Florence was born in Huddersfield in 1923 and moved to Sheffield when her father got an engineering job there. Later her parents ran a greengrocer’s shop. The family lived in the Abbey Lane area; initially she attended a private school and then Abbey Lane Primary when it opened. She passed the eleven plus examination at the age of 10, and went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School. At sixteen, after passing the School Certificate in English and Botany, she went to the Commercial College on Psalter Lane. In 1939 she left school aged 16 and got a job with the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway. At the end of the war she married and gave up work.
Florence was always passionate about reading:
In fact, if I was ever naughty and I was sent to my room, my mother always made sure I hadn’t got a book because she knew it was no punishment if I had a book.
One of her earliest recollections is reading one of her grandmother’s books, Little Folks:
I read all sorts of bits out of it: school stories, adventure stories, little poems, letters from children who were stationed in India, letters to the editor.
Florence’s family encouraged her reading: her grandfather was a headmaster and bought her the books for grammar school. Her godmother was a teacher and gave her books for Christmas presents: ‘she once gave me a whole lot of Enid Blyton’.
Her mother also loved reading:
I’ve got some of my mother’s books that she had as a young woman … [Mary] Anerley, two volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Little Women and Good Wives, yes. That was my mother’s book.
Gone With the Wind was a present from her mother for her nineteenth birthday.
As a result of family circumstances, Florence spent a lot of time in libraries as she got older, especially in the Central Library :
‘That’s why I used to go to the library and that, because I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working. And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go down to the [Library]. Have a little trot around Woolworths by myself, get myself some sweeties. And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the Art Gallery. I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures. And then I used to go down to the Reading Room. You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend the whole day, you know, really, and then come home on the tram you know, and read my library books.
Probably another reason Florence spent so much time in libraries was that she did not see much of her school friends:
I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school … People came from all over the city …So my best friend lived at Pitsmoor … another one lived out in Grindleford.
Reading was a private thing – Florence didn’t discuss her choice of books with anyone.
At school she read the familiar titles: Anne of Green Gables (she liked the struggle of the little girl); What Katy Did; Black Beauty (she loved horses); but as she got older, she graduated to more adult books. Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country was a present for Christmas 1944 and Florence still has her copy, which she bought herself, of Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General. Others she borrowed from the library, like A Tree Grew in Brooklyn and all Nevil Shute’s books (except Requiem for a Wren).
She read Jane Eyre but
some of the older books, you know, like Jane Eyre, they can be a bit fulsome, if you know what I mean.
Florence had what would be considered a modern view of education – not one recognisable to Mr Squeers or Mr Gradgrind!
Knowledge and education isn’t knowing a whole load of facts. It’s knowing where to find the information you want. And I think a book is, to open a book and you find things out that you never knew before.
She read for pleasure not for self-improvement or because she thought she ought to read them:
I’ve got a full set of Dickens, but I haven’t read much of him. My godmother used to send me two or three every birthday, so I’ve got the full set. I didn’t really appreciate it… quite frankly, a lot of them bore me to death.
After school, as a girl, her opportunities were limited:
Well, you had a choice. You either went in a shop, or a hairdresser’s, or you went in an office. No, there wasn’t this business about going to university and this, that and the other.
She wanted to be a reporter and got a job on the local newspaper :
I worked in the publicity department with Gloops* and all that sort, you know. And then the war broke and … they closed the paper down … And my father said, ‘You have to get a job’ and I went to work for the North Eastern Railway.
Florence stayed there throughout the war as it was a reserved occupation and then married in 1946.
I worked there until I got married. And then I left, of course, when I got married.
However she still managed to keep on reading.
I did go on reading, but … I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married.
In some senses reading changed Florence’s life: she enjoyed reading about foreign places and travel which led to:
a love of wanting to explore, wanting to find out about things. I’m always interested in people, how people live…
Different books stimulated interest in different parts of the world:
Green Dolphin Country, gave me a yen for Australia -…You know, the other side of the world. I didn’t go to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia. … I used to like the Sundowners and all stories.
Her visit to South Africa was also stimulated by what she read.
The Valley of the Vines one gave me a yen for South Africa. I eventually went to South Africa and saw the Valley of the Vines… I always was interested in [South Africa], in particular around the Cape, the Cape district, and of course I went there, but it’s a long time ago now. Well, Nelson Mandela was still on Robbin Island and there was still apartheid. That was just after Sharpeville, I think
Florence was also a poet and painter – self-taught.
I went to the local art class … Well, my husband used to go fishing and I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t particularly want to knit, and I decided I’d try and paint a picture and it went from there.
She was interested in books about shipwrecks and painted the wreck of the Royal Charter ‘… and that is mentioned in Dickens, in Uncommercial Traveler’. She used books for reference for both her painting and gardening.
The following is a fitting tribute to the power of books and to the zest for life which Florence showed so clearly:
This is my own bit of things, and I found it, I saw it in the library van once.
I’ve travelled the world twice over,
And met the famous saints and sinners,
Poets and artists, kings and queens,
All stars and hopeful beginners.
I’ve been where no one’s been before,
Drawn secrets from writers and cooks,
Always with a library ticket
To the wonderful world of books.
I would like to say that books have been me life, all me life, and without them, my life would be nothing like as good as it has been. Because books have been there.
- Gloops was a cartoon cat who appeared from 1928 until the 1980s in the Sheffield Star. There was a Gloops club for children. Gloops was hugely popular.
Written by Sue Roe
Access Florence’s audio and transcript here