Bob and Carolyn W

Bob and Carolyn W

Carolyn was born on the 3rd February 1944 and Bob on the 3rd February 1940.

They are being interviewed by Trisha Cooper on the 19th February 2012.

TC: Would you object if I asked you for your dates of birth?

CW: 3/2/44.

TC: Okay, Carolyn’s is 3/2/44.  And Bob?

BW: 3/2/40.

TC: 3/2/40.  And may I ask you also where you were both born please?

CW: I was born in Sheffield in Nether Edge Hospital.

TC: Bob?

BW: I was born. [Pauses.] That’s difficult, isn’t it?  Wentworth Street, Sheffield.

TC: Wentworth Street.

BW: It doesn’t exist anymore.

TC: Oh, doesn’t it?  So, is that where you were living, where your parents were living?

BW: No.

TC: Okay.

BW: Parents living at Parson Cross.

TC: Oh, Parson Cross, okay.

CW: This is where your grandparents were?

BW: Grandparents lived at Wentworth Street.

TC: I see.  Where did you live, Carolyn?

CW: I lived in … well, we used to call it Walkley, but it was the lower part of Walkley.

TC: Fine.  And where were you living between 1945 and 1965?  You were at Walkley?

CW: I was at home, yes.  Do you want the address?

TC:  And you Bob?

BW: Parson Cross.

TC: No, no, I don’t need the address.  So Bob was living at Parson Cross and Carolyn was living at Walkley.  Lovely.  So, we’ve got that bit out of the way.

BW:  Well…

CW: We did get married.

BW: We got married in ’64.

TC:  You got married in ’64!

BW: So just going into that period.  And we lived in Dronfield.

CW: We lived in Dronfield for four years.

BW: For the last year.

TC: I see, and now you’re in Greenhill.  Okay, lovely.  Right, so, in terms of the reading, we’ll go back now and we’ll start to talk about your reading.  We’ll start with you, Carolyn, about the reading you did when you were young.  Did you … were you read to when you were young or do you … are your memories more that you started yourself?

CW: I don’t remember being read to, but I probably was because of the books I remember – sort of nursery rhyme books and there were things like that.  But the first books I remember reading myself were Enid Blyton.  Yeah, uh, all the … The Famous Five and all … all Enid Blyton books.  Yeah, but that’s what I remember, what I remember first.

TC: Were they your own books, or did you get them from the library, or were you lent them?

CW: I think probably from the library because I do remember my mum read a lot and we used to go to Walkley Library.  And, you know, I remember the sort of, you know, the children’s library there.  But I also did have a lot of books at home and I think I did have quite a few … When I was younger, I did have quite a few bought because you could get annuals, couldn’t you? that were old stories, not like the annuals are now.  There was … I remember sort of having an Enid Blyton annual and there was just, you know, a big one like the annuals but it was all old stories, not sort of the comic strip things and the quizzy things like they are now anyways.  But then, and I had all those … Later on, I don’t know what age it was, I read all the Little Women and all that sort of stuff.  I don’t know why I read those, but that was some sort of school influence.  I really don’t know.

TC: Which school did you go to?

CW: I went to Walkley County School,, primary.

TC: And then?

CW: And then the 11 Plus thing.  I went to Rowlinson.  Fortunately, the tram went from Meadowood all the way through town and everything, right to Meadowhead, so that was great.  I was there two years, and then of course they combined Greystones and Rowlinson.  The boys all went to Rowlinson’s and the girls went to King Ecgbert [School].  So I went to the third year in King Ecgbert.  And the next sort of group of books I remember reading is Biggles.  And I definitely got those from Walkley library, so that, whether that was the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary school, I don’t know because then you started more or less reading books you were, that you were doing at school, in sort of English Literature.  I don’t know, both … we didn’t get the same teachers.  Some of the teachers came with us to King Ecgbert, but not all of them.  And she didn’t come, the English Literature teacher we had for the first two years.  And she was great, she was.  And I think maybe then that’s when I started reading, as I say, more school sort of books.  I did end up going through all the ones girls were used to read in those days.  Like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, all that sort of stuff.  And then I don’t remember much apart from the book you were doing that year at school.  I don’t remember reading … whether I started on comics then because I used to have School Friend.  And I think it was probably … it was the School Friend and the Girl’s Crystal, but it was the School Friend one I had every week and occasionally Girl’s Crystal.  And I think it was school books and comics for a while until … And then I think I started on Agatha Christie’s stuff after that.  That was the sort of book Mum read.  She read that and what was that … there was a jockey.  What was he called?

BW: Francis, Dick Francis.

CW: Dick Francis.  Mum used to read that sort of book.  So, I think that I did start on those sort of things then.  And it’s more or less carried on the same type, I think, but you just sort of change to different authors, you know.  As you say, when you come across one.  What made us try Alexander McCall [Smith] and stuff like that?

BW: Accident. You just pick a book out of the library and think, “Oh, that’s good.”  You probably read about it in the newspaper.

CW: As I seem to do, there just seem to be two or three authors who you just always went for those, and not very adventurous, I suppose.

TC: ‘Cos you obviously read … I mean you’ve got the Telegraph here, Arts and Books.  You read reviews, don’t you? or you get recommended by friends.  You say, “This is new out.”

CW: Yes, it’s not very often.  I mean, I’ve never even tried any of the Mills and Boon type stuff before.  I do read the reviews and things, of things like, I don’t know, Julie [sic – Jilly] Cooper and things like that, but I don’t, never want to read it.

TC: Just go back to when you were a bit younger and you said you tried the Agatha Christie because your mum was reading that.  I just wonder what were the first books that you read that made you feel that you were now reading grown-up ones, you were now reading adult ones.  Was that the Agatha Christie?

CW: I suppose it was, I suppose it was, yeah, because that’s what Mum read to me and she used to … She was getting on quite a bit when she went back to work, you see.  Of course, she didn’t work, because mums that didn’t have to … Well, she didn’t have to.  And she did, she went to help a friend out, so she did start work and she perhaps read it a little less.  But it was sort of probably the books mum read.  And I did read the serials in … Mum had Woman’s Weekly and they were never quite as, I don’t know, ‘Mills and Boon-y’ as other magazines, the serials in that.  I did read those as well.

TC: So you liked proper writing. You liked good literature.

CW: I did, yeah.

TC: You could tell the difference between, you know, the more popular side and the more quality writing, couldn’t you?

CW:  Well, I don’t know.  I suppose … I read them and I had no idea of the quality of the writing that was in those books.  I just never liked the ‘romance-y’ sort of stuff.  I did see … did read some … don’t remember the author’s name, but there was one sort of series, I think I read that my friend next door, she used to read a lot.  It was some sort of … It was an historical romance, but it wasn’t sort of raunchy or anything like that.  But I did … I can’t remember any authors or anything.

BW: You used to tell me your favourite was Nevil Shute.

TC: Oh!

CW: But that was because of Mum as well, you see.

TC: Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice.

CW: Yes!  I did read those things that Christian … Yeah, there are some things that are similar to that, but those are more recently, isn’t it?

TC: So, your main influence was your mum, in terms of reading, it seems to me.  She encouraged you and she read to you, you read her books and she was the one who encouraged you, it seems.

CW: Yeah, we used to go to … Oh, I don’t know how long it’s been closed.  The bookshop in town, Andrews – it used to be in town.  We used to go there on a regular basis, all three of us.  Mum, Dad and I.  And they always, you know, they always used to … anything that you sort of, you know, that you wanted, we went there and got it.  And that was the other thing.  My dad was always into sort of encyclopaedias and things like that.  It’s not in here, it’s next door, isn’t it?

TC: And did you buy books, rather than …?

CW: They used to have books for presents, and when I was at school, if I needed a book for school at home, you know, because there would be some books where there weren’t enough for everybody to have one.  So that I could have it, they’d always buy me one so I could have it at home.  Yeah, and …

TC: So it was a treat, having a book.

CW:  Yes, yes, it was a treat!  And we were … We sometimes used to go into town just to go to Andrews, yeah, yeah.

TC: That was the main bookshop that you used to go to.  Did you go elsewhere?  Did you get books from newsagents or anything like that?

CW: No, no, it was always Andrews.  Yeah.

TC: Whereabouts was Andrews in town?

CW: It was … What’s there now..?

BW: It’s behind the City Hall, it was.

CW: It was at the back of City Hall.

BW: Between West Street and City Hall.

CW: You know the back entrance, the back entrance [TC: I do, I do.] of City Hall where [TC:  Where the stage door is.] the stage door is, yes, and just across there’s a very narrow road, isn’t there?

TC: By Leopold, there, just as you’re going to Leopold Street, or going to West Street.

BW: West Street.

CW: Going to West Street, so to the back of the City Hall.

TC: Yes!

[All three speaking simultaneously.]

CW: And just across there, just up … the City Hall’s here, isn’t it?

TC: Mmhmm.

CW: And just across there is a car park, isn’t there?

BW: It was there until the ’70s.

CW: And there’s a very narrow road there.  I have no idea what it is now.

BW: As a children’s bookshop, everybody went.

TC: And it was there, right in the city centre.  Andrews.  How interesting.

BW: All your textbooks you got from there.

CW: Was it textbooks on the bottom and all the others upstairs?

BW: Yes, all the storybooks.

CW: There was a downstairs and an upstairs.

BW: All your writing implements and everything.

CW: Yes, and stationery!

BW: Protractors and everything

CW: And all your stationery was there.

BW: That was before you could get them at supermarkets and so on.

TC: Oh, how interesting.  So, that was your main … So, you got your books from there, you knew the authors that you liked.  Did you ever discover any new ones or any books that made a particular impression on you that, you know, when you had your children you handed down to them or you recommended to them?

CW: Um, not really, not really.  They sort of seemed to make their own minds up about that, didn’t they?

BW: Oh, yeah.

CW: I suppose that it was the same … I think it was sort of, by then, it was sort of more modern.  Things were the same …Their adult reading is very similar because we share books.

TC: Ah.

CW: Even now.

TC: You say you got married in …

BW: ’64.

CW: ’64.

TC: ’64.  Did you carry on reading?

CW: Oh yeah.

TC: Were you working then?

CW: Yes.

TC: And how did your, you know, your reading … Was it useful to you in your profession?

CW: No, I don’t think so.

TC: But you carried on reading?

CW: Yeah, I carried on reading because, yeah, we used to read in bed, didn’t we?  Which we don’t do anymore.  But yeah, no, we did.  We sort of used to just carry it on.  We’ve always carried on, haven’t we?  Well, we didn’t read as much when the children were small.

BW: [Laughing] No, we didn’t get the opportunities.

CW: But we did read to them, didn’t we? They’ve all been read to.

BW: The girls liked the What Katy Did series, those sorts of things.

TC: What about you then, Bob?  Can I come to you now and ask you about your young life and where you got your books from, and whether you were read to or you just read independently?  How did it all start for you?

BW: Very difficult to say.  My parents never read to me, as far as I know.

TC: Were there books in the house?

BW: No.

TC: Oh.

BW: There’d be the Bible and that would be about it.  There may have been one or two books but I wasn’t aware of them.  And my parents read the paper.  My dad read the paper and that was mainly it, you see.

TC: What paper did he read, can you remember?

BW: Oh, it was the … It would be the Herald, probably, yeah.  And the News of the World on Sunday.  So I used to read these as well, but that was after I learned to read, of course.  I don’t know how I learned to read, but I think I learned to read fairly young.  I remember one book when I was very young, and that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

TC: Yeah.

BW: And I can’t remember anything else about that period, about reading, how I read, or anything.  I knew [I] enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read.  But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

TC: When did you then … When did you start expanding your reading then?  Was it when you went to school?

BW: It was when I went to school, yes.  Of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

TC: What was your school? Which school did you go to?

BW:  Meynell Road.  Meynell Road School.

TC: In Parson Cross?

BW: In Parson Cross, yes.  It wasn’t the new Parson Cross.  It was the old Parson Cross near Wadsley Bridge.

TC: Yeah.

BW: It was built in 1936, I think it was.  I had two sisters, two older sisters, but I can’t remember them reading either, very much.  So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think.

TC: Yes, you sought books out to read.

BW: And I don’t know what sort of books I was looking for.  I knew I was to go to the library and pick a book up and it was probably short stories or something like that.

TC: Which library did you go to?

BW: The first library was Hillsborough Library which is a couple of miles away.  You had to go by tram to get there.

CW: Is it still there?

TC: I don’t know.

BW: Oh yes.

CW: In the middle of the park.

BW: Yes, yes it is.  It’s still there.

TC: Is it still there?

CW: Are you sure?

BW: Yes, it’s still there.  And then the other one would be Southey Green Road at the top of the hill.  And there was a pub that used to be called [the] Magnet that’s been pulled down now, just opposite of that, near the council offices.  They had a library then and that’s where I used to go too.

TC: But you would make a special journey to go to the library to get a book to read.

BW: Oh yeah, yeah.  Your books would be out of date, so you’d go to pick another one, you see.  That’s really what my books were.

TC: And can you remember what you read?  What the books [BW:  No] were?

BW: No, there was nothing in particular, just the stories.  I didn’t read Enid Blyton, Noddy or anything like that.  I wasn’t interested in anything like that.  But I did read the Famous Five series, you know, that sort of thing.

TC: So, adventure stories.

BW: Yes, sort of adventure stories, but for children.

TC: Yes, yes.

BW: But I never grew into the adventure stories for adults.

TC: Didn’t you?

BW: No.  I used to go to the cinema a lot and my favourite films were the cowboys.

TC: Mmm.

BW: And the war films.  But I didn’t want to read about them at all.

TC: Didn’t read cowboy books, Wild West, war books?

BW: No, no, Nevil Shute, never interested in anything like that.  No.  I don’t know why.  I’m more interested in people, more than anything, you know.  So I read the adventures of the Famous Five and that sort of thing, you know.  But then I remember going onto Treasure Island.  Yeah, and that’s the first, I think, adult book, as you said, that I read.

TC: That was the first, Robert Louis Stevenson, that was the first. [BW: First adult book, yes.] Right, right.  Where did that lead you?  Did you read more Stevenson?

BW: I may have tried Kidnapped.  I’m not certain.  That’s probably the only other Stevenson.  But I think the biggest change was when I passed the 11 Plus and went to Walkley.  And then you had your own books, which I had to read, you see?  And that’s when I became interested in more of the classic type of books.  I remember reading, on my own bat, because I wanted to see what it was like, was [sic] David Copperfield.

TC: Ahah.

BW: And that was my favourite book.

TC: Did that make you want to read more Dickens?

BW:  Yeah, yeah.  I tried the Dickens, I read … This was before, when I was in junior … senior school, you know, and I read … I never read Oliver Twist because I’d seen the film and I wasn’t interested once I’d seen the film.  So I read Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby.  And then I tried Martin Chuzzlewit and I couldn’t make it through that.  And I gave up on Charles Dickens. [Laughs.]  And later on, you see, I sort of read … I enjoyed those books, but then I read more for relaxing … As I got older, yeah, for relaxation and pleasure.  So yeah, more of the Agatha Christies and all these sort of things.  So I was into the classical but it had to be … not the difficult classics.  I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know.

TC: Why not?  Didn’t want a challenge?

BW: I had to be interested in people.  I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

TC: You obviously love that book.

BW: I find them a bit hard going, some of them.  Sort of a style of literature.  Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know, some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, you know.  So, I think, that’s it.  And then I tried the … People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions.  You got into a book and immediately it hit you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.  And some of her contemporaries, I found, too much description, you know, and you couldn’t get into the characters and so on.  So, I read very little of her contemporaries, whereas now I read modern thrillers.  Not thrillers, mysteries.

TC: Mysteries, oh yes.

BW: And I find they tend to be in it.  And I like a bit of humour as well. I like humour.  Quite honestly, I like the whimsical sort of thing, you know.  And I can’t stand modern literature with modern words, you know.  Are you with me?

TC: The Danny Boyles or what are some others …

BW: Yeah, it’s not my style of talking.

TC: No.

BW: And therefore I don’t like reading about it, you know.  Fuddy-duddy, stuck-in-the-mud sort of thing.  [Both laugh.]  Even though I was at work and you work with workmates and things like that, you’re still aware of these things.

TC: If you did like the mysteries and the detective stories, did you read things like The 49 [sic] Steps or, you know, that kind of book, of those genres?

BW: Yes, yes, now he was very good.  Yes, 49 Steps [sic] was good, loved 49 Steps [sic], yes.

TC: John Buchan, wasn’t it?

BW: Yes, John Buchan was okay.  But some of the, oh, I don’t like the other one, R.F. Elderfield, was it?

TC: Yes, yes!

CW: Delderfield, Delderfield.

TC: Delderfield, yes!  His book was called, oh my word, it’s gone out of my head, but I know the one you mean though.  So, did you like things like Kingsley Amis, or Evelyn Waugh?  You said you liked whimsical … P.G. Wodehouse, that kind of thing.

BW: Oh, I liked P.G. Wodehouse.  I didn’t read much of him, but I did read the odd little book.  They were very short stories, weren’t they, P.G. Wodehouse?  I read the odd story of P.G. Wodehouse and the odd story of Kingsley Amis.  They were going at my youth time, 20s and so on.

TC: Yes.  I’ve got a list of … We’ve got some, sort of, ones to help us out really a bit here in terms of the people.  You said you didn’t read Nevil Shute.  What about George Orwell, Aldous Huxley.

BW: Oh no, oh no.  They were not my … They were depressing.  I don’t read depressing literature.

[TC laughs.]

BW: A lot of people … I don’t want to be depressed, you know.

TC: No.

BW: I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about.  If I don’t like them, not interested in them.

TC: I’ve got some crime ones here, which Agatha Christie is under.  What about the Sherlock Holmes books, Arthur Conan Doyle, were you attracted to those?

[CW begins speaking.]

TC: You were, Carolyn.

BW: I was, but I never got … I only read the odd one, that’s all.  It’s one of those things where you read things by accident and therefore you get into it.  I enjoyed all the Sherlock Holmes films, but I never really got an opportunity to read them that much.

TC: What about Dennis Wheatley?

CW: Oh!  He was another one my mum read, yes.

TC:  Did he write The Carpetbaggers?

CW: I don’t know.  I didn’t read those, Dennis Wheatley, but Mum read … That’s an author I remember, yeah, Mum reading.

BW: Of course, in my generation, everybody was reading things like Micky Spillane and that sort of thing.

TC: Ah.

BW: And quite honestly … yeah … remember the first book I really bought for myself – used to be the very slim books you could go down to the local newsagents and buy them.  And it was…oh God, gosh … Sexton Blake.

CW: I don’t know what’s happened to his books.

TC: Sexton Blake!

CW: Yeah.

BW: I bought a series of Sexton Blake.  Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

TC: Which was the newsagent you went to when you say you went to buy them at the newsagent?

BW: The local one, at the local shops.  It was called Hatfields at Wadsley Bridge, yeah.  Hatfields newsagents, yeah.  They stored things like that.  They didn’t have books really, but little things like … my father was not interested in reading at all, apart from the newspaper.  My mother used to read Woman’s Weekly.  She wouldn’t read Mum’s Own [sic] because that was trash.

[CW laughing.]

BW: Woman’s Weekly, the stories were all right in there.

CW: Yes, yes, of course.

BW: But she wasn’t a learned person.  She left school at 13 and she got on all right, but … yeah.

TC: When you started work, were you able to continue reading then?

BW: Yes, yes.

TC: What had reading given you that, you know, that affected your work and the rest of your life?  Do you think that it gave you an understanding of other people?

BW: Absolutely, because they … you were able to communicate by letters and by … a lot of my work was report writing.

TC: What did you … where did you…?

BW: I worked in R& … Research and Development, you see.  And when we did a project, we had to write the project up and we had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see.  So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense.  So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see.  They all helped, you know.  You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you.  If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know.  So, that did help.

TC: May I ask what company you worked for that time?

BW: Started off Pickford Holland and then it became Dyson Refactories.  Yes, yes.  So that’s where we met.

TC: Right, so let’s go on to where you met then!  You were both working there, did you?

CW: Yes, he was already working there and I went to work in the chem lab.  I was a little chemist there, and yeah, that’s where we met.  But can I say that he still writes very well.  I mean, I’ve done as much … well, probably not done quite as much writing as him, but I …

BW: It’s just confidence.

CW: I don’t write very well.  And I didn’t pass my English O level first time around, did I?

[BW laughs.]

CW: And he…

TC: But you were a scientist.

CW:  Well, yes, and in the end actually, you know when you went to get your qualifications, you went on day release, you had a day off and went to the [?] Street Tech College and HNC and all that.  What was it?  It had to do with the last internship.  You had to have … I’d got maths and physics and all the other stuff, but I still hadn’t got English Lit … English Language.  I’d got English Literature, but I hadn’t got English Language in the O level.  And one of the lecturers, he … I don’t know how he knew, because it was something that only I knew.  He said, “Look, there is an English language paper for science …”  I don’t know … it can’t be science-based, but apparently there was an English Language paper you could take that would give you an O level in English Language, but it was slightly different.  And he arranged for me to take that.

TC: Oh, how wonderful.  And you got it.

CW:  And I got that.  I think I was still … I still think I only got a C.  I didn’t do brilliantly, but I passed it anyway.  So I got this little licenseship chemistry thing in the … yeah.  Which … But … I don’t know I … He’s got a good imagination you see.  That’s one of things that probably reading … but I …

BW: Yes.

[BW continues speaking but is unintelligible due to CW and TC speaking.]

CW: Even though I read a lot, I don’t think I’ve got that good an imagination to write … to make things up.  My imagination works in a different way.

TC: You married in ’64, you said, and you read together.  Can you remember the books you read then that you shared at that time?

CW: We always shared books, didn’t we?  We always read the same books, haven’t we?

BW: Yes, yes, very few that we didn’t read the same.  We always had the same … similar habits in reading.  I probably read a bit more than you because I’ve got more time.

[CW and TC speaking simultaneously.]

TC: And at that time during the 60s, what were you reading?  Did you take books when you … did you take books on your honeymoon, you know?  Did you on holiday?

BW: At that time we didn’t … We liked the historical novels, mainly.  And sort of historical mystery writers, set in the monks [sic] and that sort of thing.

CW: Oh yes, that was a thing, wasn’t it?

TC: And who were they, who wrote those, the monks?

BW: They were on television afterwards.

CW: And we did read that one that he was in – Sean Connery.

BW: Oh yeah.

TC: The Name of the Rose.  That one?

CW: Yes, we’d already read that before …

TC: You’d already read that before?

CW: Yes, we’d read that before the film.

TC: That’s by an Italian writer, isn’t it?

BW: Yes [Pauses and laughs.] I can’t remember his name.

CW: The ones we read …

BW: When we first married, we joined the World Book Club.  And so we got things like semi-historical things, like Cook and the Antarctic, and …

CW: Oh, and we read that Kennedy thing.

TC: What was the … The World Book Club was … was it like you got things through the post?

CW: Was it through the post?

BW: Yeah.

CW: Was it every month?

BW:  very couple of months.  You got a book.

CW: Where you got one.

BW: It was a set book.  You could buy other books, of course.

CW: So, you got the set book and you didn’t have to have it, did you?

BW: No, no.

CW: You could send it back and there was a little list of books that you could have and they weren’t very expensive, I don’t think.

BW: We’ve still got them, actually.

CW: They must be upstairs.  There’s another bookcase upstairs.

BW: We’d been there for about two or three years and so we had to sort through what we read.

CW: They were one or two biographies, weren’t there?

BW: Yes, there were that you were interested in.

TC: I’ve got some historical novels and some writers here.  Did you read anything by Georgette Heyer or Jean Pla ..?

CW: Yes! They were the historical ones that I used to read with Carol, my friend.  That was … I couldn’t remember that.  Yeah.

BW: And the latter one that you mentioned …

TC: Jean Plaidy.

BW: That was part of the book club we had, yes, yes.

CW: Oh yes!

[BW laughs.]

CW: Because we’ve got that … Was it Mary Queen of Scots?

BW: Yes, yes, we got for …

CW: Most, I think are upstairs.  We have had a couple of clear-outs when the children were young.  Before charity shops, wasn’t it?

BW: Yeah.

CW: When they had these ‘raise money for the PTA’ things, and we did get rid of one or two of those, but not all of them.

TC: Did you read any of the Trollope, or, you know, the John Galsworthy books, sort of those classic things like the Forsytes.

CW: Oh, the Forsytes, yeah!

BW: No.

TC: No.

BW: I didn’t.

CW: No, I did.  Who did I hand those on to then?  I was reading those with someone.  There was another one, wasn’t there, that was a modern version of the Foresyte Saga.  That was on the telly, and who was in that?

TC: Oh, yeah?

CW and BW together: Some Cornish thing.

CW: With the tin mines and things.

BW: Yes, yes.

CW: And I’d already read those when that came on telly.

BW: And we read one or two of those together, didn’t we?

CW: Magus … Magnus.

BW: It wasn’t the Magus.

CW: No, not that.

BW: I read that and it was the most over-rated book I’d ever read.

TC: Was that John [Fowles]?  No.

BW: I think it was, yes.

CW: I don’t remember reading that … But it was a series wasn’t about some tin mining thing.

BW: In Cornwall, yes.  In the last century.  Not last century, the previous one.

CW: I thought it was Lizzy that ended up reading some of those.

BW: Yeah, yeah.  But it’s quite a wide range that we’ve …

TC: You’ve read quite a lot obviously.  I’ve got lots and lots of authors here that we might suggest to you, like J B Priestley or Howard Spring.

BW and CW: No, no.

TC: Was…Arnold Bennett, H E Bates, those kind of people … But you’ve mentioned a lovely lot of authors here and I think that, you know …

BW: H E Bates was one.  We’ve read one or two of his.

TC: Yes, yes.  Did you ever read Beau Geste?

BW: No.

TC: No.  Fine.  Well look, we’ve got a lovely lot of books from you here, so I think we can finish.

BW: One of the things that I … Jane Austen, right, you talked about Jane Austen.  We had to read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for GCSE.  Imagine that, all of the boys having to read Jane Austen. [Trails off laughing.] And you read?

CW: Well, my actual O level year, it was Mr Polly.

BW: Yeah.

TC: H G Wells!  Oh lovely.

BW: But I’d have got that wrong.

TC: The Time Machine.  That would have been great for boys, wouldn’t it?

BW: Yeah, yeah.

CW: We did the Time Machine, but not O level year.  It was Mr Polly was O level year.  And that was another thing that was on the telly and we hadn’t got a telly.  And, I don’t know, we found out it was on the telly.  Anyway, Dad organised something with his well-off friend.  He got a new telly and we got their old telly, and it was … would it be round about the coronation or such a year?

BW: ’53, yeah.

CW: Because we’d … I don’t know if we got the telly first, but it was all around about the same sort of time.  We managed to see the coronation and it was one of those that you had to have the curtains closed.  And it was one of these tellies with doors.  It was this tiny little screen and it was a huge thing.  And it had doors and this tiny little screen.  And we managed to watch Mr Polly on it.  Yeah, but Dad was tickled that he had managed to get this telly so that we could watch Mr Polly.  But I remember … you had a book … for literature, you had a book a year sort of thing.

TC: Yes, yeah.

CW: And I remember sort of stuff like Wuthering Heights and things like that.  Sort of quite remembering, you know, enjoying that sort of thing.

TC: The Brontës.  And you read some of the Brontës, Bob.  Didn’t you say you read some of the Brontës as well?

BW: No.

CW: I don’t think they would’ve been ones that I would necessarily have … I don’t think I would have picked them if you weren’t doing them at school type of thing, you know.  But I did enjoy them, you know when you read them, yeah.

BW: So, nowadays, we’re still reading the same sort of things.

TC:  It starts a habit for life, doesn’t it?

BW: Well, now it’s just sit back and relax and read a chapter at a time.

CW: It’s just more modern things, isn’t it?

TC: Lovely.

BW: Some of the American thrillers, but not many.

TC: Did you read Raymond Chandler?

CW: No, that’s another one that we didn’t read.  Raymond Chandler.

TC: He’s talking about thrillers.

CW and BW: No.

BW: I started reading the James Bond.  The very early James Bond, Casino Royale and that, but I never continued with it.

TC: Do you still go to the library?

CW and BW speak together:

BW: Yes, we still have library books.

CW: Yes, we have books out at the minute.

TC: Which library do you go to now?

BW: One at the end of the road.

CW and BW: Greenhill.

TC: Greenhill.

CW: Just the one on the corner at the end.

TC: Fantastic.  Let’s hope they all stay open, eh?

CW: Yes!

BW: We hope so.

CW: And, this … You know like the … [Laughs.] Last time we went … a couple of weeks ago, but it’s the first time in a while actually though, isn’t it?  Because both our girls are avid readers and read similar ones to us, and Lizzy, she reads a lot, she does.  She goes in Smiths and when they sort of, obviously, seem to have three for two.

TC: Three for two…She buys three!

CW: She just buys more.  We never bought any, we’ve always sort of gone to the library and you have more books for presents, I think, than I have.  We do sort of … She passes them on to us … We did go to the library and up there, they’ve had the computers for quite a while, you know, that anybody can sort of go and use.  But they’ve got these new machines, you know, like the supermarkets have started with this self-service thing.

TC: Yes.

CW: They’ve got them at the library now.

TC: And you can scan…

CW: And they just scan your ticket.  And we looked at them…There’s two of them.

BW: You just put your book in.

CW: They’re where large print used to be.

BW: Yes.

CW: And the desks changed over there and we looked.  There were these two school girls who obviously from the primary school because they were only about this big, weren’t they? And one had got her ticket and her book.  And they were obviously waiting for us adults.  They were looking at me and giggling.

BW: [Laughing] How do you use this?

CW: Do you know how to use it?  So she grinned and said yes.  So I said, “Can you show us?”  So she had to show us how to use this thing.  And to get the date, of course you don’t get it stamped, so I said…

BW: You have to get a ticket with the return date.

CW: I said, “How do you know?” and she says, ”Oh, you press this” like a ‘receipt-y’ thing.

TC: And you just pop your ticket into your book I suppose, can’t you?

BW: We’re not certain how to take it back or renew it, so we …

CW: So, I think we probably take them and renew at least one.  We’ll have to take them back and if they go just after three o’clock.

[All three laugh.]

TC: Well, look, that’s brilliant.  I’m going to stop this machine now.

BW: Okay.

TC: So look, thank you very much, Bob and Carolyn.  It’s been absolutely fantastic.

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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