Betty Newman

Betty Newman

Betty was born on the 9th September 1935.

She is being interviewed by Ros Witten.

 

[At Betty’s request, she and Mary Grover have amended a few details in this transcript for clarification.]

Ros Witten: This is an interview conducted by …  can you tell me your name?

Betty Newman: Betty Newman.

RW: Can you spell that please?

BN: B E T T Y N E W M A N

RW: And today’s date is Thursday the 13th October. [2012]

RW: And you were born … ?

BN:  1935.

RW: What was the month?

BN:  September.

RW: September the …

BN:  20th.

RW: And you lived in which area of Sheffield?

BN:  My home was at Norton Lees but I spent an awful lot of time at Darnall.

RW: Right, so between 1945 and ‘65 would it have been Norton Lees?

BN:  Oh, well …

RW: Both?

BN: Both. My mother was always ill. I can never remember my mother not being ill and I spent an awful lot of time during the war particularly at my Grandmother’s because father was away. So that was where I went and I did a lot of my young schooling at Whitby Road School [as well as at Norton Lees]. But then mum died when I was 13. I was at grammar school by then. Mum being ill had a great influence on my life generally.

RW:  Oh I see, right. So did she read to you? Did anyone else read to you?

BN: I can’t remember who taught me to read but I could read a long time before I went to school. I fished this out actually. [Betty shows interviewer a novel called A Peep Behind the Scenes by Mrs Walton published by The Religious Tract Society]. I’m quite amazed but it’s true that I could read that before I went to school.

RW: That’s very impressive isn’t it?

BN: Not that particular copy, but that was my Grandma’s, and I didn’t help to clear her house out so I don’t know what happened to her copy. But I bought that in a junk shop some time afterwards. That was the first book I ever read.

RW: This was a story was it?

BN: It was a story about, a Bible story [inspired by the parable of the Good Shepherd].

BN: My Grandmother’s had been a school prize. It had a bookplate for a school prize in her copy. But that was the first book I ever read.

RW: What kinds of books were you reading?

BN: My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

RW: Yeah, something early on. So what other kind of books were you reading when you were young?

BN: I’ve written my notes down here actually. The first book, oh no, not the first book, that was A Peep Behind the Scenes and I read it many times. But at school one of the teachers in the infant school had Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year. I don’t know if you know that but it had a chapter or section for each month of the year. A poem, a play, some nature notes for each month. And we used to do the plays at school and I, I suppose I was a bit fortunate that my mum and my then teacher were friends and mum put her name down on a waiting list at a bookshop for one of these books because you had to put your name down and wait. So Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year influenced me a great deal and Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book did. Later it came out in four paperbacks. And that’s how I taught my own children nature.

RW: So this was in primary school?

BN: Oh, yes, infant school.

RW: You were quite young. And then when moving on to when you were a bit older, what were the first books that made you feel like you were reading a grown up adult book?

BN: I always had done you see, because I always read these and I’d always read Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know what, I can’t remember actually. But I like Milly Molly Mandy and I really went back and I like Milly Molly Mandy books.

RW: So I suppose in a way if you were reading the adult books, things like Strand magazine and Sherlock Holmes they were the ones that were adult even though you were young.

BN: Yes, even when I was very tiny I was reading adult books. And somebody gave me a set of Dickens but they were like potted versions of Dickens and I read those when I was young. And then I went on later to read Dickens and I’ve read all the Dickens ever written I think.

RW: So when you were a teenager, when you were at grammar school, maybe 14/15. What were you reading then that made a big impression?

BN: Oh, nothing, not very much.

RW: Nothing you can think of.

BN: I mean we had enough to do, set books, at grammar school.

RW: Yes.

BN: And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them. But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there. So I’ve always read a lot of poetry, I still do read a lot of poetry. I can’t remember my father reading very much. I know he did read cowboy books and things but I don’t think he read a great deal. My father was a musician and we always had music and his relaxation was listening to music not reading I think.

RW: And the books that you had, were there books in the house?

BN: Oh yes, we always had books in the house. Oh, at junior school I had the potted versions of Dickens, and I had the Water Babies and Peter Pan. Somebody gave me, which I have still got, a first edition of Peter Pan. And it’s nothing like Peter Pan that you get on pantomimes, the original. So I read those at junior school, and then I say at grammar school I don’t remember reading very much independently. Except a book called Continuity Girl, and I can remember that. And I got it out of the school library and it was about a continuity girl in the film industry. And that was my short term ambition, I was going to be that. But then I say we had Woman, Woman’s Own, magazines. But those are the only two I can ever remember reading. It was all about make-up and agony columns and  … oh dear me!

RW: The books that you got hold of did you get them from the library or buy them second hand, or get them from friends or as presents?

BN: They were presents mostly, so a lot of them were second hand because during the war you couldn’t get books.

RW: What about the library? Did you go to the library?

BN: Oh yes, I was always in the library, but I can’t remember.

RW: You can’t remember much about what you borrowed. Would that be Darnall library then?

BN: Mm, no it was Attercliffe; there wasn’t a Darnall library.

RW: Oh no, Attercliffe, there wasn’t a Darnall, Darnall’s new.

BN: We used to go to the baths, it was the same trip, the baths and the library. Grandma had a neighbour who used to give me books but I can’t remember much about them.

RW: So you got a lot of encouragement at home to read, your grandparents and your mother.

BN: Yeah, and I always read a lot of poetry. My mum I think knew by heart every word of Tennyson.

RW: So nobody in your family would have made you feel reading was a waste of time?

BN: No, except strangely enough, father would never let us read in bed, because when I eventually got married, I said to my husband, “I want you to promise me two things, that I can read in bed and that I don’t have to eat cabbage”. [laughs] I do nearly all my reading in bed now.

RW: So that’s the main place you read at the moment. And when did you find time to read? You weren’t allowed to read in bed so would it have been after you’d done your homework?

BN: Yes, yeah, I used to read on the bus as well. I’ve always read on buses.

RW: And if your father wasn’t reading but listened to music would you be sitting listening to music and reading as well?

BN: Yes, it was always things we did together.

RW: He was listening to the radio and the gramophone.

BN: The gramophone mostly, well we did have a radio but it was the gramophone mostly.

RW: He bought his own records?

BN: He bought records. I used to be sent, every Saturday I used to go to Wilson Peck’s  to buy a record. Dad had all the catalogues.

RW: Were they expensive then? They must have been affordable.

BN: They were affordable. We weren’t rich but we weren’t on the breadline.

RW: Yeah, so you could afford a little treat.

BN: They used to be about 3/ 6 or something like that.

RW: Which didn’t seem too much?

BN: Well, we could afford them. And we had a new record nearly every week. Dad used to pick them out of the catalogue and let me go to buy them.

RW: That’s brilliant. Was that classical music?

BN: Oh mostly, yes. Purely was really. I remember being enamoured with Donald Peers singing ‘By a shady nook, By a babbling brook’. Father called it caterwauling [laughs]. I can remember. Imagine what he would say now to some of the stuff that goes on.

RW: So did you read the books that you had, you were talking about the magazines, would you say you were slightly guilty about reading those because they weren’t quite …

BN: Oh no I wasn’t guilty at the time. It was just a part of growing up. The agony columns must have been absolutely bland but they were … you know …

RW: They were quite interesting stuff when you’re young.

BN: Interesting stuff when you’re 14.

RW: Interesting when you’re trying to find out about stuff.

BN: They wouldn’t be interesting to 14 years now!

RW: Any books you read then that you think ‘oh I wouldn’t want to read that again’?

BN: Oh there’s one or two books, mm, I can’t really remember. When I was at school I was so busy reading everything else. Always history things, anything history I was reading. I went on to do history [laughs].

RW: Would you say, when you had to read a lot of texts they were a bit highbrow?

BN: Oh no!

RW: You liked them? You enjoyed them?

BN: Oh yes. The only thing I didn’t like at school, but I think it was the way it was taught, was Shakespeare. I do like it now. I have read most of the plays now. Not over and over but I have read them. And I was also busy reading the Bible, because I thought one should read the Bible. And I did read that in my teens. It’s like the Forth Bridge, I read it over and over again. I get to the end and start again. I read one chapter every night. [laughs]

RW: Would you have read any historical novels or anything like that?

BN: Oh no, I’ve never liked novels very much.

RW: Oh you’re not really a novel reader? Right.

BN: It had to be something, like this Continuity Girl. It had to be something that was tangible. I loved that book. I can see it now. I got that out of the school library. Something this is tangible, that is credible.

RW: Something realistic. But usually not fiction?

BN: Not fiction. I suppose Dickens was the nearest I got to fiction.

RW: Quite realistic fiction.

BN: I don’t think he really is fiction. [laughs]

RW: No, he was trying to fictionalise what was happening in the world.

BN: I went Tuesday night to see Claire Tomalin … I was a bit disappointed with it actually.

RW: Oh. And would you say that reading has changed your life in any way?

BN: Oh no.

RW: Just part of your life?

BN: Just part of my life. It’s always been part. At one time I worked in the university library. But I don’t think we read very much then. One thing, we had copies of Lady Chatterley before it was released. We all read that. [laughs] We read it when no one else had it.

RW: So was that like a guilty thing?

BN: No, it was just, you know, I was in my 20s – it was just the thing to do. Lady Chatterley was down in the stacks so we read it. I don’t think we knew it was there, really until all the court case, the hoohaa came up about it. But we all read that. And then when it was released, on general release, I went to buy it and they asked me if I was old enough. [laughs] I was a married lady by then, but they asked if I was old enough.

RW: What about if, mm, you said you read some of the Shakespeare plays, but would you say films influenced your reading much?

BN: No, I never liked films much; I’ve only ever really gone if someone else, I’ve never gone of my own volition, only if someone else has said let’s go. Or you know going out with lads, they always wanted to the cinema. But I don’t think I’ve ever been under my own steam. I think I’ve only seen about two films in the last 20 years. I’ve got a friend who goes two or three times a week and she used to say to me,”Oh let’s go and see that”. But then she says, “I’m not bringing you again because you either fall asleep or you wriggle”. Which I do, I sit and wriggle.

RW: Not something you’re interested in particularly. So is there anything else you want to tell me Betty? I mean we’ve covered quite a lot.

BN:  Well how far do you want to go up?

RW: Well you just come up with some things you want to say.

BN: When I was 22 I bought Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam. It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out some many copies. It’s my comfort read.

RW: Oh that’s your comfort read, that’s interesting. What was it called again?

BN: The Crowthers of Bankdam. It’s about a Yorkshire mill family with …

RW: What’s the author?

BN: Thomas Armstrong. And I’ve worn out so many copies, and I’m worrying now because the last two or three I’ve had have been from charity shops.

RW: Have the library got a copy do you know?

BN: Oh no, it’s one of the ones they throw away. It’s broken into about five pieces now, which is easier to read in bed actually because I can pick a section up.

RW: It’s in sections now.

BN: But I don’t read very much fiction at all. That is my one. That was from being 22. I read and have re-read Delderfield and I read his fiction as well.

RW: So that’s family saga type thing isn’t it.

BN: But I don’t read his historical novels, I read his other novels but I can’t be doing with them. Mostly I read biographies. I’ve at least three by the bed, or on the bed, and I read whichever one I’m in the mood for.

RW: It’s nice to have more than one going at the same time.

BN: Oh I’ve always got at least three books.

RW: Are you a library member now? Is that where you get your books from? And charity shops you mentioned.

BN: Yes I am. I also buy my books from a firm by the name ‘Postscript’. Some come from charity shops.

RW: And do you swap books with friends?

BN: No, no I don’t swap. I very rarely, I’ve only got one friend I lend to as well. My husband lent one of my books to somebody and I never got it back. I’ve only one friend I lend to. My very best friend lives in Blackburn, and if she comes over here, we never take books but we always start one and there’s one by the side of my spare bed now waiting for her to take back with her. I just read biographies.

RW: And you’ve got your history group, so you’re reading history with your history group perhaps?

BN: No, no.

RW: Oh, it’s an active history group?

BN: It’s a local history group, Newfield Green. And just generally do local history, not so much what’s under the ground there.

RW: Not the archaeology.

BN: No, in fact one of our members is an archaeologist.

RW: But more the social history?

BN: Yes, generally, what people do. And we do have speakers but we can’t afford speakers all the time so we take it in turns to do a …

RW:  … presentation yourselves?

BN: I tend to use a book that’s called Sheffield Rebels.

RW: Oh yes, it’s a newish one, I know the chap who wrote it actually; he would probably come and give you a talk actually.

BN: Who’s that?

RW: He’s written the book, about the rebels. David someone. He’s written the books about the rebels. He does walks around Sheffield.

BN: David Price.

RW: That’s it, David Price. He’s done some talks in the library for Off the Shelf. The Trouble Makers, that’s it. He has organised walks as well.

 

 

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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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