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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A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

On Monday 20 September 1909, Sheffield Council hosted a reception in the Town Hall to mark the annual conference of the Library Association, which was being held in the city for the first time.[i] For once my interest in library history coincides with my interest in clothes…

Both the Sheffield Independent and the Sheffield Telegraph covered the discussions at the conference in detail. They also found space for some gentle fun at the librarians’ expense, less gentle criticism of Sheffield’s own library service and, in the case of the Town Hall reception, extensive fashion notes.[ii]

The Independent’s feature on the reception is signed ‘By Our Lady Representative’. This was an anonymous byline frequently used in the newspaper between about 1895 and 1915, for reports of splendid balls, garden parties and other society events, meticulously recording the guests, gowns and jewels on display.

On this occasion Our Lady Representative set the scene, describing the Town Hall’s reception rooms:

Quite in keeping with their reputation for lavish hospitality was the reception given last night by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Ald and Mrs H K Stephenson) in honour of the visit to Sheffield of the Libraries’ Association [sic]. Our spacious civic reception rooms, garlanded with foliage and flowers, evoked much admiration from the visitors, who found much enjoyment in the admirable supper served in the Council Chamber and ante room…

Sheffield Town Hall - the main entrance today. Guests would have used it in 1909ld have
The main entrance to the Town Hall today. Guests would have come in this way in 1909

The Telegraph agreed. The ‘stately entertaining rooms at the Town Hall [had] never been more beautifully decorated’. It went on:

supper was served in the Council Chamber and ante-room from nine o’clock onwards, and there was also a buffet supper in the drawing-room on the grand corridor.

The grand staircase up to the reception rooms (By Michael Beckwith. Public domain)

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

… the entertaining programme of songs by Miss Nina Gordon and the sleight of hand exhibitions by Dr Byrd-Page … Miss Nina Gordon is an artiste very much after the style of the famous Margaret Cooper, and the selections from her varied repertoire were keenly appreciated. So too, were the clever tricks of Dr Byrd-Page … The band of the 3rd West Riding Brigade Royal Field Artillery played during the reception. (Independent)

Miss Gordon specialised in humorous songs and sketches and Dr Byrd-Page was a ‘prestidigitateur’ or Illusionist. They both feature often on theatre bills of the period, and claimed royal patronage. By 1912 Dr Byrd-Page declared ‘the honour of appearing before His late Majesty King Edward VII on no less than seventeen occasions; and frequently before His Most Gracious Majesty King George V’.[iii] The Sheffield Telegraph described Miss Gordon as ‘Queen Mary’s Favourite Entertainer’ and an ‘exceedingly versatile artiste’.[iv]

In Sheffield Town Hall, their audience included industrialists, civic dignitaries and academics from the University of Sheffield. The Lord Mayor, the Town Clerk, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Master Cutler and the Mayor and Town Clerk of Rotherham led the way, and notable Sheffield names, such as Mappin, Vickers, Bingham, Hadfield and Harrison, were all represented. The Library Association was led by its President for 1909, Sheffield’s own Alderman William Brittain, who, according to the Telegraph of 21 September, was ‘identified more than any other gentleman in Sheffield with the development of museums and libraries’; and by prominent librarians like Stanley Jast, later chief librarian in Manchester and Croydon, and Sheffield’s own chief librarian, Samuel Smith.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

As might be expected in 1909, all the illustrious guests, including the librarians, were men, but their wives, daughters and sisters were present too. It is here that Our Lady Representative comes into her own. Consider the Lord Mayor’s family:

… the Lady Mayoress wearing her chain of office disposed about the corsage of an artistic evening gown of chartreuse green satin, her jewels including a diamond tiara and a diamond pendant of great beauty. Mrs Blake (mother of the Lady Mayoress), in a handsome black toilette sparkling with jet, brought Miss Blake and Miss Esther Blake, both wearing beautiful frocks of rainbow effect, the former expressed in pale blue chiffon over white satin with broad opalescent embroideries, and the other in mauve tinted chiffon en tunique and weighted down the left side with a band of nacre sequins. Mrs R G Blake’s black satin toilette looked well with a corsage bouquet of La France roses; and Mrs Philip Blake was a pretty young matron in a tunic dress of palest mauve ninon done with a broad Greek key embroidery. (Independent)

The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that the Mayoress of Rotherham, Mrs Dan Mullins, wore a ‘heliotrope satin gown, enriched with embroideries’. (Judging by the number of times heliotrope and its near relation, mauve, are mentioned in the coverage, they must have been among that season’s colours.)

And there was:  

Mrs Brittain, whose gown of pewter grey satin was wrought with embroideries of blister pearls, her jewels being diamonds [and her daughters] Miss Winifred Brittain wearing emerald green chiffon and gold embroideries, and Mrs Hubert Rowlands attired in white satin with pendant earrings of amethysts. (Independent)

… Mrs George Franklin, wearing superb diamonds with a Parma violet toilette … Mrs Wilson Mappin, in grey brocade and diamonds … Mr and Mrs Tom Mappin, the lady in black satin with sleeves of thick black silk embroidery sewn with jet and slit up the outer side of the arms. Only two ladies had adopted the new turban coiffure. Mrs A J Gainsford, who had hers finished with a twist of white tulle, and wore a salmon pink bengaline gown, and Mrs Cyril Lockwood, whose hair was dressed with a plait, her black satin frock being enriched about the corsage with gold embroideries. (Independent)

Mrs H H Bedford chose lemon yellow satin … Miss Frost was in pale blue spotted silk; Miss Armine Sandford had a white satin gown; Mrs J R Wheatley in petunia silk applique, with cream lace motifs, had some lovely diamond ornaments … (Telegraph)

The Library Association was not to be outdone. Women librarians and the wives of the male librarians, said Our Lady Representative, ‘dispelled the illusion that a close association with books is incompatible with smart dressing’. (Just how old is the idea that librarians are uninterested in clothes?)

Miss Frost, of Worthing, who had a princess gown of pale blue satin veiled in a tunic overdress of dewdrop white chiffon fringed with silver. Mrs Wright (Plymouth) was much admired in a yellow evening frock; Mrs Kirkby (Leicester) wore white lace; and Mrs Ashton came in crocus mauve ninon de soie. Mrs Jast (Croydon) in a black toilette sparkling with jet … Mrs Chennell was wearing black chiffon; and Mrs Tickhill’s black lace gown veiled a white taffetas underslip. Mrs Samuel Smith (wife of the Chief Librarian of Sheffield) had a gown of palest pink silk, and her sister, Miss Flint, was in black, the jet bretelles being super-imposed on a fold of palest yellow velvet. Mrs Jones (Runcorn) and Mrs Singleton (Accrington) both appeared in black evening toilettes; Mrs Wilkinson (Rawtenstall) wore white silk; Mrs Bagguley (Swindon) was in sapphire blue poplin; and Mrs Pomfret (Darwen) came in old rose crepe de chine, Mrs Dowbiggin (Lancaster) wearing bright pink silk striped with white dots. (Independent)

Unfortunately, there are very few images of all this splendour. The Telegraph published the photograph shown above of Alderman Brittain with Library Association colleagues, taken during the conference, and we have the line drawings below, all of the men in their white tie and tails, and with their fine Edwardian moustaches and beards. For the women’s colourful toilettes, we have only word pictures. We have to use our imaginations to see the Lady Mayoress:

very dainty in reseda green satin, with loose hanging sleeves of cream Limerick lace, caught with cords of gold’ and wearing a diamond tiara and pendant and her chain of office. (Telegraph).

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

Perhaps words are enough to convey the fashionable, affluent and confident elite of Sheffield that September evening in 1909. There were certainly problems locally, including poverty, slum accommodation and an over-dependence on a few, linked industries, but there was progress of which to be proud. To the world Sheffield was synonymous with steel, a place of industrial innovation and invention. Its population was growing and its suburbs spreading. It had been granted city status as recently as 1893 and within a few years it would be the fifth city in Great Britain, outstripping its great rival, Leeds. The grand Town Hall of the evening’s festivities had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1897 and in 1905 her son Edward VII had granted the University of Sheffield charter.

We know that within five years war would bring considerable change to Sheffield, with lasting consequences, but in 1909 the city could enjoy the opportunity afforded by events like the Library Association conference to show itself off and to earn the admiration of others.   

PS. Although there are no images of the women at the reception, here are a few fashion plates from the newspapers of the period, to help conjure the event.

This is the first of several pieces we plan to publish about the 1909 Library Association conference in Sheffield.


[i] The Library Association was founded in 1877 as the professional body for librarians in the UK. It was awarded a Royal Charter in 1898. It exists today as CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, having merged in 2002 with the Institute of Information Scientists.

[ii] Both the Telegraph and the Independent covered the reception on Tuesday 21 September 1909.

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

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