual neighbours. But I think my parents felt that being in a house of adults, which benefitted I suspect my vocabulary and my general development, I was short of young company. And they sensed that I was ready. And in those days you did not go to school till you were 5. So I went to this little private school at the age of four, and I do remember alphabet cards with the letters on and pictures from that period, and I stayed there from 4-6. They felt I was doing quite well, and I was shy, and it was a bit of a journey to Abbey Lane School, which was the local county school where I went at 6. And I guess, that I was well into reading, really by the time I left the little private school. I think so. Which was nearer geographically.

LH: But you also – I think, I know, because you mentioned earlier – you have memories of reading with your mum. Or her reading to you.

SE: My mother certainly read to me, because I have this vivid earliest … One of the very earliest memories I have, and certainly a really pleasant one, compared with some others that were less pleasant. I was sitting in my little chair, which was really a miniature adult chair, by her knee while she read The House at Pooh Corner, which I still love. And we laughed, both of us, so much and I was helpless and rolled onto the floor with laughter at that point.

LH: So you have pleasurable memories of your – did you dad read to you as well?

SE: I do not remember that, no. I think mother.

LH: And so were there bedtime stories … ?

SE: I do not remember. This was before I went to bed. They were fairly strict, fairly strict. Bedrooms were for sleeping, lights off. Not door closed, but just ajar. And I went to bed fairly early, and I’ve always needed quite a lot of sleep, still. And the activities were downstairs, including the reading.

LH: That’s interesting really, the little byway. When did you … Do you ever read in bed now?

SE: No. I did when my husband was alive, and I married later in life at 45, a colleague, and we were together for 16 very happy years. Now he was a man who read in bed, he got in bed first. He always wondered why I was slow. I pointed out I had to wash my tights! [Loveday laughs]. And I got into the habit of then reading with him. But now I’m on my own, I am busy to the last minute of going to bed, doing things. So the reading comes during the day. I have reverted to earlier habits. I read a bit in bed, in adult life, but not in childhood. I was not supposed to! [Shirley laughs]

LH: Okay. So we’ll go back to your childhood. So could you tell us about your next school? And your reading experiences there?

SE: Well at six I went to Abbey Lane Junior School. That was farther away. I had a ha’penny for my car fare. I would walk down Bocking Lane – which is quite a distance – and walk up it, which is even longer for little legs, often cutting through the wood which was at the back of our house. And then go on the tram, unless I saved the money to spend on buying nice things like liquorice root which I loved, or a poke with cocoa and sugar mixed, or a raw carrot, which were things you could buy to supplement your diet in the war!

LH: Yes, where are we? What’s the year?

SE: I was six years old. So it’s ’42.

LH: 1942.

SE: When I went to Abbey Lane.

LH: Right, right. And where were you living at that point?

SE: In Crawshaw Grove, on the side which backs on to Parkbank Wood and Beauchief. Well I don’t remember reading much there, or learning to, that’s why I guess that my memories of the alphabet cards and indeed I have slight memories of helping younger children, by the time I was six I think I was holding the alphabet cards for the four year olds at the little private school. I think when I got to Abbey Lane, I could read. And I was being given books for presents, that’s why upstairs there is still the Bible, the Gallery of Children, When we were very Young, The House at Pooh Corner, all A.A. Milne, The Wind in the Willows, Bambi, Flower Fairies of the Spring, four Beatrix Potters, Peter Pan, and no longer Shirley Temple but I had all those books in the house, they were gifts to me from family and friends.

LH: That was birthdays and Christmas?

SE: Birthdays and Christmas, yes. The first one I have that I can date from my parents, is my seventh birthday and I have A.A. Milne, The Gallery of Children which says inside, “Fondest Love, Mummy and Daddy, 20th March 1943.” So I was seven then, I was seven. I think I read the historical novels and other things from the children’s library when I was at school. We would go to town.

LH: When you say ‘we’, the schoolgirl you went with? Or …

SE: No. My mother and my grandma, who lived with us. The three of us tended to go to town together.

LH: Did you … Was that weekends?

SE: Yes.

LH: Yes. And so a trip to the children’s library was..

SE: On a Saturday I guess.

LH: Well you’ve already said that your parents themselves were library users, so was that part of that routine? They changed their books, you changed yours?

SE: I cannot remember. But I am absolutely certain mother had library books. My remembrance of father and his being so much into crime fiction is somewhat later, and they certainly came from the library, he didn’t buy them. But I don’t remember as a child, so I suspect that it was the ladies of the household who went to the library weekly. Because I’m very familiar with where it was, and we haven’t got a local library. There wasn’t one in Beauchief. It had to be the town, yes.

LH: There’s something you told me earlier – is that your little story about your father and the lending … magazine lending setup at the town hall, that’s an interesting [story].

SE: I said to you there was a newspaper in the house, the News Chronicle, which I don’t think I took much notice of. But certainly I did develop newspaper reading habits later. Also in the house were magazines. In the treasury department, it may have just been in his subdivision, which was Loans and Stock, but they had a magazine club, and the men there – and the ladies, there were ladies in the office – subscribed, and therefore were able to buy a whole range of magazines, and they circulated in turn, you have them for so long then had to send them back. And I know – and I first was acquainted with Punch then, and with Country Life, and the London Illustrated News – I’m very familiar with the format of those three.

LH: So as a child you borrowed them at home.

SE: I think so, yes. He was in the town hall all his life.

LH: Ah right, yes, okay.

SE: Once he came back from the war. He went and came back to that.

LH: Were you familiar with any other circulating / subscription libraries that operated in Sheffield?

SE: No.

LH: No. You just used the – not the Boots library, or any other…

SE: No.

LH: I think there were quite a number of little independent circulating …

SE: I was not aware of those, no.

LH: Because you were a Central Library user, so there was a good choice I would imagine.

SE: Yes, yes.

LH: So when you went to the children’s library, how did you choose your books off the shelf?

SE: I cannot remember, I am sorry. It is too long ago. I know … Still in Junior School I suspect, when I had moved on to Henty and Baroness Orczy, and D.K. Broster, still in Junior School probably, I was still going into the adult library for those you see.  I remember looking across the O’s, at Baroness Orczy, and there was this person called ‘Ouida’ – O, U, I … Of whom I’d never heard! [Shirley laughs] And there were rows of them, because they were old fashioned, nobody took them out! You know, and I was searching for Orczy, so that I could get a Scarlet Pimpernel book.

LH: How old were you then, do you think?

SE: The only book I’m absolutely certain of – of that nature,  that I read at Junior School – is this Pigeons of Leyden, a historical novel about the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, when carrier pigeons were used because Leyden was besieged. I think they had flooded the dykes actually, to keep out the Spanish Army, and I remember reading that and saying to my mother before I was 11, “I would like to go to University and I want to teach English and History”. I did not realise then that you usually did one subject, not two!

LH: Was it the book that prompted you to say …

SE: Well I suspect that my love of history was sparked off by historical novels, because I did mention I was into G.K. Henty as well, and Conan Doyle wrote historical novels which I loved, like Sir Nigel and The White Company, that are not well known, you know. I like Sherlock Holmes too, but I have read the historical novels.

LH: So you were reading these really as a primary school child rather than a secondary school child?

SE: It’s about that period, the transition. I am certain about Pigeons of Leyden, for some reason I have a half suspicion there might have been a school library and I got Pigeons of Leyden from there.

LH: Right. I was just going to …

SE: To be honest. I think there was a school library.

LH: At the primary school?

SE: At Abbey Lane, yes, at the primary school.

LH: There was at High Storrs, wasn’t there?

SE: Oh yeah! Yeah yeah, I took … I have a half recollection of a bookshelf in a classroom [Shirley laughs] that I got Pigeons of Leyden from! [Shirley laughs again]. Whereas there was a whole room at High Storrs! Full of books!

LH: So you moved fairly early on from the children’s library to the adult library.

SE: I think so.

LH: And you …

SE: Went with my mother again.

LH: Yes, yes. And again, do you know how you chose the books? Did you have in mind more or less what you wanted to get out?

SE: I would I think be enthused about a particular author – Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy – I would head for that section, and go along looking. I didn’t sort of wander around in a vague fashion. Well, you couldn’t. Central Library was too big really. So I suspect that I’d got an author that I’d enjoyed, and was pursuing everything else that person had written.

LH: I think you said your grandmother made a recommendation?

SE: I was very surprised at that, because my mother – my grandmother did not write early on. I think it is my grandfather … I have seen a certificate, I possess a certificate where she made her mark. So I think my grandfather, who was bright – a clerk – but bright, taught her really, when they were married.

LH: Taught her to read?

SE: Taught her – no, to write. To write.

LH: She could read?

SE: I think – oh she could read. I think – her writing was always a bit… concentrated and careful. She wrote in that sort of way that was not automatic and fluent. And I suspect that the writing was not second nature to her. The reading was, okay, and she told me about Cold Comfort Farm, which she had found amusing, and which I found terribly amusing! And I am surprised-

LH: How old were you?

SE: [Shirley Laughs] I don’t know!

LH: [Loveday laughs] You don’t know.

SE: [Shirley is laughing as she speaks] She didn’t die till I was 21! So I might well have been at secondary school!

LH: Okay, okay. So at secondary school, were there teachers who were particularly good at recommending books to you?

SE: Can I just mention …

LH: Sorry.

SE: … I’ve not said Biggles, and Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, because I was reading those books as well. Those ‘Captain Johns’ and you know, the others, I would’ve sought out them in the central library. School. I always liked English and was good at it. We read Shakespeare in the first year. We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And every year we did a Shakespeare play, and we acted them out at the front with the book in a hand and ruler serving as a sword. Which I think was good. And I was always keen to be picked! [Shirley laughs]. And we read novels at school. Some strange thing called Bevis and Mark, which is very old fashioned. It was a shortened version of some longer thing. I eventually found out what from … We had read Pride and Prejudice before I was sixteen, read the Trumpet Major – Hardy – before I was sixteen, I’d got into poetry; that must have been in English classes, because I chose poetry for my prizes when I got them. It was at the school library that I sought out these myths, that I got fond of.  I used to get to school early, and would go to the library, and sit and read there – a bit for pleasure, before I had to go down to the classroom. And I was very keen on Greek myths. I had good English teachers. The first history teacher I had was particularly inspirational; I loved her when I was eleven. That was helpful, because thereafter I had a dull and dreadful teacher for a while, and I think that anybody who was good in the arts subjects, you know, got one reading, and particularly I would say History and English, and I’m so grateful for the set books that I had to read. Would I ever have read Milton’s Paradise Lost if I hadn’t had to do if for A-Level? Probably not. And it is rewarding, you know. So I can’t remember any teachers saying “this is a good book.” I can remember a friend by the sixth form, she got me reading Omar Khayyam, I love poetry. And I know Margaret quoting to me bits and I said “what’s that Margaret? – that’s wonderful and different!” – “Oooh!”,  she said, “It’s ‘Omar Khayyam’!” “Is it?” – back to the library, get Omar Khayyam’, and read that. She went on to do English at Sheffield University, Margaret.

LH: Can we just return for one moment to Warwick Deeping?

SE: I know his name, because of Betjeman’s poetry. He’s another poet I love. I heard him give a recital, gosh! That was before 1965, when I was 23, I went to the Edinburgh Festival. And one of the late night entertainers was Betjeman reading his own poetry, and I promptly went and bought the collected works and read them on the way down from Edinburgh to Sheffield on the train, laughing my hat off. And there’s something about a girl who got her eye on marrying well in the RAF… And it said “she sat in the train with Warwick Deeping on her lap” – and I thought “ah yes! My mother, Warwick Deeping!” [Shirley laughs] Who wrote Howard Spring? That’s another mother read, that was on this little shelf on the floor.

LH: Now why do you laugh about Warwick Deeping?

SE: I laugh at the poem.

LH: Ah, the poem.

SE: At Betjeman, was being satirical at the expense of the… “she had two stockings when she was reading her Warwick Deeping”, and she holds- the Air Vice-Marshal offered to buy her a Bravington’s ring, you see! [both laugh]. I wouldn’t’ve known about Bravington’s ring if I hadn’t read Betjeman! [Shirley continues to laugh]. So. yes.

LH: But you’d never read any…

SE: No, I didn’t.

LH: Or Howard Spring?

SE: No.

LH: Why didn’t you read those books?

SE: [Big pause] Perhaps I was formulating my own taste, and felt that those were mother’s books, and mother’s generation. My mother, and I’m Shirley, and I was reading what I was into at the moment. Pretty voraciously, and quickly, and happily, a very fast reader. So I’m able to get through a lot in a short time.

LH: Did you read any … were you… did you read anything you had to read, and disliked?

SE: [Big pause] I didn’t care for Bevis and Mark! [Shirley laughs]

LH: What is this Bevis and Mark? I haven’t heard…

SE: I think, if you can think of a … probably an early 20th century novel… Oh yes, we read Memoirs of Fox Hunting Man too, which I think was a bit early, really. You know, before I was sixteen. Oooh, that’s come back. I think it is a shortened version of something, whose main characters are called … boys. They were schoolboys, Bevis and Mark, and it did not appeal to me at all.  And the Memoirs of Fox Hunting Man. I’ve read it since, because of an interest in the First World War, okay. But it was too soon. There were some other set books. Mercifully I seem to’ve forgotten them! That I didn’t enjoy, but most of them I liked. And formulated and inspired, as I said, I have read Pride and Prejudice, and at sixteen I got chicken pox straight after O-Level, merciful dispensation that it was not earlier. Then gave it to my poor father! Mum had got two of us. She said “you have worked too hard,” and you know, “done so much revision you are exhausted.” Because I was limp and poor. But of course it was the precursor to the chicken pox. I was debilitated, because that was upon me. And I read the whole of Jane Austen, one after the other to take my mind off the itching.

LH: You mentioned something else when we spoke earlier, about comics.

SE: My parents had stern views, and they thought comics were unsuitable. So I never had a comic, ever. But one of my best friends from the first year (so I don’t know which year it was, but she left at sixteen), she lent me Girls’ Crystal, which she had. And I loved it, and I thought it was a very enjoyable read. Girls’ school stories, you know.

LH: Can you tell me a bit about this notion of suitability? What do you think was meant by suitable?

SE: I guess, they thought they were trivial. And not educational. And perhaps wouldn’t stretch me. They never censored other reading. And money was tight! You know, my father worked in the Town Hall, there is something called the Geddes Axe, in the great depression where all the public servants took cuts. And father in his life never asked for a rise, he was not that sort of man. He was proud. And you know, mother wasn’t allowed to work when she married, the telephonist was sacked. So… And we’d got grandma with us, we weren’t well off, we were clear middle class. There wasn’t money to waste. The school had a visit to Paris in the sixth form, which is within this period, and two of my close friends went, and I wanted to go, and Dad said “I don’t think we can afford it, Shirley, we haven’t the money. We go on a holiday every year-” (which we did, two weeks, lovely holiday) – “I don’t think we can pay extra for you to go to Paris.” And he questioned the headmistress, at parents’ evening. And said “Shirley wants to go to Paris, and I’m worried about the cost. What do you think?” And she said, “Shirley wants to go to University, doesn’t she?” and he said yes, and she said “Save the money for that”. So I didn’t go. I didn’t go abroad till I was 22 and could pay for myself. So I think perhaps the comics were viewed as a bit of a waste of money, to be honest.

LH: But otherwise there was no censorship in your house?

SE: No, oh no. Jean Plaidy! [Shirley laughs]. Thinking of historical novels, she might’ve been thought of as a bit raunchy, but I read her!

LHL: And broadly, this was because … they valued education?

SE: Oh yes.

LH: They valued …

SE: My father was a grammar school boy. As I say, with aspirations beyond that, but he dare not ask his father. And my mother was bright as a button, but she was all on the arts side. She liked history, and English, and she loved the theatre… My father was (as I say) good at maths, and he read crime fiction. But they had a joint interest in music – they were both in the church choir, and they were both in a choral society. Now I heard my first Messiah at the age of eight, sitting next to Grandma who fed me the odd sweet to keep me happy! [Shirley laughs]

LH: So, you’re a teenager now I suppose, in school… working towards having decided you wanted to go to University, working towards your O-Levels…

SE: I did six O-Levels at the age of sixteen. But bear in mind at that time I was also studying for two A-Levels. I go to church three times on a Sunday, I learnt music from the age of eight, my father’s piano dated 1891 I think, very precious to me – still in the room – I had music lessons ‘til I was eighteen, I did seven piano exams, I was doing an hour’s piano practice by the time I was in the sixth form – I was busy! Really very busy. [Shirley laughs]. My days and my evenings were well filled up.

LH: So you’ve got your set books that you’re reading for your A-Levels and you’ve had to do one of the again … Well not again-

SE: We did Greek and Latin. High Storrs was into creating classicists. So at the age of 12, instead of offering German and Latin, which would be the normal thing in a grammar school, they offered German and Greek. So I took Greek. So I took Greek from the age of 12, and I had to do Latin in a year, which meant I had no free periods when I was a fifth former, and I had some lessons in the lunch hour, because by then it was clear I wanted to read history at University, and at London you needed Latin. It was a requisite. So Greek and Latin, French, Maths (you’ve got to have Maths), Music (which was my one artistic subject), and English Language. I didn’t do literature and history, because I was already studying them at A-Level, at fifteen to sixteen. And I took those two up to seventeen, in the lower sixth, then Sheffield discovered I needed – well, Sheffield insisted I needed three altogether. It was a soft option to do two plus one, so I had to do them both again, did a different period. One of my history papers I did totally different set books except one, for my English paper. And I sat a scholarship paper as well in History. So what with that and my piano practice, and church … I was a busy little bee. But I enjoyed it! [Shirley laughs]

LH: But you were successful, and went on to University.

SE: I went to London University, I’m inordinately proud of Bedford College, it’s the oldest college of higher education that gave degrees in this country, and was very very happy there. And I stayed on in London to do my education year, at the Institute of Education, because I very much valued what London had to offer. Sightseeing.


LH: Did you read … I mean of course you were terribly busy, but you were still reading for pleasure, were you?

SE: There is a lot less reading for pleasure since I have been studying History and teaching history. The house is full of books, but a lot of them are history books. The reading for pleasure tends to be rather strange oddments, I mean I was buying poetry, because you can dip into poetry. I heard a lecture on John Donne, as an undergraduate, bought a Donne. I don’t know where the Kipling came from, I love Kipling’s poetry, and I was certainly reading that at school, because we were asked to read a favourite poem in one lesson and I chose a poem by Kipling. But novels I could read quickly, I would certainly get out the library and read, but a lot of my reading was either holiday orientated, I’ve got guidebooks galore, because I started going abroad when I was teaching, and had a girlfriend. 19… [Big pause] … 68. [Big pause] Malta. And so I read a lot of history related to wherever I’d been, which was pleasure. Wasn’t a chore. Was unrelated to work, and things that sort of … Legends of the Rhine, because my parents went down the Rhine, you know for a holiday, they brought it me back, and I loved it – it fitted in with the Greek legends and the Norse legends that I also enjoyed. I have had reading for pleasure on the back burner for a long time, because reading for work (and because I’m still teaching), is also pleasure, thank god. You know. I tell you what, recently I’ve been into the ‘Falco’ novels of Lindsey Davis. I love them! And I also love the ‘Brother Cadfael’ novels.

LH: The which ones?

SE: ‘Brother Cadfael’.

LH: Oh yes.

SE: You know, of Ellis Peters. Again, history! But, all good novels. My husband liked crime. He’s a lot of crime – there’s a whole bookshelf of crime upstairs, many of which I read. I like biography too. And I like cricket, I’ve read a lot of… Anyway! That’s since 1960! I’m meandering on.

LH: No no no, it’s interesting. You’ve mentioned a lot of the novels that we have, I’m sure you’re…

SE: Do you want me to tell you again about how I got back into the newspapers, through the theatre?

LH: Oh yes, yes yes.

SE: I very much loved theatre, and although I was a very conscientious student, I had been to the theatre with my parents, as I have been to concerts with my parents, when I was still at school, but I went to both on my own in London when I was a student, but particularly the theatre. And the common room had the good papers, the broadsheets of the day, and I used to read the theatre reviews in the Times. I never get the Times or the Observer, they were not our papers. And when I came home, that was one reason for us getting at least the Sunday papers. The other reason was teaching current affairs. But since I was back in Sheffield, at least I’d have a weekly paper or two in the house. And since I married my husband, at the age of 45, we had a daily paper and I’m still reading the Times very diligently.


LH: That’s good, yes.  And … I’m sure you’re familiar with all these books actually. Is there anything else that you … I know you kindly made some notes. Was there anything we haven’t covered that you think that you thought to say?

SE: It means that I’m still buying books regularly, too many. I mean I have a mail order thing called Postscript, that I buy books for myself from and presents for other people. I get a lot of books as presents from my girl friends, and from my step children. I acquired two step children when I married, so there is a super abundance of books and it is a problem. I mean, I haven’t the storage space for them all. My husband gave away a lot when we moved to this house, because he had a whole room full. But there’s still a whole wall of his books, and some of the bookcases that I’ve mentioned are his. So it was the marriage of two minds and the marriage of two libraries too I think when we got together. And I certainly buy books on holiday, I come back with a pile of books from Turkey! I’ve just been there – guidebooks, you know. But relevant to where I’ve been. I would buy books from Andalusia, where I’ve also been this year, and it also adds to the clutter, I’m afraid.

[The phone rings in the background].

SE: Excuse me.

LH: That’s all right.

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Librarians’ Voices – When We Were Very Young

I turned a page and found an article by Herbert Waterson, published in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine.[1] He was writing in 1934, perhaps to mark the opening of the new Central Library. What was exciting was that he started work in 1869. Here were the reminiscences of a Victorian librarian.  

Herbert Waterson started as a junior assistant on 27 December 1869, when he would have been about 11 years old. He followed his two older brothers into the job, he says, and already knew the library well from sitting in the reading room, devouring books like R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857) and The Dog Crusoe (1860). Perhaps his brothers let him in, as no-one under the age of 14 could join the library, although there were some children’s books in the catalogue. Or perhaps children were allowed in the reading rooms.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Sheffield’s public library had opened in 1856, in the Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street, on the site of today’s Central Library. According to Waterson, the library occupied the ground floor and basement and shared premises with the Institute itself and the Council. The Council Chamber and various offices were located in the Institute. The chief librarian’s office ‘doubled as the Mayor’s Parlour’, and the caretaker and his family shared the basement with the library.

The library had few staff, we learn. There was the first chief librarian, Mr Parsonson, with Mr Hurst and Mr French and three boys. (According to the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield (1956), Walter Parsonson, a former silverplater’s apprentice, was in charge from 1856 to his death in 1873, when Thomas Hurst took over.) At Upperthorpe, a couple of miles away, there was Mr Bramhall and ‘one boy assistant, J Bunn’, looking after the only branch library. This had opened in October 1869, in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Albert Terrace Road. The building is no longer there, but here is a photograph.

The City Libraries of Sheffield says that the staff worked hard.

They were at first on duty every day during the whole twelve and a half hours that the library was open. … every effort was made by the Committee to see that each [person] in turn got a chance to go off duty at 8.00 pm instead of 9.30; and in 1859 they were each allowed half-day off a week – a good custom which continued for ten years before the Council knew about it, and, apparently, promptly stopped it. (pp.14-5)

Waterson describes the lending library, with its two counters, for lending and reference. The ‘closed access’ system was used, with the public choosing from catalogues and staff retrieving the books. There were separate reading rooms for men and women and, in time, a reference library room. The basement staff room was also the store for bound newspapers and Patents, which sounds uncomfortable.

One of Herbert Waterson’s duties was to locate books requested by borrowers. They were stacked up to the ceilings, in rooms behind the counters, and it was, it appears, hazardous work.

Owing to the system of storing the books on shelves to the ceilings of each room, we Juniors became adept at ladder-climbing…This system of ladder-climbing was somewhat dangerous as was proved by a severe accident to one of the staff, Mr French, who fell by over-reaching and was seriously injured; afterwards a grill was fixed to the shelves and hooks were attached to the end of the ladders.

The closed access system continued until the 1920s, but presumably the measures adopted after the accident made it a little safer for the intrepid boy assistants.

In August 1875, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Sheffield, to open Firth Park, given to the town by the then Mayor, Mark Firth. Waterson remembers that the library was closed for the visit, and that a formal lunch was served in the men’s reading room.

Opening of Firth Park in 1875 (public domain)

In the mid-1870s, Waterson says, a new librarian came to Upperthorpe. Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a library enthusiast. In 1886, he published the first manual of library management, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. ‘He did not ‘leave any identifiable mark,’ says the official history, but Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in so ‘it seems certain that Sheffield left some mark on him.’

Meanwhile the network of libraries was slowly developing. In 1872 a branch opened on Brunswick Road in Brightside.[2] In 1876 Upperthorpe got a whole building in place of two rented rooms in a church, and Highfield on the other side of town got a branch too. These two were known as the ‘twin libraries’, designed by E M Gibbs,in the Florentine Renaissance style, and each had a librarian’s house attached. Waterson says:

Those branches were considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Highfield Branch Library

He also reveals that Sheffield’s first female library worker started at Highfield:

The first lady assistant was a Miss Barker. She was engaged at Highfield Library in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and was very satisfactory, although the old system of ladders was in use at the time; afterwards other lady assistants were not so satisfactory.

In 1876, when he was 19, Herbert Waterson became head assistant to the chief librarian, Thomas Hurst, and his memoir stops. But we know more. The Sheffield Independent tells us that he became branch librarian of Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. He would have lived comfortably in the librarian’s house attached to the library. He was 70 years old by the time he retired and had worked in Sheffield Libraries for almost 59 years. Has anyone ever broken his record? (We suspect not.)

The librarian’s house at Upperthorpe

[1] When We Were Very Young (Waterson, H), The Wicket, 4 (2), 9-11 (1934). Appended to An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

[2]  The name was later changed to Burngreave Library. The building is now the Al-Rahman Mosque)

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