Judith G

Judith G

Judith was born on 5th May 1939.

She is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 14th February 2013.  


Loveday Herridge: Where were you born?

Judith G: I was born here in Sheffield, further down Ecclesall Road from where we are now. 1, Pear Street, it used to be opposite the great Humber Hillman Super Snipe garage …

Loveday Herridge: What is that now?

Judith G: It’s a Marks and Spencer’s food store, down Ecclesall Road. It used to be a huge garage selling all the best cars, and I was born just further down the road on the opposite corner, which is now a garage, which has closed down – Pentagon Cars, that was 1, Pear Street.


LH: That’s where your family lived?

JG: Yes, I was one of four.

LH: What date were you born?

JG: 5 May 1939, just before the war started, though it had nothing to do with me! And I had one older brother and two younger sisters, so my mother had quite a scramble when we were young because nobody had much after the war, and she was … you know, without a lot of money, and I think she took to the libraries as an escape from looking after us and, you know, not having much. Mind you, nobody had a lot all around us because they were all terraced houses before they rebuilt the bottom of Ecclesall Road, and we were on the end and we had our own garden – well, back yard you could call it – with a toilet down the bottom, because nobody had bathrooms and stuff in those days. As I say we were on the corner and we looked out on Ecclesall Road so we could see all the trams and traffic passing. It was a good spot to be, as I say. And now I’m still in Sheffield 60 years on, further up the road.

LH: Before your mum had a family, did she work?

JG: No, she never worked. My father was …

LH: Was she born in Sheffield?

JG: Yes, she was. Over at Pitsmoor.


JG: Yes. I’m trying to think. Yes, she … Hinde House Lane, somewhere round there, I know it were … around Firth Park, Pitsmoor somewhere. And she was one of three, she had an older sister and a younger brother.

LH: Do you remember when she was born?

JG: Oh … 1906, something like that.

LH: Was she a young woman when she married?

JG: No, well, in the 30s, I don’t think a lot of women worked then. She married my father,;unfortunately he was 21 years older than her, and I think she started having babies straight away, well, they did in those days, because they didn’t know what contraception was. I always remember my mother telling me if you spoke about it, it was a disgusting topic. I think Marie Stopes had started clinics then but she said you wouldn’t dare go to those because it was deemed a little, you know ….

LH: Do you know if there was a clinic? I know this is nothing to do with books but it’s totally fascinating  …

JG: I don’t know. She didn’t talk much about it and of course she got married and she also had lost a baby. Her first-born was called David, but he died at one year old as they tended to do so, didn’t they, in the early 30s. And then my brother was born in ‘37, and me in ‘39, my sisters in ‘41 and ‘43.

LH: Do you know how she met her husband?

JG: I don’t know. That generation – I was discussing this with my husband – they never talked much about … you know, they didn’t seem to think it was necessary. And from what I’ve heard it was my father’s third marriage, and she never spoke about it because I know I’ve probably got a lot of relatives around Nottingham way, because that’s where he came from.

LH:  Do you know what he did, what his job was?

JG: My father, he was a joiner, worked in wood, obviously. But before that he’d been married and she’d died. Because I’ve got, what are they called, not cousins? Split cousins? One was in the army, because he came to see us when I was 16. He was leaving to go to Hong Kong, and the other one was called Frank after my father, and he went to seek his fortune in South Africa, so somewhere in South Africa – I hope he’s rich and comes to find me! – I’ve got a … what is it when it’s not your brother? Step brother. But we never heard from him since so … but as I say, mother never talked much about how she met my father or anything. I think they were of that generation, they just used to clam up about it and of course when you’re young you never think to ask. I did wonder why we didn’t have any relatives on my father’s side.

LH: So they married when?

JG: 1934.

LH: Right. And the children?

JG: Then David was born the year after, but he died at a year, and then my brother John was born. And as I say we’d not much at all. We were quite poor and my father worked at a joinery and he worked at Chesterman’s which used to be … what is it now? I think it’s Aviva, the insurance company down at Ecclesall Road. But Chesterman’s used to make measuring instruments, rulers and stuff like that. It was a big factory, it was two streets on from us. Because I used to run to school because they used to have a one o’clock hooter and we used to be legging it! We used to come home from school for lunch and if that went we used to know we were in trouble because it was one o’clock.


LH: Was it a family that had books in the house?

JG: Yes, but not a lot. My grandmother came to live with us when my grandfather died. I was three and she came to live with us and made it a bit crowded, but that’s what happened in those days. She was always on about books and that, she’d been well educated, grandmother … but my mother, as I say, started with the Red Circle Library. I can always remember this because as a child she used to walk me down Ecclesall Road right to the bottom and the Red Circle Library was at the bottom. I think it cost tuppence a week, or every time you took a book out or fourpence – something like that.

LH: So the Library … can you locate it exactly?

JG: Yes … well they’ve changed the bottom of Ecclesall Road now. You go straight down to the bottom there. London Road runs straight across the bottom, and where the Manpower building is now, that wasn’t there at all. It was just a series of streets going up to the Moor. And if you got to the bottom there was a huge old fashioned Brunswick Chapel, they used to call it, almost like a Greek temple, and I remember how they were dirty in those days, it was black because Sheffield was a mucky city because of all the steelworks and whatnot. And that was there and then there was a block of [inaudible] build houses or something turned into shops across the bottom and then you went down St Mary’s Gate there, and the Red Circle Library was this first one on the corner and my mother used to walk me down there I think just to get me out of the house and give her a break from four kids and my father, and she used to … every week used to go down there and I can still see it with the red circle on the front and it was just like two shop windows with books in. Circulating library they called it, which I think is a lovely name. I always used to think it might revolve!

LH: Yes! So it had two glass – I think there is a photograph of it.

JG: There must be because I mean they tore that up and put the Moor, you know, ages after, but they were just little old shops going across there, and going down the side street. I can still see it – two glass windows, not very big, just like that, and you went in the door and all the books were lined on the walls, I seem to remember that, with their faces … and they all had covers on, like you look at old books, they’re just coloured aren’t they, they didn’t have paper covers on did they. And they were all lined up round there…

LH: They had covers on. What covers did they …?

JG: Well, the only thing I can remember funnily enough is – funny what sticks in your mind – in the window they used to have several books. You know, they were advertising them, and I can remember this one and it had a paper cover on and there was a skull [Editor’s note: Edgar Hale’s Devil’s Tears (1946) – probably this edition, although it shows a face rather than a skull] and there were pearls rolling down its face – I must have been a macabre child! – and it was called Devil’s Tears and that’s stuck in my mind for 60-odd years. My mother used to like what they called ‘bodice-rippers’, romantic novels and stuff.

LH: Is that what your mother chose?

JG: Yes, that’s what she used to pick.

LH: So she went every week with you?

JG: Yes, every week …

LH: How old were you when you remember this?

JG: Well, it would be after the war, so I’d be six or seven.

LH: So you would have been at school, unless you went in the evening or in the weekends?

JG: I seem to remember walking down in the day so maybe … perhaps it was earlier than when I went to school. But I certainly remember walking down Ecclesall Road, because that was full of old fashioned shops. And the Co-op used to be on the bottom … the great big S and E Co-op which we used to go because my mum used to get dividends from there, and that was three or four storeys high, it was a huge building, in fact they pulled it down to make the Waitrose supermarket years ago. But that was really on the posh side’s shop. We used to go there to see Father Christmas, he used to have a grotto. As I’m saying there used to be three or four floors with good stuff in. The Co-op was quite – well, a bit like Cole Brothers is today, or was.


LH: So this is wartime isn’t it?

JG: I didn’t go to school till ’45.

LH: So you were six, in fact, when you went to school.

JG: Something like that, walking down, because it was a fair way to walk down.

LH: Which school did you go to?

JG: Oh, I went to, it’s now called Porter Croft. It was called Pomona Street School, one of the old 1911-type schools.

LH: Might you have gone after school with your mum? Did she come and pick you up?

JG: Honestly, I don’t remember. I can just remember walking down there with her and then for some reason she decided to join the library, the big library in town, the main library. Because my mother was quite timid and I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.

LH: So that’s interesting isn’t it? She went first of all to Red Circle where you had to pay.

JG: I think it was tuppence or fourpence a book for a week, and with it called a circulating library I thought it must be, as I say, turning round! But I was speaking to one of my friends who’s a little bit older than me, she can remember her mother going to a Red Circle Library, but at Firth Park at the bottom of Bellhouse Road, because we were just talking and she said, “I remember my mother going down there to get books,” because there weren’t … I don’t know where all the libraries … they weren’t as spread out as they are now. You know, there’s one at Ecclesall, there’s one at Highfield, I know there was a Firth Park Library but whether after the war they, you know, they hadn’t got round to … or they came after the war I don’t know, what I call the local ones. But I remember going with my mum going to the main library. It was quite daunting because it’s a really brawny old building isn’t it? I think it’s a lovely building that was built by the same bloke who built High Storrs School, if you look at the stone and everything. So she started to go there and I went to the children’s library, which was a separate entity. I think it still is isn’t it?

LH: Why do you think she changed or did she go to both libraries?

JG: I don’t know. Maybe it might have closed down the library once the city libraries got going. No idea. Can’t remember.

LH: You don’t remember it closing down?

JG: No, I don’t, but once my mother got her ticket for the main library that was it, she was away up there kind of thing.

LH: And just … it would be interesting to hear about her experience, and your experience of the main library but just to think a bit more about the Red Circle one. Did it mainly have – well, you said that she liked bodice rippers, romantic …

JG: Oh, yes! A bit of drama.

LH: Yes. Did it also have what you might call the classics as well?

JG: No I don’t think so. I don’t think that was the point of it. I think it was so people could get books to read … so they wouldn’t have gone…

LH: Do you think it was…

JG: Well, just ordinary, shall we say, popular books. Written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing. I can’t remember her ever getting classics.

LH: Can you remember any of the authors that she …?

JG: No, the only book, I’ve told you, was in the window and I stood staring at it and I thought, “Why is a skull crying?”

LH: Did she get that one out?

JG: I’ve no idea! I don’t know, because we were still reading the albums you got at Christmas. You know The Dandy and Beano and Film Fun and stuff like that. I don’t honestly remember but I know I was always reading.

LH: Right. You haven’t told me about that really. Did your mum teach you to read? Do you remember how you learned to read?

JG: No, that would be at school. Mum didn’t have time to teach us to read, not with four kids and an older husband. No, I went to Pomona Street School and I can remember the first lady teacher, Mrs Poole they called her. She was quite grand, and I can remember doing, enunciating a, e, i, o, u into little mirrors so that we spoke properly. And that was at Pomona Street.

LH: You had to do it into a mirror?

JG: Yes! And I laughed and I got told to stand behind the blackboard, which they did in those days. I mean, they could cane you then, and I can remember we had to pronounce our vowels – and don’t forget I was only six, and she gave us a little round mirror, it’s funny what sticks in your mind – and a, e, i, o, u and of course, I burst out laughing and she said go and stand behind the … Judy Green [unclear]. I mean they were teachers, and you had to do as you were told.

LH: So that was how you learned to read, through…

JG: At Pomona Street, definitely.

LH: And was there a library in your school?

JG: I’ve no idea.

LH: Do you remember any of the books you read when you were little?

JG: I remember one I got out of the children’s library in town. As I say, it’s weird what sticks in your mind. It was called Joey and the Greenwings, it was about this young boy and these things that came from outer space or something. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, but it’s funny how it’s stuck in my mind. Joey and the Greenwings. So if you went down the archives you might find it.

LH: Well, we’ll look up both those books you’ve mentioned and see.

JG: Dear Lord, how your memory comes back! There was a little song in it about this little lost chick. What was it? Little lost chick sang cheep in the night, cheep in the night, and the moon stretched her arms out shiny and bright, to the little lost chick that sang cheep in the night! [Laughs]

LH: Well, I’m not surprised you remember that …

JG: As I say, it’s quite hilarious how things being in your mind, kind of thing. But I can remember thinking that was so sad …

LH: Did you read that in the library or at home?

JG: I used to bring books home, but on a Saturday afternoon I’m afraid I spent a lot of time in that children’s library because you could sit there with any book you liked, encyclopaedias, because at home it was, you know, hustle and bustle, we didn’t have much because we had no money and there weren’t a television in those days, this is the ’50s, coming up to the ’50s, and I just used to go to the library for a bit of peace on my own. Because there was four of us and my grandmother and father and mother all rattling round one house, we didn’t have much by the way of comforts, shall we say, there was no central heating. It was a fire in each room and even in the bedrooms, I remember that, till we got a bit older and me and then me mother wouldn’t light the fires in the bedrooms because of the danger, you know. But it was an old house, it wasn’t a modern one, it was a big stone built thing on the corner, and as I say the toilet was outside down the garden as was everybody’s, you know, and we didn’t know what a bathroom was. So, oh, my mother used to bathe us in the tin bath … when I tell my daughters this, they say, “Come on mother, it’s like something out of Victoriana!” I say, “It was!” After the war what wasn’t bombed … you know, you didn’t have much so that was it. They didn’t have the centrally heated homes … we used to sit huddled round the fire because the back of the room was freezing and you were all trying to get round the fire.


LH: Chilblains on the front of your legs…

JG: Yes, and I can remember her bathing us all in this big tin tub one after the other, Poor mum, how she coped with four I do not know. It took all me time to cope with two, in a modern age shall we say! But yes, so on a Saturday I used to on a Saturday afternoon, right up till I was about 16, you used to find me in the library reading all the books because it was nice and it was warm and you could stay there until they closed at five o’clock. I used to read and read. I think it was my Aunty Marjorie, she used to say, “Doesn’t that child do anything? She’s always got her nose in a book.” I just think I just took to it because my mother read a lot.

LH: So you used to read at home and you thought because your auntie noticed …

JG: Well, when I went to stay with my cousin and I was sitting there and I was reading all the papers and things like that and she used to say, “What’s the matter with you child, why don’t you go out to play?” And I used to say, “Well, I like to read.” I always like to read the papers now … I must admit. You can see my books are there, so …

LH: Can you remember any of the books you read in the library, you said up to the age of about sixteen?

JG: Oh, what do they call her, my brain’s gone! I used to be very fond of that Georgian author, what do you call her? Far… Jerry… Farnol…. No… good grief… [looking at her list and at the Reading Sheffield list of books] F-A-R-N-O-L… tell you…

LH: Eleanor Farjeon?

JG: Could be … She used to write about Georgian heroines and stuff like that. I used to read all her stuff [inaudible]. I read anything and everything.

LH: How did you find that book? Did you just go along the shelves? How did you choose?

JG: Oh I just went all round the thing … so I thought oh, that’s okay. Oh, why have I got Jeremy [sic] Farnol? Georgette Heyer, yes that’s it! That’s the one. No, why am I thinking about Jeremy Farnol? Georgette Heyer, yes, I used to like her. Oh, crumbs, I can still see the picture on the book cover. Jeremy … I don’t know why…

LH: It’ll come to you…

JG: Oh don’t forget, I mean, it’s 60-odd years ago… I’ve read a lot of books since then.

LH: Yes. Can you think of any others? So Georgette Heyer definitely. So what would have happened? You’d have read one and then you’d have thought I like …

JG: And I’d have continued, yes. Or, hang on a minute … it’s just remembering the names … Mayo, Mayo … what’s that? They did a series of … about this family… my God … I can remember going through the series … Mayo … M-A-Y-O. I mean all these are now out of print I presume. Oh I read anything and everything… biographies and historical novels …

LH: These aren’t specifically books for children are they … Georgette Heyer isn’t …

JG: Oh no, I’m talking about when I went into the big library with those. You had to go up when you were sixteen didn’t you, from the children’s library, or was it 14?

LH: Was it? I don’t know.

JG: Yes. You could only be in the children’s library, I don’t know whether it was 14 or 15, something like that, and then you could use the main library.

LH: So you did the same, after you’d spent a couple of years… I’m just trying to get the dates … were you allowed to go to Surrey Street Library on your own?

JG: Yes.

LH: From what age?

JG: Yes. Well I was at Pomona Street I must have joined the library because I remember a friend of mine, she wanted to join the library and we ran up all the way up there after school and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were. Her name was Sheila Thompson – again, I remember! – and I said, “If you come with me, we can come and join.” Because I remember the librarian was called Mrs Scott, she ran the children’s library, she was really nice, you know, because in those days you couldn’t run around like they do nowadays, you had to sit reading quietly. I remember I was about eight or nine, and I said to Sheila Thompson, because she lived … as I say, I lived at the bottom of Ecclesall Road, so we used to whizz up Moor Street into town, never got the tram or anything, and 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 books name in that, God, I remember that … so I must have been eight or nine when I did there to go to Greystones School down here at 11, you did the 11+ in those days, so it must have been before that, so perhaps ’48, ’49, something like that. That’s when I truly remember I used to go a lot to the library.

LH: Did Mrs Scott help you choose books?

JG: Yes, she was very nice, she was quite stern, you know, you couldn’t racket round – mind you, nobody did in those days. I always remember her, for years she was there, and of course she always had young girls, you know, helping her out kind of thing, but she was in charge of the children’s library. As I say, I used to spend every Saturday afternoon in there unless it was summer, kind of thing, I used to read everything I could get my hands on. Mazo de la Roche. Yes. He [sic] did a whole series of books about this family … as I say, I do remember that, but that would be in the senior library. I think you had to be 14 or 15 to go up into the senior library, as I say, even approaching the library at school with all those steps and you used to think, you know, you’d go in there and think, you know, posh.

LH: Did you read Enid Blyton?

JG: Oh, yes. Five Go To Kirrin Island [sic], oh, all those. Actually, we started out, what was the name of the little magazine they used to buy us? Sunny Stories. It was a little magazine that used to come out once a week, and it had cartoons in it, and all about Princess Margaret and The Queen, you know, What was that governess that got told off for writing about her …  I don’t know, she used to write little stories about that. I remember they used to buy us that every week, so I think that’s what started us reading and that, of course my brother used to have all the boy’s comics, Hotspur and all that, I used to read that after he’d read it, Dandy and Beano.

LH: Did you have those in the house?

JG: Yes. And then we had Film Fun, I always remember Film Fun, that was my favourite, there was Laurel and Hardy and all the old ones.

LH: Did you buy them from the newsagents, or was it delivered?

JG: Yes, just down the road. Oh, we didn’t have deliveries, we had to go down and fetch them. It was just sort of down the next block.

LH: Did they have newspapers in the house?

JG: My mother must have done, but I didn’t … what was it my father used to read … but he was a bit remote from us, being a lot older, and I think we were the third lot of kids he’d had, so he used to have the kitchen to himself, kind of thing … I remember him reading newspapers, he must have walked out and got it. In those days there was a corner shop on every thing, you know, going down Ecclesall Road, that sold everything from bundles of sticks to butter. And there was a [inaudible] down Ecclesall Road where the Star Cinema was, it’s a petrol station now, the Star Cinema wasn’t a quarter of a mile away, so we used to go there, they used to change the programmes twice a week, I nearly lived in there, it was probably sixpence in the cheap seats, and both my sisters used to belong to the Star Cinema Club, which was Saturday mornings, and we used to get all the old Flash Gordon films, and they used to go down there and it was like murder incorporated in there, screaming and yelling, how they ever kept them in! [Laughs] The manager used to come out and shout, “Shut up, you lot, or you’re out!” With the penny toffee bars and stuff like that, screaming and yelling for the next episode. I remember going to see Flash Gordon there.

LH: Was that Saturday morning?

JG: That was Saturday Morning Cinema Club for kids, as I say it used to be a screaming melee of kids trying to get the front row! And that’s what they did! As I say there was no television as then, or we didn’t have one anyway, not until the late ’50s.

LH: You said your mother was a great reader.

JG: She was.

LH: Do you remember anything that she read? Or could you picture her reading? Did she sit in an armchair?

JG: Oh, yes … It was the only sort of rest she got from the lot of us. Don’t forget, my grandmother lived with us, she died when I was fifteen, and she was always demanding, my poor old mother was easily … cowed, shall we say, she hadn’t got any get up and go like my father was there, sitting here, you know, sometimes … it wasn’t a happy marriage if I come to think of it. Because as I say, he was 21 years older. I only ever said to her once, “Mum, why on earth did you marry him?” and she just shrugged her shoulders, my mum. No, it wasn’t a normal marriage, as I say. Mind, this was after she’d had four kids. She once said to me, I was in my 40s, and she had a flat, when I moved out of Pear Street, which they widened the road down there, they gave mum a council flat just off Cheryl Lane, which she thought was wonderful because it was small, it was warm, she had radiators in it and that, and she was 60 then, and she had to deal with this great big old house, you know, lighting a fire every day, which sounds ridiculous nowadays, but it just wasn’t … you know, we had a coal cellar, and when she got in there [the council flat] she thought it was heaven sent, bless her, so her last few years, you know, she was comfortable. I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

LH: You said she once said to you…

JG: Oh, about my father … and I was sitting there, I was 40-odd, I was married with two kids by then, and she used to come out now and again with bits of information out of the blue, and she said, “You know, your father never bothered me much about that, you know.” I was sat there, you know, and she said, “No, he didn’t.” And I said, “Well, mum, he was 21 years older than tha’,” and I said, I imagine they avoided their husbands in those days, with no contraceptives and that, and I said, “You did have five kids!” but she said, “He never bothered me a lot about that,” and that was it! You know, what you call, you’re gob-smacked. I’m 40, as though she had to wait till then to tell me! But no, I don’t think that mum, bless her, had a good marriage. I mean, my dad looked after us, but he was always a bit aloof.

LH: So maybe reading was an escape for her.

JG: Oh yes, that’s what I think it was. She’d not much in her home, kind of thing, apart from keeping us four in check, and I think that’s it, she sort of buried her face in books. Because even until she died – I mean, she’s been dead 20 years now – she was still in the flat down at  Sharrow Vale and she used to go to Highfield Library. I can still see her, she used to come in with four or five books, and of course it was a lot quieter when we’d all gone and got married and whatnot, and she still used to toddle up and down to the library, which was not far from her in those days, with those books. Because she used to say, “Oh, they were ever so nice at Highfield Library” At Christmas they used to give them a cup of tea and a mince pie.

LH: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how libraries are places where people feel comfortable.

JG: What I’m always … Lindsey is a great reader, obviously, being at Waterstones she’s got more books than your average thing, because I keep saying her flat floor will go through if she gets any more books. But she just loves books, and I do, and the chances are, my God, because he’ll be there watching the football or whatever, because we’ve got Sky, and I’ll be reading here – and I don’t mind that. He says, “You’ve got your nose in a book, you’re not even here!”

LH: What do you read now?

JG: Well, actually if you look at that, they’re all biographies and autobiographies at the minute, apart from the Leigh Fermor book, which I always thought he was fantastic for walking across Europe in the ’30s. Well, my daughter’s bought me that. She occasionally comes up and says do you want this, that or the other, and I’ve got books in there, books in here … I like Bill Bryson, thought he hasn’t written anything for a bit, I actually went down to City Hall to meet him … his humour just gets me. But I tend to go for a lot of biographies, but it just depends what catches my eye, kind of thing. As I say, I’ve just got those in the last fortnight, especially the one about Edgar Hoover, nasty piece of goods him, wasn’t he? And we just had the film on, you know, with Leonardo DiCaprio [Editor’s note: the film was J. Edgar], and I watched that and thought, “God, how he got away with that for 40 years,” as I say. Actually I’m still waiting for John to build me a bookcase, I mean Lindsey’s got three, as I say, but that’s her life, you know, publishing, well, not publishing, but books. And as I say, I go to the library, and she says, “Shall I get you some books?” and I say, “No, I’ll get it from the library.” I know it sounds a little bit stupid this, but the last three I got from the library … Paul O’Grady, do you know him, the comedian? Well, he’s so funny. There’s not many people can write their own book and not have somebody ghost it, but it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and he’s written three and he’s still not half way through his life! But he’s … obviously a bit near the knuckle on some things, but you have to laugh. Anyone that can put it down in a book and carry your attention is good, and he’s written them all himself, you see, not like most of them who get somebody to ghost it for them. But as I say, Lindsey said, “Do you want the latest one?” when then third one was out, and I said, “No thanks, I’ll go to the library and put my name on the list.” That’s the way I do it, otherwise … if I was like Lindsey they would be bursting out of the walls.

LH: Do you still go to Surrey Street?

JG: No, I use Ecclesall Library, they’re more modern. They built a new one up here, plus the fact it’s just through the churchyard and up. But if I’m in town sometimes I’ll always have a wander round the library. It’s never altered with the square spaces and things like that, I just like to go in there and have a look at it, and I used to use the record library as well, you know, you can do videos and everything. But no, that’s easy for me, I just have a walk across there to look around, and of course you can do your computer thing, that’s a good thing about the library, the computer thing.

LH: Did you read …

JG: Jalna, Mazo de la Roche. Jalna, J-A-L-N-A. It was a series about a family. Mazo de la Roche, it was an odd name. Jalna.

LH: It is, isn’t it? I’ll look it up.

JG: As I say, I remember going through the whole series of that.

LH: Did you read the sort of books that you were supposed to read, like Dickens?

JG: Oh, God, yes. Yes.

LH: Jane Austen and the Brontës and Thackeray…

JG: Because at school, we had to do the most dreary book I’ve ever read … Charles … hang on a minute … The Cloister and the Hearth, we did that for GCE or something, whatever it was called in those days. What was it … Charles and Mary Lamb?

LH: Did you read them?

JG: No, I never read that one, that was a book about medieval … Gerard and somebody, and that was the set book for the O-levels, then. I didn’t go on to do A-levels, I left school at 16.

LH: So you did those for GCE…

JG: Well, it was O-levels then, in my day, I’ve still got my certificate upstairs! I remember ploughing through that, whereas perhaps when you’re young you don’t sort of concentrate as much on a book, where you read it years after and you think, “It’s not bad after all.” You know, some of these hat I called turgid. I mean, Charles Dickens is turgid, and all right, he’s descriptive, but you know, my God, get on with it! But when you read him afterwards you realise why it’s a masterpiece. But that’s the only thing I can remember… but we had a list of books we had to read from the school, you know, especially … I was good at English, literature and history, they were my favourites, and geography. I was terrible at maths!

LH: Did you have a list all the way through school of books that you had to read? Sort of improving literature? Or was it just at the end when you were doing…

JG: The end … I’m just trying to think now.

LH: Because we’re trying to find syllabuses, and it’s quite hard to find them actually, to find out what children had to read – because sometimes that’s different from what they did read.

JG: I seem to remember we were supposed to go to the library and get these books out, kind of thing.

LH: So your teachers said you should?

JG: I can’t remember having a library at school. I could be wrong but I can’t remember to be honest. As I say, I went to Greystones, it was a secondary school then, because… what happened? I passed my 11+, and I passed with enough marks to go to High Storrs, which was a grammar school then, but mother said I couldn’t go because she couldn’t afford the uniform. You know, we were poor. And my brother had passed and he had gone to Greystones, which was a secondary school – there was quite a division in those days – and she said, “I can’t afford you to go,” so I had to go and see the headmaster, and she said, “I want her to go to Greystones,” but you needed a school uniform, you needed a support scheme, and everything – it was a grammar school that sort of the wealthy went to. And there was no question of going on to university, like they do … even if they were thick as pig shit, to be honest, they can go to university, can’t they, the opportunity is there … no chance of that, because my mother … she just couldn’t afford it. I left school at 16 and went to work, kind of thing. I always remember that, I always thought, when I used to pass High Storrs, and they used to be coming out in their navy blue blazers with the green piping on, thinking, “I could have gone there.” I resented it. I resented it. But as I say, mother had no money, and that was it. But I can remember that because Greystones playing fields were up at Ringinglow, so we used to have to go past High Storrs, and I used to think, “Hmm.” But after a few years you didn’t think about it. But … I don’t know. I was just thinking. The syllabus for the thing. I’ve got my er …

LH: You’re not sure if there was a library at the school?

JG: No … honestly, I’m thinking because I’ve been back to the school for the reunions, I’m just trying to think … because they’ve all got books in each classroom now, haven’t they? You know, women, the way they teach is different.

LH: And you had sets of books, like Cloister and the Hearth?

JG: Yes. Well, that was the only one … so you had to wrap in brown paper, you know, you had to cover all your books in paper, woe betide you in they were a mess. But no … I’m just thinking … I’ve got my O-level results somewhere, I think I’ve got the paperwork, perhaps you can derive … in fact, shall I go and find it?

LH: Because I just wanted to show you this: It’s a list of books that people have mentioned that they’ve read, and I just wondered if any…

JG: Jeremy Farnol, that was… not Jeremy, Jeffery Farnol, he used to write these romantic/historical novels.

LH: Did he? I wonder if he’s there on the list. We’ve got these two pages.

JG: Elinor Glyn, Three Weeks, my God, that’s ’20s, isn’t it? Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind … we went to see that, my mother took me to see that, but I never read the book.  There’s a de la Roche there, look, the Jalna novels.

LH: I thought … yes.

JG: That’s it, there was a series of them.

LH: Oh, good. And you read those?

JG: Oh, yes. I can remember there were some really boring books as well, hang on … it’s just the name of the author. What did you call that one? Oh, Sorrell and Son…

LH: Tell me about him.

JG: No, I don’t …

LH: That’s Warwick Deeping.

JG: Warwick Deeping, that’s it. I couldn’t tell you … the thing is, he went from this very …

LH: Did you read it?

JG: I remember Sorrell and Son, yes.

LH: Do you remember how old you were when you read that?

JG: I think maybe 16 or 17. As soon as I got to them, obviously the main library … certainly, yes. De la Roche, that’s it. Good grief. I didn’t care for P G Wodehouse, I thought it was a bit silly. And the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists …

LH: Did you enjoy that?

JG: I read the … I’ll tell you who was my favourite when I was a kid, and that’s Rudyard Kipling – I used to devour all those, and I went to the library to read them, you know, the Mowgli stories, and everything he wrote. Because I’ve always wanted to go to India and I’ve never yet been, and I’m determined to get there … now, I never read anything like Mills and Boon, those little paperbacks and that.

LH: Did they have those at the Red Circle?

JG: I don’t honestly know, I can’t remember. No, I always remember, they were all hardbacks. I wouldn’t well have loaned them, because my mother used to keep an eye on what I read, like. I remember I came home with Forever Amber and she made me take it back – she thought it was a bit racy! And it wasn’t. [Laughs]

LH: Was it The Well of Loneliness that reminded you …

JG: Oh, yes – The Blue Lagoon, I read that.

LH: Did you read The Well of Loneliness?

JG: No, no. I wouldn’t have known what it was anyway, it’s lesbians.

LH: Yes. But it reminded you, didn’t it, of…

JG: But The Blue Lagoon, I remember that, because they died in the end, didn’t they? That little boat went adrift, yes, it was very sad. Wyndham Lewis, H G Wells, H G Wells, yes, I used to read a lot … and I’ve got that, but … I found one when I worked in a charity shop, and I can remember listening to that and reading the newspapers about it, I mean, they just set off like that… talk about brave, or foolhardy or whatever, and I thought, “That was the most [romantic] …” you know, sailing on this thing, across from Chile to Hawaii or wherever it was they ended up, just on the currents. And funnily enough, we went on a cruise up to the Baltic, and I said to John, “I’ve got to go to …” Where the hell is it? Not Norway, the other one.

LH: Sweden?

JG: It’s Norway … Finland. Norway. And they’ve got the actual Kon-Tiki thing in there. I remember we drove from the ship and I said, “I’m determined to see that,” and it’s there, suspended, and when you see it, it’s not as this room and they’ve got a whale shark underneath it, you know, a model, to show you how … and they lived on that, seven of them. I’ve got the book upstairs, and I found it. Thornton Wilder, yes. [Editor’s note: Judith is returning to the list of authors.]

LH: Did you read it when you were a child, or a young woman?

JG: No, I heard about it, and then I was working down at one of the charity shops, and I found a copy of it, it’s from somebody who got it in wherever it is, Norway, Sweden, and it’s signed ’69. So I brought it home and I read it, and I still think it’s one of the best things … and you can go into space, I don’t care a carrot about that, but to go on that raft … C P Snow, that rings a bell … mm Shaw [?], I found him a bit dry, but no, I never read James Joyce … Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, I remember reading that … Christopher Isherwood, he did that thing in Berlin, didn’t he, I can remember that … Wyndham Lewis, that rings a bell, whether anything … Thornton Wilder, that was Our Town wasn’t it … Thornton Wilder … as I say, it’s so long ago now.  Joseph Conrad, was that Heart of Darkness, I remember that, Jane Austen, yes, Charles Dickens … E M Forster’s Passage to India, yes, I read that, and Thomas Hardy, I like The Mayor of Casterbridge, that was one of my favourites … but Red Circle Libraries, oh dear! Now, Boots had a library, but I don’t ever remember going there. It says here ‘Works libraries, family, friends’ … hmm.

LH: There’s another list here.

JG: Oh Zane Grey, my father used to … yes, at home … all cowboys, those …

LH: So Zane Grey, so did he go to the Red Circle Library?

JG: I don’t know, but I can remember seeing him with these, they were like paperbacks. I don’t know where he got them from, but he did used to like those, my father.

LH: I wonder where he got them from?

JG: I don’t honestly … he might have gone down there as I say, but … [Looking at the list] They would have had all these in the main library, because as I say, I never went anywhere … Arnold Bennett, yes, oh God, The Card, and the Potteries things, weren’t they? John Braine, yes, Stars Look Down, … well this, Sorrell and Son, I see what you mean now. John Galsworthy rings a bell. Somerset Maugham, yes, J B Priestley, Alan …

LH: When you say yes, you mean you’ve read all of these?

JG: Not every one they wrote. There’s Robert Tressell, Ragged Trousered … ploughed through that … and H G Wells,  … The Green Mansions, that rings a bell … Tarka the Otter, yes. Oh, I remember that, Precious Bane,  that’s where she had a split lip … that was because… remember… that was a bit racy for me! There was a seduction scene in that if I remember! Georgette Heyer here, Baroness Orczy, Jean Plaidy, that’s another one, historical novel … oh and Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche, yes. But Jean Plaidy, yes. Oh, dear. Edgar Burroughs, John Buchan, yes, Riddle of the Sands, yes, I remember that … Jeffery Farnol, there he is, that’s the one, he used to write all these … round about Georgian times, novels … yes, because … what do you call it, She and that…

LH: And your mum didn’t notice you reading those?

JG: What?

LH: She, Rider Haggard.

JG: No! Nothing bad … nothing racy in those were they, they were just sort of … King Solomon’s Mines, High Wind in Jamaica… now, Victor Hugo I didn’t go for. Him that wrote Les Mis, I was disappointed in that, it was awful. Jack London, did he write White Fang?

LH: Yes.

JG: Yes … Dennis Wheatley, oh I used to read his. Now, he was a bit, you know, him and his black magic and what not, Dennis Wheatley … Dornford Yates, Graham Greene, yes, Prisoner of Zenda, yes, because I actually went to see Stuart Granger in that. Nicholas Monsarrat, was that The Cruel Sea?

LH: Hmm.

JG: Yes, I remember that. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, yes…

LH: Did you like those?

JG: Yes. They were a bit fat with Americanisms, but … Agatha Christie, yes, Arthur Conan Doyle, he was another of my favourites, was it Ngaio Marsh, could never say that, well that’s funny enough because Lindsey has started picking up old copies of that, she likes Penguin books and she gets the old ones, and she’s got several by that, and Dorothy Sayers, yes, she was a detective thing.

LH: Yes, that’s right. Did you read detective fiction?

JG: I must have done on and off, but whether it stuck in my mind, I don’t know. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons, yes Compton Mackenzie, Saki… and then I never read Lucia and Mapp stories, G K Chesterton I seem to remember, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. But Cold Comfort Farm, I remember that. Compton  Mackenzie, Rose Macaulay… so… a fair amount of those.

LH: Did you … a lot of people remember reading Anne of Green Gables.

NG: Oh, yes, definitely. It was a classic for youngsters that, wasn’t it?

LH: Did you like it?

JG: Hmm. And there was Sunnybrook Farm, was that another one? Yes. As I say, at the time I read what was available for the year, kind of thing.

LH: Did you and your friends talk about books at all? Did you say, “Oh, I’ve read this, this is good,” and somebody else said, “Oh, yes, try that.”

JG: I can’t really remember. Because having two sisters, we tended to … within ourselves, kind of thing. We all had separate friends kind of thing, but … I mean, we used to laugh, you know, we’ve had … Jennifer, my sister, rings up, and she’ll say, “Have you read …?” and I’ll tell her something to read, you know, and I’ll say, “Get that.” I said, “Get the Paul O’Grady one,” and she was … I said, “Honestly, Jenny, it’s a book that is well-written, and it’s hilarious.” As I say, it’s an autobiography, it’s going to be very boring, you know, especially when they’re writing about themselves, but he’s just got this wicked sense of humour, all Liverpudlians have, I’ve got friends in Liverpool and they’ve just got this edge on their humour which, you know, makes you think. The Stars Look Down, what was that … A J Cronin. That’s it now … Hatter’s Castle, that was terrible because the train went off and she was just giving birth to his child and the train went off the viaduct. All of his … you tended, you know, go through all everything they’ve read …

LH: Did you?

JG: Yes, if you enjoyed one book, if they’d done a series, but Jeffery Farnol, I remember that. Rider Haggard.

LH: I’ve not read that.

JG: It was like a dramatic drama, a bodice-ripper as I used to call him. Victor Hugo, no – I couldn’t get into that, and having seen the film, Les Miserables … oh my God, I sat there after 15 minutes and I thought, “I can’t stand it when it’s all misery! And the same thing with Dickens’ Oliver, I didn’t enjoy the film because they were all low-life … I don’t want to know, I’m sorry, I want to see them walking about with jewels! Oh dear.

LH: I’m going to turn this off now unless there’s anything else.

JG: I’ll just say, the library played a big part in my thing because a) we didn’t have any home entertainment, television wasn’t in then, and it was just … you lose yourself in books. You either like a book or you don’t – it’s as simple as that. And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get me a book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book, and Lindsey is exactly the same – as I say, she’s got enough to start her own library!

LH: You mentioned your annuals, Dandy and Beano.

JG: Oh, God, Yes – every year.

LH: Every year for Christmas and birthdays, was it? Did you get books for Christmas and birthdays?

JG: Yes, because I always … I was telling my sister, Janet, she always had dolls … I had a teddy bear and stuff like that, and I remember I got this … I’ve forgotten which annual it was, full of stories and pictures and things like that, and she took it to school and swapped it for a doll! We had such a fight, I nearly killed her! She said, “Oh, I’ve got this nice doll,” she says. And I remember flying at her – because we used to fight, honestly, when we were younger, my sisters, and my brother – and she came home and said, “Look at this doll!” I went, “Where’s my book?” “I’ve took it and swapped it for this.” And I remember, I still get at her now, I say, “Do you remember when you pinched my …” I’m trying to think what it was, like Girl’s Own or something like that, because it would have cost my mother quite dear, you know, at Christmas, and we didn’t have a lot of money, and she always made sure … and I think now what they get for Christmas, going back, and we got a half a crown – it was 2/6 in old money, I don’t know if you can remember –

LH: I do!

JG: And an orange in the stocking, and perhaps a post office that week, we tend to stamp letters and things like that … and now you look at them and you’re looking at £100 for one gift, it’s ridiculous, and we thought we were rich because we got 2/6. We did get pocket money later on, but it was only something like an old shilling.

LH: Did you spend your money at all?

JG: On sweets! Because don’t forget, after the way they were all rationed! It sounds ridiculous now, but there was a sweet shop, actually it shut down a few years ago, opposite Hunter’s Bar School down here, and I can remember when I was about 12 there was a pub … we were on the corner, Pear Street, looking down Ecclesall Road, and you walked down there and there was a pub called The Pomona there, there was a pub on every corner in those days. And Mrs Latham, she was a Canadian, she used to send me on errands. You know about horse meat, I used to go for horse meat, there used to be horse meat shops, but they were for dogs, they weren’t for people, down St Mary’s Gate, round the back of the Red Circle Library, and I used to go and get 2 lb of horse meat, because she had two dogs, obviously having a pub, and she used to give me a shilling or something. So me and my sisters and mother used to say, all go up in the park and play, you know, Endcliffe Park, because it was just a walk up. And I used to have to take our Janet and Jenny, trudging behind me, and we used to go and spend this shilling in the sweet shop on Sharrow Lane, because everything was like tuppence a quarter or something.

LH: One of our interviewees said there was something called a Green Circle Library and Hunter’s Bar, where the knitting shop is now. Do you recall?

JG: No. Because I mean, we always played in Endcliffe Park. I can’t honestly remember, but you know what you’re like when you’re young, you don’t notice things like sweet shops! But that little sweet shop, I mean, they used to have jars of sweets, most at fourpence a quarter, and I’d go and spend my shilling on that, then go and play in the park, then walk down as well, because trams ran down Ecclesall Road. But as I say, we always went to the main library on Surrey Street, we never thought of coming up to this one here, you know, when it was a big house.

LH: And what I’ve picked up from you is because you enjoyed the grandeur of the entrance.

JG: Oh, yes – I was always impressed.

LH: So that would be why you would go there, and presumably more books than your own.

JG: Absolutely. It still is the biggest library, isn’t it? And plus, the fact it has all the other things, you know, the reference library and the art gallery and whatnot. Because we used to go and have a cup of tea up there and look around the art things, and I used to think, “This is fantastic, it’s free, it’s a public library …” that was the whole point of going there. And I’d been on one or two tours around the library, you know, when they have an open day, and I’ve been down in the bowels where all the old books are – you might find my Joey and the Greenwings down in that bottom bit! Really ancient, isn’t it, down there with all the old books, but … no … I never did a lot of highbrow reading, but I read what I enjoyed.

LH: What do you mean by highbrow?

JG: Well, all the classics, stuff like that, you know. I did a fair few, but if I didn’t like the author I didn’t read it. But … brought it all back that, especially Rider Haggard. I think I must have a yen for foreign parts because, as I say, Rudyard Kipling, I thought was absolutely marvellous, and his … in all his stories and things like that. As I say, it left me with a lasting impression of India that I want to go and see, my husband [said], “I’m not going there, it’s full of germs!” [Laughs] I would love to go, I really would.

LH: Judy, thank you so much.

JG: That’s fine! I hope I’ve helped.

Recent Posts

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.


Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  


The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:


The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   


I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.

[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

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