Florence Cowood

Florence Cowood

Florence was born on the 22nd March 1923 as Florence Borwell, and died in 2013.

She is being interviewed by Susan Roe on the 24th November 2011.

Florence was born in Huddersfield and later lived in Sheffield on Folds Crescent off Abbey Lane. Florence was an accomplished artist.


Susan Roe:  OK, I’m just going to ask a few questions about your reading history, if you know what I mean.  Did anyone read to you when you were young, when you were a child?

Florence Cowood:  I honestly can’t remember.

Susan Roe:  No?  What books did you read as a child?  Did you read books as a child?  Do you remember books?

[Noise in background]

SR:  It’s called Little Folks.

FC:  That belonged to my grandmother, I think.

SR:  And …

FC:  And I found it very … I read all sorts of bits out of it.

SR:  Well, what sort of thing is it – does it contain?

FC:  Well, school stories, adventure stories, little poems, letters from children who were stationed in India, letters to the editor, you know.  It was quite interesting.  [Pause]  I’m trying to think, really, what I did read as a child.  I was always passionate about reading.  In fact, if I was ever naughty and I was sent to my room, my mother always made sure I hadn’t got a book because she knew it was no punishment if I had a book.

SR:  Yeah.  [Both laugh]  Did you read the books on the list here:  Little Women?

FC:  Little Women and Good Wives, yes.  That was my mother’s book.  I haven’t got it now because I lent it to someone and they never gave it back.

SR:  Oh dear.

FC:  And she gave me that, the Little Folks Album.  Those were the only ones I remember.

SR:  Yeah.  What sort of books did you read when you were at school?  Did you read books when you were at school?

FC:  We … Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, What Katy Did.  They were school stories, Black Beauty, all those sorts of books.  And I’m not sure where I’ve got those from.  I think I must have gone to the local library for those.

SR:  What were the sort … the first sort of books that made you feel you were grown up, that you were reading adult books?

FC:  Oh, I used to go to the Central library on a Saturday morning, always went to the library.  I went to the magazine reading room as well.  I used to really enjoy going, oh, and to the art gallery at the Central library.  And the books … Gone with the Wind …Do you want me to just read them out?

SR:  Yeah.

FC:  Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge.  I’ve still got that one.  I’ve still got Gone with the Wind.  Jane Eyre, I enjoyed that.  The King’s General, du Maurier, I’ve still got that.  A Tree Grew in Brooklyn.  All Nevil Shute’s books.  Hammond Innes, all his books.  Crowthers of Bankdam, I remember that one.  Valley of the Vines.  I think they were a series of books in … About Cape Town in South Africa.

SR:  OK.

FC:  Mary Webb, she was quite a … I can’t remember the name of the books, but I liked her books.  Howard Spring.

SR:  Oh, yeah.

FC:  Mostly that sort of thing.

SR:  Where did you get your first books from?

FC:  Well I used to go, as I say, I used to go to the Central library, when I was a young, you know, from when I was a sort of grown up teenager to when I was work … Actually working before I got my …

SR:  Did you get books from your family or any friends, or school?

FC:  My mother bought me Gone with the Wind for my nineteenth birthday.  And Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Country, was a present, Christmas 1944.  I think I bought The King’s General and Jane Eyre.  But the others I would get at the library.  There’s lots of others, but I can’t remember.

SR:  No, no.  Can you talk about any of these books you read as a young adult that made an impression on you?  Can you think of them, any that particularly …

FC:  Yes, definitely.

SR:  Any particular ones?

FC:  Well, the … Elizabeth Goudge’s one, Green Dolphin Country, gave me a yen for Austra -…You know, the other side of the world.  The Valley of the Vines one gave me a yen for South Africa.  I eventually went to South Africa and saw the Valley of the Vines.  I didn’t go to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia.  I used to like the Sundowners and all stories.  In fact, I’ve got loads of them here.  This is something  … [inaudible]


FC:  Sorry, I’m not very good on my feet.  Can’t find it now.  Where is it?  There’s a little verse or some … Oh, it’s here.  This is my own bit of things, and I found it, I saw it in the library van once.

I’ve traveled the world twice over,
Met the famous; saints and sinners,
Poets and artists, kings and queens,
Old stars and hopeful beginners,
I’ve been where no-one’s been before,
Learned secrets from writers and cooks
All with one library ticket
To the wonderful world of books.


SR:  Oh, that’s lovely.

FC:  Yes, there’s, you know, so much that you can find out, you know.  These are all some poems I’ve written, some are…

SR:  Oh, goodness.

FC:  Yeah.

SR:  Why did those particular books make an impression on you, do you think?

FC:  I don’t know.  I think it just opened up a world.  I always had a theory that, oh, how can I put it?  Knowledge and education isn’t knowing a whole load of facts.  It’s knowing where to find the information you want.  And I think a book is – to open a book and you find things out that you never knew before.  Okay, it may be the person who wrote it is writing it from their point of view and someone else will have a different point of view.  But I’ve always said, enjoyed books.  My idea of heaven, if I had to be shut anywhere, would be in a library full of books.

[Both laugh]

SR:  I can see that, yeah.

FC:  Does that answer your question?

SR:  Yes, it does.  What kinds of books do you really like, like best?

FC:  Well, now I’m older, I’m not into quite … I like a good story and I like it with a mystery.  And sometimes with a twist to it.  Like Barbara Erskine writes often about historical books.  I don’t like straight historical books, but I like them with a bit of a twist.  I like John Grisham, but not all of them.  P D James and Elizabeth George speak for themselves.  Diane Pearson sometimes writes quite good books.  Reginald Hill does as well.

SR:  Why have you picked those particular ones?

FC:  Well, those are the ones I’ve read, not Minette Walters, those are the type I like.

SR:  Are they mysteries or something?

FC:  Well, they’re mysteries and they’re all, they all seem to have a twist to them.  I don’t like Agatha Christie.

SR:  Why is that?

FC:  I don’t know [SR:  Yeah].  I just don’t like her.  I can watch her on television, but I don’t like to read her [SR:  No, no].  I don’t like American crime novels, particularly…

SR:  The gory ones?

FC:  Yes.  If I open it and it’s full of bad language, that’s it.  I don’t want to know.  I’ve got a full set of Dickens, but I haven’t read much of him.  My godmothers used to send me two or three every birthday, so I’ve got the full set.  [Both laugh] I didn’t really appreciate it.

SR:  [Laughing] At the time?

FC:  At the time, yeah.

SR:  When did you finish school?  Which school did you go to in Sheffield?

FC:  I went to Abbeydale Grammar School.

SR:  Oh, yeah, yeah.

FC:  I went to Abbey Lane when it first opened.  I went to a private school first because the nearest one was Woodseats and it was too far, so I went to a little private school on Hutcliffe Wood Road.  Then, when Abbey Lane School opened, I went there.  Then I passed the 11 plus and went Abbeydale Grammar School, and from there I got my school certificate or whatever they call it now.  I don’t know what they call it now.

SR:  O levels and GCSEs.

FC:  Yeah, and I think, I’m not sure if it was English Literature or something else –   Botany.  I’ve always been keen on gardening.  And then I went to Central Day Commercial College.  And I left there in 1938 … No, we were there when … Oh, tell me his name.  When he went to Munich and came back and was in the paper.

SR:  Oh, Neville Chamberlain.

FC:  Neville Chamberlain.  We … so we … And then the war broke out and I went to work for the Sheffield Telegraph and Star.  And then the war broke out.

SR:  What did you do there, at the Telegraph and Star?

FC:  Well, I was in the public … I wanted to be a reporter.  I wouldn’t be one now if they paid me [Both laugh].  But in those days, you know, young and silly.  I worked in the publicity department with Gloops and all that sort, you know.  And then the war broke and we had to … They closed the paper down, and, you know, we didn’t go into work on half-salary.  And my father said, “You have to get a job” and I went to work for the North Eastern Railway.

SR:  Oh right.

FC:  Well, I was there all during the war and it was a reserved occupation.  So I tried to join the WAAF, but I couldn’t because I was in a reserved occupation.  I did apply for a job at the library once, but I didn’t get it [Laughs].

SR:  No? Did you…

FC:  At the Central Library during the war, yes.

SR:  What sort of reading did you do when you started work?  Did you read much?

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [SR:  Yes].  Mostly the books I’ve mentioned here, you know.  As I say, but I got married in 1946, of course, at the end of the war.  And I don’t really remember.  I did go on reading, but it doesn’t…I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah, yeah.


SR:  Did you think of, or did your father think of staying on after school, after the school certificate?

FC:  No, not really.  It wasn’t an option in those days.

SR:  No, no.

FC:  You didn’t have that option.  I wasn’t … No mention of university.  You must remember, in those days, a lot of jobs were closed to women.  Banks.  Where I worked, on the railway, they’d never employed women until the war.  And we were the first women to be employed for the railway.

SR:  What sort of things did you do for the railway?

FC:  Well, I was in the cartage department at first, doing what they call outbound cartage, which is when they deliver the goods outside a certain boundary.  They charged for it and I used to have to get the money off the drivers and sort that out.  Then I went to the staff department.  And we used to do the wages and everything for the loco men,  Darnall loco.  And we used to go … We used to sit at long desks with all this money and all the pay packets, and put all the money in the pay packets.  And heaven help me if there was six pence left over when you’re done.

[Both laugh]

SR:  Right.

FC:  And we occasionally – we used to go down to the loco sheds to pay the firemen and that.  And then after that I went up to the district manager’s office in Aston Hall and I worked there until I got married.  And then I left, of course, when I got married.

SR:  Did you have to leave?

FC:  No, no.  They wanted me to stay on, but my husband was an old-fashioned type.  He believed in his wife not working.

SR:  ‘Cause some professions, you couldn’t work …

FC:  No, I could’ve gone on working.  They were a bit disappointed I didn’t.  But my husband considered it and that was that.

SR:  Yeah.  What did he do?

FC:  He …well, he was a ‘prentice before he went into the army.  He went the day war broke out because he was in the territorial army and he fought through North Africa.  Portsmouth Blitz and the Humber Estuary.  Then, when he was old enough to go abroad, he went to the North Africa campaign.  And then he went to Sicily, Italy right through to Austria eventually.


SR:  My goodness.

FC:  And that … and… as I say…I’ve forgotten what I was saying now.  And …

SR:  What did you …

FC:  When he came out, he finished his apprenticeship, which he wanted.  He wanted to join the police force, and he did when he finished his apprenticeship.  Being a policeman, that was his job.

SR:  Yeah, OK.  Did you ever get any books from … ? Did you buy books new or second hand?

FC:  Well, I bought The King’s General and I bought Jane Eyre.  I bought … There’s quite a lot of books here that I bought over the years.

SR:  In this period, when …

FC:  I’m just looking to see if there is anything, really.  I don’t think there is, really.  [Pause]  These are some I bought over the years.  I bought this … Well, I was married when I bought that one.  I never finished reading, but that’s the sort of book I used to like.

SR:  Ah, right. [Paper rustling]  Where did you buy books?

FC:  I bought that when I worked.  I worked part-time at the post office when we came to live up here and I bought it there, at the post office.  I bought that one at Bletchley Park, when we went to Bletchley Park.  I don’t know when I bought that one.  John Le Carré, I used to like his books.  Yeah these are all since later.

SR:  Later books.  So when you were first married, did you buy any books or?

FC:  No, no, I don’t think so.  No.

SR:  Where you … Did you do much reading when you were first married, or were you, like you say, a bit busy with chores?

FC:  I don’t think I did as much reading, but I’ve always read.  I’ve always … At night, when I go to bed, I always read a book for a while.  I like to do crosswords and I usually do that and read a book before I go to sleep.

SR:  Obviously it was the same when you were younger, yeah?

[FC agrees]

SR:  Did anybody encourage you to read?  From being young, did anyone encourage you?

FC:  Well, my grandfather was very keen.  He was a school headmaster, my grandfather, in Huddersfield, and he always encouraged me to read.  He bought all … In the day, when I first started at the grammar school, the books weren’t provided.  You had to buy them.  And he provided the money for all the books.

SR:  Excellent.

FC:  And what we used to do, as well, we went from year to year … I don’t know whether you remember, there were bookshops on West Street.

SR:  On West Street, yes.

FC:  It was school books [SR:  Yes], and you always … You went and took your books that you were finished with and you bought [SR:  Yes] second hand books [SR:  Yeah] for the next [SR:  For the next year] round of studying that you had to do because you had to buy your books.  They weren’t provided for you.

SR:  Do you remember the name of that shop?

FC:  No, no, no.  No, I don’t.

SR:  I just wonder if it was…

FC:  I have a vague picture of it, but I don’t … I remember it was on West Street, but I don’t remember the name of it.

SR:  Right.  There’s Hartley Seeds – I’m trying to see …

FC:  It was a different world [SR:  Yeah] actually, in those days.  But it … He was very keen [SR:  On your reading?], my grandfather.  And my godmother was a teacher as well, and she once gave me a whole lot of Enid Blyton [SR:  Right] books.  I haven’t got them now, but I had those as a child.

SR:  And did you read those?

FC:  Oh yes, yes.

SR:  Which sorts were they?

FC:  Oh, Peter Rabbit and all the rest of them [SR:  Yes].  They’ve long gone.  I once gave them to [inaudible].  That was a rather silly thing to do at that time.

SR:  So, people did encourage you to read didn’t they?

FC:  Oh, definitely, definitely.

SR:  What about your parents, did they?

FC:  Oh yes, yeah.  Yeah.  I’ve got some of my mother’s books that she had as a young woman.  Mary Anerley, which is by Blackmore, the same man who wrote…What’s that one?


SR:  Lorna Doone, was it?

FC:  Yeah, Lorna Doone.  But Mary Anerley is about Hull, in Flamborough.

SR:  Yes.

FC:  I’ve still got that upstairs, and I have two copies of…Two volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo that were my mother’s.  And another one called A Mountain Daisy, but that was [Both laugh] … And in there, at the back of there is the Vicar of Wakefield, and it says it was a school prize.  I don’t know who to, but it’s 1875 [Laughs].


SR:  So your mother was a reader as well?

FC:  Oh definitely, definitely.

SR:  Yeah.  What about your dad?

FC:  Oh yeah, yeah.  But, you know, I don’t remember him particularly reading.  But mother was like me, she liked reading.

SR:  Did anybody make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

FC:  No.  Not in my family, no.

SR:  No.  Or anybody you knew, at work or friends?  Did they make you feel …

FC:  We didn’t discuss it, really.

SR:  It was a private thing.

FC:  No, no.

SR:  Where and when … ? Where did you read and where did you find time to read?  When you were a kid or when you were my age?

FC:  I don’t know, I just did.  In my room, really.

SF:  And you say …

FC:  I could always … I always enjoyed reading, and, you know, I enjoyed other things, but I always … Reading’s always been the backbone to my life.  If I want to find anything out, I’d sooner look in a book than look on me laptop [SR:  Yeah].  You know, to me, that’s useful and I can find things out from it.  But I don’t get the same satisfaction that I do leafing through a book.

SR:  So, you managed to fit it in even when you were married and working, yeah?

FC:  It’s just always … always been there, books, for me.

SR:  Were you never made to feel embarrassed about what you were reading?  [FC:  No.]  You know, that it was a guilty pleasure?  [FC:  No.]  You should be doing something more useful?

FC:  Oh no, no, not really.  It never dominated me life so that I didn’t do other things as well.

SR:  Yeah.  Did you ever read anything because it would …- you thought it might improve you, you know, that you ought to read it?

FC:  No, no.

SR:  You know, there were some books that you should’ve read?

FC:  I read for pleasure, for enjoyment.  Not because … not because, I mean … . Like I say, I’ve got the full set of Charles Dickens, but, quite frankly, a lot of them bore me to death.


SR:  So you wouldn’t just because you’re supposed to?

FC:  And some of the older books, you know, like Jane Eyre, they can be a bit fulsome, if you know what I mean.

SR:  Yes, yes I do.  They are long, aren’t they?  [FC:  Yes.]  They can be a bit longwinded, is that what you mean? [FC:  Yes, yes, yes.]  Are there any books that you read as a young person that you wouldn’t read now?  Do you know what I mean?  You know, look at your list:  like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty.

FC:  No, I don’t think so.  I could read them again, if I wanted to.

SR:  Yeah.  So those things you read when you were young, you’d still be happy reading them as an …

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.  I never read what you might call … Well, when my kids were young, we used to teach them to read with Janet and John and things like that [SR:  Yeah], but I never had those when I was a kid.  I don’t remember them.

SR:  You had real books.

FC: I had proper books, I didn’t have these ones that are just a picture.  I don’t remember any of those at all.

SR:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Can I show you some books and see if you want to recognize any of these? I’ve got a copy for myself.

[Paper rustling]

FC:  [Laughs] Oh yes.

[More paper rustling]

SR:  Let me find my …[ More paper rustling]

FC:  H E Bates, didn’t he write in Kent?

SR:  Yeah, Darling Buds of May, that one?

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  I remember him.

SR:  Did you read him?

FC:  I don’t think so, but I remember him being around.  A J Cronin, I definitely remember that one.

SR:  The Stars Look Down?

FC:  Yeah.  And I seem to remem … John Braine.  Now Arnold Bennett, he wrote about Staffordshire [SR:  Yes.] and the five towns, didn’t he?

SR:  Yes, yes he did.  Did you read any of his?

FC:  I probably did, but I don’t [Together:  remember any] particularly, no.

SR:  What about The Stars Look Down, did you enjoy that?

FC:  Yes, yes.

SR:  Do you remember that one?

FC:  Yes, I can remember that one.

SR:  Was it good, did you enjoy it?

FC:  Yes, I think so.  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  Have you …

FC:  Winifred Holtby!  Now, then, that’s one [SR:  Yes].  I really enjoyed that  [SR:  South…] and, isn’t … Wait a minute.  Isn’t her daughter or … Wasn’t she the daughter of … Oh, I can’t remember.

SR:  She wrote South Riding.

FC:  That’s right.  I loved that when I read it.  Norma [sic. Presumably Naomi] Jacobs, now that rings a bell.  [Pauses]  Nevil Shute, definitely, and Howard Spring.

SR:  Did you read all of Nevil Shute’s books, you said?

FC:  Oh, I read most of them, yes.

SR:  Why did you like him?

FC:  I just liked him.  I think there’s only one I haven’t read:  Requiem for a Wren.  I tried to get a hold of that, but I haven’t managed it so far.  H G Wells, I’ve got his War … But I think me son’s got that one.  That’s hanging around the house somewhere.

SR:  Did you like H.G. Wells?

FC:  Oh, look, yeah, you’ve got Mary Webb here:  Precious Bane.  That’s what I was trying to think of.

SR:  Yeah.  What was that like? Did you read that?

FC:  Yes.  Different.  I liked it.

SR:  Was it someone with a harelip, isn’t it?

FC:  Yes, something like that, yeah.  But it’s sort of gentle, yeah.

SR:  Just a bit different from the other sorts of books that you read.

FC:  Now, I don’t like Georgette Heyer.  She was just too … And I don’t like Jean Plaidy.  I didn’t like either; they were too Peg’s Paper for me, those.

SR:  What’s that, Peg’s Paper?

[Both laugh]

FC:  Barbara Cartland novels and Catherine Cookson, you know [Both laugh].  What they all, I went to the …  Oh, I forgot now we’re recording, so I won’t say it.

SR:  No, that’s OK, it doesn’t matter.

FC:  Well, I went to the outpatient department in Northern General, the other day. I had to go, and they had a load of books, you know, for sale.  And I looked through and a lady came up, “Have you any Catherine Cookson?”  [Laughs]  I bought two, actually …

SR:  But you’re not a fan, particularly?

FC:  Hmm?

SR:  You’re not a fan of …

FC:  Oh no!  I don’t mind watching them on television, but I can’t read them. They’re all the same.

SR:  Is it just the same story, a bit like a formula, is that it?

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.  Rider Haggard, of course, She, but I don’t know Dennis Wheatley, he wrote … I may have read one or two of his and of Jack London books, but I don’t remember them really.

SR:  And you don’t like the sort of gory crime fiction.

FC:  Oh no, no.

SR:  Did you read any Sherlock Holmes, you know, like Arthur Conan Doyle?

FC:  No I don’t like … I can’t stand it [Laughs].

SR:  [Laughs] OK.

FC:  He’s in the same category as Agatha Christie.  I’m a bit naughty, aren’t I?

SR:  [Laughs] No, no, you just read what you like.  I mean, everybody’s entitled to that. Did you read any of these saga, like Mazo de la Roche? Does that ring a bell?

FC:  No.


SR:  What about romance?  Do you like romance?

FC:  Not really.  Not a lot.  Oh, Jalna, that rings a bell.  You just mentioned that, haven’t you?

SR:  What’s that?

FC:  The Jalna novels, Mazo de la Roche.

SR:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.

FC:  Yeah, it rings a bell, but I can’t really recall it.

SR:  But you’ve read Gone with the Wind [FC:  Oh, yeah].  Did you enjoy that?

FC:  Yeah.  Mind you, it was the in book at the time, wasn’t it?

SR:  Was it?  What was popular about it?  Do you remember?

FC:  Well, I think it really caught on and then they made the film of course, which …

SR:  Did you see the film?

FC:  I’ve seen the film.  I’ve also got the DVD, you know.  I can put it on any time.  I’ve got that.

SR:  Did you enjoy it, the film?

FC:  In a way, but it’s not as good as the book … It’s not as good as reading the book.

SR:  Did you read any of the sort of shocking books, up here? [Consulting the list.]

FC:  No.

SR:  All right.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover [FC:  No.] which were [FC:  No.] very sort of … Hit the headlines [FC:  No.] at the time.  And classics, you said you’re not so bothered about … and Dickens.

FC:  Pearl Buck,  I read some of those books when I was younger.  And she wrote Chinese books, didn’t she?

SR:  Yeah, about the Far East, yeah.  Did you enjoy those?

FC:  Yes, I seem to remember I did, but I was much, much younger when I read those.  It was a long time ago.

SR:  Do you like reading about foreign places?

FC:  Yes, yes, and I like travel.  Not that I do it anymore, now.

SR:  Any science fiction?

FC:  Oh, Wyndham Lewis, The Triffids.  Yeah.

SR:  Oh, that’s John Wyndham.  John Wyndham:  Day of the Triffids.

FC:  I used to like it, but now science fiction books have got too, too … But they were good, the early ones.

SR:  Yeah, like Day of [FC:  Yeah, yeah.] the Triffids.

FC:  I remember that.  I read that.

SR:  Did you read any travel books that were not novels, you know what I mean?  Travel writing about people travelling?

FC:  Only that one I’ve shown you [SR:  Yeah, yeah.]  – the lady, and there are so many, I really haven’t gotten round to reading and writing them down.  I haven’t read them all.  Kings in Grass Castles  That was about Australia [SR:  Oh yeah.], you know, when they went to … .That’s a true story about Mary Durack’s family and that was one I enjoyed.  Because I haven’t finished, I don’t … I did dip and out of a lot of books, if you know what I mean.  I like this sort of book, and these sorts of books.

SR:  That’s the Titanic?  What does that say?

FC:  And that one of course, of Anglesey, and that is mentioned in Dickens, in Uncommercial Traveler.

SR:  What, the Golden, the [Both speak simultaneously].

FC:  Yes, he writes about it in the Uncommercial Traveler.

SR:  Oh yeah, yeah.

FC:  In fact, I painted it.  It’s over there, behind you.  You can’t see it, probably…

SR:  Oh that way.  Oh, you paint as well?

FC:  Yes, I do all sorts of daft things.  [Both laugh]

SR:  It’s not daft.  Did you ever get books from, like Reader’s Digest or anything like that?

FC:  Sometimes.  In fact, I bought one of those … I said I bought two books that they …These are the two I bought if it’s any import to you [Sounds of moving].  My son’s brought me the new Dan Brown. [SR:  Oh yeah.] He brought that across from France.  It’s not published yet here, I don’t think. [SR:  Oh.]  And I bought that one, which I thought looked interesting.

SR:  Ah yeah, yeah.

FC:  And then I bought this one, which is a Reader’s Digest, which I thought looked interesting.

SR:  Yeah, because it’s John Grisham and other stuff.

FC:  Yeah.

SR:  Are they any …

FC:  I bought loads at the hospital.

SR:  Are there any books that you can say … Sorry.  Are there any ways reading changed your life, would you say?

FC:  Hmm.  [Pause]  Again, a love of wanting to explore, wanting to find out about things.  I’m always interested in people, how people’s lives … And how communities grow.  You know, generally about the world in general.  And I find books are … I like gardening and things like that and I use books as reference books a lot.  The same with my painting.  I’ve got loads of books and I use books for reference for my painting, you know.

SR:  You said you went to South Africa, was it?

FC:  Yes, I’ve been to South Africa.

SR:  And was that stimulated by books?

FC:  Oh yes.  I always was interested in, in particular around the Cape, the Cape district, and of course I went there, but it’s a long time ago now.

SR:  Do you know when it was?

FC:  Well, Nelson Mandela was still on Robbin Island and there was still apartheid.  That was just after Sharpeville, I think.

SR:  Ah yeah, in the 60s.

FC:  So it was a [SR:  Yeah] long time ago.  And the friends and that.  It was connected with the war and people coming over.  You know, it’s a long story.  I can’t go into that, you know, but it was quite a revelation, a beautiful country and …

SR:  And that was a lot to do with reading about that country?

FC:  Well, I’d always been interested in it, and I’ve always been interested in the explorers, you know, Livingstone and all them.  You know, I’ve always been interested in it, and even in recent times this … I forget the name of the author, but he wrote about the ladies’ detective agency in Botswana.

SR:  Alexander McCall Smith.

FC:  Yeah.  Yeah.  And all of his books are interesting, aren’t they [SR:  Yeah]?  You sort of read them and you go back and read the paragraph again because you hadn’t quite got [SR:  What was going on].  Yea, yeah.  It’s understanding what makes people tick.

SR:  And that’s why you like reading?

FC:  That’s why I like reading.  My husband used to say, “If you were in the middle of the Sahara desert, you’d find someone to talk to.”  [Both laugh]  I like to talk to people, you know, no matter who they are or what they are, I like to know.  I don’t mean being nosy or anything like that.  I mean I just … I’m just interested in how they live their lives [SR:  Yeah].  And I think books give you that, don’t they?

SR:  They do.

FC:  And not some, you know, not some silly romance, but something that you can get your teeth into.


SR:  Yes, yes.  Certainly.

FC:  Am I giving you the sort of …

SR:  Yes, yes.  That’s fine, yeah.

FC:  But I would never, ever consider a life without books [SR:  No], to be honest.

SR:  No.  Can I just ask a few biographical details?

FC:  There’s my son.

Son:  Hello and goodbye,

SR:  [Laughs]

FC:  [Laughing] Goodbye.

Son:  I’ll see you later on tonight.

FC:  All right love.  Take care, drive carefully.

Son:  I’ve got me phone.  It’s on message, so if you need … Just leave a message and I’ll get back.

FC:  Yeah.  All right love.

Son:  Bye-bye.

FC:  Bye-bye.

SR:  Bye.

[Door opens and closes.]

SR:  Just … Can I just ask you a few questions [FC:  Yes] about sort of when you were born?

FC:  22nd of March, 1923.

SR:  [Speaking to herself] 22nd of March, 1923.  OK.  Where were you born?

FC:  Huddersfield [SR:  Huddersfield].  In Huddersfield … Well, I don’t have my birth certificate now.

SR:  Oh, that’s OK.

FC:  I don’t know what district it was in, but it was Huddersfield.

SR:  How come you came to Sheffield?

FC:  [Door opens] Well, my father moved here for work, that was why.  What?

Son:  Sorry to interrupt you again.  I’ve left my spare jacket over your wheelchair at the bottom.  I’ll pick it up when I come in.  Just leave it there.

FC:  All right, all right.

Son:  Bye-bye [Door opens and closes].

SR:  So you said your father moved to Sheffield?

FC:  My father moved from Huddersfield to Sheffield because he got a job in Sheffield [SR:  Oh, yeah].  Yeah.

SR:  What did he do?

FC:  He was … Oh dear … He was in the motor trade anyway, [SR:  Yeah] yeah.  To do with engineering, yeah.

SR:  So he moved the whole family … Moved to Sheffield?

FC:  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  And where have you lived since you were a child?  You lived in different parts of Sheffield?

FC:  I lived as a child on Abbey Lane, as I say, and then we moved up to Abbey Lane, up to Woodseats and then … We’ve always been this side of Sheffield.  When I was married, we moved to Frecheville, and then, of course, we came here.  Been here about, what, forty odd years now.

SR:  In this house?

FC:  Yeah. Yeah.

SR:  Oh my goodness.  How did World War II affect your family?

FC:  Well, my sister went in the NAAFI.  I, as I told you, was a reserved occupation [SR:  In the railway, yeah].  Yeah.  My parents, of course, had a shop then, on Abbey Lane, and that was usual.  I was in the WVS.  I used to spend my Sundays at the LMS [laughing]  station, the opposite arrival, in the canteen for the forces there, and in quite a bit … I was in the St. John’s Ambulance as well.  We did fire watching and all the rest of it.  And after the Blitz, I was at home [SR:  Oh good] with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house.

SR:  Where was that?

FC:  In Woodseats [SR:  Ah, yes].  And she couldn’t come home, because of the thing …

SR:  The bombing, yeah.

FC:  Yeah, the trams.  I don’t know whether you remember …You perhaps don’t know, but the trams used to …

SR:  I don’t remember the trams.

FC:  Yeah.  Well, they used to stop outside Abbey Lane School [SR:  Yeah] and they had to get on a separate track to get down again [SR:  Yeah].  And the leading tram man, driver, wouldn’t move.  And I remember the conductress having hysterics because she couldn’t get down to town.  And he saved her life, because you know what happened to all the trams on the Moor.

SR:  What happened to them?

FC:  Well, they all got burnt out and bombed, didn’t they?

SR:  Oh gosh.

FC:  I only remember the bits very vaguely.  I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work or walk to work. I once got a … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked.

SR:  On Staniforth Road, yeah.

FC:  Yeah. And there was no one about at all.  And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, “Where have you come from?”  And I told him, and he said, “Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.”

SR:  [Gasps]

[Both laugh]

FC:  But it didn’t blow me up. [Both laugh]  But we had no fear [SR:  No].  We didn’t worry about it.  I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar.  And I got so fed up with it.  I though “Blow it.”  So I used to just stop in bed.  I thought if I go down there and I go to work and they all say, “Oh, what is it all for?  Didn’t get a wink.”  I slept through it, me.  I could sleep through anything.

SR:  You were quite young, were you then?

FC:  Oh yes.  Yes, I was.  When I got married, I was twenty-three, so I was only young.

SR:  Seventeen or eighteen at the start of the war?

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SR:  So, you went to Abbeydale Grammar after passing your 11 plus, and you left at fifteen or sixteen?

FC:  Yes, I left early because I passed me exam.  I was only ten when I passed the 11 plus [SR:  Oh] and I was only young when I got me school certificate.  I’ve still got them, but I don’t know where they are.  Stuck in some cupboard [SR:  Yeah].  But…And then … because I couldn’t officially leave school until I was sixteen [SR:  Yeah], I went to the Commercial College.

SR:  Oh, I see.

FC:  On Psalter Lane.

SR:  On Psalter Lane.

FC:  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  What sort of things did you do there?

FC:  Oh, I got certificates for commercial arithmetic, book-keeping, shorthand typewriting, all that sort of thing.  Yeah.  Yeah.

SR:  So, that was until you were sixteen?

FC:  Until I was sixteen, yeah.

SR:  After …

FC:  Then, as I say, I got a job and then the war broke out.

SR:  Was it particularly girls that weren’t expected to go on after school or was it just general?

FC:  Well, you had a choice.  You either went in a shop, or a hairdresser’s, or you went in an office.  No, there wasn’t this business about going to university and this, that and the other.  In fact, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I find a lot of people go to university for a degree and they study things that are of absolutely no use to them.  You know, whereas they might’ve been better going for something more practical.  I mean, there used to be apprenticeships [SR:  Yeah] and, you know, you got a good trade in your hands, didn’t you?

SR:  Did you do any more studying after you left school?  [SR continues speaking, but FC begins speaking]

FC:  No, not really.  The only other things I did … I went to the local art class, when I discovered…Well, my husband used to go fishing and I didn’t know what to do.  And I didn’t particularly want to knit, and I decided I’d try and paint a picture and it went from there [SR:  Oh].  So, I’m more or less self-taught, really [SR:  Yeah, yeah] Yeah.  In fact, I’m still  … I’m doing one at the moment that I’m trying to do.

SR:  Yeah.  And you said your father moved to Sheffield for the auto trade [FC:  Yeah].  And then he opened a shop.  Was it a grocer’s or something?

FC:  A greengrocer.

SR:  A greengrocer.  That’s early rising, isn’t it?  Getting up early.

FC:  Oh yeah, yeah.  He learned … you …that’s why I used to go to the library and that, because I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working.  And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go down to the … have a little trot around the Moor by meself, you see.  And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the gallery.  I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures.  And then I used to go down to the reading room.  You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend [Together:  the whole day], you know, really, and then come home on the tram you know, and read my library books [SR:  Yeah].  I mean, I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school or…People came from all over the city, they weren’t in kind…So my best friend lived in Pitsmoor, so you didn’t always…And you know, another [SR:  You couldn’t socialise] one lived out in Grindleford.

SR:  Yeah, yeah.

FC:  So you didn’t get together quite as much as they do nowadays.  I used to go to the youth … to the church youth club, you know, at…on Linden Avenue.  I’m trying to … St. Chad’s [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah, we used to go there, you know, and lots of things like that.  I was never short of something to do.  I mean, as kids, we used to have concerts in the garden.  And I remember once, we collected a load of silver paper, we raised money with this concert, and the bloke next door gave us a bunch of yellow roses.  And we trotted down to the, what was then the Royal Hospital on West Street, and saw the matron.  And we presented her with this [Both laughing].  Yeah, you know, it was quite a different sort of life in those days [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah.

SR:  And you got married in 1946, you said.

FC:  Yes, yes.  On my husband’s demob leave.

SR:  Had you met him before, presumably?

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  I’ll not go into that, if you don’t mind.

[Both laugh]

SR:  No.  What was your …

FC:  Yeah, because we … It was an instant thing, you know.  We really took to one another.  Yeah, everybody was quite surprised, but it lasted for, what, 1946 … We didn’t quite make our Golden Wedding.  We didn’t quite make that.

SR:  What’s that, sixty?

FC:  Sixty.  We had got our Silver wedding, yeah.  Yeah.

SR:  Yeah.  Goodness.  What was your maiden name, if I can ask?

FC:  Borwell.  B-O-R-W-E-L-L.

SR:  Borwell.  B-O-R-W-E-L-L [FC:  Yeah].  Okay.

FC:  My grandfather was a headmaster, my granddad Borwell, and his wife was a headmistress.

SR:  Was that in Huddersfield?

FC:  Yeah, it … Well, it was in Leeds.  Hang on a minute.  Just bear with me.

SR:  No worries.

[FC speaking in background, drawers opening]

[Papers rustling]

FC:  You could fill a skip with my rubbish.

SR:  [Laughs] Oh, don’t say that.

FC:  Well, that’s good.  I don’t know the family history, that’s why.

[Papers rustling]

SR:  That’s a good idea, keeping everything in a folder.

FC:  They’re the older ones.  Wait a minute, trying to find out where I  … . [Papers rustling] That’s my grandfather and grandmother.

SR:  Oh lovely.

FC:  Yeah [more rustling]. That’s his picture.  Headmaster of Hunley Church School, he was … Wait a minute.  Rothwell in Leeds.

SR:  Oh.  And your grandmother was a head teacher as well?

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  But I don’t know where she was. [Papers rustling]  My father went to King James Grammar School.  But I don’t know [Papers rustling].  That’s actually a diary that he wrote, my husband’s father wrote his diary from 1914 to 1918.

SR:  Oh really.  That would be an interesting …

FC:  I’ve got the original, but that’s just a copy [Papers rustling].  That’s just a picture…I don’t … What else?  You asked me something else, but I can’t remember.

SR:  Just what your … What you were saying about your mother being a head teacher as well.

FC:  What, me grandmother?

SR:  Oh, your grandmother.  Sorry.

FC:  No, no, no [Papers rustling].  No, no, me husband was 1938 to 1946 he was in the armed forces.  You know, I think that’s all.  Yeah.

SR:  That’s fascinating.  It’s a good idea to keep it all together, isn’t it?

FC:  Yeah, I’ve got about six folders.

[Cut by request.]

S I will quote you when I get me glasses again, which I think is very apt.  Just a minute . [Rustling].  All sorts of things in that. That came from the library, that was good. [Papers rustling]  It’s a Lebanese poem, and that’s his name.  I can’t pronounce it.  The quotation is, “The bow from which your children as living arrows fly.” [SR:  Yes] And you’ve got to let them go, got to let them go.

SR:  Yes, I agree with that.

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  So, these are little bits that interest me.  I put in here.  Mr Micawber’s advice to David Copperfield [Both laugh].  I’ve quoted that to my children more times than I know [Both laugh].  And the Gaelic blessing,  “ May the road rise up to meet you, may the soft rain fall on your fields, and may the Lord hold you in the palm of his hand”.  [SR:  Yeah]  Yeah, they’re lovely.

SR:  You know when you read Anne of Green Gables and What Katy Did, what …

FC:  That’s King Edward  … What do you call it?

SR:  Prince Edward Island.  What did you like about those? The Anne of Green Gables?

FC:  Well, I just liked the story about a little girl and the struggle in … You know, it was just a nice story, and I’ve seen the films of it since.  But they’re not quite as nice [SR:  Yeah] as reading the book, are they?

SR:  And Black Beauty, what was it about …

FC:  Oh, I loved Black Beauty.  I love horses, I love horses.

SR:  It’s quite sad in parts, Black Beauty, isn’t it?

FC:  I love horses. [Cut by request.]

SR:  We’ve talked about Gone with the Wind, but what about Jane Eyre?  Did you like Jane Eyre?

FC:  Yes, some of it.  But as I say, it’s a bit … When you read … I reread it again about a fortnight ago and I struggled a bit with it.

SR:  Is it the language of it?

FC:  Yeah, It seemed a bit fulsome, a bit…You get, you know … There’s too much.  Cut a few [SR:  Too many words, yeah] words out.  I think in more modern books [SR:  You get used to it], it’s a different way of writing, isn’t it [SR:  Yes]?  It’s like Charles Dickens.  He goes all the way around the house sometimes, doesn’t he?

SR:  Yeah, yeah.  Green Dolphin Country?

FC:  Now, I love that one.

SR:  What’s that about?  I’ve never heard of that one.

FC:  Oh, it’s about two sisters who live on an island.  I think it’s supposed to be near Mont St. Michel.

SR:  Oh, yeah.

FC:  And this young man comes and he goes out to New Zealand.  And, in those days, they often used to send for the wife to come.  And he gets the wrong sister.  And it starts off with the life in France, you know, and everything.  And it talks about the beach of shells, the soft … On the Channel Islands.  I forget which one.  I’ve always wanted to go.  I’ll never go now.  I think it’s off Sark.  The beach is made of shells [SR:  Oh].  Beautiful.  I like shells and I collect them.  And it’s all made of shells, and it sort of set me going.  And then, she goes out to New Zealand and it’s all about the Maoris, and the settlements and everything.  It’s really good.  And then she comes back of course.  The sister becomes a nun and goes into this monastery at Mont St. Michel.

SR:  It sounds really nice [FC:  Yeah], because you got that as a Christmas present in 1944.

FC:  I could read that again and again.

SR:  What about Daphne … Is it Daphne du Maurier, King’s General?

FC:  King’s General, I’ve got that one.  I bought that one meself.  And I opened it the other day and thought it’s a first edition, this.  There’s no … Well, it looks like it to me.  I’ll show you.  It’s only a cheap book, I don’t think it means anything, but it must’ve been one of the original ones.  It’s old and scruffy.  That’s it, I bought this.

SR:  When did you buy that, do you think?

FC:  But usually you get … You know, there’s nothing to say …

SR:  Right, it’s 1946 it says.  [FC:  Yeah] Oh, yeah.

FC:  You see, she dedicates it to her husband.  It’s quite a good story, that is.  One of those.

SR:  ‘Cause he was a soldier, wasn’t he?

FC:  Yeah.  I quite like that book.  Now the library’s brought me the other one…Another one:  Frenchman’s Creek.  I don’t … Some of Daphne du Maurier’s books I don’t like at all.

SR:  What did you like about this one?

FC:  I like that one.  I just read it again.

SR:  What did you like about it?

FC:  I don’t know, I just liked it.  It’s about Cornwall, it’s a true story [SR:  Ah].  And that’s what [SR:  Appealed to you].  Yes.  Yes, it’s not just a work of fiction.

SR:  Yeah, yeah.  And A Tree Grew in Brooklyn?

FC:  Well, that’s about a child growing up in Brooklyn.  Yeah, and that was good.  Yeah.

SR:  What did you like about that?

FC:  I don’t know, just a child and delight … I’ll tell you what else I’ve read.  I don’t know if you know the names of them, but they’d been lent to me.  They were stories about 1950s … About some sect of nuns apparently had this hospital, and they’d have midwives go out to the people living in these 1950 tenements in the East End.  And it is absolutely amazing the conditions those people lived.  In 1950!

SR:  Yeah, yeah.  My goodness.

FC:  It’s incredible.

SR:  And you read about that in … hat particular book in…

FC:  Yeah, and that was a real revelation to me.

SR:  Yeah, you tend to think because of the welfare state, people don’t live like that anymore.

FC:  Well, it was before … I mean, I can remember before National Health.  I mean …

SR:  How did that affect your family?

FC:  Well, you didn’t go to the doctor, really, an awful lot.  My mother was a great believer in … She used to give us blackcurrant juice.  Homemade black currant jam and make us hot drinks with it, long before they invented Ribena.  And we always used to get dosed with sulphur and what’s it called?

SR:  Brimfire … Brimstone.

[Both laugh]

FC:  Yeah, and [ichipechiano ?], whatever that is.  Malt and cod liver oil [SR:  Yeah].  Egg beaten up in milk and sherry.

[Both laugh]

FC:  She’d also goose grease on …

SR:  On your chest, yeah.

FC:  For your chest, and I’ll tell you, only had it when you had a sore throat, and it works, really, but it’s absolutely horrible.  I’ve never done it since I was a child.  You cut up an onion in an old stocking and tie it around your neck when you got a sore throat and it works!

[Both laugh]

FC:  But we had all sorts of things, you know.

SR:  Because you couldn’t go to the doctor, really.

FC:  No, you didn’t go to the doctor unless you were absolutely forced [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  It’s like when women had children, they had to pay the midwife.

FC:  Yeah, I suppose so [Laughing].  I never experienced that.

SR:  Fortunately.

[Both laugh]

FC:  But, you learned to be very self-reliant.  You didn’t … Not like it is now, you know.

SR:  What about the Hammond Innes books, because they’re …

FC:  That was Campbell’s Kingdom.  I liked all his …

SR:  But what …

FC:  I don’t know.  One was The Wreck of the Mary Deare.

SR:  Oh yes, yes.  That was good.

FC:  That was about … off the Channel Islands, wasn’t it?

SR:  Somebody falsely accused, wasn’t it?

FC:  Yeah.  And Campbell’s Kingdom was … There was another one, Desmond Bagley.  He used to write those sorts of tales as well.  I remember his.

SR:  What sort of stories were they?

FC:  Well, they’re sort of adventure stories, but interesting [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah, yeah.  And Campbell’s Kingdom was about … I think they made a film of that as well, didn’t they?

SR:  They made a film of The Wreck of the Mary Deare.  It had …

FC:  I don’t remember that one.

SR:  It had …

FC:  I remember reading the book.

SR:  It had Gary Cooper in it.

FC:  Yeah, I don’t remember that one.

SR:  Because that’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it?

FC:  The things I liked out of those, things like The Flying Dutchman, those sorts of mysteries have always intrigued me.  They, you know, not made up mysteries, but [SR:  Real ones] …real ones, yeah.

SR:  Real life ones, yeah.  Howard Spring, you mentioned?

FC:  Yeah, he wrote quite a few brothers … two brothers, I seem to remember.  Don’t remember much about them, but I do remember enjoying them as a novel.  You used to look for certain authors when you went to the library [SR:  Yeah].  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  Did you ever go to any other library or was it always the Central?

FC:  I don’t know.  I’m wondering about that because I must’ve gone to one more local than that when I was younger, but I can’t think of where there was a library.  I know there’s one now at Woodseats, but I don’t think there was then [SR:  No].  I can’t remember, to be honest.

[Paper rustling]

SR:  I’ve got bits of paper all over the place.

FC:  I’ll put the light on for you to see.

SR:  Thank you.  There was Highfield library.

FC:  I used to go there, I seem to remember.  Vaguely.

SR: Chester.

FC:  I’ve been there more recently because I was trying to do a painting.  A Chinese painting and I wanted a dragon.  And there’s quite a good department there for Chinese things.  But, before then, I can’t remember going.

SR:  So, Highfield was quite an old library, it looks like, doesn’t it.

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  It’s still there though, you know?

SR:  Yes, it is.  Totley, is that very close?  Totley?

FC:  No, Totley would be too far for me [SR:  Yeah, yeah].  No, it must have been somewhere around Woodseats, but it was easier to get on the tram and go to the Central Library.

SR:  And you got the art gallery there as well.

FC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Is all this being recorded?

SR:  Yeah.

FC:  Oh golly.

SR:  [Laughs] It doesn’t matter.

FC:  Will you edit it?

SR:  What we’re trying to do is to get someone to transcribe it, someone to write down what we say.  And that, you know, we can leave bits out, you know.  So … have you got any other things you want to mention particularly?

FC:  No, not really.

SR:  About what … .

FC:  I would like to say that books have been me life, all me life, and without them, my life would be nothing like as good as it has been.  Because books have been there.

SR:  Do your children have that same love for books?

FC:  Oh yeah, yeah. [cut by request] I used to read to Alison.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you know.

SR:  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

FC:  And I’d be reading and I’d miss a page and she knew.

[Both laugh]

SR:  So you had to go back.

[Both continue laughing]

FC:  I used to read quite a lot to Alison.  [Cut by request].

SR:  Do you read any non-fiction?  That’s just occurred to me.  Any non-fiction, you know.  Politics, or history, or other sorts of non-fiction books?

FC:  Well, I dabble with them.  I’ve got one or two biographies and things there.  I’ve got a lot of travel books

SR:  Did you read biographies or anything like that when you were younger?

FC:  No, I don’t think so, no.  No, can’t remember.

SR:  Did you ever read a book because you’d seen a film of it?

FC:  No, not particularly.

SR:  And the other way around.  Did you ever go to see a film because you read a book?

FC:  Yeah, I probably would.  Yeah, yeah.

SR:  Like Gone with the Wind, you said.

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  I remember queuing up for that.  It was quite a job.

SR:  Yes, quite a big thing.

FC:  Yeah, I think, yeah.  Yeah.  Didn’t go to the pictures an awful lot.  As a kid, we used to go to the Saturday matinee, you know.  With Alfalfa and all the Gang and that sort of thing.

[Both laugh]

SR:  When I went, it was the Lone Ranger, I think.

FC:  And Tonto.

[Both laugh]

SR:  Well, I think I’ve just about exhausted all the things we need to inquire in to.

FC:  Was that the sort of thing you wanted then?

SR:  Yeah, yeah, because … Can I keep these?  Is that okay?

FC:  Yeah, I wrote them out for you.

SR:  Because it focuses me clearly on the period we’re interested in, which is 1945 to 1965.

FC:  I wish I could remember more, but I, you know…

SR:  No, I think it’s very good.  I find it difficult myself, to remember.

FC:  You know, you find that some people … Talking to me sister, I mean, she’s not here now, she’s gone.  But, when we used to talk about incidents in our childhood and that, when we went to dancing class and things like that, it was loads of stuff, really.  And she would remember something quite vividly that I had forgotten completely.  Or she had a completely different angle on something

SR:  A different memory of it?

FC:  Yeah, yeah.  Yeah.

SR:  Did you read The Ballet Shoes, is it?  Noel Streatfeild, was it?

FC:  Oh yes, I remember that.  Didn’t they…Hadn’t they made a film of that?  I’ve seen it on television.

SR:  On television, yes.

FC:  Yeah.  Yeah, there’s all sorts.  There’s so many books I’ve read and I can’t remember them all.  I find it a real job to remember what I did.

SR:  No, it’s fine.  It’s good to have it written down like this because we can put it in with the thing.  What I’ll do is, I’ll try and turn it off, if I may?




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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 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.  


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:


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.   


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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