Jean Wolfendale

Jean Wolfendale

Jean was born on 7th March 1933.

She is being interviewed by Sahra Ajiba on 14th October 2011.

SA:  This is an interview conducted by Sahra Ajiba, S-A-H-R-A A-J-I-B-A. It is 14th October 2011. I am interviewing Jean Wolfendale, J-E-A-N W-O-L-F-E-N-D-A-L-E. She was born in 1933 on 7th March and lived in Meadowhead and Norton between 1945 and 1965.

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Jean in the entrance to High Storrs School 1950

So, Jean, to start, did anyone read to you when you were young? Or how did you … gain your keen interest in reading when you were younger?

JW: Mm, yes, I think my parents read to me a little but not a lot because they were both, er, very busy people. I learnt to read when I was … I think five, almost as soon as I started school and got very bored because … … there wasn’t any stimulation in school. So, …  my parents took me to the children’s library which was in, well, where it is now, in the middle of Sheffield and I was enrolled there as soon as I was seven.  I think you couldn’t join before you were 7, …, and after that it was a weekly trip to the library to get suitable books. Mm … but I’ve always just loved reading … mm … They also bought me Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, all twelve volumes which I devoured, starting with the fiction and gradually got onto the more, erm … what’s the word … academic things, but the fiction and the poetry were the things that attracted me at that age. The trip to town became a very regular thing.  I had a close friend.  We went to music lessons in town and then from there we would go to … , the library and also to … a shop on Holly Street, Andrews, where they had the most wonderful display of children’s books, and we would save our pocket money and buy a book as often as we possibly could.  Then we’d share them. By ‘45, which is I think the time you’re wanting to talk about, I was at High Storrs School, I’d be a second year then, and of course we were very much encouraged to read the, sort of, [bimmer] [unclear word] classics.  I had Ivanhoe as a prize at one point.  So I read a lot of Walter Scott and a lot of Jane Austen.  Mm … for a sort of lighter reading there was Little Women and, er [long pause], let me think.  Oh, yes the Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy.  My friend and I ploughed through all seven volumes of that, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  Erm … what else? [long pause] Let me think [long pause]. For light relief, yes, there were Biggles books which were all about wartime exploits and, of course, it was in … well, it was the end of the war but we’d been brought up through the war so that was all very, very … mm … what’s the word again … oh dear, I do hate this.  It was in the top of our minds sort of thing so there were the Biggles books and also there was an author called Mal-Malcolm Saville who . . . one of his books was Mystery at Witchend and there were others which were sort of spy story-type things but not spy stories.  We also had the Hans Andersen and the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and so on but I think that must have been at a younger age than teenage.  Mazo de la Roche, yes, I ploughed through all the Jalna novels and I absolutely loved them.  I couldn’t wait to find the next one in the series from the library.  Hugh Walpole, a lot of his books I read.  Mm, what else have you got here? Dickens, at that age I would have been reading Christmas Carol and David Copperfield … , I think the other ones came later.

SA: Are there any books that stand out in your mind as being a transition from childhood to adulthood that you chose to read and that you think made you feel more adult?

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Jean (left) Bridlington 1947

JW: Yes, there was an author called Frances Parkinson Keyes. He [sic] wrote very meaty, very long novels.  I can’t remember a great deal … a particular title now but again it was … several of them were set in the American Deep South and, …, they were quite adult and I enjoyed those very much.

SA: So it was more the change of genre that made you feel more adult than one book?

JW: Yes, and then there was Dornford Yates who wrote the Berry books.  Which were screamingly funny and, … I shouldn’t find them funny now but I did then and again … I used to annoy my parents by sitting in the corner and laughing at the books and they couldn’t understand why.  They were, they were fascinating … as I say I probably wouldn’t enjoy them now, although I’d love to read one again just to try it [laughs].  Er, I can see Gone With the Wind.  I think I probably read that about that time and that again was a much more adult one.

Erm, [pause] yeah my father read … goodness I’m sorry, dreadful this, they’re all on the tip of my tongue and I can’t remember them.  I’ll come back to that, it doesn’t matter.

SA: Ok.

JW: Er, so what else was there?

SA: So you said that you got most of your books from the library or you went down to the little shops and saved your pocket money to get them.

JW: Yes.

SA: Did your parents, even though they didn’t read to you that much, when you were younger, did they encourage your reading?

JW: Oh, very much so.  Yes.  To be fair, there wasn’t an awful lot else to do.  The only other thing to do in the evenings, apart from school work, was, erm … er, listen to the radio, which obviously we did as a family but, er, yes reading was very much encouraged.

Your supervisor was asking me about the, the little libraries that there were in Sheffield and I told her that my father through my mother belonged to one of these.  I told her it was, I forget the name, but anyway I’ve remembered it, it was the Red Circle library and it was on, I think, Angel Street, although it might have been on Haymarket.  Er, and erm, they stocked sort of popular fiction. He liked crime and cowboys and detective novels and so on and she could get those for him from there.  The public libraries didn’t have that sort of thing in those days – it was very much more erudite. You know, you were supposed to be educated if you went to the library rather than just amused.  Er, Nevil Shute, Dad and I both enjoyed those, that was something we shared together … because they were very well written, they were lovely.  [Long pause]  What else?  [pause].  Tarka the Otter, yes, I remember reading that but I think that was much later.  I don’t think he was writing when I was that age.  I seem to remember Tarka the Otter, probably in the late ‘50s, probably ‘60s, I’m not sure about the date on that.

SA: OK.  So your family was a positive influence on reading.  Is there anyone that made you feel like reading was a waste of time or that just didn’t encourage you to read?

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Jean and family in Scarborough 1948

JW: No, no.

SA: So everyone was happy – ?

JW: Everyone encouraged me to read, yes. Yes, definitely.

SA: So you said you used to sit in the corner and laugh and you don’t quite know why you would do that now.  Have you ever read a book that’s kind of a guilty pleasure or that you feel embarrassed about?  Anything like that?

JW: [long pause] Yes, let me think. Who was it? Which one was it? Oh gosh there was a famous one. Well, Lady Chatterley – when we were at school, of course, everyone wanted to get their hands on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was many years later before I did actually read it but we were all trying to read it at that time. There was another one … oh dear … I can’t remember its name but there was another, sort of, well I suppose it would be quite mild these days but it was considered very sexy in those days. All the girls in school were trying to get hold of copies of this but I can’t remember its name.

SA: So you noticed a difference between what was high-brow and what was low-brow?

JW: Definitely.  Yes.

SA: But did you read a mixture of both?

JW: Yes.  Yes, er, yes.  I think so.  Definitely.  As I say these Dornford Yates ones, you’d call them ‘pulp fiction’, I suppose, but they were, they were ok.  Erm, school was a very, very strong influence and it was very much: ‘Children, girls, you must read.  Uplifting books.’  Erm, we were very much discouraged from having, for instance, comics or anything like that.  I had something called Girl’s Crystal but . . . which was a … quite a decent comic but you couldn’t possibly have mentioned that in school because that wasn’t the done thing as it were.

SA: So reading was encouraged but only a certain type of reading?

JW: Yes. Yes … Geoffrey Thorne (Sp?).  Oh, that’s another one.  He would be considered light reading but we used to read those.  I’ve read most of those in my time.  John Buchan, he was more approved of … erm … much more literary.  I still enjoy reading him.  I’d quite like to see a Geoffrey Thorne again but I don’t know where you would get one now.  Hammond Innes.  I’ve read those but again I can’t remember what stage.  That’s probably pushing towards late teens rather than early teens.

SA: Yeah, that’s fine. We’re looking at how-how your reading developed as you get into adulthood so you can talk about anything you like.

JW: Yes. Oh, gosh, right, it’s something that stays with you for life.  I – I belong to a little group of ex-teachers and, when we meet, we swap books and we talk books all the time and I mean, you know, it’s still there.  Antony [sic] Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda, I’ve got that on the shelf, just over there.  That again was an early teenage one. Dennis Wheatley.  That was the one I was trying to remember that my father . . . my father had these and he didn’t think they were suitable for me, but I used to read them on the quiet.

SA: So, as you grew up and as you became older, did you streamline the kind of book that you read to a certain genre or did you have favourite authors or did you just continue to, like, devour, like lots of different types of literature?

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On the way to Mam Tor

JW: Devoured really, I suppose.  Yes, I don’t think I particularly … I suppose it was historical fiction in many ways that I used to go for.  I hadn’t realised that but I supposed it was.  To a certain extent ,anyway.  I don’t remember reading much Georgette Heyer. I tried her and didn’t like it but I read D K Broster and Baroness Orczy.  For some reason I never took to Jean Plaidy.  Anya Seton was another one that I really enjoyed.  There was … now what was her name?  A Traveller in Time by … Alison … Uttley.  That’s right. That was … erm, one that absolutely fascinated me as an early teenager I think, and that set me onto Mary Queen of Scots and all that sort of thing.

jean-wolfendale-mam-tor

SA: You said that you were a teacher.  Do you think that your love of reading either influenced becoming a teacher or was influenced by becoming a teacher?

JW: [pause] It influenced my becoming a teacher.  I … gave up on a chance to go to university and got married and had children so I didn’t become a teacher till I’d had my family and … when I went to college I specialised in English and French and that was obviously as a result of my – my reading and so on.  I did English at Higher School Certificate so I’d got a background of English.  So reading obviously played a tremendous part in my life, it still does.

SA: OK. That’s because one of the questions is: ‘Do you think reading has or how has reading changed your life?’  So you think it has?

JW: [pause] I can’t say it changed it because it’s always been there … mm … but I can’t imagine a life without it and in fact at the moment I’m beginning to have some trouble with my eyes and I can’t read for long and that is a real … er … hurt, you know, I have to do something else and I’d prefer to read [sounds sad].

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Bridlington 1947

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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