Adele J

Adele J

Adele was born in 1942 in Ecclesall, Sheffield.

She is being interviewed by Liz Hawkins on the 19th July 2012.

AdeleJagger1959web

Liz Hawkins : Adele was born in the Ecclesall area of Sheffield in 1942 and has lived in different areas of Sheffield ever since. So between the years of 1945 and 1965 she lived in the Ecclesall area of Sheffield. Is that right, Adele?

Adele J : It is.

LH: Right. So if we can just think back to your early days of reading, really. What do you think were the early influences on your reading? I mean, for example, did anyone read to you when you were young?

AJ: I’ve no recollection of that at all. I can’t remember my father or mother reading to me.

LH: Really?

AJ: No, there were no books in the house.

LH: Right, so they weren’t readers themselves?

AJ: No. I think my father had been but certainly not when he was married, when they had me. I never saw him read a book. I never saw my mother read a book.

LH: Right. So there was no sense of reading in your family really?

AJ: No.

LH: That’s interesting, isn’t it?

AJ: Mm, it is, yes.

LH: So when do you think you started to become aware of books in that case?

AJ: Well, I think probably I was a very good reader from early on. I don’t remember that of course. But I asked for books. I wanted to be bought books. And also I used the library.

LH: Right. Which library would you have used?

AJ: Well, I remember mostly when I was at grammar school getting past Hurlfield Library and going there and then got off the tram and then I walked home because I lived near the bottom of Ecclesall Road.

LH : Right.

AJ: So Hurlfield Library is the one I remember.

LH: And so did you mainly use books from libraries when you started to read?

AJ: I don’t think when I started to read, no. I think that would be books I would be bought for birthdays and Christmas.  And I remember lots of Enid Blyton of course.

LH: Yes, so quite a few – I mean, not very many – not numerous books?

AJ: Not numerous, no. I think I had one bookcase in my bedroom. I can see it now and I can see that the shelves were just full of books eventually. But only that bookcase.

LH: I see. And so, do you remember what your parents felt about you reading? If they weren’t readers themselves?

AJ:I can remember one particular incident. Is it all right to say something about that?

LH: Yes, definitely.

AJ: I was probably a young teenager and reading and Mum would be in the kitchen getting tea ready when Dad came home and he said, “Oh look at her. She’s sitting reading.”  And I can distinctly remember my Mum saying, “Leave her alone. She’s enjoying it.” And I know what I was reading at the time and I was enjoying it as well. It was one of the ‘William’ books by Richmal Compton. And I loved them and even though he was right out of my milieu – as a middle-class boy – [I didn’t really realise this till later of course]. I absolutely adored them.

LH: But many of the books – you talk about Enid Blyton – were about middle-class children.

AJ: Of course. Yes.

LH:Of boarding schools and ‘The Famous Five.’

AJ: Absolutely.

LH: Having picnics and tucker and so on.

AJ: Yes, and the comics we read at the time as well. There was a girls’ comic with three girls at boarding school. I can’t remember what it was now but …

LH: I know what you mean. ‘Girl’s Realm’ and things like that.

AJ: It was a different life, wasn’t it. I never read anything about MY life.

LH: No, well, things weren’t written about your life, were they?

AJ: No, no.

LH: So as you moved on then from reading children’s books, Enid Blyton and so on, can you think about the first books you began to read that you’ve got a sense that they were now kind of ‘grown-up’ books?

AJ: Well, I remember reading the ‘Katy’ books. I don’t know how you’d consider them?

LH: Sort of ‘middle’, crossing over.

AJ: And I loved them. There were three; ‘What Katy Did’, ‘What Katy Did at School’ and ‘What Katy Did Next’. And I could quote from them, really, I think now, ‘cos I read them so much. And really, that was American, wasn’t it? There again, middle class lives.

LH: Yes, Anne of Green Gables and stuff.

AJ: I didn’t read those but I did read the ‘Katy’ books. I remember those and also I read a lot of Agatha Christie, Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, people like that.

LH: Yes, and those are now beginning to be adult books, aren’t they?

AJ: Yes, I suppose so.

LH: And so, will you have got these from the library?

AJ: Yes. I don’t think I was ever bought any books like that.

LH: No, there weren’t bookshops so readily available, were there, to buy books?

AJ: No, there weren’t.

LH: How, do you think, you knew what sort of books to read? That’s a hard one, isn’t it?

AJ: It is, really.  Eventually my father started recommending books to me which was a big surprise to me, having never seen him with a book in his hand. So I assume that he had read a lot when he was living on his own. And he recommended people like P G Wodehouse –‘cos that was always commented on at school:  “How did you come across P G Wodehouse, girl?” “Oh, my father recommended it.” You know. And he recommended Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping, which I’ve since come to realise had a very great impression on him, because his mother died when he was very young – and this is what the basis of the story is – and I hadn’t realised that.

LH: No. So he began to open up the world of reading to you then?

AJ: Yes. He recommended authors – “Have you tried reading …’this, that and the other”, you know.

LH: And were you still going to the library and looking.

AJ: Yes.

LH: And coming home with books from there. So what sort of books do you think made an impression on you at that stage? Or were you just an avid reader? What were the books that really stand out?

AJ: Well, I think that being at grammar school also extended your knowledge of books and what there was available to read because you were starting reading the classics, weren’t you? And of course you then would read other books by the same author. So that was a big influence on me. I can remember reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I think I was about fifteen.  And I think I read that till four in the morning, because I couldn’t put it down, I was so frightened. And it’s a book I will never, ever forget. I have never read it since but I’ve never forgotten it. And I can remember everything about it. So, you know, that book had a big impression on me.

LH: So, something that really stays with you for ever and ever?

AJ: Absolutely, yes.

LH: When you describe it actually, sometimes, reading is not so much something that is pleasurable or an escape but something that you’ve got to do.

JA: That’s right. Something gets hold of you, doesn’t it?

LH: It is quite a scary book.

AJ: It is, yes. And also I started to love others. I was an avid reader of very big books.  I read all the Dickens. You know, when I think about my appetite for reading at sixteen, it was just amazing. And you’ve got the time, haven’t you? Well, a lot more time in bed, for a start, as a teenager. So, you know, you just have an appetite and nothing else much to do really.

LH: That’s right. But it is interesting that- from what you were saying about the fact that your family wasn’t a bookish family. All of this was something you discovered yourself really.

AJ: Yes, I think, really, there was encouragement when they saw my keenness and I think that helped it to grow. You can see how hard we had to work when we were at grammar school and the reading, I think, was a relaxation in their eyes. Although, of course, you were reading a lot all the time for school, weren’t you? But it was my mother who always said, “No, she’s reading. Leave her”. And yet she was the least educated of my parents. She’d been in service, but I think she’d seen a different way of life and I think she’d been surrounded by books. This is me surmising. Because she certainly didn’t talk about that.

LH: No. Would she have read things like women’s magazines perhaps?

AJ: She may have done. If she’d had any time. But I think, if you were in service, cooking and looking after children..

LH: Absolutely, you wouldn’t have the time. Erm, thinking about your mother’s encouragement to you to read – and maybe some with your father – did they ever make you feel it was a waste of time to read or … ?

AJ: No, never. The only time I felt that my father thought it was a waste for me to carry on with my education. “You’re a girl; you’ll only get married.’ And I said, ‘Well. Dad, I would pass my education on to my children; in that case, it’s not wasted is it.” You know, you always have clever arguments with your parents and he was always the one that said, ‘No, don’t do it.” And I think it’s because he was very cautious by nature, really, to give him the benefit of the doubt. And so it was my mother who said, ‘No. Do it.” Cos I think she wanted to do other things in her life that she hadn’t been able to do. And I think she felt thwarted and that she wasn’t going to let me be thwarted. I’m convinced that was her ‘raison d’être’ really.

LH: Yes, but you, after marriage [?] … You spoke about teenage years, really, to becoming and adult at that stage. But when you left home you carried on reading, did you?

AJ: Yes. Well I did study literature at college so it was all reading. We were just encouraged to read anything. So I remember reading DH Lawrence, particularly, for the first time. And I think it was just when it had become legal – ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Cos I went to college in 1960 and I think that’s when the court case was. So I remember reading that for the first time and then reading other Lawrence as well. And we were exposed to lots of literature that I hadn’t been exposed to before. And encouraged to read.  And so that was a wonderful time for me. I really enjoyed that.

LH: So it’s not surprising in a sense that you chose to do a course which enabled you to read.

AJ: That’s right. That’s what I wanted to do, yes.

LH: Fantastic. Do you feel that you were ever made to feel sort of embarrassed? Apart from your story about the Precious Bane thing? Were you made to feel embarrassed about what you were reading and you felt as if you needed to read it in secret or apart? I mean Lady Chatterley’s Lover for instance?

AJ: No. I think the 60s were the beginning of changes in attitudes in all sorts of ways and I don’t think it mattered what you read. I’ve never ever felt like that about reading actually. I’ve never felt that I need to hide a book away.

LH: [Laughs] Under the covers, eh?

AJ: Even when I’ve read rubbish, I’ve never felt like that. I’m quite confident about reading. You know,  I wouldn’t really care what other people thought.

LH: Coming from the background that you describe, were you ever conscious that you felt you were using reading to improve yourself in any way?

AJ: No, I don’t think I was conscious of that at all.

LH: You done better than perhaps your parents or …

AJ: No, No, I never felt like that. I don’t think there’s anything of that in our family really or all around me really. I just wasn’t aware of it anyway.

LH: You just wanted to read in order to …

AJ: I loved it because I was an only child and I think that also helps you to read more because if you get really tired of playing with friends or you haven’t got any friends you’ve always got friends in a book and it’s not just an escape … it’s very difficult to describe. It’s partly comfort; it’s partly escape. But it just puts you into other realms, doesn’t it? And you’re not bored; if you’ve got a book, you’ve always got something to do.

LH: Yes, it’s interesting to think about why we read, isn’t it. Why, particularly, you read as a young adult, late teenage, a young adult. As you say, some of it is escape – doesn’t quite do it, does it?

AJ: It doesn’t feel like that because sometimes I would rather read than do anything else. Now I don’t know whether that’s escape. [Laughs]. And I’m still like that.

[Both laugh]

LH: “Don’t bother me. I want to read”.

AJ: That’s right. Yes, to me it’s as important as anything else in life, reading. Mm.

LH: And so, therefore, it’s very significant as to what books you choose.

AJ: Erm, yes, I suppose so. Yes, although I do feel at a loss if I haven’t got anything to read. I’m thinking, “Where’s my book?” You know. But there aren’t many occasions like that. But, well, I suppose, how do you choose books? I don’t know how you choose books. You read about them, don’t you, in the papers? You read criticisms and so on. Or you think, “Well, I haven’t read that author. I ought to.” That’s a kind of self-improvement, I suppose. “I ought to.” Yes.

LH: “I need to keep my end up in conversation”

AJ: That’s right. And I like to read the Booker prizewinners as well. That’s my sort of level of book now, I would say. I wait for the book club offers to come and I buy them all and then read them and think, “Well, I wouldn’t have chosen that as the winner”, you know. [Laughs] It was Julian Barnes last year … er … [Laughs]

LH: So if you think about this designation of highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow.  When you were a young adult do you think that you were aware of those sort of different categories – of good books or just page-turners?

AJ: It didn’t worry me that I read Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Hammond Innes and all these adventure stories. I liked them and it didn’t worry me that they weren’t perhaps the best literature because I was getting plenty of that anyway. I was getting that at school; I was getting that at college. And other choice of reading, so …

LH: All your Dickens and D H Lawrence..

AJ: Yes, I was getting all that so, er, in between I think my choice of reading was quite eclectic really [Laughs]. And it didn’t bother me.

LH: No,no, that’s fantastic. So, any other authors that you can think of to let us know about?

AJ: Well, yes, I read John Galsworthy; I read Trollope. I told you I had taste for great big books. North and South I remember particularly. Middlemarch was one of my favourite books – George Eliot – wonderful! I just loved that. I read all the Thomas Hardy as well. I loved those – still do, actually. I think they’ve still got a lot to say. J B Priestley… Little Women – that’s going further back, of course. And books by Malcolm Saville when I was a young teenager.  Now I don’t know whether you’ve heard of him?

LH: No.

AJ: He had a group of children, a bit like Enid Blyton, but I think they were better written books and they were set I think in the Mendips or somewhere. They had adventures and things like that. But that’s going back quite a bit more. And er, Tolstoy, of course, I went to eventually. Anna Karenina I’ll never forget. I read that at a very difficult time of my life. And I particularly remember that.

LH: It’s surprising you’ve done anything else, you’ve read so much.

AJ: Yes, [laughs] It is, really, isn’t it?

LH: Are there books that you read with pleasure at the time, do you think, that you’d never dream of going back to read again?

AJ: I don’t think I’d read the Dickens again. I think I’d have to … I enjoy seeing adaptations and so on but I don’t think I’ve quite got the energy for big books any more. [Both laugh]. And also, when you open the Dickens if you’ve read them in the past you feel that you’re just remembering everything. Perhaps one shouldn’t feel like that. I don’t feel like that about Shakespeare’s plays for instance because there’s always more to unravel, isn’t there?

LH: I know what you mean, yes.

AJ: I don’t think I’d want to read Dickens again. And also I couldn’t read War and Peace again. I couldn’t because I really struggled. I enjoyed the ‘Peace’ bits but, you know, I really struggled with the ‘War’ bits. And I read both volumes and it was quite a big book to read. So anything that was really too big I don’t think I’d read any more.

LH: No point, is there? Too many other things to do. So, I mean, are there any other authors that you’ve got there on your list before we..

AJ: I think there probably will be but I mean you’d have to say some to me to remind me, I think. You forget an awful lot in your life, don’t you?

LH: Yes, yes. Talking about P G Wodehouse and so on. There’s lists of things here; did you do thrillers – Eric Ambler, things like that?

AJ: No. I liked a bit of science fiction. I can’t remember many authors, I must admit. I wasn’t that mad about them.

LH: The Rider Haggard stuff – I don’t know whether you erm …

AJ: Oh, She.  Yes. Terrible to read. I have gone back to She and it’s awful, isn’t it, a racist book. Oh, I read a lot of Arnold Bennet – forgotten – ah The Old Wives Tale isn’t it? And H G Wells – I read a lot of H G Wells as well. Yes, those are just two of the names I’ve picked out there. And Nevil Shute I read, of course. Alan Sillitoe.

LH: Did you read John Steinbeck, thinking about the men up north?

AJ: I read them when I was older, when I was at college. And I’m not too keen. I find American authors quite difficult to read sometimes.

LH: A different sort of style.

AJ: Yes, absolutely.

LH: I just want to finally, then Adele … do you think – you might have already answered this I suppose – but are there any ways in which you think that reading has changed your life?  That your life would have been different without books?

AJ: It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like without books. I can think of a book that probably changed my life or helped me to change my life. But it does sound a bit pathetic, doesn’t it, to be influenced so much by a book but erm … So there’s that aspect of reading. And I think there’s the confidence that reading gives to you actually. I don’t mean that your head’s stuffed full of information because I don’t think that’s particularly why you read unless you are researching something. I think my life would have been less rich without reading.

LH: Yes. Because you talk about novels, actually. You haven’t mentioned any non-fiction, funnily enough. Not your genre at all?

AJ: No. I mean I had to read non-fiction at school, didn’t I? I read non-fiction with my grandchildren now but I have read poetry as well. I studied poetry as well.

LH: But you say about your life being richer for the reading.

AJ: Absolutely. I think so. And also it’s been all part of my education.  It’s all tied up with going to grammar school and going to teacher training college; and also teaching English. And then growing to love children’s books, of which there are many nowadays, aren’t there? Children are so fortunate today; they have such a choice. My grandchildren’s bookcases are stuffed with books. Which I love; I love to see that. And they love the world; they’re totally immersed in books themselves. And if they’re being naughty, one’s only to sit down and start reading out loud and they’re drawn to you – and I think that’s amazing.

LH: So you’re still using books? For other people as well?

AJ: Still using books, that’s right, yes.

LH: And they continue to influence your life?

AJ: Yes, they do.

LH: Thank you very much for that.

AJ: That’s quite all right.

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

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.  

Upperthorpe

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:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

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.   

Conclusion

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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