Delia

Delia

Delia was born on 5th October 1942.

Delia was interviewed by Trisha Cooper. The interview has been edited by Delia and the audio is not available by request.

TC:  Delia: was born in … Where were you born, Delia:?

DELIA:  Stannington.

TC:  In Stannington.  Can I ask you when you were born, the date?

DELIA:  Yes, October 5th, 1942.

TC:  October 5th, 1942.  And which area of Sheffield did you live in between 1945 and 1965?

DELIA:  I lived in Sheffield at Stannington until 1962, well, early 1963 really, and then I moved to Rotherham.

TC:  Right, so we’ll start the interview now, and we’re looking particularly at the books you read as a child and as a young adult, between … up till 1965.  So, we can start by asking you when you were young, did anybody read to you, when you were young?  What are your very first memories of the books that you had around you?

DELIA:  Well, about the first book I can remember, and I don’t know if anyone’s heard of it now, it was a book about a pig called Toby Twirl, and his friend, I think, was a penguin. And I had it for Christmas, and that’s about the first one I can remember.  And then I moved on to, once I’d learned to read, in the infant school, I moved on to sort of children’s … there [sic] The Twins at Hillside Farm.  I don’t know who wrote that.  It was lovely, that.  It was about two children, twins, living on a farm in some country place and it would tell things about milk separators and things like that.  And there was one called Ranch on the Plain, which was about cowboys.  And The Girl from Golden [sic].  Oh, and another one that I really liked they called it A Pair of Red Polls, and it was about two red-headed children who lived on a farm.  But I couldn’t tell you any of the authors.  But that was between … I’d say I read those between five and seven years old.

TC:  And where did you get those books from?

DELIA:  Oh, they belonged to my older sister who’s nearly ten years older than me.  And they were handed down.  But the Toby Twirl one was bought for me when I was very small.

TC:  Were you what they describe as a bookworm?  Did you immediately take to it?

DELIA:  Oh yes, yes, I was one of the first in the class to do what they called silent reading.  So once I’d mastered silent reading, I just never stopped.  I used to like the Enid Blyton ones, and one was called The Valley of Adventure, and I really enjoyed that.  I’m just trying to think of some more.  But I was always reading, I always am.

TC:  Which school did you go to?

DELIA:  Stannington County Primary School to start with, and then … in those days there was the 11-plus and at eleven I passed for Ecclesfield Grammar.

TC:  When you were at school, how did you access books then?

DELIA:  I think I had some in classroom, but we had teachers who read to us as well.  I remember one teacher, we called her Miss Gart, and she used to read Aesop’s Fables to us, but I can’t really remember borrowing books at school.  No, the ones I had were usually the ones that were around.

TC:  And you read anything you could lay your hands on?

DELIA:   Yes, yes I did.

TC:  Were you drawn to a particular author or a particular genre?

DELIA:  I did like Enid Blyton.  I think most people did.  And … I’m just trying to think.  I can’t remember any of the other authors.  I used to like these books about children who lived on farms for some reason.

TC:  You weren’t living on a farm or?

DELIA:  No, it was really countrified around Stannington in those days. I mean, not like it is now. It was very much … It seemed miles away from Sheffield, miles.  You had to go on one bus to Malin Bridge, and then catch a tram into Sheffield town centre.  So I think I must have been about five before I even went into the town centre.  There was a little shopping centre at Hillsborough and Malin Bridge, and that’s mainly where we went.

TC: Where did your parents get their books from, and did your sister get her books from?

DELIA:  I think they were just bought, you know, I think they just bought them.  I can’t remember actually, anybody actually buying them for them, or getting them from the libraries.  Although, there was a council library at our school, thinking about it.  They used to come around and change books fairly frequently, but I can’t remember bringing any home.  But you’ve probably … I’ve probably forgotten about that.

TC:  Once you became a teenager, what books attracted you then, do you think?

DELIA:  Well, I’ve been trying to rack my brains to think. I used to read Elizabeth Goudge.  Have you heard of her?  And Anya Seton.  I used to like those.

TC:  Black Beauty.  No, that’s Anna Sewell.  Anya Seton, sorry.

DELIA:  Anya Seton, it was Katherine, she wrote.  Yes.  I remember reading that and The Herb of Grace, Elizabeth Goudge.  And Agatha Christie of course, I used to read all the detective books.  I used to love detective books.  Oh, and I remember reading one by a lady called Lillie Le Pla and it was called The Secret Shore and I think it was probably about the Channel Islands, which is somewhere that I love now.  I remember reading that one, it just came to me, it had a blue cloth back.  And it was about some … It was about a girl who would … I’m not sure if her dad had died, but they lived in this house and she found this tunnel through the cliff and there was a gate in it.  And that led up to this man’s house, and she used to go straight on and it led down to the secret shore.  And I remember this man, I think he must’ve been some connection of her mother’s because he bought her a lovely watch for her birthday.  [Laughing.]  I just remembered.  And then I think in the end there was a happy ending where they got married, where he married her mother.  I can’t remember all the circumstances, but it was about this shore that she used to go down to and be on her own and find shells and things, you know.

TC:  There’s a theme there. Your teenage reading was obviously influenced by your childhood reading of adventure and country life, of going somewhere else.

DELIA:  Yes, that was when I was a very young teenager, I was about eleven when I read that book.  And then I remember reading Gulliver’s Travels, round about then as well, and I enjoyed that.

TC:  Gulliver’s Travels is going to different places, isn’t it?

DELIA:  Yes it is.  [Laughing.]  I don’t really go to many places now.

TC:  Just in your imagination?

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  That’s what books …

DELIA:  Books are great things for children’s imaginations.  I just to live in the books [sic], you know, I was always reading, well, as I am now.  So, I started going to Sheffield Library when I left school.  I had a friend who’s a lot cleverer than me.  She was in the top stream all the way through school and she was the one who introduced me to Sheffield Library because I started work and used to meet her there.  And we used to exchange our books, you know.

TC:  What year would that be?

DELIA:  That would be 1960, I’d say.  ’59 I was still in school, so I didn’t go into Sheffield Library then.  But ’60, ’61, ’62, I used to meet her in Sheffield straight from work and then we used to go and exchange our books and, uh, you know, just meet up.

TC:  That must have been amazing though, to go into a massive library like Sheffield Library and just be [DELIA:  Yes, yes it was!] … have that much choice!  What did you make for, can you remember?

DELIA:  Well, as I say, I made for the authors that I knew. I started with Elizabeth Goudge and Anya Seton in the school library and I sort of went for those books again when I went to the main library.  And then with Agatha Christie as well, they’d always got the latest one.  And I can remember one that I never read but was advertised in Sheffield Library.  It was Frank Yerby – The Old Gods Laugh.  And I used to see it advertised on the counter and, you know, I never borrowed that book and I still don’t know what it was about.

TC: You should check it now.

DELIA:  Have you heard of Frank Yerby?

TC:  I have not, I’m afraid.

DELIA:  No.

TC:  No, who was he?  Do you know who he was?

DELIA:  No, I don’t know.  I just remember going into Sheffield Library to change my books and they had a little display and it was this one called The Old Gods Laugh and for some reason or other I never borrowed the book. It had just come out. I’ve never read it to this day. [Laughs.]  Came back to me when I was talking to you, you know, about Sheffield Library. I just remember that one.

TC:  It’s interesting how we get into different genres, you know.  You kind of latched onto an author, didn’t you?  But another way is by recommendation.  You met your school friend and you would search for books.

DELIA:  Yes, I think she started me off with the Agatha Christies while we were still at school. We used to read paperbacks. Oh, and Dragonwyck, that was another Anya Seton one.  Have you heard of that one?  It was a film as well, an old film.

TC:  I think our reading must have been a bit …

DELIA:  Foxfire, that was another one.  And My Theodosia, that was another one.  Yes.

TC:  You’re remembering all the titles.  So this is when you left school, so you’re what now, 16, 17? Okay, so you left school.  And you carried on reading with your friend from school, going to the library. Can you remember what took you on then from the Agatha Christie into other authors, other genres?  You were into detective, obviously, maybe a bit of a …

DELIA:  Yes, I don’t know.  I mean, I started reading Thomas Hardy when I was in my early 20s.  I read all his books because I liked the Dorset theme to them.

TC:  Again, that’s farming and countryside, isn’t it?  That’s a real theme.

DELIA:  It is, Yes, Yes.  Yes, so I’ve read a lot of those.  And at the moment, I’m reading Wolf Hall.

TC:  Oh, Hilary Mantel.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  Historical, fantastic.

DELIA:  I’ve only just started that.  Also Catherine Bailey, Black Diamonds, I’ve read that one.

TC:  So, historical books attracted you, well, attract you now.  Did they at that time then, in the early ’60s?

DELIA:  Yes, I think so, because Katherine is historical.  It’s about the Duke of Lancaster and things like that.  It was a romance.  I’m just trying to think of any … I mean, no, I read just about everything, you see.  I’ve read Clive Cussler.

TC:  Was there a type of … Going back to sort of the early ’60s, the ’50s and the ’60s, was there a time that you dropped off reading, or that it became difficult for you?

DELIA:  No, I’ve never dropped off reading because in 1963 I got married and immediately became pregnant with my first child and books were a wonderful escape from housework and crying babies.  [Laughs.]

TC:  [Laughing.] I found the same thing.  And did you buy books then, were you buying books or were you still going to the library?  Were you being given ..?

DELIA:  No, it was the Rotherham Library.  I was a member of Rotherham Library.  I’ve used Rotherham Library a lot over the years, but since the … When I went back to work full time, of course I didn’t have time to go to the library, so I bought paperbacks, really.

TC:  Can you remember those days with your little baby and what you were reading?

DELIA:  Oh Yes, definitely, Yes, Yes.

TC:  What were you reading?

DELIA:  Oh now then, I think carried on … I got books by the same authors, but it was Thomas Hardy.  I started off with those and I’ve read Dickens, and I went to …

TC:  All of Dickens?

DELIA:  No, not all of it, no.

TC:  Any favourites?

DELIA:  I went to night school for English Literature when I’d got the whole family and I read Hard Times at night school, which is not my favourite Dickens, that.  I like David Copperfield and I’ve read quite a lot.  Um, I don’t know whether I’ve read … It’s hard to remember when you’re trying to think.  I think David Copperfield was one of my favourites, but I wasn’t keen on Hard Times.

TC:  Great Expectations, that’s a great book, isn’t it?

DELIA:  Great Expectations, yes.  It’s not my favourite though, I don’t think.  I’m just trying to think … Oh, Christmas Carol, I read that, and Cricket on the Hearth and those kinds of things.  I’m just trying to think what other books … We’ve got a whole set of old books and I remember reading East Lynne, that’s not Dickens.  Have you read East Lynne?

TC:  Who’s that by?

DELIA:  I don’t know to be honest.  It’s a Victorian melodrama-type thing.

TC:  That’s another classic.

DELIA:  And I remember reading that and The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  And Sylvia’s Lovers, Mrs Gaskell, wasn’t it?  And Cranford, Yes, I’ve read most of those classic ones.  But, they say reading is a great way of escapism.  Particularly on a summer’s day when you take your book outside and just get lost in it.

TC:  It’s heaven, isn’t it, Yes.

DELIA:  Do you read much?

TC:  Oh, I was, yes. [Laughing.]  I was described as a bookworm, you know, when I was little at school.  And they gave you a reading age, didn’t they, and it was, “Ooohhh, you know, your reading age is twice your actual age.”

DELIA:  Yes, when I was at school, we didn’t have reading ages.  They just sort of stood back in amazement when you picked it up.  [Laughs.]

TC:  I had my nose in a book all the time, and a bit like you.  When I had my children, it was therapy.  I start … I picked up an Iris Murdoch that was on the shelf.

DELIA:  Oh, yes.  I can’t get on with Iris Murdoch.

TC:  She’s very peculiar, but it completely took me out of my …

DELIA:  Yes.  I read one of hers the other year and I can’t remember what it was called.  It was about … it wasn’t one of the famous ones.  It was where she had sort of done a mystery thing.  Oh, anyway, I didn’t enjoy it.  It was one where there was a family and they lived down south near the sea.

TC:  Was it called The Sea, The Sea?

DELIA:  No, it wasn’t that one.  One of them worked in London in the civil service.  It was sort of a … it was a funny … I don’t think it was a typical Iris Murdoch.  I got it from the Telegraph Readers thing.  I bought it as a sort of offer, but I didn’t like it at all.

TC:  You liked the classics.  Did you read Auden and Trollope or any of those authors?

DELIA:  I’ve read some Trollope, Barchester Towers.  Yes, that was good.  But I’ve not really read Auden.  Oh, Evelyn Waugh, I love those.  But I don’t think I’ve read any Auden.  Wasn’t he a poet?  W H.Auden.

TC:  Yes, he was a poet, yes, yes.

DELIA:  I’ve read one or two of his poems, but I’ve never actually read a novel of his.  I can’t think of any.

TC:  And Jane Austen?

DELIA:  Oh, Jane Austen, yes, I’ve read those.  I’ve got the complete works in one volume.

TC:  At what stage in your life did you read those?  Did you read those sort of before 1965?

DELIA:  Pride and Prejudice we had to do at school, which was ’59, ’58 – ’59.  We did it for O level.  And, uh, the way you do it at school, you’re bored to tears by it, absolutely bored to tears by it.

TC:  Especially if you’re a quick reader because you’ll have read it before anybody else.

DELIA:  Yes, we had to go back and forth over it and I got fed up with it.  But I’ve read it since and enjoyed it.  I’ve read all the others as well:  Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and all of those.  As I say, I have the omnibus edition of her works.  It came out from Pan Books some years ago and so I’ve actually got all of those.  And the Brontës.  Jane Eyre I read at school.  Yes, I liked Jane Eyre.  I remember reading it when I was ill once.  [Laughs.]

TC:  So school introduced you to those authors again, gave you an author and you then explored the rest of her output.

DELIA:  Yes, I think Jane Eyre was bought for me.  I can’t remember who bought it, but I remember reading it.  And Wuthering Heights I read after I got married, like I say, when I got babies.  So, yes, it was um … I used to get really into them, you know.  Well, I still do. [Laughs.]

TC:  Well, it’s great writing, isn’t it?  Did you ever explore any other types of books, like horror or fantasy?

DELIA:  Yes, yes, that’s why I say I’ve read Clive Cussler.  Clive Cussler’s are a bit horrific.  One of them, Sahara, is.  It’s not like the film.  And I’ve just read one called The Ritual, which is pretty horrific.  Have you heard … I don’t know what author that one was either.  I’ve only just finished that one.  And The Rome Prophecy I’ve just finished.  They’re all a bit gruesome, those.  But, I really just pick them off the shelves when I’m out and read them, you know.  But yes, I’ve read some of the horror ones as well.

TC:  In those days at school, they were also encouraging us to read people like H.G. Wells and Orwell.  Did you get into those authors?

DELIA:  Yes, I read some H.G. Wells when I was at school, but Orwell I haven’t read.  No, I haven’t read any Orwell.  I’ve heard of it, you know.  I’ve heard snatches of it, but I’ve never actually picked it up and read it.  I find it might be a bit depressing.  I was listening to the radio about a year ago and they had The Road to Wigan Pier on it and the description of the tripe shop, I don’t think I want to read any of it.  [Both laugh.]  Have you read that?

TC:  Do you know, it’s on my shelf and I haven’t.  I read 1984 … Oh no, I read Animal … We had to do Animal Farm at school.

DELIA:  Oh Yes.

TC:  And I read a few around that, but I haven’t read The Road to Wigan Pier.  I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

DELIA:  Oh no, I haven’t read that either.

TC:  What … I just wanted to ask you.  I’ve forgotten my next question.  I can’t remember what it was.

DELIA:  Oh dear.  [Both laughing.]  We used to do that all the time.  It’s terrible, isn’t it?

TC:  Oh my word.  I can’t remember really … Oh yes.  I was wanting to ask you, particularly focusing on those books that you read, you know, as a sort of teenager and into your mid-twenties.  Is there a book that you could identify as one that had changed your life in any way?

DELIA:  Oh no, that is a good question.  [Laughs.]  Oh dear.  I’ll think of it when you’ve gone, but …

TC:  I’ll just ask you another one whilst that is sort of going around in your brain.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  Were there any foreign authors, any European authors or American authors that you were attracted to?

DELIA:  Ah, now, the American detective one, I can never remember his name.

TC:  Chandler?  Raymond Chandler?

DELIA:  No, there’s another one, a very famous one.

TC:  Elmore Leonard, no?

DELIA:  The one who wrote … Oh, I can never remember his name.   It’s as equally as famous as Chandler.  Oh, I’ve read what they call … Oh God, what they call the … the one … Mia Farrow played the heroine in it.  Great Gatsby, that’s it.  Great Gatsby, I’ve read that one.

TC:  Scott Fitzgerald.

DELIA:  Yes, Yes, I’ve read that one.  But this other one, what did they call it?  It’s not Chandler, it’s the other one.

TC:  It’ll come to us.  What about people like Steinbeck, you know, The Grapes of Wrath and Hemingway, those authors?

DELIA:  I may have read a Hemingway one.

TC:  But they didn’t particularly attract you?

DELIA:  No, they didn’t, no.  I’m not really attracted to American authors, I have to say.

TC:  And what about European: French, Germans, the Italians?

DELIA:  Flaubert.  Madame Bovary.  Yes, Yes, I’ve read that.

TC:  Was that when you were young?

DELIA:  No, when I was first married, that.

TC:  Oh dear, that’s not a good one to read when you’re first … [Trails off laughing.]

DELIA:  It isn’t, but we’d got it in these books, you see, we got on the shelf.  They were an old set that my husband’s mother and father had bought as a set.  One of those brown leather bound ones, so I just started going through them.  So yes, I read Madame Bovary.  I’m just trying to think if there were any others.  I wish I could remember the name of that American detective.

TC:  We’ll think of him.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  The other sort of great authors are the Russians, of course.

DELIA:  Yes, I’ve not read anything like that.  I’m not sure if I’ve read parts of War and Peace, and not got through it.  Mm, I’m just trying to think of any others. There’s Ibsen, isn’t there, but he was Swedish.  To be honest, I’ve read so many things that I can’t always remember them, but the Russian ones … There was … Oh, what’s the one with the wheel tappers?

TC:  Dostoevsky?

DELIA:  No, no.  Anna Karenina.

TC:  Yes, Yes.

DELIA:  Where they’re tapping the wheels on the train.

TC:  On the train that finally killed her.

DELIA:  Yes, Yes, that’s right.  But some of these, I’ve started and not finished.  And you said the one book that really affected me.  It was a Thomas Hardy one, and I’m not sure if it’s Far from the Madding Crowd or Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I’m not quite sure which one it was because I’ve read them all.  And once I started reading Hardy, I can’t remember which one it was I read first.  I borrowed those from Rotherham Library and I just love Hardy.  He’s a bit gloomy sometimes, but so descriptive.

TC:  Yes, I adore him as well.  He’s a bit of a Marmite author, isn’t he?

DELIA:  Oh, and the Clayhanger trilogy, who I can’t remember the author of now. [Pause.]  Arnold Bennett.

TC:  Oh, yes!

DELIA:  I’ve got those in paperback.

TC:  When did you read those?

DELIA:  Uh, 1970s. And they’re very good.  What else?  I’ve gone through so many books.  I’ve thrown so many books away, given so many books away that you just wouldn’t believe it.  And as I say, often I just pick them up.  Sometimes I don’t like them and then don’t get through them.  And I get a lot bought for birthdays and Christmas and that’s how, you know, sometimes you get these, you just can’t get into them.  I couldn’t read … Atonement, I couldn’t get on with that at all.  Who was the author of that?

TC:  Ian McEwan.

DELIA:  And Enduring Love.  They’re just weird, those.  Have you read them?

TC:  You see, I love those Ian McEwans.  They’re a bit like … [Both talk at the same time] aren’t quite … just don’t quite understand them.

DELIA:  My daughter likes Ian McEwan.  She bought me that Enduring Love and someone bought me Atonement, but that Enduring Love is really weird where they see the person fall from the balloon.  And there’s another one of his that I’ve got.

TC:  Saturday?

DELIA:  No, I’m not sure if it’s by him or not.  Canal Dreams, have you read that one? Something to do with the Panama Canal, that.  And it’s quite weird.  It starts off to do with the Panama Canal, but it’s not.  Some people are just going across there and it’s … I don’t know, it’s just weird.  I never finished that one either.  But, I’m sure there are others that I can think of, but I’ll think of them when you’re gone.  [Laughs.]

TC:  So, very often … You know, I’ve got a list and maybe you have, of books that I want to read, you know.  They’re there, but I’ve not got around to them.  What is on your list?  Is there one book or, you know, a collection of books that you think, “I must get round to reading that particular book” or maybe one that you’ve started and haven’t finished, “I’m going to get back to that one day”?

DELIA:  Yes, as I say, those Ian McEwan ones.  I did get through Atonement and I did get through Enduring Love, but I’ve never got through the other one, Canal Dreams.  I don’t know if that’s by him or not.  But some of them … There’s another one called Snow Sifting Through Cedars [sic].  I don’t know who’s written that, but I never finished that one either.  I put them to one side, but, mm, I’ve read … I’m just trying to think … I’ve got a load here.

TC:  Is there a book from your early days, sort of going back to this 1965 date that we’re sort of focusing on.  Is there a book that you would pass on to your grandchildren?

DELIA:  Uh, if they were interested.  But I don’t find young people as interested in books these days, do you?  My grandchildren don’t seem to be very interested.  They can all read, I mean, obviously, but I would encourage them to read the Hardy novels and Dickens, but as for passing them on, I’m not quite sure.

TC:  I’m going to switch off now and thank you ever so much for your time.

DELIA:  Oh, it’s okay.

TC:  And your lovely memory of books.

 

 

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Postscript: On the Shelves at Tinsley Carnegie Library

After their struggle to build their Carnegie Library, what books did Tinsley parish council see fit to buy for the enlightenment and entertainment of its residents?

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library, by T.Wilkinson, on 8 June 1905 (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield City Archives)

The tone was set by Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of William Cooke and Co, as he opened the library on Thursday 8 June 1905. The Sheffield Independent reported the next day:

[In his boyhood] there were no beautiful structures of that kind ready for the working man to use. He very much rejoiced that they had in the parish so excellent a building to which they could come in search of recreation of a rational character, or of the knowledge which was to be obtained from the scientific and engineering works he had observed on the shelves.

The Sheffield Independent noted the lending library’s capacity for ‘several thousand volumes’ and there was also a reference library to stock. But for now there were just ‘434 volumes’, ‘well and substantially bound in leather’. Mr H C Else, who chaired the council, said that they hoped to expand in time and that for now people

would probably think that the library looked bare … they only got the last half of the books on Tuesday of this week.

There were twelve shelves of novels, including:

Dickens, Dumas, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Hall Caine, Captain Marryat, R S Merriman, Scott, Mrs Henry Wood, E J Worboise, Stanley Weyman, Charles Reade. [i]

This range of mostly contemporary or recent novels was likely to appeal to both men and women. Some of the names, like Eliot, we rever today and others, like Wilkie Collins, are less well regarded but in print and read with pleasure by many. Still others are almost completely forgotten. Hall Caine and E J Worboise? Anyone? Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) wrote ‘novels of wide popularity’, says the Oxford Companion to English Literature. His Wikipedia entry lists his subjects as: ‘adultery, divorce, domestic violence, illegitimacy, infanticide, religious bigotry and women’s rights’, and describes him as the ‘most highly paid novelist of his day’. Emma Jane Worboise (1825–1887) wrote strongly Christian novels.

At this point the Independent’s journalist unexpectedly indulged in literary criticism of his own:

The ubiquitous Marie Corelli was unrepresented. Resenting this absence, the lady of Stratford-on-Avon will probably supply the deficiency by forwarding a complete set of  immortal works at the earliest opportunity.

Marie Corelli (1854-1924) was relished by the public for her exotic novels involving high society, ancient Egypt, debauchery, paganism, spiritualism and much else. Predictably, she was despised by the critics. Evidently there was no place for her in Tinsley.

Exotic author Marie Corelli (1909) (public domain)

It is interesting that fiction of any kind found a place in Tinsley’s public library. Libraries had been founded, in true Victorian fashion, with a view to improving the working man. To many minds the novel hardly suited this noble purpose. In addition, some ratepayers resented wasting public – or rather, their – money on providing the frivolous to the undeserving. In 1879, J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, called novels ‘the most dangerous literature of the age’.[ii] When he opened the nearby Walkley Carnegie Library, in December 1905, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Colonel Hughes

impressed upon the young people that it was not by reading three-volume novels that literary or other success was achieved, but by digesting the finest writers on subjects that would be of use afterwards. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 December 1905)

At all events, in Tinsley, in 1905, the council chose fiction that would both entertain and inform.[iii]

What then of ‘books of information’, in a phrase of the time?

The more serious books in the library included Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries, half a dozen volumes of Ruskin, a dozen of the English Men of Letters series, and a fine set of over 30 volumes dealing with national heroes. The poets at present seem to be confined to Longfellow, Scott, Shakespeare, and Tennyson.

This is another solid and conventional selection on literature, history and art. The ‘fine set … dealing with national heroes’ has a confident, even imperial, ring to it, and the English Men of Letters series included luminaries like Samuel Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth and Chaucer (there were no women of letters). John Ruskin had local connections, with his Guild of St George and St George’s Museum for Sheffield’s working men. There was apparently little science or technology, apart from the ‘small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries’ reflecting the local economy and also vocational improvement.

John Ruskin (1879) (public domain)

There seem to have been no books for children, although older children might well have enjoyed,  for example, Captain Marryat. Junior public libraries were few and far between in this period, even in bigger cities. Had the idea occurred in Tinsley, there was in any case little money. There were perhaps books in local schools and Sunday Schools.

Early libraries were intended as a source of news and information and so there were newspapers and magazines in the reading room and the ladies’ reading room. The main reading room was well-equipped with ‘six newspaper desks, and three large oak tables, on which will be laid current magazines’.

Tinsley’s new librarian, Mr J O’Donnell, was named by the Independent. There is no other information about him, but it may be assumed that he advised the council on its book purchases. At all events, he did not stay long, for by 1912 the librarian was Mr A Burton, who also served on the council.

Underpinning Tinsley’s achievement was local financial support. Andrew Carnegie’s £1,500 was a donation strictly for construction, and councils could raise a rate of only 1d in the pound for libraries. In Tinsley this meant £110 a year. Money for books was always going to be hard to find, but the council, in a move as enterprising as its applying for Carnegie money,

went to several of the large works in the parish and asked them to give assistance. … which mounted in all to £50. That would not buy many books, and so they were obliged to put another £50 to it in order to make some show at the outset. … but before they could extend it much they would need to obtain either more money or more books from some one.

The businesses which contributed were carefully listed by the Independent: Hadfield’s Steel Foundry Co, William Cooke and Co, Edgar Allen and Co, the Tinsley Rolling Mills Co, and T Gray and Sons. With the exception of the last (the company which had built the library), these were internationally important businesses.

The Sheffield Independent evidently admired Tinsley’s efforts to secure its building and books:

The handsome little library … was formally opened yesterday evening, in the presence of an interested gathering of spectators. Neither architects nor builders have attempted anything to which the word pretentious could be applied, but the building is pleasing in appearance, and admirably planned for the purposes to which it will be put. … The surrounding grounds are nicely laid out and planted with shrubs.

An artist’s impression of Tinsley Carnegie Library from the Sheffield Independent (9 June 1905)

Read more about the building of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Parts One, Two and Three).

[i] R S Merriman is presumably a misprint for H S (Henry Seton) Merriman (1862-1903), another popular novelist of exciting-sounding books: Slave of the Lamp (1894), The Vultures (1902) and The Last Hope (1904).

[ii] Quoted by Thomas Kelly in A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1975 (London, Library Association, 1977).

[iii] Not everyone disapproved of novels. Opening Sheffield’s Upperthorpe Library in 1876, Alderman Fisher said that: ‘…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon’. By 1905, novels with a Christian moral were often given to children as school or Sunday School prizes. By 1930, when Sheffield stocked Edgar Wallace, Ethel M Dell and the like in its new Firth Park branch, this proved tremendously popular with residents.

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