Jean was born on the 17th June 1930.
[Much of the interview that did not concern Jean’s reading has been summarised with the passages dealing with Jean’s reading transcribed. The whole interview is available in audio.]
Jean’s father had a mixed farm, with a grain silo in Lincolnshire. Her father was there for four or five years in the early thirties. Then a ‘terrific storm’ caused him to lose all his hay so they moved to Woodhall Spa where they kept chickens. They were not at all well off. Her mother took in lodgers: a nurse and a teacher. Jean was for many years an only child. In 1935, when Jean was about five she was sent to a dame school.
JA: My mother got tired of me sort of fidgeting about so she popped me in a pram and took me round to a kind of dame school. S at round the table, there were about eight of us, writing, spelling, dancing, arithmetic. I don’t think she taught history. She taught reading, so whether she taught me to read or whether my mother did, I cannot remember.
LH: Do you remember reading story books in that school with Mrs Storm?
JA: She must have tested us for reading because in my reports it says ‘Better’ or ‘Good, tried hard’ that’s April 1935, then … it says ‘Fair: room for improvement’ [she must have the reports in front of her]. That was April ’35.
LH: Were the children in the school all different ages?
JA: I don’t think so. … She taught us all together, at a big round table, about eight of us.
[Jean can’t remember whether there was a shelf or cupboard full of books. And she can’t remember the teacher reading to the pupils.]
JA: I can’t remember my parents reading to me either.
[Jean can’t remember having a book in her hand.]
JA: There were one or two little books at grandfather’s house, that I’ve got, tiny ones. Milly Molly Mandy, that sort of thing, a bit racist, really. … I can’t remember my mother reading to me. I think my father read to me more. … after we left the farm. We used to come up to Sheffield because this was my father’s home town. Used to come up to Sheffield to see his father and all my aunts, and they read to me. They were maiden aunts so they had the time to read to me.
[The family firm made files, started in seventeenth century and went on till they had to sell up when the demand for files fell in 1980s].
Maiden name was Peace and the family firm was called Samuel Peace and Son.
[1936 Jean came first to Broomhill area of Sheffield but later moved to Greystones.]
JA: I went to the local school, which was Greystones. I was always taught [at her previous school] to stand up when the teacher came in. The teacher came in so I stood up. Nobody else stood up. … But that was how we were taught in our little school, quite different from town schools. [remembered nothing about reading at Greystones, no memory of borrowing books but did remember being read to by her teacher].
JA: Every Friday, all afternoon, she used to read to us all. We used to enjoy that. Books like Water Babies, or Wind in the Willows.
LH: Did you have presents of books in your home?
JA: In 1944 my parents gave me for Christmas a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encylopaedias. I’ve still got them. … I think they got them from the door. They sort of came round and bought them a book at a time or something. Print is so tiny. I could show you them if you like. …
JA: I used to have the Children’s Newspaper, that was Arthur Mee’s. My parents got that for me. Delivered. In 1938 my sister was born. I can’t remember reading to her.
JS: 1941 I took the scholarship to High Storrs and I passed, fortunately, so ’41-‘48. They had a library of course.
[On the effect of the war]
JS: Greystones Infants, the roof was damaged so we had to have one or two lessons in the secondary modern school next door for a short time, then we did home service when we used to congregate in other people’s houses. We had some children living in our attic, only a few of them … a family. If they could, they used to provide a room so we didn’t lose out on our teaching. So my mum offered our attic. It was a nice room up there, plenty of light. I think we had about four or five.
LH: How, I wonder, did they staff it?
JA: There would be different children in each house. … I could stay at home but we also had to go to the fishmonger’s up the road; he had a room to spare and I think Peak’s the Butcher’s had. So we didn’t just stay in my house.
LH: It must have been so complicated. How did you hear where to go?
JA: I suppose the teacher told us.
LH: I bet a lot of children dropped out by the wayside. Did the children in your form stay with you?
[Jean couldn’t remember the composition of the groups or who stayed]
[Jean talks about her father’s company near Vincent’s Church in Solly Rd. She was in Ranby Rd, Greystones. Describes the American plane that came down in Endcliffe Park]
LH: Were you a member of a public library? I think there was one in Broomhill.
JA: We didn’t go to the one in Broomhill. We didn’t go to Broomhill much, only to see my grandfather. … The nearest was Ecclesall. … We went to the Children’s Library in the Central. I can remember going there … It was fine, lovely. I was a great reader. I can remember reading The Forsyte Saga when I was about 15, late at night. I was engrossed in it.
LH: Did you enjoy it?
JA: Oh I did. I didn’t enjoy the latter end of it, the 1920s. I didn’t think it had the same gusto as the Victorian part.
LH: What do you think, as a teenager of 15, what do you think drew you to the Forsyte Saga?
JA: I’ve no idea. I do like family history. It was before the television Forsyte Saga of course.
LH: It was quite sophisticated reading for …
JA: Yes it was. Must have been in about I945. I don’t know why.
LH: Who would have suggested the Forsyte Saga to you?
JA: It would have been from the Central Library, not the Children’s.
[JA can’t remember when she had to move from Children’s to adult library and can’t remember who recommended the Forsyte Saga.]
JA: We had English Literature, English Language. They don’t do that now, which is a pity. I don’t think we had a reading group as such. But we were encouraged to use the library, which we did. I think we did more reading because, the dark nights, you couldn’t go out to play. And no box. We listened a lot to the radio. It was a family thing.
LH: Do you remember any of the books you loved when you were about twelve at the beginning of High Storrs?
JA: Well, I’ve got some old books upstairs. Only the Forsyte Saga. [She means that is the only one she remembers reading; she later mentions lots more books kept upstairs.]
LA: That must have made a big impression on you.
JA: Oh yes, it did. It did. I haven’t read it since.
LH: Is it something you would have been taught about at school?
JA: I will have to ask one of my school friends, living down south, whether she knew why I liked the Forsyte Saga.
LH: But apart from that, you were reading Shakespeare? You made a grimace at ‘Shakespeare’.
JA: We did the Merchant of Venice. I must say I understand about the pound of flesh now. Very clever wasn’t it? And Julius Caesar, Part 1 wasn’t it? Part, No 2? And then we did Charles Dickens.
LH: Did you enjoy Dickens?
JA: Well, I think he’s better in a simplified form. I love to see it on the television because they can simplify it, take away all the descriptive pieces, get the bare bones. Marvellous writer really both the good and bad. Oh yes, we did poems, Milton: Il Penseroso – is that it? And that other one L’Allegro or something but I’m not into poetry.
LH: Were you a person who saw themselves as an English, a reading person or as a Maths or Sciencey person?
JA: Oh English. I wasn’t Maths or Science at all. Oh no, I was often the bottom of the class in Maths.
LH: So you read books at school because you had to and you were encouraged to use books from the school library and you went to the Central Library and got books from there and enjoyed doing that.
JA: And my parents had one or two books of their own. I wouldn’t say they were into reading really. My father more than my mother. My father used to enjoy books like A. G. Street about farming life. I’ve still got them. I’ve got one or two books that he was given by his aunts: The Secret Garden – 1913 it’s got in it. He was given it by one of the maiden aunts. I read it to my children. I always loved that book. I can reread that.
LH: How old were you when you read The Secret Garden?
JA: Oh goodness, 19 perhaps.
LH: I suppose his aunts had given it to your father when he was younger.
JA: He would have been nine.
LH: So did your parents have their books on a bookshelf.
JA: Yes, yes.
LH: Was that in the place where you sat in the evening.
JA: Well yes. They didn’t have a bookcase. They just had a book rest. I’ll show you upstairs.
I was just thinking, he was given it when he was 9 in 1911 so we’ve had it since in our family so it’s 102 years old isn’t it? There was one about David Livingstone. Was that a Sunday School prize? I’ve still got that book then I’ve got some books that were given to my mother’s sister as a prize for Sunday School work. Nineteen ‘o’ something.
LH: And I suppose you just wandered into the room and just picked the book off …
LH: So they were your father’s books. Did he read a newspaper?
LH: Did you have newspapers in the house?
JA: He used to like the Morning Telegraph. There used to be a morning paper and the Star was the evening paper. We used to have the morning paper. Used to like that and I had the Children’s Newspaper every week and I had comics.
LH: So you had comics as well.
JA: Every Saturday we used to go to Greystones Rd. Onthe right hand side as you go up there are these fairly new houses. Well, before they were built there was a little row of cottages. In one of them Mrs Dabbs, she used to sell papers and comics from a little house. I can remember getting Chick’s Own. Rainbow as well. She was a huge lady. She would sit on the table and it was covered with papers and comics and things. You had to pay for them of course. Oh Mrs Dabbs!
LH: … Did you have the Beano?
JA: That was much later on, more my children’s time. They had Beano…
JA: Dandy. The comics were around but I didn’t have them. Chick’s Own. [MG, obviously Rainbow and Chick’s Own didn’t count as comics]
LH: Were there little stories in it? Pictures?
JA: Pictures, you know, What the Chickens Did. There must be one around in a museum somewhere. I don’t know which firm it was that published it.
LH: So Mrs Dabbs, she just sold newspapers?
LH: Did she sell sweets?
JA: No, that was further along.
LH: Did your mum read?
JA: She did read but I don’t think she was over keen on reading. She could read of course but no, she was more of a knitting and hands-on person really.
LH: Some people have told us about subscription libraries, the Red Circle.
JA: No I’ve never heard of those. I’ve heard of Boots Library but I never went to Boots Library, no, we just used the Central Library, think. I used to go along to the Readers Digest Book Club – all these books every month, oh dear …
LH: How old were you?
JA: Very well bound. Oh that was in my early twenties.
LH: So if we go back to being at school, did you take any public exams when you were 15 or 16?
JA: Oh yes we took Lower School Certificate when I was 15 and Higher when we were 16. I took three years over that instead of two, 1948. Well it’s all changed now, O levels, A levels, I don’t know what it is now.
LH: So you stayed at school till you were 18. There was no question that you should leave school. Nobody suggested that you …?
JA: No, there was no question of that. We were financially much better. We moved from Ranby Rd to Bannercross Rd a bit further up the hill in 1944. That’s it, there was a library just across the road, Weetwood.
LH: Did you go there?
JA: Yes, yes I did. I don’t know whether I still used the Central Library. You know where the Ecclesall Library is now, well it was the building behind near where those awful chalet, Swiss-type things are now. They pulled down that lovely old house! Oh well, that’s life isn’t it?
LH: They say there was something wrong with the roof. Do you remember going to that?
JA: Oh yes.
LH: Do you remember the librarians there?
JA: No, you’re asking too much of me there!
LH: Did you go every week or once a month?
JA: I went when my book ran out, fortnightly perhaps. It’s a bit longer now
LH: You don’t remember how you chose the books? … So you stayed on at school till you were 18 and what did you do then?
JA: Then I had a gap year, very modern. First I wanted to be a librarian and then I wanted to be a hospital almoner.
LH: Why did you want to be a librarian?
JA: Because I liked books! I don’t know why I decided not, no. Then to do social work I had to be 19 and I didn’t have Latin so I could go to any of these posh universities so I had to do one of those social sciences certificate courses. I applied for Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield was just setting up its course, 1949 so I had this gap year and I worked for Sheffield Council Social Service. Do you know about that? It was a local organisation which helped families. It worked hand-in-hand with the Family Service Unit, the Probation Service, House Service, the Council. We were up on the top floor. You know where the Peace Gardens are now? Well there was a building near the Town Hall, on the corner, a great tall building well we were up on the top floor of that. I did social work there. There was visiting, all places I had never been: Parson’s Cross, Shirecliffe, the Manor.
LH: You were just a young girl.
JA: I know, dear me. But Parson’s Cross there was no shops, no library. Dreadful. Just houses. It must have been marvellous for the people who went in after the tenements, not tenements, the slums, the slum clearances. But some houses, they didn’t have a paper or a book in sight. No pictures on the wall. They were quite happy I suppose. But when you think, the social framework has much improved. Oh yes, when I finished my two year course at Sheffield University. It was the only one that accepted me and it was the only one that didn’t want Latin. But we did some interesting visits. We had to do six weeks which followed the Octavia Hill method, in Rotherham. So I did three weeks in Rotherham and three weeks in case-work visiting. Then we had to do a month on the factory floor so I did Batachelor’s peas at Wadsley Bridge, that was a hard one and then a month in the office. Then I did a month in the Royal Hospital, before it was pulled down. I can’t remember much about that. Then six weeks in the summer vacation, a friend and I, doing the same course, we went to London to do care committee work … They don’t have it now. We were placed in a settlement in Peckham, Union of Public Schools Settlement where we lived. The Care Committee system was only in London. They worked from the schools and they worked with problem families, why the children weren’t going to school. That was interesting, hard work.
LH: The whole course sounds fascinating.
JA: Yes, I don’t think they have it now. It’s a good idea. I don’t know what they have got in its place now.
LH: So two years. Did it give you a proper professional social work … ?
JA: So it was a two year course, a Certificate in Social Studies. Not a degree course. Now, of course you can take a Social Science degree. There were only six of us at the beginning. Now there are two hundred or so.
LH: Trailblazers. So what did you do after you had completed the course?
JA: Well, I didn’t really want to do hospital almoner work. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I knew I liked old people. So I don’t where they found me this job. I was working with health visitors in Sheffield, you know Orchard Place? Well before that was all altered it used to be Orchard Lane. It used to be called Maternity and Child Welfare Clinic. At the corner was the only vegetarian café in Sheffield, it was lovely. … There were about 20 health visitors at that time and I was given a job, visiting all the old people. I don’t suppose they had time to sit and chat and have a cup of tea. So that was my job and I liked it ‘cause I was fond of social history and I had the time to sit and chat. I had a cup of tea with them. It used to be very interesting. Their childhood, in the steelworks, how they lived and all that but I can remember one visit I made, an elderly lady, she was looked after by a niece who had a family. And in those days, it was a Yorkshire range, no central heating. This lady was more or less bed-bound. So I went up to see her in her bed, nice old thing and I kept my gloves on for some reason.
LH: How long did you do this?
JA: [Discussed working with the elderly. Eventually found it a bit depressing. She befriended and assessed the needs of the elderly and finished summer 1951 when 21. Then Jean went to join the Wrens. Father wasn’t pleased. March 1953 left home and joined the Wrens. One year training at Burfield near Reading. Trained to be a driver at Leigh-on-Solent. Posted to North Cornwall. Enjoyed the freedom. ‘When you are off duty, you are off duty’. Subsidised travel. Now dismayed that with those passes she came home rather than seeing UK. ]
LH: All this time while you were working first in Social Services and the Wrens, did you have time for reading?
JA: Oh yes. Of course you read a lot when you were doing a course, [inaudible] books and economics and things. When I joined up I took a few books away with me. I got into Somerset Maugham, as well, fascinating, marvellous. Yes, I took one or two books away with me.
LH: How did you choose? Do you remember which books you took away?
JA: I can see the book now.
[LH shows Jean the list of books we compiled. Jean casts her eyes over it.]
JA: Oh H.E. Bates, I liked him. Arnold Bennett, I don’t remember.John Braine? Ann Bridge, who’s she? A. J. Cronin I’ve got one or two of him. Warwick Deeping, not sure. O. Douglas. Is that Dornford Yates? O. Douglas, that rings a bell. Gilbert Frankau, John Galsworthy. Winifred Holtby, yes, lovely. Naomi Jacobs?
LH: Now these were books that were popular from about 1945-60. Is this the time you would have been reading these books?
JA: Oh yes [still looking at the list] Somerset Maugham, J. B. Priestley, oh yes. Nevil Shute. Oh, I’ve got loads of his. I could reread those. Time and time again.
LH: Did you read them at that time when you were in your twenties?
JA: I think so, yes. Howard Spring, yes. H. G. Wells. Oh yes. Dorothy Whipple, that’s an old one. I’ve got one of her books. E. H. Young. Sheila Kaye-Smith, good heavens, you’re bringing back! Oh Mary Webb, I’ve got a lovely copy of one of her books, Precious Bane.
LH: Do you remember when you read that one, Jean?
JA: Oh dear, in the 1950s, no, when I was forty or fifty. But there again that’s a family copy, lovely illustrations by Rowland Hilder. I’ve got one upstairs. Georgette Heyer, yes. Baroness Orczy, Scarlett Pimpernel, isn’t it? Yes I’ve read that one. Anya Seton, no. Adventure: John Buchan. Erskine Childers! Riddle of the Sands! Oh yes, I’ve read that. Rider Haggard, no. Dennis Wheatley no. Oh Dornford Yates, very old-fashioned, 1920s. Gives you the willies!
LA: Why does he give you the willies?
JA: Well, it’s all a bit snobby, isn’t it? Oh no. Eric Williams, The Wooden Horse, I think I’ve read that. [inaudible] I haven’t read any of the thrillers [on the list in front of her] I’ve read more modern thrillers.
LH: When you were older?
JA: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham , Dorothy Sayers but not Edgar Wallace. Dennis Wheatley, no. I read one of his, forgotten what it was, about the Devil – frightened me to death, oh no.
LH: In your twenties did you read everything or did you pursue a particular interest?
JA: Not really a very adventurous reading. [Goes back to list] Crime: Margery Allingham yes, Arthur Conan Doyle yes, Agatha Christie yes (I’ve got all her books). Never heard of Cyril Hare. Michael Innes no. Ngaio March, yes and Dorothy Sayers, yes. Comedy, do you want me to carry on?
JA: All these books! Marvellous isn’t it? E. M. Delafield, I’ve read this. Stella Gibbons! That’s a funny story isn’t it – Cold Comfort Farm? Don’t like Don Camillo, … no. Now Margery Sharp? What books? [inaudible] Now P. G. Wodehouse – did you watch that television programme about him? Very interesting. Very sad. He never returned to England. Cast as a traitor; he wasn’t, poor man. Oh, I’ve read that book about tramping. Oh Florence Barclay oh heavens above! Oh James Hilton, The Lost Horizon!
LH: Do they bring back memories?
JA: Mills and Boon, no. Westerns, no. Shocking books: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, I’ve read that. Have you seen their tomb – in Highgate?
LH: No, I haven’t been to it actually. When you read the Well of Loneliness, can you think how old you were?
JA: Old enough to understand it.
LH: Was it shocking?
JA: No it was different, gave you another aspect of life you know. In the sixties perhaps when I read it perhaps. Do you know I haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and I must do.
LH: Did you read Lawrence?
JA: No. [returns to the list] Classics: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy. I read one, Tess. Joseph Conrad. Oh H. E. Bates yes! Lovely! Catherine Cookson, no. Naomi Jacobs, Nevil Shute again. Virginia Woolf, I’ve tried to read her haven’t managed it, To the Lighthouse. I can’t manage her. Well do you know you haven’t mentioned Francis Brett Young, you haven’t mentioned Norah Lofts. And Francis Brett Young, well, I am surprised. All hardback. I don’t think you can get them in the paperback but he wrote some famous ones.
LH: Francis Brett Young should be there on the list. And you have got a whole set, have you?
JA: Well, more or less.
LH: When did you acquire those books?
JA: Well it was when I was in East Hill Rd and there used to be a secondhand bookshop at Hunters Bar and I think, ah, JA 1988! [opening books]. Now one of these is a first edition; it can’t be this one.
LH: Did you buy a whole set or one by one?
JA: No, oh Oxford Charity Shop 50 pence. Now one of these books is a first edition. I got this book from the secondhand bookshop. [finds and opens book] First edition, 1936, there you go.
LH: So you bought these books in the eighties.
JA: Well yes.
LH: Because you knew and loved Francis Brett Young.
JA: Well I popped into secondhand bookshops a lot and I must just have picked it up and fancied it. But I am surprised it’s is not on that list. He is a very well known author. It is out of fashion now, but one of these is a very well-known book. Forgotten what it was.[reads the titles off the shelf] Is it that one I wonder, Bless This House. All about the Midlands. The House under the Water.
Haven’t you heard of that one?
JA: Where you been?
LH: Sorry. Under a stone somewhere?
[Loveday questions Jean to discover whether she bought them as a set, had read them previously and later collected them].
JA: No, that was the first one. I think when I saw one I bought it. You see they were cheap from the secondhand bookshop. Or charity shop.
LH: You also mentioned Norah Lofts. When did you first read Norah Lofts?
JA: Well, I was, and still am, a steward at Hardwick [National Property in Derbyshire] and at one time I was Mason’s steward. You had to describe the house and everything. And I got interested in architecture. And Norah Lofts, she describes one house throughout the generations: Town House, House at Sunset ever so interesting. She has written other sorts of books as well. [looks at her bookshelves I think] Bless this House, I’m surprised they’re not in here as well.
LH: I am interested that you mentioned her.
JA: Jack London. Have you heard of that one?
LH: Oh definitely.
JA: Call of the Wild and White Fang.
LH: So when you looked at this list and there are so many different sorts of books on it. One of the things we are interested in is how people develop their own taste, their own pleasure in different sorts of reading. You obviously read all sorts. Were you conscious that there was a sense that there were some books that were posh and some books that were not?
JA: Yes, perhaps books that were by John Galsworthy, you thought, ‘Books I should read’ really. I’ve never read a Mills and Boon. I must try one to see what they are like.
LH: Who suggested to you that there were books that you should and there were other books you shouldn’t. [Jean unsure despite different prompts]
JA: I suppose once you read one book you think ‘oh I like that’ so you get another one.
LH: Did you talk about books with your friends when you were a young woman in your twenties?
JA: Well they’d say ‘this is a good story’ and lend it to you, something like that.
LH: When you were in the Wrens and you were away from home, did you have our own books in your room?
JA: Well, yes. On your little chest of drawers you could have anything you wanted, a few books. They used to have a ship’s library, yes they did but I used to buy …
LH: A Ship’s Library?
JA: Well one on board, the camp. Not many people used it, but there was one.
LH: Did you use it?
JA: I think so, yes well, perhaps there were certain books about seamanship, navigation, not that I was all that interested in all that really. Where we used to go to the local village I used to go to a local bookshop and buy one, you know.
LH: How long did you stay as a Wren?
JA: Seven years. I got married eventually, had two children and left of course.
LH: Did you have to leave?
JA: No, when you got married you didn’t have to leave. You had to leave the camp, live in married quarters. I didn’t have to leave, no. When I started having a family I had to then of course.
LH: So when did you come back up to Sheffield, then?
JA: Autumn of ‘61. I was expecting Wendy. My flat in Plymouth wasn’t big enough for two children. My ex-husband was going off to work in the Far East so my parents very kindly offered me room in their house.
LH: Was he a navy man?
JA: Autumn of ’61. Yes. Perhaps spring of ’62. Yes, Wendy was born in spring of ’62. That’s right. And of course we were staying with my parents. Then I moved out to Youlgreave for a year. Then I moved to East Hill Rd in ’64 . We’ve always had books about.
LH: You read to your children.
JA: Oh yes, of course. Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh. You haven’t got A. A. Milne have you?
LH: No, we haven’t got children’s books. But we are always interested to hear from people who, like yourself, loved to read if they read to their own children.
JA: We tried the American ones, Brer Rabbit. Remus. Not Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a famous … An American one. It was about a wolf. Very well known American fairy stories. We didn’t like the Grimm Brothers, much too grim. We liked Alison Utley, Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, The Secret Garden – me, I couldn’t get enough of it and A. A . Milne books. Lovely, gorgeous.
LH: So your own children grew up liking to read?
JA: I can’t remember teaching them to read. None of my friends can either. Oh no. I can’t remember cat and mat and dog or anything like that, sorry!
LH: Well, I am very delighted with all the things that you have told us. Is there anything else you feel you have missed that you would like to tell us about?
JA: No, I don’t think so, no.