On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

Hints and Wrinkles – and More

…then when my mother-in-law died, we’d only been married a year, I found a cookbook and I kept that. And my daughter rang and she said, have you still got that recipe for Granny’s … I’ve forgotten the name. Well, I had to hunt for it but I found the nearest one I could. I went through loads of cookbooks. And she said, oh, yes, I managed, ‘cos Granny Gomer’s was half an egg, ‘cos it was a wartime one you see. (Margaret G, b. 1924)

Mother, really, she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading. (Jean Mercer, b. 1925)

I wasn’t planning to return to books about running a home, like the Hints and Wrinkles volume given away by the Daily Herald in 1939. But since the original post, I’ve come across more domestic volumes on Sheffield’s bookshelves. Some have been bought new or second-hand, for interest, while others were given as presents to young people leaving home, and others still have been passed down in families, as the memories from our readers show. Firmly rooted in their own time, these domestic books show better than many how everyday life changes. Attitudes, habits and aspirations are all visible through them.

Here are a few, drawn at random, from the collection of one friend.

Starting with the more recent, we find cookery books by Jamie (Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2014) and Delia (BBC, 1995), Jane Grigson (Penguin, 1974) and Rose Elliott (Fontana, 1983). Delia and Jamie are celebrity cooks who can set the fashion. Rose Elliot, who published her first book in 1967, is perhaps the first popular vegetarian cookery writer, well remembered by me at least from student days. And Jane Grigson was not only a highly respected cook but also a prose stylist:

The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. No wonder it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac. It had no place in the troll’s world of instant gratification. It makes no appeal to the meat-and-two-veg mentality.

Food and related businesses have long sponsored domestic advice as part of their marketing. Sainsbury published a handsome, apron-pocket-sized cookery series in the 1980s. This one, from in 1985, was written by Anne Willan, the English founder of the French La Varenne cookery school.

And there’s the Radiation New World Cookery Book, published by the manufacturers to teach people how to use their gas stoves. It first appeared in 1927, but had staying power. This updated edition is from 1963.

Here is New World’s recipe for Savoy Pudding. (Does anyone still eat this?)

Regulo Mark 5

Time: Pudding – 30 minutes, Meringue – 20 minutes

Short crust pastry, using 6oz flour. 2 oz butter or margarine. 2oz caster sugar. Whites of 2 eggs. Yolks of 2 eggs. 3 oz sponge cake crumbs. 1/3 pint milk. 2 oz chopped candied peel. Ratafia essence. 1 tablespoonful caster sugar.

Method: Line a greased pie-dish with the pastry and decorate the edges according to taste. Cream the fat and sugar together, beat in the egg yolks and cake crumbs and add the milk gradually with the chopped peel and ratafia essence. Put this into the prepared dish and bake for 30 minutes with the Regulo set at Mark 5. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, fold in 1 tablespoonful caster sugar and pile it onto the pudding. Put on the bottom of the oven for 20 minutes to set and brown the meringue.

This is the recipe for the same pudding from Cassell’s Shilling Cookery Book (1903 edition). (Puddings were clearly important at the turn of the 20th century. Cassell provides 74 pages of them.)

Rub six ounces of stale savoy cake to crumbs, and pour upon these a quarter of a pint of boiling milk. Let them soak for half an hour, then beat the mixture with a fork until smooth, and add four ounces of fresh butter, four ounces of finely-shred candied peel, the well-beaten yolks of four eggs, two tablespoonfuls of sugar, and two tablespoonfuls of brandy. Beat the mixture for some minutes, put it into a cool place for an hour, and beat it up again. Put it into a buttered dish and bake in a brisk oven. Whisk the whites of the eggs till firm, sweeten them and flavour them pleasantly. Put them on the pudding, and place this in the oven a few minutes longer, but do not let it get brown. When the eggs are set the pudding is ready for serving. Time to bake the pudding, half an hour. Sufficient for four or five persons.

The results must be similar, but the 1903 pudding looks much richer, and the instructions are less precise. Just how hot is a ‘brisk oven’ and how do you flavour something ‘pleasantly’?[1]

The Shilling Cookery Book was first published in 1888, compiled by Arthur Gay Payne who, unusually, combined cookery writing and sports journalism. It was one of a modestly-priced series, aimed perhaps at the lower middle or skilled working classes. Loath to miss any opportunities, Cassell used its pages to advertise:

  • their other publications such as their Home Handbooks (which, interestingly for 1903, includes Vegetarian Cookery) and the ‘Famous Sixpenny Novels’, with once popular, now largely forgotten authors like E W Hornung, Anthony Hope, Warwick Deeping and Marie Connor Leighton
  • food and related products. My favourites are Bongola tea, which ‘has no equal’, and Lemco, ‘pure beef – the primest beef the world produces’.

Our next books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book (Dent & Sons, 1956) and Mrs Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management (Ward, Lock & Co, 1960 edition) are by the great authorities of their day.

Constance Spry (1886-1960), who has rather faded from notice today, was renowned for her flower arrangements (she ‘did’ the Coronation and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). She also ran a very successful domestic science school at Winkfield Place, Berkshire. Her cookery book is comprehensive, but am I alone in finding the illustration above too garish?

Mrs Beeton (1836-1865) died young but is still remembered. ‘I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it,’ she writes in the first edition (1861). A hundred years later, her book has been updated and includes modern colour schemes and a fish dish to make you blench.

Here, in case anyone is still wearing them, is Mrs Beeton’s advice on caring for corsets and girdles:

These should be washed as often as other ‘next the skin’ garments. Washing should be done quickly in cool suds, rubbing any very dirty parts with a soft nail brush. Several rinses should be given, and the garments should then be squeezed gently between the folds of a towel to remove surplus moisture. They should be dried in a cool airy place away from any direct heat.

Finally, there is Elizabeth Craig’s Needlecraft (Collins, 1941). Craig (1883-1980) was a Scottish home economist and journalist. Her main interest was cookery and she produced many recipe books in a career lasting over 60 years. She also wrote about housekeeping, gardening and needlework. From 1937, Collins published the various volumes of her Household Library: Cookery, Housekeeping, Gardening, 1,000 Household Hints and Needlecraft. These books were promoted as ‘An Extra Pair of hands, always ready’: and are a forerunner of the Daily Herald’s Home Library. Needlework is full of useful projects like covering a wicker storage basket for a nursery and making your own lingerie.

Nine books written and updated over about 150 years. Between them, they reflect the changing priorities and expectations of our society, particularly of course as they affect the lives of women.

 

[1] The owner of the books thinks a brisk oven is about 200° and suggests orange or lemon rind to taste for ‘pleasant’ flavouring. She also wonders if the pastry in the New World recipe is baked blind.

Sheffield Reading History: Unitarians, Book Societies and some Extraordinary Women

A talk by Sue Roe and Loveday Herridge

Reading Sheffield members Sue Roe and Loveday Herridge gave a talk on 9 September as part of the Heritage Open Days (HODs) Festival 2018. You can read the talk, in two parts, here.

Loveday and Sue have researched the history of Sheffield’s first libraries for Reading Sheffield. The focus of their talk was four book organisations which flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the Sheffield Subscription Library, the Vestry Library, the Sheffield Book Society and the Sheffield Book Club.

Nofolk Street today – Upper Chapel

The venue – the Unitarian Upper Chapel in Norfolk Street – was a perfect choice. Unitarians had long held education and reading in high regard for both men and women, and there were strong connections between the Chapel’s ministers and congregations and the various book groups.

Upper Chapel, Sheffield

Loveday and Sue looked at the origins of the four organisations, their membership, their choice of books and the roles they played in Sheffield. Picking up the HODs theme for 2018, Extraordinary Women, they explored in particular the lives and work of well-known female Unitarian writers, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Elizabeth Gaskell, whose books were bought by the libraries.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Elizabeth Gaskell

Sue’s and Loveday’s extensive research is published in Before the Public Library: Reading, Community, and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850, edited by Mark Towsey, University of Liverpool, and Kyle B. Roberts, Loyola University Chicago (Leiden, Brill, 2017). The book, with contributions from eighteen experts, explores the emergence of community-based lending libraries in the Atlantic World in the two centuries before the public library movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

Before the Public Library

John D’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

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

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

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

The Palace, Attercliffe (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

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

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

Attercliffe Library (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(reproduced under fair use)

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

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

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

Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War

On 21 September 2018, Reading Sheffield’s chair, Mary Grover, gave a paper by her and Val Hewson at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Here is a summary of the paper, which you can read in full on our Research page.

 

The war impinged on the reading experiences of our interviewees in ways that often seem contradictory.

Access to books generally was limited by paper shortages, the lack of funds to buy new books, petrol rationing and the scarcity of new titles. In Sheffield too, children faced an extra barrier when, as a safety measure, the Council closed their libraries and moved the junior stock to suburban centres. Those away from home on active service were often forced to rely on the limited choice available through the NAAFI, described by our interviewee Peter as ‘all sorts of, what shall we say, blue books and very blue books’.

But in many ways the war enabled access to books previously unexplored and above all, sharpened intellectual curiosity as readers sought to understand the world that was breaking in upon them.

Take the case of Mary, aged 18 when the war started. Her record of all the books she read between 1936 and 1942 allows us to map both the transition from teenage to adult reading but also from reading for pleasure to a wider reading, often shaped by war. In 1936 and 1937, Mary indulged in P. G. Wodehouse, Beverley Nichols, Ian Hay and Edgar Wallace. By 1939, like many others, she is clearly reading to inform herself about the world beyond Sheffield and the war. Non-fiction like Deslisle Burns’ Democracy, its defects and advantages (1929) dominates her list.

For Mary and indeed most of our readers the quality and availability of public libraries were critical to their access to books. It was their good fortune that Sheffield Libraries were then in the guardianship of a remarkably gifted librarian. In wartime Joseph Lamb oversaw the opening of one branch library and 12 suburban ‘library centres’, and was able to acquire publishers’ stocks at nominal prices. His libraries supported not only the serious interest of borrowers like Mary in the war and the world beyond, but also the general need of Sheffield’s residents for distraction and entertainment in the home, with novels like Gone with the Wind and special guides on handicrafts and games. By the end of the war borrowing had risen to unprecedented heights.

The war seems to have isolated our readers but simultaneously to have increased their passion for books and the value they set upon their reading. As our reader Judith said:

I remember running up Eyre Street with Sheila Thompson so she could join the library. They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name … and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were.

Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Hints and Wrinkles (1939)

In Domestic Goddess, 1930s Style, I wrote about housewives of the 1920s and ‘30s, based on a snippet in Sheffield Libraries’ magazine about books on domestic management. This week, I bought one such book from a charity shop in Broomhill, Sheffield for 99p, so it seems a good time to revisit the topic.

The Book of Hints and Wrinkles is the sort of book that a mother or aunt might have given, in the Thirties or Forties, to a young woman getting married and setting up a home. You can imagine turning to it rather gratefully, as its 300+ closely-printed pages and many clear illustrations cover everything from budgeting and taxes, through laundry, to unblocking drains. How to arrange your kitchen? Pages 165 to 168, with handy floorplans. The right way to iron? Page 126. Mange in pets? (Both types.) Page 283. And of course a long section on having babies and bringing up children. The title is self-deprecating, given how much information is included.

Here is the recommended daily routine for looking after a three-room flat and a year-old baby (and there are more pages reproduced below):

6.45 am Lift and give orange-juice to baby; get tea for self and husband.
7.30 am Light your boiler; set breakfast table.
8.00 am Wash, and dress baby.
8.15 am Baby’s breakfast.
8.30 am Baby put in pram on veranda; prepare breakfast and serve.
9.00 am Wash dishes; sweep and dust dining-room, passage, bathroom, kitchen and lavatory; strip and make beds; sweep bedroom; prepare baby’s broth, etc.
10.30 am Special work(fortnightly turnings-out).
Midday Baby’s lunch; prepare own lunch and as much as possible of evening meal.
1.00 pm Own lunch; wash up; rest and change.
3.00 pm Take baby out in pram, do shopping for next day.
4.30 pm Own tea.
5.00 pm Baby’s tea; wash up; set supper table; play with baby.
6.00 pm Put baby to bed; ironing; cleaning silver; finishing touches to supper.
7.00 pm Supper.
7.30 pm Wash up.

Notice that the husband hardly features, his role being breadwinner. Elsewhere in Hints and Wrinkles, the woman is urged not to exclude her husband from the baby’s care, and in a section that comes after the care of pets is given advice on a man’s wardrobe as ‘few men take much notice of their clothes’.

Hints and Wrinkles is clearly meant for women, and married women at that, although there are references to young men and women living alone, which was much less common then than it is today. Thumbing through the book shows how much work a house entailed in the days before most of the machines and technology we rely on. Running a home was generally a full-time job, done almost always by women (although of course some women did go out to work, and some had hired help).

Our readers’ experiences generally reflect this.

Florence Cowood (b. 1923): … but I got married in 1946 … I did go on reading, but it doesn’t… I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married. … And then I left [work], of course, when I got married. … They wanted me to stay on, but my husband was an old-fashioned type.  He believed in his wife not working.

Doreen Gill (b. 1934): … as long as I was doing homework me [sic] mum was all right. But if I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so. You’re wasting your time and my time”. You know. So she’d always find me a job to do.

Mary Robertson (b. 1923): Mum didn’t work. They did a bit of genteel voluntary work but in my mother’s day ladies didn’t go out to work. … What a boring life. You raised your children and that was it.

Barbara Green (b. 1944): I automatically stopped work because I earned less than Jim. We were in rented accommodation. I had two children in quick succession, nought to twenty months. I was expected to keep the house clean, I was expected to have a meal ready for my husband. I was expected to look after the children. Men didn’t push prams or …

Hints and Wrinkles was published by Odhams Press. Now part of TI Media, Odhams had form in the domestic market, owning both the popular Woman and upmarket Ideal Home titles. There is no date in my copy, but a search in the British Newspaper Archive suggests that it was published as a marketing ploy. (This was not unusual. Many people remember, or have inherited, sets of Dickens, encyclopedias etc given away through newspapers.) A rousing advert in the People of 7 May 1939 invites readers to place an order for at least three months for the Daily Herald, then one of the world’s best-selling newspapers. As a reward they would get, for free, an ‘entirely new 6-volume home library’, with ‘nearly 2,000 pages, 735,000 words, just on 1,000 illustrations’.

… The value of SIX SUCH SUPERB VOLUMES is amazing. Yet, they come to you PRACTICALLY AS A GlFT … this Library is SOMETHING ENTIRELY NEW – ABSOLUTELY DIFFERENT from anything ever offered to readers of The People! … a lifetime library of invaluable information and really practical everyday usefulness. … The Volumes are priceless for the information they contain – no home can afford to be without them! … Every word is AUTHORITATIVE – specially written by experts and set out in simple, everyday language that everyone can understand.

The six volumes are:

  • Practical Information for All
  • Secrets of Successful Gardening
  • The Practical Way to Keep Fit
  • How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly
  • The Home Entertainer, and
  • The Book of Hints and Wrinkles.

Both the People and the Daily Herald were owned by Odhams. (The People is still in print as the Sunday People. The Daily Herald ceased publication in 1964, and was reconstituted as the Sun.)

The ‘home library’ is clearly aspirational. The People and Daily Herald were largely read by the working class, but Hints and Wrinkles includes advice on topics beyond the reach of many: buying a house; labour-saving gadgets like fridges, mechanical washing tubs, hot plates and toasters; the care of fur coats and ‘pieces’; and even the possibility of individual bed-sitting rooms for older children (at a time when many children shared beds). That said, there are also plenty of ideas for making money go further, and repairing clothes and household linens and equipment is taken for granted.

Another indicator of aspiration is the style of the book. The six ‘presentation volumes’, the People advert says, are bound in ‘rich, dark blue Morocco-grained cloth’ and on the spines are ‘nine library bands with the title ornamentally embossed in real 22-carat gold’. As the illustration shows, my copy is in good condition, with the gold still impressively bright, over 75 years later.

Aspirational or not, there is a very long tradition of advice for the homemaker (I use the gender-neutral word advisedly, although the target is almost exclusively female). Books, magazines and domestic science / home economics courses prepared women for their responsibilities. The approach may have developed, but the advice continues today. Alongside books etc, there are blogs on every aspect of the home, and television programmes abound. Businesses run helplines and online forums. And Mumsnet is always there for questions.

I am now on the look-out for the other five volumes, to make up the home library set.

 

Further Extracts

A. Specimen Budget for an Income of £3 per week

Two adults, and three children

% £    s   d
Shelter. Rent, rates and taxes.   20      12   0
Food.   40 1     4   0
Household expenses. Light, heat, replacements.   10        6   0
Clothing and personal allowances. Fares, postage etc.   12        7   2
Savings, including insurances, clubs etc.   15        9   0
Development. Entertainment, holidays etc.     3        1   9
100 3     0   0

B. Make your Kitchen Attractive

It must be borne in mind that the housewife who does most of her own work spends at least three to four hours of her day in the kitchen. Therefore, in addition to its practical efficiency, an attractive appearance is an advantage, and plenty of light and air a necessity. Do not under-estimate the importance of any one of the above points; boredom in the kitchen results in slackly cooked meals and imperfect hygiene, and a host of other troubles which may even culminate in the breaking up of a home. The old drudgery of the kitchen can, thanks to modern ingenuity, be considerably lightened and naturally this applies equally whether the housewife is doing the work herself or whether she can afford to employ a servant or servants.

C. Hints on the Wardrobe: Is Violet a Good Colour?

It is not a good idea to mix derivatives of the colour with the foundation shade. In other words, avoid brown and café au lait, black and grey, and such combinations unless you have a special reason for the choice.

Recently there has been a great vogue for violet. Such a choice is very limiting for other colours, and if it has to be carried on for two or three seasons, becomes monotonous. Dyeing will transform it, of course, to a deeper shade, or to black, but all the etceteras have to follow suit, and the change over will thus, in all probability, become too expensive for the average housewife.

D. Suggested Timetable for Washing Day

Let us assume breakfast is over by 8.30. Immediately set the boiler going, and let the clothes boil while you do the most urgent household tasks (clearing away breakfast things, tidying room, opening beds, getting clothes lines ready).

9-9.15 am. Start washing boiled clothes, rinse, blue and get them on the line as quickly as possible; sheets and bath towels first, smaller articles after. By 11 o’clock at the latest, if you are reasonably experienced, all whites should be on the line.

11-12 am. Wash, rinse, mangle and hand woollens, then coloured articles.

12.12.30. Wash silks.

From time to time check up on how the drying is progressing and remove from the lines those clothes ready for mangling or ironing.

12.30-2 pm. Lunch interval. Make beds and tidy bedrooms.

2 pm. Starching.

2.30 pm. Start ironing or mangling articles which are dry.

Thus by the early evening, everything connected with the home laundry should be out of the way.

E. Home-made Cleaning Materials, including:

Scrubbing Mixture: Soft soap, 1lb. Silver sand, 1lb. Coarse whitening, 1lb. Water, 1 quart. Put all the ingredients in an old pan large enough to allow them to rise when boiling and stir over the fire until the mixture boils. The, stirring it occasionally, allow it to simmer until it is a creamy consistency; finally, pour it into old jam jars and cool.

Furniture Cream: Yellow wax, 4 oz. Household ammonia, 1 ½ tsp. Turpentine, ½ pt. Water, 2 gills. Put the yellow wax into a pan with the water and heat over the fire until the wax has melted. Remove the pan from the fire, add the turpentine and ammonia, and stir until the mixture is cool. If too thick, add water until the right consistency is obtained.

The Tuesday Club at Upperthorpe

Libraries have long been about more than books.

Upperthorpe Library

In 1992 Helen* wrote to the staff of Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield about one of their activities, a group called the Tuesday Club. She described herself as a ‘great library visitor’ who felt ‘comfortable and at home’ there, and was writing to say how much she appreciated what the club had to offer her.

Helen said that she was ‘not by nature a joiner’. She had expected to ‘go once or twice and then drop it’. But she had become a regular, finding that the club ‘filled a need’ that she hadn’t realised she felt – that is, ‘to meet new people’.

Helen enjoyed the chance to learn new things that the club gave her. She remembered talks about the war years, transport and Sheffield cinemas.

I love knowing things and have learned a lot which I pass on to my friends and daughter.

But Helen also enjoyed the way the club brought people together and gave them the chance to talk and share on an equal basis. The meetings were:

living history, related by the ordinary people who experienced it, and not told years later in the context of great events and important people.

‘We can talk,’ she wrote, ‘and be sure that we are being listened to, which doesn’t happen so often as you grow older.’

Upperthorpe Library

Helen concluded her letter:

I can’t say the Tuesday Club has changed me into a different person, but it has certainly broadened my outlook and made me friendlier.

 

* Not her real name. We have not been able to trace the writer of the letter, but would be happy to acknowledge her, if she were to come forward.

Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Find-Outers by Enid Blyton

By Sue Roe

I remember as a child, on my visits to Park Library on Duke Street, Sheffield, being captivated by child detectives – Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five and Secret Seven of Enid Blyton (1897-1968). Yet I have yet to meet anyone who remembers the other group of child detectives: the Five Find-Outers and a Dog. They were led initially by Larry but from the third book by ‘Fatty’: Frederick Algernon Trotteville, an only child with very relaxed parents and lots of pocket money for cakes and other treats which he shares with the others in the group. These are: Larry, his sister Daisy, Pip and his younger sister Bets, and Buster, Fatty’s Scottie dog, who eats biscuits with potted meat and nips the ankles of the local plodding policeman, Mr Goon.

All except Bets attend boarding school so the adventures happen in the school holidays. The children hunt for clues (or ‘glues’ as Bets calls them) and talk to witnesses. Fatty specialises in disguises: he has wigs, grease paints, false teeth, cheek pads which he uses to gain information and to outwit Mr Goon. The books very much reflect a particular mid-twentieth century village society with cooks, maids and valets, tramps, gypsies and fairground folk. There is an undercurrent of class difference: Fatty’s mother plays golf and bridge; Mr Goon’s nephew, Ern, who becomes an unofficial member of the group, eats with the cook, not with the other children.

The stories were set in the fictitious village of Peterswood, based on Bourne End, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. At the start of the series Larry was 13; Fatty, Daisy and  Pip were 12, and Bets was eight. There were 15 adventures in total, published between 1943 and 1961, with titles like The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) and The Mystery of the Vanished Prince (1951).

I remember being fascinated by their adventures and especially by Fatty’s exploits – the  disguises and deductions, his ability to ‘throw his voice’ at crucial points in the plot! He makes the series special and, for me, more interesting than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, whose adventures had the advantage of more exciting venues like Kirrin Island and Smuggler’s Top.

I would be very interested to know if anyone else is familiar with them. Please leave a comment if you remember Fatty and his friends.

 

You can read more of Sue’s reading journey here.