Dickens Comes to Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

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

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

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

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

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

Sheffield Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

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

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

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

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

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


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

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

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

Lockdown reading

By Poppy Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The books along the way…

By Lily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The top of the attic stairs

By Mabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea and poetry (2020)

On 29 January 2020 Reading Sheffield invited our interviewees and their families, our interviewers, the readers from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, and some old friends to a special reading by poet Eleanor Brown from her latest collection. Published in October 2019 by Bloodaxe Books, White Ink Stains is based in part on what our 60+ interviewees told us about their reading journeys.

About 25 of us met at The Art House, in the centre of the city, and over tea or coffee and scones, with jam and cream, we listened to Eleanor read a dozen or so poems and discuss how she writes. It was a particular pleasure to welcome our interviewees, Julia BanksShirley EllinsJim Green and Betty Newman.

Eleanor says that she has never looked at a transcript of our interviews. She has only listened, time and again over eighteen long months, to the voices, learning the rhythms, the sounds, the laughter and the sadness. And from this have come her poems. Here are some quotations:

From Appetite:

Book-hungry teenage girl, great ravenous

word-eating eyes, amazing stamina

for nothing but to lie in bed and read

omnivorous of print, devouring gaze

insatiable for all the big fat works,

yes all of Dickens, Eliot and James,

now Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola, Proust.

From Helpless with Laughter:

Mother would read me The House at Pooh Corner

When I was only so high

She in her big chair and I in my little

Straight-backed Mother and I

Once I remember us helpless with laughter

Both of us laughing so much

Neither could speak, and I fell off my chair

From The Dressmaker:

They asked us what we liked to do

My mother spoke for me

‘She likes to sew’ – ‘Then she should go

In the shirt factory.’

And I were furious! For that

I could nor would not bear.

Oh, I came home and angry-cried

‘I will not go in there.’

From Snatches of Old Lauds:

I found my Sunday School hymn book –

the Bible in another form, we used to say;

the poetry helps you remember.

But damp in the attic had got it.

What hadn’t mouldered away up there

disintegrated softly in my hands.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon all round. ‘The poems were wonderful,’ said one guest, ‘ with a very rich vein of humour throughout, as well as the touching/poignant ones.’ ‘I have always enjoyed reading poems,’ said another, ‘but never been particularly attracted to readings. Eleanor’s readings have converted me.’

Sheffield Hallam University’s Humanities Research Centre was kind enough to sponsor the event, and we thank the Head of the Centre, Professor Chris Hopkins, for his continuing enthusiasm and support.

And thanks too to The Art House for their excellent refreshments and for being so friendly.

Copies of White Ink Stains can be bought locally from Rhyme and Reason and Waterstones. You can read more about Eleanor’s poetry here.

The musical and reading adventures of the Hereford Street gang

By Mary Grover

Barbara Sorby has contributed a huge amount to Reading Sheffield. She worked in Sheffield Libraries for 47 years. You can find her story here. Barbara has also helped me understand the lure of the Chalet School stories which were popular with so many of our readers. But just before Christmas she took me in a different direction and introduced me to the memoir of her cousin, Ken Leary, whose Bombs over Bramall Lane (ACM Retro, 2011) tells the wartime story of the community of Highfield, much of which now lies beneath the dual carriageway separating Bramall Lane and the Moor.

Ken died about ten years ago. In his memoir he writes eloquently of the sheer energy of the boys he grew up with in the 1940s, often brought up by mothers whose husbands were away in the forces or working long hours in the steel industries upon which Britain’s war effort depended. Ken’s health was not always good. It is difficult to believe that a boy who led his friends into adventures all over the Peak District in the late forties spent more than a year in bed with bronchial pneumonia while the bombs were obliterating much of the neighbourhood around him. He was sent to Wales to recuperate and on his return developed a tubercular gland – treatment meant increased financial strain on his over-burdened mother. When he recovered Ken had to learn to walk again and was soon involving himself in the culture of the inner-city terraces in which he lived.

The Central Library was within walking distance of Ken’s home, a walk through and around the Moor which had once been a busy shopping centre. The boys colonised the cellars as soon as the shops above them had been bombed-out. Their explorations beneath the tottering structures above nearly came to an end when they realised they were sharing a recently revealed cavern with a pile of bodies. They ‘fled like scared rabbits’ into the rubble above to discover a fire engine hosing down mounds of smouldering tailors’ dummies. Few of our readers took such risks on their way to the Central Library.

Sheffield Central Library, which opened in 1934

Unlike his cousin Barbara, Ken preferred non-fiction. One book quite literally extended the horizons of himself and the rest of the Hereford Street Gang: ‘not a gang of hooligans – more like a gang straight out of a Just William book’.

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

The Central Library was an important meeting place for the gang, particularly the Graves Art Gallery at the top of the building. They would spend their time ‘browsing and looking at the paintings and other objects on display’ especially during the winter ‘because it was somewhere to go that was warm and dry’.

Among my favourite books at the time were the Just William stories, but I generally enjoyed any boys’ adventure books like Biggles or books about football. I was particularly taken with the Out with Romany books. There were a series of books all about the countryside – the moors, the woods and fields, and the coasts around Britain. They were filled with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the birds and animals, the butterflies and insects that inhabit these islands. They really stirred-up my childhood imagination and I couldn’t wait to get out into this new and fascinating world that I had discovered – far away from the bombs and destruction we had recently witnessed in our everyday lives.

When he was ten or 11 Ken came across a small paperback, Across the Derbyshire Moors, published by the local Sheffield papers. The boys studied the ramblings mapped on those pages and discovered that many of the routes were within walking distance of Highfield or ‘at least a halfpenny tram-ride away’. ‘This book was definitely going to broaden our horizons and we couldn’t wait to get started’.

Ken exploring at speed

The local churches also introduced the Hereford Street Gang to all sorts of cultural activities and even enabled them to make a few pennies. At Christmas the boys would go round the local pubs, ‘mummering’, which in the way of those days meant singing carols with masks or blacked-up faces.

This was achieved by rubbing soot, from the back of the fire, on to our faces. Sometimes lard was applied first, and then the soot…. Where the hell we got this from I haven’t a clue.  Don’t remember anyone ever telling us about it and we certainly never saw anybody else do it. The mystery remains.

The pub crawl began at 8pm (‘You may ask: “What were your parents doing, allowing you to stay out till that time of night?”’). They were usually welcomed but they couldn’t count on getting into the Queen Adelaide which had its own concert room. Sometimes the landlord was reluctant to let them but the customers would shout to him: ‘Let them in you miserable sod.’ Those who had never heard the boys before were ‘in for a shock’ because the gang had hidden talents’.

The majority of us were choirboys, believe it or not, at St Mary’s Church on Matilda Lane. Complete with cassock and surplus, we sang at services on a Sunday morning for the princely sum of 3d a week, provided that we turned up for choir practice on a Wednesday night (we’d do anything to earn a crust). So you see, we…could also sing a bit.

Then just after the end of the war they discovered a side-door into the mighty Perpendicular-style church that still stands about two hundred yards from the famous football stadium in Bramall Lane. The church had been boarded up during the war so the gang was delighted at the new playground that awaited them inside. As they crowded into the doorway of the open church (‘as though butter wouldn’t melt in our mouth’), they stopped ‘in awe’ because at the organ, which had been silent for six years, sat a man ‘playing away just like Reginald Dixon’, the famous Blackpool Tower organist.

The front of the organ was lit up and the man suddenly turned round, spotted us, smiled, and carried on playing. On seeing that he was friendly we all timidly entered the dimly lit church and sat down on the dusty pews – not a word being spoken. What an odd sight we must have looked – a group of scruffy kids sitting in a dusty church lit only by the shafts of sunlight beaming in through holes in the boarded-up windows.’

They had other musical patrons. Though most of the boys went to Pomona Elementary School and were unable to go on to grammar school where there was usually more music on offer, Ken felt he had, on the whole, good teachers. One of his favourites was the music teacher, Mr Murray, who not only took his pupils to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall but had prepared them to recognise the instruments being played: ‘in fact I can still recall some of those classical pieces almost sixty years on.’ Mr Murray was also an excellent pianist.

Towards the end the lesson he would play a medley of popular songs of the day, all jumbled up and with some of the notes altered to disguise them. The person who wrote down the most correct titles was rewarded with a sixpence and the winners were always girls!

Unlike his much younger cousin, Barbara, Ken did not make his living from his love of reading. He became a joiner. This book testifies to how much his early encounters with books and with music meant to him. He owed a lot to the great cultural provision represented by Sheffield Libraries and the regular visits of the Hallé Orchestra. He also paid tribute to the dedication of his elementary school teachers. But, like so many of our readers, he was also a great entrepreneur. He would seize any chance that came his way and, acting on the leads given him, go tramping round the moorland that had been inaccessible until he borrowed the book of walks, or use his choir training to gather pennies from the drinkers around the streets that led off Bramall Lane.

Ken Leary’s Bombs over Bramall Lane (available here) is an inspirational book and I do recommend it.

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.

Johnny and the Plum Tree

Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s.

For Sheffield’s 2019 Off the Shelf Festival, on 21 October, Eleanor and Imtiaz Dharkar are reading from their latest collections of poems, published by Bloodaxe Books. Eleanor’s poems, White Ink Stains, draw in part on the Reading Sheffield interviews. Click here for more information.

Here is the Dutch original:

Jantje zag eens pruimen hangen
O! als eieren zo groot
‘t Scheen, dat Jantje wou gaan plukken
Schoon zijn vader ‘t hem verbood
Hier is, zei hij, noch mijn vader
Noch de tuinman, die het ziet
Aan een boom, zo vol geladen
Mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet
Maar ik wil gehoorzaam wezen
En niet plukken; ik loop heen
Zou ik om een hand vol pruimen
Ongehoorzaam wezen? Neen!
 
Voort ging Jantje, maar zijn vader
Die hem stil beluisterd had
Kwam hem in het lopen tegen
Vooraan op het middenpad
Kom mijn Jantje, zei de vader
Kom mijn kleine hartedief
Nu zal ik u pruimen plukken
Nu heeft vader Jantje lief
Daarop ging Papa aan ‘t schudden
Jantje raapte schielijk op
Jantje kreeg zijn hoed vol pruimen
En liep heen op een galop.

From the wall hanging which Julia made at the time

And here is Eleanor’s ‘mainly accurate translation’:

Johnny sees the ripe plums hanging
Oh! As big as eggs they are.
How he longs to grasp and pluck
The fruit forbidden by Papa!
“But,” he ponders, “neither Father
Nor the gardener’s here to see:
Who would miss just five or six
From such a heavy-laden tree?
Yet I want to be obedient…
Mustn’t pick them…better go.
Shall I, for a ripe sweet handful,
Disobey my father? No!”
 
Off goes Johnny: but his father,
Who has overheard it all,
Catches up as he walks homeward,
Stops him by the garden wall.
“Come, my Johnny,” says the father,
“Come, my darling little lad,
Now shall you have plums aplenty,
Now you’ve pleased your watchful Dad!”
Father gives the tree a shaking.
Followed, eavesdropped-on, policed,
Johnny fills his hat with plums,
And gallops off to have his feast.

Honesty or policy? Johnny’s under surveillance from a parent who rewards obedience with approval (and plums) – if he sees it for himself. That’s why Johnny does his moral cogitating aloud, in stage soliloquy. There’s no trust here.

Here are other Dutch nursery rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes with Me
In The Hague There Lives a Count
Sinterklaas
Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

Julie’s reading journey: ‘Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me’

Our guest blogger Julie was born on the Manor estate in Sheffield in 1950. She attended St Theresa’s Primary School.  After graduating from Notre Dame High School, she left Sheffield for Newcastle-on-Tyne, to train as a teacher. She taught for two years in Liverpool before heading off on an adventurous journey to Sydney, Australia, where she still lives. She has spent her career in education – teaching, writing and lecturing. She was Head of Education at the Australian Museum and General Manager of the charity The Peer Support Foundation. She now writes fiction. Her novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and will be released by Pegasus later this year.

Manor Library and its garden today

By Julie Howard

My earliest memory of Manor Library is the Peter Pan and Wendy mural, which was painted on one of the glass partitions. Dressed in pale greens and blue they flew through the air, their eyes wide with astonishment. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was 1955 and the library was only a couple of years old. It was glorious. 

Manor Library in the 1950s, when Julie joined
The Manor entrance today, showing it has not changed so very much since the 1950s

In the children’s library, boys and girls whispered together as they searched the shelves. Occasionally a giggle would erupt only to be quelled by a glower from the librarian. Once we had chosen our book, we approached the counter. The librarian vigorously flicked through small brown envelopes until she found our card. There was a nerve-wracking moment as she scrutinised the chosen book before peering down into your face. Heaven help you, if you chose something unsuitable. I remember a Just William book being confiscated. With a burning face I went back to choose ‘something more suitable’ from the shelves, which was difficult because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I now think it was because I had chosen a ‘boy’s book’!

The imposing entrance through which the young Julie walked

I loved Manor Library from the first moment I stepped in there. At first, I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t borrow a book until I was six. It took me weeks of pleading before they let me join. It was years later I found out that the kind-hearted librarian had changed my birthdate. Nat the Cat was my first book. I read it in the morning and went back for more in the afternoon, only to be told that I could only have one book a day!

The library in the 1950s

Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me. After tea, mum would walk me up to ‘Reading Circle’. Children sat cross-legged on the floor and the librarians’ stories took us away from our everyday lives to Narnia and other exotic places. From that time on, mum often found me standing and staring hopefully at the back of my wardrobe. The librarians always left us, jaws hanging, at the most crucial part of the story. If we wanted to know the ending, we had to rise up to the challenge of finishing the book.

At Christmas time the drama group would put on plays and the whole family would attend. Of course, with my long blonde hair I was always an angel, but one year, I was lucky enough to get a singing part… Oh joy! 

It was a magical place to write. Storybook and pencil in hand I would walk up Prince of Wales Road, to the library, which always seem to be open. I’d sit at one of the tables and write my stories of fairies and goblins.

Julie and her classmates

I now divide my time between Sydney and Sheffield (Manly to the Manor) Of course an annual pilgrimage to Manor Library to say thank you, is essential. I am still reading and writing voraciously. My novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and draws on some of my childhood memories. I also work with refugees and others trying to get their stories into print. After all we all have a story to tell, don’t we?

Julie today

Manor Library serves the Manor ward in souh-east Sheffield. The area was rural until the 1930s, when Sheffield Council started building a large estate to relieve inner city crowding. The branch library was almost ready in 1939, when war broke out, and it could not be completed and opened until 1953. The design of the building was innovative in its day, and we plan to tell the story of Manor Library in a future post.

Ruth’s Reading Journey: ‘I read and read and read.’

By Ruth Owen

Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.

Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.

But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.

My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.

Ruth’s mum and dad on their wedding day

Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:

‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’

‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.

‘Can I go to Gillian’s?

‘Mmmm.’

‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’

‘What’s that love?’

What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.

So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.

Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and  still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.    

I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.  

And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.

I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.

To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.

Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.

Jane Eyre, for breakfast

Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.

Original advert for Germinal, one of Ruth’s favourites of French literature.

University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.

Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.

Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.