Frank Burgin

Frank Burgin

Frank was born in 1938 in Mosborough.

Frank is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 21st August 2012.

 Loveday Herridge: This is an interview conducted by Loveday Herridge, it is the 21st August 2012 and I’m interviewing Mr Frank Burgin, and Frank, can you tell us first of all when you were born and where you lived?


Frank Burgin: I was born at a very early age in 1938, in Mosborough, which at that time was just a small pit village, and in common with most other lads my dad was a miner and worked down the pit.

Loveday Herridge: Right. Can you go back a bit and tell us how your dad and your mum ended up in Mosborough? Where their parents perhaps came from…

Frank Burgin: My mother was a Mosborough girl from a Mosborough family.  My dad moved there in his relative youth from Halfway, and lived next door to her.  It was the usual sort of love story.  One day she asked him to help her shake a rug and that was it as far as he was concerned.  Everything sort of followed an inevitable course and they were married in 1926, and had a pretty rough time for the first few years, economically, with the 1926 strike and then the terrible economic times of the 1930s.  I think I was almost a direct result of Neville Chamberlain’s peace in our time speech.

LH: Was your father educated to 14, 16?

FB: He left school at … I think he left school at 14 and went down the pit the following day.

LH: His family was a mining family?

FB: Oh yes, going way way back when.  Coal mining was in the blood.

LH: And so you remember always that that was …

FB: Oh, yes, yes, it’s all I wanted to do when I was a little lad.  I used to dig holes all over the garden.

LH: Were you the first born?

FB: I was the only born.

LH: OK. And your mother, you said she was a Mosborough girl?

FB: Yes. She was a Mosborough girl.

LH: Do you know what her parents did?

FB: She was a housemaid up until them getting married, and of course in 1926 when a housemaid got married she left work.

LH: As women did.

FB: And went and worked full time looking after me dad, and then looking after me, which I’m sure was a full time job in anybody’s book.

LH: Was she educated too?

FB: Only to an elementary level, probably.

LH: Yes. And in your childhood do you remember them talking about school, about education?

FB: Oh, I used to get all the time – look, lad, you’ve got to have some book larnin else you’ll get nowhere.  He didn’t know what I’d got to learn, he knew that I’d got to be learning it from books…

LH: From books…

FB: …. somewhere. And I was pushed and encouraged to do at well at school which I didn’t particularly.

LH: Let’s go back, you talk about book learning, let’s go right back to when you might remember the first time you became aware of books. Were there books in the house?

FB: Oh yes, yes, I had books of my own as long as I can remember.  Certainly from the age of 3 I can remember having books for Christmas.  Certainly me mum and me dad reading them to me. I always saw books as an absolute treasure trove of all sorts of wonderful things.  I could be anything and anybody in a book and go anywhere and I think I’ve kept that up now, you know.  Always read for pleasure, and of course latterly, certainly all my teaching career, I’ve had to read lots and lots of books professionally to prepare lessons and schemes of work and all that sort of thing. I’ve done my bit of … sort of half a week in front of the students…

LH: So the big question for such an enthusiast as you, and for our project, as you know, ‘cos I know Mary Grover has talked to you about it, is where does that enthusiasm come from and we’re trying to pin that down, can you remember the actual process of learning to read?

FB: Yeah, as I recall – it was a long time ago! – as I recall it was not easy coming but there was a time when I couldn’t read, or couldn’t read very well and liked people to read to me, and I’d always got that as a child, there was always someone to read to me.

LH: Who read to you, Frank?

FB: Both me mother and me dad.  Me mother probably mostly.

LH: When did they read to you?

FB: Oh, usually before going to bed I think that’s the favourite.  It was always I think a sort of evening thing.  Of course we’d only got a radio then, there was no television.

LH: Did your dad read to you?

FB: Yes, me dad read to me at the same time.  He used to read quite a lot me dad, he liked to read.

LH: Did he read the newspaper? Did you take a newspaper in your house?

FB: Oh yes. He always had a newspaper. I think it was the Daily Mail.

LH: Did he buy it, or was it delivered?

FB: It was delivered every day.

LH: Do you know where from?

FB: From the local Post Office which was also the newsagent.

LH: From the Post Office.

FB: Yes.

LH: OK. In Mosborough.

FB: In Mosborough, yes they delivered through the door.

LH: And they delivered it. Was there a lad or a girl …?

FB: No, I think it was the proprietor who actually delivered it.  I remember that.

LH: So it got delivered and it got read in the house.

FB: And eventually me mother’s Woman’s Weekly would be delivered with it, and eventually my comic.

LH: Oh, yes.  I was going to ask you about comics!

FB: Oh, yes, I ate comics!  I used to have Film Fun.  Funnily enough I think me mother was always a little bit reluctant on Dandy and Beano, but probably, you know, I mean there were comics and comics then.  ‘Film Fun’, the one I had, used to have 2 or 3 pages of full text.

LH: Right! So tell me about Dandy and Beano then.

FB: Oh they were all pictures, still are.

LH: Oh I know what they were like … !

FB: Still are! Oh, the ‘Beano’s’ going this month isn’t it?

LH: It’s the Dandy isn’t it?

FB: Oh it’s the Dandy.  The Beano’s still going

LH: So she was reluctant about Dandy and Beano then.  Why?

FB: I don’t know, I don’t know. My parents were both, and particularly me mother, were very class conscious, very very proud, you know what you would have called then the very respectable working class.  And I mean respectable.  Always went to church.  Well, actually I was brought up a Methodist because me dad had fallen out with the vicar who stayed there many many years.  He used to go once a month to communion and he kept his CEMS membership up, but I was brought up a Methodist.  I usually describe meself as church now, because of course we’re members at Ranmoor, although of course that’s not how we know Mary. I used to teach with Mary at Stannington for quite a few years, and so you know we go back quite a way.  And er…


LH: So they were respectable…

FB: So when I went together with Maureen, my current wife, she’s an Anglican, we started going one week to Steven Hill Methodist, and one week, well we started going to Fulwood but then we quickly rumbled that Fulwood wasn’t really us, and we finished up at Ranmoor, because we do like a traditional service, both of us.  Well, we kept that up for quite a while, and then they asked me to go in the choir which I did for a while. And that wa … I took Anglican conversion very shortly after I went with Maureen.  She had Methodist membership at the time, because we were in the choir at Steven Hill.

LH: But your mum and dad were strict.

FB: Me mother was the Methodist, me dad was the Anglican, but because he’d fallen out with the vicar at Mosborough Church I was brought up Methodist.

LH: You reckon this class consciousness and the religious background, Methodism, was part of why she didn’t want you to read Dandy and Beano?

FB: No, I don’t think it was particularly a religious connotation, I think it was more that she preferred me reading something that was upmarket and not all pictures.

LH: But Film Fun passed the test.

FB: Oh yes, that passed the test because there were actual stories in there full of text.

LH: And you were about how old when you were reading ‘Film Fun’?

FB: Must have been 7, 8.

LH: And can you actually recollect any of the books that you read … that were read to you when you were very small?

FB: Oh yes, yes, I used to love the Enid Blyton ones.  They hadn’t got round to the Famous Five then but they were very very similar things to that and I graduated into the classics.  I remember Treasure Island.

LH: How old were you when you were reading Treasure Island?

FB: Well, probably about 9 I think.

LH: Quite precocious reading…

FB: 9 or 10.  It was … I think by that stage, by the time I was about eight, I was going to the library at school, which was all run out of two of those great big book boxes.

LH: What school was it, Frank?  Sorry ….

FB: That was Mosborough, I think it’s Mosborough County School now. It’s still going.  And incidentally both my parents went there as well…

LH: But this was in the junior section?

FB: … in the dim and distant past, yes in their school days…

LH: In the junior section?

FB: Yes, yes, it was a primary school, and er it come quite primitive at that time. In fact when I started it was still Mosborough Endowed School and still actually with some connection to the church so I’m not quite sure when it became fully local authority.

LH: And you’re saying that in the as what we would call a primary school child now, the library was a couple of boxes in the corner of the room?

FB: Yes, that’s right.

LH: And can you remember what you started to read there?

FB: No, not now. I started reading detective stories, Sexton Blake, I can’t remember who wrote that.

LH: Were your class keen readers, do you think?

FB: Some were, some weren’t. We were a mixed bag; we were all from similar backgrounds to me.

LH: Do you think you learned to read at home or at school? Or both?

FB: I think quite definitely I learned the mechanics of reading in school. I’m sure it was my parents and my home background that really gave me the love of books, and, you know, the love of what you can gain by reading.  I can remember a teacher at school going on and on, about I can go and sit in my chair at home and I can go anywhere I like in the world in a book, and I still remember that, and I would only have been about 8 or 9, 10 perhaps.  Course we left at 11 and went to secondary school.  And I suppose being an only child I spent an awful lot of time on my own, so I used to read a lot.

LH: Did you read a lot during the holidays and after school, at weekends?

FB: Yes.

LH: You said you had books given to you Christmas and birthdays… Did you use the public library as well as the school library?

FB: Oh yes, I think probably from about … certainly 13 I would be going to the public library.  There was a public library in Mosborough by then.  I used to use it thoroughly, it had all sorts of things.

LH: So as a smaller child you didn’t go to a public library.

FB: We hadn’t got one!

LH: You wouldn’t have gone with either of your parents…?

FB: No, as I say, until I was that age we hadn’t got one in Mosborough.  See, at that time Mosborough was in Derbyshire, so you know it was part of Chesterfield rural district so things like public libraries and that sort of thing didn’t extend to a place where still a lot of people were functionally illiterate.

LH: Yes.There were … I remember my mum having books from the Boots circulating library.  There were independent circulating libraries. Do you remember…

FB: Yes, there was. Red Circle I remember.

LH: You remember that one.  Did your parents subscribe?

FB: No, no, me mother and dad both had a bookcase full of books, one that me dad made, and it was full of books, at least 2 shelves of books in there. I think most of their books came as things like Sunday School prizes.  And, you know, they were both habitual readers.

LH: And so did you also take books from those shelves?

FB: Yes, I read some of me dad’s books.  Me mother’s books were all girly books … !

LH: What did your dad have then?

FB: I remember the Dog Crusoe, know that one? And there was another one, a series of books, thin paperback books he had, I can’t remember the author, about a character called Bindle. He was a Jewish man in London at the time of the outbreak of the First World War and they were very very tongue-in-cheek but I suppose if I read ‘em again now I would see quite a lot of sociology there.

LH: I’ll try and look that one up …

FB: I can’t remember … I wish I could remember the author. I don’t think I ever kept those, I only kept the hardback ones.

LH: And the hardback ones … would they have been sort of classics?

FB: Well, the Dog Crusoe wasn’t.  I can’t remember the others. Oh, me dad had a full set of Dickens which I never really got to grips with.  I couldn’t stand three pages of, you know, a fellow started with what somebody ate for breakfast and then going on for the whole of his political opinions and prejudices and all the rest of it before we got on to the story again.

LH: So from an early age, apart from the sort of question mark that you might have had hazily in your mind about certain comics, did you ever sneak a look at those comics that you weren’t allowed?

FB: Oh yes. Every time I went round to me friends who did take those, yes I did. And a cousin of mine, who was also brought up with … she was a daughter of me dad’s brother, younger brother, she used to pass me a comic called Champion that was basically all text and I used to thoroughly enjoy those.  Really more of a boy’s comic, but she was a bit of a tomboy.  We used to get on very well.

LH: So were there other books that you began to become aware of as being good literature, or bad literature?

FB: Erm, I had a set of Arthur Mee’s children’s encyclopaedias which I was encouraged to dip into from time to time, but never, funnily enough to go and look topics that I was asking questions about.  We didn’t do projects in school and things like that.  We weren’t encouraged to go and look for things.  We had to sit there and get it learned.

LH: So Arthur Mee was good reading was it?

FB: Oh yes.

LH: There wasn’t anything that was suspect …?

FB: It wasn’t like an encyclopaedia as such in alphabetical order.  It was in all sorts of categories.  You know, there was a character called Wonder and you got all sorts of bits of science in all around the late 1800s, and there was literature and poetry and things like that, so it came that sort of thing.  Although of course poetry was really not the sort of thing that a working class lad should be caught reading or looking at, that sort of thing … .

LH: Said who?

FB: Said contemporary culture of the 1950s.

LH: So 1950s, you’d be 12 by then.  You’re moving … what school did you go to?  Did stay at Mosborough?

FB: No in actual fact normally kids from Mosborough when to Killamarsh School.  For some reason, me mother having slight delusions of grandeur, sent me to Frecheville, which was still in Derbyshire at that time.  It was the usual secondary modern school.  I failed part one  of the 11 plus exam absolutely miserably of course, but nobody had ever done anything about preparing us for the 11 plus exam or even telling us that it was important.

LH: Did it bother you Frank, when you were a child?

FB: That I didn’t pass?

LH: Yes.

FB: Not at the time, but it’s funny, most of my colleagues from teaching who are all from working backgrounds, because we all started off as apprentices, because remember I went into teaching to teach workshop skills predominantly, so all the people I worked with were grammar school lads.  My closest friend now went to Firth Park Grammar School, and I remember a time when I first started my Open University degree I says I’m going to finish up the highest qualified L 1 in Sheffield and he says I’m going to finish up lowest qualified S L and we actually made it!

LH: So at your new school at Frecheville, were you encouraged to read there?

FB: Oh yes, it was … . I suppose the school itself was quite literary.  Yes, we read a lot, we read all sorts of things. We read Ben Hur.  What else did we read?… it’s such a long time ago!  We also did a bit of drama which I found I’d got a little bit of a liking for.

LH: What did you do?

FB: Oh, nothing very much.  I did actually have a nodding acqua i… a nodding connection with a school production in my final year of [inaudible], but …

LH: When you say that you had some time for… was it reading parts out in class?

FB: Yes … I still love reading aloud. I mean I get all sorts of wonderful comments from little old ladies at St John’s when I read the lesson  ‘cos they say, ‘oh we can hear you’ !

LH: Delivered with vigour …

FB: Oh yes, I dramatise it a bit as well.  You know I’ve done this … I started to sing when I was about 17 or 18 ‘cos at the church I went to in Mosborough at that time I fancied a girl whose father was the choirmaster, so you know … that was my way in really.  And we were married for quite a long time, but we won’t go there.  But from thereafter I came out of the army…

LH: Oh, we’ve got to get you to 17 first …! A little bit more on …

FB: Oh … I started singing in the chapel choir. I did read music, I had been for interminable piano lessons for a long time … I hadn’t got very far…

LH: Was that encouraged at school?  Or was that a home thing?

FB: Oh, that was my parents … They had a piano so I had to learn to play it but they sent me to the a woman in the village who really didn’t know what she was doing. Again, it was one of those things that I only did under sufferance because it wasn’t particularly cool to go for piano lessons.

LH: But you didn’t stop reading?

FB: Oh no, no … I’ve always read for pleasure.  I’ve done that the whole of my life.   Still do … I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.

FB: Oh have you?  So do you remember any of your syllabus books?

FB: Syllabus books. Well, of course there was …

LH: It’s a long time ….

FB: Oh God yes … there was a book … a series of books, oh again, the author escapes me, they’re in the loft at the moment, but this fellow was chief examiner for City and Guilds in Engineering, his name will come to me in a minute, and he wrote these three books that had all the syllabus for City and Guilds machine shop engineering which I started doing at the age of 16…

LH: At school?

FB: Oh, no, that was the first bit of brickwork that eventually became Hallam University It was Sheffield College of Technology then, still on Pond Street, where the Adsetts building is now, and the other bit at the front.  And it was really just a dozen prefabs divided … two classrooms each, we used to keep our motorbikes in the space in between, and the end two … one was a workshop and the other one was a store.

LH: So what made you do that?

FB: Oh, that was from work … I started work at 15 as an apprentice at Laycock Engineering which of course is now Sainsbury’s at Millhouses.  I still get a funny feeling when I go in there, when I see a bit of wall… that was the fitters … That was the tool room where I used to work.  I still get the feeling that people must get when they walk down the street and find out that the house that they were born in has been knocked down … it’s become flats. You know, there’s a part of your life gone, and I’m a bit like that with Laycock’s.

LH: Were there teachers at the school that you liked or any that you loved? Any that encouraged you?

FB: Oh yes, the science teacher and the woodwork teacher. I got on very very well with those.

LH: Were they the ones who encouraged you?

FB: Oh very much so yes. You see, I wanted to go … I wanted to go at first … I wanted to go down the pit like me dad and come home mucky, but I was never encouraged.  Nobody ever says you’re not going down pit. … Although friends of me dad would go ‘If tha lets ‘im go down pit, Frank, ah’ll n’er speak to thee again’. You know that sort of conversation, but I was just never encouraged. So I finished up … when it became time ‘I’ll go and be an apprentice somewhere’. So I applied for jobs as apprentice and eventually got taken on at Laycock Engineering and I had my first pint in their Sports Club which is still just across the road from Sainsbury’s.

LH: These momentous occasions…

FB: Oh yes, a rite of passage.

LH: Yeah it is isn’t it.  Was there a social culture there at Laycock’s for the young boys.

FB: Well yes, there was some encouragement.  They belonged to a group called Birfield Industries and their part of it … well, you’ll probably not know about it. Do you remember the Laycock de Normanville Overdrive? It’s what we had before they invented 5th gears in cars. It was a unit that could be fitted in and quite a sophisticated piece of engineering and they used to make those.  They did make them originally at Millhouses but then they moved it to another firm down Little London Road, just a little distance away.  And this Birfield … the Group… Birfield Industries… they owned this large country house, sort of  south of Birmingham, on the Banbury Road, place called Goldicoates … it had been the family home of the Bryant family of Bryant and May fame… so the apprentices were sent down there to meet apprentices from the other members of the groups.

LH: Holidays were they?

FB: Oh God, no.  It was a course. You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

LH: It’s interesting though. I haven’t heard of that.

FB: Oh yes. And the literary bit … yes… when we went down there… I only ever went once … but we had to read a book and go and talk about it.

LH: Did you?

FB: I got an Ernest Hemingway one and I can’t remember which one.

LH: When you say we had to, who told you what you had to?

FB: Oh, our boss of Laycock … the training officer.  This was part of the course.

LH: You’d got to take a book, or you were given a book …

FB: You were given a book you had to read before you went and then as part of the course you’d got to talk about it to the rest of the group.

LH: Was it all literature or was any of it non-fiction?

FB: I don’t know … It was mainly fiction. I seem to remember somebody got The Scourge of the Swastika which was quite prevalent in the mid 1950s when it was first published.  Mine was an Ernest Hemingway one, and I can’t remember which one… It was …  It was one of his … He was in America.

LH: The Great Gatsby? Oh no, that’s Scott Fitzgerald…

FB: Oh no … It was …. But from that, I didn’t particularly warm to Hemingway particularly but I did as a result of that I finished up reading Graham Greene who I did relate to.

LH: Is that because someone else had read Graham Greene and talked about it?

FB: No, no, I’d looked at Hemingway … it was all … another thing that coloured my young life, funnily enough, I mean me dad was a miner and a member of the miners’ union, but he was a raving Tory.  He really was. He was a member of the Winston Churchill fan club!  And I sort of grew up with all this. .. It was only later I started thinking, hang on, Dad, oooh, hang on, I don’t think this is the right thing for us. But I was in me 20s before I was talking like this.  And I think it’s since I graduated that I became a real leftie.  Well, me step daughter calls me a real leftie!

LH: I find this completely fascinating … all these lads …

FB: I say that about me dad, but his brother who lived in the same street, me uncle George, was a founder member of the Labour… and lifelong member of the Labour Party, you know, he was a founder member of it and very strong activist. I did actually come to join it once. He sort of took me off to the miner’s welfare, and plied me with beer, look what I’ve got – I’ve got our Frank’s lad!  He’s joined! ‘cos he called me dad Frank.

LH: Just to go back to this amazing situation where you lads were all talking about your books … Did you actually talk about books amongst yourselves anyway, you were reading anyway?

FB: Yes, I was reading. This was just another book.  I talked about it. I presented it, I can remember doing it.  I’m sure very very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue tied and say aye, well it were crap, like some did.

LH: Did they?

FB: Yes, they did.

LH: It’s such an amazing thing … Was there somebody sort of orchestrating it?

FB: Yes, yes, it was all …

LH: And what do you think it was for?  Why do you think they asked you to do that?

FB: It was to get us away from the back page of the Star and things like that. I mean they hadn’t invented page three then. No, it was all done to make us think.  Some of us did think. It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was there. I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.  You know, I mean, I shunned jobs in the drawing office and things like that.  Even in my teaching, the one subject I tried to avoid at all ‘costs was engineering drawing.

LH: Could I just prod you a bit more about what you would have read as a young man, I suppose that is, when you were leaving school and starting work. I know you must have been incredibly busy and occupied with other things.

FB: No, I still had quite a bit of time to read.

LH: Can you remember what you read?

FB: I read still mainly fairly escapist fiction.  I think I was in my, you know, crime story period then. Somewhere around there I discovered Agatha Christie and, as I say the Sexton … oh, Edgar Wallace I used to read avidly, things like The Clue of the New Pin. They were I suppose not particularly literary but they certainly had something. And er…

[Doorbell rings and interview paused.]

[Interview continues five minutes later.]

LH: So it’s 1956 and you are …  18 …

FB: I’m 18 then, yes.

LH: Because that was the call up time then wasn’t it?

FB: Yes, that’s right, and I was just about to say that I was due … I was entitled to deferment till I was 21, but it was a time… the engineering industry has always had its ups and downs and we were obviously at that time just approaching a downswing.  So I went into the office and said, look, I’ve had me papers, how about letting me go and do my two years now and then I’ll come back and I’ll do me apprenticeship 23, and they said, ‘Ah, lad, I think we can do better than tha’t, says you haven’t been on an Outward Bound course, which they’d started with that at that time, ‘You haven’t been on an Outward Bound have yer?’ I says no. They says, well go int army and do yer two years and we’ll call that yer out of bounds course and come back and you’ll finish at 21 like you should, ‘cos I’m sure you’re right about work, and just keep dropping Miss Appleton a lette’r – she was the er personnel officer in charge of the apprentices particularly – ‘and just keep dropping her a line and pop in and see us when you’re on leave’.


LH: It seems remarkably knowledgeable of a young man of 18 to be able to sense these things and know what’s going on.  Were you advised?

FB: No, not particularly. You could see that by the way the orders were coming in.  Instead of having great big piles of crates full of things that needed machining, you know, there was just a couple on the floor, er, and work was getting short and people were starting to get a bit worried.

LH: Where did you go when you went on your National Service?  Where were you called up to?

FB: I went into the Medical Corps, would you believe, on the grounds that I, that you know one of my pastimes had been doing a bit of first aid.

LH: Was that something that you did at Laycock’s?

FB: No, no it was something I did before I started work, when I was about 14. They ran a St John’s Ambulance group at the pit where me dad worked, er, they had an ambulance room … like a sort of church hall type place, er, and you know I did this up to being about 16, and it was all great fun and they wouldn’t put me in the Engineers, I now know, because I would probably have known more than the people that were in charge of me, at that stage, and they never did that, so it was on the strength of a couple of St John’s first aid certificates I went into the Medical Corps.  And having got there my two options after I’d done my basic training was to either be a clerk, which filled me with horror, or be a nursing orderly which also filled me with a different sort of horror.  So, I mean this was my first experience of meeting gay men, three of them, one was a professional actor, and the other two were nurses and I thought, god, I don’t want to be anywhere near them…

LH: The terror of the time … wasn’t it…

FB: I’m sure the actor was actually acting but the other two weren’t … Then my third option which is rather strange was to stay on, do a course, and become an instructor, which was really my first faltering steps in my teaching career, and again I seemed to do rather well with it.  I used to get into trouble from time to time for arguing with the army or not particularly conforming …

LH: How did you learn to be an instructor?

FB: I went on a course.

LH: You went on a course.

FB: I mean, learning to be an instructor involved, you know, many many hours pounding up and down a drill square, learning to shout and things like that, and learning to shout at people … there was all that sort of thing and then again, sort of, a bit of instructing people … you know, as a squad NCO you were responsible for teaching them drill, you were responsible for teaching ‘em how to polish the boots and the brasses and blanco the webbing and press the battle dresses and things like that, which I’d learned over a course of 14 weeks basic training … ‘cos me mother had always done that sort of thing before and, you know, keep the barrack room clean and tidy and all that sort of thing, and I also taught first aid, so, you know, that was what you did.  You got a new squad every 14 weeks and er started from page 1 and worked to end of the manual and then they did tests and drill tests and things like that, and that was me for two years.

LH: For two years… and for your entertainment, if it could be so called, you said that you looked in the library… where were you stationed?

FB: It was a place – it’s still there although it’s not the buildings that I lived in – I lived in buildings that were H-blocks like the lefties protested so vehemently about where they were keeping the IRA prisoners interred … it was just box like that … there was three barrack rooms down that side, three barrack rooms down that side connected by a corridor which was then … that half was connected to that half by another corridor and the ablutions went one way and the toilets went the other way … that was the H-block…

LH: Can you remember any of the books that you read?

[Interrupted by phone]

LH: Can you remember anything that you read in the army?  It must have been a very male environment  What did you read there?

FB: As I say, I got a surfeit of Agatha Christie and er… I think that’s where I started moving a bit left, because they always used to wind me up that it was always lord and lady somewhere…

LH: Posh folks … !

FB: … and getting done in by the butler in the dining room with the lead pipe and whatever and all that sort of thing.  I did start at that time reading science fiction and rather more escapist sort of stuff …

LH: Do you remember any of the authors?

FB: Er, Harry Harrison funnily enough, whose death’s been reported this week, was one of my favourites … er, Isaac Asimov I used to thoroughly enjoy. In fact, funnily enough, are you familiar with his robot stories?

LH: I’ve read them yes …

FB: You’ll be familiar then with his three laws of robotics.

LH: Well, not as familiar as you probably … !

FB: A robot must never harm a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm, and he goes on like that.  The first … after I’d done my master’s degree I went back to Stannington College and started designing courses in control and instrumentation and robotics which was very much in its infancy at that time … so I was absolutely in my eyeholes with it because I was getting all sorts of things to play with.  Literally … toys… I’ve got a lovely little robot from Fishertechnic that you snapped all together, it was a bit like Lego and then you could program it with a BBC computer to do all sorts of wondrous things like follow a black line with a sensor and find its way round by bumping into things… oh, it was lovely, I really had a ball.

LH: Do you think this pleasure was partly engendered by reading Asimov?

FB: I think so, to some extent.  What I was going to say, the first serious textbook I picked up on robotics had a piece on the front about Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics!

LH: How nice!  Confirmation of what you’d read…

FB: That was … it must have been one of the very first books on robotics that were written because there’d been not much of this in my master’s degree.

LH: So, can we just get the dates here. You did your Service 1956 to 1958.

FB: Then I came out and went back to Laycock’s. Then I still had from December to May to go until I was 21, and then I finished my apprenticeship and continued to work at Laycock’s. … It was,’Ah well, go on centre lathe, Frank’.  It was always go on centre lathe .. you always needed to do that … comes up, you get first refusal… and the first thing that came up was… because I didn’t want to go and sit in an office.  The very thought of going in an office frightened me, I wanted to play with things you know, knock bumps off pieces of metal.  So, the first thing that came up was gauging tool inspector in the tool room, which was a technician level job … and I did that for a couple of years and then went on to operate the only jig borer on the firm.  It was a very, very sophisticated piece of kit, made in Switzerland … you know, would have filled this half of the room, had its own little temperature control cabinet and it worked to a ten thousandth of an inch, all that sort of thing … you know, it was wonderful… and again, it was a big toy that I was able to play with … and you know they kept feeding me these pieces of metal that wanted holes in certain places, and I’d put ‘em exactly where they wanted to be.

LH: You must be very proud of your work life!

FB: Oh, I enjoyed doing all my practical … and then it sort of all came apart a little bit … a new policy was that they were going to buy all the jigs and fixtures out from specialist firms and the tool room would be a just a modification and rush job shop, and the first bit of it was, for about 6 or 8 months, it was – start on Saturday morning when somebody would bring a piece of equipment from the Little London Road factory which I then had to check through on my jig borer as to what wanted doing to it, then start doing it, and work Saturday afternoon, and then go in Sunday on the week I worked days, and finish off what I was doing and then go and help the fitters to assemble it back in the place down at Little London Road where it wanted to be, and it didn’t matter how long I stayed there, but that had got to be working for half past seven on Monday morning and that happened every other week.  We used to work one week days and one week nights, and every day week that was it.  Made quite a lot of money actually during that period, but then suddenly it had all finished.  And, no more overtime for toolroom, it’s ‘costing too much’, and the job was done. And I left then and went to work at Sheffield University as a technician in the Physics Department, which was another door to science fiction.

LH: Yes … and were you reading still?

FB: Oh still reading and still reading things like science … all sorts of science fiction… It was quite a popular genre at that time.

LH: Arthur C Clark?

FB: Arthur C Clark yes, very frequently … yes, I loved his stuff.  Who else did I read?  Asimov, I’ve mentioned.

LH: Well, I wonder if you read H G Wells at any point?

FB: Yes, I read most of those … I also got interested about that time in Nevil Shute, who also, of course, was an engineer.

LH: Was he?

FB: Oh yes, Nevil Shute … Nevil Shute Norway was his full name…. he worked alongside Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb man of the Second World War, on the R100 airship. R100 was the private industry version of an airship that worked; the R101 was the civil service/government attempt at a space ship that kept getting modified and modified and modified and didn’t work, so airships were bad news, and the whole idea was scrapped.  But the R100 actually did work very well.  Nevil Shute was what was called at that time  – long of course before the days of any sort of calculator, you know, there were no pocket calculators then and no computers – and he was what’s called a stress calculator. It was all done on a slide rule … . I’ve still got one of those.  It’s up there …

LH: OK. I didn’t realise he was …

FB: So, Nevil Shute wrote some quite interesting novels, a little bit sort of socially conscious, that sort of thing.

LH: Yes, yes. Anything else you can remember?

FB: Well, yes … Shute’s books, my favourite of that was, would you believe,‘Trustee from the Toolroom. And it was literally about an engineer, a retired engineer that was a model engineer He made model engineering things, and he finished up in some sort of M I 5 scenario going and making wondrous things, and impressing everybody with a little petrol engine he’d made… oh, it was great fun… all very sort of 1950s.  There was one called What Happened to the Corbetts; this was postulating a nuclear holocaust and this was a family in Australia which didn’t get completely and utterly devastated… and I seem to remember a line in the book, in the preface, I think, or perhaps the blurb, ‘what would happen if 1955 continued being forever 1955?’.  But yes, I read that sort of thing, and from time to time I started picking up an odd non-fiction book.  So obviously I had a strong background in mechanical engineering and I started getting a bit interested in the electrical and electronics side. So I’d pick a book like that up at that time and of course I was in the Physics Department and what I was doing basically was building research tackle for the research students doing their PhDs.

LH: And so was it that experience that led you into your own further education?

FB: Yes, yes. I was allowed to go back into further education while I was there, and I went back and did another stint at what was still the Sheffield College of Technology and I was there … we’re in the early 60s now, and I think I left the University at 1964 because I’d been pretty well head hunted by Granville College who started to go places they hadn’t been previously.  Granville College was first built that they did all very elementary stuff and they did first and second year City and Guilds and then they had to go and do third and fourth year at College of Technology, which is now Hallam University, and at this particular time, we’re in about 1966, that things are starting to expand at Granville, engineering-wise that is, ‘er doing a bit more advanced stuff, and in the meantime the College of Technology which had a firm policy of ‘we want to become Sheffield City Polytechnic’, and so they were getting rid of all the staff who hadn’t got degrees and farming them out to Granville College which was the only engineering college then, and they were taking work like Ordinary National Certificate and Higher National Certificate with them, so Granville College had to equip itself to deal with this sort of thing and so I got a new set of things to play with.

LH: Wonderful work life of play!

FB: And of course I’m still reading.  Still reading, yes at this sort of time.  University of Sheffield Physics Department, I went there just as they were moving the Physics Department from Firth Hall over to the new Hicks building.  They’d just got Phase One then; they hadn’t got Phase Two.  Phase Two was a car park at that time, and of course I discovered my interest in the physics side and so I started reading physics, oh what do they call the bloke?… He was astronomer royal at that time and he wrote science fiction stories, er I can’t remember his name, it’s on the tip of me tongue, he was astronomer royal, er… oh it’s not important…

LH: It is… it will come back…

FB: He wrote stuff… what shall I say? … popular ‘cosmology.  At that time cosmology was ‘is it a big bang universe or is it a steady state universe?’ … Fred Hoyle!

LH: Oh yes.

FB: Fred Hoyle was very much a steady state man, but he also wrote some cracking science fiction yarns, usually based on a sliver of mathematics somewhere. Latterly he wrote them with his son.

LH: And you read thi s…

FB: Oh yes I read everything, I ate all that up … and funnily enough I still pick up the odd book on ‘cosmology and quantum mechanics. I’m really thoroughly into the Higgs Boson now … I want one.

LH: Really.  In this room.

FB: Oh I want one … yes I’ll keep it in me pocket.

LH: Oh yes …There isn’t any fiction yet about that, is there?

FB: No, there isn’t yet.

LH: This is your big chance!

FB: No … the fiction people…

LH: Too big for them …

FB: They haven’t really got their head round it yet .. too big for them … they’re bound to.

LH: So, Frank, just to begin to concertina the years up to now. Anything else that comes to your mind that you’ve enjoyed to read?

FB: Oh yes, since I got the Kindle which I got for me birthday this year in May, every day on my email I get an email from Amazon offering me a list of books which I can have for free …

LH: Every day …!

FB: And I usually pick one out, and at the moment I’m collecting these things far far faster than I can read them.  I think I’ve got as many now that if I actually read all what I’ve got now by the time I’ve finished I’ll be about 123.

LH: So you’ve got to be selective now …

FB: Well, yes, yes, I’m still reading bits of physics, I’m reading one now on basically ‘What is space?’, which is very interesting.  I’ve just read a silly fantasy one: The Truth about Sharks and Pigeons, where this young man who’s a computer engineer gets caught up by a pigeon that talks to him, and he’s courting – he is actually number 275th thousand 671st person who is qualified to save the world from the sharks – that’s where it starts and it goes on from there, and it’s absolutely hilarious … I love stuff like that,  that is totally and utterly zany. So I’m reading stuff like that.  I’m reading fantasy …  I’ve just read – I’m collecting a few books of fantasy, I’m terrible with names – she’s an American author but she writes you know very much romances round the Arthurian legend that she interweaves very much in a predominantly druidical and Welsh setting. She’s researched it very very well. She even gives you a pronunciation glossary for the Welsh words They’re wonderful.  I like things like that that are always involving things like dragons and magicians.  Anything that is imaginary and totally escapist I like.  I still read the odd crime story and something like that. I tend to prefer the English ones than the American ones, and the Indiana Jones stuff.  I like things like that … again, the books are far better than the films.  The film really revolves wallowing around in red hot caves and things like that but they’ve all got a nice young lady wearing a very little wispy bit of nothing very much and tiny little slippers and they’re all in boots and haversacks.

LH: Well, thank you Frank.

[Interview ends.]

Recent Posts

Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

By Val Hewson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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