Margaret and John Young

Margaret and John Young

Margaret was born on 25th October 1936.

John was born on 12th July 1929.

They are being interviewed by Mary Grover on 6th June 2013.

MG: . Margaret was born on 25th October 1936 and John was born on 12th July 1929. Margaret lived in which area between 1945 and 1965, Margaret?


M: It was Walkley, in Sheffield.

MG: Thank you. And John, where did you live between 1945 and ’65?

J: Er, Chatsworth Park Drive, at Gleadless, until we were married and then we went up to Gleadless Town End.

MG: Thank you.

M: I only lived in Walkley during the war and then we were rehoused.

MG: Oh yes, Margaret? So where did you go after you lived in Walkley? That was with your grandparents, wasn’t it?

M: We lived with, yes. At the outbreak of war my mother and father had a house at Commonside, which they had to relinquish. My father was a reserve soldier, having been a professional, so he was called up and enlisted straight away. My mother was an invalid so we went to live with grandma and granddad in their two up and two down terrace house. And after the war finished we were all rehomed in the large, you know, the estates they were building to rehome people, and we were sent out to the new Parson Cross.

MG: So, when you were staying with your grandparents, which library did you use then, Margaret?

M: Well, it was the Walkley Library, on South Road, Walkley.

MG: Can you remember any books you took out then?

M: Oh yes … I used to go there on my way home from school. You used to have to hand your books in at the counter and then go through a little turnstile and you were in the library, which was another world really. I took Enid Blyton books out, I remember those vividly. Yes, they always had those in.

MG: And when you moved up to Parson Cross, did you find a local library there?

M: When we moved onto the new estate at Parson Cross, there was nothing except houses. We had no shops, no schools. And eventually, when the school was built, we had … they opened a couple of evenings a week, I think, a couple of cupboards in the school room. And as far as I can remember, there were only adult books there.

MG: So where did you get your books when you were a teenager?

M: Well, from the lock-up cupboards. I went with my father and my father took out Zane Greys. And I think I went through every possible Zane Grey book printed at the age of eleven! And of course just school, I think, and we went to Sunday school, so apart from that there were no other books around.

MG: Where would your father have got his Zane Grey books?

M: Sorry?

MG: Where did your father get the Zane Grey books?

M: At the lock-up library.

MG: At the lock-up library?

M: Yes, at the school. On the Parson Cross estate.

MG: Good heavens! Because some people got them from the Red Circle library, you never came across the Red Circle?

M: No, no.

MG: Did your parents read to you at all?

M: When we lived with grandma and granddad, it was mainly granddad who encouraged me to read. He was an avid reader and anything that was printed, he always asked me to – even before I started school. Grandma also read books and granny had a collection of bound, you know, the classics types, Dickens and so on. And he took the Daily Express and I was encouraged to read all the headlines to do with the war, you know, the advance of the 8th army and so on. Yes, at a young age I knew more names of towns in Egypt than in this country!

MG: Because you were finding out where your father was, I imagine?

M: Yes, yes. And we always looked for photographs and so on in the paper, to see if we could recognise him.

MG: Your grandfather, Margaret, where do you think he got his taste for books?

M: I don’t know. He joined the army at a young age and he was a professional soldier. I think he was really self-educated all round. He was a professional musician; he played in the army band. And he was also a P E instructor in the army. But he was always reading, and he had loads of books. The Conan Doyle books I went through, again, by the age of nine I’d read Sherlock Holmes and so on. And he had a couple of encyclopaedias, which absolutely I loved, and I still love to this day encyclopaedias and the knowledge you can get from them.

MG: Did you find anybody else came into your house to look at your encyclopaedias?

M: No, we lived in this small, as I say, two up, lived in a little kitchen and we just didn’t have visitors. But we lived in an end terrace house and in one of the middle terrace houses my mother had a friend called Mrs Tebbutt. Mr and Mrs Tebbutt lived in the house with no children, they had no children. She used to be a primary school teacher and she had lots of lovely books and games in the house that we could go around with my mum after tea each day and look at these things, but not take away. So I had someone else who encouraged me and sort of supervised reading.

MG: That’s very important.

M: And we had an aunt of my father’s, Aunt Nelly, who used to come from Sheffield regularly to the family. She was a maiden aunt and she encouraged reading. And books, of course, at Christmas, Sunday school prizes. They came from various areas, you might say.

MG: Can you remember any of those prizes?

M: Er, yes. I once took the scripture exam in Sheffield and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road –  or the scripture exam, they  used to take me to the Methodist book shop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

MG: So you could choose your own.

M: Yes, yes. And we were allowed a comic each, my brother – I had a younger brother – and I. My brother had either The Beano or The Dandy and I had either Film Fun or Radio Fun. And when we finished with comics we used to swap them with friends and get something different.

MG: So you read everything.

M: Everything! My granddad had an allotment down at Rivelin Valley where we used to escape to and it was nice and calm and peaceful, and he used to take me down there, and my brother, and even the seed packets – I learnt names of lettuces, radishes and the flowers, everything my granddad asked me to read.

MG: And some Latin, I guess? Names of the seeds?

M: No, not Latin really, just everyday names. He’d point out what he was growing and what they were called, and the seed packets were always there.

MG: Thanks very much, Meg. Can we just ask you, John, where you started to read? Can you remember?

J: To be honest, I can’t, not in as great a detail as what Meg has just said. I’ve just been trying to remember, exactly, just where. But the main thing I ever remember is that my very first bedroom, I can remember, was when we moved into this new house on Chatsworth Park Drive. This was in the early 1930s, and my room was not the largest room, in fact, there was just room for the bed and a bookcase. And the bookcase was floor to ceiling at the bottom of the bed, so that you were sat in bed and there the books were. But all I can ever remember in those books, I must admit, there was a set of war encyclopaedias, I think it was, and these were all about the First Great – the World War. And then the other thing that was in the room was a picture of the Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Achilles, and my father served on that during the First World War. So, you know, they’re the only ones I can ever remember, that registered, these war illustrated books. The other thing about the bookcase was one I probably shouldn’t admit to, because I know how Meg is, that I used to create a secret cupboard in here, in amongst the books. And I made a door and pasted the ends of books, the title pages, just to hide it and confuse you. Desecration I suppose it was, of a book, you might find out, but that’s there. But I know that I always remember these war illustrated and I don’t know what happened to them, but I wish we’d still got them.

MG: And do you think your father collected all those books?

J: Yeah, they must have got them there, because there was a full set. I don’t really know, or remember it, really.

MG: Do you know what got your father reading?

J: I don’t know, no, because he was a big chap, you know. He was, what shall I say? Shall I say … Well, let me describe it: that he was a big man, he worked on heavy machinery, he worked in steel works in Sheffield, after – in HMS Achilles he was an engine room artificer, where he worked in the engine room. So he must have got some books somewhere to study or do some studying for that. And then … What was the other thing? He served in his last job, in the steel works as such, manual job, servicing the large cranes in the Halifax, was it Halifax? Hadfield, down there. And he was always with these huge machines, these huge castings and things like that, yet his hobby was repairing watches. So I’m thinking he had some, he must have had some reading knowledge about things like that. But anyway, that’s as much as, I’m afraid, I can remember about that.

MG: Thank you. But to grow up with that big bookcase must have given you a sense that books were precious.

J: Yeah, yeah. And more so that, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what happened to them. I wish I had an idea. Probably just because we hadn’t got any room to keep them any longer.

MG: So both of you, in fact, grew up in families where books were valued.

M: Yes, yes definitely. Birthdays and Christmas we just had one book bought during the war. The first books I can remember reading were Milly Molly Mandy books and then of course I went on to all the Enid Blyton ones and to Richmal Cromptons. The Just Williams I thought were lovely; I could laugh out loud with those.

MG: Then when you went to school, Meg, and you were the only girl in your area to pass the eleven plus, so which grammar school did you go to?

M: Well, when we first went to Parson Cross there were no schools and so we stayed home the first summer. And in the beginning of the new year I used to go on double decker buses to Chapeltown Lound School. My brother went somewhere in Hillsborough, in Sheffield, and he didn’t like the school. He used to come home crying because they had bars on the window. I remember one day, at Chapeltown Lound, it was only a small church school, so overcrowded, we were across the road in the church hall and we were told that someone important was coming to see the class. And Mr Brody stood at the front of the room, he was the teacher, with just a blackboard, an easel and a piece of chalk, and I remember vividly this gentleman coming in because we were doing reading poetry. For some reason I was often asked to read aloud in class and we were doing ‘Old Meg she was a gypsy and lived upon the moors’. And this gentleman arrived and we all sat there quietly and he counted how many of us were in the room, and there were sixty-two of us. And of course I had to do my reading, so that was memorable. But when we passed the eleven plus, I think probably before the eleven plus, my father was given a form to fill in from Sheffield Education Department with a choice of grammar schools and the first one he put down was Abbeydale Girls’ School. But as I was the only one in the whole of the vicinity to pass the eleven plus, we were told we couldn’t go to Sheffield schools; we were in the West Riding and I had to go to Ecclesfield School. So of course, not only after the war I had to leave Walkley and the area I grew up in, I was shunted out, you could say, to Ecclesfield Grammar School, with no connections there whatsoever, three miles away. And it remained like that until I left school because all our connections then went way back in Sheffield.

MG: So was there any teaching or library provision in Ecclesfield Grammar that interested you?

M: There was a library, but for some reason we were never allowed in it! Only for occasional English lessons. So I still had to rely on the locked-up cupboards and the Zane Greys.

MG: That’s such a shame. Can you remember your English teaching then?

M: Er, yes. The English teacher and his wife – his wife taught Latin at the school and he taught English. Of course all the teachers wore gowns and I think they must have gone to some prestigious university; they had ermine on their collars. But a month after I left, my parents got a transfer council house and went to live in Normanton Springs at Woodhouse, so it was immediately back in Sheffield.

MG: And you really appreciated that, did you?

M: Absolutely, all the family, we all did.

MG: So when you got to Woodhouse, what library did you use then?

M: Well, I’d say that was a month after I’d taken my O-Levels and I applied eventually for a job to work in, this was a month after I’d left, in the Sheffield City Libraries and I started at Manor branch library. That was in the August 1953, after I left school in July. So of course I was straight into reading everything, a whole new world.


Manor Branch Library in 1955

MG: Wonderful.

M: And funnily enough, a coincidence, we were a teaching branch and we took on, I think there were at least four or five or us straight from school at the time I started and the two senior assistants were both called Margaret, I was Margaret and another assistant was Margaret. So there were four of us. So the senior – the very senior, senior assistant, the oldest one – remained Margaret, the other one Peggy, the other girl named Margaret took on a second name, Isobel, and I was called Meg because from the days at Chapeltown Lound when Mr Brody had me reading the poem, after that until I left school he called me Meg.


MG: After Meg Merrilies?

M: Yes.

MG: There’s a lovely picture that Margaret’s brought in of her in the Manor Library with her two assistants. And it’s a beautiful setting, isn’t it? Manor Library was the cutting edge of library provision.

J: The background to the books.

MG: Yes, absolutely. So coming on to library use, John, can you tell us what libraries you used as a young adult?

J: I can’t remember until I went into the Manor branch library, and only because my cousin had been appointed as a senior assistant there. And that’s where I met Meg, you know. But I’ve been frantically trying to remember what would qualify me to go there anyway, you know, but I cannot. I read my usual quota of comics, if you like, but the only other books I can ever remember were, as a family as such that I used, were the Bible and any religious books because of my mother’s background and my grandfather, my uncles and my great-grandfather were all ministers.

MG: In the Methodist church?

J: Well, it was the Wesleyan Reform church.

MG: Wesleyan Reform? Yes, yes.

J: As I say, I’m frantically trying to remember, as I say, when I went or where for books, but I can’t say I did. I did acquire a love of reading from various things and grew from there. I’ve probably made up for it since.

MG: And your Wesleyan family, did they have mostly sort of devotional books?

J: Yes, they were always present, because one thing now that I like reading is the hymn books, because it’s the Bible in another form.

MG: Absolutely, yes. And James Montgomery, of course, from Sheffield wrote lots of those lovely – and John Wesley.

M: His mother worked at the Wesleyan Reform book shop in Sheffield throughout the war.

J: The Book Room, they called it.

M: It’s still there today.

J: But what it was, in effect, it was the headquarters of the Wesleyan Reform Union and Sheffield was chosen as the centre for it and it was on West Bar, Sheffield. And my grandfather became the very first full-time general secretary of the Wesleyan Reform Union, and that’s when he actually moved to Sheffield to take up this post and also the ministry at the Attercliffe Wesleyan Reform chapel on Bodmin Street. It’s still there, it is now a mosque, so it’s probably lost the sort of reasons, or books that might be read about that, that it – that’s still there but in another form.

MG: Yes. Those Wesleyan Reform buildings were very fine, weren’t they? We passed one at Coal Aston the other day, beautiful building.

J: As I say, a lot of them… There aren’t as many now, I’m afraid, even practising. Strangely enough there are two, very small ones, here in Derbyshire, one at Curbar and the other one is only about two miles away from there at…

MG: It doesn’t matter.

J: I’ve forgotten it, it’s ridiculous, it’s my awful memory, I’m afraid. We go there and remember, because the memories flood up there. Because what I’ve read more than anything is a book I came across, by accident, at a friend of ours we found, which was The History of the Wesleyan Reform Union.

M: One hundred years.

J: The one hundred years. And this was written by the general secretary at that time. And of course, my grandfather’s mentioned there, my great-grandfather is. There’s pictures of them and my uncle, who was a minister there. In fact, it was strange that there’s a picture of my great-grandfather in this book, but it’s not a picture, it’s an etching. I don’t know whether there were no cameras available at that time.

MG: What was your mother’s maiden name?

J: Bromage.

MG: Bromage. So all these ministers were called Bromage, were they? Right. And going back to those libraries and those churches, John, were they always devotional books, there was no other kind of book in those libraries?

J: No, I don’t remember anything there, I don’t believe they ever had any room in churches in those days for books other than the hymn books and the Bibles. Because, then again you see, we’re talking hymn books, these books, they’re all books, they’re all there to be read.

MG: Yes, and wonderful poetry, so in a way you’ve both got this love of poetry.

J: Yeah, well it is. The point I’m making, why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular: ‘I am not skilled to understand/What God had willed and God has planned/I only know at God’s right hand/Stands one who is my saviour.’ And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.

MG: Keep them in your head, yes absolutely. It’s interesting that both of you have got this gift for remembering poetry.

J: Yes, it is a gift I suppose.

MG: It is.

J: But unfortunately, it doesn’t help me with my lack of memory. I’m struggling, you know, because I think I could remember a lot.

MG: That’s very interesting. And in a way the other thing your families have in common is that they both travelled quite widely, with your father being a technician [difficult to make out] and your relatives being ministers.

J: Well, this is it, because being ministers they were all in different places. And their friends as well, I remember as well. Now I remember that a lot of my parents friends I called aunt and uncle in those days, you know.

MG: Where did you go to school, John?

J: Woodhouse. Well, back I remember in Gleadless, Hollins End was the school first. I have a lot of memories there, you know, humorous ones and things like that. And then I went to grammar school, to Woodhouse Grammar School, until I got my school certificate.

MG: So you could have met at Woodhouse, if you’d been the same age.

J: Ah well, yes. There was a few years’ difference.

MG: So thinking about Woodhouse School, did that open either of your eyes to books or give you a taste for any reading?

M: Not when I was at grammar school no, it was just work, and memorising things, and homework. That was the years when reading was at a minimum really.

MG: So it was a private pleasure?

J: Yes, yes it was as such, that you appreciate later on though, and probably wish you’d read more.

M: And my mother was an invalid, so my father and I at Parson Cross had to share the housework between us, so that took up some of my time, I could be what today are called these young carers as an equivalent.

MG: Ah, yes. Did she read when she was ill in bed?

M: My mother had rheumatic fever at the age of fourteen which left her with a heart valve problem. But, like my grandfather, she was a gifted musician and during the war she was the most called-upon pianist in Sheffield, according to my father. She played for the operatic societies in Sheffield throughout the war, and she did take in pupils as a younger person. Occasionally we’d go, we had friends in Hillsborough and when they were into the Mikado or Gilbert and Sullivan productions, my mother would go down and help them rehearse and play the piano in their home with the leading parts which they took. So I was brought up with lots and lots of music. My grandfather played an E flat bass in the army band; he was in India for years and years. So it was a very musical house, we listened on the radio to all the music. So of course my mother started to teach me to play the piano as soon as I could sit in front of the piano. And I’m afraid I failed them; I’m not a musician at all.

MG: But you developed this love of books and it lead to this career in the library, which you’ve obviously enjoyed.

M: Oh, absolutely. I would never have worked anywhere else.

MG: Could you tell us a bit about that, Meg?

M: Well, I think in the branch library it was more of a family. We had two weeks’ rotas. We opened every night until eight o’ clock, including Saturday, apart from Thursday, which was half day and closed at one o’ clock. We had two teams; we had a librarian in charge, two sub-librarians, a senior assistant, then the rest of the staff. And, as I say, we were very, very efficient, we were well-taught and we were all very proud of what we did. And very busy when the Manor Branch Library opened, particularly on Saturdays, extremely busy. So we all got on together, I think you had to do really.

MG: And you had quite an active life with your librarian colleagues outside of library hours, didn’t you?

M: No, not really, no. We had the occasional Christmas party after hours, I think.

MG: Ah, that’s what the picture is of.

M: Yes. That was a bit momentous because there was a great smog that evening and the librarian had borrowed some glasses from a pub and coming to the library party he fell down in the smog, and a lot of the glasses were broken. So I don’t know what happened about him, whether he replaced them, I couldn’t tell you.


Manor Branch Library Christmas party 1956

MG: So do you think you read different things because you went into library work?

M: I read lots and lots of stuff, lots of stuff, yes. Everything going. And if something new came out you’d sort of part read them and think ‘I don’t like this’ and ‘What’s all the fuss is about?’ Everything.

MG: Can you remember the first book you read as an adult which you thought ‘this is a really grown-up book, I’m not a child any more’?

M: I think it must be the Zane Greys again! I’m not sure, but looking back, probably the Arthur Conan Doyles at Granddad’s, and the encyclopaedias. I remember in the encyclopaedias there was a section on Arabic, writing the alphabet and so on, which I thought might come in useful with my father being out in Egypt and the Middle East. Of course, I didn’t see him from the age of four until he came back in 1946. And I can remember trying to teach myself to write Arabic. I guess I would have only about eight or nine, I think.

MG: How amazing!

M: But when our boys were small, our two sons, we bought them a set of second-hand Encyclopaedia Britannicas. And we had to pay on a weekly subscription for these, we couldn’t afford to pay them outright. And my son, who’s now aged fifty, our second son, still has these Britannicas, proud place in his home, in his own library at home.

MG: You say all three of your children are great readers.

M: Yes.

J: Well they must’ve been, really, to get where they are.

M: And particularly since we’ve been doing family history, my eldest son, we look up… I mean, I use this library now to consult things on local history and background information.

MG: And could you just summarise what your three children are doing now?

M: Our eldest son retired at the age of forty-five. He was a banker, but he now does private consultancy work and looks after his three grandsons. They’re up in Halifax. Our second son went straight from Westfield campus, where I spent seven years working, part of the time, in the library there at the school, and he went straight to Durham University for a science degree, straight down to the Tate Gallery, and the Courtauld Institute, and did four years down there. He’s now a world consultant conservator of paintings. And our daughter, who after we came to Derbyshire went to Derbyshire schools, she went straight into the education department at County Hall in Matlock from school and, in the education department, she stayed there, she still remains there. She’s now assistant education officer, with a very responsible job.

MG: That’s wonderful! And do you think this love of reading that you’ve all shared has played a part in their success?

M: Definitely. I mean, my eldest son, now in his fifties, he’s doing another, an Open University degree, just for the love of it. Yes, definitely.

MG: So Meg, could you tell us a little bit about how you got from Manor Library to Derbyshire Libraries?

M: I’m trying to think when we actually moved out… Well we got married, of course, and moved at Gleadless, at Charnock in Gleadless, which then was in the Chesterfield area because Sheffield hadn’t taken over, in the 1960s, that part of Derbyshire. I think the children then went to Charnock School. And then when John’s job – he worked for Thornton’s at the time, coming up to the 1970s eventually – they relocated to Belper in Derbyshire, and we finished up in Wirksworth for five years, living nearby. So by then we left our two sons in Sheffield. My eldest son took a mortgage out at the age of nineteen from the Halifax building society, where he working. The other was finishing in the sixth form and he had a little flat, they shared a little flat up near the school at Westfield.

MG: They must have been very mature youngsters.

M: Yes, yes. A lot of the teachers at school were friends, not just teachers, because obviously with me working there for seven years I knew them personally.

MG: So Westfield did your sons well?

M: Yes. Oh yes, definitely. It was a good school. They liked school, they enjoyed it and they participated in everything. They loved to act in all the drama activities at the end of years. And our Philip, the second one, played – oh yes, with the guitars. And the second son played rugby and continued playing through university and into his years in London, until he was well into his thirties.

MG: And you worked for the bibliographical manager, when was that?

M: That was in the 1980s. I finished it when we came to Derbyshire and took up the post in Derbyshire County Council in what was called then the Manpower Services Group at Matlock, which is now called Human Resources Department. And then I finished up in the library working for the county bibliographer. Of course the county librarian was based there and all the book purchasing and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I dealt with all the unsatisfied requests from the libraries. Because of course, we weren’t computerised, so in those days from the 1950s onward you had to be a walking computer. Everything was in your head, everything. I took pride in the fact when I worked, for instance, at the Manor Branch Library that we knew where every book was on the shelf. If someone requested a book, you could walk straight there and say ‘Here it is’.

MG: Yes. Can you cast back to those unsatisfied requests? Can you remember any of the requests that were made?

M: Everything you could think of. Sometimes it was just a first title of a poem, or someone’s dissertation written, say, in the 1960s or something. It was looking up statutes; we had the statutes and things. New books: we had all the new publishers’ catalogues, including Australian and American ones, in our section. It was just everything you could think of, with often not a lot of information to go by. We had the bibliographic librarian, two other ladies, and myself. I initially dealt with all the incoming requests as they arrived each day in the post and what I discovered I passed on to either one lady who dealt with what we called ‘books in the stack’, these were the old books which weren’t on shelves in the libraries, but we had a holding and obviously Derby had a big holding, when we couldn’t get them. The unsatisfied ones I couldn’t possibly find were handed to the bibliographic officer and at the end of the day if we needed any from the British Lending Library, our other lady used to deal with all that with the British Lending Library.

MG: Were there any censored books, were there any books that you were banned from stocking?

M: There were censored books, shall we say, as such, at the Manor Branch library…  Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And of course, next to the Manor Branch Library, which still stands, is the Manor Clinic. So we had books on birth, books on birth and sex and so on and these books were not placed on the ordinary shelves. We had wooden blocks and we fastened a paper label to these, and if people wanted a book, they could just take the block off the shelf and get them from our stock that was out of sight.

MG: So books about birth were regarded as not suitable for stocking?

M: Oh no, no, no way, no they were not allowed. So of course the ladies, the pregnant ladies from the clinic often came in to request their books.

MG: Good, yes. So the Manor Library sounds like a particularly happy period of your working life.

M: Absolutely. I took both the boys before they started school, as soon as they were old enough to stand up and choose their own books at the age of about two or three. We went to sort of parent reading sessions for the under-fives at Manor Branch Library. And whilst the librarian was reading to the children – I went with a neighbour, with her young child, youngest daughter – I’d be dealing with the books on the counter, helping the librarian out, which suited me – I loved it.

MG: There’s an aspect of library use that you’ve introduced me to, Meg, which is about the role of the library in the war. Could you tell me a little about this and about the wonderful book you showed me, the Star book?

M: That’s something I recently discovered, only within about the last four years, I think. I picked up this second-hand book and I believe it was in the library, the Scarthin library, er the Scarthin bookshop in Cromford, Wirksworth. And it was on the Sheffield Star and Telegraph, I believe, with just two paragraphs about the counterespionage, carried out by Mr Lamb, the Sheffield librarian who actually interviewed me before I started in the libraries, and several ladies from Science and Commerce Library. And there appeared to be two aspects. One: they had a radio and they dealt with, shall we say secret … I don’t know what you call it really, but apparently there were several radio programmes put out and if the Germans came and invaded and came to Sheffield, they would have the radio and would be involved with all this and stuff on the radio. And the other was dealing with, throughout the war, the aspects of bomb-making and steel-making in Sheffield, looking up all sorts of steel qualifications with regard to bomb-making. And I gather that Mr Saddler, who was also Parks Department chief, was involved in this.

MG: Extraordinary. So you were researching for the bomb-making?

M: Well we knew nothing about this, this is the first I knew. When I spoke to someone a year or two ago in Sheffield City Libraries, they’d no knowledge of this, it was just picked up in this book about the information coming out. They dealt in secret codes, I think, with the radio, so if the Germans actually landed, they would have been targeted. Their lives would have been at risk.

MG: That’s very interesting. Is there anything else either of you would like to tell me about your book use?

M: I think during the ‘50s I read things I would not read again. It’s like the Jacques Cousteau underwater books – I can’t even swim. But of course, in those days it was like going into space, it was something – the world under the sea was something –all new and those fascinated me. I’ve never read romance books and historical novels and I still don’t read them, I’ve no interest in them. At the moment, because of my eyesight problem, I read large print books in this fantastic section at Chesterfield library, and they have lots of contemporary novelists and I’m reading the main of those. Plus using the local studies library for the background information.

MG: So would you say you read more fiction or non-fiction?

M: At the moment I’m reading more fiction.

MG: Contemporary.

M: Yes, yes, I enjoy the contemporary novelists.

MG: Yes, yes. But not romance.

M: No, no way. I’ve never been interested in romance novels.

MG: Whodunnits?

M: Yes, occasionally, yes. I don’t like Agatha Christies, I never have enjoyed Agatha Christie books, for some reason.

MG: So you seem to read whatever takes your fancy, you don’t feel ever embarrassed by reading something, or feel that you shouldn’t read something? You read anything that took your fancy.

M: I read anything in print, including newspapers. No matter highbrow, lowbrow, anything in print whatsoever, just a thirst for knowledge. And I think librarians, we’re like that, we’re walking towers of knowledge, you could say.

MG: And everything was sort of in limits, there’s nothing off-limits for you?

M: No, never. I never restricted my children either.

MG: So you never said to your children ‘Oh, you shouldn’t read that because it’s not good’?

M: No, because I believe you should make your own opinions on things and if you haven’t got the knowledge, how can you form an opinion on something?

J: Well, nowadays… I mean, I always had a liking for history books, but mostly to do with naval history, because of my father’s connection, I can only think it’s that. And I still do. If there is a certain author, as there are different ones, I still look for them now while I’m waiting for Meg to choose hers and I spend that time… Well I still like rereading them. Because if you’ve got a bad memory, there’s plenty of things that you’ve read… But not avidly. The only thing that I now read books for is for reference, because in my old age I’m very fond of crosswords. And where to look but at dictionaries? I find that the dictionary’s the best book I’ve got to hand. And also the other thing is maps, there’s a lot of detailed maps, for instance. My favourite book, if you like, is the Derbyshire street guide, because this is Derbyshire, and you can find your way all around Derbyshire by this street guide. It’s the most well-thumbed book I’ve ever had, you know; too soon does it fall to pieces and I have to purchase a new one.

MG: You didn’t collect stamps, did you John?

J: For a time, yes, you know, until they started coming unstuck and things like that.

M: We’ve both belonged to a WEA local history and landscapes group for several years in Chesterfield and we’ve sort of amassed a huge amount of local history books. I have a lot on the old Sheffield and Sheffield history.

MG: Wonderful.

J: Because now we’re reading more I think, especially Meg, about family history and the things that we’re finding out from various sources and trying to keep a knowledge of those. As I said before about discovering this book [?] There’s a lot of things still to be found out. And unfortunately – I mean, not as I say, unfortunately – but a computer discovering things a lot quicker than you can by just finding the right book to read.

MG: Do you get tempted to use the computer?

M: We don’t use a computer.

J: No.

M: I can find out information as quick as my son on his computer. I know where to go in libraries and who to ask. It’s like detective work; you go from one thing to another.

MG: I was going to say, Meg, maybe your reading of Conan Doyle when you were a girl sort of got this sleuth bit going.

M: Yes, I can remember reading The Hound of the Baskervilles and that frightened me, as I wasn’t very old. I read Dickens as well. Granddad had some of the classics bound.

MG: Did he have them in a uniform edition?

M: Yes, yes, all the same colour bindings.

MG: Did he get them bound?

M: No, I think they were bought. People bought them from book clubs. I don’t know, but he probably bought them before the war, I should think.

MG: Did you like them?

M: No, I couldn’t say I did, butI just read them. Because if you were short of books, you just read anything that was there at the time.

MG: Yes, exactly. John, did you read Dickens at all?

J: No, not until later on, really, I think. I can never remember much from Dickens that I have read, but not as informatively, no. I also remember that they’re never very happy books, really.

MG: No, he liked a good tragedy, didn’t he?

M: I liked Winifred Holtby, I read those, particularly when I was at grammar school. And J. B. Priestley. I think the two of them were sort of life as I knew it in Yorkshire at that time. A gritty existence, I think, true to life, realists.

MG: And South Riding, did that ring a bell?

M: Oh yes, just my life at Ecclesfield Grammar School in the West Riding, I think.

MG: Yes. Because there weren’t that many books about Yorkshire life, were there, in that period?

M: No, I think J. B. Priestley was the leading one.

MG: Yes, and did you just pick those up in the library?

M: Yes, you’d read one up and find you enjoyed it, so you’d look for others of that writer.

MG: On a more negative note, can you think of an author or a book where you picked it up and you thought ‘No, this really isn’t for me’ when you were in your early twenties?

M: Not particularly, as such. Dennis Wheatley was one I didn’t – I thought they were rather weird and not my type at all. I wasn’t interested in that sort of background. I would never – I think I read one of his, or tried, and that was enough of those.

MG: What about people like Virginia Woolf?

M: No, no, not interested, nor Hardy, Amis, no.

MG: Thomas Hardy, did you ever read him?

M: No, no, again it was a sort of historical romance and I was still not into those, no.

MG: Just to end on, if there was one book that you were going to take on a proverbial desert island, is there any one book that you particularly treasure?

M: No, it would be an encyclopaedia of some description.

J: A road map. But, having said that, a road map, there are a lot of maps, or books that can act as maps if you want directions in life. And also which way not to go, you know. Because I think that if you read something and you can remember it, as I find with the hymn books – I’ve still got a copy of the Methodist hymn book because as part of that my grandfather was sort of editor, one of the editors, of the Methodist hymn book then. That’s why, probably, I like to remember them. Meg’s always telling me ‘Don’t sing that loud, just because you know it!’

MG: Have you got a favourite hymn, John?

J: I don’t think I have really. I’m not bragging, but I remember so many of them, that I can’t really remember any particular one, you know, until we start singing.

MG: And you weren’t tempted to go into the chapel life yourself, become a minister?

J: No, I thought about that a lot. I think that if my mother had been – it sounds silly this – if my mother had been a man, she’d have been a minister, because both her elder brothers went into the ministry. She didn’t. The only job she ever had, as far as I know, was as assistant to her father in The Book Room in Sheffield. But she was a constant worker for the church right through, as long as she could be.

MG: And you went into Thorntons?

J: Well, that was only one. I’ve had quite a few jobs, different ones. I suppose books are did impact, because even though I had an engineering apprenticeship, I became a draughtsman and being a draughtsman, I went up into management and that’s then a change.

M: You worked at George Bassett’s, didn’t you, for about thirteen years before Thorntons?

J: Yeah, I went to help Bertie Bassett produce his liquorice allsorts there and became chief draughtsman there in Sheffield. And then from there you probably go into sort of side things. From Bassett’s I went to Cole Brothers.

MG: As a draughtsman?

J: No, as service manager in the shop. I’ve had quite a few jobs, you know, and all have been interesting in a way.

M: When we moved out to Wirksworth, with Thorntons relocating, they started then to sack all managers and staff, and privatising the sections. So within a few months, your job went, it was one of the last to go. And you started down again, a historic thing, down at Cromford Mill. The Arkwright Society had just bought it.

J: I only got that because I was out of work. I took charge of a bunch of YOPs, they called them, YOPs – Youth Opportunities Programme, for kids that were, you know, going round the wrong way. And Cromford Mill at that time was nothing like it is today; it was in a really bad state and they were trying desperately to restore it, which they have done, gloriously, I think. But that found me another job that I loved. I went to work for the Peak Park as an enforcement officer, which was making sure people built everything according to plans. You roamed the Peak District. After that I took a similar job with the district council at Matlock, but unfortunately that was brought to an end by an accident I had, and I had to finish my days out in the office. I was running out of time anyway, until retirement.

MG: What an interesting career!

J: Well, yes. My favourite motto is ‘We ain’t got much money, but we do see life!’ I must have read that somewhere.

MG: Yes, you must have done. Thank you both very much.

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‘Those Cheerless Cemeteries of Books’

The thrill of entering a public library. Thousands of books arranged in familiar patterns. Fiction and non-fiction. Classics and novels contemporary and historical, romances, crime stories and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. Books about art, science, music, history, travel, philosophy, politics. What will I find this time? Something entirely new? a much-anticipated sequel? an old friend? Each visit is a promise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, public libraries, including Sheffield’s, looked very different from our ‘open access’ model, where the books are there for us to wander through, to pick up, to choose or return. Then, while there might be a few out on display, many public libraries hid their books away behind counters, or kept them out of sight in rooms marked ‘No Entry’. Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased. Borrowers would seek the advice of library staff. Once a book was chosen, an assistant checked on its availability and, if it was not already on loan, retrieved it from its shelf and handed it over to the borrower.   

The Sheffield Corporation have given a good deal of attention lately to the development of the public libraries on modern lines, and evidence of the progress that has been made will be forth coming to-day when the Central Lending Library will be open for view to the public on the open access system. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

From an anonymous pamphlet, The Truth about giving Readers Free Access to the Books in a Public Lending Library (1895)

With the exception of research and specialist institutions, there must be few ‘closed access’ libraries now. Why was it the norm in the early days? Maybe librarians and library authorities had little faith that books would not be disordered, damaged or even stolen by borrowers. Controlling access was a way to safeguard books owned by local ratepayers, not all of whom were happy with their money supporting the, to them, wrongly named free libraries. Perhaps there was also some attempt to influence what people read. Librarians and councils habitually worried about borrowers preferring the light novel over the serious work. The public library was, after all, invented to help people improve themselves.

Sheffield Central Lending Library 1910, with books locked away behind the counter (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives –
Ref: s02145)

As well as keeping borrower and book apart, closed access often meant problems for library staff. Book stores generally seem to have been crammed with shelving from floor to ceiling and young assistants had to scurry up and down long ladders to find books. Here is Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian from 1927 to 1956, on his days as an assistant:

Birmingham Central Library in those days (1913-14) was a murderous place in which only those with sound bodies and hardened minds could survive. Most of its large stock was shelved in three tiers of iron galleries reaching to the ceiling. In a closed library with an average daily issue of 900, the amount of leg work demanded of the staff was enough to qualify them as Everest climbers. (J P Lamb, Librarian While Young, The Librarian and Book World, Vol XLV, No 3, March 1956)

Opening of the Birmingham Central Free Library. Illustrated London News. Sept 16, 1865, page 256 (public domain). The ‘cheerless cemeteries’ can be seen on the left, with ladders for the staff to climb up and down.

And Sheffield librarian Herbert Waterson, who started work in 1869, hinted at the particular problems the ladders meant for Victorian women seeking library work.

Closed access inspired a piece of Victorian technology, the ‘indicator’. This was a screen, often fixed to the wall and divided into tiny sections, each matched to a book listing in the catalogue and showing if the book was in or out. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph proudly described the locally-made model installed in the new Brightside Library in 1872:

… 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. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

The Cotgreave model of indicator
(from A L Champneys, Public Libraries (London, Batsford, 1907))

Indicators were often very large and could be unwieldy. The ones made in 1876 for the Upperthorpe and Highfield branches had the capacity for 12,000 books each. One of the Highfield assistants claimed that the staff used to play football behind their screen when the librarian was not on duty.[i]

Open access in a public library was trialled as early as 1893 at Clerkenwell in London by James Duff Brown and seems to have aroused considerable opposition.[ii] It began slowly to be adopted, as the objections to it were proved baseless. But in conservative Sheffield closed access was the order of the day until after the First World War. In two places only could borrowers roam at will among the books. The branch library at Walkley, which opened in 1905 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was converted to open access in 1913-14 by its pioneering librarian, Albert Ibbotson. His superiors objected but he got away with it. ‘The [open access] Walkley Library’, said a letter from Mr A Ballard to the Sheffield Independent on Tuesday 16 August 1921, ‘has been for the past seven years a veritable university to the working people’.[iii] At the same time, two schoolteacher members of the Council’s library committee petitioned successfully for the opening up of the Reference Library.[iv]

These were among the few innovations in Sheffield Libraries in the early years of the 20th century. By 1921 the service was in decline, and there was much muttering in the press. The numbers of books borrowed were falling, book stocks inadequate, administrative practices old-fashioned, staff demotivated and buildings (especially the Central Library) in poor repair. New chief and deputy librarians – R J Gordon and J P Lamb – were recruited to put things right. Determined and modern, they wasted no time.

Converting all the libraries to open access and introducing the Dewey classification system, as funding allowed, was an early decision in July 1921. The task was huge but, by the following June, the necessary alterations had been made, the stocks of books refreshed and classified. The new open Central Lending Library was ready. Albert Ibbotson from Walkley had been appointed to run it in 1918 and was probably an ally for Gordon and Lamb. He had been described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 8 March 1918 as a ‘progressive librarian’. By 1919 he had already introduced a very limited form of access: ‘…two cases in which the latest books are always placed on view, and the rapid demand for these volumes shows how useful the system is’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 6 September 1919).

No doubt primed by Gordon and Lamb, who both knew the value of publicity, the Sheffield Telegraph was eager to explain the new system to the city:

At the Library entrance is the staff enclosure where the issue records are kept and from which the staff control the entrance and exit wickets. A borrower desiring to change a book hands it to the assistant at the entrance counter, which is to the left on entering, and receives his borrower’s ticket exchange. The assistant then releases the wicket gate and the borrower enters the stockroom to select his book. After selecting the book he wishes to borrow he returns to the assistant who completes the necessary records and releases the exit wicket for the borrower to go out. Apart from this arrangement which will be greatly appreciated by borrowers, who can wander at will among the volumes, there is a new system of classification which makes for rapid working and ease of selection. As most borrowers at Public Libraries ask for books on a particular subject rather than by the author, and because of the many advantages gained by having all the books on the same or related subjects on one shelf, the books have been classified according to the subjects they cover. The Dewey Decimal classification has been used for this purpose and seeing it in operation, one is impressed by the value of the system. The books in the Library are arranged in two parts: prose fiction and non-fiction. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

Sheffield’s Attercliffe Library after conversion, showing the staff enclosure, the wicket gates to control access and the open shelving (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – Ref: u01383)

The degree of detail suggests how much of a change this was. The journalist goes on to say: ‘There is no doubt that the public will appreciate the new system, under which borrowers are allowed actual contact with the shelves containing the books.’ Over the next few years, Sheffield’s branch libraries were all converted, with counters and screens removed and new shelving installed.

Borrowers in later years clearly still appreciating open access (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – Ref: u02265)

Open access libraries are so familiar to us that any other system seems impossible. But in 1956, as J P Lamb approached retirement, he saw some merit in the old ways:

It seems to have been my library lot in my younger days to be fully occupied in re-organising old type libraries. Those cheerless cemeteries of books are now thought to have no redeeming features; but reflecting on my work in them after a lifetime spent in creating ‘modern’ mass appeal libraries, I am not at all sure that the change has been wholly good. Open access has resulted in the loss of a personal contact with the reader, which no kind of readers’ advisory system can replace. … The librarian as guide, philosopher and friend was then a reality. … (J P Lamb, as above)

[i] From Kelly, James R, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sheffield, 1983). A copy is held in Sheffield Archives.

[ii] Kelly, Thomas, History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1965 (London, The Library Association, 1973), pp. 175-82.

[iii] Did Mr A Ballard become Alderman A Ballard CBE who chaired the Council’s Libraries Committee between 1944 and 1954? It seems very possible.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956). Along with the newspapers quoted, this is the main source for this article.

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