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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In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

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