Alma was born in 1928

She is being interviewd by Liz Hawkins.

LH:  Alma was born in Sheffield on …

A:  I was born in Rotherham.

LH:  In Rotherham, sorry, on …

A:  In 1928.

LH:  In 1928.  And lived in the Rotherham area of Sheffield or in Sheffield as well?

A:  The Rotherham area until I married and then I went into Sheffield in 1921 … when I was 21.  Sorry.

LH:  Oh right.  So which area of Sheffield did you live in then, Alma?

A:  Pitsmoor.

LH:  Pitsmoor, great, brilliant. Well, thank you very much for agreeing to take part in our Reading Sheffield interviews and what we are really interested in is really your reading history so it is a question of looking back into your life and finding out what you were reading when you were a young adult. But first of all, thinking back to childhood, did anybody read to you when you were young, can you remember?

A:  Funnily enough, no, I can’t remember anything like that.  We were a working class family and my father was an engine driver and my mother did not work, in those days, but I honestly cannot remember anybody reading to me at bedtime or reading me a story.

LH:  It wasn’t the done thing in working class families?

A:  But I had some aunties who gradually got me reading and bought me books, yes.

LH:  And what were the first books that you read, in that case, that made you feel that you were now kind of reading proper books?

A:  When I was reading?  I can’t remember learning to read, I can’t remember at all.  I’ve been thinking about this; I can’t remember learning to read at all.  I went to school, obviously, and I must have learnt to read … but I can’t remember, I just can’t remember.

LH:  Moving a bit further on then, when your aunties bought you books, what kinds of books did they buy you?

A:  Well, I had this lovely aunty Alma who bought me a Peter Pan book which had a picture and tissue paper from this bookshop and I wanted to read it and I just read it!  So I must have been able to read.  And I can remember loving that book because of the tissue paper pictures.  So that was my very first book.

LH:  So you can still feel it almost, fantastic!  So where do you think she got the books from?  Would your aunts have bought them?

A:  Oh she bought it!  It was for a present. I had another auntie, Rosie, who bought me another present but it was a Dickens book and I didn’t really like that one, I didn’t like that one. But I loved Peter Pan, I remember that. We had books in the house!  We had books in the house. We had a bookcase!

LH:  What kinds of books did you have on the bookcase?

A:  Well there was a set of Wonderland of Knowledge books which we used to get down and look at those. I can remember looking at those. There was a bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays which I remember had sort of vellum covers, we looked at that. A book I did love, it was called A Century of Humour and that was full of short stories, short humorous stories. I remember reading that, I do remember that. Dad had a lot of political books. They were all bound with brown paper, they were … we didn’t touch his books. [Laughs.]

LH:  Did he read those books?

A:  Oh he did, yes, he was very politically-minded. I had a Chips comic every week, Chips comic which I must have read from cover to cover. And we [had] a Picture Post every Friday and I used to sit on the settee, I remember looking at pictures – I loved the Picture Post we had on a Friday and there was a daily newspaper but I don’t remember reading that. It was a News Chronicle. So that was my reading at home.

LH:  Oh fantastic. So moving on a bit then, when you were becoming a young adult, what kinds of books do you remember reading at that stage?

A:  Well that was the time when I got the ticket for the local library and I remember Dad saying, ‘You must never let a library book go overdue. Don’t forget that – you must always take them back before they are overdue’. So off I went to Rotherham Library which I loved going to. It was like a cathedral.  It was all hushed and quiet and wooden floors and everything cleaning [sic] and polished and nobody spoke to you and all the books were still hard-backed books, you know, with the covers, no fancy covers like they are today.  And I loved it and I liked …

LH: Did it smell of polish?

A:  It smelled of polish. [Laughs.]  And I really did want to be a librarian. I really did want to work in a library when I was that age. That was my ambition.  However, the books I liked, very much, were Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne of Green Gables.  And the Pollyanna books which, of course, were another thing. I liked plays and I read a lot of J B Priestley’s plays.  And I’d always go to the section because everything was alphabetical – the Ps – to find J B. Priestley.  I read all his plays and loved them.  I did like plays.

LH: That’s quite unusual.

A:  The best book, the best book which I read over and over again was his book called The Good Companions and I did love that. In fact I read it so much that when I travelled to school on the bus I used to look at people on the bus and fit them into the characters.

LH: Who was the author?

A:  J B Priestley, J B Priestley.

LH: Oh I see what you mean.

A:  Yes, that was good.  I read Pygmalion, Shaw’s Pygmalion, I remember that.  Frances Brett Young was another writer that  I liked in those days.  Somerset Maugham that I didn’t really quite understand. [Laughs.]  Can I tell you a funny story? There was a word in the book and it was spelled G-I-G-O-L-O.

LH:  G-I …

A:  G-I-G-O-L-O.  And I used to read it as ‘gig-ola’. I knew what it meant, sort of, I never dared … But ‘gig-ola’ and as I read it. it was ‘gig-ola’ and it was years and years and years later when somebody said ‘gigolo’ and I thought, ‘That’s what it was’. And then there was another one. We all read the Angela Brazil books, of course, which were about schools and things which we knew nothing about. There was this girl called ‘Penny-lope’. [Laughs.]  I always read her as ‘Penny-lope’ and it was only years later that I realised it was ‘Penelope’.  [Laughs.]  I guess nobody – nobody was called Penelope where I lived.

I loved my teachers at school.  My English teachers really were wonderful when I think back – they really were wonderful – they introduced us to lots of poetry: Walter De La Mare, John Masefield.  That was very interesting.

LH:  How old were you when you left school?

A:  When I left school … er … I left … I went to Rotherham Central School and I left when I was 14.

LH:  Right, right.  And was that the age to leave school in those days?

A:  Well, I unfortunately did not pass the 11+, to everybody’s horror, and so I did go from when I was nine to Rotherham Central School, which was a very good school, and I loved it really but you did leave at 14 and they did try to help you get a career, they did, they were very good at that and so …  Do you really want to know all this?  It’s not about reading really.

LH:  Well yes, no, that’s true but it sort of fits into another picture of your life really.

A:  Fits into another picture. Well, it does really because it made a lot of difference to me. There were three things you could do.  You could go and work in an office so that was good.  Or you could go to be a nurse, you could go and work in a hospital and, as my aunties had all been nurses, they all thought I was going to be a nurse.  Or you could go and apply for an art school.  Now I’d got these three choices.  Now, as my best friend was going to an art school, I decided I would go to an art school so I went for the interview and I got accepted to go to art school for two years.  So from 14 to 16 I was at Rotherham Art School.

LH:  Fantastic.

A:  Which was fantastic.Not that I as particularly good at drawing but I was learning and I loved it and that was when I went to the library a lot because it was just down the road from the college and it was lovely. So I had two lovely years there.  So at the end of those two years they said they were going to find you a job and I remember going to the office to Mr Thomas [?] and he said, ‘What do you want to do, Alma?’ and I said, ‘Well really I want to be a teacher.’  I’d always wanted to be a teacher and the fact that I had failed my 11+ and I hadn’t got to high school and I hadn’t been able to do my school certificate or anything. I thought that had gone. I said, ‘I really always wanted to be a teacher,’ and to my surprise he said, ‘But you still can.’  And it was just as if a light had gone in my world; I thought it was wonderful!  Wow, I could be a teacher!  ‘How?’ I said. ‘How?’  And so he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to transfer from here to Rotherham High School’  which is where I would have gone if I’d passed my 11+.  ‘What will I do there?’ I said  ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to work very hard because you will have to get your School Certificate in a year.’

LH:  Wow.

A:  Right.  ‘Do you think you can do that?’  ‘Yes, of course I can!’  I said, and I did.  It was wonderful.  And I ran home.  I remember running home to my parents and saying. ‘I can go.  I can be a teacher!  I can go to the high school!’  ‘Wow,’ they said. Oh yes, they were hundred per cent behind me because they had always been a bit disappointed because I hadn’t passed this flipping 11+.  So, erm, there we were, so I went to Rotherham High School and I was the only girl in the whole school who hadn’t got a uniform.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  I did have to go for an interview and I did have to do an English test and a maths test but, because the art school used to do maths one morning and English one morning, I was okay with that and so I got in.  So I was in with all these very clever girls, feeling very, very much the odd one out but taking in every word and writing everything and learning like goodness-knows-what and, when we did have the exam, I passed with flying colours. I did. I got a distinction in everything.  I don’t know why but I did.

LH:  Oh, it was just your time, wasn’t it?

A:  This was, this was, like … Well, this was wonderful.  So that was my passport into training college.

LH:  Well, that’s absolutely brilliant.  What … er … you know, you are obviously quite a conscientious sort of person.  When did you find time to read?  What were the slots in your life that you chose to put reading into?

A:  Ah, yes.  Well, when I was at home, I can remember reading in bed a lot.  I read in bed a lot.  I used to go to bed early and read and I used to read in the morning, early in the morning.  I used to read a lot in bed – yes, I did.

LH:  And was that encouraged in your family?  Because you said they weren’t really readers.

A:  Oh yes, yes, oh yes.  They were one hundred per cent behind me, my family.  Oh, yes they were.

LH:  So they didn’t make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

A:  Not at all.  No, not at all.  No, I think they were glad and they were delighted for me when I got this second chance to do what I really wanted to do.  And they backed me a hundred per cent because they hadn’t a lot of money and I needed a lot of things to go to teacher training college and I know it was a hardship, because they send you a list from college of all the books you need, no matter what course you were going to take, there’s a history and everything that you are going to take so I got all these books.

LH:  So did you … the books that you have been talking about up till now have been largely fiction and plays as well.  Did you read non-fiction at all?  Or was that just because you were doing courses at college?

A:  No, no, they were all – light reading we’d call it, wouldn’t we?

LH:  Right.  I don’t know that J B Priestley’s plays would be considered light …

A:  Oh, yes, the plays, yes.  I loved the plays and I was in a drama society that I acted in some plays. I love plays, yes.

LH:  So you didn’t read non-fiction apart from your courses at college?

A:  No, at college, yes I think I was on the courses – yes.  I did read a book which made a big impression on me and it was called I Bought a Mountain and it was by Esmé and Thomas Somebody and I can’t remember who they were.  And this couple had bought a farm in Wales and, you know, set about it and made it work, and it was a sheep farm, of course.  It was lovely.  Years later, after I was married and we did a lot of camping, we actually went to camp on their grounds and I met Esmé and Thomas, and told them that as a teenager I had read their book.  And by that time they were, you know, quite grizzled people.  Yes, it was, that was fantastic.  So that was a book that really made a …

LH:  Do you feel that you read for inspiration in some cases?

A:  I wanted inspiration?

LH:  Yeah, did you read in order to get inspiration?

A:  Not particularly, no. But if I did read a book that I liked, I did like it. It was another thing. I read Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood at that point and I can remember, again, looking for the characters as I walked about and ‘that one would be that one, and that one would be that one’.

LH:  You’re obviously an observer of people.

A:  I loved that, yes.

LH:  So can you think about books that you read as you were becoming an adult?  Was there anything that you felt, you know, guilty pleasure in reading and thought, ‘Oh!’  I’m thinking about the gigolo, for example?

A:  Well that’s right!  I was amazed when I thought about it because Somerset Maugham is an adult writer, for adult people, but I do remember liking that.

LH:  So you didn’t feel that you had to hide your books from your parents or anything?

A:  No, I never, no. I wasn’t that sort of a reader.

LH:  Not under the covers.

A:  No.  What I can remember is going to my Grandma’s and seeing a little magazine called Peg’s Paper and it was a gaudy cover of a girl hiding behind a door or something and I thought, ‘What’s that?’ and I started reading it, little short stories, and I thought, ‘This is rubbish’.  I never looked at it again, I don’t know who got it, who was having this Peg’s Paper. I thought I’m not wasting my time reading that rubbish.

LH:  Do you think there were things around that was [sic] light reading for people, like magazine sort of stories?

A:  Erm, magazines.  No, I can’t think of magazines.

LH:  Proper books.

A:  We used to have proper books.  I know I always had three books on the go.  I used to get three books from the library. John Halifax … I can give you a list of some of those that I read.  I liked Three Men in a Boat and I still like Three Men in a Boat and, if I’m feeling a bit miserable, I read Three Men in a Boat.  I loved that.  I read Oliver Twist.  Francis Brett Young, I read all of his.  I used to find an author and sort of read all their books you see.  I love poetry; I read lots of poetry books.  I read Pride and Prejudice at that point, yes I did, and Under Milk Wood.  I liked that one.  School books were pretty grim.  I read a book called Althan that was a task book, and we did Merchant of Venice which I loved. So that was our exam book.

LH:  So it was quite a range then, from fantastic through to comedy.

A:  Yes I suppose so. T S Elliot’s Cats – I loved those poems. It is hard to remember actually.

LH:  Well I think you have remembered a lot.  Are there books that you can remember reading then that you enjoyed but wouldn’t dream of reading now?  In terms of tastes changing.

A:  Yes, certainly, I don’t think I would read Somerset Maugham anymore or Francis Brett Young anymore.  No I don’t think so.  Oh at that point I read Jane Eyre, and writing [sic] a play about Jane Eyre.

L:  Really, just yourself?

A:  Yes, because it was wartime and I used to do lots of things at home.  And I can remember writing a play, the one where she made her stand on a chair because she went out in the rain walking around a yard or something.  I can’t remember it very well but I do remember that.

LH:  Did the war have any other effects on you?  Because you must have been a young teenager during the war.

A:  Yes, well, we lived in Rotherham which was near Sheffield and we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there.  There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air!  So we had got an aunty – it was Aunty Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter.  It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright.  Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and we found out that … our shelter was sort of in the bank of this field at the top of the garden and so there was a field higher up, and so I didn’t go but I can remember my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something.  So that was exciting.

LH:  So you were saying in the war that people did more things at home so in fact there was more opportunity to read, was there?

A:  Not really, no, you’re right there, you’re right there.  Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table.  I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.  And we did a lot at home.  We played games around the table, we played cards a lot.  Yes, we were a very close family.  My cousin from London came up, for safety – Theo, they called him – and I got my brother and myself, so I was the eldest of the two boys and they did exactly what I told them to do and I was a real bossy boots.  We did all sorts of things, we made things and cut things out and models and yes, yes, when I think about it, the evenings were lovely, we didn’t have television but I don’t remember reading that much.

LH:  That’s interesting.  Perhaps you did start your reading career as you became an adult.

A:  Yes.

LH:  Well you’ve told me loads, Alma.  I don’t know whether there is anything else in your notes that you want to mention.

A:  Yes, oh I’m sorry about this.  We’ve gone off the point.  I’m sorry about this.

LH:  No, it is all really interesting.


A:  No I haven’t … do you want to know about when we were married in 1950.  Has that gone too far?

LH:  No, we are still in the period of time there.

A:  Because my husband liked adventure stories and so I got sort of into that as well.

LH:  What sort of adventure stories?

A:  Kon-Tiki and things like that.

LH:  Did you read Rider Haggard?

A:  Yes I did.  Perhaps if you mention some people I can remember.

LH: John Buchan?  Did you read any Jack London?  Dennis Wheatley?

A:  None of those.

LH:  Well perhaps he found his own.  Who was the author of Kon-Tiki?

A:  Oh, Agatha Christie, I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. Yes I read a lot of those, yes, yes.

LH:  Lovely, so during married life … Did you carry on reading after you were married?

A:  Not for a while, because we lived with Raymond’s mum and dad while we were saving up and they didn’t have any books at all.  They used to read the paper from cover to cover but no books.  I don’t remember doing a lot of reading then.  I remember going to Sheffield Library and being a bit overwhelmed by Sheffield Library, it was very big and I didn’t like it so I didn’t go.  So I didn’t get access to books you see at that point.  So it was only when we actually moved to our first house in 1952 that I began to read again.

LH:  Yes, you could do what you wanted then.

A:  Yes, I wanted to go to the library then, yes, and then I read; I liked biographies, Dame Laura Knight and … and ballet, I liked ballet books, all about ballet and dancing.  I loved books like that.

LH:  Really?  Fantastic!  So you’ve got a wide range of tastes.

A:  Yes, well I’ll read anything.  Raymond used to like Wilbur Smith.  He liked that, he liked adventure.

LH: Right.

A: In fact he used to have two books on his side of the bed and I used to have four!

[Both laugh.]

LH:  Keeping track of four is quite something.

A: Yes, because I still read in bed.  I used to like reading in bed.

LH:  Well, that’s fascinating.

A:  How are we doing?  I’ve gone over the time now, haven’t I?

LH:  Well, from my point of view, if you would like to say anything else about the authors there. you can, but you’ve given me a really good impression of the books that you were reading and I suppose my final question to you would be: do you think there are any ways that reading has changed your life?

A:  It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

LH:  It has fed your imagination.

A:  It has fed my imagination, yes.  I know very well that I couldn’t live without books.   That’s a dead cert.  I need books, yes.

LH:  I think that is a good place to end our interview.  Thank you very much indeed.

[As Liz was switching the machine off, Alma said that she can’t get to the library now and sounded sad but the machine was turned off.]

Access Alma’s reading journey here.


Recent Posts

The Carnegie Letters (Part One)

By Val Hewson

Busy with our Sundae Opening project (more about this shortly), we’ve not been able to post anything here for a while. Many thanks to MS who put me in the way of the Carnegie letters about Sheffield. A great way to stoke up the blog again.

Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.

Andrew Carnegie, An American Four-in-Hand in Britain (1883).

In April 1904, Geo Hy Capper, of Fernleigh, Tinsley, wrote a letter to R A Franks of the Home Trust Company, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA, asking about ‘your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work’.

Image from the Carnegie Corporation of New York Records held by Columbia University Libraries. Details:

Here is a transcription of the letter.

Tinsley Parish Council

Clerk’s Office, Fernleigh

Tinsley, April 23rd, 1904

Geo Hy Capper, Clerk to the Council

Mr. R. A. Franks,

Home Trust Company, Hoboken, N.J. U.S.A.

Dear Sir,

On Feb’y 23rd last I received from Mr. J. Bertram a letter announcing Mr Carnegie’s approval of the plans for Library [sic], which he is giving to Tinsley, & asking me to communicate with you for payment as the work proceeds. The Contract was let last night & building operations will now be commenced at once, so I shall be glad if you will kindly let know your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work.

              Waiting your esteemed reply,

                             Yours faithfully,

                                           Geo. Hy. Capper

George Henry Capper (1859-1924), who acted as clerk to Tinsley Parish Council, was the Sheffield-born manager of a steel rolling mill and a man of substance, as his confident letter shows. (That the letter is handwritten, by the signatory, is interesting. Typewriters were becoming common in offices at the turn of the century but the parish council evidently did not use one.) Robert Augustus Franks (1861?-1935), born in Liverpool, was an immigrant to the United States who had made a success of his new life. He was president of the Home Trust Company, a private bank set up by his friend, Scottish-American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), to manage Carnegie’s philanthropy, including the endowment of ‘free libraries’.

Andrew Carnegie, (seated, fourth from left), his daughter, Margaret, and wife, Louise, at the Carnegie Corporation’s first board meeting, 10 November 1911. Standing behind Carnegie is his secretary, James Bertram, and behind Margaret and Louise Carnegie, Robert Franks (public domain, Wikimedia Commons).

Carnegie’s contribution to libraries is well-known. At one point he was the richest man in the world, and he is said to have given away about 90% of his fortune, to support educational and cultural organisations. He believed that:

To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.

Andrew Carnegie, The Empire of Business (1902).

Carnegie started poor, emigrating to the USA in search of a better life, and he had little formal education. He reasoned that libraries gave people like him the chance to learn, to catch up. All in all, he helped found perhaps 3,000 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spending about $55m in the process. Most were located in the USA, but towns and cities around the world, including in the UK, benefitted from Carnegie’s generosity.

Around 1903, Tinsley, now a suburb of Sheffield but then an independent township, was awarded £1,500 by Carnegie for its free library, to be built on the corner of Bawtry Road, on a site donated by Earl Fitzwilliam, the local aristocrat. Mr Carnegie’s secretary had written to the council on 18 November, setting out the terms of the offer:

Dear Sir – Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate.

Sheffield Telegraph, 17 December 1903.

The money might have been refused, as there was a feeling in Tinsley that Carnegie the employer oppressed the working man libraries were intended to help. There was also a suggestion that local business, rather than business based 3,000 miles away, should pay (which might have been connected to the curious fact that steel was the business of both Carnegie and Tinsley). In the end, the parish council voted almost unanimously to accept Carnegie’s offer. You can read the full story starting here.

Tinsley Carnegie Library opened to the public just over a year after Capper’s letter, on 7 June 1905, and the whole affair, from initial application to opening ceremony, took perhaps two years. The contract Capper refers to must have been the one with the local building firm, Gray and Sons, and the plans approved by Carnegie were the design by respected local architects, Holmes and Watson, which can be seen in Sheffield City Archives.

Tinsley spent Carnegie’s £1,500 well (and managed the budget well – there was an overspend of a mere 9s 10d). The Sheffield Telegraph reported from the opening ceremony:

The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution…besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village.

Sheffield Telegraph, 8 June 1905

Tinsley Carnegie Library around 1970 (courtesy of Picture Sheffield, Ref. No. s26883)

And so it remained for 80 years, until in 1985 the library moved to a (less impressive) shop unit in a modern precinct just down the road. The building was then used as a family centre, but has stood empty and boarded up for some years now. It’s a tribute to the parish council, the architects and builders that the building remains, forlorn, water-damaged but still graceful after nearly 120 years. 

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

Columbia University Libraries also hold correspondence about Sheffield’s Walkley Carnegie Library, about which we’ll be writing shortly.

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