Elsie Brownlee’s Reading Journey

Born  24th June 1925, died  31st January 2015.

Elsie became a regular reader because her father volunteered to find the runaway daughter of the landlady of the boarding house in Anglesey where he and his family were on holiday in the 1930s. He had a motorbike, being the under-manager of a small steel firm in Sheffield. This enabled him to scour the island, find the daughter, persuade her to return home and bring her back to her family.

Successfully found and restored to her family, Gwen from Anglesey became a nurse and fetched up in Sheffield where she lodged with Elsie’s family in Walkley, on a hill two miles away from the city centre. In 1934 the splendid Art Deco Central Library opened in Sheffield.


Sheffield Central Library in 2009 by Lawrence Whiteley. (courtesy Sheffield Libraries)

Gwen was amazed that not only had Elsie’s family not discovered this library, they hadn’t used their local library either. So, she helped overcome Elsie’s father suspicion of the germs that might be spread by borrowed books and encouraged Elsie and her mother to enrol at the Central Library, a long trek for them as they hadn’t enough money to go down on the tram.

At about the age of eleven, Elsie became a fervent library user. Not only that, her dream was to work in a library. Elsie: ‘I thought, ‘I’d love to work in a place like this. I’d LOVE to work in a place like this.’

But her father thought otherwise. Because she had enjoyed playing with the typewriter in the steelworks she was destined to become a secretary. Though the next door neighbour’s daughter went to train as a teacher, Elsie’s father thought further education for girls a waste of time as they were bound to get married. Elsie didn’t get married and loathed her job as a secretary.  Her father died in 1952 which meant that Elsie took a second job, in the evening. Walking into town to work from 9 till 5, walking up the hill for her tea, and then walking out of town to the isolation hospital at Lodge Moor to look after sick babies 7-10 and back home for 11, Elsie had no time to go to the library or to read. She went on to nurse her sister and then her mother till they died. It was only in the last few years of her life that she was able to satisfy her passion for reading.


Elsie showed me some of her most cherished books: one by Frances Parkinson Keyes bought from the Boots Library sale for 2/-; another, her Scrubby Bears Annual, given to her as a child and lastly the heirloom, unread by anyone in the family, The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance, dated [1849]. When I met her, Elsie was getting most of her books from jumble sales rather than libraries; Phillippa Gregory was a favourite. Her final home was only half a mile from the isolation hospital where she had done her cherished evening job and about four miles up the hills from the Central Library which ‘was warm, safe and gave you constant entertainment’.

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Elsie’s transcript and audio here.

One thought on “Elsie Brownlee’s Reading Journey

  1. Elsie’s father was uneasy about ‘borrowing books that other people had had’ although he did agree to Elsie and her mother joining the public library. Concern about catching something from books borrowed by other people is, or was, not unusual and there were regulations in place for notifying cases where books had been used by people with contagious diseases. But in Sheffield, when Elsie’s father was a young man, there may have been an additional reason for concern. Between 1900 and 1920 the public libraries were in a sorry state, with dirty buildings and old books in bad condition. This was reported on officially and may well have been a talking point in the city. Witness this article from the Sheffield Daily Independent on 3 Jan 1920:

    While on the subject of boys’ books may I make an emphatic protest against the condition of some of the books issued from the Sheffield public libraries. I saw two boys on the tramcar today reading library books the filthiness of which was positively revolting. Their potency as disease-carriers must be high indeed. I pointed them out to a companion, who replied: “Yes, one of my boys got his first book from the public library a week ago and it was so unspeakably filthy that I made him take it back unread. It is a shame to [lend] such books to young children. No wonder they get scarlet fever, measles, and the rest, handling such death-traps.”

    I agree. No boy can learn to treat books with the care and respect they deserve if he is officially given such dirty things as those.

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