By Sue Roe
When I was about ten, my family moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I changed schools and made new friends – especially a girl called Janet. She was a Methodist and after a while I started going to her church. I also went to Sunday School with her. As in many Sunday Schools, books were given as prizes for attendance etc. I distinctly remember getting one myself: it was Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter. It may have been for getting a high mark in the Scripture exam.
I am sure some people are familiar with Mary’s story: how she at the age 15 walked 26 miles barefoot to Bala to buy a copy of the Bible in Welsh. She was the daughter of a poor family from LLanfihangel; her parents were devout Methodists. Welsh Bibles were scarce and she saved for six years until she had enough to buy one. Sadly, I no longer have the book but I have a clear memory of the cover.
This got me thinking about school prizes and Sunday School prizes too. I won two school prizes: the first was a Bible when I was in the second year (Y8 in today’s terminology) at grammar school This must have been in my church-going days. The second was in the Sixth Form (Y12): T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. I saw myself as more intellectual then!
Several of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention such prizes. Often they belonged to their parents or even grandparents.
Winnie had a vivid memory of one such book which was probably from the Salvation Army Sunday School:
We didn’t have books at home. Don’t think mother could afford them anyway, only the odd one that were prizes … In fact I’ve still got one or two of mum’s old books.
MG: Have you? What are they?
Winnie: Yeah, from her being ten years old.
MG: Really? Winnie: Yes. Jessica’s Prayer
Frank had similar memories:
Me mother and dad both had a bookcase full of books, one that me dad made, and it was full of books, at least 2 shelves of books in there. I think most of their books came as things like Sunday School prizes. I remember the Dog Crusoe, know that one? And there was another one, a series of books, thin paperback books he had, I can’t remember the author, about a character called Bindle. He was a Jewish man in London at the time of the outbreak of the First World War and they were very very tongue-in-cheek.
Yvonne’s parents had a collection housed in a bookcase:
Yvonne: She [Yvonne’s mother] also possessed books she’d won as prizes at Sunday School as a girl. But other than that, there was no child reading material available in those days because it was the wartime and it just wasn’t there
SR: Did your mum have a bookcase? Was it a little one? A big one?
Yvonne: Oh, it was a free-standing bookcase. There was a bureau in the middle, there was a cupboard underneath, and there were two bookcases. It wasn’t crammed full of books but my mother’s prizes were at that end, my dad’s were at that…
SR: What sort of books did she have as prizes?
Yvonne: One in a box in there that I’ve still got was a copy of Lorna Doone which I won’t part with. And I read that. I couldn’t get into it at first when I was younger but as I got older I read it again. I also read The Prisoner of Zenda. That was one of my mum’s prizes.
Shirley Ellins speaks of:
… the famous Shakespeare that mother won as a child when she was 14 from Crookesmoor School for Progress, before she left; complete works, complete with wonderful Victorian paintings and photographs of Victorian actors and actresses. Which is my pride and joy.
Betty N remembers her grandmother’s copy of A Peep Behind the Scenes, by Mrs Walton and published by The Religious Tract Society. Betty was so attached to it that she tracked down a copy in a junk shop.
I’m quite amazed but it’s true that I could read that before I went to school. My Grandmother’s had been a school prize. It had a bookplate for a school prize in her copy. But that was the first book I ever read.
Mary S has memories of prizes belonging to different members of her family:
They had all these ghastly Victorian … you know, educational novels, like Peep Behind the Scenes. That novel called Peep Behind the Scenes, that grandma thought was wonderful? All the kind of Sunday School prizes kind of books … we’ve still got all the Sunday School prizes that various bits of the family got.
Some interviewees won prizes themselves.
Josie remembers there wasn’t much money for presents so she had books for Christmas and birthday presents but she recalled other sources:
JH: … also schools used to give them out as prizes, and Sunday School used to give them out.
MG: Did you get any prizes?
JH: Yes, and it was always a book.
MG: And where were you allowed to choose your book from for the prize, or did they choose them for you?
JH: Sometimes they gave you a list and you could either put like, as I got older, cookery book or romantic novel or boy’s book or whatever. There was categories and you could actually choose at some places, but not all. Sometimes they just chose and gave what they thought was suitable.
Christine has similar memories:
I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and I won form prizes and we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd. And then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader.
Several remembered going to Andrews Stationers on Holly Lane in Sheffield to choose their book prizes. Gillian won the prize for English Literature at school:
So we went to Andrews and I didn’t just manage one, I got two books. I got Ivanhoe and Emma by Jane Austen. And it’s all got ‘School Prize: Gillian Stannington’.
Margaret Young went to the Methodist Book Shop to choose her prize:
Er, yes. I once took the scripture exam in Sheffield and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they used to take me to the Methodist book shop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!
These prize books were treasured by our interviewees; many are still on their bookshelves.