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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Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

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By Val Hewson

The writer Romer Wilson, born in Sheffield in 1891, is now almost forgotten. Her name appears in a few databases and blogs, and she has brief Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia entries. A novelist who also wrote short stories, verse and a play, and an anthologist of tales for children, she was generally well regarded in her lifetime. She seems, however, to have received almost no critical attention since her early death in 1930. We found her, by chance, through her father, Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909), whose name came up in our research into Sheffield Libraries.

Our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, has posted an article about Romer Wilson’s novel, Latterday Symphony (Nonesuch Press, London, 1927), here. We are researching her life, and while there is much to discover, we know enough to offer a good introduction to Sheffield’s forgotten novelist.    

The first thing to know is that ‘Romer Wilson’ is not her name. On official records, Romer Wilson is Florence Roma Muir Wilson, eldest child of Arnold and Amy Letitia Muir Wilson. On her marriage, she became Florence Roma Muir O’Brien. According to correspondence archived at Girton College, Cambridge, her friends called her, not Florence, a popular name of the time, but Roma. Why Roma we cannot know, but it is interesting that her parents visited Rome on their honeymoon. Romer and Roma, invented and real, pen-name and given name. Perhaps Roma felt that Romer, which could so easily be a man’s name, would be an advantage in her career. (Indeed, critics did occasionally assume that they were reviewing the work of a man.)

Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, where Romer Wilson was born

‘A dark old manor house on the edge of the moors just outside Sheffield’ was Romer Wilson’s home for most of her childhood, until it was sold on the death of her father in 1909.[i] This was Whiteley Wood Hall, a 17th century house with Victorian additions, stables and extensive grounds, in Fulwood, a suburb in south-west Sheffield. Romer was born on Saturday 26 December 1891 in Parkholme, a much smaller suburban villa in Collegiate Crescent, in the desirable Broomhall area just outside the town centre.[ii] Her father, on the way up in the world, bought the Hall in 1893, when she was about two years old, for somewhere between £7,000 and £9,000 (a sum beyond the imaginings of most Sheffield residents at the time). The Hall had important historical associations: Thomas Boulsover (1705 – 1788), the inventor of Sheffield Plate, and Samuel Plimsoll MP (1824 – 1898), famous for the Plimsoll line on ships, had both lived there. The house was demolished in 1959, with the grounds and outbuildings becoming a Girlguiding outdoor activity centre. Today all around is park and common land, well-used and easily accessible. Its relative remoteness in Romer’s day perhaps contributed to her depictions of wild, even hostile moorland in her books, Greenlow (Collins, London, 1927) and All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte (Chatto & Windus, London, 1928), from where this quotation comes:

West and north and south the moors hang above the West Riding of Yorkshire. They rise up bleak and black and brooding, a thousand feet, two thousand feet above the valleys. Empty and silent, without trees or lakes, without wide rivers, without grand impressive mountains, they roll away from this world.

All Alone (Introduction to Haworth – A Journey from To-Day)

Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, built 1662 by Alexandra Ashton, demolished 1959. Stood in its own woods, commanding a view over the Porter Valley. Home of Thomas Boulsover, inventor of Sheffield Plate, who died here in 1788, and Samuel Plimsoll
Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, Fulwood, Sheffield. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref no: y01697

Dark, remote and ancient Whiteley Wood Hall may have been, but Romer and her younger sister Natalie (born in 1893) and brother Leslie (born in 1899) had a privileged childhood. There were servants, parties and fetes, holidays abroad, chauffeur-driven motor cars, outings to the theatre, music lessons and private education.    

This comfortable life was due to the efforts of her father, Arnold Muir Wilson. A remarkably frank obituary said of him:

… at all times a theatrical personality. … Self-made, frank almost to the point of brutal bluntness to friend and foe, assertive and dauntless, relentless as a sleuthhound in business, with a boundless capacity for work and an astonishing capacity for turning unlikely circumstances to his own advantage. … a want of self-control, an almost reckless impulsiveness of action and a disregard … for the feelings of others. … one could never definitely conclude that Mr Muir Wilson had any clear creed or abstract principle, or that he was seriously in earnest … gossipy … in private he was a good fellow and an entertaining companion …

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Monday 4 October 1909
Councillor Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909)
Arnold Muir Wilson. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref. no. y08151.

Wilson was in many ways the classic Victorian success story. He was a prominent solicitor and a Conservative councillor for over 20 years, with Parliamentary ambitions. He had started in trade, helping out as a child in his father’s barber shop on Snig Hill in the town centre. The Wilsons evidently prospered, opening various new businesses, and in time Wilson switched from trade to profession, thus rising up a social class or two. We know little of his education (other than a period in Germany), but his professional training was through Clifford’s Inn, where he won prizes.[iii] He opened his own law firm and was much in demand. He had business interests too, owning property, land and a share in Sheffield’s newest theatre, the Lyceum. He even contrived an appointment as honorary consul for Serbia in 1898, which presumably appealed to both his vanity and his eye for an opportunity.

Around 1906, however, Wilson fell ill, consulting a ‘brain specialist’. His illness seemed to exacerbate an already volatile character. He attacked a magistrate in court, for which he had to issue a public apology. When a by-election was called in Attercliffe in 1909, dismayed not to be chosen as the Conservative candidate, he stood as an independent but lost and promptly took the official Conservative candidate to court, alleging assault and damage. The case was dismissed. After this, Wilson’s health declined further, and he went abroad, saying he would never return alive. He was right: he had a complete breakdown in Vancouver and died soon after in hospital. His body was brought back to Sheffield and quietly buried in the General Cemetery. ‘Never, probably, was a man who had played so prominent a part in public life buried in so private a manner,’ said the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Monday 25 October 1909). He left almost £50,000, mostly in trust for his family, and instructed that his property, including Whiteley Wood Hall, be sold. His wife and children evidently moved to a smaller property nearby.   

Around this time, Romer was coming to the end of her schooldays. She had been privately educated until she was 15, when she was sent to West Heath, a boarding school in Richmond on Thames, for four years.[iv] After that, in 1911 she went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read law.[v] Socially this was apparently a happy time, with Romer making many friends including the economic historian, Eileen Power (1889 – 1940), social reformer Margery Spring Rice (1887 – 1970) and the novelist Emily (‘Topsy’) Coursolles Jones (1883 – 1966), who seems as forgotten as Romer herself. Academically, she was less happy: she spoke of ‘considerable boredom’ and passed her exams ‘with mediocre honours’ in 1914. A tutor suggested she do some writing, and she started by producing ‘rubbish for a typewritten private magazine’.

This then was the beginning of Romer Wilson’s literary career. There’s a suggestion of the accidental about it: a young woman doing a little writing to occupy her time in between social activities. She did not need to work after all. Or did the tutor’s suggestion accord with a wish of her own? At all events, she was soon working feverishly on a novel, against the background of war.

Part Two of Romer Wilson’s story will follow shortly.


[i] Quoted, but not attributed, in the entry on Romer Wilson in the Dictionary of National Biography.  

[ii] Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, is now owned by Sheffield Hallam University.

[iii] Clifford’s Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery to which all solicitors belonged before the 20th century.

[iv] A more famous pupil, many years later, was Lady Diana Spencer.

[v] Law was an interesting choice. Was it a tribute to her father? No woman was allowed to practise law in the UK until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, five years after Romer finished her university course.

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