Julia Banks

Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in August 1939,  growing up in Sheffield 1945-1965.

Julia is being interviewed by Liz Hawkins on the 15th of February 2012.  

 LH: This is an Interview conducted by Liz Hawkins, and I’m interviewing Julia Banks, . Julia was actually born in Chesterfield in August ’39 and then lived in the Woodhouse area of Sheffield between 1945 and 1965. Is that right Julia?

JB: Yes, that’s right, yes.

LH: Excellent. OK, so let’s go back really to when you were very young. Do you remember people reading to you when you were very young? When did your reading experience start?

JB: Well, my mum …mm and my aunt, my mum’s older sister, always read to me as a bed time story, that sort of thing, and then I was always taken to the library with my mother. My mother borrowed books from the library in the war, and, you know, afterwards as well. So I remember that.

LH: Right, so you were born into a reading family, really were you?

JB: Yes.

LH: Was it always something that happened as a natural thing in the family?

JB: Yes. There were always, not a lot of books, but always a book case and books around. And I had an elderly aunt on my father’s side who bought books from Boots library, in town. I think they were selling them off. They had a lending library and when they sold them off she bought and read avidly, history books. And she could talk about Elizabeth the First as if it was a neighbour, you know, read them, and remembered them.

LH: Fantastic, fantastic. Mm, so what were the first books that you read that made you feel as if you were becoming grown up?

JB: I don’t know about feeling grown up but I can remember having as birthday presents and Christmas presents Enid Blyton books.

juliabanksbooksship

LH: Right, right. So that was still as a child?

JB: Oh yes, I could never wait to get the next one. Mm …Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.

LH: Do you think that a lot of people cut their teeth in reading on Enid Blyton? As children?

JB: Absolutely . It took you into something different, a different experience.

juliabanksbooks5

LH: Yeah. So fast-forward a stage then from childhood into young adulthood. Can you remember what sort of things you were reading then? What did you progress onto?

JB: Well as a teenager, of course, I was busy with school work. Do you mean, sort of, 12 to 18 really at school? And so it was a valuable source for research. Because I was at the local grammar school here and for essays you had to sign up for books that you wanted and they went out on rota, the books that were relevant to whichever essays. So if they’d got that book in the library you went and sat in the library and made your notes, or even my Aunt Lil might have the book. I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

LH: Right, so those are very much, mm, non-fiction books then?

JB: Yeah, yeah.

LH: So what sort of subject areas did you tend to read?

JB: I did English, History and Geography so those were the reference books that I used and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, anything that I needed to know. That was one of the first reference and they’d got the whole set.

LH: Really? So you could look up anything you needed to?

JB: Yes, it was brilliant.

LH: So, did you enjoy reading non-fiction? I mean, was that your bag?

JB: Mm, yes, yes. Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

juliabankschristmas

LH: Right. So at that stage, perhaps, reading non-fiction, reading stories, might have been considered a bit of an indulgence do you think?

juliabanksbooksbirthday

JB: I don’t know. I don’t think there were as many fictional stories for young people as there are now. It tended, I think it tended to be, as I always read avidly the children’s books or adult fiction.

LH: Yes, the in-between sort of age.

JB: I think one of the first adult fiction books I read was The Good Earth, Pearl Buck. That was a library book. You tended not, well I tended not, my family tended not to buy books other than for birthday or Christmas but you borrowed books from the library.

LH: Yes, the library was a rich source.

JB: Woodhouse still has an excellent building, a very good library, and you know it was there that I went to use books.

LH: So it was none of the reading under the covers at night with a torch then for you?

JB: No, if I’d wanted to read in bed I would have read in bed. My mum wouldn’t have … she wouldn’t have minded I don’t think.

LH: So she would have said ‘good’.

[Both laugh]

JB: Yes, yeah.

LH: So as a … you leave school then, when you leave school. What happened next in terms of your reading.

JB: Well again at college I think it was all just guided by whatever course. I can’t think particularly of which fiction I would be reading.

LH: What did you do at college?

JB: Mm, I was at Bingley, primary, you know training as a teacher in primary. Taught in primary until I retired … but I can’t think of any fiction. I’m sure we would pass books around and share them. I didn’t belong to a library in Bingley but there was a college library. But that again was mainly for research.

LH: What sort of course books did you tend to read at the time?

JB: Well in literature we did Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things.

LH: Yes. But that’s reading isn’t it?

JB: Oh yes. Absolutely. It wasn’t fiction that I had chosen to read, that was prescribed reading.

LH: But did you enjoy it? What books did you read that you enjoyed?

JB: Funnily enough I think the books that I enjoyed more were like Bertrand Russell, you know the really hard stuff. You think, ‘well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah’. You know? It was that you were learning something new, new situations.

LH: Do you think for you then that’s what reading became? Something not just to pass the time perhaps but something where you wanted to learn? A bit like your aunty Lily?

JB: Yes, new situation. Probably. But I mean I do read fiction and get great joy from it.

LH: But it’s not just fiction that we’re interested in, in a way it’s actually what people found in books that gave them either interest or pleasure.

JB: Certainly yes, lots of pleasure.

LH: And, do you still feel that those books like Anna Karenina and so on, are still the best things to read? Or has your taste changed since then?

JB: Well I think …  didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given perscripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be in my opinion because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

[Both laugh]

LH: So at the time you really felt the things that you were reading that was mainly because of the guided reading.

JB: Yes.

LH: And that was all right was it?

JB: Yeah. Later on, once I was married and I did have a lot of spare time when we lived abroad because we didn’t have a television. This was in ‘65 when we moved to Holland and we didn’t have a television. I spent a lot of time learning Dutch because by then I had two young children who would go into nursery school and I would need to be able to sing to them nursery rhymes and so on. So my Dutch is based on nursery rhymes, I can’t discuss with you anything political but I can sing you a nursery rhyme. So a lot of my time there I went to the British Women’s Club Library and picked up paperbacks. Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. You know, my friends would pass them around and, like, ‘Did you read this one?’ And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children.

LH: Yes, so you read.

So from what you’re saying, it’s interesting actually, because there are kind of two parallel tracks of reading; there is sort of the Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer track which is, you give me the sense, I think light, pure enjoyment and then there’s the guided reading that you didn’t choose but you did quite willingly really and enjoyed them.

JB: Absolutely.

LH: So did you ever begin to choose those sorts of books for yourself as you…

JB: Well I’m back to the stage of not having a lot of time. So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do, I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag; that’s why the size is more important than the content.

[Laughs]

Erm, I belong to the reading group. So, yeah.

LH: Yeah. So do you feel that the roots of what you read now were set way back then? I mean do you remember books that you read as a young adult, for whatever reason, that really made an impression on you?

JB: The Good Earth.

LH: Ah, right, yes. It was quite poignant wasn’t it? What do you remember about that?

JB: Yes. Mmm, how basic it was and how precious; I think, she had, he gave her two pearls and took them away again. She had twins I think,; was that The Good Earth?

LH: Do you know I can’t remember it now.

JB: Pearl Buck. I think it’s this poor farmer and his wife and I mean they have many wives, as many wives as they need to till the land, you know, more children sort of thing. And it was so different and yet, you know, her feelings. It was a bit like Shakespeare, you know, it’s universal. It fits everybody doesn’t it? In very different circumstances but it’s a person.  I remember that. That kind of set me off. I enjoyed that.

LH: Were there any other Pearl Buck? Did you read…

JB: The Bondmaid, and again that was aunt Lil’s. I can see the book now but the sticker in it said ‘Boots Lending Library’ with a line through it, you know, sixpence or something. [Pause]

LH: She was quite an influence on you then really, wasn’t she? So, you didn’t ever feel that people discouraged you from reading?

JB: Oh no.

LH: Did they positively encourage you?

JB: Yeah. But the library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building; there was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library. And… that… I probably shouldn’t say, I found that quite middle class. And it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

LH: Right, so did you see books as having that role…do you think?

JB: A lot of my friends didn’t have books.

LH: Right. So for you books had that role of perhaps lifting you as you say. From what do you think? Were you conscious of that feeling?

JB: I think homes with books in them had a different feel.

LH: Right. What was there feeling do you think? What was that difference?

JB: I think, for me you were aware of an outside. Erm, not just so concerned with the immediate.

LH: Right so books took you, took people somewhere else; outside of your own lives you think?

JB: Yeah.

LH: Broaden people’s scope?

JB: Yeah. One of the ladders for social mobility.

LH: Yes. Did your mother use books for that reason as well do you think?

JB: She enjoyed reading. She used to choose, I don’t think I ever read any, she used to choose books by Naomi Jacobs.

LH: Right, and you didn’t choose to read her books then did you?

JB: No. But thinking about it now I can remember my mum asking ‘Have you got any more Naomi Jacobs?’ Funnily enough our youngest daughter is Naomi, we called her Naomi. I don’t think there’s any connection; I just realised that.

LH: So you didn’t read any Naomi Jacobs?

JB: No, I don’t think I ever read any but I might have a look now. See what she was reading, yes.

[Both laugh]

LH: So it’s interesting actually, listening to what you say because reading is an entertainment but it’s also something else. For you it was very much an education as well wasn’t it?

JB: Yes, yeah.

LH: Giving another aspect of, of the world really. So, in terms of your reading back then, do you think that it’s given you any different view of the world? Has it, had reading changed you in any way?

JB: I think it makes you aware, doesn’t it? Reading, mm, takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. I also think it’s good for empathy with other people. I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something  before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

LH: Right, and are books like that?

JB: Yes. I think if you read of other people’s situations you can see your situations alongside. And it’s just learning isn’t it? … Not just fact but also emotionally as well. And I very often now close a book and think ‘I don’t want to read that’. If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth church I very often shut it.

[Both Laugh]

And if it’s for the reading group I’ll say ‘Well I got to page 16’. You know, because I don’t want to know about… whatever it is they’re doing.  So I am a selective reader.

[Laugh]

LH: You are – ultimate choice to close it.

JB: It passed the test, it got me through Darnall. You know, we get on the 52 bus route so you’re always well off reading really. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

[Both laugh]

LH: Darnall is your acid test.

JB: I’d rather get through, you know watch [didn’t hear]

[Both laugh]

LH: So, I suppose finally then, do you think you would have been a different person if you hadn’t read? How has reading … influenced and changed your life?

JB: I think because of the person I am I would have found some way of reading. It would have been harder. So, if my aunt Lil hadn’t had all those wonderful books, and some of them are in there today. And if my mum hadn’t taken me to the library as a little girl, while she was choosing her books, you know. I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

LH: Indeed. That’s a fantastic place to finish, I think. That reading is a ‘great wealth’.

JB: It is, it is.

LH: That’s brilliant. Thank you very much. Thank you for that Julia.

 

 

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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