Doreen Gill

Doreen Gill

Doreen was born in Sheffield on 8th March 1934.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 18th May 2012.

Mary Grover: This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover.  It is, today, the 18th of May 2012 and I’m interviewing Doreen Gill.  Doreen was born, where were you born Doreen?

doreen-gill

Doreen Gill: Sheffield.

MG:  In Sheffield.  Which bit of Sheffield?

DG: Presumably at Jessops.  I don’t really know.

MG: And she was born, on, did you give me the date?  Oh here we are, the 8th of March 1934 and what area of Sheffield did you live in between …

DG: We lived in Darnall.

MG:  In Darnall.  When did you come to live in Nether Edge?

DG: Twelve and a half years ago.  2000.

MG: Did you move here from Darnall?

DG: No we moved here from, we used to live on Struan Road which is off Carter Knowle Road.  We lived there for 45 years.

MG: Did you?  But you grew up in Darnall.

DG: Yes.  Well.  I’ll say yes.  Until I was nine.  No that’s not true either.  Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out.   [Typist’s note: 12th & 15th December 1940]  ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.  But by the time I was nine, my mother died and all three of us were split up.  I went to Ripon and they went to Diss in Norfolk.  So we never saw each other for three, three and a half years.  So I spent three years in Ripon and then, me dad was in the Army, you see, he was in Africa.  They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.  So when, he came out of the Army he got us all out and got us all together.  In the meantime, just before the war ended, he’d married this lady in Belgium.  And she came, you know, we all lived together at Don Road.

MG:  So who did you live with in Ripon?

DG:  It was a Children’s Home.

MG:  So you had lots of different influences on you.

DG:  Yes.

MG: Yes.

DG:  Yes.

MG: Can you remember your mother reading to you?

DG:   No I can’t.  She had little twins, you know; she wouldn’t have much time to read to me.  There was almost five years difference between us.  By which time I was at school and presumably reading for meself ‘cos I don’t ever remember not reading.  I must’ve not read, but … .

MG: So did you help with the twins?

DG:  Mm, I had a great aunt who lived at Darnall and she was very good.  She used to come and help with them and, we didn’t actually lose touch when me mum died, but she went to live with some relative of hers in Mansfield Woodhouse and I didn’t see her again till, well I didn’t see her again.  I just went to her funeral.  It’s difficult to remember all these things isn’t it?

MG:  Mm. So you didn’t really have books in the house?

DG: Oh we had books in the house.  Me dad was a great reader, yeah.

MG:  Was he?

DG:  Yeah. But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

MG:  Can you remember any of the things you picked up before you were nine?

DG:  No.  I used to go to the library at Attercliffe.  I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  [Laughs] I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

MG: So when you were in that library, did the librarian suggest anything to you?

DG: No they just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

MG: Did you go on your own?

DG: Yeah.  Well in those days there weren’t cars on the roads like there are now, you know.  You didn’t have to worry about children getting run over or abducted either.

MG:  I wonder what first got you into that library?

DG:  I don’t know.  I couldn’t really tell you.  We used to go past the library going to Grandad’s every time.  Whether it was that or whether it was teachers at school that said, you know, get a book from the library and read it, I don’t know.

MG: Can you remember any of those first books you took out?

DG:  Oh I used to read Milly, Molly Mandy and, I don’t think they have those now ‘cos I tried to get some for me granddaughter and I can’t find them. Anne of Green Gables and all that sort of thing.  Edgar Allen Poe, I used to read!  And, not at five, though.  [Laughs]

MG:  But not history.

DG: Not history if I could avoid it, no.

MG: So when you got to school, did your teachers influence your reading at all?

DG:  Mm, I can’t specifically remember anyone saying to me, you know, read a lot. It was just something we did.  I mean, there was no television, there was no games. You’d got to occupy yourself somehow.  And Sundays we weren’t allowed out to play any rate, so we used to read then.  But I don’t specifically remember anybody saying, “Go to the library”.  It was just something I did.

MG:  Did you do it with friends?

DG: No.

MG:  No?

DG:  No because me friend didn’t live near me, friend from school.  And I was friendly with another girl who lived near us and I don’t think she was very bothered.  They were one of the first to have a television so she didn’t go and read really.

MG: What was your parents’ attitude to your reading?

DG:  Well me dad was fine.  He used to say I liked to read, you know, as long as I was doing homework me mum was all right.  But if I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

MG:  So did you find any private places to read?

DG:  I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!  [Laughs].

MG: And then when you went to Ripon, did that affect how you read or what you read at all?

DG:  Well I think perhaps we had a bit more chance to read there.  But I don’t actually remember reading there either.  Mm, I must’ve done, but …  So I went to Ripon Grammar School there and they were very keen on your reading and doing things.  Education.

MG: Did you like school?

DG: I loved school yes.  I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to become a teacher but, you know, there were five of us in our family and just me dad working and they needed the money.  So that was it.

MG: So what secondary school did you go to when you came back to Sheffield?

DG:  I went to the City Grammar.

MG:  Yes. What age did you leave?

DG: Fifteen I think, yeah.

MG: Would you have liked to have stayed on?

DG:  I would’ve loved to have stayed on yeah.  I took me O levels there.  Yeah.

MG:  And that’s when you went to work at Firth Browns was it?

DG:  Yeah.

MG: So when you were in the City Grammar in Sheffield, can you remember what you read there in school?

DG: A lot of Shakespeare! [Laughs]  Yeah.  Poetry.  Which you don’t normally, well, I don’t normally pick up a poetry book unless it’s something I want to know for a crossword.  But, you know, I used to enjoy it, yes.

MG:  Did you learn poetry off by heart?

DG: Yes.

MG: Does anything still stick in your mind?

DG:  Upon Westminster Bridge. ‘When I consider …’.  That’s about as much as I can remember!

MG: So when you left school and went to work, did you continue reading then?

DG: Yes, yes. I used to read during me lunch hour.

MG: Did you?

DG: Very unsociable but I used to do it.

MG: Did you stay at your desk and read then for an hour?

DG:  Er, yes, yes.

MG: So what kind of books were you reading then, do you think?

DG:  Anything and everything.   I used to read a lot of Nevil Shute books and Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays I’ve read.  You name it I’ve read most of them.

MG:  Did you go to the theatre much?

DG:  Mm, The Palace on Attercliffe.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

The Palace Attercliffe, Sheffield (courtesy of Picture Sheffield).

DG: I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.  Me dad used to take us there sometimes.  Once or twice I’ve been to The Empire, which is now gone as well. And seen various shows there.  And I once won some tickets to go to The Empire.  And The Gloops Club  that was in The Telegraph, Star, one or the other. They used to do competitions, you know, and I used to do that.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

The Empire, Sheffield (courtesy of Picture Sheffield).

MG: The Gloops Club?

DG: Yes, it was like a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

MG: Right.  So when you went to the theatre, did you then pick up the books of the plays you’d seen?

DG: Er, not necessarily, no.  Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.  It was a matter of what they’d got in the library.  By which time I’d gone to the City Library.

MG:  Ah yes. So the City Library must’ve given you a fantastic amount of choice.

DG:  Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

MG: So this’ll be 1946?

DG: Yeah.

MG: And when you got up to that adult section, can you remember the first book you took out, that you thought, oh this is an adult book, not a children’s book?

DG: Yeah, I think that Terence Rattigan play opened my eyes a bit. Mm, and I can’t even remember what it was called now, it was a play, and, yeah.  It certainly opens your eyes from children’s books.

MG: So with Nevil Shute, Terence Rattigan, did you like books that were about sort of problems and real life particularly?

DG: Yeah, about real life, yeah.  I used to love Anne of Green Gables, reading about that.

MG:  Did you re-read Anne of Green Gables?

DG:  Yeah, yeah.

MG:  Do you think you had a copy of your own?

DG:  No I didn’t have a copy, no.

MG: So you kept taking it out of the library?

DG: Yeah, yes.

MG: Did the librarians in the City Library ever recommend anything to you?

DG: No, no.

MG:  So you just worked your way along the shelves.

DG:  Yeah, more or less.  I had me favourite authors and I went to those and checked, you know, that there weren’t any new ones out.

MG: Can you remember which those favourite authors were?

DG: Well as I said, Nevil Shute, mm, what do they call that man’s mystery things?

MG: Dennis Wheatley?

DG: That’s it yes.  I used to love his books.

MG: Did you?

DG: Yes.  I wouldn’t bother picking them up now but I used to love them, yeah.

MG:  Cos he wrote two sorts, didn’t he, somebody told me?

DG:  I don’t know.  The ones I read were all [pause] not exactly black magic but that sort of thing.  Yeah, yeah.

MG:  Well in a way, that goes with Edgar Allen Poe, doesn’t it?

DG: Yeah.

MG: So did you read Edgar Allen Poe again and again?

DG:  No, I just read the ones I hadn’t read.

MG: So the Dennis Wheatley, you read them once and then put them aside?

DG:  Yes.

MG: Were there any books like Anne of Green Gables that you went back to, that you wanted to read and re-read?

DG: There always seem to be so many books that I need to read that I don’t tend to read books again.  At the moment, there’s a group of us that pass books around and they’re usually books that we’ve bought at St Luke’s or somewhere like that.  And I tend to work me way down the pile.  There’s two or three history ones in this one!  [Laughs[.  We just read anything and everything really.  Whatever we like, we buy, and then swap around them so you get various, there’s four of us do it, you get various books and things.

MG: Has anything struck you from those books?

DG: Oh, you’d like these. Rebecca Tope – Death in the Cotswolds.  They’re all about the Cotswolds and this is the third one I’ve read and there’s been a death in each one and she’s been involved in it. So, yeah, all sorts.  I couldn’t really say that I’ve got a favourite author.  I like Danielle Steel.  I know they’re trashy books but I like reading them.  They’re easy to pick up and easy to put down.  And, what’s that other one, Josephine Cox.  I like her books as well.  Maureen Lee.  They’re all books that are easy to read and easy to pick up and put down.

MG: Do you find that fits in with your life better if you have one that you can just pick up?

DG: Yes, yeah.   I tend to do most of my reading at night, or Sunday afternoons, but I do, if I sit down for a coffee, I pick me book up and read it.

MG: Do you tend to avoid books where you think you might get too gripped by it and it might distract you from your jobs?

DG: Oh no, no!  I just let me job wait! [Laughs].

MG: Has there ever been a book where you’ve started reading and haven’t really wanted to put the light out?

DG:  Oh, lots of times when that happens and I think yeah, I’ve GOT to put the light out.  Cos Frank just goes to sleep, you know, and then he’ll wake up an hour later and say, “Have you still got that light on?”  [Laughs]

MG: Going back to those years, 1940, when you were really galloping through these library books,  can you remember any one that really opened your eyes to something new, a new world, or a new way of looking at things?  A bit like the Terence Rattigan play.

DG:  I can’t even remember what that was about!   Mm, well, Anne of Green Gables is a, in one way, I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

MG:  Did you read Anne of Green Gables before your mother died or after?

DG: After, yeah.

MG: What about Jane Eyre, did you ever read that?

DG:  I don’t think I did.  Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, I used to read hers.  I probably thought they were too highbrow for me. [Chuckles].

MG: Did you get a sense that some books were highbrow?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Did you?

DG: Yes.

MG:  And that would put you off, would it?

DG:  Mm, it wouldn’t put me off now, but yes it did then, yes.

MG:  Why do you think it would’ve put you off if you thought it was highbrow?

DG: I should think it was probably too difficult to understand.  It’s like Shakespeare, you’ve got to have somebody telling you what it means really, isn’t it?

MG: Yeah.  Would you ever have been embarrassed to read a book because it was too lowbrow?

DG: No, I sometimes start reading it then think, “Why am I reading this rubbish”?  But once I’ve started a book, I finish it and that’s it.

MG:  So it’s about your own feelings about the book.  Not because you’ve ever been embarrassed?

DG: No.

MG:  No.

DG: I’m sometimes embarrassed to pass some of them on that I’ve had passed on to me, but,  I just put them in the bin then!

MG: So when you were at Firth Browns, was that where you worked when you first left school?

DG: Yes.

MG: Was there anybody that you talked to – yes?

DG:  Sorry, I worked in a shop first, ‘cos when, when I left school, me mum took me to Belgium for six weeks.  And when I came back, all the jobs that I thought I wanted were gone.  So I worked at Banners at Fir Vale for, it must’ve been about six months …  And then I got this job at Firth Brown Tools.

MG: Did you like working in the shop?

DG:  [Pause] I was Cashier, so I didn’t see much of the customers. They used to have these things that they pulled along, you know, put the change in.  But I worked in a shop afterwards and I loved working in a shop, yeah.

MG:  But in Firth Brown’s you were in the Wages,

DG: Yes,

MG: And what about your other office staff who worked with you?  Did you talk about books to them at all?

DG:  Not really, but, mm, there was only another lady in the office with me and there was about four or five men, and a couple of ladies in the next office. ‘Cos I was working on a Borough Sensormatic Machine.  I don’t know whether you’ve heard of one of those?   Well I suppose it must’ve been like an early computer.  You just used to put the hours in and the wages in and it used to come out printed on this wages sheet.

MG:  So it was demanding work?

DG:   Mm, I suppose so, yes.

MG:  And how long were you there?

DG:  I was there ‘til just before I had my eldest, ‘til I was 22.  So I must’ve been there about six years, six and a half years, yeah.

MG: And when you had your children, did you keep reading?

DG: Yes, Yes, I used to read to them.  I used to read all sorts. [Laughs]

MG:  And did you have books in the house or did you use the library mostly?

DG:  Oh we’ve always had books in the house but I’ve always gone to the library.  This is the first time I haven’t got to the library and it’s only because we pass these books round between us, you know.  I never have time to go to the library now.  And it’s, you know, a case of going up town really.

MG:  Yes. There’s not one that near, is there?

DG: There’s the one at Ecclesall but it’s not easy to get to from here. It means I have to get a bus down to Hunters Bar and then get another bus up there.  I may as well get on a bus to town and go there.

MG: Yes.  So this book, this group you’re in, has it been really helpful in getting you …

DG: Yes, yes.

MG: With your children, have they become readers?

DG:  Me daughter’s a reader.  Me oldest reads railway books and our Chris, I don’t know that he’s time to read at all.  He’s up to his eyes in church work and goodness knows what.  He’s, he’s an accountant.

MG: Well, what sort of accountant is he?

DG:  It’s not proper accountant, it’s some other accountant.  He does books for church, you know, their accountancy books and everything.

MG: We recruited you Doreen, through your church, you saw the leaflet there.

DG: Yes.

MG:  And was your father a church goer?

DG: Yes.

MG: Right.  Which church did he go to?

DG: He used to go to, latterly any rate, to the one at Shortbrook.  It’s an Ecumenical one.

MG: So you went to church from your very earliest days?

DG: Yes I did, yes.  We weren’t taken to church, we were sent to church.

MG: Oh were you?

DG:  My father was a Unitarian originally and me mother from Belgium was Catholic.  She never forced us to go with her, you know, so we used to go to Attercliffe Methodist Church.  We used to go twice, sometimes three times on a Sunday, depending what was going on. Yeah, so.

MG: So you must’ve read a lot of the Bible?

DG: Well yeah, I suppose in between, yeah.

MG:  And which book of the Bible do you think you loved the best?

DG: Ruth.

MG: Ruth?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Yes.  Why?

DG:  It’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

MG: Yes, yes.  And when you were sent to church, were you sent to Sunday School?

DG:  Yes, yes. And Girls Brigade.

MG:  Did you win any prizes?

DG:  I did win a book once at Sunday School but I don’t know, don’t think I’ve still got it actually.  Probably fallen to pieces.

MG:  Can you remember what it was?

DG: No.

MG:  So you must’ve heard so much poetry and so many stories just through going to church?

DG:  Yeah.

MG: So your step mother from Belgium, did she speak French?

DG: No Flemish.

MG: Flemish?  Right.  Did you learn any Flemish?

DG: Yeah.

MG: You did?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Can you still speak it?

DG:  I’ve a step brother in Belgium and we speak to each other most weeks on the phone and so it keeps it going, you know.

MG:  Did you read anything in Flemish?  Newspapers or books?

DG:  Only magazine stuff, you know.  I never read a Flemish book, no.

MG: And was your step mother a reader?

DG:  No she wasn’t, no.  A prayer book, that was about her limit, you know.

MG:  What was her attitude to your love of reading?

DG:  She didn’t like it.  She didn’t like me reading.  It was a waste of time.

MG:  So you went upstairs and read upstairs, yes?

DG:  I went to bed and that was it!

MG: Yes. Is there anything else you want to tell me about?  What you like reading and why?

DG:  There’s not much I don’t like reading apart from History, which I will read if it’s desperate.  And there’s a book on there that’s Frank’s, er Bill Bryson is it?  And I’ve been going to read that for the last year and I keep finding something else that I like better.  But I will read it.  I’ve made me mind up I will read it.

MG: But it’s fiction that you really love.

DG: Oh yes.

MG: Why do you think it matters to you?

DG:  Well to be honest, I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see to read.  That would just about finish me off altogether I think.  Erm, I don’t know.  I like reading about other people’s lives and what’s happened and things like that, you know.

MG:  Do you think it’s helped you to understand people?  Real people?

DG:  Well, yeah, some of it, yes.  Some of it if I read it for evermore, I’ll still not understand.

MG: Well thank you very much, Doreen.

doreen-gill-and-husband-

DG:  You’re very welcome.

MG:  Very interesting.  Is there, before I end, is there one book on your shelves there that you would pull out and say oh that’s my treasured book?  I wouldn’t ever want to part with that.

DG:  I’ve got, er, several books up there that I won’t part with.  Gervase Phinn, I’ve got four of his and I can pick those up and read them when I’ve nothing else to read and read them again.  I love his books, they’re so funny.  Have you read any?

MG:  Yes.

DG: Thank you very much.

MG:   You’re welcome.

Access Doreen’s reading journey here.

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Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

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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