Chris F

Chris F

Chris was born in Whirlowdale, Sheffield in 1939.

He is being interviewed by Liz Hawkins on the 1st February 2012.

 Liz Hawkins: Chris was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. So is that all right Chris?

Chris Farris: That’s fine.

LH: And you lived in Sheffield between 1945 and 1965 even though, as you say, you were in boarding school at the time.

CF: I was away for a lot of the time.

LH: Yes, so Sheffield was still your home.

CF: Oh, Sheffield was home, always was.

LH: So you qualify for our interviewee status. So first of all, in terms of reading, did anyone read to you when you were very young? Is that when your reading started?

CF: Do you know, I don’t remember being read to as a small boy, I’m sure I was.  But it was the usual Winnie the Pooh books from an early age they were going-; Allison Uttley was another name, little grey rabbit wasn’t it, Alison Uttley?

LH: Beatrix Potter?

CF: Beatrix Potter of course, yes. So the traditional books were always around.

LH: Yes. And who would have read to you, especially if you went to boarding school, presumably people didn’t read to you.

CF: Oh, no, they didn’t at school  … but at home. I have a sister who is quite a bit older and she used to read when I was, not when I was a baby but when I was a few years old.

LH: Yes, yes. That’s right. So, what were the first books, looking on a bit further now, what do you think the first books were that you began to read when you felt you were reading adult books for the first time?

CF: Mm… Enid Blyton certainly. Mm, yes I read a lot of Enid Blyton. The Fives books, and the Island of Adventure and that series of them which I remember from my school days.

LH: Yes so that was when you were still a child of course. So as you got a bit older ad began to feel that you were a bit more grown up, what kind of books did you begin read then?

CF: I suppose after that, mm … I would have … read Enid Blyton up to early teens. I say early teens, 11 or 12 maybe … Billy Bunter featured fairly strongly in my reading … so the, the, Frank, oh golly what was his surname? Senior moment! Frank Richards, Frank Richards, so I read a lot of Bunter books; and Tom Merry was the other one also written by Frank Richards but under a different name whose name also escapes me at the moment.

Mm …  about school boys so they would be teenagers. Apart from Billy Bunter and Tom Merry, Teddy Lester was another one, I can’t remember who the author was of that but Teddy Lester’s school days I do remember. So … that sort of book.

Funnily enough we used to get books as Christmas presents from quite an early age. One of my father’s business partners, I never met him in my life, used to send books to my brother and my sister and myself every Christmas and I got books that I would never have even thought of buying as a result of that.

LH: Right, so why did he send you … why did that person buy you presents …

CF: I don’t know, probably looking for business.

[Both laugh]

LH: Rather than the bottle of whiskey!

So what sort of books were they?

CF: Again … well … well they were obviously different ages, I was the youngest by quite a lot of the three kids so I always got the one for the youngest child. They were adventure books of one sort or another.

LH: Yes, yes. So you read those and looked forward to having them …

CF: I read those and looked at books the others had. I remember one of them that my sister got, she being the oldest, which I did read probably in my teens. It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

LH: So are you looking for something adventurous or gory were you?

CF: Yes.

LH: And when you became a young adult, it’s interesting that as children obviously people buy books for us but did you go to the library at the time when you were a child?

CF: I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home.

LH: So your parents read?

CF: Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away. So I mean we have a dining room full of books, we have an upstairs full of books and I read really a lot of the books that we had there.

LH: Right.

CF: Detective stories in particular. Agatha Christie, I guess one starts on but then in to Ngaio Marsh and Carter Dickson and Dickson Carr and you know …

LH: Yeah, yeah. So they were the books that your parents will have been reading as well.

CF: Yeah, yeah. The one that I started reading, the author I started reading, not a detective one but who I think is probably my overall favourite author which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice –

LH: Ah yes, Nevil Shute.

CF: Nevil Shute, yes and I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

LH: Oh really?

CF: Yes.

LH: What is it about Nevil Shute that you particularly like?

CF: Very gentle stories and … er… believable.

LH: Right, and set in believable contexts. Right, right fantastic.

CF: Yes.

LH: So did, well I mean, presumably you were encouraged to read as a, as a young boy.

CF: I can’t remember my parents actually saying ‘now then my boy you need to read’ but the means of doing it was there.

LH: Yes.

CF: And I always have read in bed. I don’t sit down and never did sit down in the middle of the day with a book very often. It tended to be reading for an hour or half an hour before going to sleep.

LH: Yes, yes. So do you remember being discouraged to read then? You say you didn’t read in the day, did it feel as if it was something that would have felt it was a waste of time perhaps?

CF: No, no. I certainly, no one has ever discouraged me from reading but I always enjoyed it. The other thing I did which I guess I did when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I joined a book club, a Companion Book Club. Which you got a book a month, you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

LH: Right, and what kinds of books did come through the post.

CF: Oh there were a lot from popular authors, there was quite a lot of Alistair McLean. HMS Ulysses, I guess was the first one I ever bought, from the companion book club and that set me off on his books. I tend to find an author that I like and then go through those books.

LH: Right, so you particularly like adventure stories still?

CF: Yes, yes, I always have done. Mm, I like the swash-buckling sort as well, C S Forester, Hornblower. And I’ve got all the Alexander Kent books, but I mean I didn’t read those in those days because they weren’t written but the Hornblower was written I guess when I was younger. I used to enjoy those.

LH: Right, so you get very attached to an author by the sounds of it.

CF: I do actually yes. Says he, I, I smile at this because I’ve just found … what are they called … the book shop? Is it? the book shop? Online.

LH: Amazon you mean?

CF: Not Amazon, no its the book … oh, The Book People. The Book People, have you not found them?

LH: No …

CF: Oh go online, The Book People. I’ve just bought all the, the Morse books. What-not Dexter. Mm, I think there are fifteen books and they’re about fifteen quid for the whole lot.

LH: Good God, are they brand new?

CF: Brand new. Remarkable value.

LH: It’s interesting actually because all the way from five bob a week you wanted to latch into a source of books that were somehow a bit distant really. Did you go into book shops?

CF: Now and again. I have to say most of our books tend to have been bought at airports on the way to …

[Laughs]

CF: I can’t pass books without buying them but I don’t go into bookshops that often, no.

LH: So, as a teenager then, going back to the stuff that you read, it was mainly adventure; you said Nevil Shute. Did you read any of what would be considered the classics?

CF: Oh no. No I don’t think I did.

LH: Didn’t touch those?

CF: Although funnily enough I was looking at the Companion Book Clubs just to see who the authors were because, you know, memory fades after time. And there was one about the life of Elizabeth the First, so there was a little bit of culture there.

LH: Right.

[Laughs]

CF: But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

LH: Swash buckling make-believe!

CF: Yes. The other ones that I, in my teenage, that I read quite a lot of, Dennis Wheatley because the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were pages 27 and 28 and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

[Laughs]

The other one that I read and I have to say I still read, it really is the land of make-believe, Dornford Yates? Have you read Dornford Yates?

LH: Yes, I’ve not read any but …

CF: Oh right, yes well I always enjoyed his books. My father had a great collection and I sort of worked my way from one end to the other.

LH: Yes. On the … my colleague Mary has given us a list here of, of different sort of types and genres of books and in the adventure list here’s Dornford Yates in fact and Dennis Wheatley and Jack London. Did you ever read any …?

CF: Never read Jack London, no. The other one actually funnily enough I was looking through the book shelf this morning just to remind myself of what I read; Leslie Charteris was the same, was very popular in those days. I mean these are before the days of television when he was on the telly; it was when he was just an author. I enjoyed all those books.

LH: That’s fantastic. Do you think any of those authors or books made a particular impression on you? You sound as if Nevil Shute may have…

CF: Nevil Shute made a particular impression, I have to say C S Forester as well, Horn blower books.

LH: Right, yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that you now re-read books because one of the things we’re interested in is are there books that you read then that you wouldn’t dream of going back to now or do you think they are still all open season for you?

CF: I think they are mainly open season…

LH: Right, not the Billy Bunters?

CF: I’ve read them to my grandson. I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading. And in fact my kids’ generation, they read a lot more than their children do.

LH: Yes, like this generation, yes. Maybe they will find their own things that they’ll, that will latch them into reading.

CF: I hope so because … mm … they will finish up as thickies if they don’t read.

[laugh]

CF: They will, they have a terribly limited outlook on life.

LH: They will be able to use play stations though and do all sorts of technological things instead perhaps.

CF: No, I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

LH: Mmm, because as you say you have rooms full of books and there are still endless books out there that you still have to read. … You were talking about the kind of salacious kind of aspect of the Dennis Wheatley books. Was reading ever a sort of guilty pleasure that you read under the sheets at night so that your parents wouldn’t know what you were reading?

CF: I don’t think we had anything kind of sufficiently salacious. All the books that I read were out of book shelves at home.

LH: Ah right, yes. It was only when you went to school.

CF: Its only when one goes away to school that you er…

LH: You find the Dennis Wheatleys and so on … [Laughs]

So I suppose did you ever feel that you were being encouraged by maybe teachers at school to read as an improvement, to improve yourself. In a way the point you were making about your grandchildren and that perhaps you won’t be improved in that way, did you see it as a, were you led to see it as an improving thing?

CF: Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

LH: Like what?

CF: Oh Golly, erm.

LH: Like Jane Austen or Dickens?

CF: Oh no, no, no. Golly, senior moment. …  Darkness at Noon was one, Arthur Koestler.

LH: Oh yes, Arthur Koestler.

CF: Was one, which … I was probably about 14 when we did that. And there was another one about Scotland, the Scottish wars … whose name escapes me now but I’ve read since and thoroughly enjoyed.

LH: You thoroughly enjoyed that, yes. So really the improving ones were the books that came from school and coursework at school. Actually they do say that some authors don’t like to be on course lists because they feel that could be the death of their book, you know. Which I think is probably the case isn’t it really? Yes.

So what age were you when you left school then Chris?

CF: I was 18.

LH: Right so you did A Levels separately at the school and went onto university. Which university did you go to?

CF: Cambridge.

LH: Oh right, so you did engineering there did you? Then came back and …

CF: Came back and settled down to working life after that.

LH: In Sheffield [laughs]. Yes.

And you carried on, you carried on reading then by the sounds of it.

CF: Oh yes. In …mm … books that we bought after we got married because I didn’t inherit a whole lot of books until my father died so that was quite a lot later. But we always had quite a big library of our own because we both enjoyed reading and we bought, you know if we saw a book we liked the look of we bought it. I mean all the James Bond ones, the Wilbur Smiths came along, Jackie [not clear what is meant]  and …  all the sort of post war authors.

LH: Yes. So what other ones have you got on your list there?

CF: Who else have I got on my list? Jackie, …who haven’t we…Hammond Innes, I’ve mentioned him already haven’t I?

LH: I don’t think you have actually Hammond Innes …

CF: Oh I said H M S Ulysses, he was the first of the book club ones.

LH: Oh yes you did.

CF: So I got all his. Mm … Russell Thorndike, have you come across him?

LH: No I haven’t.

CF: Dr. Syn. S-Y-N that is. Who is a vicar, it’s sort of 1700s and a vicar comes, sort of brigand you know, his alter ego is a smuggler and all sorts. Fascinating book. Nicholas Monsarrat is another one I enjoy reading again; we’ve got several of his.

LH: Right so you … it’s interesting that the trend you set up for yourself is that you don’t just read one book from the author but once you read one book by the author you wanted to read the …

CF: If I find an author I like. It’s not just reading one from the author, if I find a book I like I’ll latch on and keep going.

LH: Right. So would you say, it’s kind of almost a biggish question to end up with really. Would you say that reading has changed your life?

[Pause]

CF: Mm, well I suppose if reading … the fact that one reads books gets your used to reading newspapers and periodicals and other bits of information. Then obviously it widens one’s horizons, you know, so that in terms of being in quiz teams, you know one has a reasonable breadth of knowledge.

LH: [Laughs] A chance of winning the bottle of beer at the end.

CF: A chance of winning something. I like to think that as a result of reading we’re reasonably knowledgeable about a lot of things.

LH: And so, conversely, is that why you might be worried that young people today might not be reading enough?

CF: I think young people today have much narrower horizons in terms of what goes on around them.

LH: Right, you don’t think technology has replaced some of that knowledge?

[Pause]

CF: Er … I don’t know. It’s brought other areas of knowledge and I think the sort of little bits of information that we pick up about everything and anything they may not pick up in the same way?

LH: Right. And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

CF: Oh I can’t. No. I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with. I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book.

LH: [Laughs] That counts as a thousand books I think.

CF: [Laughs] Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before.

LH: There will be a way.

CF: I’m sure there will.

LH: There will be.

CF: I’m not very technological.

LH: I have a friend who just also got a kindle and took it on holiday with her and thought it was marvellous. A particular facility she liked is that if you come across a word where you think ‘Now what does that exactly mean?’ you can look it up. On Screen, you can click on it and it comes up with a thesaurus explanation.

CF: Oh right, I better read the instructions. [Laughs]

LH: [Laughs] Yes, that is a good place to start.

CF: If all else fails then read the instructions.

LH: Well thank you very much for that. I don’t know if there is anything you want to add but I feel like I’ve got a very full picture of your…

CF: I don’t think so. I haven’t read much that is erm … very erudite. It’s reading for entertainment. I’ve read the occasional biography but not very often.

LH: No. And reading for entertainment is the way it started off before the entertainment of the other stuff like television and technology and so it wasn’t to become clever, it was to enjoy. And would you say that is what it was for you…

CF: Um, to take you away into a land of make believe.

LH: Even if it’s the Dennis Wheatley land of make believe.

CF: Oh yeah. The Dornford Yates one is much more my cup of tea.

LH: Oh is it? [Laughs] Your favourite.

CF: Well with Rolls Royces and servants you know. A land to which I aspire.

LH: Your haven’t mentioned P G Woodhouse.

CF: I never read much P G Woodhouse. We had a great length of them and I regret it and unfortunately when my father died my sister nicked all the P G  Woodhouse. So I, I have a few and have enjoyed them.

LH: So that’s the first of the uploading onto your kindle then? [Laughs]

CF: Do you know now there’s a thought, yes, because I was wondering who should I upload and …

LH: Well, there’s a start then.

CF: I’m half way through Great Expectations. I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby  recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

LH: So you’re becoming erudite in later years.

CF: I don’t know, no. I’m getting to the stage where I can’t remember what I’ve read before, one book will do me through the rest of my life if I’m not careful.

LH: You’d just keep re-reading and never know the difference.

So all in all which is your absolute favourite then, do you think? Which author would you say?

CF: Oh I think Nevil Shute has to be.

LH: Right. And on that note I will say thank you very much and turn my machine off.

 

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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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