Jean A’s reading journey

Sometimes we meet a Sheffield reader who has pin-bright memories of particular books, events, people.  Jean A, who was born in 1930, is one of those readers.  As she talks, we see the individual pictures painted with her words.

When she was very small, in the early 1930s, and lived in rural Lincolnshire, Jean went to a ‘dame school’, run by the wonderfully-named Mrs Storm:

My mother got tired of me sort of fidgeting about so she popped me in a pram and took me round to a kind of dame school.  Sat round the table, there were about eight of us, writing, spelling, dancing, arithmetic.

On family visits to Sheffield:

… this was my father’s home town.  Used to come up to Sheffield to see his father and all my aunts, and they read to me.  They were maiden aunts so they had the time to read to me.

Later, when the family moved to Sheffield, Jean’s schooling at Greystones Infants was disrupted by World War II:

… the roof was damaged so we had to have one or two lessons in the secondary modern school next door for a short time, then we did home service when we used to congregate in other people’s houses.  We had some children living in our attic, only a few of them … a family, if they could, they used to provide a room so we didn’t lose out on our teaching.  So my mum offered our attic.  It was a nice room up there, plenty of light. I think we had about four or five. … There would be different children in each house. … I could stay at home but we also had to go to the fishmonger’s up the road; he had a room to spare and I think Peak’s the Butcher’s had. So we didn’t just stay in my house.

There were Arthur Mee’s Children’s Newspaper and magazines every week:

Every Saturday we used to go to Greystones Rd. On [the] right hand side as you go up there are these fairly new houses. Well before they were built there was a little row of cottages. In one of them Mrs Dabbs, she used to sell papers and comics from a little house. I can remember getting Chick’s Own. Rainbow as well. She was a huge lady. She would sit on the table and it was covered with papers and comics and things. You had to pay for them of course. Oh Mrs Dabbs!

As Jean was growing up, she recalls doing ‘more reading because, the dark nights, you couldn’t go out to play.  And no box.  We listened a lot to the radio. It was a family thing.’  A case in point was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, read when she was about 15:

We went to the Children’s Library in the Central. I can remember going there … It was fine, lovely.  I was a great reader.  I can remember reading The Forsyte Saga when I was about 15, late at night.  I was engrossed in it. … Oh I did [enjoy it].  I didn’t enjoy the latter end of it, the 1920s.  I didn’t think it had the same gusto as the Victorian part.


When she left school, Jean wanted to do social work.  She worked for a year for Sheffield Council Social Service, visiting families all over the city.  Then she did a two-year social sciences course at the University of Sheffield.  After qualifying, she worked with older people.  In March 1953, Jean joined the Wrens, where she trained as a driver and ‘enjoyed the freedom’.  Later, she married, had two children and returned to Sheffield.


You can read and listen to Jean’s full interview here.

‘Destroyed by the war…’

This month has seen international commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in over a million men being killed or wounded.  Even with this anniversary to remind us, World War One is very distant now.  But in the years immediately following it, the Great War was of course still very much in people’s minds.  Gradually over the 1920s, memoirs, novels, plays, poetry and official histories began to appear.

One of the best remembered today is All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque*.  The novel, describing the experiences of German soldiers in Western Europe (where Remarque fought briefly as a conscript), attracted both great acclaim and criticism.  Millions of copies were sold and there were over 20 translations from the original German.  But the book was seen by some in Germany, including the Nazi Party which was then rising to power, as a condemnation of their war effort and even as a betrayal of the country itself.  In 1933, Goebbels banned Remarque’s books and had them publicly burned and Remarque left Germany to live in Switzerland.

Erich Maria Remarque (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10867 / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Erich Maria Remarque (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10867/CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

In November 1929, not long after the novel’s publication, Sheffield Public Libraries commented on All Quiet on the Western Front and war literature generally in its publication, Books & Readers.  The terms used are unusually strong for what was a free monthly bulletin listing new books and announcing library news:


Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” of which there are sixty-five copies circulating in our libraries, has set a fashion in war books which is now being feverishly copied by writers and publishers.  “All Quiet” has been criticised in some quarters because of its frankness.  It has been said that however true the book may be of the German side, it is certainly not true of the British.  Anyone who saw the war at close quarters must realise that “All Quiet” suffers from the defect that all war books must share – the whole truth is too foul ever to appear in print.  J. L. Hodson’s “Grey Dawn, Red Night” describes the gradual moral, spiritual, and physical degradation that sapped away the humanity of a fine soul.  It deals with a war foreign to Bairnsfather and the war correspondents with a restrained yet devastating realism.  It is to the good of humanity and the coming generation that those who were stricken dumb for ten years by their war experiences can now write as truthfully as ordinary decencies will allow about them.  There is no surer encouragement for the efforts of Britain and America to make war unthinkable, than the realisation of what the four years meant to those who in the words of Remarque’s dedication of his book, “were destroyed by the war, though they may have escaped its shells.”

‘…the whole truth is too foul ever to appear in print,’ and the novel ‘deals with a war foreign to Bairnsfather and the war correspondents,’ says the unknown author.  This sounds like bitter experience talking.  No doubt men and women who worked in Sheffield’s libraries suffered and died because of the war, and after ten years the author felt that the truth could, or should, be faced.  The war correspondents dismissed here had perhaps massaged their reports to keep up morale or spare feelings; and the very popular ‘Old Bill’ cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather were there to make people laugh.  That 65 copies of All Quiet were bought for the libraries in 1929 is an indication of the interest in the war, the need to reflect on it and perhaps to process it, as we might say today.  There are by the way a few copies of All Quiet available from Sheffield Libraries today, including one, in storage, which dates from 1929.  Perhaps the last of the original 65?

Old Bill (By Bruce Bairnsfather ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Bill (By Bruce Bairnsfather [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(There are no library copies of the other novel mentioned, J L Hodson’s Grey Dawn, Red Night, also published in 1929.  Hodson was an English journalist who fought in the war and dedicated his novel to the people who went to France with him, but did not return.  Why Remarque’s book survives and Hodson’s does not is not clear.  Perhaps All Quiet is simply a better book, or perhaps the Nazis’ treatment of it ironically ensured its survival.)

Today’s reader is of course conscious that, just ten years after this Books & Readers was published and only 21 years after the war to end all wars, World War Two broke out.  The League of Nations – presumably what the author had in mind when writing ‘the efforts of Britain and America to make war unthinkable’ – had failed.


* The novel was one of those read by Reading Sheffield interviewee Sir Norman Adsetts before he went to university. Here is his reading journey.

Dorothy Norbury’s reading journey

The daughter of a newsagent, Dorothy Bagshaw was born on 11 January 1934 in Dinnington, near Sheffield.  She married Malcolm Norbury in 1954 and had three children. The family lived in Dinnington until Malcolm joined the police force and the family had to move to Sheffield.  Dorothy worked in her parents’ shop, then as a child care assistant in a school and, when she was 40, trained as a nursery nurse.


And we had to, obviously we had to read books for exams and things like that, but I never ever finished them.  I found out in later years that I’m dyslexic.  I didn’t know at the time, I mean it was a thing that was unheard of.

Dorothy might be described as a reader against the odds.  Now she reads in bed, ‘probably for an hour every night’.  She enjoys Catherine Cookson – she has read every one of her books – and similar writers of historical fiction:

I read, I like to read books that make you realise how lucky you are to be living at this time in life and not at the turn of the century when there was so much hardship. … Like, I didn’t realise that children used to run about without shoes and socks on.  And they used to go gleaning in the coal, in the slag heaps and things like that. I didn’t realise anything like that until I actually read about it in novels.  And I was just amazed, yeah.

As you listen, you realise that Dorothy’s reading journey has not been an easy one.  She clearly liked stories from an early age:

I had a girlfriend that lived next door and we were born four days between each other.  We grew up like sisters and we used to have sleepovers, and one of my greatest joys was to lay in bed with her while she read to me.

But her mother – ‘a very practical person … always busy doing something’ – made her feel that reading was a waste of time.  When Dorothy was a child, her parents were ‘always very busy’, working long hours in their newsagent shop, and so they never read to their daughter.  Dorothy describes herself as a ‘very poor reader’:

When I was in the junior school, the teacher used to pick out people to stand up and read from a book. And I used to stand and die if you picked me. Absolutely, because I was just … Apart from not being able to read very well, I just lost it, you know, my nerves.

This doesn’t mean that she never read.  Dorothy liked comics like Girls’ Crystal and, when she was older, women’s magazines like Woman and Woman’s Own.  She could get all of these from her parents’ shop.  And there were some books:

The books that I got were from family.  My favourite book which is going to be … is Christmas morning, I used to wake up and I used to have a Rupert book in my sack and it was the first thing I went for and I wasn’t bothered about anything else.  I used to take a torch upstairs with me so I could read it in bed.  And I used to read Rupert.

There were books at school too.  ‘I did read books when I went to Maltby Grammar School.’  But Dorothy remembers not finishing them, with occasional exceptions like The Count of Monte Cristo. ‘Absolutely fascinated me, that did.  I really loved that book.’  But Dorothy left school without qualifications.  Although she passed the mock exam, a family illness prevented her taking the final School Certificate.

Dorothy did go to the local library, but with mixed results:

I started going to Dinnington library with that girlfriend of mine, Ena, when I was in my very early teens.  But the books, I never read them because I found it so difficult to keep reading them. And when I came to live in Sheffield and I used to take the children to the library, my children to the library, and I took out … And the books I used to get then were gardening books or cookery books, or anything that was practical. I was not interested in novels then.

It was not until Dorothy was about 40 years old that she really began to read.  This was when she enrolled at college to become a nursery nurse and had course books to study.  She had been working at a school for ten years as an unqualified child care assistant, until ‘they would only employ people with qualifications, not that anybody said anything to me, but I decided to go back to college’.

It was her training that gave Dorothy the clue to her problem:

But going back to work at school with the children and seeing the people coming in and testing children, and I think, “Oh, that’s me.  I do that and I do that.”  And it made me realise that I was dyslexic, just slightly. Yeah.

‘Somebody should have picked up on this,’ Dorothy says, but no-one did.

You see, all those classics, I love the stories, but I haven’t got the patience to read them, even now.  I have to read every word.  I can’t skip read like other people do, you know.  I have to go through it all.  It takes me a while to go through a book.


You can read and listen to Dorothy’s interview here.

Frank Burgin’s reading journey

The only son of a miner and a onetime housemaid, Frank Burgin was born in 1938 in Mosborough, then a small pit village outside Sheffield.  After leaving school, he worked in engineering, a job interrupted by two years of National Service.  Later, when his work at Laycock Engineering became less satisfying, he worked as a technician at the University of Sheffield and, in time, taught in further and higher education in Sheffield.  In recent years,  Frank got his PhD. 


The book was by Hemingway and Frank had not warmed to Hemingway, but it was no good.  He still had to stand up and talk about it.

You were given a book you had to read before you went and then as part of the course you’d got to talk about it to the rest of the group.

Frank was not, as you might suppose, a student of literature in a tutorial, but a teenage apprentice at the Sheffield firm of Laycock Engineering in the 1950s.  Laycocks is famous in automobile design for the Laycock de Normanville Overdrive, which Frank described as ‘what we had before they invented 5th gears in cars … quite a sophisticated piece of engineering’.

I started work at 15 as an apprentice at Laycock Engineering which of course is now Sainsbury’s at Millhouses.  I still get a funny feeling when I go in there, when I see a bit of wall… that was the fitters… That was the tool room where I used to work.  I still get the feeling that people must get when they walk down the street and find out that the house that they were born in has been knocked down… it’s become flats. You know, there’s a part of your life gone, and I’m a bit like that with Laycocks.

By the 1950s, the firm was part of the Birfield Industries group, and it seemed to be Birfield policy to bring together their apprentices at Goldicoates, a country house owned by the company.

It was a course.  You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

And the Hemingway?  Frank couldn’t remember the title but:

I talked about it. I presented it, I can remember doing it.  I’m sure very, very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue-tied and say aye, well it were crap, like some did.

Perhaps the reason Frank coped with the task was that he had long been a reader, enjoying ‘fairly escapist fiction … not particularly literary but they certainly had something’. (He still reads enthusiastically by the way – ‘bits of physics’ and sci fi and fantasy that is ‘totally and utterly zany’– and these days uses a Kindle.)  Frank’s parents, who had only an elementary school education, were ‘habitual readers’ and saw books as a way for their young son to avoid the hardship they’d known during the ‘terrible economic times of the 1930s’.

Oh, I used to get all the time – look, lad, you’ve got to have some book larnin else you’ll get nowhere.  He [Frank’s father] didn’t know what I’d got to learn, he knew that I’d got to be learning it from books … somewhere. And I was pushed and encouraged to do at well at school which I didn’t particularly.

In fact, Frank failed the important exam which in those days determined the type of secondary education he would get:

I failed part 1 of the 11 plus exam absolutely miserably of course, but nobody had ever done anything about preparing us for the 11 plus exam or even telling us that it was important.

This led, however, to his joining Laycocks, and one day finding himself talking about Hemingway to his fellow apprentices.  The incident seemed to have a big – perhaps even life-changing – impact on Frank.  Why, after all, did Birfield go to all the trouble?

… to get us away from the back page of the Star and things like that … No, it was all done to make us think.  Some of us did think.  It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was [sic] there.  I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.


You can read and listen to Frank’s interview in full here.

Reading Sheffield research: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

Just posted in our Research section, a slightly edited version of a paper given by Reading Sheffield team member Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016

‘Even Edgar Wallace may be discovered’: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s


Ted L’s Reading Journey

Ted L, born in 1919, was one of our oldest interviewees.  He lived in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield most of his life, apart from his war service as a fitter and machinist in the Ordnance Corps.  He took part in the retreat from Dunkirk (he and three others were stranded for six days, with only a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot to eat) and then was stationed in East Africa for two and a half years.  In peacetime, he worked in engineering, and the ‘only one romance [he] was ever interested in’ was with his wife, Nellie, whom he met at work and married in 1948.

All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary … We went to look at Leonardo … it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.

This was Ted, talking about a visit to the National Gallery.  For him, books meant art rather than anything else.  His flat was full of books, and they were mostly about art, noted the interviewer, although he also enjoyed history, architecture and music.  His neighbour Gillian, who sat in on the interview, described how Ted ‘devour[ed]’ all the book she lent him, and Ted himself said:

Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books.  I don’t read fiction books.  Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.

There were books in his childhood, with Ted’s mother going to the library every week to borrow, among other, P G Wodehouse, and his father (‘He wasn’t educated.  He was a working class man, he was a plumber’) enjoying detective stories.  And Ted himself did read fiction as a boy – ‘ripping yarns’ from authors like John Buchan and Rider Haggard, who were so popular in his youth.  He remembers studying Buchan’s Prester John at Duchess Road School and also reading Blanket of the Dark, She, The Thirty-Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines:

… that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them … I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book.

At school, Ted was a clever boy, particularly interested in history and once coming ‘top in English’:

Always in the top of form.  I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross.  He was a Londoner with a broad accent.  I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days.  He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round [and brought in books].  He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross.  He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.

As with many boys of his background, Ted’s formal education ended at the age of 14 when he became an engineering apprentice.  But by then it had opened that important door to art, as for two days a week he used to go to the art school in the centre of the city.

This art school was close to the site of the new Central Library and Graves Art Gallery which opened in 1934.  Ted had a ringside seat at the building:

Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school.  And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was.  I was with that library right from the beginning.


Ted, who liked architecture as well as art, was interested in the new library, which he describes as a ‘fine building’.

Well, I think, [the old library] was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. … The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it.

Now, when he went to the public library, ‘I didn’t get reading [fiction] books. I used to get out books about art. ‘ He also enjoyed visiting the Graves:

I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built.  I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, ‘What’s all this for?‘ She said, ‘It’s Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children’. ‘Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now.  That’s Lowry up there [on the wall of his flat].

You can read and listen to Ted’s interview in full here.