In the year 1873

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

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

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

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

Brightside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upperthorpe

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

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

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

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

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

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

The Day The Library Closed

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

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

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

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

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

Sheffield’s Metropolitan Air. A Librarian’s Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walkley’s Carnegie Library, opened in 1905

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheffield Central Library today

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


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

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

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

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

A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

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

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

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

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


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

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

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

Dickens Comes to Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

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

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

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

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

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

Sheffield Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

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

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

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

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

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


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

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Totley Library building, now a hairdressing salon

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

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

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

What were all these people borrowing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children playing in wartime (public domain)

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Lorna Doone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret C’s reading journey

Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.  

By Mary Grover

Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with attractive girls on them’.

Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.

I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?

Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.

Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every Saturday and remembers her first choices:

One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.

Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior Library, but never history or detective novels.

Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’  She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.

The old Firth Park Library building today

At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.

When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!

There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.

Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it. 

You can read Mary’s full interview here.

City Librarian Speaks Out

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

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

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.

Young Janice

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