The musical and reading adventures of the Hereford Street gang

By Mary Grover

Barbara Sorby has contributed a huge amount to Reading Sheffield. She worked in Sheffield Libraries for 47 years. You can find her story here. Barbara has also helped me understand the lure of the Chalet School stories which were popular with so many of our readers. But just before Christmas she took me in a different direction and introduced me to the memoir of her cousin, Ken Leary, whose Bombs over Bramall Lane (ACM Retro, 2011) tells the wartime story of the community of Highfield, much of which now lies beneath the dual carriageway separating Bramall Lane and the Moor.

Ken died about ten years ago. In his memoir he writes eloquently of the sheer energy of the boys he grew up with in the 1940s, often brought up by mothers whose husbands were away in the forces or working long hours in the steel industries upon which Britain’s war effort depended. Ken’s health was not always good. It is difficult to believe that a boy who led his friends into adventures all over the Peak District in the late forties spent more than a year in bed with bronchial pneumonia while the bombs were obliterating much of the neighbourhood around him. He was sent to Wales to recuperate and on his return developed a tubercular gland – treatment meant increased financial strain on his over-burdened mother. When he recovered Ken had to learn to walk again and was soon involving himself in the culture of the inner-city terraces in which he lived.

The Central Library was within walking distance of Ken’s home, a walk through and around the Moor which had once been a busy shopping centre. The boys colonised the cellars as soon as the shops above them had been bombed-out. Their explorations beneath the tottering structures above nearly came to an end when they realised they were sharing a recently revealed cavern with a pile of bodies. They ‘fled like scared rabbits’ into the rubble above to discover a fire engine hosing down mounds of smouldering tailors’ dummies. Few of our readers took such risks on their way to the Central Library.

Sheffield Central Library, which opened in 1934

Unlike his cousin Barbara, Ken preferred non-fiction. One book quite literally extended the horizons of himself and the rest of the Hereford Street Gang: ‘not a gang of hooligans – more like a gang straight out of a Just William book’.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

The Central Library was an important meeting place for the gang, particularly the Graves Art Gallery at the top of the building. They would spend their time ‘browsing and looking at the paintings and other objects on display’ especially during the winter ‘because it was somewhere to go that was warm and dry’.

Among my favourite books at the time were the Just William stories, but I generally enjoyed any boys’ adventure books like Biggles or books about football. I was particularly taken with the Out with Romany books. There were a series of books all about the countryside – the moors, the woods and fields, and the coasts around Britain. They were filled with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the birds and animals, the butterflies and insects that inhabit these islands. They really stirred-up my childhood imagination and I couldn’t wait to get out into this new and fascinating world that I had discovered – far away from the bombs and destruction we had recently witnessed in our everyday lives.

When he was ten or 11 Ken came across a small paperback, Across the Derbyshire Moors, published by the local Sheffield papers. The boys studied the ramblings mapped on those pages and discovered that many of the routes were within walking distance of Highfield or ‘at least a halfpenny tram-ride away’. ‘This book was definitely going to broaden our horizons and we couldn’t wait to get started’.

Ken exploring at speed

The local churches also introduced the Hereford Street Gang to all sorts of cultural activities and even enabled them to make a few pennies. At Christmas the boys would go round the local pubs, ‘mummering’, which in the way of those days meant singing carols with masks or blacked-up faces.

This was achieved by rubbing soot, from the back of the fire, on to our faces. Sometimes lard was applied first, and then the soot…. Where the hell we got this from I haven’t a clue.  Don’t remember anyone ever telling us about it and we certainly never saw anybody else do it. The mystery remains.

The pub crawl began at 8pm (‘You may ask: “What were your parents doing, allowing you to stay out till that time of night?”’). They were usually welcomed but they couldn’t count on getting into the Queen Adelaide which had its own concert room. Sometimes the landlord was reluctant to let them but the customers would shout to him: ‘Let them in you miserable sod.’ Those who had never heard the boys before were ‘in for a shock’ because the gang had hidden talents’.

The majority of us were choirboys, believe it or not, at St Mary’s Church on Matilda Lane. Complete with cassock and surplus, we sang at services on a Sunday morning for the princely sum of 3d a week, provided that we turned up for choir practice on a Wednesday night (we’d do anything to earn a crust). So you see, we…could also sing a bit.

Then just after the end of the war they discovered a side-door into the mighty Perpendicular-style church that still stands about two hundred yards from the famous football stadium in Bramall Lane. The church had been boarded up during the war so the gang was delighted at the new playground that awaited them inside. As they crowded into the doorway of the open church (‘as though butter wouldn’t melt in our mouth’), they stopped ‘in awe’ because at the organ, which had been silent for six years, sat a man ‘playing away just like Reginald Dixon’, the famous Blackpool Tower organist.

The front of the organ was lit up and the man suddenly turned round, spotted us, smiled, and carried on playing. On seeing that he was friendly we all timidly entered the dimly lit church and sat down on the dusty pews – not a word being spoken. What an odd sight we must have looked – a group of scruffy kids sitting in a dusty church lit only by the shafts of sunlight beaming in through holes in the boarded-up windows.’

They had other musical patrons. Though most of the boys went to Pomona Elementary School and were unable to go on to grammar school where there was usually more music on offer, Ken felt he had, on the whole, good teachers. One of his favourites was the music teacher, Mr Murray, who not only took his pupils to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall but had prepared them to recognise the instruments being played: ‘in fact I can still recall some of those classical pieces almost sixty years on.’ Mr Murray was also an excellent pianist.

Towards the end the lesson he would play a medley of popular songs of the day, all jumbled up and with some of the notes altered to disguise them. The person who wrote down the most correct titles was rewarded with a sixpence and the winners were always girls!

Unlike his much younger cousin, Barbara, Ken did not make his living from his love of reading. He became a joiner. This book testifies to how much his early encounters with books and with music meant to him. He owed a lot to the great cultural provision represented by Sheffield Libraries and the regular visits of the Hallé Orchestra. He also paid tribute to the dedication of his elementary school teachers. But, like so many of our readers, he was also a great entrepreneur. He would seize any chance that came his way and, acting on the leads given him, go tramping round the moorland that had been inaccessible until he borrowed the book of walks, or use his choir training to gather pennies from the drinkers around the streets that led off Bramall Lane.

Ken Leary’s Bombs over Bramall Lane (available here) is an inspirational book and I do recommend it.

Margaret C’s reading journey

Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.  

By Mary Grover

Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with attractive girls on them’.

Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.

I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?

Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.

Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every Saturday and remembers her first choices:

One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.

Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior Library, but never history or detective novels.

Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’  She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.

The old Firth Park Library building today

At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.

When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!

There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.

Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it. 

You can read Mary’s full interview here.

Dickens: not the London papers for you, child!

I met Jessie in 1997, still living in the Norfolk Park estate near the vicarage of St John’s Park where she had begun work at the age of 14 in 1920.

St John’s Vicarage, where Jessie worked. (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield Archives)

I visited her to interview her about her reading because I was writing about popular fiction in the 1930s. On every shelf in her tiny flat were pictures of her grandchildren, most of them in their graduation gowns. Yet Jessie herself never had any formal education.

Charles Dickens and Little Nell (Philadelphia, USA. By Smallbones. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence)

Jessie was born in 1906 and in 1920 became a wage-earner. The story of how she came to love Dickens in the 1920s reveals how much the status of Dickens has changed from the interwar period to the present day: from ‘childlike’ popular entertainer to classic author. The Cambridge academic Q D Leavis asserted in 1932, in Fiction and the Reading Public (p 157), that Dickens’

originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world, emotionally he is not only uneducated but also immature.

Mercifully Jessie never encountered this diatribe against her favourite author and the class of people who were seduced by him. But by chance it was a comparably low opinion of Dickens and his association with uneducated readers that enabled her to gain access to his complete works.

I used to read the Times when I was 14 because my first job was in a vicarage as a cleaner. Now the Canon Greenwood he was a Londoner. At 14 I went to the vicarage and it was an old house and it was dreadful, scrubbing . . . I stayed there till I was 19 but he used to take the Sunday papers and of course I had a field day with them because we used to have an hour for lunch and the housekeeper she used to go to sleep and of course she seemed to resent me reading the newspapers. I don’t know why.  . . . He had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and she had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

Jessie’s employer, Canon Henry Francis Greenwood, Vicar of St John’s Park Sheffield

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her – even her resentment gave me a gift. And I love Dickens’ characters – she let me take them home.

Charles Dickens (public domain)

She used to let me take the paper home if it was two or three days old but she used to resent that. Some of these people they resent poor people like we were, very poor, because my dad died when he was 47 and I was 14 and my mum was left to bring up three girls and she used to go out washing and cleaning. 

[The housekeeper] was so possessive with everything he the Vicar had – she was a proper giant to me.  She resented me probably it was because I wanted to know things and I knew things but she lent me the Dickens because she resented me reading the papers, the London papers.

In his book, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History, David Price makes the point that churches and chapels broadened the horizons of many who came into contact with them because their leaders had been educated outside Sheffield.[i] Her job at Canon Greenwood’s vicarage introduced Jessie to the London papers and the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the drudgery she endured, the vicarage in which she spent the first five years of her working life made her aware of a world elsewhere.

St John’s Park Sheffield today

[i] David Price, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018), p 4.

John D’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

John D was born in 1927 in Darnall and grew up on the north side of Sheffield. He served in the RAF in the Second World War and then trained and worked as a junior school teacher. 

John has never stopped learning and sharing what he has learned. Born in 1927, John had his education interrupted by military service in 1945 but he returned to Teacher Training College at the end of the forties and spent his teaching career in Woodhouse Junior School to the south of the industrial areas of east Sheffield where he grew up.

It was a struggle for his family to put him through the selective Firth Park Secondary School, later a Grammar School. The family, who had not got the tuppence needed to borrow John’s favourite adventure stories from Darnall Red Circle Library, had to find a pound or two for his grammar school text books: a week’s wages for a steel worker such as his grandfather. The seven pence a day for a school dinner also proved difficult to find. His uncles helped fund his delight in the cinema. There were four in Attercliffe. If one of his uncles was courting they would buy him a halfpenny seat. Where the happy couple went, he followed.

The Palace, Attercliffe (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

John’s main source of entertainment was the municipal library. He found his way to Attercliffe Library on his own. He walked the several miles there and back weekly despite the bitter disappointment of his first expedition. Joining was no problem, nor was choosing a book. He chose the fattest he could find, a Doctor Dolittle book. It looked long but the print was big and every other page an illustration.

I’d read it in an hour of course so I took it back to the library and they told me, ‘Go home, you can’t have any more books, you can only have one borrowing a day, you can’t go back’. I think at that time I only had one ticket anyway so it meant that although I’d walked several miles to the library, there and back, it meant that I was frustrated because I couldn’t borrow a book that I wanted.

Attercliffe Library (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

He plodded on, walking several miles a week for every book borrowed, Doctor Dolittle and another favourite, Just William.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

He grew to enjoy detective stories. Edgar Wallace too became a great favourite. His desert island book would be a collection of Wallace’s River stories.

Now they were a cut apart. Edgar Wallace was such a … he had to write fast because he incurred such debts in America, gambling. He needed a book a week to keep him afloat financially. I think he did it in a Dictaphone and then had it typed up. That would be the norm those days I suppose. I can remember in several stories he started off with the hero’s name as being Jones and by the end it had become Smith because he’d gone so fast he remembered it was a common name. So his crime books Four Just Men and things like that were flimflam but his River books, those were different because he’d been a reporter on one of the big London … and he’d been sent to Africa I think, Boer War and such like. From memory, I may be not remembering right, I think he’d gone into Africa, the Congo and that, perhaps as part of the British Colonial process and as a reporter writing, I’m not sure if it was The Times, it was one of the big heavies, the daily heavies in London. So his stories were authentic if you know what I mean. They were stories and they were fiction but the backgrounds and the people were authentic and I enjoyed that.

To supplement his supply John would go down to the centre of town to Boots. If he had had the money he would like to have used the library on the top floor of the store, an elegant environment and a hefty subscription, but he had another option.

Now Boots Bargain Basement was famous because all stuff that had been damaged on the way here, boxes damaged rather than the goods themselves, was downstairs, and similarly with books. When books became well, either unfashionable or even perhaps unreadable or perhaps not in a fit state to loan out, they went down to Bargain Basement and you could pick those up for a penny a time.

A particular treasure was an old Atlas of the World but this, like so many of the books he managed to acquire in the thirties was lost in the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940.Though the Luftwaffe did not manage to destroy Sheffield’s steelworks, they demolished many of the terraces that housed their workers, including the house belonging to John’s grandfather and Attercliffe Council School from where John had sat the scholarship examination in 1938.

That was bombed, it was set on fire on the same raid … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

When John left his secondary school do to his military service, his reading stopped. He can remember no opportunities for reading but on one of his jobs he did strike lucky.

(reproduced under fair use)

I do remember we went to this American station to close it down and the things I went for were the records. The Americans at that time had a scheme called V Discs. You’ve never heard of V Discs? All artists like, well Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all that sort of artist, they went into recording studios and recorded special V Discs for the forces which were then distributed to all the American stations. I think somewhere still in my loft I’ve still got some of these V Discs left and they were not the versions that were on sale to the public, they were especially recorded.

John still smiles at the pleasure that booty gave him. Reflecting on the nature of his reading and musical tastes, John declares himself firmly as lowbrow.

JD: I am very lowbrow.
MG: You feel you are lowbrow?
JD: Oh yes.
MG: Do you really?
JD: Very much.
MG: What makes you say that?
JD: Well, because I like lowbrow things! My record collection was dance bands of the 30s and 40s and big bands. So in Britain you’d have Roy Fox, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Roy Fox, no I’ve said that haven’t I? Oh and that sort of thing.
MG: Great. So would the word highbrow for you be a word of criticism or just not your thing?
JD: My motto has always been ‘live and let live’. Let ‘em live with it if they want it, that’s them.

Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

File:Abbeydale Cinema - Abbeydale Road 26-03-06.jpg

Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

Born in 1925, Malcolm Mercer has lived most of his life in and around the Manor estate in Sheffield, and left Pipworth Road School in 1939. After seven years in the retail trade, disrupted by three years in the Royal Naval Patrol Service – Minesweeping (1943-1946), he trained as a teacher at Sheffield Training College and taught in several Sheffield schools before being appointed Head of Parson Cross School (1968-1983). He gained a Diploma in education management at Sheffield Polytechnic in 1971 and an MA in education at Sheffield University in 1979. He contributed to two of the major histories of Sheffield city and is the author of The School at Parson Crosse 1630-1980 (1980), Schooling the Poorer Child (1996) and A Portrait of the Manor in the 1930s (2002).

Unlike his wife Jean, whom we also interviewed, Malcolm did not pass the 11+, He left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. However that never prevented him doing what he wanted to do and as a teacher and historian he has written himself into the history of Sheffield, its schools and the community to which he still belongs, the areas of Manor and Park.

Malcolm has always read and he came from a family where there were books about.

I never saw father read but I’ve still got a number of his books. He was a newspaper man and though I never saw him read he’d bought a lot of books when he was younger including Shakespeare and I’ve got them now, and Southey and poetry by Goldsmith. So yes, he must have read.  My mother read Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and I’ve still got her copy and I can remember her reading Lorna Doone. So I think they must have read when I’d been put to bed.

Malcolm’s life was rich. He was a Boy Scout, and he has always been an active member of the church community at St Swithun’s on the Manor. He read constantly, like Jean his main source of books being Park Library. There were two tuppenny libraries on the Manor in the ’30s but the thrilling tales provided by Park Library seemed to satisfy the fourteen year-old’s need for adventure when he returned from working in a shop during the early 1940s.

The one I think that struck me most was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But, I mean, I read quite a great deal, The Scouts of the Baghdad Patrol by Lieutenant Brereton, Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. The Last of the Mohicans by Fennimore Cooper, The Three Musketeers and then I read Dumas: Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask, Count of Monte Cristo, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, The Queen’s Necklace, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen, all by Alexandre Dumas and of course Conan Doyle – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Gerard.

A lot of the stories that he loved were connected with nature: the Romany stories on children’s radio. ‘A Summer Road to Wales, I‘ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times.’

He also describes being ‘enthralled’ by a geography series on BBC radio for schools, which inspired an interest in ‘South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that.’ The survival skills of Manga, a boy living in the Amazon, appealed to the Boy Scout as he prepared for his Camp Craft badge.

Malcolm’s boy scouting had practical consequences. His knowledge of signalling meant that in 1943 he was posted to serve on a minesweeper for the duration of the war. There were few books or readers on the minesweeper but Malcolm had taken Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to sea with him.

I had it throughout the war until … we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman.

After the war, Malcolm returned to Park Library where he found his favourite authors, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Though Malcolm began by reading such novels as The Tale of Two Cities for their stirring qualities, he was soon, as he began to think about the education and care of children in Britain’s cities, reading novels as social history. ‘Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and I compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse’.

Malcolm still has in his possession a little notebook in which he listed all the books he read during the war years 1941 and 1942. Each letter of the alphabet has two pages, and just a look at the page for B shows how widely Malcolm’s curiosity ranged.

Since Jean and Malcolm got married, the books they bought have been mostly for Malcolm’s work as a teacher and historian of Sheffield’s schools. Despite their regular book-borrowing habits, Jean observes that ‘in fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says “I’ll ring you back” and then he disappears.’

You can read Malcolm’s and Jean’s interview here

The Toolhouse Club: a gift for Christmas

What do you give the thirteen year old son of a leading steel manufacturer for Christmas in 1911?

Jacques Reindorp’s The Toolhouse Club, of course.

This beautifully produced book, gilt edged pages and meticulous illustrations, found its way to Reading Sheffield because of its inscription:

A friend of Reading Sheffield found the book in Sheffield’s Oxfam bookshop,searched the name Kenneth Darwin Flather and was led to our interview with Kenneth’s nephew, David Flather. David was heir to various Sheffield traditions. His father’s family were longstanding and pioneering steel manufacturers in the nineteenth century and his mother was related to Sheffield authors from the Leader and Waterhouse families. David himself studied engineering at Cambridge but also became a voracious reader of maps, adventure stories and ‘the Bronte girls.’ You can find his account of his reading history here.

It is a book that could have consumed Kenneth throughout the following year. It describes the purposeful activities of a group of boys absorbed by the challenges of making a canoe in which they set out on bold but never foolhardy adventures. From the outset the processes of decision making are democratic and preceded by thoughtful deliberation. The frontispiece of the book  depicts ‘A Debate at the Club’. seven boys in the sparsely furnished club shed, all in three piece suits, seven little homunculi practising at being lawyers rather than engineers. Or perhaps drawing up a new British Constitution.

 

Though their debates about how to go about building a canoe are extensive, the book is chiefly concerned with the skills the boys acquire in constructing a clinker build canoe. The steps they take at each stage of the process are illustrated by detailed diagrams all designed to be a practical guide for the young engineers. Sheffield is not rich in large expanses of water so it would be surprising if either Kenneth or his nephew were ever able to make practical use of the book but since David was to spend much of his professional life writing technical manuals for the Sheffield firm of Edgar Allen it is tempting to think that he was inspired by the clarity of these images in his uncle’s library.

The off-stage heroine of this novel is ‘mater’ on whom the boys rely to bring on a constant supply of wholesome food for the ‘young lions’ who ‘diligently and merrily’ pursue their dreams.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

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

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

A walk through Park with Jean

Jean Mercer was born in Sheffield in 1925 and has lived in the city all her life. In 1950 she married local boy Malcolm who became a teacher. 

Above Sheffield Station lies an area called Park. Beyond it spreads the Manor Estate, built in the 1930s on the fields surrounding the Queen’s Tower, where the Earl of Shrewsbury guarded Mary Queen of Scots during her period of imprisonment in Sheffield. On the deer park of the castle was built in 1957 the austere Park Hill flats dominating the ridge above Sheffield station and ‘hailed universally in the technical press as a visually as well as socially satisfactory conception’ according to Nicholas Pevsner. As an architectural historian with a taste for modernist brutality, Pevsner admired the Council’s vision of a village in the air, but sadly, as he predicted, Park Hill soon became a slum.

Park Hill and Sheffield Station today

The partly-renovated Park Hill Flats today. Park Library is behind the flats, up the road on the left. (Creative Commons licence)

Jean and Malcolm Mercer have lived in this area all their lives. They grew up in the streets bulldozed to construct Park Hill. Then, after the Second World War they married and moved to the Manor Estate, then a thriving community when the working classes it housed were actually in work. When we interviewed them, they had moved off the estate and were living in a house in one of the Victorian terraces which are a remnant of the old Park district.

Since 1903, all the communities around Park have been served by a glorious complex of buildings which used to house public baths, a laundry, a swimming pool and a library, all heated by the furnace whose red brick chimney still rises against the hill behind it. The library has survived all this time, rather against the odds: in the 1930s it was almost closed because of its proximity to the splendid new Central Library; and now it is run, not by the Council, but by community volunteers.

Park Library now

Park Library then

Jean Mercer has been a member of Park Library since she was two years old. She remembers the delights on offer when she visited the library with her class from school.

When I was a girl they had story-time. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epanimondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epanimondas was lovely. [Miss Heywood] she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

Though Jean passed the scholarship exam she was not able to take up a grammar school place. But there is no trace of bitterness or any sense of loss in the way she describes her secondary school education.

At Standhouse School and Prince Edward as well, I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

Like many pupils from elementary schools, Jean treasures the poetry she learned by heart. Elementary schools seemed to set much more value on reading and reciting poetry than grammar schools. Elocution lessons were also part of Jean’s school experience.

Jean can’t remember a school library. Instead the children were marched down to Park Library and encouraged to use it regularly.

Park Library – all that it is left of the spiral stairs which used to lead to the first floor children’s library

Her parents also encouraged her reading. They were chapel-goers. Jean’s father’s health had been damaged in the First World War so he was found a job in the fruit market by his uncle. Though this was a physically Iess strenuous than a job in a steel mill, it did mean a very early start. So he would get home from work early and spend the early evening reading. She can remember him reading westerns by Zane Grey and then The Man in the Iron Mask.

As for her mother,

she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

The passion for reading that Jean shared with her parents prepared her for a life-time of supporting Malcolm while he wrote books of his own. Jean would field the phone calls and the children while Malcolm prepared his lessons, researched and wrote his histories of Sheffield schools. Like her mother, Jean took delight in the margins, always finding time to explore new novels and read to her own children.

Jean never bought the novels she read because Park Library was so handy.

And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask they’re still very helpful.