By Mary Grover
Reading Sheffield’s main activity this year is to raise money to support ‘Steel City Readers’, the book by our founder, Dr Mary Grover, about reading for pleasure in Sheffield between 1925 and 1955. The memories of the Sheffield readers we interviewed for our oral history project are at the heart of the book. We want to raise £12,500 to make ‘Steel City Readers’ free to download through an Open Access Licence, so that anyone may read it. Here is our Just Giving page where you can make a donation.
When you joined the queue of boys waiting to ask Mary Wilkinson to dance, you didn’t know that you were in for something more than swinging a girl round ‘in a room with a lovely bouncy floor above the garage on Psalter Lane’. For, in between dances, Mary brought out her ‘Confession Book’.
With this and a fountain pen, the resourceful girl soon extracted from her friends, male and female, but mostly male, their innermost desires. Each person had to ponder how to conclude a set of prompts like these:
‘I am going to marry for . . ‘
‘My favourite girl is . . .’
My favourite dance band is . . . ‘ (Harry Roy being the ‘Marmite’ band)
My favourite author is . . .’ (Most of them were thriller writers like Edgar Wallace and the authors of the long-running Sexton Blake series.)
Reading Sheffield discovered Mary’s precious time-capsule ten years ago when we set out to explore the books that mattered to Sheffield readers in the Thirties and Forties. We interviewed 65 readers from all over Sheffield, born before 1945, about what they read when they were growing up.
Mary’s Confession Book is a treasure because people who are not famous, like Mary and her friends, rarely leave records of how they thought and read. Yet, our personal histories and our tastes are individual and surprising, and reflect the times in which we grew up.
The first reader whose memoir I explored did indeed become famous. He was born long before our readers and his reading could easily have derailed a career which was to see him inventing the process of creating stainless steel. Yet Harry Brearley’s first love was reading.
Like most of our readers, Brearley had no books at home and even less schooling. He had no access to books from municipal libraries, so, being the resourceful child he was, he made his own. He became a bottle washer in a chemistry laboratory, went to night school, and was inspired by the great educator and philanthropist, John Ruskin. The boy kept borrowing Ruskin’s economic treatise, Unto This Last, copying it out, page by page. He bound the pages with scraps of leather he had scrounged and created a copy of Ruskin’s great work that was his to keep. A formidable achievement, but it was Sheffield’s good fortune that he decided that ‘Reading, there was no living in it’. He turned his attention to the chemistry textbooks lent him by the head of the laboratory.
For most of our readers, growing up during the Depression, the Second World War and the hard times that followed, there was, still, less of a living to be made from book-learning than there was from taking up a good apprenticeship, if you were lucky enough to be offered one. So why were so many of the people we interviewed gripped by the reading bug and the desire to entertain and educate themselves by reading? For many, with little encouragement, reading became a kind of addiction. Adele, born in 1942 whose father was a painter and decorator, never saw either of her parents hold a book yet, as she put it, ‘something gets hold of you, doesn’t it?’ When I suggested to Doreen, born in 1934, that when she started courting there might not have been time for reading, she was quite tart with me: ‘You can read and dance, Mary!’ Doreen had to leave her grammar school early for lack of parental support. Mary Wilkinson had to leave school early because the family printing business folded. Both girls never let the absence of a School Certificate rob them of an education. They kept on reading.
Most of our readers depended on Sheffield’s superb libraries for the books they read but annuals and comics also changed people’s lives. When Fred Jones from the Manor got tuberculosis in the Thirties at the age of 8, he was a non-reader: ‘I just couldn’t fathom it’. He was sent to Nether Edge isolation hospital and thanks to a mound of comics donated by an imaginative benefactor, he came out fluent, ‘never able to put a book down’ and got to night school.
Fred’s story is told by one of our interviewees, Malcolm Mercer, a boy who never passed his 11+ but became headmaster of Parson Cross School largely because of his own reading. When he left school at 14 to become a shop-assistant he bought himself a notebook and recorded everything he read. He borrowed books from Park Library, setting himself his own curriculum, which included Scouting for Boys, Lord Beaverbrook’s Success, 100 Tips for more Trade and Tolstoy’s Tales of Courage and Conflict.
Steel City Readers is inspired by the pleasure Malcolm, Doreen, Mary and others found in the books they hunted down. Liverpool University Press is publishing it as an e-book which will make it free to readers globally, but an author must find £12,500 for the licence fee and other costs to publish it. Will you help Reading Sheffield pay the fee? If you could make a donation, perhaps in memory of someone you know whose life was changed by reading, we would be most grateful and you would be contributing to preserving Sheffield’s history.