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.

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A Light To Read By

On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.

They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]

In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.

Brightside Library. The name was eventually changed to Burngreave but the building remained a library until 1990. It is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.

On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]

At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.

For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]

Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.  

  • Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
  • Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)

Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.

The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)

Example of lighting from Champneys’ Public Libraries (p. 19)

The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.

It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?

This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.

What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.

A sign in Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon, USA. Image by Frank Schulenburg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.

[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.

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