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

Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

By Val Hewson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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