Love on the Dole in Sheffield: a Unique Story (Part Two)

Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University continues his account of Love on the Dole in Sheffield.

Sheffield was unique in having the serialisation of the novel (described in Part One) and the play version of Love on the Dole in the public eye at the same time. The play adaptation (made by Greenwood with Ronald Gow) was as great a success as the novel when produced in 1935. Two separate companies toured simultaneous productions until 1937 and Greenwood said that by 1940 three million people had seen the play (letter to the Manchester Guardian, 26/2/1940). Productions went to almost every city and most towns in Britain. For example, during 1936 alone their venues (normally for a week of performances) included places such as Barrow, Birmingham, Brighton, Brixton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Douglas (Isle of Man), Eastbourne, East Ham, Edinburgh, Finsbury Park, Folkestone, Gateshead, Hackney, Keighley, Leeds, Lewisham, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, New Cross, Penge, Plymouth, Poplar, Rotherham, Scarborough, Sunderland, Swansea, Walthamstow, and Woolwich.[i]

The play came to the Sheffield Empire in April 1935 and again in August that year. The Sheffield Daily Independent noted the ‘coincidence’ that the work was simultaneously on the stage and page in the city, and saw the two different versions as reinforcing each other’s impact, while unmistakably advocating the superiority of the novel version it was serialising:

It is interesting to see these Hanky Park personalities, of whom we are reading each day, come to life on the stage. This tragic picture of unemployment with its leavening of humour is but the outline. The complete canvas is found in the book (23/4/1935, p. 6).

The article then went on to argue that the play’s impact in London was bound to differ from its impact in Sheffield. For London audiences, the play had novelty, for while the capital had not been completely immune to unemployment it had no experience of long-term worklessness, of ‘the abandonment of hope in a poverty-stricken industrial area’. In Sheffield the ‘picture is not so unfamiliar’. A review of the production of the play at the Sheffield Empire published by the Daily Independent on 27 August 1935 also claimed that the city, like others in the north, had an affinity with the circumstances portrayed: ‘a poignant tragedy of the evils of unemployment, true to life in many of our large manufacturing towns.’(p. 7). There was a further production of the play at the Attercliffe Palace in May 1939 by a touring repertory company, the Charles Denville Players. A review in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph praised it as a ‘clever performance’ of this ‘pitifully human’ and ‘popular’ play (9/5/1939, p. 3).

Sheffield took other kinds of notice too of Love on the Dole. On 29 April 1935 the Daily Independent reported that the play (and there is reference to their serialisation too) had formed the basis for a sermon by Canon A J Talbot Easter at St Paul’s church. The Canon argued that the story was the result of ‘bitter experience of life’ and that ‘it did not invite one to draw conclusions but placed certain people before the audience and asked them to understand their point of view’. In fact, he said that the story itself ‘had all the essentials of a sermon’. Thus, the work showed that ‘love on the pictures was not the same as love on the dole’ and the vicar also drew the conclusion that Greenwood implied betting to be ‘a mug’s game’ (p. 7). [ii] The Vicar of St Philip’s in Sheffield (presumably the church formerly on Infirmary Rd / Penistone Rd) hit the national press when the Daily Mirror reported under the headline ‘Vicar defends Love on the Dole’ that the clergyman had criticised the Sheffield County Court Judge Essenhigh for pronouncing that men on the dole should not marry. The vicar, Reverend G E Needham, said that having failed ‘to deprive unemployed men of football and the cinema’, they were now to be deprived of love and marriage (20/2/1939, p. 2). The headline implies that Greenwood’s story is so well-known that its themes need no more introduction: it is part of a public conversation about unemployment in which the Sheffield vicar is taking part. The same can be said of a reference to Greenwood’s work by the Sheffield Central Conservative MP on 19 July 1938, titled: ‘Love on the Dole plea by City MP’ (p. 7). Mr W W Boulton said that there had been some improvements in unemployment benefit schemes, but called for more to be done for young workless men who had married and were struggling to care for their families adequately on current levels of public assistance.

Love on the Dole was also seen nationally as drawing attention to a number of northern cities which were dealing with the consequences of unemployment. While much local press coverage of the serial and play in Sheffield suggests a place split between those with experience of unemployment and those for whom it is news from another world, one article in the Daily Independent on 13 May 1935 picks up a national story which firmly casts Sheffield as a whole city in distress. Again, the story concerns a clergyman inspired directly by (the play of) Love on the Dole, but this time it is the London-based Reverend Pat McCormick, who in an appeal broadcast by BBC radio from St Martins-in-the-Fields, proposed a scheme for southern families to help struggling northern families by ‘adopting’ them. The scheme was to include ‘Sheffield, Newcastle, Hull, York, Carlisle, Oldham, Chesterfield, Darlington, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Salford, Gateshead, Warrington, St. Helens, Widnes, and a number of hard-hit areas in South Wales’ (p. 1).

I do not know if the serialisation was the publishing success the Daily Independent’s editors hoped for (I notice Reading Sheffield interviewees did not recall the novel), but Love on the Dole seems to have remained a topic of interest in the city in the next few years, with, as we have seen, further press notice. The city certainly suffered from poverty and unemployment in the mid-thirties, and at least until serious rearmament started in 1936, so it is not surprising to find that Greenwood’s novel and play were of interest. Orwell noted in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1936 that ‘towns like Leeds and Sheffield have scores of thousands of “back-to-back” houses which are all of a condemned type but will remain standing for decades’ (Kindle edition location 698). He also noted that conditions in the city were mixed, partly because of its role in rearmament: ‘Even in Sheffield, which has been doing well for the last year or so, because or wars or rumours of war … the proportion … is one in three workers registered as unemployed’ (location 994). There were significant marches against unemployment and especially the effects of the Means Test in the city in January 1935 and a particularly large demonstration on 6 February of the same year when conflict between the police and a large crowd of up to 100,000 protesters was reported by the Daily Herald (7/2/1935, p. 1). The Sheffield Daily Independent naturally also covered the events of the day under the headline: ‘Police Clash with Workless’ (7/2/1935, p. 1). The paper reported that the demonstration outside the City Hall became violent due to a misunderstanding among the marchers that the City Council had rejected a proposal to seek government approval to reduce benefit cuts in the city. In fact, the Council had just voted to approve this measure and there was a subsequent repayment of some reductions to unemployment benefit in the city on the initiative of the City Council, with the permission of the Ministry of Labour.[iii] Publication of the serial suggests the radical and topical sympathies of this widely-read Sheffield paper, as well perhaps as its eye for commercial advantage in giving relatively cheap and wide access to a current best-seller which could very reasonably be seen as being a popular and entertaining, as well as morally, socially and politically serious, work.

Chris Hopkins is the author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018 and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite:


[i] The list of venues given here is not exhaustive, but all the evidence can be found in the issues of The Stage in its ‘On Tour’ feature; information referred to here is from the 1936 issues for 9/1, 27/2, 5/3, 16/4, 11/5, 25/5, 11/6, 18/6, 16/7, 13/8, 20/8, and 10/9. Accessed via the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive (online: ProQuest <http://www.proquest.com/products-services/eima.html> accessed 15 May 2016).

[ii] St Paul’s, sited near what is now the Peace Gardens, was an eighteenth-century foundation, sold by the Church of England and demolished in 1937 (see: http://chrishobbs.com/sheffield/stpaulschurchsheffield.htm).

iii] See Stephanie Ward’s book, Unemployment and the State in Britain: the Means Test and Protest in 1930s South Wales and North-Eastern England, Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2013, Kindle edition, locations 4048 and 4230. This account of the protests in Sheffield on 6 February 1935 draws on a booklet published by Sheffield City Libraries in 1985: Bill Moore’s All Out! The Dramatic Story of the Sheffield Demonstration Against Dole Cuts on February 6th 1935. For further detail see also John Stevenson and Chris Cook, The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression (Jonathan Cape 1977; third edition Pearson Education, 2010, Kindle edition Routledge 2013, location 5157).

Love on the Dole in Sheffield: a Unique Story (Part One)

Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University looks at how Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel, Love on the Dole, came to Sheffield.

1933 First edition dust jacket cover of Love on the Dole 

Love on the Dole is the story of the Hardcastle family and their neighbours in a specific and poor part of Salford known as Hanky Park. Mr Hardcastle is a miner and Mrs Hardcastle a housewife; their son Harry works first at a pawnshop and is then an apprentice engineer, while their daughter Sally works at a textile mill. Neighbours include the helpful Labour activist and qualified engineer Larry Meath, as well as a group of older women who both help and exploit for their own gain the other inhabitants of Hanky Park. Mr Hardcastle and Harry and then Larry all lose their jobs as the slump bites. The characters represent a working-class society and economy that is always fragile, and which is then further fractured by the consequences of the Depression after 1929 and intensified by the coalition National Government’s cuts to unemployment benefits in 1931.

Walter Greenwood’s novel was a phenomenon when published by Jonathan Cape in 1933: it immediately became a best-seller and was praised by newspapers across the political spectrum for the way in which it drew attention to the worsening situation of the unemployed in already impoverished communities. It sold 46,000 copies by 1940, as well as being much borrowed from public libraries.[i] The West Riding County Council’s 11th Annual Library Report named Greenwood’s novel as one of the most borrowed fiction works in the region, as the Sheffield Daily Independent reported on 28/10/1935. Sheffield’s influential City Librarian, J P Lamb, also named Greenwood in a report on the value of fiction (‘classical’ and the more contemporary fiction which he called ‘semi-standard and popular’) in the city’s libraries report in 1936-37:

the semi-standard group includes … scores of modern writers of considerable gifts – Vera Brittain, Ethel Mannin, Russell Green, P. Bottome, E. Boileau and W. Greenwood – for example … they give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library-borrowers, they are ‘introductory readers’ to those newly finding an interest in reading … they widen vocabulary, extend horizons, stimulate ideas, and often add factual knowledge.[ii]

But in one respect Sheffield was unique in its reception of Love on the Dole. It was the only city in the UK where the entire novel was serialised in a newspaper, nearly two years after its first publication. Between 15 April and 21 June 1935, an episode from the novel was published daily by the Sheffield Daily Independent, with an introduction to the whole serial the week before. The daily publication took place over sixty-seven days and was clearly a substantial commitment of column space and resources – the paper must have paid a considerable fee to the publisher (and/or author) for this best-seller, suggesting confidence that Sheffield readers would want to read every episode (and be more motivated than usual to buy the paper everyday?).

The paper’s readers were warmed up for the forthcoming serialisation every day for five days (9 to 13 April 1935) by short pieces stressing the authenticity, daring and entertainment value of the novel. The first was headlined ‘Realism of Love on the Dole’ and made the grand claim that the novel was likely to prove ‘one of the most impressive and enthralling serialisations ever published in the pages of a newspaper’ (p. 7). The piece then argued that the story’s power came from both the real-life experience of Greenwood and the way in which this compelled him to become an author:

The story is not a figment of the imagination of a writer who has seen good copy in unemployment, but real life as it has been experienced by the author himself, and has so moved him that it compelled him to enter a new realm – the realm of authorship – so that he could reveal to the world the tragedy of existence now being faced by thousands of men and women who, like himself, are “on the dole”.

The (unsigned) article then promised that readers will be ‘held’ and ‘enthralled’ by the novel, but warns them that they may also be shocked: if the ‘colours are vivid, the outlines are true’ (the same article was republished on 10 April by the paper). The next introduction was headed ‘Why You Must Read Love on the Dole’ and suggested that responses from Sheffield readers would depend on their own experiences: ‘to many readers this book will come as a startling revelation – others will realise how true it all is’ (11/4/1935, p. 4). On Friday 12 April came another reminder that this was an unusual novel which had ‘won fame in a day’ for its ‘unknown author’: ‘you cannot afford to miss any portion of this sensational serial, so if you have not yet ordered the Daily Independent to be delivered to you each morning, do so at once’. Finally, on Saturday 13 April readers were reminded that this ‘outspoken novel’ would begin on Monday: ‘one of the most outspoken and sensational documents that has ever appeared as a serial in a newspaper’ (p. 8). The paper was clearly very keen to collect an audience for its investment and/or to promote public awareness of the profound and long-lasting effects of worklessness and poverty (though, as we shall see, this was not unknown territory for the city).

The following week the opening chapters indeed appeared, starting on 15 April 1935 (on p. 11). Slightly oddly, an introduction to each of the main characters, pretty much in the same form as a cast list for a play only appeared on 20, 22 and 24 April (perhaps so anyone who had missed the first chapters could catch up?). Some of the interpretations here are of interest in using descriptions which do not occur in the text of the novel. I think these are the interpretations of an editor or sub-editor of the paper, giving a sense of how one Sheffield reader at least envisaged the characters. Sally is described as ‘a full-lipped belle of the slums’, Mrs Hardcastle as a ‘dour mother of two’, Ned Narkey as the ‘giant, rough and rude libertine of the back alleys’, Harry as one ‘to whom weariness of a drab little life has been realised too soon’, while Larry Meath is said to be a ‘quiet intelligent artisan, with the instincts of a Labour leader’. Finally, what were often referred to in reviews as the ‘chorus’ of older women (Mrs Nattle, Mrs Doorbell and Mrs Jike) are described as ‘part of the human flotsam and jetsam of the district’. The two individual female characters are seen stereotypically and oddly (and more negatively than in many reviews, which see both as mainly heroic), while the older women are seen as more helpless than they are in the novel (they are more properly seen as having a curious if small privilege from drawing pensions and running small and semi-legal private ‘enterprises’). More typically of other reviews of the novel, Ned is seen as an obviously undesirable, sexually unrestrained and brutal type of working-man, Harry as a youth whom the current system has betrayed, and Larry as the best sort of ‘respectable’, self-taught, working-class intellectual. The text of the novel was identical to that of the published novel, except that sometimes daily titles for each instalment were added, as well as numerous sub-titles, again presumably by a Sheffield sub-editor. These seem to be added a little inconsistently, and perhaps depended partly on space / type-setting considerations. Some titles are the same as the novel’s original chapter titles, but others, including all the sub-titles, are new additions. So Sheffield Daily Independent readers received the novel via captions such as: ‘Puzzled and Cheated’, ‘His World Upset’, ‘A Million Mysteries’, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Travesty of Love’, ‘Where Lovers Meet’, ‘Things is Bad’, ‘Wives Who Go Out to Work’, ‘Beauty in the Slums’, and ‘When a Girl is Moody’. Though the novel already sought to entertain as well as enlighten, these sub-titles do perhaps present the story as even more like popular newspaper or magazine fiction than the original novel, with their quite frequent invitations to engage with mystery, romance and melodrama.

Here is Part Two.

Chris Hopkins is author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018 and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite


[i] Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization 1919–1939 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010; first published by Allen Lane, 2009), p. 71. The sales figures come from the University of Reading Special Collection, Jonathan Cape Archive, Mss 2446 (endnote 80 to Overy’s Chapter 2).

[ii] The 80th Annual Sheffield City Libraries Report (1936–37), ‘The Reading of Fiction’, was located and drawn to my attention by Val Hewson – the full report can be read on the Reading Sheffield website: <https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/the-reading-of-fiction-sheffield-citylibraries-80th-annual-report-1936–37/>, accessed 4 January 2018.

Johnny and the Plum Tree

Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s.

For Sheffield’s 2019 Off the Shelf Festival, on 21 October, Eleanor and Imtiaz Dharkar are reading from their latest collections of poems, published by Bloodaxe Books. Eleanor’s poems, White Ink Stains, draw in part on the Reading Sheffield interviews. Click here for more information.

Here is the Dutch original:

Jantje zag eens pruimen hangen
O! als eieren zo groot
‘t Scheen, dat Jantje wou gaan plukken
Schoon zijn vader ‘t hem verbood
Hier is, zei hij, noch mijn vader
Noch de tuinman, die het ziet
Aan een boom, zo vol geladen
Mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet
Maar ik wil gehoorzaam wezen
En niet plukken; ik loop heen
Zou ik om een hand vol pruimen
Ongehoorzaam wezen? Neen!
 
Voort ging Jantje, maar zijn vader
Die hem stil beluisterd had
Kwam hem in het lopen tegen
Vooraan op het middenpad
Kom mijn Jantje, zei de vader
Kom mijn kleine hartedief
Nu zal ik u pruimen plukken
Nu heeft vader Jantje lief
Daarop ging Papa aan ‘t schudden
Jantje raapte schielijk op
Jantje kreeg zijn hoed vol pruimen
En liep heen op een galop.

From the wall hanging which Julia made at the time

And here is Eleanor’s ‘mainly accurate translation’:

Johnny sees the ripe plums hanging
Oh! As big as eggs they are.
How he longs to grasp and pluck
The fruit forbidden by Papa!
“But,” he ponders, “neither Father
Nor the gardener’s here to see:
Who would miss just five or six
From such a heavy-laden tree?
Yet I want to be obedient…
Mustn’t pick them…better go.
Shall I, for a ripe sweet handful,
Disobey my father? No!”
 
Off goes Johnny: but his father,
Who has overheard it all,
Catches up as he walks homeward,
Stops him by the garden wall.
“Come, my Johnny,” says the father,
“Come, my darling little lad,
Now shall you have plums aplenty,
Now you’ve pleased your watchful Dad!”
Father gives the tree a shaking.
Followed, eavesdropped-on, policed,
Johnny fills his hat with plums,
And gallops off to have his feast.

Honesty or policy? Johnny’s under surveillance from a parent who rewards obedience with approval (and plums) – if he sees it for himself. That’s why Johnny does his moral cogitating aloud, in stage soliloquy. There’s no trust here.

Here are other Dutch nursery rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes with Me
In The Hague There Lives a Count
Sinterklaas
Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

City Librarian Speaks Out

Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries, including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the

recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.

A Nazi throws confiscated ‘un-German’ books into the bonfire on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933 (image: public domain).

This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’ books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April 1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:

It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.

Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).   

The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods of teaching.

We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?

(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)

Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language, creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the ‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’, questioning rather than accepting.

Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.

The Sheffield Literary Club, with Lamb third from the left, front row (image: Sheffield Newspapers)

Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.

If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.

Julie’s reading journey: ‘Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me’

Our guest blogger Julie was born on the Manor estate in Sheffield in 1950. She attended St Theresa’s Primary School.  After graduating from Notre Dame High School, she left Sheffield for Newcastle-on-Tyne, to train as a teacher. She taught for two years in Liverpool before heading off on an adventurous journey to Sydney, Australia, where she still lives. She has spent her career in education – teaching, writing and lecturing. She was Head of Education at the Australian Museum and General Manager of the charity The Peer Support Foundation. She now writes fiction. Her novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and will be released by Pegasus later this year.

Manor Library and its garden today

By Julie Howard

My earliest memory of Manor Library is the Peter Pan and Wendy mural, which was painted on one of the glass partitions. Dressed in pale greens and blue they flew through the air, their eyes wide with astonishment. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was 1955 and the library was only a couple of years old. It was glorious. 

Manor Library in the 1950s, when Julie joined
The Manor entrance today, showing it has not changed so very much since the 1950s

In the children’s library, boys and girls whispered together as they searched the shelves. Occasionally a giggle would erupt only to be quelled by a glower from the librarian. Once we had chosen our book, we approached the counter. The librarian vigorously flicked through small brown envelopes until she found our card. There was a nerve-wracking moment as she scrutinised the chosen book before peering down into your face. Heaven help you, if you chose something unsuitable. I remember a Just William book being confiscated. With a burning face I went back to choose ‘something more suitable’ from the shelves, which was difficult because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I now think it was because I had chosen a ‘boy’s book’!

The imposing entrance through which the young Julie walked

I loved Manor Library from the first moment I stepped in there. At first, I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t borrow a book until I was six. It took me weeks of pleading before they let me join. It was years later I found out that the kind-hearted librarian had changed my birthdate. Nat the Cat was my first book. I read it in the morning and went back for more in the afternoon, only to be told that I could only have one book a day!

The library in the 1950s

Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me. After tea, mum would walk me up to ‘Reading Circle’. Children sat cross-legged on the floor and the librarians’ stories took us away from our everyday lives to Narnia and other exotic places. From that time on, mum often found me standing and staring hopefully at the back of my wardrobe. The librarians always left us, jaws hanging, at the most crucial part of the story. If we wanted to know the ending, we had to rise up to the challenge of finishing the book.

At Christmas time the drama group would put on plays and the whole family would attend. Of course, with my long blonde hair I was always an angel, but one year, I was lucky enough to get a singing part… Oh joy! 

It was a magical place to write. Storybook and pencil in hand I would walk up Prince of Wales Road, to the library, which always seem to be open. I’d sit at one of the tables and write my stories of fairies and goblins.

Julie and her classmates

I now divide my time between Sydney and Sheffield (Manly to the Manor) Of course an annual pilgrimage to Manor Library to say thank you, is essential. I am still reading and writing voraciously. My novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and draws on some of my childhood memories. I also work with refugees and others trying to get their stories into print. After all we all have a story to tell, don’t we?

Julie today

Manor Library serves the Manor ward in souh-east Sheffield. The area was rural until the 1930s, when Sheffield Council started building a large estate to relieve inner city crowding. The branch library was almost ready in 1939, when war broke out, and it could not be completed and opened until 1953. The design of the building was innovative in its day, and we plan to tell the story of Manor Library in a future post.

Ruth’s Reading Journey: ‘I read and read and read.’

By Ruth Owen

Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.

Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.

But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.

My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.

Ruth’s mum and dad on their wedding day

Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:

‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’

‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.

‘Can I go to Gillian’s?

‘Mmmm.’

‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’

‘What’s that love?’

What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.

So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.

Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and  still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.    

I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.  

And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.

I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.

To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.

Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.

Jane Eyre, for breakfast

Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.

Original advert for Germinal, one of Ruth’s favourites of French literature.

University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.

Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.

Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.

A Short Story of Readers in Stocksbridge

By Mary Grover and Sue Roe

Everyone at the Venue in Stocksbridge on 31 May 2019 came to reading in different ways. For children growing up in Stocksbridge in the 1940s and ‘50s getting hold of books was not easy. Stocksbridge Library was not built till the 1960s. Before then, Marilyn remembers borrowing books from the British Hall on Hope St or winning them as Sunday School prizes. One of the prizes was the story of smugglers in the West Country: Lorna Doone, won for ‘Endeavour’.

Chapel and Sunday School played a big part in the reading of many. Sunday School prizes were often the only books that children owned. The Bible featured frequently in the memory of Stocksbridge residents. There were chapels up and down the valley. Somebody described the pattern: pub, chapel, pub, chapel right through the town and into the country.

Frank pointed out the fact that the word Bible simply means ‘book’ and this book itself is a compilation of a huge amount of stories. He remembers Methodists in particular as reading the Bible out aloud, as a family. Your religion could affect the books around you in the home. A copy of ‘the Mass book’ was mentioned. Sometimes the only book in the house was the Bible.

If you or your parent was after light reading there was also at least one twopenny library in Stocksbridge. Gloria remembers a twopenny library where Lidl is now. She used to go and get love stories and Catherine Cookson books for her mum who wouldn’t go near the place. ‘She didn’t like the woman who ran it. She was abrupt, very sharp. All she wanted was your tuppence.’

Some readers from towns where there were public libraries weren’t able to use them because they weren’t allowed out on their own and their parents were too busy to take them. A few were given books as gifts or saved up their pocket money to buy them.

Enid Blyton was a part of nearly everybody’s reading life but each reader had her favourite series. One reader read and reread the poetic The Faraway Tree. Just William books came a good second.

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

Like Blyton, Richmal Crompton delivered a long run of titles to keep you reading until you moved on to something else: What Katy Did, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Arthur Ransome’s books about children’s sailing adventures.

We were all struck by how middle class all the children’s books we came across were. But all delivered something familiar, however remote their setting: a sense of adventure and the ups and downs of getting on with the rest of the family.

It is when our readers became adults that their reading tastes began to differ quite a lot from their friends’ tastes. So much depended on where you went on to live and work. Those, like Terry, who did National Service in Germany came across the racy novels of Hank Janson. You were unlikely to find these in Stocksbridge. Roger went into farming so during his twenties he was keen to read about agriculture. Chris became an avid reader of science fiction. He moved from H G Wells to Asimov. He joined a library in his thirties. One book led to another: The Hobbit then Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

The journey from one author to another never ends. The number of books mentioned on that Friday morning at the drop-in session, seemed almost countless.

This was Reading Sheffield’s first visit to Stocksbridge. Huge thanks to David Owen and to the Stocksbridge readers who shared memories about how they became readers.

Rosalie Huzzard’s reading journey

Rosalie is not a native Sheffielder, moving to the city in 2003 to be near her family. She is therefore not part of the original Reading Sheffield group, but it’s great to welcome her as a guest contributor. She was interviewed by Alice Collins on 7 March 2019. Alice wrote up the notes with Rosalie’s agreement. There is no audio record.

I was born in Redruth, Cornwall on 7 August 1926. My father was a Methodist Minister who had an extensive collection of books. I was an early reader and I could read before I went to school aged five. I don’t remember who taught me to read but reading and education were encouraged in our family. I always had a bedtime story from my parents, tucked up in bed. My brother and I weren’t read to together. He was younger than me and had bronchial asthma. He had to rest a lot and wasn’t such a big reader as me anyway.

Rosalie around 1932, when she was 5 or 6 years old

Stories I remember were Beatrix Potter books: Jemima Puddle-duck; Jeremy Fisher; Peter Rabbit; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; Flopsy Mopsy and Cotton Tail, The Little Red Hen. Our equivalent of modern day picture books. They were illustrated with animal characters and very popular. Anthropomorphic, I suppose.

When I was seven or eight, I borrowed books from my father’s bookshelves. I read classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dombey and Son. I can’t say I always finished these books but I remember enjoying what I read. I realise now the social and racial injustices described in those books completely passed me by. I may have been attracted to the children/family names in the titles. It’s only by going back and re-reading these books have I realised what they were really about. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set just before the outbreak of the American Civil War. It’s horrifying to think what the slaves went through. Re-reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin prompted me to use GoogIe to find out more about the conditions of the slaves. I don’t think I understood Dombey and Son. Re-reading that, I have got more out of it and realise it’s not a children’s book.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva (illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin)

However, trying to read these long classics didn’t put me off reading. I felt then I should have read more. I wanted to read Anna Karenina at that time but didn’t get round to it. I currently belong to the RNIB [Royal National Institute for the Blind] talking books service. Up until recently I went to a sight-impaired women’s reading group but my sight has deteriorated so now I listen to books on a Daisy Player. I’m still a bit daunted by Anna Karenina today.

As a child, I read at night, under the bed covers, with a torch. I was allowed to read in bed then at lights out I was expected to put my book away and go to sleep. Often I was enjoying my book too much to obey.

Later, I remember joining the public library. I enjoyed Georgette Heyer stories – Georgian and historical romances. There was lots of competition for my time then – school, reading school books. I remember reading and learning poetry by heart. It felt a bore at the time but now I’m glad I did as I can still remember some lines. I remember Cargoes by John Masefield.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

In 1936, when I was ten, my father got his first car. He didn’t have any lessons – just had a few tootles up and down the road – then we set off for a camping holiday to the West Country. I read some of my first paperbacks on that holiday. They probably included popular crime stories – I liked Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers.

When I was 13 I was evacuated to Redditch. I was living in Felixstowe with my parents at the start of the war, then Dunkirk happened. Fears of invasion prompted my parents to send myself and my brother to safer places. My brother had problems with his foot, so he went to a minor public school. I went, with a friend, to Redditch.

We continued our education there at a boys’ grammar school. They had to give up a classroom for us girls. We had half a day in the classroom; the other half of the day we were supposed to read school books. But I have memories of reading just what we wanted, sitting up in the trees in the sun. These were library books from the local library. I can remember liking PG Wodehouse around that time. There was a library in the local WH Smith shop as well.

I left school and matriculated at 15. I went to the Ipswich College of Art for two years. I loved art and wanted to be a dress designer. This was during the war years and many college lecturers had been called up. There were not many opportunities for dress designers in those times. I don’t remember reading; I was too busy doing other things.

I moved to Liverpool in 1945 and to London in 1946 to pursue my career in dress design. This was a long period of training to become a pattern cutter. I worked at C & A Modes in Islington and lived at YWCA in Highgate. Firms would take on designers for each new collection. I did design work for fashion houses, including Susan Small, and learnt drape cutting and tailoring there.

In 1952 I married Ron Huzzard. I’d met Ron at a London rambling club. He was an ardent trade unionist and member of the Labour Party, which he encouraged me to join. We had two children together. I left work when the children were born and went back when the younger was six years old. I joined the Society of Friends in the mid 1960s. I later became active in Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and campaigns for social justice and peace.

During this period I wasn’t reading much – I was too busy with work and looking after my family. My work life was changing – fashion became boring with the advent of the mini skirt. I felt there was little scope for design work so I changed tack and went to work as a political organiser for the Labour Party in Orpington. Typically, I worked 60 hours a week, as a campaign agent. I worked in the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), in Ken Livingstone’s office. It was an exciting time: socialism in practice.

I remember being in book groups in London, We read contemporary novels and some classics. I enjoyed Middlemarch.

Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Jensen Society, 1910)

I moved to Sheffield in 2003. My daughter lives here, my son in Sweden. I have two grand-daughters and the whole family keep in touch via Gran Facebook.

I’ve often had a feeling I’ve missed out on the classics. I’m trying to remedy that now by catching up on talking books on my Daisy wheel – I can get the whole book on one CD. I always have a book on the go – it’s how I spend my time these days. I’ve read Dickens and Austen and get a lot out of reading them now I’m older.

Looking back, my parents always encouraged me to read, which I’m pleased about. But I’ve always been a ‘doer’ in life, so sometimes I didn’t have time to read as much as I’d have liked to.

As told to Alice Collins by Rosalie Huzzard

Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 2)

The old Firth Park Library building today

On Wednesday 3 September 1930, the Sheffield Telegraph printed a complaint about the new branch library at Firth Park. Signed by someone using the pseudonym ‘Liber’ (the Latin word for ‘book), the letter expressed dissatisfaction with the library’s books of literary criticism and also with its ‘third-rate thrillers’. ‘Surely,’ concluded Liber, ‘our Libraries Committee can do better than this’. (Here is the full letter.)

Presumably smarting under this attack, Alderman Alfred Barton, who chaired the Libraries Committee, replied the very next day. His letter in the Telegraph read:

FIRTH PARK LIBRARY BOOKS

Sir, —It is a new experience for the Sheffield Public Libraries to be criticised on the score of the quality of their book stocks, as they pride themselves on the catholicity of their selection. Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.

The Firth Park Library contains 14,000 books for adults. There are actually 8,000 borrowers using this library. The book stock must cover the whole field of knowledge; it must also be selected to meet very heavy demands in certain popular lines of reading. The number of books in each subject is obviously conditioned by the number of people who will read them; further, regard must also be paid the stock carried in adjacent branches and the Central Library. The number of people who require what may be called specialised books at a branch library is very limited; a branch stock clearly must be of an introductory type. It would be uneconomic to stock heavy ranges of little-used books at a branch, where they would be largely ‘dead.’ The reader of wide range is catered for at the Central, and a system is now being whereby a reader who finds a branch stock insufficient for his needs can draw on the whole library service through his own branch. Perhaps Liber and others who have gone beyond branch library type books will make their wants known to the staff, who will gladly obtain any book not on stock at Firth Park from some other library. In fact, through any of our library units the service will obtain any book in print for any reader.

As regards Liber’s specific complaints, here are the answers. He complains:

There is no single recent book on the history of English drama

No complete set of Ibsen, and no works by Granville Barker.

There are only two books on the general history of the novel.

No works by George Moore.

Only two books go beyond the Victorian age in poetry.

My replies are:-

Brawley’s Short history of the English drama (1921) is in the library. The only other general work on this subject, by Nicoll, is in other libraries, and can be obtained on request.

A complete Ibsen does not circulate too well, even in the Central. It would be dead wood at a branch. There are fifteen plays by Ibsen in Firth Park. Barker is not stocked at any branch, merely because the demand does not justify it.

In addition to Phelps and Saintsbury, there are Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Drew’s Modern Novel, and Williams’s Some Great English Novels.

George Moore does not circulate if placed in branch libraries; further, few of his works are in print at reasonable prices.

Will Liber recommend through the Librarian any books on modern poetry which he knows to be good? The field is very limited, as he probably knows.

May I conclude by pointing out to Liber that a branch library cannot attempt to cater for specialised reading, such as he suggests should be provided for periods of the drama. Liber is one of many who would have his own subject heavily represented, without regard to the balance of demand in other classes. The librarian who has the unenviable job of selecting books on every subject to meet the diverse demands of 8,000 readers must undertake the task with wide views and sympathies, and it is not unreasonable to ask cultured readers to try to view the problem from a similar angle.

Will Liber help us to build up this library’s stock by using the machinery of book proposal? His assistance will be welcomed.—Yours, etc.,

A. Barton, Chairman, Libraries and Museums Committee

Alderman Barton would not have written the response himself. Without detailed knowledge of library stock, including specialised works, he would have referred the matter to the combative City Librarian, Joseph Lamb. I have read enough library records now to be sure that Lamb either drafted the reply himself or approved it and added some final touches. He was never backwards in coming forwards.

Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.

A complete Ibsen … would be dead wood at a branch.

Lamb would have taken badly the criticism of the new library, the first to be opened under his leadership and to include his theories about design and operation.

A librarian who has looked at the correspondence says that Liber’s complaint is common enough, and that the lines of the response, if blunt, are absolutely right. (She also admires the neat closure, inviting Liber to suggest some new books.) A branch library would necessarily have had a smaller and more popular stock than a central library. That Firth Park had as many as 15 of Ibsen’s plays is surprising. No branch library could not – cannot – afford to carry books which few people would borrow, and, as Barton says, books could be borrowed from other libraries in the city and across the country.

Alderman Barton’s response ignores one point made by Liber: those ‘third-rate thrillers’. Public libraries were at this time generally wary of spending ratepayers’ money on popular fiction. In a local BBC talk in 1927, the then chief librarian, Richard Gordon, had said that:

In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

But Gordon had also acknowledged the ‘value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading’. After he became chief librarian, Lamb decided to emphasise popular fiction in branches, in an experiment to increase borrowers. Firth Park had plentiful stocks of books by novelists like Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell, and publicised this. Lamb based his experiment on an analysis of borrowers, which concluded that, unless they were looking for something particular, people ‘read along mass lines’ and were drawn to ‘attractive’ books. When Liber complained, in September 1930, it was presumably too early to know the outcome of the experiment and so the point went unaddressed. But in time, Lamb reported ‘impressive’ results, with issues increasing by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000 across the city. (The story of Lamb’s experiment is here.)

Whatever Liber thought, Firth Park was already proving very popular. On the same day Barton’s letter appeared in the Telegraph, there was an article in the Sheffield Independent, perhaps planted by Lamb who was a canny publicist:

LITERARY FIRTH PARK. READS MORE THAN ANY OTHER PART OF CITY.

More books were issued from the new public library at Firth Park during last month than there were from the Central Lending Library in Sheffield; and the issues from the Central Library are amongst the highest in the country.

The Firth Park Library was opened only at the end of July. During August no fewer than 38,820 books were issued, whereas the issues from the Central Lending Library were 38,545.

The speed and firmness of Barton’s response, and the Independent article, may also have been intended to head off political criticism. There were local elections in November 1930 and the opposition had concerns about the ruling Labour Party’s spending, including on libraries:

…the speaker said “We have a mania for ‘super things’. Everything must be a show place for people to come to see. … we might have had a Central Library for somewhere round about £70,000, but instead of this we arc going to pay £90,000 for it. This is simply because we have not invited architects all over the country to plan it for us, but are going to pay the City Architect [a] £1,000 honorarium for one plan.” (Sheffield Telegraph, on an election meeting on 19 September 1930)

Liber never seems to have written to the papers again, at least using that pseudonym.

Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 1)

A library cannot contain every book upon every subject…

‘What do you mean, you don’t have …?’ Library staff often hear grumbling like this, and presumably always have. Here is a complaint, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 3 September 1930, about the books available, or rather not available, in Firth Park Library, on the north side of the city.

Sir, —The Libraries Committee may justifiably take a pride in the new Firth Park Library, so far as furnishings and equipment go. In that respect it is excellently fitted up, and is probably one of the best for a great distance round. But reading desks and card indexes, do not make a library, and one cannot but feel that the Committee did not take as good advice in the choice of the books as in the matter of equipment. One realises, of course, that there are limitations, and that a library cannot contain every book upon every subject, but surely, however small the number of books, they should be widely representative and as up to date as possible.

A few days ago I visited the Firth Park branch in search of information on English literature. To my surprise I found that there was not a single recent book on the history of English drama. The modern period was represented by two books, and the Elizabethan by two; on other periods of drama there was nothing whatever. The selection of modern plays, one must admit, is on the whole good, though there is no complete set of Ibsen, and not a single work of so important a dramatist as Granville Barker.

The state of literature on the novel is about as bad as that on drama. There are two books only on the general history of the novel, and neither can be called modern. Several good books have been written on the subject of late years, yet we are denied the privilege of consulting them in an up-to-date library. One book only deals with the present-day novel, and there is one on the theory and technique of novel writing, and as for the novels themselves, surely there is something wrong with a library system which admits shelves full of third-rate thrillers, and yet excludes the best works of George Moore.

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all is in the literature upon poetry. Of the eight books on the subject only two go beyond the Victorian age. Modern day poetry, apparently, is not worth reading about. On subjects other than literature I am not qualified to speak, but I should not be at all surprised to learn that they are catered for as efficiently. Surely our Libraries Committee can do better than this. It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.— Yours, etc., LIBER

The old Firth Park Library building today

Firth Park Library was, as the writer says, new. It had opened six weeks earlier, on Thursday 24 July, with a stock of 15,000 books. It was the first new library in the city for 24 years and the first-ever in the area. It was purpose-built, incorporating the latest ideas about design, operation and service. There were separate junior and adult libraries, which was then an innovation. Firth Park was an important step in the plan to reform and develop the city’s public library service. The Sheffield Telegraph was unequivocal:

There is no institution which has such a marked influence on the culture of the general community as the public library, and it is a healthy sign when a Corporation finds itself obliged to build more. Sheffield is in that happy position… (Friday 25 July, 1930)

Liber’s complaint about the availability of books must therefore have been disappointing for the Council and the library staff, particularly since the writer chose the local press as medium, rather than a quiet word over the counter. It’s impossible to say at this distance if Liber was a serial complainer, well-known to the librarians. Nor can we be sure of the writer’s gender or profession.

What is clear, even after 90 years, is Liber’s determination to establish impressive intellectual credentials. There’s also a more than a suggestion of pomposity. The choice of pseudonym – Liber, meaning ‘book’ in Latin – is a hint, and the style of the letter is, well, superior:

To my surprise I found…

…yet we are denied the privilege…

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all…

It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.

Liber condemns the ‘third-rate thrillers’ to be found on the library shelves, and demands the controversial and avant-garde: Ibsen (1828-1906), Granville Barker (1877-1946), George Moore (1852-1933) and ‘modern poetry’. The poetry probably meant the work of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, T S Eliot, Samuel Beckett and others. Ibsen, Granville Barker and Moore were hardly the latest thing (Ibsen was long dead, and the other two were elderly), but their work had often challenged the status quo. None of these writers could have been described as popular in the Sheffield of the 1930s.

Leaving aside literary considerations, there may just have been something political behind the letter. Local elections were due in November 1930, with the opposition keen to unseat the ruling Labour Party and accusing it of wasting money, including on libraries. But Liber doesn’t mention money, and likes the library’s appearance. His or her concern seems solely to be about the apparently inadequate selection of books.

The Council’s response was swift and decided. You can read it in Part 2 of this post, to be published shortly.

We’ll also be looking soon at the controversy surrounding the ‘socialist clique’ invited to the opening ceremony for Firth Park.