John D

John D

John D was born on 29th June 1927. He lived in Darnall until he was 7 years old and then Handsworth.
John is being interviewed by Mary Grover

[John’s account of his family is edited at his request.  Information relevant to his reading journey includes the facts that his family moved from Darnall to Hardsworth and then to Attercliffe. Bombed out of Attercliffe, they eventually found a house in Tinsley. John attended Firth Park Grammar School till he was 18. He got his Higher School Certificate in 1945. He was called up just as he was beginning his teacher training but returned to it after his National Service. This training equipped him to become a Junior School teacher.]

Mary Grover: John could you tell me where you lived in your childhood and teenage years and what took you about the different areas of Sheffield that you lived in?

John D: Yes, I was born at Darnall at about zero years of course!  I’d started the college about one month and then I got the call up papers and I was in the RAF where I remained then for three years. I got back more or less in the June or July and then I went to the college properly and did, in those days, it was a two year course.

MG: John, before we leave those school years, which primary school did you go to?

JD: Well of course I started off at Darnall. During the war that became an auxiliary fire station. I don’t think there were that many children. Then I went up to Handsworth, Handsworth Council School, of course they were all council schools in those days and then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I. By that time of course I was going to Firth Park so I continued at Firth Park until I was called up.

MG: So when you went to school did you feel that you got access to any books that interested you?

JD: At that time, to be quite honest, my only interest in books was for entertainment. In other words all the books I was reading were fiction so really and truly, up to going to school and needing books for information then of course, I was really into fiction. Now when we got to Firth Park there was a peculiar system in those days in that you paid an amount, it wasn’t a huge amount, although it was to my grandparents, I think it was about a pound or two pound or something a year, to hire the books from the school.

MG: Good heavens.

JD: Did you not know that?

MG: No.

JD: Oh, yes we had to hire our text books and back them and take care of them of course because you could be charged if they were damaged. I think when the Education Act came out later on of course it meant that the books then became free. It was the same with school dinners. When I first went, school dinners were seven pence a day, which doesn’t sound a lot today, but it was a lot in those days. When the government stepped in and said all children must have access to school meals because of rationing and of course not getting sufficient of the right kinds of foods at all because of the war, it actually went down to five pence because that was the standard charge throughout the country.

MG: That’s interesting. So this fiction that you read when you were very young, can you remember any of the books that you read?

JD: Doctor Dolittle and Just William of course, yes. I wasn’t fussy on the really weighty novels, you know like the Dickens and stuff like that. I am sure the stories were splendid but they were buried in a lot of print and to me I wanted it quick and easy, something that I could do. I think I once told you the story on tape before where I had borrowed this book, it was, I think it was a Doctor Dolittle book, I’m not sure now but it was a book of that nature. I got home and I’d read it in an hour of course so I took it back to the library and they told me, ‘Go home, you can’t have any more books You can only have one borrowing a day, you can’t go back’. I think at that time I only had one ticket anyway so it meant that although I’d walked several miles to the library, there and back, it meant that I was frustrated because I couldn’t borrow a book that I wanted.

MG: So did you go home and come back again?

JD: The next day, yes, but not that day.

MG: That’s a long walk from Tinsley to …

JD: No, you’ve mistaken me. I’m perhaps confusing you slightly because we were bombed out in Attercliffe, we moved up to Handsworth again, where relatives lived, and then the house that we’d lived in at Darnall, our next door neighbour, Her house was empty; she had gone away from Sheffield at the time I suppose because of the bombing, so she let us have her house until the Corporation provided us with the Tinsley house.

MG: I see, that’s interesting.

JD: So it was from Darnall, Thornville Road it’s called. From there down to Attercliffe library.

MG: So how old were you when you made that long journey, the few miles to borrow the Doctor Dolittle and then come back? How old do you think you were when you took out Doctor Dolittle?

JD: Well I was certainly at grammar school at that time. It might have not been Doctor Dolittle, I know I read Doctor Dolittle, it could have been some other because, with the disapproval I might add, of the librarians of the time, I started borrowing adult books. Edgar Wallace was my favourite but there were others, Agatha Christies and all the usual. So it could have been one of those that I’d read you know, because I was a quick reader. That’s my problem now, I’ve got macular degeneration in the left eye; my right eye is OK but it’s been spoiled by the left eye, if you know what I mean. I read so quickly that the ordinary magnifying glass is no good to me so at the moment I am exploring with the low vision unit, a way of getting a whole page magnifier.

MG: So these Edgar Wallace, you got them from a municipal library did you?

JD: Oh yes. In those days there were a very popular read.

MG: And what about Zane Grey, did you ever borrow them?

JD: I wasn’t a great fan. I know of Zane Grey, yes, cowboy books of course. I know of them but I wasn’t a great fan of cowboy books in those days. Nowadays I love ‘em! Mainly because they are short and they’re all more or less the same pattern, vey moral.

MG: Quite a few people have said they got their Zane Greys and Edgar Wallace and their sort of entertainment from Red Circle libraries. You didn’t use those?

JD: No, I didn’t. There were two … we weren’t rich enough to be quite honest. There were two, the nearest Red Circle library that I know about, there could have been others, was at Darnall and it was in a couple of shops that had been knocked through but if I’d wanted to borrow them privately rather than municipal, I would have gone to Boots in town because their top floor, half of the top floor was Boots library. But better still there was the top floor that was the library and I think there was photographic equipment and stuff like that. Then there was the main floor with the pharmaceuticals and other and then there was the basement. Now Boots Bargain Basement was famous because all stuff that had been damaged on the way here, boxes damaged rather than the goods themselves, was downstairs, and similarly with books. When books became well, either unfashionable or even perhaps unreadable or perhaps not in a fit state to loan out, they went down to Bargain Basement and you could pick those up for a penny a time.

MG: Could you?

JD: Oh yes.

MG: Can you remember any of the books you have bought?

JD: No I can’t. Except I do remember one and I’m a little bit miffed about that because it was an old Atlas of the World, New Zealand at that time was still Van Diemen’s’ Land or whatever. I took this home and thoroughly digested it; it was just a book of maps I suppose, or perhaps a gazetteer and probably when we were bombed it probably stayed in the house. It’s quite likely.

MG: Shame. But the Boots Bargain Basement was a really good source?

JD: That was the source.

[My uncle] used to give me a ha’penny to go down to one of the cinemas depending on what they wanted. The nearby one was called The Regal, at the bottom of Staniforth Road and then farther down Attercliffe Common as it was called there was The Adelphi, then The Globe and then I think The Pavilion. I think they all still in existence.

MG: Four?

JD: There were four, yes. Attercliffe was a very populous place. Don’t forget there were rows and rows of steelworkers’ houses, back-to-back in some cases. I remember when we started to get our Anderson shelter in the back yard of St. Charles Road, I’d often wonder why there were six houses in the yard, three at each side of the passage and there was a strip of two or three flags wide of flags and then the rest of the place was asphalt and then there were the outside toilets of course. Those we had to share. I think there were about three of four toilets for the whole yard. When we started to dig down through the asphalt to put the Anderson shelter in (when I say ‘we’ I mean my uncles, they discovered there was soil underneath and pigsties). So at that time in the middle of what is now a very, or was then, a very heavy industrialised place, had been smallholdings at one time.

MG: So you passed your Eleven Plus and you went to Firth Park.

JD: That’s right.

MG: And do you think you …

JD: When I was searching these out I found the actual letter that they sent from the Education Committee that told me that I’d been allocated to Firth Park Secondary School.  Don’t forget in those days, the ordinary school you know, not what we call grammar schools now, but the ordinary schools, there was infant, junior and senior. Secondary schools were what we now call grammar schools. So when I went in ’38 it was Firth Park Secondary School. I remember this Education Bill changed it to Grammar School and we had to go altering all the SS to GS.

MG: So when you got to that school do you feel you got at education that really equipped you for further study?

JD: It was an all boys’ school. I didn’t realise what a disadvantage that was going to place me at, at that time, but it did. Did it equip me? I was fast to learn, so I could say that, what shall we say, I enjoyed learning. I still do come to that. When I watch television at night, it’s very, very rare perhaps only once in an evening that I have a fiction thing on. Last night, was it last night? Or was it the night before? I had that school one on, what they call it? You know this one that has been moved up to Scotland? My memory plays me tricks. I’ve not lost it but I can’t recall instantly. This school, I watched that but it was fiction of course, and the rest of the night I was watching non-fiction. That is a typical night, yes.

MG: And when you were a teenager was that true as well?

JD: I was always interested in learning, yes.

MG: So which teachers, if any, really inspired you to learn?

JD: I can’t say that any teacher inspired me but I can say when I was in the Sixth Form one teacher annoyed me! He never seemed to teach us anything. He was on about logic and stuff like that, he was supposed to be teaching mathematics and I was interested to learn mathematics not logic. They might have been the same thing for all I knew and I actually remember at one time saying to him, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Gigg’, and that was his name, ‘I’m sorry that you are not teaching me anything, you are a rotten teacher.’ He grabbed hold of me by the scruff of the neck. This was an eighteen year old remember, or 17 getting on towards eighteen, and he carted me off to the Head Teacher who was a man called Mr. Padfield and he said, ‘Leave him with me’. He gave me a good talking to and said, ‘Now go and apologise’, which I had to of course. By the time I’d cooled down I did but we never felt the same about each other!

MG: But it didn’t put you off going into teaching which is what you did, isn’t it?

JD: Well there were lots of what I call good teachers. I mean he may have been a good teacher, I don’t know, but there were lots of what I call good teachers who I actually admired. One of them, he must have been very much ahead of his time, it was in 1938, he was teaching French by having French coins and stuff like that which was very, very unusual in those times. I remember when I moved into his room for French, of course we moved round in those days, the teacher had his own subject room and we moved to it, probably four times in the day. I remember going to the wall and looking at all these French coins that had been fastened to the wall and pictures and records and he actually taught us French songs. Now that in those days was extremely unusual in 1938. Later on he became the Deputy Head. I am not surprised really. A man called Wetherall.

MG: So you got enough education to enable you to go on where? Where did you go after the school? You went on to the college?

JD: The college, yes.

MG: But that was, first of all you went into the RAF after you left school.

JD: Yes, I started at college but I’d only been there a month and I was called up.

MG: So when you went into the RAF did your reading take a bit of a back seat or did you go on reading?

JD: Well [laughs], hmm yes, it’s a peculiar situation in that I was in the RAF, yes, but what had happened is that at that time they were demobbing everybody who had been in for a long period of time. With each batch of newcomers, you didn’t choose what you wanted to do in the RAF; they told you what they wanted to replace the people who were being demobbed out of there. I became a storekeeper. A storekeeper, yes. I suppose mathematics and reading all that came into it, yes it was. But for the first part of my training we were near Blackpool, then the storekeeper, I was transferred to another place again near to Blackpool, Wheaton, Warton, Freckleton, yes these names. I think, memory plays you tricks, especially after a time, we are talking about 60 years ago. I think I was due to go to Burma because the war hadn’t finished with Japan and they were still fighting the Japs in the Burmese jungle, yes. I’d never been vaccinated as a child so when they vaccinated me to go overseas, as indeed they did all the batch, I caught vaccine fever which put me in hospital. You see I wouldn’t have been in hospital in civilian life, I would have been in bed at home, but in the RAF you can’t stay in bed all day in the barrack so I was put in the hospital. At the end of that time I was given some leave and by the time I got back my batch had gone. So I was then a loose cannon if you like. So they put me on to a squad who went round closing RAF airfields and American ones too.

MG: So you were busy?

JD: Very busy, yes.

MG: So did you have time to read?

JD: I can’t ever remember reading while I was in the RAF. I honestly can’t, no I can’t. I probably read a paper, a newspaper, but I can’t even remember that. No, I can’t remember.

MG: That’s interesting. Some men have mentioned that when they were in the army the novels of Hank Jansen were quite popular. You never came across those?

JD: No.

MG: No. So …

JD: I do remember we shut down an American … not a large number … about ten of fifteen in this group that went round stations closing. I do remember we went to this American station to close it down and the things I went for were the records. The Americans at that time had a scheme called V Discs. You’ve never heard of V Discs?  All artists like, well Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all that sort of artist, they went into recording studios and recorded special V Discs for the forces which were then distributed to all the American stations. I think somewhere still in my loft I’ve still got some of these V Discs left and they were not the versions that were on sale to the public, they were especially recorded. Although sometimes, for instance with Dick Haymes, I used to like Dick Haymes, and one of his films was oh … memory again sorry. One of his films was about an Irish composer called Ball and Irish Eyes Are Smiling. You see I can remember it’s just a matter of not often, not … and I got this V Disc and it was all the songs from the film that had been recorded from the film soundtrack as they do commonly nowadays but in those days it was unusual. I mean a 78 record was nothing from a soundtrack.

MG: That’s interesting.

JD: Incidentally this isn’t strictly in your remit I know, but each 78 had a number on. Most of Bing Crosby’s were recorded in Los Angeles and the number was prefixed by LA and then suddenly for some reason, which I couldn’t fathom at the time, we were getting records with XYZ and a number on and I thought, ‘Where have these been recorded?’ Now what had happened is that the record company sent the Flying Fortresses that came over, flew over and landed in Freckleton, that was where I was stationed and they landed there before they were distributed to airfields throughout the country and the record company used to get the pilots or somebody to take over a record, or a matrix I should say, to stamp records from but very often they were shot down or something and the records never reached this country so they would borrow a record from a serviceman and make a master from that. So it wasn’t an original that had come from America as it should have been and that was why the XYZ was put on because it was made from these smuggled in records if you like, that the forces were bringing over with them. Also they were 78s and they were shellac and they broke, but some got through obviously.

MG: And it made a difference to you.

JD: Oh it made a difference to me. Yes, we got all the latest American just as today the teenagers do the same.

MG: So when you got back from the RAF and went back to college, what subject did you study there?

JD: On my Higher School Certificate there were three principal subjects which was mathematics, chemistry and physics but in those days the teachers were cute as I am sure they are today and they realised that you couldn’t get a school certificate unless you’d got these three subjects, principal subjects, unless if you got one of your subjects at less than pass they could do it as a secondary subject. So we had to take another secondary subject because two secondary subjects made up one principal. So I got maths, physics and chemistry and then I did applied maths so that if I’d failed in any of those three this applied maths added to the failure would have given me a pass.

MG: Yes. That’s a challenging group of subjects. So what did you then study at college?

JD: The same more or less. But don’t forget I had a three-year gap.

MG: So you came out of college at ’49?

JD: Well ’50. My first, I finished college in June or July whichever ’50 and my first teaching post was in ’50.

MG: Where did you teach?

JD: Woodhouse. Not grammar school of course but Woodhouse Council School as it was in those days. Woodhouse, yes Woodhouse. There is a second school called Woodhouse West which is at the other end of the village.

MG: Were you teaching maths or science?

JD:  No, I opted to teach juniors so I did maths but of course I did everything else as well.

MG: So you taught juniors and during your time in teaching at Woodhouse did you start to read again much for pleasure?

JD: Well I needed to didn’t I? A lot of the subjects that the children wanted to know about and were in the syllabus I was not exactly ignorant but I’d probably not been in touch with them for years. Yes.

MG: So it was mostly reading for your job?

JD: I would have said so, yes.

MG: What about newspapers or magazines?

JD: Ever since certainly since I’ve been married and probably before I’ve had a daily paper and it is only in the last couple of years that I have stopped that because I’ve never got time to read it. Some days it was never opened and of course my eyes …that’s a problem with newsprint.

MG: Yes, and what about books in the house John? I meant to ask you this earlier, did your family have books in the house much?

JD: Well my grandfather, who, as I say I lived with.

MG: Your mother’s father?

JD: Yes, my mother’s father. He was a steelworker all his life. He was born in Rotherham and he moved out to Woodhouse Mill where there was a steel works at that time, I don’t know if it’s still there, as a labourer. My grandmother, she was a country girl in little village called Fence and her father was a winder at Fence Colliery. In those days there was a colliery there, only a small colliery but it was there. Of course they courted and married and that was it. They decided he would probably get a better job in Sheffield so they moved to Sheffield to Darnall and then he got a job in Sheffield and more or less lived with that job the rest of his life.

MG: So did they bring any books with them?

JD: No, I was going to tell you this. My grandfather I think, I’ve no proof of this, but I’m pretty sure that my grandfather was quite a brainbox. My grandmother, she was very nice and you know, we got on well and all of that sort of thing but she was very much a housewife. Of course my grandfather worked 12 hour shifts in those days, there weren’t eight hours and stuff like that, he liked to do intellectual things within his capacity and within his finance as well. They were never what you would call well off. He used to take a magazine called John Bull.

MG: Oh yes! Yes.

JD: And John Bull, they had loads of competitions in. There was something called ‘Bullets’, you know ‘Bull-ets’, John Bull and they started off a sentence and you had to finish it off and it was how you finished off that was the competition. In other words it wasn’t just a filling in squares or there was no actual solution, it was … I remember some of his ‘Bullets’ but some of them have gone. For instance one, he used to remember this one, because he won a prize with it. It was ‘Jazz…’ and then the rest of the thing was blank. He wrote after it, ‘Sir Henry wouldn’t’ – ‘Sir Henry Wood –n’t’.

MG: How nice. Yes.

JD: Yes, he was quite a clever man. I think that any brains that I have were via my mother.

MG: So she was an able woman as well as your grandfather?

JD: Oh yes, she was. She could have done a lot more than she ever did with her life but I don’t think she regretted it at all.

MG: That’s wonderful. So you are running this reading group now at Gleadless?

JD: No, we are not running a reading group, we are running a coffee morning with discussion encouraged. Not a reading group.

MG: I see. Not a reading group. So you don’t discuss books particularly in this reading group.

JD: No. It may just come into it. Somebody may say, ‘Oh I borrowed this book and it was OK’ or perhaps describe features of it but no. It’s a social occasion because a lot of the people nowadays we are getting a different kind of clientele who do things but when we first started this group it was for people who were old and not able to get about much. For instance across the road there is a lady called Elsie, I think she has gone into a home now, and her friend was called Vera, lived across the road, she had a 90th birthday and we give her a party in the library here. They just didn’t get out anymore. Their big occasion once a month at the Methodist Church at the end, they have a lunch on the first Saturday of the month and the big occasion was going to that lunch. So coming here was an extra, once a week if you like, rather than once a month.

MG: But when I was talking to you all a few months ago most of you were readers actually.

JD: Like I say, the clientele over time has changed. It’s not only the clientele that’s changed, the people have changed. People would have at one time just sat in the house and knitted or read a book or perhaps watched the television. They are now younger looking. They are not younger, they are still the same age, but they are now getting out on the free transport and get to town. Joan is a good case, if she doesn’t go out on a day then it’s a bad day for her.

MG: That’s excellent isn’t it? So going back to your reading during this life because you spent your whole working life as a teacher in Sheffield. What books in that adult life have you really enjoyed?

JD: Oh. I’ve always enjoyed crime books. Edgar Wallace of course was my favourite but I still read the Just William books. I’ve got some in my house and I still read the Edgar Wallace, especially the River books. Now they were a cut apart. Edgar Wallace was such a … he had to write fast because he incurred such debts in America, gambling. He needed a book a week to keep him afloat financially. I think he did it in a Dictaphone and then had it typed up. That would be the norm those days I suppose. I can remember in several stories he started off with the hero’s name as being Jones and by the end it had become Smith because he’d gone so fast he remembered it was a common name. So his crime books Four Just Men and things like that were flimflam but his River books, those were different because he’d been a reporter on one of the big London … and he’d been sent to Africa I think, Boer War and such like. From memory, I may be not remembering right, I think he’d gone into Africa, the Congo and that, perhaps as part of the British Colonial process and as a reporter writing, I’m not sure if it was The Times, it was one of the big heavies, the daily heavies in London. So his stories were authentic if you know what I mean. They were stories and they were fiction but the backgrounds and the people were authentic and I enjoyed that.

MG: That sense of reality reflected in the novel.

JD: In the novel, yes.

MG: So did you read much actual history?

JD: History? Do you have a time for finishing?

MG: We’re fine for another ten minutes. Is that all right for you?

JD: Yes, yes. History was badly taught at school. It was all dates and battles and Kings and Queens. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I think that apart from Latin, history was I think just about my worst subject but when I came out and started with children we then talked about other things than dates. Of course they were younger children, juniors, and I got an interest then in history from a different viewpoint completely. This is why I enjoy archaeology.

MG: Is that another interest?

JD: Well I spend Saturday mornings glued to More4, the digital channel, where they keep repeating Time Teams ad infinitum. They get three or four in every Saturday morning and I get up and watch them all through Saturday morning unless I am doing something, you know,  that has to be done.

MG: Do you find historical novels interested you?

JD: Not particularly because again most historical novels deal with dates and battles and things and I’m not really interested in that but I am interested in other countries. All these television programmes, I love them. This new series that’s been repeated on the Tudors.

MG: Excellent.

JD: On BBC4. Yes, excellent.

MG: Absolutely. So a classic question is if you only had one, perhaps two books, to take away with you what they be?

JD: On a desert island. [Laughing] It wouldn’t be the Bible. I have never been a great one for religion. I don’t know really. I know this sounds stupid but one of them would probably be what they call several books together in one volume.

MG: A compendium?

JD: No, not a compendium. Come on, tha’ knows lass!

MG: A trilogy?

JD: No. Not a trilogy. It’s got a name. Anyway several books together and I would like one of those with all the River stories in.  That would be one and the second book would surprise you, it surprises me but it’s true. I would love to have a gramophone catalogue going back to the early days. I would sit and read it and go over it again and again and again. It would last me a lot longer than any book.

MG: How interesting. So do you have a big gramophone collection of your own?

JD: Yes I do.

MG: Do you? 78s?

JD: 78s yes, but now mainly CDs of course and DVDs.

MG: So are you a musician yourself?

JD: No.

MG: No, but you just love listening to music?

JD: I just like listening to music, yes.

MG: How interesting.

JD: I was listening to a programme today on Radio 4 at half past 12, half past 11 sorry. It was about music and I agreed with everything the man said about it you know. It’s an experience, it’s not … I’ve forgotten a lot of what, well I’ve not forgotten it but I would need time to recall it. Yes, music. I love it. Listening. But of course most of the critics can’t play either.

MG: One of the things we often ask is do the words highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow mean anything to you?

JD: I am very lowbrow.

MG: You feel you are lowbrow?

JD: Oh yes.

MG: Do you really?

JD: Very much.

MG: What makes you say that?

JD: Well, because I like lowbrow things! My record collection was dance bands of the 30s and 40s and big bands. So in Britain you’d have Roy Fox, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Roy Fox, no I’ve said that haven’t I? Oh and that sort of thing.

MG: Great. So would the word highbrow for you be a word of criticism or just not your thing?

JD: My motto has always been ‘live and let live’. Let ‘em live with it if they want it, that’s them.

MG: Absolutely. So are there any books that you read with pleasure when you were younger that you wouldn’t read now?

JD: I can’t remember the ones that I did read except Dr Doolittle and Agatha Christies. I think you see Agatha Christie was my … I could borrow her books there were so many of them. I could borrow them and I could reread them. They were good of their time but they are very dated now. I don’t know who the script writer is who scripts these Poirot things but he … I think he picks out modern things rather than just slavishly copies the book.

MG: I agree, yes. It’s interesting you go for these writers who have written a lot. So do you like that getting an author who you enjoy and reading lots of that author?

JD: Oh yes, yes I do.

MG: I’m trying to think of another one who wrote …

JD: Hamish Macbeth?

MG: Oh yes, yes. Absolutely.

JD: That one from New Zealand. I never knew how to say her name.

MG: Ngaio Marsh.

JD: Ngaio Marsh.

MG: She’s interesting isn’t she? A lot of those thirties novelists, crime novelists are really interesting to reread aren’t they? They give you a picture of the period.

JD: When you think about novels today, not just crime novels, but social novels as well, most of the writers are women. Have you noticed that?

MG: They are a lot of them, aren’t they? It’s true.

JD: Yes. I don’t know if it’s because they have more time than men.

MG: I don’t know.

JD: They marry a rich man and they can write novels the rest of their life or something or whether they just enjoy doing it, I don’t know.

MG: Did you read Dorothy Sayers?

JD: I did read Dorothy Sayers, yes.

MG: Did you like her stuff?

JD: All right, yes.

MG: Not much?

JD: Not as good as some of the others.

MG: Margery Allingham?

JD: Yes, I liked hers.

MG: Well it’s wonderful to hear your reading story John. Thank you ever so much. The one last question is do you think there are any ways in which reading has changed your life?

JD: I wouldn’t say it had changed my life, that would be wrong. I think I have done what I wanted to do, reading or not, but I would say it has made life more pleasant.

MG: Absolutely. So you read for pleasure?

JD: Yes. At the moment, as I say, I’ve got this what-you-call-it in my eye …

MG: Macular degeneration.

JD: Yes. See my memory plays me tricks, my short term memory. Very much so. Macular, macular, you see it comes to me after a few seconds, macular. This causes me that I can’t read a newspaper without a magnifying glass which frustrates me because I will be like that if it’s too much. My one fear is that it could come in the other eye and I wouldn’t be able to read. That would be a tragedy. I would give up then I think, yes.

MG: Thank you very much John and very good to talk to you.

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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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