Our interviewee Judith G was born on 5 May 1939. In her interview (which you can read here), Judith reveals not only her own reading journey but also, at one remove, her mother’s. It was while she accompanied her mother on her reading journey that Judith started her own: ‘I just took to it because my mother read a lot.’
Here is Judith’s mum’s story.
Judith’s mother was born in Sheffield around 1906. She married a much older, ‘aloof’ husband who had been married twice before and who worked as a joiner at Chesterman’s Bow Works off Ecclesall Road*. They had five children, one of whom died as a baby. In time, Judith’s ‘demanding’ grandmother came to live with the family. There was little money for luxuries in a working-class area during the war and the austerity that followed. ‘I think she took to the libraries as an escape from looking after us and, you know, not having much.’ There were some books and newspapers at home, and when Judith’s grandmother came to stay, she ‘was always on about books and that, she’d been well educated’.
Judith’s mother ‘started with the private Red Circle Library’ between Ecclesall Road and the Moor, with its books ‘written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing’. We have no titles or authors, but she liked ‘what they called “bodice-rippers”, romantic novels and stuff’ and used to go to the Red Circle every week:
… my mother used to walk me down there I think just to get me out of the house and give her a break from four kids and my father … I can still see it with the red circle on the front and it was just like two shop windows with books in. Circulating library they called it, which I think is a lovely name. I always used to think it might revolve! … I think it cost tuppence a week, or every time you took a book out or fourpence – something like that.
Although she is pretty sure that her mother never borrowed it, Judith vividly remembers one particular book cover:
… there was a skull and there were pearls rolling down its face – I must have been a macabre child! – and it was called Devil’s Tears and that’s stuck in my mind for 60-odd years.#
Then Judith’s mother
decided to join the library, the big library in town, the main library. Because my mother was quite timid and I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.
This was Sheffield’s Central Library on Surrey Street, opened about 15 years earlier and then recovering from wartime privations.
Judith’s mum found pleasure in reading all her life. When she was older and lived in Sharrow Vale, she used to go to local Highfield Library.
I can still see her, she used to come in with four or five books, and … she still used to toddle up and down to the library, which was not far from her in those days, with those books. Because she used to say, “Oh, they were ever so nice at Highfield Library.” At Christmas they used to give them a cup of tea and a mince pie.
Looking back, Judith understands her mother. She never talked much about how she met her much older husband, but ‘no, I don’t think that mum, bless her, had a good marriage’. Books were:
… the only sort of rest she got from the lot of us. Don’t forget, my grandmother lived with us, she died when I was fifteen, and she was always demanding, my poor old mother was easily … cowed, shall we say?
Oh yes, [escape’s] what I think it was. She’d not much in her home, kind of thing, apart from keeping us four in check, and I think that’s it, she sort of buried her face in books.
* The splendid Bow Works are now occupied by Aviva Insurance.
# We think that this book might have been Edgar Hale’s Devil’s Tears (1946), although the cover shows a face rather than a skull. You can see the cover here.