Mary didn’t have to travel far to find the magazines and books she loved. They came to her and surround her in the house that she has lived in since she was a girl: her first book, Chuckles, a book of little poems with drawings to be coloured in, and given to her by ‘Father Christmas’; her copies of Girl’s Own Paper delivered to the door; her mother’s Woman’s Pictorial magazines, one containing the coupon for a cut-price set of Dickens that was never ordered, and the volumes from The Travel Book Club subscribed to by her father.
Mary treasures all the family’s books, not always for the reading pleasures they brought. Mary’s daughter Frances ponders how Mary’s mother could have delighted in the pious A Peep Behind the Scenes, ‘absolutely ghastly’. But each book, loved or not, had been shared or handed on. She reflects that the only things she has given away, and that comparatively recently, are her piles of Magnet comics.
Both Mary’s parents worked in the book trade. Her father was a master printer who built up his own printing press. He did well and was able to move the family to the outer suburb of Bents Green and sent Mary to a little private school in the early 1930s. Before she was married, Mary’s mother worked in the market on a family stall selling ‘books and things’, which was subsequently bought by Mary’s in-laws and renamed L. and A. Wilkinson.
So she was encouraged to read bits of the books so that she could discuss them with customers, you know … and they used to sell books and stationery and all that kind of thing, and when gramophones first came in they sold those too.
In the 1920s Mary became a member of the Sheffield Star ’s Gloop Club which offered outings to the theatre and other sorts of entertainment for children. Then came the Depression. The printing business, like many other small printing businesses, struggled and in 1935 Mary left school at 14 to train as a secretary. By 16 she was typist for a tax expert in town.
Mary and her mother would set out together to find books: first from the Green Circle tuppenny library half way into town at Hunters Bar, and then the municipal libraries – two of them, the local down the Ecclesall Rd and the Central Library near Mary’s work. There, she found a new borrowing companion. After work, two or three times a week, she and the office boy used to make a joint expedition to the Central Library to borrow books to read on the tram on the way home. ‘You got through quite a few books that way. When the buses came in it was a bit bumpy!’ But she never took one of her own books on the journey to work: ‘If they’re your books you keep them at home, don’t you?’ You only read Penguins and library books on the tram.
Gradually Mary’s social circle widened and her friends were all required to help her create her own book. In Mary’s Confessions, compiled in the late 1930s, each friend had their own page on which they answered the questions Mary proposed, in particular, ‘Who is your favourite author?’ A lot could hang on the answer. John Lee, with his ‘nice writing’, liked Oswald Mosley. Edward Bedford enjoyed the swashbuckling romances of Raphael Sabatini. William Olivant was more up-to-date with his taste for Leslie Charteris. Kenneth Hutton must have been into scouting because his favourite author was F. Haydn Dimmock. However it was Philip who won Mary’s heart, with his admiration of ‘David Hulme’ unknown to any library catalogue we have consulted. When war was declared Mary and Philip went separate ways but the husband who found his way to Mary’s door also arrived with books.
Mary, who just before the outbreak of war was the major wage earner in the family, had been looking out for a lodger to supplement the family income when she spotted an advertisement in the paper, ‘Respectable young man requires lodgings’. Maurice was a young engineer at Firth Brown Tools.
and I remember him coming I think it was one Saturday morning, and my friend and I who lived across the road, was across the road, and we saw him pull up in his little Morris 8 that he had in those days, you could get petrol before the war. And we looked at him, and he decided that he’d stay and so he almost became one of the family. He taught us to play bridge. Mother and father were quite keen on whist, they used to go to a lot of whist drives, and he taught us to play bridge and we used to do that in the evenings. And he was quite good company. And we used to do the Telegraph crossword sitting on that settee.
A few years after his arrival, Maurice bought Mary a complete set of Kipling for her 21st birthday because he knew Kipling was one of her favourite authors.
Throughout her life Mary compiled a list of all the books she read. Her teenage favourites, Anne of Green Gables and Daddy-Long-Legs, were not in her grandmother’s glass bookcase behind her because they had been borrowed and reborrowed from the public libraries throughout her life.
It was Mary’s daughter, Frances, who, at a Reading Sheffield talk told us about her mother’s book-filled life, her precious booklist and her book of Confessions. Thank you Frances.
Reading Journey by Mary Grover