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.


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?


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?


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?


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.


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].


Bridlington 1947

Recent Posts

‘Young woman, 22, not a reader, joins library’

As we practise social distancing and self-isolation for COVID-19, we may well be reading more. At home we have old favourites worthy of another look, ‘to-be-read’ piles and perhaps library books we had on loan before lockdown. As we roam through online catalogues, bookshops both new and second-hand are valiantly posting orders and e-readers downloading titles. Public libraries may have closed their wooden doors, but their digital portals are open wide for the borrowing of e-books, magazines and newspapers, and research libraries are making their content more widely available.

All this set me to wondering how the last great national and international emergency, World War II, affected people’s reading habits. Here’s what happened in Sheffield.  

A young woman of 22 had recently joined the public library, said the Telegraph, in its Sheffield Woman’s Diary column, on Wednesday 20 December 1939. She told the library staff that ‘until the outbreak of war she had never read a book since leaving school at the age of 14’. Now she was ‘reading at least two books a week’. The woman was one of 30 to 50 enrolments a day between September and December 1939, reported City Librarian J P Lamb.

People sought out the public library because they wanted to stay safe and to avoid boredom. They were also trying to understand what was happening and why. And it has to be said that there were fewer resources in the home: for many people, one wireless shared by all the family, very few televisions with limited programming and absolutely no internet-enabled smartphones or laptops to divert you.

When war broke out in 1939, everyone expected heavy air raids and public entertainment was curtailed accordingly. (In fact, there was little activity in what became known as the ‘Phoney War’, from September 1939 to April 1940.) The local library offered distraction, comfort and information. Even though opening hours were reduced, from ten to nine hours a day in Sheffield (just imagine!), suburban libraries in particular were seen as safe. The council responded to this, opening by February 1940 a new branch library, in Totley, and twelve part-time ‘library centres’ in areas without branches, like Crosspool.

The original Totley Library building, now a hairdressing salon

The city was fortunate that its libraries came through the war relatively undamaged. Even during the Sheffield Blitz raids of December 1940, only one library centre, the Manor, was destroyed, with the loss of 300 books. The rest sustained minor damage. The Central Library, ‘bracketed in lines of flames from the Moor and High Street’ according to the 1939-47 Sheffield Libraries report, escaped too. (More or less. If you look down the next time you walk across the entrance lobby, you will see, running almost the whole width, the crack caused by bomb blast.)   

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield (public domain)

There was, J P Lamb noted, a falling off in borrowing in the first week of war – ‘less than two-thirds the normal daily average’ – but this was temporary. Even as people settled to war, and dances and the like started up again, borrowing rose. By November 1939, the number of books issued was 59,332, only 417 fewer than in November 1938, and the trend upwards continued.

What were all these people borrowing?

Borrowing in Sheffield’s Central Lending Library
(image courtesy of Picture Sheffield, ref no s06725)

Both fiction and non-fiction were popular. The Telegraph said that ‘the war has caused such a rush on non-fiction books at the Central Library that some stocks have had to be heavily duplicated’. As books wore out, replacing them was hard and costly, because of paper shortages and the destruction of publishers’ stocks in London’s air-raids. Sheffield was fortunate that its far-sighted City Librarian had early on bought a vast amount of fiction – enough for all the new library centres and a 40,000 reserve – at nominal prices from publishers keen to empty their warehouses.

Readers continued to probe the causes of the war. ‘Since September, 1938,’ the Telegraph said, ‘there has been a great demand for books on world affairs.’ German, Czech, Polish and Finnish histories were borrowed. First-hand accounts of the rise of Nazism, such as Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed and Reaching for the Stars (1939) by Nora Waln, were also much requested, as was Mein Kampf. (The 1939-47 library report also noted as popular in wartime: One Pair of Feet (1942) by Monica Dickens, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940), Trevelyan’s English Social History (1944) and Madame Curie (1937) by Eve Curie.)

Some readers were already looking ahead. ‘Among readers studying theories for a new and better Europe an exceptional number of requests have been made for Streit’s Union Now.’ Clarence Streit was an American journalist covering the League of Nations. Disturbed by nationalism, he proposed in his 1938 book a federation of the leading democracies and economies, including the USA, Australia and Scandinavian countries. From about 1944, readers’ minds turned to the practical and the future, asking for ‘back to the land’ books like Thomas Firbank’s I Bought a Mountain (1940) and material on, for example, food production.

In 1939, people were thinking about the war effort. The Council approved the borrowing of books from the Reference Libraries.

On National Service it has been necessary to duplicate books dealing with all forms of national service. Books are wanted on the Navy, Army, Air Force, first aid, fire fighting, and balloon barrage work. Men who are training for semi-skilled positions in the armament factories have made requests for books dealing with their subjects.

Young people, it was said, were ‘trying to continue their studies in spite of difficulties’, bringing their reading lists to libraries. Children who were not evacuated, or who returned, were thought safest in the home. Schools were closed and arrangements made for tuition in small groups in private houses, church halls etc. Junior libraries were therefore closed between September 1939 and November 1940. Children’s books were moved into the adult libraries and local education centres, the idea being that parents could borrow for their offspring.

Children playing in wartime (public domain)

Making your own entertainment at home was the norm. Readers ‘are asking for and reserving books from the Books for the Home Front pamphlets’. These guides were produced by Sheffield Libraries on a variety of subjects from history to handicrafts.

When a check was made recently it was found that out of 47 books on card games only 10 were available. There were five books out of 21 on fireside fun and only 19 on vegetable gardening out of 95. It was also found that only four books on Bridge were available out of a total of 34, three on party games out of 17, two on billiards out of 9, three on chess out of 54, and six on dancing out of 35.

Finally, there was escape in the form of fiction. ‘It was recently found that 11 out of every 12 volumes on the Central Library stock were in the hands of borrowers.’ Classics were popular:

… the libraries’ 10 copies of [Lorna] Doone were all on issue, also the full stock (six copies) of Adam Bede and the eight copies of The Cloister and the Hearth. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are in great demand. Of the stock of 89 Dickens books 18 were out. Five out of 205 Galsworthy books were out.

Illustration from Lorna Doone

The Telegraph says nothing about light fiction, but it must also have been widely available. At this time, public libraries were often wary of the entertaining, leaving it to the commercial tuppenny libraries on many street corners. But, while promoting cultural standards in general, J P Lamb had championed the popular for years, on the grounds that it drew people in. He had the vast, cheaply-acquired stock mentioned above, and we know from one of his staff that he was ‘buying forty copies of the latest Edgar Wallace’ for the Central Lending Library. According to the Sheffield Libraries report for 1939-47, the most popular fiction books over the war were: Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936), The Stars Look Down (A J Cronin, 1935), How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn, 1939), The Rains Came (Louis Bromfield, 1937), All This and Heaven Too (Rachel Field, 1938) and War and Peace (Tolstoy, 1869). All, apart from War and Peace, were also popular films of the period.

Scene from Gone with the Wind
Scene from How Green was my Valley
Scene from The Rains Came

How many of the books mentioned above are still read today?

After the war, Lamb concluded in his official report that Sheffield’s ‘reading throughout the war did not differ to any marked extent from that of previous years’.[ix] Fred Hutchings, his deputy in the early war years, took a different view in a paper for the 1952 Library Association annual conference :

… war became a release spring, taking the compression from dull lives and making people think beyond their narrow corners into the world around them.

Whichever view you favour, know that, in 1945-46, Sheffield broke all records, with 3.75 million books issued. What will be the effect of COVID-19 when we look back on 2020, the year Sheffield Libraries had designated their Year of Reading?

Here is Sheffield Libraries’ e-library. If you want to read more about the libraries in wartime, try Crisis Reading and In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th. To learn about the wartime reading of our interviewees, Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War, is a paper by Mary Grover and Val Hewson, read by Mary at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary in September 2019.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from A Sheffield Woman’s Diary, by Margaret Simpson, Sheffield Telegraph and Independent, Wednesday 20 December 1939.

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