Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 2)

The old Firth Park Library building today

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

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

FIRTH PARK LIBRARY BOOKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

No works by George Moore.

Only two books go beyond the Victorian age in poetry.

My replies are:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Barton, Chairman, Libraries and Museums Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 1)

A library cannot contain every book upon every subject…

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

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

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

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

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

The old Firth Park Library building today

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

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

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

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

To my surprise I found…

…yet we are denied the privilege…

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all…

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

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

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

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

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

Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

Postscript: On the Shelves at Tinsley Carnegie Library

After their struggle to build their Carnegie Library, what books did Tinsley parish council see fit to buy for the enlightenment and entertainment of its residents?

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library, by T.Wilkinson, on 8 June 1905 (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield City Archives)

The tone was set by Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of William Cooke and Co, as he opened the library on Thursday 8 June 1905. The Sheffield Independent reported the next day:

[In his boyhood] there were no beautiful structures of that kind ready for the working man to use. He very much rejoiced that they had in the parish so excellent a building to which they could come in search of recreation of a rational character, or of the knowledge which was to be obtained from the scientific and engineering works he had observed on the shelves.

The Sheffield Independent noted the lending library’s capacity for ‘several thousand volumes’ and there was also a reference library to stock. But for now there were just ‘434 volumes’, ‘well and substantially bound in leather’. Mr H C Else, who chaired the council, said that they hoped to expand in time and that for now people

would probably think that the library looked bare … they only got the last half of the books on Tuesday of this week.

There were twelve shelves of novels, including:

Dickens, Dumas, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Hall Caine, Captain Marryat, R S Merriman, Scott, Mrs Henry Wood, E J Worboise, Stanley Weyman, Charles Reade. [i]

This range of mostly contemporary or recent novels was likely to appeal to both men and women. Some of the names, like Eliot, we rever today and others, like Wilkie Collins, are less well regarded but in print and read with pleasure by many. Still others are almost completely forgotten. Hall Caine and E J Worboise? Anyone? Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) wrote ‘novels of wide popularity’, says the Oxford Companion to English Literature. His Wikipedia entry lists his subjects as: ‘adultery, divorce, domestic violence, illegitimacy, infanticide, religious bigotry and women’s rights’, and describes him as the ‘most highly paid novelist of his day’. Emma Jane Worboise (1825–1887) wrote strongly Christian novels.

At this point the Independent’s journalist unexpectedly indulged in literary criticism of his own:

The ubiquitous Marie Corelli was unrepresented. Resenting this absence, the lady of Stratford-on-Avon will probably supply the deficiency by forwarding a complete set of  immortal works at the earliest opportunity.

Marie Corelli (1854-1924) was relished by the public for her exotic novels involving high society, ancient Egypt, debauchery, paganism, spiritualism and much else. Predictably, she was despised by the critics. Evidently there was no place for her in Tinsley.

Exotic author Marie Corelli (1909) (public domain)

It is interesting that fiction of any kind found a place in Tinsley’s public library. Libraries had been founded, in true Victorian fashion, with a view to improving the working man. To many minds the novel hardly suited this noble purpose. In addition, some ratepayers resented wasting public – or rather, their – money on providing the frivolous to the undeserving. In 1879, J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, called novels ‘the most dangerous literature of the age’.[ii] When he opened the nearby Walkley Carnegie Library, in December 1905, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Colonel Hughes

impressed upon the young people that it was not by reading three-volume novels that literary or other success was achieved, but by digesting the finest writers on subjects that would be of use afterwards. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 December 1905)

At all events, in Tinsley, in 1905, the council chose fiction that would both entertain and inform.[iii]

What then of ‘books of information’, in a phrase of the time?

The more serious books in the library included Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries, half a dozen volumes of Ruskin, a dozen of the English Men of Letters series, and a fine set of over 30 volumes dealing with national heroes. The poets at present seem to be confined to Longfellow, Scott, Shakespeare, and Tennyson.

This is another solid and conventional selection on literature, history and art. The ‘fine set … dealing with national heroes’ has a confident, even imperial, ring to it, and the English Men of Letters series included luminaries like Samuel Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth and Chaucer (there were no women of letters). John Ruskin had local connections, with his Guild of St George and St George’s Museum for Sheffield’s working men. There was apparently little science or technology, apart from the ‘small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries’ reflecting the local economy and also vocational improvement.

John Ruskin (1879) (public domain)

There seem to have been no books for children, although older children might well have enjoyed,  for example, Captain Marryat. Junior public libraries were few and far between in this period, even in bigger cities. Had the idea occurred in Tinsley, there was in any case little money. There were perhaps books in local schools and Sunday Schools.

Early libraries were intended as a source of news and information and so there were newspapers and magazines in the reading room and the ladies’ reading room. The main reading room was well-equipped with ‘six newspaper desks, and three large oak tables, on which will be laid current magazines’.

Tinsley’s new librarian, Mr J O’Donnell, was named by the Independent. There is no other information about him, but it may be assumed that he advised the council on its book purchases. At all events, he did not stay long, for by 1912 the librarian was Mr A Burton, who also served on the council.

Underpinning Tinsley’s achievement was local financial support. Andrew Carnegie’s £1,500 was a donation strictly for construction, and councils could raise a rate of only 1d in the pound for libraries. In Tinsley this meant £110 a year. Money for books was always going to be hard to find, but the council, in a move as enterprising as its applying for Carnegie money,

went to several of the large works in the parish and asked them to give assistance. … which mounted in all to £50. That would not buy many books, and so they were obliged to put another £50 to it in order to make some show at the outset. … but before they could extend it much they would need to obtain either more money or more books from some one.

The businesses which contributed were carefully listed by the Independent: Hadfield’s Steel Foundry Co, William Cooke and Co, Edgar Allen and Co, the Tinsley Rolling Mills Co, and T Gray and Sons. With the exception of the last (the company which had built the library), these were internationally important businesses.

The Sheffield Independent evidently admired Tinsley’s efforts to secure its building and books:

The handsome little library … was formally opened yesterday evening, in the presence of an interested gathering of spectators. Neither architects nor builders have attempted anything to which the word pretentious could be applied, but the building is pleasing in appearance, and admirably planned for the purposes to which it will be put. … The surrounding grounds are nicely laid out and planted with shrubs.

An artist’s impression of Tinsley Carnegie Library from the Sheffield Independent (9 June 1905)

Read more about the building of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Parts One, Two and Three).

[i] R S Merriman is presumably a misprint for H S (Henry Seton) Merriman (1862-1903), another popular novelist of exciting-sounding books: Slave of the Lamp (1894), The Vultures (1902) and The Last Hope (1904).

[ii] Quoted by Thomas Kelly in A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1975 (London, Library Association, 1977).

[iii] Not everyone disapproved of novels. Opening Sheffield’s Upperthorpe Library in 1876, Alderman Fisher said that: ‘…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon’. By 1905, novels with a Christian moral were often given to children as school or Sunday School prizes. By 1930, when Sheffield stocked Edgar Wallace, Ethel M Dell and the like in its new Firth Park branch, this proved tremendously popular with residents.

Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part Three

At the end of Bawtry Lane stands the building designed as Tinsley’s first public library. We’ve already told how Tinsley wanted its own library and in 1903 successfully petitioned the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, for a grant of £1,500. The money almost had to be returned because of an unhappy resident (‘If a man made me the offer of a present, which I could not conscientiously accept, I should not have it’), but after much discussion the parish council approved the proposal and construction started in 1904.

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield City Archives)

At the opening of the Carnegie Library on 8 June 1905, the Sheffield Telegraph said:

The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution, which was opened last night by Mr Thomas Wilkinson, managing director of William Cooke [sic] and Company, besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village. A large gathering of inhabitants assembled at the entrance to witness the opening ceremony, and to take early possession of the commodious rooms inside. …’

The ‘adornment’ was designed by the unlikely firm of Holmes and Watson. Tempting though it is to imagine the Baker Street duo disguising themselves as architects for a case, in fact they were Edward, not Sherlock, Holmes and Adam Francis, not John, Watson. They were respected Sheffield architects and surveyors, in partnership between 1893 and 1906.

Holmes and Watson’s drawing of the front of the library

Holmes and Watson’s drawing of the back of the library

The Carnegie Library is not usually mentioned in the catalogue of their work, and it must have been a relatively small commission. That they had already worked locally, on Tinsley Park School and the offices of Wm Cook & Co, perhaps helped them win this contract. Their work included industrial, commercial and public buildings in Sheffield:

  • a ‘twelve-hold melting furnace for Spear and Jackson in Gravestock Street’
  • schools like Pomona Street, Western Road and Carter Knowle Road (all still in use today)
  • the ornate Midland Bank branch on the High Street.

Midland Bank, Sheffield High Street, designed by Holmes and Watson (now part of Lloyds Bank)

For Tinsley’s library, Holmes and Watson kept things relatively simple, with only slight changes between the drawings and the finished building. Brick is the main material, and the building is double-fronted, with a central porch and a charming steeple or ‘fleche’ on the roof. The windows are large, letting in as much light as possible for readers. The porch bears a fine inscription thanking the donors, Andrew Carnegie and Earl Fitzwilliam. Inside the fittings were mahoghany – where it showed, like the fine entrance doors – and stained pine – where it did not. The building is in keeping with the surrounding houses, with good proportions, and the small corner site is used effectively. The job was well managed too, with the budget being exceeded by only 9s 10d. It says something about Holmes, Watson and the builders, Gray and Sons of Tinsley, that, over 100 years later, the building is still standing, and although there appears to be some water damage, the whole looks stable.

The fleche or steeple

Dedication on the porch to Earl Fitzwilliam and Andrew Carnegie

Entrance to Tinsley Library (from the plans by Holmes and Watson)

The interior is as simple as the exterior.

On the ground floor will be a porch, a well-proportioned entrance hall and staircase, a large reading-room, 30 feet by 18 feet, where there will be a stock of newspapers and magazines, a lending library, 15ft. 6in. by 15ft., and hall for applicants for books. first floor will provided with a ladies’ reading-room, reference library, and a spare room for stores, etc. In the basement there will be a hot water apparatus for heating the building, and on the ground and first floors there will be lavatory and other accommodation for the visitors. All the rooms will be thoroughly well-lighted and ventilated. The building is in the Renaissance style, and although simple in treatment, will be very effective appearance. It will faced with local pressed bricks, and Grenoside stone dressing. The surrounding grounds will nicely laid out, and planted with shrubs, that when completed, the whole will make a pleasing addition to Tinsley. The internal fittings, seats, book cases, etc., will of the most modern description. (Sheffield Telegraph, 11 July 1904)

On the ground floor is a porch and an entrance hall, with a large reading-room on one side, and the lending department on the other. On the floor above is a ladies’ room, a reference department and a committee room. (Sheffield Telegraph, 9 June, 1905)

 

The ground floor plan

The first floor plan

News and reading rooms were the norm then, and men and women forbidden to read in the same room. The lending library would have looked unfamiliar to us: the books – there were 434, costing £100, with half donated by local businesses. The parish council hoped to buy more shortly – were kept behind a counter and ferried by staff to borrowers, who chose from catalogues. There was no children’s library, although there might have been some suitable books for their parents to borrow. In time, the ‘closed access’ lending library and the reading rooms were done away with, and the space converted to ‘open access’ lending, and a separate children’s library. On the whole, though, Holmes and Watson’s original design seems to have worked well.

Closed access: screen in the lending library, behind which the books were kept

In The Sheffield Society of Architects, 1887-1987, Roger Harper comments that Holmes and Watson had a ‘reputation beyond actual productivity’. It is difficult, he says, to attribute their commissions, including the library, individually. But we know that Watson’s interest was architecture, while Holmes did a lot of surveying and civil engineering work, so Watson’s may be the responsibility for the design.

Adam Francis Watson

Edward Holmes

Edward Holmes (1859-1921) and Adam Francis Watson (1859-1932) were well established, individually and as a partnership, in Sheffield. Watson was born in Northants, but lived in Sheffield for most of his life, working first as assistant to the leading architect, Matthew Ellison Hadfield. Holmes was a Sheffield boy, the son of Samuel Furness Holmes, the town’s first Borough Surveyor. They were both keen supporters of the Sheffield Society of Architects and Surveyors, founded in 1887, with Holmes becoming President in 1905-06 and Watson from 1913 to 1920. They advocated professional training for young colleagues, and were members of professional organisations like the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects. They were also civic-minded and socially active: Holmes served as a Justice of the Peace and on the board of the Botanical Gardens; Watson was a member of the University of Sheffield Court, a sidesman at St John’s Ranmoor and an officer in the West Riding Artillery Volunteers. Both were Freemasons. Holmes was described in the Sheffield Independent in August 1902 as:

A broad-minded, sympathetic man…a true Sheffielder, considerate for the dignity and welfare of the city.

When the foundation stone for the library was laid on Saturday 9 July 1904 (with a capsule containing local newspapers beneath it), by Sir William Holland MP, the Sheffield Telegraph said:

… Tinsley is just one of those places most deserving of Mr. Carnegie’s help. It is the village boy, as much as the city lad, that the great millionaire wants to encourage to read and think…’

A year later, at the grand opening, Mr Wilkinson

rejoiced that Tinsley was to possess so beautiful an institution, where the inhabitants might increase their knowledge and find rational amusement.

 

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

The building served Tinsley well for about 90 years – the image above shows the library looking splendid, after cleaning in 1970. There was the occasional scare along the way: for example, the library service was almost closed in 1918.

Councillor Appleyard said there had been a very serious depletion in staff. Seventeen were serving with the colours,  two had been killed, and three discharged. It was quite impossible carry on as in the past. The recommendation was that, two of the least important should be closed for a period, and that decision was only arrived at after very mature consideration. Councillor Tummon proposed and Councillor Holmshaw seconded an amendment that so much the minutes as referred to the closing of the Park and Tinsley Branch Libraries be not confirmed, and this amendment was carried by a large majority.  (Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 12 June 1918)

Tinsley’s own librarian at the time, Mr Burton, was one of those ‘serving with the colours’:

Among the wounded is Sergeant A. Burton, of 98, Greasborough Road, Tinsley. He is in the KOYLI, and writes from Chichester Hospital that he is doing well. Prior to the war he was the librarian at Tinsley Branch Library. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 July 1916)

From 1912. Tinsley’s librarian, Mr Burton, is third from right, back row. In the centre of the back row is John Luther Winkley, who almost lost Tinsley its Carnegie money.

In 1984 the Carnegie library was finally closed and the service moved to two shop units in the nearby precinct. Since 2016, because of cuts, the library has been run, as a volunteer service, from Tinsley Forum. After the books moved out, the Carnegie building was converted for the early years ‘Roundabout Centre’, but this too was closed.

Since then, Holmes and Watson’s graceful building has stood empty, much to local regret.

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

 

Sources:

  • Sheffield City Archives and Sheffield Libraries
  • Roger Harper: The Sheffield Society of Architects, 1887-1987; Centenary: The First Hundred Years of the Sheffield Society of Architects; and Timeline of Sheffield Architects 1800-1965
  • Julian Holder: ‘A race of native architects’, the architects of Sheffield and S Yorkshire, 1880-1940 (thesis, University of Sheffield, 2005)
  • Stephen Welsh: Biographical notes and a list of principal works of a firm of architects and surveyors founded by Samuel Furness Holmes in 1845 until the death of his grandson Edward Marshall Holmes in 1929.

All the plans, books and notes mentioned may be consulted in the Sheffield Local Studies Library.

 

Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part Two

The decision was not arrived at, however, without some slight but determined opposition to the acceptance of any offer from the much-talked-of American millionaire.

The ‘slight but determined opposition’ to the plans for Tinsley Library, as reported by the Sheffield Telegraph on 17 December 1903, came from one man, John Luther Winkley (1872?- 1951?). Local landowner Earl Fitzwilliam had offered a site on Bawtry Road and millionaire Andrew Carnegie had offered £1,500 for building works. But now, at a lively parish meeting on Wednesday 16 December 1903, it looked as if Tinsley might not get its library.

The ‘much-talked-of American millionaire’, Andrew Carnegie (public domain)

According to the 1911 census, J L Winkley was a steelworks clerk, living with his wife and young daughter in Harrowden Road, just around the corner from the proposed site for the library. He was a local activist, serving on the parish council, and as its clerk, and also on the committee of Tinsley and District Working Men’s Club and Institute. His name appeared frequently in the local press. An account in the Sheffield Telegraph of 26 January 1909, long after the battle of the library, shows how strong-minded he seems to have been. He was the clerk to the council and during a meeting he alleged that the chairman, Mr Marriott, had failed in his duty over Sunday trading. Marriott was forced to resign, saying that he hoped his replacement would ‘see that the clerk is kept in his proper position’. The new chairman evidently hoped to lighten the mood, saying ‘smilingly’: ‘lf the clerk has any of his nonsense I shall take him up and drop him on the floor.’ ‘Perhaps he will be a bigger pill than you can swallow,’ retorted Marriott, provoking cries of ‘Order’.

Back in 1903, at the meeting about the library, the then chairman, H C Else, summarised matters:

… the Council had had two offers made to them, one from Earl Fitzwilliam in the shape of a grant of a site for a Free Library, entirely free of cost, and another from Mr Carnegie of £1,500, on the understanding that the library building should be erected for that sum. Before doing that they must adopt the Free Libraries Act. Mr Carnegie further stipulated that Tinsley should spend £100 per year from the rates on the up-keep of the library. … It rested with the ratepayers to decide whether they would accept those two most handsome offers.

Another member of the council, J H Meades, was on hand to remind everyone, a little pompously, of the benefits a library would bring:

…it was time Tinsley had a Free Library. The present handsome offers, he considered, too good to throw away. If they did not avail themselves of this opportunity he thought it would a good many years before they would have such a favourable chance of securing a library. (Applause.) The working class population, he further pointed out, would derive most benefit from such an institution, but the large ratepayers of the district would bear the greatest portion of the burden.

Mr Winkley, however, was not easily reconciled. He had, he made clear, no problem with the library in principle, and was happy with Earl Fitzwilliam’s offer of land. But he did not want money from Andrew Carnegie. He asked how the approach had been made to the American and why local firms had not been invited to contribute. He also wanted an assurance that £1,500 was enough, and to know just how the council proposed to buy books. Most people present thought that the £100 a year to be raised from the rate would be enough for books and perhaps even a caretaker. But Mr Winkley disagreed, saying that ‘there would not be many books bought’.

From 1912, when Tinsley joined Sheffield and the parish council was dissolved. The original caption identifies Mr Meades (front row) and Mr Winkley (back row). Next to him is Mr Burton, Tinsley’s librarian.

Mr Else seemed to feel that the meeting was getting away from him. He:

urged that libraries had been established under similar financial conditions in other parishes which had accepted gifts from Mr. Carnegie. Why should not Tinsley do likewise, he asked?

But this only gave Mr Winkley the chance to be blunt:

for the life of him, he could not see how any self-respecting working man could accept an offer of this description from a man like Mr. Carnegie. …

If [local businesses had not been asked], they ought to have been, before the parish went outside to an American millionaire. He thought these firms would nearly, if not quite, have defrayed the cost of such a building if they had been approached. If the matter were gone about in the right way even now, he thought the necessary for the building could be raised in this way. Other Councils in the country had refused Mr. Carnegie’s offer.

The Telegraph recorded verbatim the discussion that followed, and the tension is evident:

The clerk: How many?

A ratepayer: Lots.

Mr Winkley: ‘If a man made me the offer of a present, which I could not conscientiously accept, I should not have it.’ (Hear, hear.)

The Clerk: Sheffield – Walkley accepted it.

Mr Winkley: That is no reason why we should do.

The Clerk: Not at all, if you don’t want it.

Mr Else said that in his view local firms could not donate ‘in a time of bad trade’.

So far as they knew, Mr Carnegie was a gentleman, and was doing very great good with the money he had compiled.

After more discussion, Mr F Bragg proposed that the offers should be accepted, adding that

a good deal had been said about the way Mr Carnegie had made his money, but he could not see that he differed from the great capitalists of this country.

The vote was a resounding 30 to one in favour of acceptance. Mr Winkley seems to have objected to Andrew Carnegie as a capitalist, and a foreigner at that, riding in style on the backs of working men. The Sheffield Independent later reported that:

It was stated by some that he had made his money by sweating his employees. (9 June 1905)

Perhaps the fact that his fortune came from steel made in another country was also a sore point in a steel town like Tinsley.[i] But in the end Winkley failed to persuade any other councillor. Tinsley would have its Carnegie library, and it seems unlikely that Andrew Carnegie was ever aware of the opposition to him.

That John Luther Winkley objected to Carnegie the capitalist seems born out by two newspaper reports. First the Sheffield Independent of 11 July 1904, reporting on the laying of the foundation stone by Sir William Holland MP, recorded Sir William’s speech:

[The library] would not have been possible had it not been for the splendid generosity of Mr. Andrew Carnegie. (Cheers.) Mr. Carnegie was a very rich man, as they knew, but he was also a man who recognised the responsibility which wealth carried with it, and the wealth that he had he had put, as they were all prepared to testify, to nobler uses than if it were spent on selfish pleasure or on enervating luxury or pompous display and show. … The work carried on in that particular neighbourhood must be one which would naturally appeal to Mr. Carnegie, because it was out of the iron and steel trade he himself had made his vast fortune, and he (Sir William) imagined that with Mr Carnegie’s intimate knowledge of that trade hardly anybody would know better than he how delightful a recreation reading would be to a man who had spent an arduous day amid the dust and din of the foundry and forge. (Hear, hear.)

(One feels that Mr Winkley perhaps had a better understanding of the effect of a day spent working in a foundry than Sir William.)

The second article is the Sheffield Telegraph’s about the official opening of the library in June 1905. As he opened the door with a special silver key, Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of Wm Cook & Co, said:

Scornful words had been said about Mr Carnegie. He did not believe that Mr Carnegie had got his money by ‘sweating’ working men. He felt certain that as a working lad he had derived great value from reading books  and, knowing that they were the best friends a man could have, he was giving out of his wealth such institutions as the one in which they were interested, for the benefit of others…(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1905)

This must be a dig or even a rebuke to Mr Winkley, and there is an irony in the next words of the Telegraph:

On the motion of Mr Winkley, seconded by Mr J Marriott, a vote of thanks was given to Mr Wilkinson.

 

In our next post on Tinsley Library, we’ll look at the building erected with Andrew Carnegie’s money.

Architect’s drawing of Tinsley Library

[i] Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland, but had emigrated to the USA as a young boy. He lived most of his life there, although he remained close to his Scottish roots. He made a vast fortune – over $350m – from steel.

In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy Norbury, b.1931)

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the people of Sheffield woke up, if they had slept at all, to find a changed city. The day before, 12 December 1940, was the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, when the Luftwaffe targeted the steel city. In an earlier post, we looked at how our readers, like Dorothy all young at the time, remembered the raids. Here are extracts from The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 and from the memories of staff about the part Sheffield Libraries played in the aftermath of the Blitz.[i] It was fortunate that the Central Library in Surrey Street, which became the base for public assistance, was not much damaged, despite its location between The Moor and Fitzalan Square, both of which were more or less destroyed.

In the frosty dawn of December 13th, thousands of people homeless, bereaved, or threatened with loss of livelihood, turned to the Government and Corporation to find out what to do, and for the first few hours there was no one to tell them. The Public Assistance Department had planned a scheme for just such an emergency, but its headquarters  and many of its prepared centres had been destroyed. The City Librarian was asked by the Emergency Committee to put the Central Library  at the disposal of the eleven local and national departments concerned with post raid needs; by mid-day the officers of the Public Assistance Department had already arrived. The next day the other officials were at work in the newsroom, the Reference Library and the administrative offices, and a Missing Relatives Bureau had been set up by members of the library staff.

For several weeks the library presented an extraordinary spectacle. Crowds of people of all ages thronged the tables where the officials sat dispensing comfort, material help and information; dogs, tea and tobacco smoke were visible in the public rooms for the only time in history; a continual noise made up of chatter, laughter, sometimes argument and occasionally tears, ruffled the usually placid air. Amongst it all the library staff not only catalogued and issued books as usual, but listened to tales of woe, administered refreshment, and made it their business to know something about everything going on in the building.

Remembering the Blitz years later, one member of the library staff said:

The library was closed because there was an unexploded bomb somewhere in the Eyre Street area. Mr Lamb [the City Librarian] was totally tied up with getting the Information Service going, and Mr Hutchings the deputy, was in charge of the library. We found all sorts of stranded people hanging around both in the library and in the street outside. … Mr Lamb said ‘Well, set up a counter in the magazine room – what is now the Business Library – tell them what you can, you can ask the Information Committee for anything you can’t cope with.’ Gradually it grew. All I can remember now is that, all of a sudden, after a week, we were running an information service as if we’d always done it, which in a way we had.

First of all people were coming in and asking where they could get these claim forms for the damage to their houses, then soldiers coming home on compassionate leave, bursting in, wild-eyed, I can’t find my wife and children, and then other relatives came in whose people were absolutely safe and sound and they’d no way of telling them.

One of the Lending Library staff recalled:

People from Lending and myself went to a local grocery store – Tuckwoods it was called, on Fargate – and we bought as many tins of soup as we could manage between us. The Ministry had suspended food rationing because of the Blitz. We took the tins to the staff canteen and as the gas mains had gone we heated the soup in an electric kettle. We took it down to the people who’d gone into the basement of the library because the food kitchens hadn’t arrived by then.

They decided they would keep the Lending Library open … it was considered good for morale if people had books to read, you see. I was in charge of keeping the Lending Library open with about half a dozen staff, while everyone else was working on relief work. … I’d see [Mr Lamb] passing through and organising things, he’d just say ‘Hello, girlie’ and that would be it. He was far too busy to bother with me, he knew I was doing my job and that was it.

It was important to get information out across the city, noted The City Libraries of Sheffield, and the usual channels were generally not available.

Twice a day instructions received from the responsible officers were cast by the Committee into simple messages broadcast from cars by voluntary workers. The more important of these instructions were issued as stencilled or printed bulletins which were distributed daily by trained young cyclists.

Understandably uncertain at first, the library service gradually settled down, new ways of working developed, and plans were laid down.

Between all the officials in the building there grew up a spirit of mutual helpfulness and friendly co-operation. … When the representatives of most departments had left the library by the beginning of February, 1941, the staff of the Public Assistance Department remained, administering the Air Raid Information Bureau for the rest of the war in the library.

The Public Assistance Officer and the City Librarian still worked closely together to prepare for any new emergency which might arise. They devised a system of information posts so arranged that any part of it might come into action independently of the others. …

The City Librarian was appointed BBC Liaison Officer in September, 1941, and attended every meeting of the Invasion Committee from March, 1941. In the case of fighting in the neighbourhood, or a temporary occupation by the enemy, the official source of all information was to be the Central Library, the centre of a complex web of communications with the Civil Defence and military authorities. The aim of the whole organisation was to ensure that the public should know what information was accurate and what put out falsely by the enemy. The scheme, for which most careful preparations and rehearsals were carried out, was suspended in the autumn of 1943, and fortunately did not need to be revived.

After the Blitz of December 1941, Sheffield was not again seriously threatened. One of the librarians said:

We were running at full blast as an information service on practically everything for several months after the raid, then gradually business began to drop off and return to whatever you call normal life in wartime.

And the official City Libraries of Sheffield records:

By June, 1945, the Central Library was again devoted entirely to library purposes.

Sheffield Central Library today

[i] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956, pp. 47-9). The staff memories quoted come from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983). If the copyright holders come forward, we will happily acknowledge them.

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