Charles Dickens in Thirties Sheffield

By Mary Grover

In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here

Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens. 

My father, David Yorweth Morgan, in Rangoon in 1954

In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.

A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald.  My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.

For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’. 

In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.

My father’s set of Dickens, still in their presentation bookcase

For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.

A Reading Journey Expanded

Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history. In March this year, Mike wrote A Reading Journey of Sorts. In the strange months since COVID arrived, he has expanded his original memories.

During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I don’t ever recall being taken to the local library. There certainly was one when it was the Borough of Heston & Isleworth, but I’m not sure if I ever darkened its door. My mother was a member of the Boots Booklovers’ Library in Hounslow which was the nearest large shopping centre. She regularly read her way through their books with the shield bookmark and eyelets punched into the binding. I’m not sure what she read but I suspect that much of it would have been linked to the films of the day as she was also a keen cinema-goer, going at least once a week with my godmother. Apart from Heston Library, there was also a library in Hounslow where an aunt of mine was librarian in the 1930s before she married. But my mother didn’t go there either. I wonder if she was suspicious of public libraries and their late 1940s preoccupation with infectious diseases and their effects on the book stocks. She had lost her firstborn in 1942 at the age of ten months to gastroenteritis and this affected her life and attitudes right up to her death in 1996. It may be that she thought the books at Boots were more hygienic, what with the Booklovers’ Library being consciously refined, not to mention the company being chemists and all that – but I don’t really know. Thinking back, I cannot remember my father ever reading any fiction – his reading was always related to his engineering profession.

Boots Booklovers’ Library logo (Addedentry, Creative Commons Licence)

I have absolutely no recollection of either parent or any aunt or uncle reading to me. I think my mother helped me although I don’t think it was from children’s books necessarily as we didn’t have any. It was just as likely that I had to read cartoon strips or sections for children in the Daily Express, the News Chronicle or even the Daily Mirror, all of which appeared in the house at some time or other during my childhood. I think that most of my reading at home started with occasional copies of the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express newspaper. A legacy of Rupert’s simple rhyming in cartoon strips is my tendency to produce some awful verse. On shopping trips with my mother, I may well have read shop and bus signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries: the word ‘eels’ always looked strange to me. I did spend a lot of time listening to the valve radio, BBC Home Service and Light Programme, and Listen with Mother from 1950, noted for its ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ introduction. Some stories surely must have come across that way.

I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9, but I have no recollection of what reading and writing took place there under the kind, hatted and elderly Miss Farrah with her aura of eau-de-cologne and mothballs. The only thing I do recall from infant school is ‘music and movement’ to the accompaniment of a wind-up gramophone. It was only later in junior school years that some comic annuals started to appear as birthday or Christmas presents, although they weren’t what you would call ‘quality reading’. The tales of Desperate Dan, Biffo the Bear and Korky the Kat were hardly improving literature. I was also given a small number of the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, although only a small fraction of the 21 apparently available in the series. They were read repeatedly during bouts of scarlet fever, chickenpox and German measles.     

A Famous Five Adventure

Apart from my mother’s library books, there were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase which was used for other purposes. As to its contents I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes called The Home Doctor and The Family Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. This latter volume was about three inches thick and served as a useful stand upon which to place the potty for a growing boy when potty training was taking place! (Was this the way of developing into a barrack-room lawyer through a process of osmosis?) The only fiction books of ours that I can recall at home were both prizes given to my father at school: Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith. I did try to read both, unsuccessfully I think, when I had scarlet fever at about the age of eight or nine.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911 (public domain)
Illustration by E Frere from The Vicar of Wakefield, showing perhaps why it failed to appeal to a young boy (public domain)

My parents were members of the Heston Ratepayers’ Association and received their monthly RAM magazine about local matters which I also tried to read. (Almost 70 years later I write for RAM by the way!) Then there was my father’s collection of The Journal of the Proceedings of the Institution of Chartered Mechanical Engineers which apart from learned articles contained diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession of mine ever since. Otherwise, there were a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and others dealing with workshop mathematics, use of the slide rule and logarithm tables.

I suspect that I only read anything available when the weather was bad, otherwise I’d have been outside playing, gardening and messing about with small bikes and home-made ‘trolleys’ with friends.

When the 11-plus was approaching, I do recall my mother buying me books of exercises called Progress Papers to work through. I think there was parental desperation to get me into the grammar school my father had attended and avoid the local senior school which didn’t have a good reputation and was home to the local bullies. I was also provided with Angus MacIver’s First Aid in English. These aids may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I certainly became an expert in collective nouns – a smuck of eels, a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a clowder of cats – and McIver’s other obsessions such as proverbs and absurdities at a very early age.

The elephant is a bonny bird
It flits from bough to bough
It makes its nest in the rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.

English at grammar school consisted of learning ‘rules’ by rote and being forced to work laboriously through Shakespeare – Twelfth Night in my case. I can recall my father having an unresolved argument and subsequent correspondence with my English teacher about the way the subject was being taught, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all, despite passing both English Language and English Literature at ‘O’ level. I enjoyed learning and speaking foreign languages far more and at the time probably read more French including Voltaire than any English authors. A neighbour, a retired army captain, lent me his copy of Mein Kampf looted from Berlin although the German was a little beyond me. I was, though, introduced to the German double ‘S’ (ß – Eszett) and gothic script. Keen to better my French while still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match magazine and I went to Librarie Hachette in London to buy a decent-sized French dictionary. The assistants spoke French and I had to say something like ‘Où se trouvent les dictionnaires?’ to which the reply was ‘En bas’. A French penfriend knowing of my interest in railways kept me regularly supplied with La Vie du Rail magazine. 

I ‘resigned’ (no better word for it) from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. Trying to get into the intricacies of Voltaire’s Candide and Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann during the summer holiday when there was so much else to do was the clincher. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level French students and had written several of his own French grammar books. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead, my great uncle who had been Director of Education for Winchester City and Hampshire and, reputedly, the founder of that county’s first girls’ grammar school, encouraged me to write. I corresponded with him by letter regularly and he gave feedback whilst also trying to persuade me to learn Esperanto. As a county president of the Rotary Club he saw Esperanto as a good way of improving international relations in the tense post-war years and he had several books in the language at his home in Winchester.

At the same time, I was by then Honorary Secretary of a railway preservation society and had to do a lot of typewritten correspondence with members, British Railways, potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers, sponsors and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine now at edition number 230. Both were duplicated at first and, apart from typing the stencils, I also had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. A fellow committee member, a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, urged me to qualify in journalism so I also started, but never finished, a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. So far as books went, I was certainly by this time buying and studying a lot of books dealing with railway operation and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for British Railways between September 1962 and October 1964 and this was when I discovered I couldn’t pursue my railway operating management career because of defective colour vision. I had also asked about a two-year short service commission in the Army but they, too, needed perfect colour vision. Up to this point I had been based at home in Heston, Middlesex with central London and its suburbs as my universe.

Some of Mike’s railway collection

My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. As I was available, I spent the first nine months helping my parents renovate a very run-down Georgian house which was their retirement home. Although I made numerous friends around Exmoor, I did find time to read and I bought several J B Priestley novels, The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor and A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. Faced with the need to find a new career, my next acquisitions were mainly Pelican text books dealing with psychology and criminology. I also acquired a large collection of grammar books, style guides and dictionaries from Foyles, as well as the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron and other English poets.

After the premature end of my railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested following a career in either adult education, probation work, social work and, due to the highest ‘interest’ marks the Vocational Guidance Association had ever seen in their psychometric tests, striving to become a professional musician! I was a very bad self-taught pianist at the time and I realised that there was no way this occupation would earn me a living and the playing tailed off. Hence, the civil service beckoned after it was suggested by the Department of Employment’s Professional & Executive Register that I should join that very department: I did. It was only after retiring from the successor to that organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one management book for Hodder & Stoughton, contributed chapters to others, and have written four more books with a fifth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.

Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, central libraries in Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield and the National Railway Museum library.

Even now in my seventies I do not buy, borrow or read fiction. I write surrounded by well over a thousand books – all of them works of reference, histories, geographic guides and technical books mainly dealing with railways. That said, I will happily watch television and film dramatisations of novels old and new. I do, though, feel that it’s cheating – much like absorbing the classics from the Classics Illustrated comics that I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. I will occasionally resort to radio dramatisations as well – creating the pictures for oneself is a pleasurable part of using that medium.

So, after such an unpromising and almost lifelong relationship with reading fiction, I now write mainly to entertain and inform others. A brief flirtation with journalism has helped me to produce copy quickly – never mind the quality, feel the width – and it was the positive encouragement of my great uncle which, I think, mainly set me on this path.

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

The Day The Library Closed

I’ve heard some queer stories of earlier days. The then librarian, Smith, when they held a Library Association meeting in Sheffield, I don’t know when, probably just after the war, he closed all the libraries so the Library Association people couldn’t see what they were like.

What’s the story here? What could the chief librarian, Samuel Smith, have been hiding from his professional colleagues? The anecdote comes from a former librarian looking back to the early 20th century, before he even started work in Sheffield.[i] You have to wonder if he was remembering accurately, whether the story gained in the telling and if there is any truth in it at all.    

In fact, as a little detective work reveals, it really happened, and it marked an unhappy time for Sheffield’s public library. It was in 1909, before rather than ‘just after the war’, that is, World War One. On Monday 7 June that year, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted in a report of ‘interesting items’ discussed at a meeting of the Council:

It is recommended that all branch libraries and reading-rooms close for cleaning, stock-taking, and staff holidays between July 1st and 16th, both dates inclusive. The Central and Reference Library will close from September 20th to 25th.

This seems straightforward. Who would object to a clean and orderly library? But when you realise that the dates for the Central and Reference Libraries did indeed coincide with a visit by the Library Association, for their 32nd national conference no less, you begin to wonder. After all, Sheffield had one of the oldest public libraries in England.[ii] The city was, moreover, responsible for the invitation to the librarians, and it greeted them with delight that September, going to no little trouble and expense on their behalf. You can read here about the glittering, white tie reception hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall, and there were other festivities. All this suggests considerable municipal pride in the ‘steel city’, reflected in extensive newspaper coverage. Take, for example, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 24 September 1909:

Sheffield’s Metropolitan Air. A Librarian’s Impressions

‘Are you satisfied with Sheffield’s welcome?’ Mr H R Tedder, the genial treasurer of the Library Association, was asked yesterday. ‘Satisfied?’ he reiterated, ‘No. that is not the word, but I should have to search the English language very extensively to find the right one. We have visited a good many towns, and one must not be invidious, but I can assure you that nowhere have we had a better reception than in Sheffield.’

He spoke in particularly high appreciation of the handsome scale on which the Lord Mayor’s reception was organised.

‘We have been extremely interested with our visits to manufactories,’ he said. ‘It is extremely educative for persons who have to deal with books to see our great national works, and discover that thought, poetry, philosophy, and everything that is elevating are not confined to books, but that there is plenty of thought, of poetry, of philosophy in business, and that just as noble and lofty qualifications are demanded in great commercial enterprises as in writers of books.’

Mr Tedder was particularly impressed by the character of the municipal life of Sheffield. ‘Londoners who live in a wilderness of bricks and mortar do not realise the great qualities of real municipal enterprise. It is true that London has now a number of boroughs, but it is in places like Sheffield that we really come face to face with municipal life.’

His opinions of the city’s public buildings do not accord with those of some local detractors. He was especially delighted with the Cutlers’ Hall. ‘It is as fine or finer place than any of the halls of the City companies in London. In Sheffield, too, you have quite a Metropolitan air.’  

It makes that week-long closure of the Central Library all the more incomprehensible.  

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

Incomprehensible until you know its condition at the time.[iii] Sheffield evidently felt that its pride, on national display, was at risk. The Central Library had been housed since 1856 in the former Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street (on the same site as today’s Central Library). The building, dating from 1832, was not designed as a library. Until 1896, when the new Town Hall was opened, the library service had been forced to share its premises with various council offices. At one time the council chamber had been located there, and the Mayor and the chief librarian had even shared an office, with the librarian presumably making himself scarce for important mayoral meetings.

By 1909, the Institute was too small even for its sole tenant, with the lending library particularly cramped. There was talk of rats. The building was in poor repair and dirty. What it housed was no better. The following summary of the review by Leeds’ chief librarian, Thomas Hands, undertaken for the Council some ten years later, gives a good idea of the problems becoming evident in 1909.[iv]

… book stocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind those which had proved to be necessary in other towns, that the only practical way of reforming the service was to start an entirely new system on modern lines. The recording of issues was archaic and cumbrous; a curious system of fine receipts, called forfeits, involving a considerable waste of staff time, was in operation, and what little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding. Thousands of books needed re-binding and many of those which had been bound had been chosen without reference to their condition or their suitability for further service. The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally. Outside lamps had not been cleaned for years, and the upper shelves in all the libraries were not merely dusty but in some cases were nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years.

The story was not all bad. Sheffield’s branch libraries – Burngreave, Highfield, Upperthorpe, Attercliffe, Park, Walkley and Hillsborough – were in relatively good order. With the exception of Hillsborough, a converted 18th century house, they were purpose-built, and Walkley, Park and Attercliffe were all less than 15 years old. In the Central Library, the reference and local history sections were thought to have good collections.     

Walkley’s Carnegie Library, opened in 1905

The evidence stacks up then. The Libraries Committee – led by Alderman W H Brittain, the President of the Library Association for 1909, assisted by the chief librarian, Samuel Smith – were laying plans as early as June to prevent the nation’s librarians inspecting what lay inside the Surrey Street buildings in September.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

We don’t know what the visitors thought about all this. There was a busy programme, with debates about cataloguing and the like held in the University of Sheffield’s Firth Hall and local visits, including to the great house at Wentworth Woodhouse. Mr Tedder, quoted above, didn’t mention libraries.

Perhaps he was being tactful. It was rather an open secret. On Tuesday 6 July, writing about the upcoming conference, the Sheffield Telegraph commented: ‘The city may have nothing to be proud of in the way of municipal libraries….’ By Saturday 28 August, with the conference less than a month away, the Independent noted a rather feeble excuse: ‘It may be mentioned that the Sheffield Central Library will be closed during the conference week, as the staff is to be in attendance at the University.’

A few days later, on 31 August, the Evening Telegraph reported the Council’s application to the Local Government Board to borrow almost £7,000 to buy the Music Hall next to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The plan was to use the hall as a temporary extension to the library and, in time, to build a new central library on the site. This smacks of desperation: the hall, built in 1823, was not remotely suitable, nor was it even very safe. It was just, well, next door. Under the sub-head ‘What Sheffielders Are Not Proud Of’, the Town Clerk, Mr R M Prescott was reported at length:

… the citizens of Sheffield were proud of their many public institutions. There was a strong municipal spirit in the Corporation and in the city, one evidence of which was the magnificent building in which they were then assembled [presumably the Town Hall]. They were proud of their University as a seat of learning. They were proud of their industries which had made the name of the city known all over the world. But when he came to the Central Library, their pride considerably abated, and he thought that Alderman Brittain … would not be particularly anxious to take the [Library Association] over Sheffield’s principal library building, nor would he be particularly proud in making any reference to it. The Central Library was absolutely deficient for library purposes for a great city such as this, and the building was altogether inadequate and inconvenient.

The Music Hall, used as part of the Central Library 1910-1934

The Library Association then never saw the Central Library in 1909, and Sheffield’s embarrassment was covered, more or less. Over the next few years, the situation worsened. While nationally more books were being borrowed, in Sheffield numbers fell. Criticism in the local press continued. By 1920, the pressure was intolerable. Samuel Smith gave notice and Thomas Hands was invited in, with the conclusions noted above. The Council hired a new chief librarian, Richard Gordon, and in turn he recruited a deputy, Joseph Lamb. Formidable, energetic and filled with the latest ideas, Gordon and Lamb turned Sheffield into one of the best public libraries in the country. One of their greatest achievements, begun by Gordon and finished by Lamb, was the city’s first, to date its only, purpose-built Central Library, opened in 1934. 

Sheffield Central Library today

This is the second of a short series of blogs about the Library Association conference held in Sheffield in 1909. Here is the first. With one exception, the invaluable British Newspaper Archive, the main sources are given in the endnotes below.


[i] The quotation is from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983), a copy of which is held in Sheffield Archives. If the copyright holder comes forward, we will happily acknowledge the source.

[ii] The legislation allowing councils to fund libraries was passed in 1850. Sheffield tried almost at once to open a library but there was opposition. Undaunted, campaigners tried again and Sheffield Libraries opened in February 1856, the first public library in Yorkshire and the eleventh in England.

[iii] How the library deteriorated, and why nothing was done for so many years, is a story for another time, although of course money is at the heart of it.

[iv] The quotation is from the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council) (p.29). Thomas Hands, the chief librarian of Leeds, undertook a review into Sheffield’s libraries in 1920 at the request of the Council. The decline he chronicled is generally understood to have set in around the turn of the century. A copy of the Hands report is held by Sheffield Archives. 

A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

On Monday 20 September 1909, Sheffield Council hosted a reception in the Town Hall to mark the annual conference of the Library Association, which was being held in the city for the first time.[i] For once my interest in library history coincides with my interest in clothes…

Both the Sheffield Independent and the Sheffield Telegraph covered the discussions at the conference in detail. They also found space for some gentle fun at the librarians’ expense, less gentle criticism of Sheffield’s own library service and, in the case of the Town Hall reception, extensive fashion notes.[ii]

The Independent’s feature on the reception is signed ‘By Our Lady Representative’. This was an anonymous byline frequently used in the newspaper between about 1895 and 1915, for reports of splendid balls, garden parties and other society events, meticulously recording the guests, gowns and jewels on display.

On this occasion Our Lady Representative set the scene, describing the Town Hall’s reception rooms:

Quite in keeping with their reputation for lavish hospitality was the reception given last night by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Ald and Mrs H K Stephenson) in honour of the visit to Sheffield of the Libraries’ Association [sic]. Our spacious civic reception rooms, garlanded with foliage and flowers, evoked much admiration from the visitors, who found much enjoyment in the admirable supper served in the Council Chamber and ante room…

Sheffield Town Hall - the main entrance today. Guests would have used it in 1909ld have
The main entrance to the Town Hall today. Guests would have come in this way in 1909

The Telegraph agreed. The ‘stately entertaining rooms at the Town Hall [had] never been more beautifully decorated’. It went on:

supper was served in the Council Chamber and ante-room from nine o’clock onwards, and there was also a buffet supper in the drawing-room on the grand corridor.

The grand staircase up to the reception rooms (By Michael Beckwith. Public domain)

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

… the entertaining programme of songs by Miss Nina Gordon and the sleight of hand exhibitions by Dr Byrd-Page … Miss Nina Gordon is an artiste very much after the style of the famous Margaret Cooper, and the selections from her varied repertoire were keenly appreciated. So too, were the clever tricks of Dr Byrd-Page … The band of the 3rd West Riding Brigade Royal Field Artillery played during the reception. (Independent)

Miss Gordon specialised in humorous songs and sketches and Dr Byrd-Page was a ‘prestidigitateur’ or Illusionist. They both feature often on theatre bills of the period, and claimed royal patronage. By 1912 Dr Byrd-Page declared ‘the honour of appearing before His late Majesty King Edward VII on no less than seventeen occasions; and frequently before His Most Gracious Majesty King George V’.[iii] The Sheffield Telegraph described Miss Gordon as ‘Queen Mary’s Favourite Entertainer’ and an ‘exceedingly versatile artiste’.[iv]

In Sheffield Town Hall, their audience included industrialists, civic dignitaries and academics from the University of Sheffield. The Lord Mayor, the Town Clerk, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Master Cutler and the Mayor and Town Clerk of Rotherham led the way, and notable Sheffield names, such as Mappin, Vickers, Bingham, Hadfield and Harrison, were all represented. The Library Association was led by its President for 1909, Sheffield’s own Alderman William Brittain, who, according to the Telegraph of 21 September, was ‘identified more than any other gentleman in Sheffield with the development of museums and libraries’; and by prominent librarians like Stanley Jast, later chief librarian in Manchester and Croydon, and Sheffield’s own chief librarian, Samuel Smith.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

As might be expected in 1909, all the illustrious guests, including the librarians, were men, but their wives, daughters and sisters were present too. It is here that Our Lady Representative comes into her own. Consider the Lord Mayor’s family:

… the Lady Mayoress wearing her chain of office disposed about the corsage of an artistic evening gown of chartreuse green satin, her jewels including a diamond tiara and a diamond pendant of great beauty. Mrs Blake (mother of the Lady Mayoress), in a handsome black toilette sparkling with jet, brought Miss Blake and Miss Esther Blake, both wearing beautiful frocks of rainbow effect, the former expressed in pale blue chiffon over white satin with broad opalescent embroideries, and the other in mauve tinted chiffon en tunique and weighted down the left side with a band of nacre sequins. Mrs R G Blake’s black satin toilette looked well with a corsage bouquet of La France roses; and Mrs Philip Blake was a pretty young matron in a tunic dress of palest mauve ninon done with a broad Greek key embroidery. (Independent)

The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that the Mayoress of Rotherham, Mrs Dan Mullins, wore a ‘heliotrope satin gown, enriched with embroideries’. (Judging by the number of times heliotrope and its near relation, mauve, are mentioned in the coverage, they must have been among that season’s colours.)

And there was:  

Mrs Brittain, whose gown of pewter grey satin was wrought with embroideries of blister pearls, her jewels being diamonds [and her daughters] Miss Winifred Brittain wearing emerald green chiffon and gold embroideries, and Mrs Hubert Rowlands attired in white satin with pendant earrings of amethysts. (Independent)

… Mrs George Franklin, wearing superb diamonds with a Parma violet toilette … Mrs Wilson Mappin, in grey brocade and diamonds … Mr and Mrs Tom Mappin, the lady in black satin with sleeves of thick black silk embroidery sewn with jet and slit up the outer side of the arms. Only two ladies had adopted the new turban coiffure. Mrs A J Gainsford, who had hers finished with a twist of white tulle, and wore a salmon pink bengaline gown, and Mrs Cyril Lockwood, whose hair was dressed with a plait, her black satin frock being enriched about the corsage with gold embroideries. (Independent)

Mrs H H Bedford chose lemon yellow satin … Miss Frost was in pale blue spotted silk; Miss Armine Sandford had a white satin gown; Mrs J R Wheatley in petunia silk applique, with cream lace motifs, had some lovely diamond ornaments … (Telegraph)

The Library Association was not to be outdone. Women librarians and the wives of the male librarians, said Our Lady Representative, ‘dispelled the illusion that a close association with books is incompatible with smart dressing’. (Just how old is the idea that librarians are uninterested in clothes?)

Miss Frost, of Worthing, who had a princess gown of pale blue satin veiled in a tunic overdress of dewdrop white chiffon fringed with silver. Mrs Wright (Plymouth) was much admired in a yellow evening frock; Mrs Kirkby (Leicester) wore white lace; and Mrs Ashton came in crocus mauve ninon de soie. Mrs Jast (Croydon) in a black toilette sparkling with jet … Mrs Chennell was wearing black chiffon; and Mrs Tickhill’s black lace gown veiled a white taffetas underslip. Mrs Samuel Smith (wife of the Chief Librarian of Sheffield) had a gown of palest pink silk, and her sister, Miss Flint, was in black, the jet bretelles being super-imposed on a fold of palest yellow velvet. Mrs Jones (Runcorn) and Mrs Singleton (Accrington) both appeared in black evening toilettes; Mrs Wilkinson (Rawtenstall) wore white silk; Mrs Bagguley (Swindon) was in sapphire blue poplin; and Mrs Pomfret (Darwen) came in old rose crepe de chine, Mrs Dowbiggin (Lancaster) wearing bright pink silk striped with white dots. (Independent)

Unfortunately, there are very few images of all this splendour. The Telegraph published the photograph shown above of Alderman Brittain with Library Association colleagues, taken during the conference, and we have the line drawings below, all of the men in their white tie and tails, and with their fine Edwardian moustaches and beards. For the women’s colourful toilettes, we have only word pictures. We have to use our imaginations to see the Lady Mayoress:

very dainty in reseda green satin, with loose hanging sleeves of cream Limerick lace, caught with cords of gold’ and wearing a diamond tiara and pendant and her chain of office. (Telegraph).

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

Perhaps words are enough to convey the fashionable, affluent and confident elite of Sheffield that September evening in 1909. There were certainly problems locally, including poverty, slum accommodation and an over-dependence on a few, linked industries, but there was progress of which to be proud. To the world Sheffield was synonymous with steel, a place of industrial innovation and invention. Its population was growing and its suburbs spreading. It had been granted city status as recently as 1893 and within a few years it would be the fifth city in Great Britain, outstripping its great rival, Leeds. The grand Town Hall of the evening’s festivities had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1897 and in 1905 her son Edward VII had granted the University of Sheffield charter.

We know that within five years war would bring considerable change to Sheffield, with lasting consequences, but in 1909 the city could enjoy the opportunity afforded by events like the Library Association conference to show itself off and to earn the admiration of others.   

PS. Although there are no images of the women at the reception, here are a few fashion plates from the newspapers of the period, to help conjure the event.

This is the first of several pieces we plan to publish about the 1909 Library Association conference in Sheffield.


[i] The Library Association was founded in 1877 as the professional body for librarians in the UK. It was awarded a Royal Charter in 1898. It exists today as CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, having merged in 2002 with the Institute of Information Scientists.

[ii] Both the Telegraph and the Independent covered the reception on Tuesday 21 September 1909.

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

Dickens Comes to Sheffield

In the spring of 1936 Sheffield Libraries mounted an exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’ in the Central Library, to mark the centenary of Charles Dickens’ novel, The Pickwick Papers. The celebrations, wrote the Sheffield Independent enthusiastically, ‘touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement’.

The Central Library, only a couple of years old, had been designed with space for exhibitions and displays, in contrast to the previous buildings, and the chief librarian, J P Lamb, took advantage of this over the years.

The Pickwick Papers – Pickwick at the slide, by Hablot Knight Browne (better known as Phiz) (public domain)

Our reader Jessie (b. 1906) was a great fan of Charles Dickens, whose novels she came to through her job as a cleaner for the vicar of St John’s Park in Sheffield in the 1920s. Seventy years later, she recalled that her employer:

… had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and [the housekeeper] had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

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.

Although we cannot know if she saw it, no doubt Jessie would have been interested in Sheffield Libraries’ exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’. It was one of many events around the country marking the centenary. Pickwick, Dickens’ first novel, had been an immediate success, and remained very popular.  

The press around the country also made much of the centenary. The Sheffield Independent, for example, covered it several times. On Tuesday 24 March 1936, its columnist, ‘Big Ben’, wrote about events organised by the Dickens Fellowship in London:

On Friday next the Pickwick Centenary celebrations begin in real earnest when, at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, there will be a reception of delegates from 76 branches of the Dickens Fellowship. On the following morning the annual conference will be held. Meanwhile, rehearsals are being held daily in connection with the centenary matinee which is to take place at the London Palladium tomorrow week. …

Sir Ben Greet’s company is playing a portion of the version of Bleak House … and, of course, Mr Bransby Williams will make some appearances, first as Mr Pickwick himself, then as Charles Dickens …

On Sunday evening next a special centenary service will be held in Westminster Abbey, and on Monday the original Pickwick coach will leave Charing Cross for Rochester, driven by Mr Bertram Mills.

After the matinee tomorrow week a banquet will be held at Grosvenor House, when Sir John Martin Harvey will propose the immortal memory.[i]

The Sheffield branch of the Dickens Fellowship held its own celebration, a ‘Pickwick supper’, on Saturday 21 March. The Independent reported on the following Monday that over 70 Fellowship members ‘enjoyed hearty 19th century fare’ at Stephenson’s Restaurant in Castle Street. The meal was followed by a ‘musical evening provided on Dickensian lines’ including a contribution from ‘sweet-voiced Jimmie Fletcher, Sheffield’s own famous boy vocalist.[ii]

The Independent continued its coverage the next Wednesday, 25 March, in Big Ben’s ‘Talk of London’ column, reminding readers of Dickens’ visit to Sheffield in 1852.[iii] Dickens gave many public readings of his novels and also acted in plays. Big Ben reported seeing, in a display in a London bookshop, a playbill for a ‘performance by the Guild of Literature and Art’ at the ‘Music Hall, Sheffield’, on Surrey Street. The cast included: Dickens himself; fellow author Wilkie Collins; Mark Lemon, the founding editor of Punch and The Field; and John Tenniel, who would later illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It must have been a busy evening for all concerned, for it was one of those three-decker shows which were so popular a century ago. And as Dickens figures as the manager and the producer of all three, as part author of one, and a player in all three it would appear that he loomed nearly as large in that night’s entertainment as Charlie Chaplin does in Modern Times. …

I wonder if the Sheffielders of that day realised how honoured they were in having such famous writers on the stage of the music hall.  

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

The exhibition in the Central Library was described in the Independent on 23 March.  

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

To celebrate the Pickwick Centenary, the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) has arranged a special exhibition of Dickensiana in the Central Library, Surrey street.

A valuable collection of rare books has been assembled, including many first editions, and several with bibliographical peculiarities of singular interest.

Some of the books belong to the Central Reference Library, but the main part of the display has been lent by Mr. W. Slinn, whose fame as a bookbinder extends much further than Sheffield.

Sheffield Readings

Considerable interest is also attached to a water-colour of Dickens (lent by Mr. Daniel Evans), giving one of his famous readings at St. James’s Hall, London, in 1870. A few of our older readers may remember his visits to the old Music Hall in Surrey street, which was later used as a Central Lending Library until its demolition in 1932.

In any Dickens exhibition pride of place is generally given to the Pickwick Papers. To-day it is still one of the most popular books.

The exhibition can show you a copy of the first edition printed in volume form. Other editions on show include Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and the first octavo edition of Oliver Twist.

The exhibition begins to-day and will continue for a few weeks.

Later, on Thursday 26 March, Big Ben reported that the City Librarian, J P Lamb (never one to miss an opportunity for publicising the library), had rung to tell him that:

another copy of the playbill and a smaller bill are on view at the exhibition of Dickensiana at the Central Library in honour of the Pickwick Centenary, [along with] an actual ticket of admission to the show mentioned.

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

Music Hall, Sheffield, The Amateur Company of the Guild of Literature and Art ... will have the honour of performing for the twenty-first time, a new comedy ... Not So Bad As We Seem or, Many Sides to a Character
The playbill, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10454)
Specially designed admission cards to a performance which was given in the Music Hall, Sheffield, under the management of Charles Dickens
One of the ‘tickets of admission’, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10459)

As my colleague Mary Grover pointed out in her account of Jessie’s reading, Dickens, always popular, had a rather less secure literary reputation in the early 20th century than he does now. Big Ben for one, however, had no doubts. In his last column on the centenary, on Monday 30 March, he wrote:

The Pickwick Centenary celebrations this week touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement. Nothing new in literature, no new fashions or coteries can affect the universal popularity of Pickwick. If only some of the intellectual snobs and pseudo-intellectual cynics could produce anything with a hundredth part of the vitality, humanity and humour which characterised the art of Charles Dickens we could forgive them much of their pretentious nonsense.

Think of the gallery of rich characters, of the kindly satire, of the human understanding that this man produced. Mr. Pickwick was always surprised by the perversity of the world and by the assaults it made on his ingeniousness. He was – he is – so English. He has lived long. He will go on living. This centenary will give him new vitality and will do our hearts a power of good at a time in our history and in the history the world when so much is being done that Pickwick could never have understood and would certainly have hated.

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


[i] Bransby Williams (1870 – 1961) and Sir John Martin-Hervey (1863 – 1944) were actors who had considerable success interpreting Dickens. Sir Ben Greet (1857-1936) was an actor-manager well-known for his touring Shakespearian productions.

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

[iii] Dickens is known to have visited Sheffield four times, in 1852 to act and in 1853, 1858 and 1869 to give readings. He may also have visited in 1839, to report on local Chartist meetings, but there is no definitive evidence of this.

Lockdown reading

By Poppy Hart

Poppy, who is 11 years old and lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger. Like many others these days, she’s thinking about her lockdown reading.

My book review is about the book A Pinch Of Magic, or as it says in full on the cover, Three Sisters, A Family Curse and A Pinch of Magic, written by Michelle Harrison.

This book is based around a family who (years before) had been put under a curse. The curse meant that if they left their town they would die by sunset. The main character (Betty) and her sisters are determined to undo the curse.

Personally, I like the main character Betty because she is adventurous, daring and mischievous!

Some parts of the book I find very puzzling and scary! Puzzling because I didn’t know how it was possible that they would break the curse, and scary because sunset was coming near which would cause their death!

My favourite part of the book was when Betty finally found her sisters, after they had been taken, by risking her own life as well.

The reason I wanted to carry on the book was because I had no idea how it was going to end. Also, this is a book that is hard to stop reading.

A book I would recommend is Why The Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. I would recommend this because it’s a short, interesting book set during the war.

I normally prefer to only read a book once but one I have read more than once is Katy by Jacqueline Wilson, because at points in the book it’s telling you the perspective of somebody in a wheelchair. It’s saying that when you’re in a wheelchair, everyone stares at you and treats you differently, which is something I find interesting.

Personally, a place I specially like to read is either in my bed. or in the garden on a nice sunny day! I read in my bed because I find it comfortable and gets me ready for a good night’s sleep. I like to read in the garden because it’s nice and relaxing with the sun shining above you.

The books along the way…

By Lily

Lily, who lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.

During lockdown I have been enjoying the Harry Potter books very much. They are very intriguing and I can’t get to sleep until about 10pm because I can’t put them down. I am currently reading the sixth book and there have been lots of interesting things that have happened along the way. I like Ron because he is funny and gets in the way, not knowing what is going on around him. I don’t like Luna because she is very strange and doesn’t play a big part in the books.

I also like the Famous Five books written by Enid Blyton. They are great tales of four children and a dog called Timmy and together they find criminals and solve mysteries. My favourite character is Anne because she makes me feel like myself. I don’t like Julian because he is too serious. I recommend you read them, because something new happens every time. There are 21 books in the series and all of them are amazing, I would really recommend them. They are old books but still great reads.

Another author I like is David Walliams. He has a really good collection of funny stories with incredible illustrations by Tony Ross. Some of my favourites are The Ice Monster, Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great Escape, but all of them are really good. David Walliams is really good at writing about how children and adults interact, and the characters are great. Lots of his books have been turned into films.

One book I often go back to is The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig. It’s about a pixie who is cursed to tell the truth which stops her getting any friends. In the end she finds a little girl who loves her and wants to keep her for who she is. I like to read it when I am scared or upset as it is comforting and stops me having nightmares.

Sometimes I enjoy to read fact books. At the moment I have been reading the Great Women books by Kate Pankhurst. She is the great-grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who I also enjoy reading about – I have a book called Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, by David Roberts, that I really enjoy reading. I got Greta Thunberg’s book for Christmas and it is great. Inside are all her speeches which are worth a look at. Me and my family also love the See Inside series of fact books. They are lift-the-flap books with hidden facts and there are lots of different ones, we’ve got Castles, Space and General Knowledge.

In lockdown I’ve been reading in the garden because it has been warm and sunny. I also read in bed where it is cosy and warm. I am looking forward to the libraries reopening so I can get some new reads.

The top of the attic stairs

By Mabel

We usually record the reading journeys of Sheffielders born in the first half of the 20th century. But we enjoy hearing from anyone who loves books. Here is our latest guest blogger, Mabel, born in the 21st century, talking about what she reads.

At the moment I’m reading The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about a girl who goes to boarding school because of the war and joins a folk dancing class which goes to a competition in the kingdom of Bergania. But when they get there the king is shot and the girl rescues the orphaned prince from going to Colditz.

My favourite character is Tally because she is funny, brave and exciting. The book is sad because it’s set in the war so people die but it has a happy ending. It’s also quite mysterious because you don’t know who is the mother of Julia, another student at Tally’s school. My favourite bit is when they go to the dragonfly pool – it sounds beautiful – I’d like to go there. I need to keep reading the book because the prince has been taken away and I need to see if he comes back.

I would recommend The Dragonfly Pool to people who like adventure and suspense. Other books I would recommend are:

  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke – for a person who likes books, magical creatures and adventure
  • The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – for someone who likes mystery, horses and happy endings!

I love to read all my books again and again because they feel like old friends and they’re still exciting even though I know what’s going to happen. The place I most like to read is the top of the attic stairs because it’s light and I’m not disturbed, unless Mum comes up to tell me not to sit on the stairs!

‘Young woman, 22, not a reader, joins library’

As we practise social distancing and self-isolation for COVID-19, we may well be reading more. At home we have old favourites worthy of another look, ‘to-be-read’ piles and perhaps library books we had on loan before lockdown. As we roam through online catalogues, bookshops both new and second-hand are valiantly posting orders and e-readers downloading titles. Public libraries may have closed their wooden doors, but their digital portals are open wide for the borrowing of e-books, magazines and newspapers, and research libraries are making their content more widely available.

All this set me to wondering how the last great national and international emergency, World War II, affected people’s reading habits. Here’s what happened in Sheffield.  

A young woman of 22 had recently joined the public library, said the Telegraph, in its Sheffield Woman’s Diary column, on Wednesday 20 December 1939. She told the library staff that ‘until the outbreak of war she had never read a book since leaving school at the age of 14’. Now she was ‘reading at least two books a week’. The woman was one of 30 to 50 enrolments a day between September and December 1939, reported City Librarian J P Lamb.

People sought out the public library because they wanted to stay safe and to avoid boredom. They were also trying to understand what was happening and why. And it has to be said that there were fewer resources in the home: for many people, one wireless shared by all the family, very few televisions with limited programming and absolutely no internet-enabled smartphones or laptops to divert you.

When war broke out in 1939, everyone expected heavy air raids and public entertainment was curtailed accordingly. (In fact, there was little activity in what became known as the ‘Phoney War’, from September 1939 to April 1940.) The local library offered distraction, comfort and information. Even though opening hours were reduced, from ten to nine hours a day in Sheffield (just imagine!), suburban libraries in particular were seen as safe. The council responded to this, opening by February 1940 a new branch library, in Totley, and twelve part-time ‘library centres’ in areas without branches, like Crosspool.

The original Totley Library building, now a hairdressing salon

The city was fortunate that its libraries came through the war relatively undamaged. Even during the Sheffield Blitz raids of December 1940, only one library centre, the Manor, was destroyed, with the loss of 300 books. The rest sustained minor damage. The Central Library, ‘bracketed in lines of flames from the Moor and High Street’ according to the 1939-47 Sheffield Libraries report, escaped too. (More or less. If you look down the next time you walk across the entrance lobby, you will see, running almost the whole width, the crack caused by bomb blast.)   

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield (public domain)

There was, J P Lamb noted, a falling off in borrowing in the first week of war – ‘less than two-thirds the normal daily average’ – but this was temporary. Even as people settled to war, and dances and the like started up again, borrowing rose. By November 1939, the number of books issued was 59,332, only 417 fewer than in November 1938, and the trend upwards continued.

What were all these people borrowing?

Borrowing in Sheffield’s Central Lending Library
(image courtesy of Picture Sheffield, ref no s06725)

Both fiction and non-fiction were popular. The Telegraph said that ‘the war has caused such a rush on non-fiction books at the Central Library that some stocks have had to be heavily duplicated’. As books wore out, replacing them was hard and costly, because of paper shortages and the destruction of publishers’ stocks in London’s air-raids. Sheffield was fortunate that its far-sighted City Librarian had early on bought a vast amount of fiction – enough for all the new library centres and a 40,000 reserve – at nominal prices from publishers keen to empty their warehouses.

Readers continued to probe the causes of the war. ‘Since September, 1938,’ the Telegraph said, ‘there has been a great demand for books on world affairs.’ German, Czech, Polish and Finnish histories were borrowed. First-hand accounts of the rise of Nazism, such as Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed and Reaching for the Stars (1939) by Nora Waln, were also much requested, as was Mein Kampf. (The 1939-47 library report also noted as popular in wartime: One Pair of Feet (1942) by Monica Dickens, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940), Trevelyan’s English Social History (1944) and Madame Curie (1937) by Eve Curie.)

Some readers were already looking ahead. ‘Among readers studying theories for a new and better Europe an exceptional number of requests have been made for Streit’s Union Now.’ Clarence Streit was an American journalist covering the League of Nations. Disturbed by nationalism, he proposed in his 1938 book a federation of the leading democracies and economies, including the USA, Australia and Scandinavian countries. From about 1944, readers’ minds turned to the practical and the future, asking for ‘back to the land’ books like Thomas Firbank’s I Bought a Mountain (1940) and material on, for example, food production.

In 1939, people were thinking about the war effort. The Council approved the borrowing of books from the Reference Libraries.

On National Service it has been necessary to duplicate books dealing with all forms of national service. Books are wanted on the Navy, Army, Air Force, first aid, fire fighting, and balloon barrage work. Men who are training for semi-skilled positions in the armament factories have made requests for books dealing with their subjects.

Young people, it was said, were ‘trying to continue their studies in spite of difficulties’, bringing their reading lists to libraries. Children who were not evacuated, or who returned, were thought safest in the home. Schools were closed and arrangements made for tuition in small groups in private houses, church halls etc. Junior libraries were therefore closed between September 1939 and November 1940. Children’s books were moved into the adult libraries and local education centres, the idea being that parents could borrow for their offspring.

Children playing in wartime (public domain)

Making your own entertainment at home was the norm. Readers ‘are asking for and reserving books from the Books for the Home Front pamphlets’. These guides were produced by Sheffield Libraries on a variety of subjects from history to handicrafts.

When a check was made recently it was found that out of 47 books on card games only 10 were available. There were five books out of 21 on fireside fun and only 19 on vegetable gardening out of 95. It was also found that only four books on Bridge were available out of a total of 34, three on party games out of 17, two on billiards out of 9, three on chess out of 54, and six on dancing out of 35.

Finally, there was escape in the form of fiction. ‘It was recently found that 11 out of every 12 volumes on the Central Library stock were in the hands of borrowers.’ Classics were popular:

… the libraries’ 10 copies of [Lorna] Doone were all on issue, also the full stock (six copies) of Adam Bede and the eight copies of The Cloister and the Hearth. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are in great demand. Of the stock of 89 Dickens books 18 were out. Five out of 205 Galsworthy books were out.

Illustration from Lorna Doone

The Telegraph says nothing about light fiction, but it must also have been widely available. At this time, public libraries were often wary of the entertaining, leaving it to the commercial tuppenny libraries on many street corners. But, while promoting cultural standards in general, J P Lamb had championed the popular for years, on the grounds that it drew people in. He had the vast, cheaply-acquired stock mentioned above, and we know from one of his staff that he was ‘buying forty copies of the latest Edgar Wallace’ for the Central Lending Library. According to the Sheffield Libraries report for 1939-47, the most popular fiction books over the war were: Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936), The Stars Look Down (A J Cronin, 1935), How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn, 1939), The Rains Came (Louis Bromfield, 1937), All This and Heaven Too (Rachel Field, 1938) and War and Peace (Tolstoy, 1869). All, apart from War and Peace, were also popular films of the period.

Scene from Gone with the Wind
Scene from How Green was my Valley
Scene from The Rains Came

How many of the books mentioned above are still read today?

After the war, Lamb concluded in his official report that Sheffield’s ‘reading throughout the war did not differ to any marked extent from that of previous years’.[ix] Fred Hutchings, his deputy in the early war years, took a different view in a paper for the 1952 Library Association annual conference :

… war became a release spring, taking the compression from dull lives and making people think beyond their narrow corners into the world around them.

Whichever view you favour, know that, in 1945-46, Sheffield broke all records, with 3.75 million books issued. What will be the effect of COVID-19 when we look back on 2020, the year Sheffield Libraries had designated their Year of Reading?

Here is Sheffield Libraries’ e-library. If you want to read more about the libraries in wartime, try Crisis Reading and In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th. To learn about the wartime reading of our interviewees, Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War, is a paper by Mary Grover and Val Hewson, read by Mary at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary in September 2019.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from A Sheffield Woman’s Diary, by Margaret Simpson, Sheffield Telegraph and Independent, Wednesday 20 December 1939.