Alan B

Alan B

Alan was born in Rotherham on the 10th March 1944 in the Kimberworth area. Between 1945 and 1965 he lived in Clifton Park, in the Clifton area.

He is interviewed by Susan Roe on the 2nd May 2012.

SR: Did anybody read to you when you were young?

AB: I remember one of my aunts reading to me and I’m guessing that probably my sister and my mother might have done, read to me.

SR: How far back do your memories go?

AB: Probably just pre-school.

SR: And what was it? Bedtime stories or [inaudible]?

AB: I think probably things like children’s annuals, Rupert Bear annuals things like that. I remember the Rupert Bear annuals very fondly. I remember we had some fairy stories with sort of, you know, [inaudible] type drawings in which I found quite scary.

SR: Yes I can imagine.

AB: So I imagine we looked at that. And I know I never made any attempt to read myself. I think I was a bit lazy like that or they were too good to me! I remember I used to pass them on to read to me.

SR: So you did ask people to read to you?

AB: Yes.

SR: How long did that go on for, do you remember?

AB: I don’t exactly but I know, I remember being told, “Oh, you should be reading yourself now”. I know I didn’t really start reading to myself until I was in junior school.

SR: What books did you read when you were in junior school?

AB: I really can’t remember to be honest but I remember finding it very difficult to read. I was a very slow starter and then I had a couple of teachers, one who bullied me, in a nice way, to read. She taught me, I felt she taught me how to read. Another teacher who probably inspired me to want to read and get the knowledge and then I took off. I remember reading children’s comics.

SR: What sort of comics did you read?

AB: Dandy, Beano and then later on there’d be sort of Rover.

SR: Roy of the Rovers?

AB: Yes…[inaudible]. I was never a great Eagle fan but occasionally I read the Eagle.

SR: Do you remember what sort of books you read in junior school? [SR makes a suggestion but inaudible]

AB: I’m sorry I can’t. I really don’t remember reading very much at all in junior school. I just remember sort of like learning how to read and then slowly thinking, “Things are interesting”. I always had some feeling for books because something that has always stuck with me was when King George VI died we all were at school and we had to take out our hymn books, our Songs of Praise and we had to go to the National Anthem which was in the book and cross out the word King and write Queen. I remember being quite shocked that teachers were telling us to deface our hymn books.

SR: How funny.

AB: Yes. Funny how things stay with you.

SR: They stick in your mind. Do you remember any books, the first books that made you feel you were now reading grown up books? That you were leaving children’s books behind.

AB: I can remember when I was about probably at the end of junior school, reading G A Henty novels. I don’t know whether you would call those exactly grown up books but they were a bit more…

SR: It’s what you feel, whether you felt the nature a bit more grown up, you know, less childish.

AB: Um, yes well about the time I went to secondary school I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all.

SR: Can you think of any examples at all?

AB: Well I started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me. Things like that and I can remember going to Rotherham City Library and saying I’d like to join the library and them trying to direct me to the children’s library. I wouldn’t have that, no I wanted these other books.

SR: How old were you?

AB: I’d have been about 11.

SR:  Is that when you went to secondary school?

AB: Yes and I started going to the library. I liked to read sort of light-hearted things. The easy things like G A Henty but I also knew that there were all these important books [chuckles] which I felt I ought to try and read as well. Sometimes I was unsuccessful but I remember I had no concept of what people would refer to as good books or lightweight books. So they were all the same to me and I remember my mother used to like to read Mills and Boon type stuff and her favourite author was Mazo de la Roche

SR: Oh yes.

AB: I’ve never heard of her for years but I know once when we were at school being asked , “Can you name of a famous author?” and when I’d said, “Oh Mazo de la Roche” and I was laughed at and I was scorned [both laugh] and I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!

SR: Where did you get your books from? Generally speaking when you started reading, like you said an explosion of reading?

AB: Well, as I say, I joined the local library and also I went to a local book shop which was just a sort of old fashioned type of book shop, you know, a rabbit warren of shelves. And I used to go to that and I seem to remember I got my G A Henty from there.

SR: Is that a bookshop in Rotherham?

AB: Yes, called Harpers.

SR: And did they give advice on what books or did you ask them what books you might read? Or did you just choose?

AB: I’d just browse.

SR: Browse, yes.

AB: I mean I don’t know why I didn’t get the Henty books out of the library but I’m wondering if they didn’t have them because he became quite sort of unpopular didn’t he because he was an imperialist. So they may not have had them in the library.

SR: Did you get any books from school?

AB: Mm …we had one book a term. We had the set book and that was all and I don’t remember getting another book.

SR: Do you remember any of your set books?

AB: I think we did Jack London books, The Call of the Wild, White Fang.  Our first one was King of the Golden River by the art critic, I can’t remember his name now..[inaudible].

SR: Did you like the Jack London?

AB:  Yeah I think so, yeah, yeah.

SR: What was it? Was it the adventure?

AB: Yeah, the fast-moving adventure side of it.

SR: It was set in Canada.

AB: Canada, yeah.

SR: Was that appealing?

AB: Yeah I think so [sounds slightly doubtful]. I like adventure books. That’s my escapism in reading as it were.

SR: With any family members did you ask for books for presents or did people buy you books?

AB:  Yeah I think they did, yes. I know we had a friend who lived nearby and he was very keen on education. In fact he was the head of the local education committee. So if I ever mentioned a book in his presence he would get it for me.

SR: Did you swap books with friends or anything like that?

AB: I’ve no recollection of ever doing that.

SR: Where did you read? Did you have any particular place in the house where you read or did you read outside?

AB: Mmm …

SR: Did you read upstairs, in your room?

AB: … I don’t know.

SR: Not in particular?

AB: No, nowhere in particular, no but we got a…we were one of the families with a front room that was never used so I might ‘ave just gone in there if I  wanted a bit of peace and quiet.

SR: But everything happened in the back room?

AB: That’s it, yeah. So you, if you wanted to be quiet you could have gone to the front room as long as it wasn’t cold. We only lit the fire at Christmas!

SR: I know just what you mean!

AB: Yes.

SR: Any other books you read as a young adult, mid-teens that sort of thing, that made an impression on you? Can you think of any particular books that made an impression on you?

AB: Well as I got into adolescence I remember reading The Bright Day by J B Priestley. I found that really sort of useful in the sense that as an adolescent you had certain uncertainties and that is what he talked about. And knowing that other people had the same uncertainties, it’s not just you.

SR: You found that quite helpful then?

AB: Yes, yeah.

SR: Do you remember any others? Mid-teens that sort of time?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Teenager, young adult perhaps?

AB: None that made a profound impact on me.

SR: Impression…

AB: Impression on me. I mean as I got into school leaving age I realised I was interested in science and engineering so my reading switched a bit more into…

SR: Into that area?

AB: Into that area. I mean, I think, perhaps everyone is like this, but I think I am a person who uses reading rather than for its own sake, as it were. I like to see what it can do for me sort of thing.

SR: So you were into science and engineering so went to science and engineering type books?

AB: Yes.

SR: What kind of books do you really like, generally?

AB: I think I see different books for different jobs, you know, I mean. Like I went to the library yesterday and I got some factual books and I also got a novel which is pure…

SR: Light relief?

AB: Light reading and relaxation.

SR: And that was the same when you were younger?

AB: Yes I think so, yes.

SR: In your twenties, late teens, twenties?

AB: I think so yes.

SR: You said you liked adventure books. Do you still like those?

AB: Yeah I do, yeah.

SR: What sort of adventure books did you read apart from Jack London? Can you think of any others?

AB: Well there were all the standard ones, you know the Coral Island…

SR: Was that Stevenson or Ballantyne?

AB: Ballantyne. And Robert Louis Stevenson.

SR: Treasure Island?

AB: Treasure Island, that sort of thing. Then as you get older perhaps more slightly darker stuff, you know, war books and things like that.

SR: Can you remember any war books that you read?

AB: What from those days?

SR: Yes.

AB: Well mostly G A Henty books were based on wars – the British would thrash somebody [laughs]! Which is why they became rather unpopular! And then there were the C S Forrester, the Hornblower books. I read most of those.

SR: Any escape, Colditz type books?

AB: Oh I remember that was one of our set books at school. The Wooden Horse, which is a feel-good escape book. I am thinking of so many I had forgotten all about.

SR: Did you find that exciting?

AB: Yes although it’s more the building of tension there because there is not a lot of actual action except them slowly building the tunnel. I think it is quite well described. It is quite a good book, well written.

SR: Did you read any books about the First World War or anything like that?

AB: Mmm … I think I must have because  …I’m trying to think. I read John Masters wrote a lot of books but I think I read those a bit later in life. They were much, slightly darker than [inaudible].

SR: … [inaudible] you talked about the library didn’t you and said you went to a bookshop. Was it a new or a second hand bookshop or was it both?

AB: No it wasn’t. It was just a new bookshop. I can’t remember ever using a second hand bookshop until I was an adult. I don’t know whether it was stigma or perhaps they didn’t exist.

SR: As an adult did you go to second hand bookshops?

AB: Yes. I did.

SR: In Rotherham there were second hand bookshops?

AB: I don’t know actually. I don’t think it was ever famous for reading, Rotherham! I mean I get the impression that I was slightly unusual in that I was keen on reading and I did collect books.

SR: Did that get you into any difficulties in Rotherham?

AB: Not particularly no.

SR: So you weren’t bullied or anything for reading?

AB: No, no.

SR: Sometimes boys reading can be regarded by other boys as not so …that wasn’t an issue?

AB: No but thinking back it was something that you can keep quiet about isn’t it?

SR: Yes.

AB: You don’t have to be err…

SR: You can do it in the privacy of your own home can’t you?

AB: Yes. I don’t remember ever purposely hiding what I read.

SR: Was reading common in your family do you think?

AB: Well I saw my mother reading quite a lot and we did have few books in the house. You know, we had a book collection but I remember when I started reading I had to build a new … I made myself a set of bookshelves! [laughs]

SR: To keep them on.

AB: Yeah. But, you know, it wasn’t a great thing, you know, there weren’t as many books that we have now.

SR: What books were in your mum’s, your parents’ bookcase?

AB: A set of Mayo de la Roche books. Things like standard encyclopaedias. Later on they bought me a set of children’s, Arthur Mee children’s encyclopaedias, umm, which I very rarely used although it wasn’t until years later that I discovered there was an index! It was tucked somewhere in the middle so I didn’t find it until years after I got it.

SR: That cut down its use a bit!

AB: Which made it very difficult to use, yeah! Um, um, you know, not a vast array of books.

SR: And what sort of books did you have on your bookshelf?

AB: A very varied collection really. I think I had one or two books on astronomy. I think I had quite a lot of adventure books and one or two quite intellectual books which you know really I probably struggled with and never got brought out again.

SR: You said you read some Dickens, some classics. Can you remember any titles of those?

AB: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, really the well-known ones.

SR: Did you enjoy them?

AB: Mmm…[long pause].I think I did probably but I probably found them hard work.

SR: Did anybody encourage you to read? At home or at school or beyond?

AB: I’ve no recollection of that. I went to secondary modern school and there were very few books actually in school in those days. And the ones that were, I think they were trying to make us realise how good books were but they were so sort of reverential about books that, you know, I wouldn’t have dared go to the library and borrow one.

SR: So it had the opposite effect.

AB: Yeah because the school library, we didn’t have a…

[Recording stops because of a technical hitch so the following section of the interview is reconstructed or in note form.]

SR: Did  anyone make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

AB: Not really; in Rotherham the boys went into steel works or a few into mines but I kept reading  to myself

[Parents not discouraging; saw mother reading – she read Mazo de la Roche/ Mills & Boon.]

SR: Where & when did you find time to read? (I was not sure about your response here)

AB: Parents had bookcase [remembers encyclopedias; he had own shelves for his own books.]

SR:  Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about what you read- a guilty pleasure? Or did you ever read anything because you thought it would improve you in anyway?

AB: Not really-

[In early teens A did read authors  like Dickens as knew they were supposed to be classics e.g. David Copperfield; Oliver Twist.; Paradise Lost( Milton) – found them hard going – didn’t finish P/Lost.]

SR: Which books did you read with pleasure when you were young that you wouldn’t dream of reading again? Why not?

AB: Obviously the annuals. Probably the Henty books – probably not PC; also superficial –characters good or bad / heroes & villains

SR: Do any of the following authors or books ring any bells with you?

AB: ‘Realistic’ [reading from list of categories]

[A had heard of H E Batesbut not sure if read any.

Arnold Bennett- the Clayhanger novels-enjoyed them as they were realistic; character not heroic

A.J. Cronin –read the medical ones

Thought Warwick Deeping was a place

Winifred Holtby: read several e.g. South Riding –interested as it was realistic & set locally. Saw ancient monument in graveyard where she was buried – likes to see links between what he’s read & the world around him

Somerset Maugham: not keen on his novels but liked short stories set in East

J.B. Priestley: read several- Good Companions?

Nevil Shute: really liked him, both his novels & his scientific books- he was an aircraft designer/builder  in 1920/30s. Reflects own interest in science & engineering books, like those of Jules Verne, based on good science

Historical

Read Georgette Heyer/Jean Plaidy – quite likes historical novels  but prefers history books/biographies – grounded in facts/reality

Adventure

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan- did read some of these

John Buchan: liked these e.g. The 39 Steps; very black & white- goodies & baddies

Erskine Childers: read The Riddle of the Sands

Rider Haggard: read several e.g. King Solomon’s Mines- not sure how accurate they were.]

[The second  recording picks up at the point of the next writer. Sue and A are looking at a list of popular fiction and sometimes refer to it. The second interview begins with mention of High Wind in Jamaica by  Richard Hughes]

SR: We were talking about the library and …

AB:I don’t think it was particularly well researched in that respect. I read Richard Hughes, High Wind in Jamaica. That’s quite a difficult book because I think it is supposed to have hidden, a deeper meaning. I found that a bit difficult [chuckles] so I am not quite sure, [pause], what that was about. I mean another book like that was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Someone told me it was an allegory of life [laughs] and I thought it was a story about some boys on an island!

So, Victor Hugo…

SR: You say Les Miserables, have you read any others?

AB:  Of William…?

SR: Of Victor Hugo?

AB: No, I don’t think I have. Jack London we have talked about.

SR: Yes, you said, yes.

AB: Denis Wheatley, yes, he was popular which I would have read probably in my teenage years. Some good adventure stories. I did read that.

SR: Beau Geste.

AB: Beau Geste.

SR: You said you had read some war stories. Did you read The Wooden Horse?

AB: Yes. The Wooden Horse was a very good one.

SR: That’s another escape.

AB: Yes, an escape from a prisoner of war camp and I have a feeling that was a set book at school.

SR: Oh yes.

AB: But it is the sort of thing I would have read anyway. It was good.

SR: A ripping yarn! As they say.

AB: Yes, that’s it.

SR: What about thrillers? Do you like thrillers?

AB: Yes I do. Graham Greene. I have read a few of those. I read Prisoner of Zenda. Nicholas Monsarrat was quite a one.

SR: Was that The Cruel Sea?

AB: The Cruel Sea, The Mariner, things like that.

SR: Sort of war or adventure or up against hard situations?

AB: That’s right, yes. Dennis Wheatley there again, yes.

SR: Do you like crime fiction at all, British or American?

AB: I don’t dislike it, yes. I’m fairly, I’m fairly open to any genre as long as it is engaging, telling you something. So, I like a fast moving story and if you can get both together that’s wonderful. So I’ve read, you know, Conan Doyle.

SR: Sherlock Holmes?

AB: Sherlock Holmes. I’ve also read some of his more science fiction stuff, Lost World.

SR: Oh yes, yes. Do you like a sort of puzzle that you have with a thriller, that sort of puzzle.

AB: I do yes.

SR: So you can work out whodunit?

AB: Yeah. At the moment I am reading books by C J Sansom.

SR: Tudor.

AB: A Tudor crime.

SR: Henry VIII isn’t it?

AB: Yeah, Tudor crimes.

SR: That’s a combination there of history and thriller.

AB: Yeah, yes and he puts in some quite interesting historical observations as well.

SR: So you feel he has researched it?

AB: Yes I think he is a proper historian and he’s also been a solicitor so he knows a little bit about the criminal side as well. So you have got two things together and it’s a good yarn as well.

SR: What about comedy? Comedy books?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Benson, all these, G K Chesterton?

AB: Yeah, I have read G K Chesterton but I can’t remember what I’ve read…oh Father Brown.

SR: Father Brown.

AB: Which again is more to the detective side.

SR: The detective side.

AB: I think I have read one or two Compton Mackensies.

SR: Do you like the sort of comic, comedy books at all? Like P G Wodehouse?

AB: Yes. I do. I’ve read quite a few of the Wooster and Jeeves.

SR: Yes. That’s set in, is it the twenties and thirties is it? I think it is.

AB: Yes, it is yes, between the two world wars. Saki, I have read one or two of his short stories.

SR: Do you prefer novels or short stories or are you not bothered?

AB: No, no.

SR:  No particular preference?

AB: No.

SR: Ah, now we come to sagas. You did read some of them?

AB: No, I’ve never read any of them!

SR: Oh no, you didn’t read them!

AB: No. My mother read them but I read that Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole.

SR: Interesting?

AB: Hmm…I have a feeling I read one of the series and never bothered with any others so perhaps it wasn’t…I think it is set in the Lake District.

SR: Yes [inaudible].

AB: I think … is that a book of poems, Diary of a Super-Tramp?.

SR: I am not sure what that one is.

AB: No, I’m not sure. I’ve heard of that but I don’t think I have ever read it.

SR: Was romance anything that you were interested in? The Four Feathers possibly?

AB: Yes I have read that and again I possibly read that at school. Gone with the Wind I have read but late,  in more recent times.

SR: They were a bit more action rather than just the romance aren’t they?

AB: Yes.

SR: And you don’t bother with Mills and Boon?

AB: I don’t, no sorry.

SR: That’s all right! Any westerns? Like Zane Grey?

AB: I don’t think I have ever read any of his but I have read western stories, but again a western can also be quite a good thriller can’t it? It is just a vehicle for it.

SR: It’s the setting isn’t it? Now we talked about Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the sort of shocking books of the period. I don’t know if you’ve read any of those?

AB: Mmm …

SR: Or any other books that you thought might have been a bit shocking [inaudible]?

AB: Well this wasn’t in the period you are talking about but when I was in my twenties I did an Open University degree and one of the subjects, we did quite a lot on D H Lawrence, and I [inaudible]…The Rainbow.

SR:  What was your reaction to this?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Did you enjoy the books?

AB: I didn’t disenjoy them. Is there such a word … disenjoy? I didn’t not enjoy them but I preferred some of his poems actually because he is one of these people who makes some very insightful…

SR: Observations?

AB: Observations on life but you have got to read through a lot of stuff to get to them [chuckles] whereas his poems are more punchy.

SR: Yes. What about the classics? You certainly said Jane Austen.

AB: Joseph Conrad, yes. I read a few of his, Nostromo; his short stories are good.  I enjoyed those. Charles Dickens. E M Forster, I’ve read A Passage to India. Again in more recent times. Thomas Hardy, I’ve read a few of his books.

SR: Like?

AB: Woodlanders, Return…

SR: Return of the Native.

AB: Return of the Native, Mayor of Casterbridge.

SR: Did you like those?

AB: Yes I do actually. I think it latches on to a sort of way of life that’s maybe disappeared now.

SR: They are not all happy endings of course?

AB: No he sort of touches life in the raw on occasions. James Joyce – I think I have read little bits of him but I found them very difficult. I thought he might be up there actually [laughs].

SR: Some of these…[inaudible]

AB: Lucky Jim, I’ve read that.

SR: Did you enjoy that?

AB: Yes I did, yes, about the….

SR:  University.

AB: Yes, that’s the university one and I’ve mixed it up with another one about trade unions. I would have….[inaudible].

SR: Did you read…?

AB: Brave New World

SR: Was that interesting to you?

AB: Yes it was.

SR: It was science fiction but not…

AB: It’s science fiction but strong on the social side of it.

SR: And it’s not unbelievable?

AB: No, no. The science isn’t important, it’s the people side and how society would be organised. Christopher Isherwood, I’ve read those.

SR: Which did you read?

AB: Goodbye to Berlin.

SR: That might have been in that section as well [chuckles]!

AB: Yes.

SR: What did you think to that?

AB: Well I enjoyed it in a sort of … disturbed way. Nevil Shute, George Orwell. I read 1984. I think that’s about all I have read of his.

SR: Did you read Animal Farm?

AB: Oh yes I read that! I probably read Animal Farm when I was at school.

SR: Yes, yes.

AB: Again I struggled with that because everyone said it was about the communist system and I thought it was about a farm! I might have tried to read George Bernard Shaw but it left no impression on me whatsoever. C P Snow, I know the name but I don’t know what he wrote [another sentence but inaudible]

SR: [inaudible]

AB: Virginia Woolf, I think again I tried to read but I didn’t get very far with it.

SR: There’s H G Wells again and John Wyndham of course we could have had…

AB: Yes. He was the Triffids man.

SR: And the Kraken Wakes.

AB: Yes. I’ve read all of them.

SR:  Do you like those?

AB: Yes. I think they are really good, well written and very good stories.

SR: About non-fiction. You said you read a fair bit of non fiction didn’t you? Something for your studies and also you might…other…[inaudible]

AB: Yes. I am interested in science books, history books, yeah and biographies and political social history.

SR:  Any travel books you like? Or is that not your bag as people would say?

AB: Occasionally I would read a travel book but really a good travel book brings in history and social…

SR:  [inaudible – sounds of moving tape machine] – It’s making me nervous now. Have you ever read a book which is …[inaudible]?

AB: I am sure I have but I can’t think of an example.

SR: Are there any books or any way in which you think reading has changed your life at all? I know that sounds a bit grand.

AB: Yes. Well I am sure it has in the sense it that it’s helped me to sort out my ideas on my life and how I want to live it by a) giving me facts to explain things and b) encouraging me to question my ideas, beliefs or absence of beliefs.

SR: In order to give it some background is it OK if I just ask you a short biographical question?

AB: Yes go on.

SR: When were you born again, March?

AB: 10th March 1944.

SR: You were born in Rotherham?

AB: Yes.

SR: How did your family come to be in Rotherham?

AB: Mmm….well Rotherham was a major industrial centre and all my family have been employed in industry.

SR: So you’ve got long roots in Rotherham?

AB: Well relatively long, yes.

SR: They worked in the steelworks?

AB: My father’s family worked in the steelworks for several generations and my mother’s family moved to Rotherham from Birmingham to work in the brass industry.

SR: Oh I didn’t know there was a brass industry in Rotherham.

AB: Well I don’t want to bore you.

SR: No, no I’m interested in that.

AB: A man in Rotherham invented the tap, you know, the screw tap, which was a major step forward because it meant basically every home could have its own water supply.

SR: You could turn on and off, yes.

AB: Before the modern tap it was possible but only rich people could [inaudible] but they needed to manufacture the taps in large quantities and for that you needed brass casting. My mother’s family came to Rotherham from Birmingham to set up the brass tap making business and they were said to be the first people to make a brass tap.

SR: Oh that is interesting. So your mother’s family came from Birmingham but your father’s family is from Rotherham?

AB: But we’ve been in Rotherham as far back as I know. That is one of my hobbies actually, family trees.

SR: And where did you live since childhood? You lived in Rotherham, did you always live there?

AB: Yes.

SR: And so you married?

AB: Yes, that’s right.

SR: You lived in Kimberworth was it?

AB: No, I was born there. I lived in Clifton.

SR: Clifton. What sort of area was that, Clifton?

AB: It was pleasant. I suppose you would call it…I’m not sure what you’d call it…just a suburb really. It was fairly modest houses but, you know, had nice big gardens and the house had been built about 1900 so had a generous garden. It was quite close to Clifton Park so it was really quite a pleasant setting.

SR: How did World War II affect your family? If you remember, you were born in 1944 weren’t you?

AB: Yeah, I think fairly positively in the sense that my father was born in 1903, so he was too old to be…

SR:  Conscripted.

AB: Because he’d probably be in a reserved occupation and he’d suffered quite a lot of unemployment in the 1930s so actually his skills were in demand.

SR: Because the war boosted steel production.

AB: Steel production, yes in fact during the war he moved his job and they had to get special permission to. You couldn’t just move.

SR: Did your mother work during the war?

AB: I don’t think so, no.

SR: They did conscript female labour, but possibly younger.

AB: But she had two … my brother and sister are older than me so she’d have two young children and then obviously I came along. So as far as I know she never did any war work.

SR: Did they experience the Blitz in Rotherham?

AB: They had a minor brush with the Blitz because in the park they had these ‘Holidays at Home’ where they put up marquees and things and I think they looked like an army camp and the park was bombed.

SR: Oh no, gosh.

AB: My father told me this story about how they dropped incendiary bombs and he had to rush out with dustbin lids from all the houses…

SR: And put them out?

AB: …cover them all up.

SR: What school did you go to?

AB: It was called Southgrove Secondary Modern

SR: And you left at 15?

AB: 15.

SR: Did you go into work?

AB: No, I went to a technical college because I realised if I wanted to pursue science and engineering I’d have to get GC…

SR: Yes, get your qualifications.

AB: We were part of the bulge.

SR: The baby bulge.

AB: The baby bulge or boom or whatever it was and so I always felt that some of us who went to the secondary modern, in other years we might have got into the grammar school because there wouldn’t have been so many.

SR: So you left school at what year was that?

AB: I finally left the technical college in ’61.

SR: Did you do any other qualifications apart from O levels?

AB: When I started work I had this day release.

SR: Of course, yes.

AB: I did a Higher National Certificate.

SR: What was that in?

AB: In physics.

SR: In physics.

AB: Then in later years I did an Open University degree.

SR: So you went from Rotherham Technical College into work?

AB: Yes.

SR: And where was that again?

AB: It was called the United Steel Company which later became part of British Steel. They had a research laboratory in Rotherham and that is where I worked.

SR: Did you say you went to university after that?

AB: I did Open University.

SR: Yes. That’s quite arduous in its own right and then when you are working …

AB: Mm…it is in the sense that you’ve got all your family commitments as well but it is something that I enjoyed doing.

SR: How long did it take you to complete?

AB: I think it was six years. I only put so much effort into it, sort of thing, because you have to ration your time don’t you?

SR: Balance your life.

AB: Balance your life.

SR: You say your father was in the steelworks. What did he do?

AB: He was a roll turner which is, you know, how they basically make a big lump of steel and they push it through rolls and if they want a specific shape to come out of it and size the rolls have to be cut.

SR: They have got to be in a particular shape as well.

AB: And size, to produce that shape and in my father’s day that was done by a person cutting the rolls, turning them. It is all done by computer today.

SR: That sounds like hard work …[inaudible]

AB: Well it’s quite skilful work, yeah. You’ve got to be able to…

SR: It’s quite precision work.

AB: Yes, precision. They say it’s all done by computer’s today, computer-controlled machinery but in his day it was all done by measurement.

SR: Did your mother work at all?

AB: I think before she was married, I think she had one or two jobs [unclear] but I don’t think girls were encouraged to think about careers. They were just jobs.

SR: And very often if you did have a career you had to stop work when you married anyway in those days.

AB: Yes.

SR: So what was your job exactly?

AB: Mine?

SR: Yes.

AB: When I left school?

SR: Yes and subsequently?

AB: Subsequently. Yes I was referred to as a metallurgical apprentice and I worked there for a year or two and then I eventually moved to what became the Health and Safety Executive, who had their, in those days, they had a laboratory in the centre of Sheffield and I stayed with that until I retired.

SR: When did you get married again?

AB: 1968.

SR: Is there anything else that you think is relevant or you think might be interesting to talk about? It doesn’t matter but we like to make sure we’ve covered bases

AB: I think these new electronic books coming out, although they don’t particularly appeal to me personally, I think in the end they might be quite good in the sense that it’s making reading much more accessible. When I was at school the library facilities were so off- putting, treated with such reverence, that I didn’t feel that I could use them sort of thing.

SR: It’s making it more accessible?

AB: Well I get the impression that young people now, it’s an electronic device, they are experts at it!

SR: It appeals to them.

AB: It would appeal to them and not be seen as something that is perhaps only for other people.

SR: It’s more cool.

AB: Well yes, yes, maybe.

SR: Whether they have got the attention span is another issue! OK well thanks a lot Alan.

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.

  1. The Day The Library Closed Leave a reply
  2. A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall Leave a reply
  3. Dickens Comes to Sheffield Leave a reply
  4. Lockdown reading Leave a reply
  5. The books along the way… Leave a reply
  6. The top of the attic stairs Leave a reply
  7. ‘Young woman, 22, not a reader, joins library’ 1 Reply
  8. Wybourn in the 1950s Leave a reply
  9. Jean Compton’s Reading Journey 3 Replies