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

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Steel City Readers

By Mary Grover

Reading Sheffield’s main activity this year is to raise money to support ‘Steel City Readers’, the book by our founder, Dr Mary Grover, about reading for pleasure in Sheffield between 1925 and 1955. The memories of the Sheffield readers we interviewed for our oral history project are at the heart of the book. We want to raise £12,500 to make ‘Steel City Readers’ free to download through an Open Access Licence, so that anyone may read it. Here is our Just Giving page where you can make a donation.

Mary Soar (born Wilkinson)

When you joined the queue of boys waiting to ask Mary Wilkinson to dance, you didn’t know that you were in for something more than swinging a girl round ‘in a room with a lovely bouncy floor above the garage on Psalter Lane’. For, in between dances, Mary brought out her ‘Confession Book’.

With this and a fountain pen, the resourceful girl soon extracted from her friends, male and female, but mostly male, their innermost desires. Each person had to ponder how to conclude a set of prompts like these:

‘I am going to marry for . . ‘

‘My favourite girl is . . .’

My favourite dance band is  . . . ‘ (Harry Roy being the ‘Marmite’ band)

My favourite author is . . .’ (Most of them were thriller writers like Edgar Wallace and the authors of the long-running Sexton Blake series.)

Reading Sheffield discovered Mary’s precious time-capsule ten years ago when we set out to explore the books that mattered to Sheffield readers in the Thirties and Forties. We interviewed 65 readers from all over Sheffield, born before 1945, about what they read when they were growing up.

Mary’s Confession Book is a treasure because people who are not famous, like Mary and her friends, rarely leave records of how they thought and read. Yet, our personal histories and our tastes are individual and surprising, and reflect the times in which we grew up.

The first reader whose memoir I explored did indeed become famous. He was born long before our readers and his reading could easily have derailed a career which was to see him inventing the process of creating stainless steel. Yet Harry Brearley’s first love was reading.

Harry Brearley

Like most of our readers, Brearley had no books at home and even less schooling. He had no access to books from municipal libraries, so, being the resourceful child he was, he made his own. He became a bottle washer in a chemistry laboratory, went to night school, and was inspired by the great educator and philanthropist, John Ruskin. The boy kept borrowing Ruskin’s economic treatise, Unto This Last, copying it out, page by page. He bound the pages with scraps of leather he had scrounged and created a copy of Ruskin’s great work that was his to keep. A formidable achievement, but it was Sheffield’s good fortune that he decided that ‘Reading, there was no living in it’. He turned his attention to the chemistry textbooks lent him by the head of the laboratory.

Adele Jagger aged about 16 in the back garden of 277a Ecclesall Road

For most of our readers, growing up during the Depression, the Second World War and the hard times that followed, there was, still, less of a living to be made from book-learning than there was from taking up a good apprenticeship, if you were lucky enough to be offered one. So why were so many of the people we interviewed gripped by the reading bug and the desire to entertain and educate themselves by reading? For many, with little encouragement, reading became a kind of addiction. Adele, born in 1942 whose father was a painter and decorator, never saw either of her parents hold a book yet, as she put it, ‘something gets hold of you, doesn’t it?’  When I suggested to Doreen, born in 1934, that when she started courting there might not have been time for reading, she was quite tart with me: ‘You can read and dance, Mary!’ Doreen had to leave her grammar school early for lack of parental support. Mary Wilkinson had to leave school early because the family printing business folded. Both girls never let the absence of a School Certificate rob them of an education. They kept on reading.

Doreen Gill and her husband

Most of our readers depended on Sheffield’s superb libraries for the books they read but annuals and comics also changed people’s lives. When Fred Jones from the Manor got tuberculosis in the Thirties at the age of 8, he was a non-reader: ‘I just couldn’t fathom it’. He was sent to Nether Edge isolation hospital and thanks to a mound of comics donated by an imaginative benefactor, he came out fluent, ‘never able to put a book down’ and got to night school.

Fred’s story is told by one of our interviewees, Malcolm Mercer, a boy who never passed his 11+ but became headmaster of Parson Cross School largely because of his own reading. When he left school at 14 to become a shop-assistant he bought himself a notebook and recorded everything he read. He borrowed books from Park Library, setting himself his own curriculum, which included Scouting for Boys, Lord Beaverbrook’s Success, 100 Tips for more Trade and Tolstoy’s Tales of Courage and Conflict.

Park Library

Steel City Readers is inspired by the pleasure Malcolm, Doreen, Mary and others found in the books they hunted down. Liverpool University Press is publishing it as an e-book which will make it free to readers globally, but an author must find £12,500 for the licence fee and other costs to publish it. Will you help Reading Sheffield pay the fee? If you could make a donation, perhaps in memory of someone you know whose life was changed by reading, we would be most grateful and you would be contributing to preserving Sheffield’s history.

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