From Acorn to Oak

By Mary Grover

Sheffield children owe a great deal to a woodcutter called John Eadon.  He had five study sons who worked with him and each son might have spent the rest of his days being a ‘woodman of renown’ had not the men taken shelter from unusually heavy rain at an inn in the Ecclesfield area in the mid eighteenth century.  This is how the story in the inn unfolded, according to Robert Leader, in his Reminiscences of old Sheffield, its streets and its people, edited by Robert Eadon Leader and printed in 1875:

Whilst drinking the “nut-brown ale” many were the topics of conversation. Some talked about themselves, others about their children – how clever Susan was, and what a sharp chap Tommy was; and as for Bill, the village schoolmaster had never had his like.  Every man appeared to have a clever lad in some way or other; but old Ayton (Eden, now Eadon) heard all this with a sorrowful heart, and at length, breaking silence, he said, “See,'” pointing his finger, “there is a thickhead, that lad of mine is nineteen years of age and he does not know A from B.”  This was enough.  The shame of being exposed in public company, and by his father, too, raised the pride and kindled a spark in that young man’s breast which never went out till the spirit left his body.  Whilst he sat in that room abashed amid his compeers, he determined that he would know not only A from B, but something more.  He began next day, brought a penny primer, found out an old woman who knew the letters – these he soon mastered – made out little words, and soon he laid the foundation of all knowledge – the acquirement of the art of reading.  He found someone to assist him in the art of arithmetic; and in this way his leisure time was spent, till he began to think he knew more than most people about him.

At this juncture the mastership of the Free Writing School became vacant.  He offered himself and was elected, and held the post till his death.  From the time of his publishing the ‘Arithmetician’s Guide,’ in 1756, to his death in 1810, would make his tutorship of that school fifty years, at least.

John Eadon

You can read more about the contribution of the Eadon family to schooling in our city if you download Reminiscences.  The Arithmetician’s Guide mentioned by Leader, which you can see here, seems to have been a handbook to help teachers teach arithmetic.  It contains all sorts of mnemonics and rhymes to help pupils remember arithmetical principles.

The Free Writing School was one of a number of schools founded and supported by grants from the Church Burgesses Trust, still very active today.  The Trust was founded in the reign of Mary Tudor who was successfully petitioned by the citizens of Sheffield for the revenue of the Parish Church and other Church lands that had been confiscated by Edward VI following his father’s dissolution of the monasteries.  Despite its name, the school aimed chiefly to train boys in mathematics and John Eadon was obviously devoted to this task and became a very well-read man. He also became grandfather to one of Sheffield’s most distinguished literary figures, Samuel Bailey, the poet, philosopher and radical liberal who was widely known as the ‘Bentham of Hallamshire’.  So John Eadon’s father’s cruel jibe at the expense of his son not only produced a fine teacher, but also helped establish a dynasty which was vital to Sheffield cultural life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Domestic Goddess, 1930s Style

As Theresa May settles into Downing Street and Hilary Clinton campaigns for the White House, anyone travelling in time from the early 1930s would be surprised by the changes in women’s lives.  In the UK of the 1930s, after all, the vote had been extended to all women aged over 21 as recently as 1928*; women in the professions were relatively rare; and marriage was still the usual destination (despite the shortage of men after the slaughter of the First World War).  Women were routinely expected to stop working on marriage (why, supported by their husbands, would they need jobs?) and in some cases, such as teaching and the civil service, were required to do so#.  Looking after husband, children and home was the norm.


It seems that, whatever else has changed, the provision of advice on home-making is a constant.  Today, the main channel tends to be television, with Kirstie, Nigella, Sarah and the rest appearing on our screens and producing tie-in books etc.  In the 1930s, women may have looked for advice to books from the local library if the following (to us, rather patronising) paragraph from Sheffield Libraries’ occasional magazine, Books and Readers, is anything to go by.

Is the housewife paying greater attention to details in the home nowadays? It is difficult to say as we have no comparative details on which to base a statement.  But it is revealed from the issue of 12,632 books on domestic economy from the Libraries last year that the women of Sheffield are not ashamed to confess that they find need for help and guidance in domestic affairs.  It is very gratifying to think that even in the prosaic details of housekeeping the Public Library is having a very considerable influence. “Feed the brute” has always been a fairly popular maxim, but “feed the brute intelligently and in improved surroundings” is better still.

The books on offer included, for example: Dinners Long and Short (1928) by A H Adair; What Shall We Have Today (1931) by X M Boulestin; and Feeding the Family: Hints for the Intelligent Housewife (1929) by M L Eyles.  ‘Feed the brute’, by the way, was a well-known phrase from Don’ts for Wives (1913) by Blanche Ebbutt.

(Licensed under Creative Commons)

(Licensed under Creative Commons)

What was the life of a 1930s housewife? It depended on your place in society.  Working class wives and mothers had no help, other than perhaps their daughters (not sons – they were generally exempted from household chores).  In the Depression of the 1930s, many such women were struggling to keep their families together.  Middle and upper class women, who were perhaps the only ones who had the time or energy to borrow books about housekeeping, had it better, managing the household and directing servants or perhaps just a daily.  The servants doing housework were usually women, of course.

A wartime housewife (1941) (public domain)

A wartime housewife (1941) (public domain)

But, whoever did the work, it was hard grind, without the labour-saving devices and products we take for granted.  When, in 2011, Proctor and Gamble challenged some bloggers to live the life of a 1930s housewife for a day, they commented on: the length of time it took to make three meals from scratch; the drudgery of the laundry without a washer-dryer or even a spinner; and using vinegar and newsprint to clean windows and lemon and baking powder to clean floors.  Here is a typical account.  Or if you want read some (roughly) contemporary accounts, there is: Love on the Dole (1933), by Walter Greenwood, about the Salford slums; South Riding (1936), by Winifred Holtby, where the Holly family struggle to survive; or House-bound (1942), by Winifred Peck, about a middle-class woman who struggles to do her own housework during WWII.

* From 1918, women over 30 and property owners could vote, but this excluded about 60 per cent of the gender.

# In the UK, the marriage bar for teaching was abolished in 1944, for the Home Civil Service in 1946 and for the Foreign Service in 1973.  Equal pay was a dream until the 1970 Equal Pay Act, and for some women it still is.

Anne’s Reading Journey

Anne was born in the north of Sheffield on 5 August 1944. Her parents owned a bakery in Hillsborough. Anne has been a keen reader from an early age and has remained so.  She trained as a Religious Education (RE) teacher at college in Leeds and was also involved in the Girl Guide movement for many years, as both a Guide and a Guider.  She has two daughters and grandchildren.

Here Anne remembers how she encountered that most notorious book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Anne read well from an early age: ‘I was away ahead,’ she says. At first it was fairy stories and nursery rhymes, and then books familiar to most people growing up in the mid-20th century.

I was well into Enid Blyton at a fairly young age and then as I got older I sort of went more on to the classics. I remember reading The Children of the New Forest when I was about 13 and that became one of my top favourites. … The Chalet books in my early teens were my passion and I owned practically every single one at some point. I’ve still got a lot of them up in the loft.

Of the classics, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were the ones Anne liked best, but although she tried, Jane Austen wasn’t for her. ‘I just couldn’t stick it,’ she says.

Membership of the public library and her school and college studies kept Anne reading, although she doesn’t sound as if she needed much persuasion (‘I just read anything I could get my hands on’). She belonged to Sheffield Libraries from an early age, walking there alone and choosing her books without any help from the librarians.  When, at the age of 15, she transferred to the City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield, she joined the Central Library, encouraged by a friend, Kath.  Kath ‘was doing literature and so was very much more into proper books, adult books’.  Anne dates her transition to ‘grown-up novels’ from her friendship with Kath.  In those days Anne usually looked for books which had some relevance to her history and RE courses, such as Jean Plaidy’s books on the Tudors and novels like Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe.

No-one ever made Anne feel that reading was a waste of time. Both parents were busy with their business, but were happy for their daughter to read:

…Oh no, I mean [my mother] was an intelligent person, she knew the value of reading, she just didn’t do it.

Then our interviewer asked if Anne was ever made to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading.  Only when she came across D H Lawrence, Anne replied.  And the story came out.

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Perhaps your father didn’t think he ought to be doing it either, suggests our interviewer. Probably not, Anne agrees, saying ‘he probably kept it out of sight from me’.

This happened around 1960, when Anne was a teenager. This was the time of the famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin Books re-published Lawrence’s novel (for the first time since its initial publication in 1928) and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute.  The book was a huge success, with copies selling out as soon as they arrived in bookshops.

The trial, that was why everybody read it! Everybody knew about it. I did some more D H Lawrence as well.

Anne, however, did not particularly like the Lawrence novels she read. ‘ I read them but I wouldn’t say I’d want to read them again.’ She was shocked by Lady Chatterley, she says, because she was ‘totally innocent in those days’.  But she

didn’t know what the fuss was about for most of it.

Here is Anne’s full interview.

Havoc in a Sheffield Library (The Daily Independent, Monday 2 September, 1935)

In the middle of the 20th century, Sheffield readers got their books from the public library, bookshops and ‘circulating libraries’.  These last were private libraries lending books for a small fee or subscription.  In Sheffield, they included: Boots the Chemist’s Booklovers’ Library, the local Red Circle and small libraries run out of shops such as newsagents.

Between 1934 and 1935, there was the private Novel Library at 36-38 High Street, on the corner with Mulberry Street and just a few doors away from Walsh’s department store, a Sheffield institution.  On a Sunday morning in September 1935, the Novel Library had two unusual visitors. Here is how the Sheffield Daily Independent breathlessly reported the story:

Cattle Amok in City: Windows Shattered: Girls in Terror; havoc in a Sheffield Library.

A bullock and a heifer, which dashed into a library in the centre of Sheffield yesterday, created havoc, smashed large windows, and terrified two girl assistants.

The two beasts – Hector and Harriet – and two other cattle from a farm in Well lane, Sheffield, were being driven down Norfolk street on their way to the Sheffield Abbatoir about 10.30 yesterday morning when, it is understood, the rustling of some paper on the road scared them.

The four beasts made a mad dash, followed by their drover.

Two of them continued straight down Norfolk street, but the others, Hector and Harriet, turned along Mulberry street into High street.

Mulberry Street today, along which the cattle ran towards the High St

Mulberry Street today, along which the cattle ran towards the High St

Scattering people on their way to church, they turned up High street, where Harriet noticed the open door of the “Novel” library.

Their entry into the library scared the two young assistants in charge and caused both of them to make a rush for their lives.

One ran out into the street and the other made her escape into the cellar below the shop.

Smashed to Atoms

One of the cattle became wedged between a bookshelf and the plate-glass window and the other – Harriet – suddenly ran wild.

As she turned round, she smashed a side window to atoms.  She then dashed into the opposite side of the front window to that in which the bullock was stuck, and kicking about frantically smashed it all along the side and finally took a header through it into the High Street.

The site of the Novel Library on the corner of High St and Mulberry St

The site of the Novel Library on the corner of High St and George St

Meanwhile the drover, who had recovered his other two beasts, together with the police, and a large number of other people, had arrived on the scene.  They caught Harriet, who was still charging about wildly, and then led the bullock docilely out of the window into the street.

A flock of sheep following the four cattle to the abbatoir seemed entirely unperturbed at the wild dash of their four companions.

Miss Kathleen Connolly, of [36] Windmill street, Sheffield, one of the two assistants who were in the “Novel” library at the time, told a “Daily Independent” reporter of her dash for safety.

“I was seated at the ticket table at the far end of the library facing the open door when I thought I heard a customer enter,” she said. “I looked up and saw in my horror that the bullock was making straight for me.

“It was then only about a yard away.  I leapt for the entrance to the basement and ran down the stairs.  Then I heard the animals dashing about the library and the smashing of the windows.  I thought I should never get out alive.”

Narrow Escape

Miss H. Vallans, of [19] Oak street, Sheffield, her colleague, said, “I had just opened the door wide a few minutes before they entered. I was at the counter just by the door and after I saw them dash past me I ran as fast as I could into the street.

“It is a wonder I was not killed by them, for had they come just a few minutes sooner they would have caught me in the window fixing books on the shelves.”

She pointed to the portion of the window that was then just a [mass] of shattered glass. “I was in that window only a short time before they dashed in,” she said.

The bullock was “unwedged” from the window in which he was stuck without causing any damage.

The shop was in complete disorder after the beasts had [got] away.  Books lay strewn on all parts of the floor.  Neither of the animals was much the worse for its escapade.

We have not been able to find out much about the Novel Library.  It does not appear in local trade directories after 1935, so perhaps the ‘bullocks in the bookshop’ episode sent it out of business.

If you have heard of the Novel Library, please let us know.

‘A great wealth’: the reading journey of Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in 1939 and moved to Woodhouse on the east of Sheffield in 1945. In later life she became a primary school teacher.

Though there were not many books in the house, Julia’s home always had a bookcase and ‘books around’. Julia  was read to by both her mother and her aunt. The local library was the family’s chief source of books: ‘I was always taken to the library with my mother.’ Her mother’s favourite was Naomi Jacob.  Books were Julia’s favourite presents – Enid Blyton, for example: ‘I could never wait to get the next one. Mmm … Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.‘

Aunt Lil, on her father’s side ‘bought books from Boots library, in town, when they were selling them off.‘ She bought history books and read them ‘avidly’. ‘She could talk about Elizabeth the First as if she were a neighbour, you know.’

I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

As a teenager, it was non-fiction that inspired Julia too.

Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

The first adult fiction book Julia remembers reading was a book she borrowed from Woodhouse Library, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. It fascinated her because the life of the Chinese farming family was so alien but the feelings universal.

Pearl Buck

The library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building.

There was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library … it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children's Library

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children’s Library

A lot of Julia’s friends had homes in which there were no books. The presence of books in a home made her aware of ‘an outside … you were not just so concerned with the immediate’.  At some time she realised they were also a ‘ladder to social mobility’.

Julia went on to Bingley to train as a primary teacher. She and her friends tended to pass round books and share them. They studied ‘Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things’.  She likes the fact that these books were not chosen by her.

I didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given prescripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be, in my opinion, because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

But her favourite reading was Bertrand Russell: ‘you know the really hard stuff. You think, “well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah”. You know? It was that you were learning something new.’

In 1965, when her husband’s job took the family to Holland, Julia came across a completely new source of books: the British Women’s Club Library in the Hague which was filled with paperbacks.  She and her friends would run through series after series, author after author.

Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children

‘And so you read,’ says our interviewer.

The other legacy of her time in Holland was a knowledge of nursery rhymes in Dutch. She learned these to prepare her two children for nursery school. ‘My Dutch is based on nursery rhymes.’

During her years as a mother of young children reading time was in short supply. Julia snatched time whenever and wherever she could, as she still does.

So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do. I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag, that’s why the size is more important than the content.

Julia connects the experience of reading, the process of writing and the role of prayer.

Reading takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. …  I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

Nowadays, Julia is more selective than she used to be and some books fail the ‘Darnall test’.

If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth Church I very often shut it. … It passed the test if it got me through Darnall. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

Julia looks back with gratitude on the people and libraries that helped her find the books she loved.  But she concludes that, though she would have found some way of reading, because of the person she is, it would have been harder without her Aunt Lil and her wonderful books, without the trips to the library with her mother.

I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

You can find Julia’s interview here.

Arnold Bennett? Really? Most popular novelist?

Yes, that’s right.  Arnold Bennett was the most popular ‘classical novelist’ with Sheffield Libraries borrowers in 1931.  His competition included the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and Charles Dickens.

Most popular author - Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

Arnold Bennett – Project_ Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg

Librarians have long been numbered among those who worry about fiction. Are novels worthwhile or a frivolous waste of time?  Do they have anything to teach us or are they doing us harm?

One of the justifications for the free public library movement of the 19th century was self-improvement (of the working class in particular).  Irritatingly, however, many borrowers persisted in preferring books of the imagination over books of information, leading librarians to denounce them.

From the hysterical:

…undoubtedly novels are the most dangerous literature of the age: they dissipate the attention; they appeal to the lazy feelings; sensation and novelty are all that are required from them … better would it be that these lending libraries should cease to exist than that they should disseminate evil influences. (J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, now the University of Manchester, in 1879).

To the patronising:

It may be that the library authorities of the future will maintain that the business of the library is to supply what the public wants to read irrespective of quality in much the same way that cinema proprietors supply films. (William Berwick Sayers, chief librarian, Croydon, in 1931).

But there were always public libraries which welcomed fiction.  They took the view that good novels spoke to the human condition, and that popular fiction could refresh people.  Sheffield was one of them.  In 1931, the following article appeared in Sheffield’s Books and Readers bulletin:


Who is the most popular classical novelist?

Public Libraries are often criticised on the score of the amount of fiction issued by them. It is too readily assumed by these critics that fiction is all of one standard, and that a poor one, and to these Jeremiahs we point out the result of a recent test made of the popularity of twelve English novelists whose works may be definitely classed as literature. The Librarians at each of the Lending Libraries in the City were asked to report the number of books by certain authors available for loan and actually on loan to borrowers, with the following results:-

Author Stock On Loan %
Barrie 127 69 54
Bennett 352 314 89
Conrad 261 176 67
Dickens 395 218 55
Galsworthy 288 203 71
Hardy 270 183 68
Kipling 266 132 50
Meredith 146 45 31
Scott 362 105 29
Stevenson 152 89 58
Tennyson* 135 34 25
Wells 532 337 63

An examination of these details reveals that there is no reason to feel ashamed of the quality of the fiction read in Sheffield.  The high percentage for Bennett is perhaps too flattering.  It may be partially explained by the fact that the test was made soon after his death, but allowing for this factor, his popularity is remarkable.

It is fascinating to review this list 85 years on.

  • They are all men. They are all white men.  They are all British (yes, I’m counting Conrad, born in Poland, but naturalised in 1884).  Eight out of the twelve were dead by 1931, and the four still alive were all well over 60 in 1931.
  • Literary reputations change over time. Not all of the twelve authors be considered ‘classical’ today.  Only half of them appear in Robert McCrum’s 2015 list of the best 100 novels written in English (a list which generated criticism, as all such lists do – this one not least because male authors heavily outnumbered female).
  • The very fact of the test and the language used (‘no need to feel ashamed’) perhaps indicate the scale of the debate about fiction.
  • We don’t know much about the context. Which titles were borrowed? Out of the 532 books by H G Wells, say, were some more popular than others?  The article speculates that Arnold Bennett’s popularity was due to his recent death.  There may have been other contributory factors such as the author’s work appearing on the radio.  Wells, for example, took part in three radio talks between 1929 and 1931.  Then there are the borrowers themselves.  Were there more men than women, older than younger people?  Finally, who were the popular novelists (we can speculate that they included the likes of Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell) and how would they compare if included?  We can’t answer any of these questions, although we do know that a survey about five years later showed 40 per cent of the fiction borrowed to be ‘classic and standard’ and the rest ‘semi-standard and popular’.

‘Prose fiction today’, wrote Sheffield’s City Librarian in the 1930s, ‘provides one of the most common means by which social, political, religious and other ideas are given to the people’, while action stories had a ‘definite, if limited, place… They give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library borrowers, they are “introductory readers” to [new borrowers] and … “escape” literature to [the] mentally and physically jaded.’