Gillian Applegate

Gillian Applegate

Gillian was born in Frecheville on the 27th October 1941.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 3rd May 2012.

MG:    This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover.  It is 2nd May 2012 [actually it was 3 May] and I am interviewing Gillian Applegate.  Gillian was born in … Where were you born, Gillian?

Gillian Applegate: Frecheville.  It was actually North East Derbyshire at the time.  Sheffield eventually took over.

MG: And when was that?

Gillian Applegate: 27 October 1941.

MG: And where did you live in Sheffield between 1945 and 1960?

GA: Frecheville.  Various streets.  My mother moved out three times within Frecheville, but it was always Frecheville.

MG: Even though we’re most interested in what you read as an adult, we’d like to know where you started to get your love of reading.  So when you were a child how did you develop your love of reading?

GA: I remember at school – I don’t know whether they do it now – but on a Friday afternoon, always the teachers read you a story – Milly Molly Mandy, Worzel Gummidge – and I absolutely adored it and I think that from when I could read, I’ve always had a book in my hand.

MG: Did your parents read to you?

GA: They must have done, but I can’t remember.  But they did want us to read and be educated.  I can’t remember them reading a lot, except my mother very light romances from the library.

MG: You can’t remember where she got those light romances, can you?

GA: First we didn’t have a library at Frecheville but she certainly got them when the library was built; she went to the library at Frecheville.  Did Boots have a lending library?

MG: Well, I don’t think they did, Gillian.  I’ve had no record of anybody borrowing from Boots.  But there were newsagents’ shops which lent out light romances.

GA: Or the market?  You bought a book and then took it back.   I vaguely remember, very vaguely.  [Laughs]

MG: It’s just that the Council  didn’t tend to stock very light romances; they were quite severe sometimes in what they stocked.  Though people got the light romances, as you say, from market stalls and newsagents.

GA: Perhaps passing around amongst friends?  Because my mother had a wide circle of friends.  She loved dancing and I think …

MG: Do you think it was partly from her you got the sense that reading a book was fun?

GA: I think I always had it, really [Laughs].  When I was older, when I was widowed, a friend invited me to go to a book club my sister, who now lives in Cirencester, said “I think you should, because you always had a book in your hand”.  And it saved me really, in bereavement.

MG: Yes, very important.

GA: If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d got a book on the go, rather than get upset, just switch the light on and read the book.

MG: So obviously at school you loved listening to stories.  When did you actually leave school?

GA: I was 16.  I loved history, and at school they actually wanted me to go to university to read history but again – my mother will figure very strongly in this because she was a very strong woman.  Silly now, but she said girls don’t need an education.  You’ll get married – which you’re not forced to, are you? – you know, or you could get married and lose your husband in various ways, or never get married but at the time I think she actually got me my first job, in the bank, because she was a legal cashier and paid in and asked if they’d got any vacancies.  So I went to what was the National Provincial Bank and became the National Westminster Bank near the Cathedral.

MG: And did you find that the people you worked with were readers at all?

GA: We were all so busy, we were young.  It was actually a good time,. Although it wasn’t the job of my dreams I did enjoy it.  Part of the time I went to a small branch at Eckington where I was the only girl, and that was lovely because everybody used to come in and see me.  I really enjoyed that.

MG: So the staff there were friends?

GA: Oh yes.  Very much so.  I laugh now because it was at a time when they were expanding and we didn’t have two halfpennies to rub together.  But because they didn’t have the babies they got the promotions, the bank managers and everything…  We had a reunion a few years ago and they’ve all got really lovely houses.  They did very well.  You could stop on when you were married but once you started having children you left.  I think it was two years after I’d had my daughter that they started giving part-time work.  I often wondered what position I would have reached in the bank if that had happened.

MG: So you must have been good with figures as well as with books?

GA: I didn’t pass maths O-level but I managed in the bank.  Well you can see the use of it, can’t you, there?

MG: So when you were working in the bank you didn’t read that much?

GA: Yes, I did at home, but it was a lovely time really.  You were going out.  We had a walking club from the bank.  But it was mostly … Well you had dances but they didn’t drink like they used to do now.  You were offered cups of tea and coffee and orange.  I think the boys used to go sometimes to the pub and come in for the last dance.  And the last dance, then they asked girls out. [Laughs] We danced round our handbags.

MG: Sounds fun.  So you didn’t belong to a library at that point?

GA: Yes, I’ve always belonged to a library.  The one at Frecheville mostly.

MG: And what were the librarians like?  Were they encouraging?

GA: I was never in awe of them, because they were friends, really, and they’d tell you new interesting books that had come in.  I think I browsed an awful lot as well in the libraries which was a lovely thing to do.

MG: Can you remember any books which the librarians recommended to you?

GA: I can’t really.  I suppose it was something, if it’d taken off, if it had become a film or something, or a well-known author.  I definitely liked the historic novels of Jean Plaidy and any new ones of hers, they’d tell you they were in.

MG: Anya Seton, did you read ?

GA: No, I didn’t.

MG: So that really fed your love of history.

GA: I’ve always had a love of history.  Even now, if we’re in quizzes, I’m pretty on the ball if they ask historic questions.  I perhaps ought to have been a researcher in museums, but I didn’t.  I got into libraries later in life.  I worked at Castle College as a cashier which fitted in perfectly with having a young child and then when tertiary came, that job went.  I’d gone part-time and taken a library qualification and was offered a job in the library which I adored.  I’d found where I belonged, I think.

MG: And I hear you did very well in your qualification.

GA: Yes. I got distinctions and merits.  And my husband said to me “Oh, I knew you’d pass.  It’s as if you were rehearsing all your life.”  But I’d be like everybody else: I always thought I wouldn’t.

MG: Did your husband share your love of reading?

GA: No, not really.  He’d had rheumatic fever as a child so his education was curtailed somewhat and he was left with a murmur in his heart, so his health wasn’t … He was in a wheelchair for a year and he went to the Gregg Centre for bookkeeping and he started at Stewart and Stewart, which is long defunct.  It overlooked the Peace Gardens.  A very nice department store: he was in the tailoring department there.  And when they went, he went to Austin Reed and he actually went for a time on the Queen Elizabeth, the shop there, to work.  And when he did that I went to London with the bank, when they had share releases and we met up.  So for six weeks I was in London and he was backwards and forwards to America.

MG: Did you enjoy that?

GA: Yes I did.  First of all it was Lloyds of London and that was quicker than we thought.  So I actually went to the Hampstead branch so I got used to whizzing on the Underground.  And everybody was very friendly there.  But they put us up for the night in a hotel and they gave us, I think it was 5 shillings a night entertainment allowance and it got you to the gods.  And there were girls from all over and they were friendly.   There was Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.  The Sound of Music was another one.  I can’t remember.  There was a few.  I remember, it was when the tennis players turned professional and they couldn’t go to Wimbledon and they were all on at Wembley: Lew Hoad, Rosewall, Roger Taylor.  I love watching sport and I persuaded all the girls to come .  We had to wolf our lunch and we were very late when we went in and we went up and we were “How much is it for tickets?” and the man in the box-office said “That’s a lovely northern accent.  Where do you come from?” and I said ”Sheffield”.  He said “I come from Barnsley” and we got in free.  [Laughs]

MG: That’s wonderful!  Was that before you had children?

GA: That was before I was married.  I was just what we used to call “courting”.

MG: So when did you have your children?

GA: I’ve only got one child.  I married in ’64 and had her in ’65.

MG: And did you find you had less time to read, or did you have more time when….

GA: Obviously … I did read a lot to Jane.  She reads books now, and I’ve carried it on with my grandchild.   I enrolled him in Gleadless Library shortly after he was born.  But he’s not got the love of reading we have.  I don’t whether that’s because he’s a boy.  He’s doing very well with science and maths – he’s 11 now – but in English he’s like all little boys, I think he only writes what he needs to.

MG: So when do you think you got back to your own reading?

GA: I’ve always had books and sort of read at home but not a lot.  But I think it really came back when I was widowed ten years ago.  He’d gone out walking, my husband and had a massive heart attack.  At least I didn’t see him ill, but it was such a shock and devastating.  Everybody was so kind and asked me to go to things and I went to everything.    Too much, really, but then you do say “Well, I like this”   and I told you about joining the book club.  So I joined the book club at Waterstone’s on a Sunday and then there was one on the Wednesday evenings at Sheffield City Libraries.  And then I met my partner – I have a partner now, he’s got his own house – but it’s lovely.  We are a partnership, we go out and about and then find we haven’t got quite so much time again to read.  So I resigned from the book clubs but for three years I’ve been running the book club for the Oddfellows.  So I run the book club for them.  We met yesterday.  We meet at Crucible Corner: it was buzzing with the snooker and we’re again using the libraries: we borrow them at the libraries, so it can only be ten members because they only lend you ten books.

MG: Tell me about the Oddfellows, Gillian.  I don’t know much about them.

GA: Again I met a friend on a holiday.  She lived at the Stannington part of Sheffield.  It had come through her door where the Oddfellows were meeting.  So she said “Will you go with me?” and we did.  It’s evolved from the guilds when everybody bound together and helped each other.  They helped if you were ill and everything like that.  The Oddfellows were for when there was only one or two in a trade: hence the Oddfellows, it was any trade and it was that for a long time.  Then in Victorian times, because we’d not got a National Health Service, they always paid out if people were ill and helped them to pay the doctor and that happened until the National Health Service.  And then they stopped that and they went into insurance for some time – I’m trying to think what dates, I’m not quite sure of the dates – but they went into the idea of it being a social organization.  So when we meet it is really to help people meet people, meet together and have holidays.   I’ve had some lovely holidays with them at a reasonable price.  The particular branch I’m in meets at the United Reform Church near Marks and Spencer’s and it’s ideal because it’s people with disabilities.  It’s pretty much really people over 50, have got time – people are busy with work, I suppose.   I would say that’s our membership.  People can be enrolled from young but I think that’s the biggest membership and it’s just lovely.  They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  We help each other and do different things.  One year I was – they’ve still got the old-fashioned word – it was called the Noble Grand, but really it was the chairman.  I raised money for the [indistinct] Society and I got 1000 pounds with it.

MG: And now you run the book group?

GA: The friend who helped me, I was helping her and I just thought “They haven’t got a book club” because we had walks, different things, and I said to the secretary “Can I start a book club?” and he said, “By all means, it’s in the diary”.  It was quite slow at first and then people, it wasn’t what they wanted and they dropped out.  It’s all women, unfortunately.  We’ve had men but it’s all women.  We’ve got a lovely nucleus of nice ladies and we meet there and he supports us very much.  He said if anybody forgot to bring the book back and there was a fine he’d meet that, but they’re all very good, I’ve got them well trained [Laughs] but what we’ve also had is visits, so we’ve had Bryony Doran who wrote The China Bird, and she came and that was lovely.  And one of our members is Marjorie Dunn.  Again, my love, she writes historical novels, so she’s come and visited us.  And then we’d actually read – you know, Meet the Midwife, that’s been on television – we’d actually read that before it came on television, about the workhouse.  It went into much more detail about the workhouse than it did on the television and one of our members had been to the workhouse at Southwell.  We’ve actually had a trip there.  So we’ve all sorts.  So it’s going along nicely.

MG: So do you find that your love of historical novels is still …

GA: It’s still very much there.  The books I read myself, probably … I’ve just read Wolf Hall.  It was heavy going but I really enjoyed it.

MG: Is there any period of history you particularly like reading about?

GA: I like the Stuarts and the Tudors but I’ve read about the siege of Leningrad: I’ve forgot who wrote it, a well-known author – Dunmore? – so I’ve liked that period, World War I and World War II.  So I think any interesting period, really.

MG: There are a lot about the First World War, aren’t there?

GA: Yes, yes.  And I don’t know whether you do, Mary, but when they have the literary festival I go to quite a few of theirs.  Last Year I went to The King’s Speech and it was the grandson of Logue, one of them who’d helped with the film and since the film, another brother of Logue’s, they’ve found some more material about it.   It was at the University and they had a talk about it which was very interesting.  The question and answer session and then they had a break and I hadn’t seen the film and they showed the film.  That was really lovely.  I think it’s great, the literary festival.

MG: Do you enjoy that, getting to know the story behind a book?

GA: Yes.  We’ve also done the one on Black Diamonds.  So obviously again it’s history.

MG: When you were in your 20s and you were going to films more than when you had a child, did you find that triggered your interest in a book if there were a book connected with the film?

GA: I think it’s been the opposite way probably.  I think I’ve read a book and then the film’s come.  Because they’re never quite as good, are they? [Laughs] I think I prefer to read the book.  But in The King’s Speech I hadn’t actually read the book: I read the book after.  But I thought it was very good, the film, very good.

MG: What about Dickens, because there’s so many wonderful films of his.  Do you enjoy reading him?

GA: Definitely.  We did Great Expectations, that was one of the things we did for English Literature.  For O level, GCSE.  Or GCE it was when I took it.  I enjoyed that very much and I won the prize for English Literature at school.  So we went to Andrews and I didn’t just manage one, I got two books.  I got Ivanhoe and Emma by Jane Austen.  And it’s all got “School Prize: Gillian Stannington”.

MG: Stannington is a very Sheffield name, isn’t it?

GA: Yes, I always say I had a road named after me [Laughs].

MG: I taught up there.  So Emma and Ivanhoe, did you enjoy reading them?

GA: Yes.  And I thought again, Ivanhoe was better than the film but I did see the film because Robert Taylor was in the film and I thought he was gorgeous.  [Laughs]

MG: Did it get you reading other Walter Scotts?

GA: Yes.  I can’t remember now; I have read quite a few of them, but it’s very vague in my memory, it’s a long time ago.

MG: He didn’t turn out to be one of your favourite authors?

GA: No.  Tell you who was – again I’ve forgotten a lot of the things – he writes tomes, James Michener.  Potomac the river going through Washington and it was all about the settlers from the very first.  It went to the present day and it sort of followed, where there was this Indian girl and she’d got a bit of a lip, turned-up …

MG: A hare-lip?

GA: Not a hare-lip.  And so her descendants come into the story all the time and she’s got this distinct – I suppose it’s like the Mallen streak isn’t it?  From Cookson.  But it was very interesting, you know.  How they were conquered, the Indians, and people came in and the Swedes, all the Americans, yes, it was good.

MG: So do you read many American authors?

GA: I have more since we’ve been in the book club.  Some I find fine, but others, no.  But you’ll have to prompt me for the authors: I’ve forgotten!

MG: Margaret Atwood?

GA: Yes.  Oh dear, you’ll have to prompt me again.

MG: In the book club, Gillian, who chooses the books?

GA: We take it in turns.  I have to go in with them.  I don’t know if you know but when they lend you ten books, they want it to come back as ten books so it has to be channelled through me.  They can’t just go in and take their particular book.  Yes, we got one yesterday.  Do you want to know?

MG: What was that?

GA: Do you want to see what we chose?

MG: Yes.

GA: I’ll go and get it.  I’ll be two minutes.  [Pause] The lady who chose this chose it because she wanted it to be a bit lighter.  We had one before which was The City and The City.  I’ve got that there because I didn’t hand it in, but it was like … it was an unnamed divided city so [unintelligible] and it was a detective story of a murder.  A lot of us didn’t finish it, and I usually finish a book .  What with being on holiday, there was such a lot of foreign-sounding names so you couldn’t get to grips with the character.  But it’s disappointing for the lady who chose it [laughs].

MG: You need to be quite diplomatic, I expect.  So this one that Gillian’s just brought in is Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love.  Have you started this?

GA: No, I only got it yesterday.  And the lady who chose that book, she also brought us all a book for the World Book Day.  Last year it was Cloud Atlas she brought us.  And they’ve just made a film of that, haven’t they?  But again, that was hard going and a lot of violence.  I wouldn’t say it was my favourite book.

MG: Going back to your American tastes in books, did you ever read Gone with the Wind?

GA: Oh I’ve read that, and I see the film every time it comes on television.  Absolutely adore it.

MG: What is it, do you think, about that book which makes it so powerful still?

GA: Well, there’s a lot more in the book that there is in the film, a lot more, and I think it’s just a period that’s … it is a long way away, but it doesn’t seem so far away and then you’ve to the themes of slavery and, I suppose, women’s emancipation with Scarlett O’Hara because she was a businesswoman which she wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t have had the war.

MG: Yes, that’s true.

GA: So I think that theme … And she was silly, she thought she was in love with Ashley when she just wasn’t, it was just a romantic silly idea in her head really.  It was wet, really. [laughs]

MG: That reminds me, that Rhett Butler figure seems to crop up in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.  Do you like them?

GA: No, they were a bit too … more lightweight.  Jean Plaidy did more of the proper history.

MG: So that’s what you like, an historical novel that gives a sense of real history?

GA: One as well, I’ve forgotten the author but The Other Boleyn Girl and that sort of reading I like, with more detail.  Now Fraser …

MG: Antonia Fraser…

GA: But her daughter wrote a book and she came and spoke at the Quaker Meeting House at the Festival.  She was a lovely girl.

MG: Rebecca?

GA: Fleur?

MG: Flora.

GA: Flora, yes, a lovely person.  But with them being, her father was a lord, wasn’t he and she did have access to the Royal Archives which not everybody would get would they? [laughs]  She was lucky.

MG: Does that interest you, how people get their information?

GA: Yes.  It did on the Black Diamonds because she came with a gentleman who had been a policeman in Darnall and he knew a lot of the…..He was from that area.  He liked to hear himself speak.  He rather … she wasn’t allowed to say as much as she could.  But with her knowing that he’d got her access to the Durham miners and the miners round about there.  Perhaps because she’s got a posh voice they might not have spoken to her and he got her entry into it.  She’d already got entry into the archives of the stately home , because Chatsworth comes into it with Katherine Kennedy, things like that.  But she’d been allowed there with no trouble.  I’m interested in what’s going to happen to Wentworth Woodhouse.  Be lovely if it was restored, wouldn’t it.

MG: It was a lovely house.  This interest in history, do you belong to a local history society?  Do you like the fictional representation of history?

GA: No, not so much. Last year we took my daughter and grandson because I’d decided … He was ten then and like all boys he liked dinosaurs.  I said it’s time we went to the Natural History Museum because if we take him when he’s older he’s not going to … We thought we’ll have a morning there, but we were there all day, all day.  But it was lovely, he loved it.  We stopped at the Tower Hotel which is a horrible concrete monstrosity near the Tower.  It was a Star trip, and we went to Greenwich and they’d just had the riots; it was all boarded up, the town of Greenwich.  The Naval Museum that was lovely, and then we walked up to the Observatory.  It was a beautiful day, and there was this gentleman outside, he said to my grandson “Do you want to see the sun through my telescope?”.  He was a volunteer from inside the Observatory [unintelilgible].  Fantastic, because he was seeing all things around he sun.  It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for him.  And he said  “I’ll meet you at the coach.  But if you want to go back on the river boat, if you don’t come at 4 I’ll know you’re not going”.  And we went back by the river.  My daughter had worked for the police and the River Police headquarters was there and it was all Canary Wharf.  It was brilliant going back.  Well, the next day we were supposed to go to Windsor.  We’d been to Windsor a lot so we actually went in the Tower.  I was saying “Waste not a morning” and then they went off to the HMS Bristol, to look at that.  I was there all day.  So no, I like the facts of history.  I think the Beefeaters there, once they know the history. They were actually showing … Because I’ve got asthma and everything they showed me short cuts and said “If you want to go down you can down on the Up, you’ll not have so much climbing to do .”  That was wonderful.  I’d been before, but it was still wonderful seeing it again, you know.

MG: So do you feel that your love of history has taken you to places…?

GA: Yes and I’ve really enjoyed looking at stately homes.  I like seeing the kitchens and how the servants lived.  I think it’s very …  I suppose in those days I’d have been a servant.  I wouldn’t have been a lord [laughs], it must be nice being a lord.

MG: It’s interesting how much new history is coming out, about the view from the servants’ perspective.

GA: Yes.  And do you like George Eliot?

MG: I do.  And do you like George Eliot?

GA: Yes.  Middlemarch.  That was on the telly, it was a good series.

MG: Why does George Eliot appeal to you, do you think?

GA: Again it’s not just the sentimental view of history, is it?  You know she was an heiress and she just threw herself away on that cad of a man, didn’t she, because she thought she could help him?  She just didn’t want to just be a housewife.  It was a disaster but you could see why she had married him, you know.

MG: Women didn’t have that many choices, did they?

GA: No.  The Brontes, I do like them.  You remember them, as you begin talking.  And Elizabeth Gaskell, I quite like hers.

MG: Did you read Gaskell and George Eliot later on in life, in the last ten years?

GA: Certainly George Eliot.  Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontes I had read.

MG: Were you introduced to the Brontes at school?

GA : No, we didn’t do the Brontes.  And of course I love Jane Austen.  [Laughs] I went to my sister’s on holiday at Cirencester and we had a day in Bath.  That’s lovely.

MG: Which is your favourite Jane Austen, do you think?

GA: Pride and Prejudice, I suppose, yes.  And I thought the Colin Firth version….I didn’t like the new one.  Well, yes, it was good, but it wasn’t as good as the ……you know.  It was in the time when I was in the library at college and we got a great big poster of Colin Firth when it come out.  You could see his nipples.  We’d got it up in the office and I thought if the students only knew… I suppose that’s sexy, really isn’t it?

MG: On the other hand, if you’d put it up in the library maybe you’d have lent lots of copies.  [Laughs]

GA: Perhaps the boys wouldn’t have liked it though.  [Laughs]

MG: When you were working in Castle Library, Gillian, did you come across any books that you liked through the library?

GA: I did when I first went there because they must have had a lot more English  courses.  But the librarian who came in got rid of a lot of those and just concentrated on the subjects they were doing.  But he did again, what I did find interesting, he did get a lot of things that were, it was more pamphlets, and I liaised with a girl in the Town Hall and got everything about Europe.  So everything new that was coming up and that was one of my jobs, to keep that up-to-date.  I found that very interesting – very heartbreaking sometimes – [Laughs] they meant well really, but it’s just all gone wrong, hasn’t it?

MG: I’m afraid so.  Did it lead you to read any European novelists?

GA: Yes reading Lolita.  That’s not European is it?  The Kite Runner, I love that.  Umberto, is it Umberto…..?

MG: Eco.

GA: Yes, I’ve read it.  I thought they were all the same stories in the end.  I enjoyed the first few, but they all sort of had the same theme, didn’t they?

MG: Do you tend to do that: you find an author you like and then read everything by them?

GA: No.  Not now, because we’re doing so many different ones.  We’ve just read that Marina – I can’t pronounce her name.

MG: Oh yes, the Tractors.

GA: No, not the Tractors, We are all Made of Glue.

MG: I don’t know that one.

GA: That’s interesting and different, and that was a library copy.

MG: Another Sheffield author.

GA: Yes.  And another one, that was lovely, it was a detective story, and that was on a Greek island, beginning with “Z” and she’s a Sheffield author.  We all enjoyed that, because you could smell the thyme, and it was so well written about a Greek island.  Because of that I read myself, not through there, Victoria Hislop’s The Island.  Don’t know if you’ve read that.  I think they going to do The Return.  It’s about the leper island where they had to go if they got leprosy and that was wonderful.  I think it won a prize, didn’t it?  And I think because I’d read this one by Anne I enjoyed that and it reminded me of my Greek holidays.  I can recommend that: it’s certainly very good.

MG: Did you ever read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?  Did you like that?

GA: Yes.

MG: You’ve mentioned a couple of times detective stories.  Do you enjoy them?

GA: I don’t but we have had one or two because there’s people who like detective stories.  Now, The Skeleton Coast.  We’ve got a member who comes from Zimbabwe and been in South Africa, and she got that because it did take it in.  But that was sort of a detective story.  It was interesting.  Some didn’t like it but I quite enjoyed that.

MG: You don’t crave detectives [Laughs]

GA: I don’t, no.

MG: I get the feeling you don’t go for romances particularly, do you?

GA: No, I mean yes, they’re all right but no, you know, because you can have romance in your own life, can’t you? [Laughs]

MG: That’s one of the things that interests me Gillian, that when the people I interview were young, going out to dances and so on, they didn’t stop to think very often.  So  I wonder if reading comes into people’s lives very often when there aren’t other things to grab them.

GA: Yes, I think so, but now I shan’t let it go now I’m back to it.

MG: You can have romance and reading.

GA: I’m certainly lucky to have met my partner but he’s lucky to have met me because he’s been divorced 17 years so he thinks Christmas has come having been on his own a lot.  And we do have fun together, laugh a lot.  And my daughter thinks we’ve got the best of both worlds because we’ve each got our own life as well and I think – do you want personal things? – I don’t think we will marry because silly things, like I get a small pension from my husband and that will go if I marry and I think “Well, my husband worked hard for me to get that”.  Sounds very mercenary …

MG: Realistic, yes, absolutely.  The one question I ask everybody, and it may not mean anything to you, but is there any book you read that really changes the way you looked or felt about things?

GA: I think I can say one thing: I didn’t particularly like the book but one of the first ones we read when I was at Waterstone’s bookshop was The Girl with a Pearl Earring which I thought was a bit tedious and everything but then a lady said “There’s a film and they’re having it at the Anvil” and about 6 or 7 of us went to the film and it sort of got me into circulation again after I’d been bereaved because this little nucleus started going to exhibitions: we read a book about the plague, I’d never been there and we went to Eyam, and it sort of started life beginning again, shall we say.  Do you understand that?

MG: Yes.

GA: I just remember that’s the particular book we’d read.  I wouldn’t say I was enamoured of the book but it certainly changed my life.

MG: That’s very interesting.  One of the things talking to you is that books seem to have opened the door to social activities.  Do you think that’s been true all your life or mostly in the last twenty years?

GA: Mostly in the last twenty years, yes.  Because social things happened from walking and certainly I’m in a walking club and that’s opened other [indistinct] because we all wanted to sequence dance. So one lady said “Oh I’ve hired a church hall and I’ve got a lady who can teach us” and it’s blossomed and now a gentleman runs it and there’s about 60 members.  He’s doing a holiday which we’ll not be able to go this year because we’re doing something else but we’ve been twice to Blackpool to dance at the Tower Ballroom and that’s been wonderful.  Bur before that, when I met Keith, who I met at the walking club, but he was like a relative of Norman and my best friend, Hazel and John: Hazel was his cousin.  So we’d both joined this walking club, not knowing him, and he said “It is Gill, isn’t it?” and it’s as if it’s meant to be really and it gradually got from a friendship.  Now he’d always liked dancing and I didn’t dance with my husband, because he used to [indistinct]  waltzes or a quickstep and so we went to Draper’s to learn to dance, and that’s when we became a couple because you’re dancing close, aren’t you?  And we go Saturday nights to have a dance there.  It’s a big part of our lives.  So books and other things, I think some sort of social club.

MG: So many things, Gillian. [Laughs]

GA: Oh, I’ve not finished, I do tai chi [Laughs] and swimming.

MG: Amazing.  Well I probably ought to draw it to a close now because we’re getting near the hour and it’s about an hour that I save on the CD.  There’s just one other question I’d like to ask you.  Were there any books that you loved but would think “Oh, I wouldn’t like them now”?  But you liked them at that particular time in your life.

GA: I always liked Little Women and whether that would seem a bit twee.  I’ve read March that somebody wrote.  Is it a prequel?  I didn’t really like that very much.  It didn’t paint Mr March in a very nice light, I don’t think.

MG: There’s a bit of a fashion for that.

GA: Well, it is sort of saccharine,  I suppose.  But again, mentioning Dickens, that brought in Dickens in the Pickwick Club.  It touched on that.

MG: When did you read Dickens , Gillian?

GA: Really at school.

MG: Great Expectations.

GA: That’s another one.  A Tale of Two Cities.  I’ve read them all, really, but they take some reading, don’t they.  I think I liked David Copperfield, that’s good.

MG: But your parents never had any copies of Dickens in the house?

GA: No.  They didn’t not have books, but they didn’t have many.  They were more or less, you know … they had the Bible that my dad woulld’ve got from school and things like that.  But no, I meant I’ve always had … they’re in my bedroom, the shelves, I’ve always had books on the shelves.  I think that’s a good thing.  Norman did, because he had a love of nature so he’d got bird books and things like that.  While he didn’t read he did have books like that.

MG: And where did he buy his books when you were married?

GA: He didn’t buy books when we were married.  I think people had bought them for him when he was ill.

MG: Do you think he was reading more when he was ill?

GA: Well, I don’t think he could do anything else.  Well, you wouldn’t believe it because we then had a grocery shop so he was humping potatoes about. [Laughs] But he couldn’t run, but he walked, you see.  But he died walking, but he loved it.  He was 63.  So from his point of view it was the perfect place; he was with two friends.  But 20 years too early, I think.  It wasn’t meant to be, no.

MG: Well, thank you so much, Gillian.

GA: I’ve enjoyed it.

Recent Posts

In the year 1873

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

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

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

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

Brightside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upperthorpe

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

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

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

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

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

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

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