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.

 

 

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On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

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