Flying off the Page (2014)

 Flying off the Page

In 2014 Reading Sheffield extended into local Sheffield schools. Community artist Jean Compton ran a series of workshops at Netherthorpe primary school where, assisted by Reading Sheffield volunteers, the children constructed flying creatures out of willow, coloured tissue paper and copious amounts of glue.

The finished work was exhibited in the Carpenter Room at Sheffield Central Library in an event celebrating Reading Sheffield in 2014.

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A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

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

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

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

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


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

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

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

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