Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part One

…I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. … When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better. (Pat, born in Tinsley in 1926)

People think of Walkley as Sheffield’s only Carnegie library, but for 75 years there was another. Tinsley’s Carnegie library opened in June 1905, a few months before Walkley’s, and seven years before Tinsley became part of Sheffield. It served as the branch library until 1985 when the service moved to a new building.

This is the story of how a village decided to open a public library. And how an English aristocrat, an American millionaire and two unlikely-sounding architects helped make it possible.    

Tinsley Library 1970 (© SCC. Courtesy of Picture Sheffield)

Here is Tinsley’s Carnegie Library in 1970, sixty-five years after it opened. This image, from Picture Sheffield, shows the library in very good condition, apparently after a recent renovation. It suits its setting, at the end of a terrace of old brick houses. The design is simple – double-fronted, four-square, like a child’s drawing. There are big windows all round, allowing in light for readers. The letters fixed to the wall on the right, spelling out ‘City Library’, are a late addition, found on several of Sheffield’s branch libraries. The building’s Victorian roots are evident, particularly the porch and the little steeple on the roof (called a ‘flèche’ by architects).

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

Here is the library building today, now over a hundred years old and looking desolate. Those big windows are all boarded up and the brickwork is shabby. Close-ups show the porch with water damage, more boarded up windows at the back and security railings around the little garden area. The flèche, however, is surprisingly sprightly.

How did Tinsley get its library?

The Act of Parliament allowing councils to open ‘free libraries’ was passed in 1850 and for the next half century, many towns and cities established and expanded their services. Sheffield was a pioneer, the first town in Yorkshire and the 11th in England to open a free library. By 1900, there was the central library in Surrey Street (where today’s library is) and several branches. The newest was Attercliffe:

Attercliffe Library opened in 1894 in answer to local public demand and closed in 1996. As well as lending books, it was one of the first places in Sheffield to display lists of job vacancies.

Tinsley was then an independent township, run by a parish council. Its residents could use Sheffield’s libraries through an informal arrangement, and this probably meant visiting Attercliffe, two miles away. Perhaps the splendid sight of it – ‘neo-Jacobean…in red brick with stone mullions and transoms and three big coped gables’, to quote the Pevsner guide – made the parish council think that their own free library would be an asset to Tinsley.

This is where we meet the American millionaire and the English aristocrat, in the beautiful inscription on the porch of the library:

The funds for this building were given by Andrew Carnegie Esquire and the site by the Earl Fitzwilliam.

The 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (public domain)

The English aristocrat was William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872 – 1943), who became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1902. (You can learn more about him, and the scandal about his birth, in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book, Black Diamonds.) The Fitzwilliams, who lived at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, owned much of Tinsley and, as the Sheffield Telegraph put it on 17 December 1903, the Earl

…intimated his willingness to give a site on the corner of Bawtry Lane. This is the site originally suggested for a parish hall. His lordship attaches the condition that the site is to be used for the purpose for which it is given only. In the event of it being used otherwise, it is to revert his lordship, or he is to be empowered to make other terms as regards its tenancy. The area of the site is 720 square yards, and its value is approximately £225.

Andrew Carnegie (public domain)

The American millionaire was Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), who was born in Dunfermline, emigrated to the USA at the age of 13 and made a fortune in steel. Carnegie’s ‘dictum’ was that a man should, firstly, get all the education he could, then make as much money as possible and finally donate his riches to worthy causes. He gave away about $350m, about 90 per cent of his fortune, including paying for 3,000 public libraries around the world. His secretary wrote to the Tinsley parish council on 18 November 1903, setting out his offer and (standard) conditions:

Dear Sir

Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate. (quoted in the Sheffield Telegraph of 17 December 1903)

So far, so good. The money and the site had been secured. A parish meeting was now held at the National School, to discuss the proposal. It was here that a local resident, Mr J L Winkley, got to his feet and almost caused the plan for the library to be abandoned.

You can find out what happened at the parish meeting in Part Two of Tinsley’s Carnegie Library, to be posted soon. Part Three, to follow, will look at the building of the library, and introduce its architects.

 

Thanks to Picture Sheffield for permission to use the 1970 photograph of Tinsley Library.

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.

 

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

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.

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.

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part II)

…considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time. (Herbert Waterson, Upperthorpe Librarian from 1882 to 1928, speaking in 1934 about Upperthorpe and Highfield)

In Part I, we told the story of Sheffield’s first branch library, opened in 1869 at the Tabernacle Chapel, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe. It prospered and by 1874 Sheffield Council decided to move the library into its own building, and to open a new branch at Highfield, across the city.

The Sheffield Independent thought that the Upperthorpe and Highfield buildings would be ‘a great ornament to the town, and a welcome addition to the few structures in Sheffield possessing anything like architectural excellence.’ The architect was Edward Mitchell Gibbs, of the prestigious firm, Flockton and Gibbs, who also designed Firth Court, St John’s Ranmoor and the Mappin Art Galley.[1] The Upperthorpe Library was to be built on the site of an old tan yard opposite the Upperthorpe Hotel and was expected to cost £4,670. In the end, it cost around £6,000 – perhaps £500,000 today – but that figure may include fitting it out and the book stock. The Council borrowed the money and was so keen to repay it that the fund for buying books was kept low for the next two years.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Alderman William Fisher JP, who chaired the Council’s library committee, laid the foundation stones at Upperthorpe and Highfield on 28 November 1874. He used a ceremonial trowel designed by Gibbs and presented to him as a ‘beautiful tribute of indebtedness and of the esteem in which he was held’. This is now on display in the Upperthorpe building, on the reception desk. Before the stone was laid, a bottle ‘containing a document, which set forth that the building was erected by the Town Council, as a ‘branch free library’ was placed beneath it. One of Sheffield’s MPs, Anthony Mundella, then wound up the ceremony by saying that:

Twenty years hence there would be a new Sheffield – a population almost all of whom would be educated, and more or less delighting in the enjoyments and pursuits which education afforded.

After this, the party left for Highfield, where a similar ceremony took place (although Alderman Fisher was moved to remember that he had done his courting in Highfield).

Highfield Branch Library

The new Upperthorpe Library opened on 8 May 1876 and Highfield on 1 August 1876. Today they are often described as ‘twin libraries’ but it’s a fraternal rather than identical relationship. The Pevsner architectural guide for Sheffield notes ‘plain brick with Florentine windows and an elaborate doorcase; [with] figures of a workman with an axe and a factory girl reading…’ The figures, by J W Cooper, are meant to show how much people can learn from the public library. ‘Passing through this handsome and somewhat imposing entrance,’ wrote the Independent of 6 May 1876,

the lobby, which is 19 feet by 15 feet, is reached. Running around the walls is a frame which contains a catalogue of the books in the library. … Immediately opposite the entrance is the door leading to the lending department –  a spacious room 48 feet by 30 feet. Of this 24 feet by 10 feet is set apart to the public, in which to wait until the books they require can be handed to them. In this space is fitted up an ingeniously devised indicator, by which the librarian can tell at a glance what books are out or in, and even how long they have been out. This indicator is the invention of a member of the Free Library Committee at Dundee, but certain improvements have been introduced by Mr Hurst, the chief librarian here … The number of books now in the library is 8,573; the indicator is sufficiently large to work a library of 12,000 volumes.

This tells us how the library worked, using the ‘closed access’ system.[2] Until the 1920s, borrowers chose titles from a catalogue, and then asked the librarian to bring the books from shelves behind the counter. The librarian would check the indicator, a big wooden frame with a slot and token for each book, to see if it was available. The indicator was state of the art technology in 1876, invented in 1875 and known as a Kennedy indicator. If the book was in, the book assistant – they started at age 13 or 14 – went to find it on the shelves. These were often ceiling-high and climbing ladders to get them could be dangerous. In the Central Library, one assistant, Mr French, climbed up, over-reached, fell and was seriously injured. The Council then thought to put hooks on the tops of ladders and stops on the ends of the shelves.

Libraries usually had reading rooms in the 19th century, one for ladies and one ‘general’ (i.e. for men). The sexes were routinely kept separate.

Adjoining the lending department is a ladies’ reading and news room, 30 feet by 22 feet, leading out of which are a lavatory and other conveniences. The general reading and news room is on the upper floor, and is approached by a staircase immediately opposite the counter in the lending department, so that any one passing either in or out can be seen by the librarian … This room is 70 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 27 feet high. It has an open timber roof and handsome oriel window, and is a room unequalled in the town for its comfortable and effective appearance. Both the ladies’ and men’s reading rooms will be well supplied with magazines and periodicals.

All the rooms had white brick walls, with ‘a few red bricks in bands and borders … to save the expense of painting and papering, as the walls can always be washed clean.’

The Upperthorpe librarian’s house, with separate entrance

Linked to the library by an office was a substantial house for the librarian, with its own entrance on Daniel Hill. That a house was provided demonstrates the Council’s aspiration (as do the quality of the building and the up-to-date indicator). It was described in the Independent (4 October 1869) as having: ‘sitting room with bay window, kitchen, scullery, pantry, bathroom, bedrooms, and attics’. At Highfield in the 1920s, when the library was open until late evening, the librarian used to creep from his house, in his slippers, to see what his staff were up to. This was perhaps a wise move as the staff sometimes used to kick a ball around behind the indicator.

It is noticeable that there was no service for children, although there probably were some children’s books in stock. Children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development, and Sheffield’s first separate library for children opened in Walkley in 1924.

After 140 years, the library at Upperthorpe still serves the community. In 1895 public baths were added to the building, making it an early example of the ‘community hubs’ around today. In the 20th century, there was a move to close Upperthorpe, as people moved to new estates, but it remained busy and so stayed open. Today the building – much altered on the inside and, like Highfield, Grade II-listed – is home to the Zest Centre, and a focus for community activity and regeneration. The library is now an associate library run by Zest. As Alderman Fisher said in 1869,

it would not be simply a building for the present generation, but for future generations, the building, in fact, would be all they could wish.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

 

[1] Now the Weston Park Museum.

[2] Today most libraries use the ‘open access’ system, with the books on open shelves for borrowers to inspect.

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part I)

The previous post told the early story of Herbert Waterson who became librarian at Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. Here is the story of how Upperthorpe got its library.

‘…more of an experiment than anything else…’ (Sheffield Independent, 4 October 1869)

Sheffield was a pioneer of the public library movement, and as the home of its first branch library, the residential suburb of Upperthorpe had a part in that achievement.

Free public libraries were among the great social reforms of the mid-19th century. They would, it was thought, enable the lower classes to educate themselves. The Public Libraries Act 1850 allowed councils to spend a halfpenny[1] from every pound collected from ratepayers on a free library or museum. Sheffield’s first public library opened on 1 February 1856. It was located in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street, more or less where the Central Library is today. (The Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, who lived in Upperthorpe, was one of the founders of the Institute.) By the end of the decade, there were about 8,000 books and 12,000 adult borrowers (no-one under the age of 14 was allowed to join).

The library continued to grow, with almost 30,000 books and 27,000 members by 1869. It seemed the time to extend the service. The Council agreed to a branch library in Upperthorpe. On 4 October 1869, there was a grand opening by the chairman of the library committee, Alderman William Fisher JP, accompanied by other councillors. Reporting on the event, the Sheffield Independent speculated that the first branch was:

…more of an experiment than anything else … as upon the success which attends the operations of the library in that part of the town will very much, if not entirely, depend whether similar libraries will be opened in other parts of Sheffield.

The library was to have two staff: the librarian, William Bramhall, and a ‘boy assistant’, J Bunn. Opening hours were every morning from 10 am to 2 pm in the afternoon, and from 4 pm to 9 pm at night. It was located in the Tabernacle Congregational Chapel, on Albert Terrace Road, which has since been demolished. The Independent described it:

… the [schoolroom], which is used only on Sundays, has been converted into an admirable reading-room, and is well supplied with nearly 30 periodicals and magazines. One of the tables is set apart entirely for the use of young women. The room for the storing of books, and in which they are given out and returned, has been erected by the trustees of the chapel, and is capitally suited for the purpose in every respect. The number of books at present in the library is 3,603.

With so many councillors present, the opening ceremony seems to have turned into a lengthy discussion (there were no fewer than 12 speakers) about the purpose of libraries. Alderman Fisher talked of the benefits of reading non-fiction, noting:

…how the political knowledge and the patriotism of the readers had been enlarged, and how much better citizens they had been made by studying the records of the history of this and other countries.

He appears to have been rather broad-minded, thinking that novels, which were often frowned upon, had their uses:

…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … many hours of weariness, pain, and anxiety had had their sting taken out of them by the interest which a good novel excited. At all events, when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon.

Alderman Saunders thought that novels were a good way to attract young people:

If they gave them one of Carlyle’s works, or a book upon mathematics or astronomy, they would fail in giving them a taste for reading. They should induce them to come to the library by allowing them to have works of an attractive character, and then by-and-bye [sic] they would take to works of a more sterling character. It was therefore important and desirable that works of fiction should find a place upon the shelves of such a library as the one they were about to open.

Councillors Fairburn and Hutchinson were conscious of the original rationale for libraries. Fairburn thought:

there was no better way of spending ratepayers’ money than by giving facilities to the working classes to improve their minds and thus enable them to become better citizens.

Hutchinson said that one objection he had to libraries was that:

the books were not sufficiently made use of by the working classes. Sometimes they could not get the books they required, and … before the upper classes were supplied with books from a free library, the authorities ought to see that the working classes were provided with them.

There certainly seemed to be enthusiasm for the new library. On its first day, 221 people registered and 144 books borrowed.

In 1873, a new librarian took over at Upperthorpe.  Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a commercial traveller but free libraries fascinated him. He worked at Upperthorpe between 1873 and 1875. In 1886 he published the first manual of library administration, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in, and it must have influenced him.

We know that about 2,000 borrowers registered at Upperthorpe, and the Council evidently decided that the experiment was a success. The Council opened a second branch in 1872, in a purpose-built building in Brightside.[2] Then, in 1874, two more libraries were agreed – a new branch in Highfield and a permanent home for Upperthorpe.

Read the next post to learn about the new library in Upperthorpe.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

[1]   A halfpenny is about a quarter of one penny today, but it could buy much more than 1p today.

[2] The library’s name was later changed to Burngreave. It was on Gower Street. The library has long since moved out and the building is now a mosque.

Esther Saunders, Sheffield’s First Female Librarian

By Loveday Herridge

The second librarian of the Sheffield Subscription Library was, very unusually, a woman – Esther Saunders. We know little about the early keepers of the holdings of subscription libraries, of which Sheffield’s was one of the first, but almost certainly they were generally male. Esther certainly made an impact on the Library.

Her tenure was a long one. She became Librarian in 1777 (the Library had been founded in 1771) when the previous, probably the first, Librarian died. This was her father, Joseph Saunders, from whom she must have learned her profession; he had worked at the Harleian Library with Humfrey Wanley. The Harley collection of manuscripts formed the basis of the British Museum’s collection and Wanley was its learned Keeper. The association with Wanley, providing a very auspicious connection to serious professionalism and important manuscripts, must have seemed attractive to the founders of the Sheffield Subscription Library looking for a Librarian. And at Saunders’ death, Esther’s skills made her the obvious replacement.

Norfolk Street today – Upper Chapel

Norfolk Street today, still with some 18th c houses

Norfolk Street today, with the Crucible Theatre on the right

The Library was housed in her father’s house in Norfolk Street, Sheffield (the exact location is unknown). Esther was responsible for all loans and the numbering of books. She could keep the fines on overdue books and was paid ten guineas for rent and attendance at her father’s house – around £16,000 in today’s money.

One of the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)

Esther must also have been responsible for producing the annual catalogues.* These catalogues were arranged in subject groupings, such as Voyages and Travel, Authors Moral, Scientifical and Miscellaneous and Geography and Topography. Such groupings were not universally adopted and librarians evidently followed their own inclination and the dictates of the books in the collection to devise their groupings. Esther arranged the books alphabetically within each group, so the first book to appear in the first extant catalogue of 1792 is History of Abyssinia by Lobo in the History section. However, as Esther numbered the books, it is possible to tell which were the very first books purchased by Sheffield’s elite members in 1771: books numbered 1, 2 and 3 are lost, but number 4 is Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain, vol.1, and number 5 is Cawthorne’s Poems. These then were the first choices of the majority of the members of the Library.

Pages from one of the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)

Did Esther load the shelves in their groups, by number, or alphabetically? There was no separate reading room and the room was cramped. How did potential readers ‘browse’? Perhaps by using the catalogue at home – it appears that every member may have been issued with a catalogue – and by exploiting Esther’s prodigious knowledge of the Library. On 3 July 1797 the young Joseph Hunter, who was to become known as ‘the Sheffield antiquarian’, noted in his diary that Esther impressed him by remembering the number of a book.

But some of the problems which Esther’s long librarianship brought are also hinted at in Hunter’s diary. He mentions that she allowed him to keep Mrs Radcliffe’s The Italian for longer than he should, and allowed him to take out Varieties of Literature illegally, although she drew the line at issuing him another book when he had not brought back Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

The rules of the Library, set out in the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)

Thomas Asline Ward, ‘one of the Sheffield elite, and the reforming president of the Library’, tells us in 1825 that by 1819, just after her death, the Library was in ‘a desolate condition’. The books were dirty and tattered, and the rules were not adhered to, so that many books were lost, because the Librarian was ‘not in constant attendance’. He said that favourite books were reserved for favourite readers, and the publications most eagerly sought after were concealed in cupboards, drawers and even in the warming pan. Ward tells us that in 1787 Esther married, and until 1805 she was paid only 12 guineas (about £11,000 in today’s money). Interestingly, he blames the Library’s problems firmly on this low wage, saying that ‘for such a small sum no one could attend constantly in the room.’ ‘The Librarian was allowed to manage her household affairs and the Library neglected.’ Indeed, this may be the first expression of the difficulty facing a female librarian on a low wage struggling to juggle work and home life!

After 1805 Esther was paid 17 guineas. In 1810 there was an attempt to pension her off as it was felt she was too old to continue with her duties, but ‘feelings of compassion’ prevailed. In 1816 Esther’s wage was raised to £30 (about £23,000), on condition she worked full time in the Library, but according to Ward it was too late. There was an attempt by a group of members to set up a new subscription library, but the opportunity for reform was seized by the committee at Esther’s death in 1818.

An affectionate poem appeared in Sheffield’s newspaper, the Iris, which mourned the death of a cheerful, honest chatterbox, who knew where every book was shelved. Esther remains a tantalising figure, who tells us a lot, but suggests just how much more there is to know about the realities of using Sheffield’s Subscription Library.

Ye book-worms, a’ wi’ sorrow meet,

Nor wi’ few tears your een be weet;

For eens, spite o’ the warld’s deceit,

By pity led,

Be yours the wail o’ Surrey-street,

Auld Esther’s dead!

 

She was a canty clattering dame,

A servant gude; abroad, at hame,

She had an honest matron’s frame;

Nor could I spread

A mickle stain owre a’ her name ‑

Auld Esther’d dead!

 

* The early library catalogues – A catalogue of the library, belonging to the Book Society, held at the house of Esther Caterer in Surrey Street, Sheffield. 1791, 1792, 1798, 1802, 1816 – may be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

On the BBC: ‘The more we read the more we live.’

The more we read the more we live. The better our reading is the better our living is sure to be. Food, clothing and shelter are requisites of life, but reading is necessary for complete living.

This sentiment – authoritative, clear and aspirational – is at the heart of a talk given on the BBC’s first Sheffield station, 6FL, on Thursday 27 January 1927.[i] The speaker was the city librarian, Richard J Gordon (1881-1966), and the broadcast was for a series entitled ‘How Sheffield’s City Departments Work’. As a whole, this sounds worthy, even dull, but Gordon, who had, a colleague said[ii], ‘an innate flair for saying and doing the right thing at the right time,’ is fascinating for what he tells us about the ambition felt for public libraries by the people who ran them in the early twentieth century.

Sheffield was lucky to have Richard Gordon. A ‘dynamic person who believed so passionately in the civilising mission of public libraries’, he ‘added lustre to his profession,’ say his obituaries.[iii] His lifetime contribution was recognised when he was chosen as President of the Library Association in 1947.

The converted music hall on Surrey St, which served as half of the central library in Gordon’s day. It was inconvenient and unsafe. (Photo:{{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Gordon arrived in Sheffield in 1921, when the public libraries were stagnating (a strong word but the one used in the official history[iv]). Sheffield had made a good start: in 1856 it was the first city in Yorkshire to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act allowing corporations to establish free libraries. For the next half century, things went quite well, with central lending and reference libraries and  branches opening. But then the service declined, to the extent that in 1920 the Council shamefacedly asked the chief librarian of Leeds to assess the problems and recruited, from 60 applicants, the chief librarian of Rochdale, Richard Gordon, to rebuild the service. The challenge is set out in City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956:

… the bookstocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind … What little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding… The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally… The staff … had been actively discouraged from attempting to qualify in their profession …

A letter to the Sheffield Independent in April 1920 said that the libraries were a ‘disgrace to a city of such importance’ and blamed the ‘Council’s absurd policy of parsimony’.

By 1927, when he spoke on the radio, Gordon was revolutionising the libraries. New books were bought and old, worn-out ones removed. The staff were re-organised and new systems designed. Open access shelving was introduced.[v] Information and publicity campaigns were initiated. The central libraries were reformed, five branch libraries attractively renovated, a children’s branch library opened, the school library service expanded and plans laid for a much-needed, new central library building.

Walkley library – where Gordon opened a  children’s library in 1924, which was used by many of our readers.

Highfield Branch Library, renovated and re-opened in 1923.

These achievements are evident in Gordon’s radio talk: ‘Much has been done to make the libraries worthy of their name, but much more remains to be done.’ More importantly, Gordon used the opportunity to make the case for reading and for public libraries. (Although our situation today is very different, his arguments still have merit). Libraries were, he said, ‘community schools where all may increase and supplement their education’, although their contribution to the ‘national educational structure is but, as yet, dimly recognised.’ An experienced local authority man, Gordon pointed out that the libraries were good value (11d – £4.70 today – per head, less than in other northern cities), offering ‘[information] freely placed at the service of the public; competent counsel in the choice of books; [and] where to look for the required information…’ He aimed, he said, to ‘attract and cultivate readers’, including children, and to anticipate and supply people’s needs:

If we have not the book wanted don’t hesitate to say so. If you do not tell us what you want, we are only able to guess at your requirements …

He went on:

Please do not mistake my meaning regarding this, I mean requirements of books of real value, and not merely of recreational interest.

‘Books of real value’ is an important phrase for Gordon and other librarians of the day. Free libraries were part of the great social reforms of the mid-19th century, founded with a view to the improvement, the self-improvement, of the working classes. Reading for pleasure and reading fiction (particularly the cheaper sort) were frowned upon. By the 1920s, librarians had mellowed somewhat, but the focus on education remained, along with the feeling that ratepayers’ money must be spent on the worthwhile, rather than the entertaining. So Gordon said:

[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should happen to be the work of a novelist of admitted quality. In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

And:

Too often the public library is only thought and spoken of in connection with the reading of novels, and without detracting in the slightest degree from the value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading, yet I would emphasise the contribution it offers to the raising of the standard of general intelligence which is the library’s greatest value to the city.

Gordon concluded: ‘I believe the libraries have something for everybody … I hope many more will … find pleasure and profit in [them].’ The broadcast was clearly part of a communications strategy, aiming to draw Sheffielders in. There were also updates in the local press and trade papers, public lectures, reading lists, exhibitions and slogans such as ‘The Library exists for Books, Information, and Service’. But it seems likely that Gordon was also talking to his employers, the Council. He emphasised the benefits of the library service, including as a means of profiting local industry, and he talked confidently of growth: ‘…when our library service expands, as it must expand…’ A library, he said, is ‘books made productive’.

1927 was to be Gordon’s last year in Sheffield. Shortly after the broadcast, he started a new job as chief librarian in Leeds. There were press suggestions that Sheffield had itself to blame, as the salary offered was well below that of other northern cities. He stayed in Leeds for the rest of his career, and was much praised for its libraries. In Sheffield, he was succeeded by his equally energetic and insightful deputy, Joseph Lamb, whose work is explored elsewhere on this website.

Gordon presided over an increase in borrowing in Sheffield from 711,000 books in 1921 to over 1.5 million in 1926.  His friend Lamb wrote of him: ‘when he was in charge libraries became marvellously alive’.[vi]

 

[i] The script can be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

[ii] Obituary by J P Lamb, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.418.

[iii] Obituaries by E Hargreaves and A E Burbridge respectively, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.420.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield, 1856-1956 (Sheffield, Libraries Galleries and Museums Committee, 1956).

[v] Open access, i.e. shelving accessible to the public, is almost universal today. In the early twentieth century, closed access, where books are chosen from catalogues and brought to borrowers by staff, was the norm.

[vi] From (ii) above.

The Twopenny Library: ‘A home without books is like a room without windows!’

Where did you go in Sheffield in the 1930s if you wanted an entertaining read? An Agatha Christie? Perhaps The Murder at the Vicarage with its unlikely detective, Miss Marple, or the more glamorous Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe one of Zane Grey’s Westerns? Wasn’t that one of his films at the Abbeydale Picture House?

With this in mind, you might well have headed to the ‘Novel’ Library. ‘A home without books is like a room without windows! May the ‘Novel’ Library let the sunlight into your house?’ and ‘A Book a day keeps the blues away’, said its newspaper adverts. It was one of the ‘twopenny libraries’, a commercial venture common in the 1930s. They specialised in popular fiction and got their name from the cost, 2d (about £1 today), of borrowing a book. The Sheffield branch was on the corner of the High Street and George Street. This was a good location, next to the prestigious Walsh’s department store, although on one occasion in September 1935 it led to trouble, when the library was invaded by cattle. (Yes, cattle. You can read about it here.)

The Corner of George St and High St, Sheffield – the site of the ‘Novel’ Library in the 1930s

Sheffield’s ‘Novel’ Library, one of around 25 branches across England, opened in 1934, supported by a campaign in local papers. The first advert appeared in the Daily Independent on the opening day, Saturday 10 February. ‘Something new in book lending’ was promised, with a flat fee of 2d per book per week and no deposit or subscription. Another ad appeared the next week, saying that 5,000 readers had joined on the first day[i] and announcing special opening hours – 8.30 am to 11 pm – to cope with the demand.

Later that week, the new library was mentioned in the Daily Independent’s ‘Mrs Vulcan’s shopping diary’, along with sale bargains such as ‘charming reading lamp shades in silk and parchment’ for only 3s 11½d (about £20 now) at Walsh’s. ‘Opening shortly. What is most needed in Sheffield,’ said another article, explaining that these words on a poster in the empty shop window had attracted much attention. There were already 8,000 books in stock, it went on, and the plan was for 15,000: ‘thrillers, love stories, biographies, serious works and every type of fiction’. The authors named were chosen no doubt for broad appeal: J B Priestley, Edgar Wallace, Ruby M Ayres and Warwick Deeping. All were well-known in the 1930s: Yorkshireman Priestley had local appeal and literary merit; thriller writer Wallace was one of the most popular authors in the world; Deeping’s novels dealt with serious themes like alcoholism; Ruby M Ayres was a prolific romantic novelist. None was highbrow or avant-garde.

The ‘Novel’ Library was set up by George Berthold ‘Bertie’ Samuelson (1889 – 1947). He had been a successful film director and producer, but ceased production for a time after being sued by an actor. According to his biographer, Gabriel A Sivan, Bertie Samuelson then ‘set up a number of “tuppence a week” lending libraries that ensured him a reasonable income for the next few years’.[ii]

The ‘Novel’ Library was not Sheffield’s only private library. There was a branch of Boot’s Booklovers’ Library and the local Red Circle Library had branches across the city. Reader Judith G remembers her mum using the Red Circle’s Moor branch in the late 1940s, borrowing books ‘written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing’.[iii] There were also smaller ventures, like Abbett’s Library run by Sir Norman Adsetts’ father alongside his sweetshop shop in Derbyshire Lane. W H Smith supplied his stock.

It was in this library, surrounded by delectably long runs of Nat Gould, Zane Grey and Ethel Boileau (a favourite of his mother’s), that the four year old Norman learned to read and to acquire his life-long passion for reading of every kind.

The economics of the twopenny library are interesting, as Reading Sheffield explored here. They cost the keen reader in depressed 1930s Britain much less than, say, the Boots libraries, which charged an annual subscription or a deposit and a borrowing fee.[iv] But why didn’t more people make use of the free public library? (Bertie Samuelson cheekily asked in one advert: ‘Why borrow a book at the free library for nothing when you can come to the ‘Novel’ Library and pay 2d?’) Sheffield, after all, had a new Central Library which opened the same year as the ‘Novel’ Library. In fact, more and more people were using it – the annual issue rose from 365,000 in 1925-26 to 3,640,000 in 1932-33. But for some it was perhaps too intimidating. Judith G remembered her mother:

‘ … for some reason she decided to join the [public] library, the big library in town … Because my mother was quite timid and I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.’

There were other factors in the popularity of twopenny libraries. They were apparently places where people socialised.[v] They dealt in ‘the kind of popular fiction insufficiently improving to pass muster on the shelves of the municipal libraries’. Graham Watson said (rather sniffily) in an article in The Spectator in 1935:

When the twopenny library first came on the scene it made an instantaneous appeal to an entirely new reading public – a public which was largely unable to afford either to buy books or to subscribe to the circulating libraries. It was a public which was largely State-educated, which had only just ‘discovered’ books, a public which wanted popular, very popular, fiction.

Public libraries had been founded, in 1850, to improve the working classes. Non-fiction, ‘books of information’ and great literature were their prescription. In 1927, Sheffield’s chief librarian, Richard J Gordon, said in a BBC talk: ‘[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should be the work of a novelist of admitted quality.’ By the early 1930s, the then City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, was experimenting in branch libraries. What people wanted, said Lamb, was ‘a book, preferably an attractive one’, which they generally chose ‘at random’. He deduced that ‘the provision of quantities of popular fiction [would attract] non-readers.’ He bought and promoted multiple copies of books by Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Ethel M Dell, Rafael Sabatini and others. He was right: issues increased by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000. (Compare this with the ‘Novel’ Library’s claim of 5,000 readers in a single day.)

The Novel Library chain folded in 1936. Bertie Samuelson was bankrupted by the enterprise early that year. He said in court that only two branches had failed and that the trouble had come when he had sold the business in good faith to someone who then defaulted, leaving him with liabilities of over £5,000 (about £248,000 now). In his best year, he said, the libraries made him £1,400 (about £70,000 now). The court suggested he had been unwise. The assets were sold and the bankruptcy discharged in November 1936.

Apart from the surviving 18th and 19th century subscription libraries (such as Newcastle’s Lit and Phil), private circulating libraries had died out by the 1960s. Today, as public libraries endure cuts and closures, perhaps the twopenny library will yet return in some form.

 

 

[i] This figure is not convincing when you learn that the same claim was made for the Leeds and Bradford branches in the Yorkshire Evening Post in November 1933; and that the ‘Novel’ Library claimed to have registered over 9,000 readers in a five week period in Eastbourne.

[ii] Gabriel A Sivan, George Berthold Samuelson (1889–1947): Britain’s Jewish film pioneer, Jewish Historical Studies, volume 44, 2012.

[iii] We would love to know more about the Red Circle libraries. Please leave a comment below if you have any information.

[iv] According to an advert from November 1933, the Hastings ‘Novel’ Library offered, ‘in response to countless requests, a season ticket for 10/6 (about £5) which allowed the holder to change books ‘as often as desired’.

[v] Robert James discusses this in Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930-39: A Round of Cheap Diversions? (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010).