Jean H

Jean H

Jean was born on the 3rd August 1926.

Jean is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 8th May 2012.

Mary Grover: Well Jean, I know you are a great reader. When did you start to read?

Jean H: I think it was when I was about five or six years old.

Mary Grover: So who started you reading? Was it school or parents?

Jean H: Both. My mum and dad and school.

MG:  So did you parents read to you?

JH: At night, before I went to bed. [Laughs.]

MG: And can you remember what they read to you at all?

JH: Not really.

MG: But it must have been fun.

JH: Yes.  Nursery rhymes, or little poems.

[Jean starts laughing because Mary has to sit on the floor to get the microphone nearer Jean.]

MG: Sorry, I have just had to sit on the floor which is a strange position to interview somebody from.  When you went to school, Jean, what did you read there?

JH: [Pause.] Do you know, I can’t recollect.

MG: Did you enjoy school?

JH: Yes, and as a matter of fact, English was one of my main subjects that I really loved, reading and reciting and reading plays.

MG: Was that at secondary school or …?

JH: No, just at normal school.

MG: And can you remember any of those plays you were in?

JH: No.

MG: But you enjoyed them?

JH: Yes, I enjoyed reading them, especially reading poetry.

MG: Has that stayed with you for the rest of your life?

JH: Really, but I can’t remember such a lot now.  My memory is just going.

MG: What school did you go to?

JH: I went to Hartley Brook Rd School in Shiregreen.

MG: And when did you leave?

JH: I left at fourteen.

MG: And what did you do then?

JH: First of all I worked at Shentalls. Do you remember? First of all, I worked in the office at Shentalls. First of all, when I was fourteen, you used to scrub floors, do the windows and then it was … do you remember dried milk? [MG: Yes.] There were stacks of different dried milk in the windows. I used to go out and bring peoples’ orders in. Write them all down when I was working in the office as well as on the counter.

MG: And did you have any time to read when you were working at Shentalls?

JH: I don’t think I did really. No, not really.

MG: So, when as an adult, did you get back into reading?

JH: When I was in the Forces.

MG: So 1939 onwards.

JH: 1944 to the 1950s.

MG: Where did you find your books when you were in the Forces?

JH: We had like libraries where you could go and read if you wished.

MG:  Were they pleasant places to be those libraries?

JH: Yes.

MG: Did you enjoy being in the library?

JH: Yes, I loved Dickens. They were the only books that stick in my mind somehow.

MG: Did you have a set of Dickens?

JH: I just borrowed them either from the library or wherever I could.

MG: Were any of those Dickens novels special?

JH: Yes, I used to love Christmas Carol. That’s the only one that sticks in my mind.

MG: Did your parents like Dickens?

JH: My mum and dad were quite clever. They only went to secondary school because that’s the only thing their parents could afford for them to do. They were both very clever.

MG: They never made you feel that reading was a waste of time?

JH: Oh no, never. Never. [Emphatically] Never. They used to go down to the library in Firth Park every week and on a Friday they used to have a story-teller which was really lovely and they used to collect the books. As I say, I used to like poetry as well as reading.

MG: Did you learn any by heart at school?

JH: Yes. I used to have to stand up in front of the class and read [Laughs.] and if we had visitors, I used to have to stand up. I remember having to do these different things and when the visitors came to school, I used to have to round with them.

MG: And that was because you were a good speaker, I imagine.

JH: Perhaps so, yes.

MG: So when you were in the Forces, you were obviously a keen reader.

JH: I didn’t have an awful lot of time. You were nearly always alert for the sirens going and being in London was a bit dicey.

MG: What was your job?

JH: I was in the Medical Corps. I was a sergeant at 19.

MG: So you must have been very tired in the evening.

JH: I was the youngest sergeant in the London District.

MG: Good heavens!

JH: It was very … you know, had to go out, any time.

MG: Very frightening.

JH:  As well as being in the RMC, I was [inaudible] at a kind of reception station for people who were very poorly.  You sorted them like going to the doctors.

MG: So were you a nurse or on the administrative side?

JH: No, I wasn’t a nurse, I was a medical orderly.

MG: Very interesting.

JH: It was very interesting, taking people to hospitals, especially when you’ve got soldiers who had come from the Far East, Middle East.

MG: Do you think those very interesting experiences led you to read different books than if you had stayed in Sheffield?

JH: No, I don’t think so.

MG: But you had access to the Forces library.

JH: It was NAAFI and they used to exchange books.

MG: Did you find that Joan? [Inaudible response from Joan.]

MG: So when you got back to Sheffield, what did you do then?

JH: First of all, I thought I’d love to be a nurse because when I was in the Forces they said that I was a born nurse, but I didn’t. I went to work in Shentalls, in the office there, would it have been … ? I’ve forgotten now.

MG: You got married.

JH: Yes, I got married.

MG: And did you read at all when you first got married?

JH: I don’t think I did.

MG: So when did you pick up books again? When did you find that you had time for reading?

JH: As I got older. But I more or less like to go to the theatre, plays, you know.

MG: Yes, so where did you go to them?

JH: Lyceum  …The Empire which used to have like …

MG: So theatre was a great love.

JH: I used to go.

MG: Was there one production which stands out as a very good evening out?

JG: No I don’t think so.

MG: So it was partly the fun of going out and being with friends?

JH: Well, I’ve never been very good at making friends but I’ve always gone to the theatre, to plays, on my own.

MG: So it meant that much to you?

JH: Yes, I just loved going. And I loved going to the opera more than anything when the operas used to come to Sheffield.

MG: They don’t come as much now.

JH: Yes. [Inaudible.]

MG: I am afraid so. Leeds is the nearest now for opera. So the cinema – did that figure?

JH: I’m not all that keen on cinema.

MG: Well, thank you so much, Jean.

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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