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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Hints and Wrinkles (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our readers’ experiences generally reflect this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The six volumes are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Extracts

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

Two adults, and three children

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

B. Make your Kitchen Attractive

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

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

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

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

D. Suggested Timetable for Washing Day

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

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

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

12.12.30. Wash silks.

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

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

2 pm. Starching.

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

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

E. Home-made Cleaning Materials, including:

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

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

Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter B’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Peter was born in 1930 in the Ecclesall Bierlow area of Sheffield. His father was a musician and engineer, who came to Sheffield to play in a colliery band, and his mother was a homemaker. He gained a scholarship to King Edward VII School and, at 17, won an Exhibition to Oxford, studying Jurisprudence. Before taking up his place at Exeter College Oxford, he did National Service, based initially in Palestine and then, as Liaison Officer to the Americans, moving around several bases in Europe. After his degree he worked in Canada for two years and then moved back to Sheffield where new Assizes were opening. He practised as a barrister, became a QC and a judge. Though retired, he still works part time (2012). He is married with three children.

My life, let me put it this way, my life would have been different and I would have been different if I’d hadn’t had the ability and the privilege to have had access to a lot of printed stuff.

Peter’s reading journey began with his mother who read to him:

Usually bedtime stories… none that I recall now but they would be the usual child books.

He was a fairly precocious reader – he could read very readily by the time he was five:

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

Winnie the Pooh and then I got, by the time I was sort of seven or eight -Richmal Crompton’s Just William. It sounds dreadful now but … they were reasonably well written and grammatical.

He was also influenced by two older girl cousins who lived at Greenhill:

And they had books – they were, sort of, I suppose, girl-slanted, but the one I can remember most clearly was Little Women, is that Louisa May Alcott? And I also, I read some sort of  boys, pretty basic, Robin Hoods and Hereward the Wake, and you know, sort of quasi-history stories.

Hereward the Wake fighting Normans

Peter acquired his books from a variety of places:

They were bought for me by my parents or I borrowed them from my cousins or friends or what have you. I wasn’t into going into bookshops then – I was too young for Blackwells.

When he was older, he did frequent second hand bookshops:

… There was a lovely second bookshop on Division St called Applebaums and I used to go in there and …I used [to] browse as well as buy in there.

As a young adult he read widely:

By then I was reading pretty broadly – Dickens, and you know, the sort of easily accessible classics that you read. And – very difficult now to recall the specific impression from a specific book but I read a lot and I enjoyed it.

His studies did influence his reading:

One did various books, for instance School Certificate and High School Certificate – can’t remember oh now – Tale of Two Cities was one of the set books and also, at the time, it was very avant-garde, James Joyce, Ulysses.

He was busy, he recalls:

…bear in mind that by the time I was 16, I was studying fairly hard. I got a history Exhibition to Oxford & that involved a fair amount of reading so there wasn’t a lot of [time]…  and what with that, I was also engaged in music – I played a lot of piano at that time.

Peter was always interested in history:

I liked history – I’ve always slightly thought that novels are a waste of time … I suppose, indirectly, you learn things but … I got more out of biographies and history books … Elizabeth by Neale – that was the classic one then … and there was Peter the Great – [by] HAL Fisher

He gives one reason why he was very interested in history:

When I was very young, my father was a musician and we travelled around and lived in a number of places and I would be taken to stately homes.

Libraries played an important part in Peter’s reading journey: as a child he used to take the tram to Highfields Library but also:

King Edward’s, and City Libraries. I used to spend as time got on … Sheffield Libraries were very good – either the Reference Library which was upstairs at Surrey Street and then the Science & Technology Library, which a lot of the History stuff was in downstairs, so I read it there.

He singled out one particular library:

The Codrington Library (by Farradane, Creative Commons)

I was very lucky at Oxford because, apart from the Bodleian, which is lovely, my tutor was a fellow of All Souls as well as my college; and in All Souls was a library called Codrington. Codringtons were people who founded All Souls. It was all built from money from slaves and sugar. That’s where their money came from.[i] But the Codrington Library is a long Georgian library, exquisitely furnished – sort of astrolabes and things like that – and I found that more conducive to learning and studying than any place I’d ever been.

The quality of writing has always been very important to Peter:

Yes, I do like Bennett. I think Bennett is beautifully written… Of course Wodehouse writes beautifully.

Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

And he is a great fan of Raymond Chandler for the same reason:

Humphrey Bogart reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written and seen most of his film scripts… he writes brilliantly – and he can create an atmosphere.

He is interested in crime fiction:

Having spent a lifetime – not in crime – mine was civil law but concerning courts and it’s interesting when you read to see if the one who is writing knows anything about it or not.  It’s readily apparent when they don’t.

He is not a fan of science fiction:

Science fiction as a whole drives me up the wall. I cannot do with it particularly on the tele. I loathe and abhor and would run a mile to avoid War of the Worlds – I don’t mean HG Wells’ War of the Worlds  but I mean the spaceships, zipping to and fro. ‘Beam me aboard, Scottie.’

Peter had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover ‘even before copies were generally available’ – and he felt that Lawrence ‘…advanced literature in the sense that it was the first time that sort of thoughts had been attributed to the working class’.

He has some early editions of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler,

…which are interesting both as to me as a fisherman – hence the shirt – and also from the historical context, and of course there are strong local connections … Charles Cotton lived [in] Beresford Dale in Derbyshire, and the little fishing temple that he and Izaak Walton used is still there.

Peter has always seemed to find time to read:

I’ve always been – not so much lately – but I was always  an early morning person – I found both at school, and at university, army, everywhere – if you get up early in the morning, particularly light mornings we have in spring and summer, you are not interrupted.

He still reads widely, though mainly history and biographies, and he has hundreds of books,

I try and give them away but the trouble is, as soon as I give some away, that creates a space, and I get some more!

Something we all can relate to!

Peter’s full interview is here.

[i] In fact, All Souls was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry VI, who was co-opted by the Archbishop as the College’s co-founder. In the 18th century, the College library received a substantial donation from Christopher Codrington, who did indeed make his money through slavery, and became known as the Codrington Library.

 

 

Barbara Green’s Reading Journey

Barbara was born in 1944, in the Sheffield suburb of Pitsmoor. Her father was a steelworker. Her mum returned to work in the Mappin & Webb warehouse when Barbara was 18 months old and then later worked as a cleaner at Balfours. Although she passed the 11 Plus, Barbara wasn’t able to take up her place at grammar school. She continued her education later, going to university to read Literature at the age of 48. She is married to another of our readers, Jim Green, whose interview is here. They have two children.

Barbara and Jim Green on their wedding day

I think my opinions have been formed by fiction and then pushing me out into real life, not real life coming into the books that I read.

Barbara started her reading journey in her mum’s company. She was the youngest child, born to a mother in her forties, and the only daughter. Inevitably perhaps, mother and daughter spent a lot of time together and this, she thinks, ‘is how I came to be a reader’. Her mum, Kitty, is:

always in my head. Dad didn’t play a big part in my life. It was … I think, I don’t know whether it was just us, I suspect it wasn’t; but mothers ruled, OK. They were the biggest influence.

Barbara and Kitty were a team:

Mum and I would do things in the week – we were like a sort of duo. Dad was either at work or he was in the pub [laughs]. So it was usually me and Mum. … So it would be in the week … sort of either after school or in the school holidays and that was one of our regular visits with the Botanical Gardens and the Museum, and stuff like that.

Books were part of their routine. Both her parents enjoyed reading. Their choices were ‘quite stereotypical really, Dad [reading] men’s books and Mother … romances’. Her dad liked westerns, which his wife used to point out were ‘really just romances on horseback’. Kitty liked ‘Daphne du Maurier, Ruby M Ayres, people like that’ and Catherine Cookson who ‘seemed to speak to Mum about life as she had experienced it’.

Life was a drudge to some extent so [my parents] wanted to be taken out of it, yes. There wasn’t an intellectual view of life in my family. It was whatever gave you pleasure when you’d got time to take that pleasure. … But books were part of it. Very much so, yes.

The family used the public library.

From the local library which for me was Burngreave.  It was something that we did, you’d go and get three or four books out and … I mean I can’t remember the first time I visited the library but it was part of life. My mum used to clean when I was an older child and she would go to work and come back and she’d have a cup of tea and sit at the table and she’d have a chapter of her book as she called it. She did that for the rest of her life. Every morning after breakfast – read a chapter of a book.

Burngreave Library was ‘a couple of roads away’. ‘It was ”Ssh!” as you walked through the door.’ Kitty

had got favourite writers and she‘d look for new editions of their books coming out but if you remember, the libraries were … at that time, they’d be a bit like Waterstones is now … romances, historical novels etc. So you would browse those sections for whatever you were interested in.

Barbara’s reading included:

Enid Blyton, Secret Seven … all of that sort of stuff. Interestingly all about a different class, and I loved those and longed to go to a private school where we could have a midnight party … or whatever … because life was very different for me. … I loved all the girls’ classics … you know … Heidi, Little Women and all of that.

School seemed to have little influence on Barbara:

… the reading, it was much more regimented, more prescribed, and you weren’t discussing books per se; you were more or less reading by rote. Or at least that’s my experience.

It was Barbara’s mum who was responsible for the ‘book that impressed me most,’ The Wide, Wide World by the 19th century religious writer, Susan Warner:

… that was a book Mum had read and passed on to me. A book that she’d cherished from her childhood and she gave to me. And I don’t know what happened to it, the copy, the original copy, and a few years ago it popped into my mind. I don’t know if we’d been talking about it at Book Group and I bought it as an e-book and I read it again and I still loved it. It’s really quite a didactic book … it’s about adversity and being good and how kindness wins out in the end.

As time passed, Barbara naturally developed her own taste in books: literary fiction, classics, new writing and, thanks to her grandson, the occasional graphic novel. She discusses books with her husband and children. She still belongs to the public library and enjoys a book group. Underpinning this lifetime of reading is her mother’s early encouragement:

… I think I was treated more or less as an adult because, as I say … I’d come into a family where, really I was a mistake as my Mum used to call it. [laughs] And I used to think that was awful when I was young but I came to appreciate it. Because there was she, a forty one year old woman, who felt that the kids were getting off her hands and she was going to go back to work and then she’s pregnant again. I remember being on my own from an early age and I think that shaped me. It made me into a solitary person and I found escape in books … and so I think that was part of it.

You can read Barbara’s interview in full, or listen to the transcript, here.

The Toolhouse Club: a gift for Christmas

What do you give the thirteen year old son of a leading steel manufacturer for Christmas in 1911?

Jacques Reindorp’s The Toolhouse Club, of course.

This beautifully produced book, gilt edged pages and meticulous illustrations, found its way to Reading Sheffield because of its inscription:

A friend of Reading Sheffield found the book in Sheffield’s Oxfam bookshop,searched the name Kenneth Darwin Flather and was led to our interview with Kenneth’s nephew, David Flather. David was heir to various Sheffield traditions. His father’s family were longstanding and pioneering steel manufacturers in the nineteenth century and his mother was related to Sheffield authors from the Leader and Waterhouse families. David himself studied engineering at Cambridge but also became a voracious reader of maps, adventure stories and ‘the Bronte girls.’ You can find his account of his reading history here.

It is a book that could have consumed Kenneth throughout the following year. It describes the purposeful activities of a group of boys absorbed by the challenges of making a canoe in which they set out on bold but never foolhardy adventures. From the outset the processes of decision making are democratic and preceded by thoughtful deliberation. The frontispiece of the book  depicts ‘A Debate at the Club’. seven boys in the sparsely furnished club shed, all in three piece suits, seven little homunculi practising at being lawyers rather than engineers. Or perhaps drawing up a new British Constitution.

 

Though their debates about how to go about building a canoe are extensive, the book is chiefly concerned with the skills the boys acquire in constructing a clinker build canoe. The steps they take at each stage of the process are illustrated by detailed diagrams all designed to be a practical guide for the young engineers. Sheffield is not rich in large expanses of water so it would be surprising if either Kenneth or his nephew were ever able to make practical use of the book but since David was to spend much of his professional life writing technical manuals for the Sheffield firm of Edgar Allen it is tempting to think that he was inspired by the clarity of these images in his uncle’s library.

The off-stage heroine of this novel is ‘mater’ on whom the boys rely to bring on a constant supply of wholesome food for the ‘young lions’ who ‘diligently and merrily’ pursue their dreams.

Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

My dad picked me up and carried me around to me aunt’s house because she had a cellar, and we went down the cellar. And as he was carrying me around, I could see all these beautiful lights in the sky. And I said to him, ‘Dad, dad, stop. I want to look at those pretty lights.’ And he said, ‘Another time.’  (Dorothy Norbury, b.1934)

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

The Sheffield Blitz – the worst air-raids over the city during World War Two – happened 77 years ago this week, between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th December 1940. The city was a target because of its many steelworks. It’s thought that, by the end, over 600 people had been killed, 500 seriously injured and 40,000 made homeless. About 80,000 buildings were damaged, mostly houses but also schools, shops and offices, and thousands were destroyed.

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

Our readers born in the 1920s and 1930s remember the Blitz and the war well.

Mary Robertson (right) in childhood

Working life was disrupted. Mary Robertson’s father was an industrial chemist. He worked at Vickers ‘seven days a week’. ‘The day after the blitz,’ Mary (b.1923) said, ‘he walked all the way to Hillsborough and the place had been bombed. … And his laboratories were all a mass of broken glass.’ Hazel (b.1929) was due to start work in the sewing room at John Walsh’s, the grand department store on the High Street, but it was destroyed. ‘It caught fire from a shop next door and it just went right through the building.’ Florence Cowood (b.1923) had a narrow escape on her way to work.

I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work, or walk to work. I … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked. … And there was no one about at all. And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, ‘Where have you come from?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.’ But it didn’t blow me up.

The war affected people’s leisure time too. Margaret G (b. 1924) remembered almost being caught in a raid.

I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the Blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

And Florence’s sister was caught.

And after the Blitz, I was at home with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house. … In Woodseats.  And she couldn’t come home, because of the [bombing] …

Then there was the impact on children’s education. In the early days of the war, many schools were temporarily closed to enable shelters to be incorporated. Instead they  were taught in small groups in private homes. Peter Mason (b.1929) said:

‘… after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.’

Alma (b.1928) also recalled home schooling.

Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table. I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.

Several schools were destroyed in the raids. Doreen Gill (b.1934) was living near Attercliffe:

Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out. ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.

Doreen Gill

Ted L (b.1919) had vivid memories of what he calls the ‘great raid’:

Duchess Rd [School]. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war … it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home, was it draft leave? And we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything [inside] was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

Ted L

John D (b.1927) lost more than his school:

… then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

People waited out the raids in shelters and cellars, but unsurprisingly hated the experience. Eva G (b.1925) was living in the suburb of Pitsmoor.

… of course there were a lot of incendiaries dropped around there, you know, they lost a lot of houses, and we were in the cellar. We had one of those [Anderson shelters] in the garden, but when it was raining and wet it was horrible, so we used to go down the cellar!

Not everyone bothered with shelters. Florence said:

We didn’t worry about it. I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar. And I got so fed up with it. I thought, ‘Blow it.’ So I used to just stop in bed. … I slept through it, me. I could sleep through anything.

Florence on her wedding day

But for Alma and her family in Rotherham, the shelter was a blessing on one of the nights of the Sheffield Blitz:

… we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there. There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air! So we had got an auntie – it was Auntie Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter. It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright. Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and … my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something. So that was exciting.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’