Margaret G

Margaret G

Margaret was born on 12th June 1924.

She is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge.

[AUDIO FILE]

Loveday Herridge:  So that you said you do library lists.

Margaret G:  Yes they come every month … people that can’t get to the library and so I gave them a list every month about 16.

LH:  And do you keep copies of those then?

MG:  Yes I’ve got a book down there with lists in.  I don’t put them in a book until I’ve read them and enjoyed them.

LH:  Oh.  [Laughs.]  I must do the formal bit first.

MG:  Yes.

LH:  Which is to say it’s the 31 October um and you … very kindly agreed to be interviewed and it’s Margaret … I think?

MG:  Yes, Margaret.

LH: And when were you born, Margaret, may I ask?

MG:  12 June 1924.

LH:  Right … my name’s Loveday Herridge and erm that’s all we have to say for the formalities … so we’ll just go back to what we were talking about – so the books you read now, mm, you make a list every month.

MG:  Yes.

LH:  About 16 books but you only keep a record of the ones you like.

MG:  Yes.

LH:  Right.  The thing is what were interested in – how is it you’ve got to the point where you can say what you like.  What is it that’s made you interested in the books you read.  So I want to take you right back to when you were little and ask you if you can remember learning to read?

MG:  No, I can’t remember but I can remember my parents read to me every night and my father used to draw us pictures of the stories and … we were always well supplied with books.

LH:  Ah.

MG:  Yes.

LH:  Do you know where those books came from?

MG:  Some were presents and some they bought.

LH:  Mm …  did your parents live in Sheffield?

MG:  Yes.

LH:  And can you tell me where?

MG:  Down at Walkley not far away.

LH:  Right, and what did your mum and dad do? What was their work?

MG:  My mother didn’t work.

LH:  Did she work before she was married?

MG:  Yes, worked before she was married, yes.

LH:  Do you know what she did?

MG:  Yes, Williams down the Moor and she progressed to the fur department.  She was doing that before she got married.

LH:  Was Williams the department store?

MG:  Yes, down the Moor and they all got bombed during the war … yes.

LH:  And your dad – what did he do?

MG:  He was a clerk at the Town Hall.  He did all the salaries for the teachers.  All by hand.  He had a beautiful hand, yes.

LH:  And did they read, your mother and father.  Do you recall them reading?

MG:  I don’t know. I presume so.  They had a newspaper.  Mm, Mother liked reading especially.  She lived till ‘97 so she liked reading and … she liked reading what she called a nice murder.  [Laughter] Oh, we often laughed – my sister and I often laughed.  We’d say, ‘Oh, that was a nice murder.  Mum would have liked that … on television ‘cos they were more gentle then, weren’t they?’

LH:  I suppose they were.

MG:  She liked, er, probably Sherlock Holmes.  I don’t know, I can’t really remember all the ones she liked but she liked books.  My sister used to fetch books for her.

LH:  From?

MG:  The library.

LH:  The library – you used the library, did you?

MG:  Yes.

LH:  Which library branch did you go to?

MG:  She went to – well, I did then before I was married – Walkley.

LH:  Right, right.

MG:  I went to Broomhill after I was married.  Took the children, of course.  Then the bus started coming on here twice a week.

LH:  So to go back to when you were a child, mm, you say you can’t really remember learning to read.

MG:  No, I can’t. [Indignantly]

LH:  Do you think your mother taught you or do you think you learnt at school … ?  Do you … ?  Was your sister older or younger than you?

MG:  Sister’s younger.

LH:  Ah.

MG:  Seven years.

LH:  Right so perhaps you learnt to read at school?

MG:  Probably yes.

LH:  Which school did you go to?

MG:  I went to Bolehill and then I went up to Western Road and then I went to Marlcliffe at Middlewood.

LH:  And how old were you when you left school?

MG:  15, I think. 15, yes.

LH:  So, mm, books – reading.  You said your father read to you.

MG:  Yes, they both read to me.

LH:  They both read to you.  When did they read to you?

MG:  Bedtime.

LH:  Bedtime – could you always expect a story?

MG:  Yes, it was part of going to bed.

LH:  You don’t remember any of those books that were read or read to you?

MG:  Peter Pan, mm, and we did have the Enid Blyton ones – they were little books, weren’t they? Little paper ones.  And, er, I think we had Tiny Tots, … and you sort of progressed then –  and then of course when we went to the library, … we went when we were older, to be able to cross the roads and things. We read the Chalet School stories and things like that, Angela Brazil.

LH:  Do you remember, when you went to the library, did you find your way to the bookshelves yourselves or did the librarians help you?

MG:  There was a children’s section.

LH:  Yes.

MG:  Yes, adults was in one room and the children’s was in a smaller room.

LH:  So how do you think you chose the books when you were a child … in the library?

MG:  I suppose we’d look at them and then choose them from looking at them … yes, same as we do today I suppose.  If we get a good author I tend to go through the lot.  I’ve got all the Dick Francis books up there.

LH:  Have you?

MG:  Yes.  Yes, I could read them again and again … and again.

LH:  So well …

MG:  Yes, if you like a particular writer, then yes.

LH:  So you got your books from the library and you got presents – did you get them for birthdays and Christmas from relatives?

MG:  Yes … lots aunties and uncles.

LH:  What about school?  Did they encourage they you to read at school?

MG:  Now I can’t remember all that, no.  [Firmly]  I presume they did but course [sic] it was different then, you see, wasn’t it?  A long time ago when I was at school in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

LH:  How do you see it as different? Did they … Do you remember having a … Was there a library at school?

MG:  I can’t remember that, no.

LH:  When you got to know there was a subject called English, did they encourage you to read books?

[Both talking at once – inaudible]

MG:  I presume… so I can’t really say.  That would come later probably when I went to Marlcliffe.

LH:  That was a secondary school … at Marlcliffe. Can you remember..?

MG:  …we had all the set subjects there – we went to different classrooms for different teachers.

LH:  Were you encouraged to read there?

MG:  Yes, yes.

LH:  Are there any books that stand out for you when you were a young teenager?

MG:  No, not really, you know.  I s’pose we were still reading … I was young – very young until I was 19.  We weren’t like they are today.  I wasn’t allowed to do things.  I mean the night of the blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go.  My parents said no and that was it.  You see, they said no.  And then [when] I was 19 it was time for me to get my call-up papers.  They let me go nursing then because they didn’t know where I was – it was the same city.

LH:  So when you left school did you start work?

MG:  Yes, yes, I worked in various jobs.  I worked for the, um, the Sheffield Transport.  I was very happy there.  I made some very good friends there.  In fact, I found a book – I think it’s that blue one down there – and it said from Hilda and someone else.  Now I remember a Hilda but I can’t remember the boy’s name.  I didn’t think it was her husband’s name as he is now.  Mm, it’s funny that as I have disposed of a lot of books because behind there was another row and I’ve taken all the sewing books out and nobody wants the embroidery books – they don’t do it today.  I rang my daughter in Australia and she said, ‘Mum, I haven’t time to embroider.  It doesn’t grab me like sewing does.’  She likes making things.  She used to make things for the children.  And now the youngest girl is about 15 and she wants her mum to make some of the ‘50s dresses – that must be the fashion.

LH:  Yes, I think you must be right.

MG:  Yes.

LH:  So you started out in work and enjoyed that work.

MG:  Yes, and very busy I’m sure as a young person.

LH:  Do you remember reading at all then?  Or on your evenings perhaps you went out?

MG:  I know we had Woman’s Weekly in the house for a long time.  Mother liked that.

LH:  Do you know where she got that from?

MG:  The newsagent.

LH:  From the newsagent.

MG:  It was probably was delivered with the newspapers.  But it was while I was working that I was introduced to … the author of Rogue … Is it Hugh Walpole?  Rogue Herries?  The other lady that rang me said, ‘That was a bit racy for then.’

[Laughter]

LH:  So do you think it was?

MG:  Yes, I had one bought me so I’ve read quite a few.  I think I’ve still got one or two but I’ve not read them recently.

LH:  So when you say you were introduced to them, how would you …

MG:  I was given them as a present.

LH:  By … ?

MG:  A friend … friend at work …  That’s the middle years after leaving school and going nursing.  That would be then … Because when I was nursing there was no time – only for nursing books.

LH:  No, yes, you’re quite right …  We must pin that down … the Hugh Walpole – that would be between the ages of 15 and 19.

MG:  Yes.

LH: … that you were introduced to Hugh Walpole… and was it an older person who gave you that book?

MG:  Not much.  No, she wasn’t much older.  She was a bit older.  She said, ‘I enjoyed this.  You might enjoy it … was, it that kind of …  Yes, she gave it me as a birthday present.

LH:  Yes, and had she bought it new for you?

MG:  Yes, it was a new book.

LH:  And where would you guess she would have bought a book from?

MG:  The booksellers.

LH:  And that would be … Which?  Where?

MG:  I wouldn’t know where in town now.  I mean it was quite an outing when we went to town before we were working.  Different then when we went to work …  And … I remember the night of the blitz; I went to work the next day.  I walked all the way.  Course when you saw the mess, I just walked all the way back because there was nowhere to go to work.  I remember that.

LH:  That must have been an amazing day.

MG:  It was … it’s … that again it’s such a long time ago but when you see it on the television  it brought it  all back you keep seeing various things. I remember my father never talking about the Great War. I think he went with the Yorkshire Lancs from Sheffield and I think it might be called PALS you know they tended to go from each town … groups of them, who either worked together or knew each other but I don’t know any more than that.

LH: What was your father’s name?

MG: Ernest Styring.

LH: Styring ?

MG:  S T Y R I N G

LH: So the blitz in Sheffield was ’44?

MG: I’m not quite sure.

LH: ‘43 or ‘44 so you would be … 20?

MG: 20 then yes but it was before I went nursing so I would have been 19 then when I went nursing.

LH: Right … where did you go for your nursing?

MG:  The Children’s.

LH: Did you … that must have felt extraordinary to be called up to do such important work.

MG: We had candles lit there was a lift and stairs. Every corner on the staircase by the lift there were candles … isn’t it funny what you remember?

LH: You began your training there and as you say your reading then would have been studying.

MG: Studying for nursing yes – because you had to go for your lectures in your free time for that day so you didn’t get any time off for going to lectures but we enjoyed it. My sister was a nurse and we used to have what you called State Enrolled Nurses and they’re missing.

[passage cut at Margaret’s request]

LH: So how long did you stay in nursing?

MG: I did 3 or 4 years and then I went into private nursing … children’s nursing.

LH: Did that mean going into people’s houses and looking after the children?

MG: I went down South first and I think there were three children and they left me at home with the youngest … yes the youngest boy and the doctors came and took his tonsils out at home! And I had to nurse him at home. Now isn’t that taking advantage? And I didn’t get anything more in my pay packet. [Indignant]

LH: That’s dreadful isn’t it? What a responsibility!

MG: Yes it was.

LH: So you did this work with children … ?

MG: Yes I did. I came back to Sheffield and [long pause] I must have gone back to the Children’s because I was looking after a baby on nights and there was only the father that came on his way home from work. The mother couldn’t come because she’d four other children and I think they got whooping cough and they asked me if I’d go and look after the children afterwards and I was with them till I got married.

LH: Which was … which year?

MG: I got married in ’53.

LH: ‘53 so I’m thinking you were very busy between …

MG: Then I read to them.

LH: You read to …?

MG: To the children … you don’t have time in hospital.

LH: And then you married, … and then were busy again I’m sure but here’s an amazing list of books and I’m wondering when it was that you were able to …. develop your affection for these …

MG: I read a lot of Elizabeth Gouge first … perhaps read those first … I’d come onto the Dick Francis later.

LH: Why did you like Elizabeth Gouge do you think?

MG: I love her books – I’ve just been reading them all again … and, … the libraries have managed to get some … I’ve got one or two myself and I got Green Dolphin Country and it’s so long I didn’t remember much and it all came back fresh.

LH: Do you know how you started … how you began with Elizabeth Goudge how did you start with her did somebody recommend her to you?

MG: I read Herb of Grace first.

LH: Did someone recommend her to you?

MG: No idea once I got into her… I liked even the children’s books she wrote.

LH: So were you reading those at the end of your working day?

MG: Probably yes … my husband would probably sit in one place and I’d be in another and we might talk all evening … you know.

LH: I’m very conscious that women are very busy people on the whole.

MG: Once we’d got the children to bed and I mean we’d only two and I used to knit and sew as well.

LH: So here I’m seeing Elizabeth Goudge and Warwick Deeping.

MG: Now I did read those probably when I was at home.

LH: At home? Before you started work?

MG: Yes I think my parents read those Warwick Deeping books. And they finished them and said, ’You have a look at this’. Well they may not have done they may have said, ‘I enjoyed that would you like to read it? ‘But you don’t really, you just sort of come to these books I think.

LH: Can you remember any of the Warwick ‘cos he wrote masses didn’t he?

MG: He wrote Sorrell and Son.

LH: You don’t remember a favourite?

MG: No not read any for a long time I also read one or two of J B Priestley’s early on but I’ve not read any of those recently?

LH: Did you like Warwick Deeping?

MG: I must have done to read several.

LH: Do you know why? Again I know it’s such a difficult question.

MG: No no, it’s just the enjoyment I think, as I say, if we found a book at the library. Mm, it’s the same now if the library bring me one and I enjoy it.  I always look at the list – keep a list and then pick them out and there’s an author I can’t remember, his name … he’s written a lot about Sheffield and the outlying districts and they’re all murders but – we, my sister and I, have enjoyed them a lot. I mean what I get I often lend them from the library. She gets a lot of tapes and I say well ‘I’m not going to borrow tapes at my time of life’.

[Laughter]

MG: I can get them from the library.

LH: So you’re great library users?

MG: Yes and always have been.

LH: … and always have been. Did you encourage your children to use the library?

MG: Yes, we all went together. My husband never read anything non-fiction. Yes, he was a physicist, so he was really more into … he did read autobiographies, perhaps, but not many.

LH: He didn’t like novels?

MG: Oh no! No novels!

LH: So I’m seeing on this list … A J Cronin up there on your list. Do you remember anything of his you enjoyed? [Reaches for book]

MG: That’s it, yes. Shannon’s Way this is. Yes, this is the one. It says ‘To Margaret, Happy Christmas from Gladys and Dick’. Also you see, there’s a ‘1950’ in there and there’s ‘a pound’ on it. But I don’t think it’s one I bought. Unless I’ve had it … But I don’t really remember it. I mean these were quite famous, weren’t they, Hatter’s Castle and The Citadel  and Keys of the Kingdom? But I don’t really remember them. I’ve just read this again and quite enjoyed it.

LH: And here’s Mary Stewart as well.

MG: Oh, I like her. I’m reading all those again at the moment. I’ve got some, I’ve got quite a few on there. And my favourite was Touch not the Cat. Yes, I’ve got quite a few of hers there.

LH: And then we’ve got Lilian Harry. Now, I don’t think I know Lilian Harry.

MG: Yes, she’s … I’ve not read an awful lot of hers recently. Who’s the one who wrote about a penny to cross the Mersey? Was it her or someone else?

LH: I don’t know.

MG: She wrote a lot about Liverpool. I think she married again and treated her daughter very badly and I think this is, you know, she’s going back to those days.

LH: And Alistair MacLean.

MG: Oh yes, I like his. We’re always … there’s one or two on there, but we’re always going back to the old ones.

LH: Yes. Jack Higgins.

MG: Yes. Again there.

LH: And Charlotte Bingham.

MG: Yes. I don’t read so many of hers. There’s one, a book I read, I can’t remember what it was called and someone had a parrot in the window. I thought I’ll go through the Charlotte Bingham and see if I can find it, but I haven’t done yet.

LH: And then you’ve got two more here. Patricia Wentworth.

MG: Yes. She’s an older one isn’t she. She wrote mysteries, yes.

LH: And then James Herriot.

MG: Yes. Patricia Wentworth – she wrote The Chinese Shaw, didn’t she?

LH: I think so, yes.

MG: Yes, well, I’m reading a lot of hers again with … not Miss Silver … yes, it is Miss Silver, and it’s Miss Marple. They’re quite funny really. They’re so old fashioned! They’re quite funny, quite simple stories.

LH: Well, it’s interesting you say that. And also you’ve said that you like reading them again. These are obviously favourites to which you’ve returned over and over again. And they’ve been a constant in your life. Do you ever have a go at any contemporary novels?

MG: Not unless they’ve been given a good write up.

LH: And who do you trust for your write ups?

MG: Well, I read the blurb and then decide. I don’t take it … just pick them up. I do like – I read all Alan Titchmarsh, and I read Gervase … the one who was a school inspector. I don’t know if he was down on the list.

He trained as a teacher I think and then he became a school inspector, and his stories are very, very funny – the things the children say. Especially in the Yorkshire area, because they go and talk about sheep and pigs and they know what every animal is, you know, the breeds and everything, and I think he was quite astounded at first, but after that he just listened to all the funny things they said. Have you read them?

LH: I haven’t, no. Perhaps I should.

MG: You really want to start at the beginning. And there is another one – Teacher, Teacher. Now I think he’s a fairly new author, and of course those are local, and they’re about – he goes to be a headmaster of a local village school. Do you know it’s … I don’t believe schools were like that but I do remember they took the children away to camp and there were no inhibitions. They could … they just went, they had a wonderful time, and they had all the usual things that they do have in villages. And it started with one book, and then it was ‘Mr Teacher’ and ‘Teacher, Teacher’ and I’ve read … the last one I read, it hadn’t come to a conclusion – they hadn’t got married, and my sister and I were both waiting for them to get married, and something always happened, and I think he’ll have written another one since. But the library are very good – if I ask them if they’ve got it in they’ll send it me. I’ve got three upstairs because I get a leaflet every month with books. Oh, I’ve forgotten the name – I do forget things these days – and they sell books cheaply and these were on offer, quite reasonably so, in paperback. I sent my daughter to read, that’s why her parcel was very expensive. And I’ve got three more for another friend up the road who I think’ll enjoy them. And they’ll go all round her daughters, and they sort of … You know what each other likes, you see, but they are very funny. And then, who’s the latest one I’m reading? I thought about it but it’s gone now. It’ll come later.

LH: Well, on here you do mention Ken Follett.

MG: Ooh yes. I like his. Especially – didn’t he write The Magpies?

LH: I don’t know.

MG: I especially like that. And … that was the wartime. You see, I like a lot of the wartime ones. Yes.

LH: Yes. And Dick Francis you’ve got here as well. You told me already. And Robert Goddard.

MG: Yes, now think that Robert Goddard must be the one who writes locally. He … more or less he lives in the Peak District, he lives … the one who’s writing the stories, and they come into Sheffield and the surrounding districts and the murders are usually out in Derbyshire.

LH: Safely away from Sheffield … And then M C Beaton.

MG: Oh yes, they’re funny.

LH: Death of a …  something, with Hamish Macbeth, you’ve written.

MG: Yes, she writes about Hamish Macbeth. I don’t like some of her others that she’s written, but Hamish is always s… again there’s always a little murder.

LH: So you’re really a bit of a murder mystery fan, aren’t you.

MG: Yes, I like … those are the things I like on television too. I pick and choose and I used to love Morse. Yes.

LH: So, it’s interesting ‘cos you’ve got this group …

MG: Sort of a family aren’t they?

LH: And then a second group.

MG: Those are probably on the second page I put what I read more recently.

LH: And so these are what you’ve read …

MG: … from earlier days. Yes.

LH: So, from in your …

MG: Probably I read some of them in my teens. I may have read …

LH: You said you read Warwick Deeping in your teens.

MG: I think I read Herb of Grace. I think I read some of those early on. I know I used to go around the second hand bookshops when we were away, especially if it was a wet day. I picked one or two books up there.

LH: When you were away … ?

MG: Yes. On holiday. Not here – we used to go to Norfolk a lot, and they tended to be a bit of a mixture the shops and they’d have a collection of second hand books. I picked one or two books up there.

LH: Did you read what I suppose we would call, or did you have to read, improving books? Books that were good for you?

MG: Probably didn’t!

LH: You don’t have any recollection of them! Were there any books you hated? Again it would be about having to read things … ?

MG: I don’t think so. I never read Dickens or Shakespeare and that’s something I’ve never wanted to read. I suppose because I didn’t do it at school.

LH: Why do you think you didn’t want to?

MG: Didn’t consider that I was clever enough. No. I’ve never considered than  … I didn’t consider that I’d get through my exams when I nursed, but I did …

LH: But you did.

[There follows an italicised passage which is not relevant to reading.]

MG: You know, my husband always said well, you put yourself down too much. But you see I’ve always been like that. And probably now I’m more independent I probably can stand up for myself a lot more. I don’t take any nonsense from these … I mean, I get people ringing up and they say well, I came and saw you last year and you’ve always wanted doing then, and I’ve said, I’m very sorry but I don’t want anything doing at all. Well, we’ll give you a quote that will last a year. I said, no thank you. And, you know, sometimes you think you’ll have to put the phone down.

LH: But you don’t want to be rude …

MG: We weren’t brought up that way, you see. And that’s still with you, the way you were brought up. I mean, Mother brought us up to help people. You still do, you know, to the limits of your ability, don’t you. I mean, I’ve a lot of friends of my own age, and I mean, there’s one, I can only keep in touch with her by phone or by letter, and she’s got an awfully hard life with her husband. He’s an Altzheimer’s; she can’t see and she has arthritis, and she doesn’t seem to get any help. And when you get these charities writing and they say they do this and they do the other, I wrote to her and sent the leaflet, and said approach them and see if you can get any help. Help the Aged and WVS, and no, nothing’s been forthcoming. But I think with the occupational therapist been going to her husband she’s got more help through her, and I think it was one of the people who come to shower him and she said she’d approach somebody to see if she could have someone to take her out for two hours. Now, she’s got somebody to take her out for two hours once a fortnight and that’s when Bill’s at… you know, they come and take him. But you see, they don’t come till 11 and he’s back at half past three. She’s no time. And you know, like here, he’d be able to go in somewhere for respite, and there’s nothing like that. They live near Edinburgh and it’s in North Berwick, but you see it’s just a little seaside place, and I suppose they haven’t got …

LH: I suppose they haven’t got the same resources.

MG: And she’s hoping she could get him in somewhere for a week but she’d have to pay for him. You’ve got to fill all these long forms in, and so she can’t see to do it, so a neighbour, a very good neighbour who helps her, she says I won’t take any payment, I’ll start now by telling you no, so she filled the form in as far as she could then asked her questions and filled the rest in. It’s very difficult when you can’t see properly. And so she was waiting the results of that. You see, they had money invested hoping to use that money for their retirement, of course; they get virtually nothing now you see for that. They’ve always been very good about being quite careful. It’s very difficult.

LH: Well, I’m sure your phone calls have been very helpful …

MG: Well, this is it. It’s the only way to keep in touch with some people. I’ve a friend who lives up the road, she comes with the books. She says, I see you’re still alive … ! She brings me a few cakes. She’s just had her knee done. It’s given her a new lease of life. She’s gone back to baking again. And her family descend on her when it’s holidays.

MG: But you remain reading all the time!

MG: Oh, no I don’t have much time to read. I read mostly when I go to bed, and in the morning. Make my cup of tea in the morning and I read in bed. I’ve had to cut down one of my magazines ‘cos I can’t read them. I don’t get time to read them. It sounds so stupid doesn’t it? And I’ve only just started to … watching in the afternoon. I watch Titchmarsh, 3 to 4 in the afternoon, and that’s the only daytime television I watch. And if there’s nothing I want to watch at night I don’t put it on. Perhaps I’ll do some ironing at night, or I might read then.]

But I try and save my library books for bed. Try and read them … I read magazines. I have People’s Friend – that’s a very gentle book, very gentle tales. So I read that. But they all get passed on. I pass all my magazines on. I pass my People’s Friend on to my lady that comes to clean.

LH: Have you read People’s Friend for as long as you can remember?

MG: Sometimes it tells you – I know that sometimes these people write in and say that they’ve been reading it, because they’re perhaps in their 90s, and their daughters write in and say their mothers have had it from the beginning and they pick it up. But I haven’t … Mother didn’t have People’s Frien’. It’s Scottish isn’t it? A lot of the articles are from Scotland and the stories.

LH: You’ve also mentioned your cookery books and your craft books.

MG: Yes, I …

LH: When did you start reading those, Mrs Gomer?

MG: I suppose I’ve always had an interest in cookery, ‘cos Mother’s always encouraged us in the kitchen, we always helped.

LH: Did she use recipe books?

MG: It was Delia’s I think. I’ve got quite a lot of hers.

LH: What books did your mother use to cook with, or did she have her own recipes and pass those down to you?

MG: I presume that she … now you see she was one of nine and she was the last one to go. They all lived to their 90s.

[There follows an italicised passage which is not relevant to reading.]

LH: So when you say she helped you learn to cook…

MG: She included me in the kitchen when she was doing things. I mean she let us bake things. I mean I did the same with the children.

LH: Yes, but when were you using recipes …?

MG: Not till I was older, and then when my mother-in-law died, we’d only been married a year, I found a cookbook and I kept that. And my daughter rang and she said, have you still got that recipe for Granny Gomer’s … I’ve forgotten the name. Well, I had to hunt for it but I found the nearest one I could. I went through loads of cookbooks. And she said, oh, yes, I managed, ‘cos Granny Gomer’s was half an egg, ‘cos it was a wartime one you see. I said to Elizabeth, I don’t know how you managed with half an egg! But she’s a great cook. She’s more or less a vegetarian. And the children are, I mean they wrote and asked her for various recipes. Simon, he’s at uni; he cooked for himself. And Holly does, I don’t think Amelia does ‘cos she’s still at school. But they’ve a Down’s Syndrome boy, and she cooks her own bread. And I said, have you got a machine, bread making? And she says, no, I’m the baker here. And she makes her own bread, and her own stuff for pizzas an she encourages the little boy. Well, he’s not so little now. I’ve got some photographs they sent of him starting decorating it, and the picture of his face when he’d finished! He was so pleased with himself. It was lovely. And Robin’s always … Robin cooks every night for the family. He finishes work, he goes swimming, he goes to Waitrose, and it’s ever so funny, some time ago these elderly people, you don’t want to buy those, pay full price, I can show you where they’ve cut the price down, they do it every night you see. And of course as things are now it’s been a great boon to him.

LH: Is that your son?

MG: Yes. They’re in London. Now, I don’t think any of their two have done any. He always cooks breakfast on Sunday, and I can see both of them now standing on chairs stirring the scrambled egg. And of course, the embroidery, I’ve always done embroidery. I can remember I was making a christening dress, embroidering, on the night of the Blitz. I’ve always done embroidery.

LH: And were you using your own stitches or again were you using a book?

MG: Yes, that’s right and I’ve made dresses of course, things for Elizabeth.

LH: Where did you get patterns?

MG: I used to buy transfers, I’ve got boxes upstairs. I try and get rid of things but it’s very difficult.]

And then I’ve got books … there are book clubs you see, and so I’ve joined a lot of book clubs.

LH: What book club did you join? What age were you when you joined a book club?

MG: Oh, it was after I was married and when I was I was wanting to do different things in embroidery.

LH: Was it a subscription club?

MG: Yes, and they send you a booklet and you choose which ones, and you have to buy one a month, something like that. You get so many free at first.

LH: So this would be when you were in your 20s.

MG: Oh no, it was after I was married, so I was 29 when I got married, so I was in my 30s.

[There follows an italicised passage which is not relevant to reading.]

[And then when the children, you see, it would be later still. They were born in the 50s. So but then I made most of Elizabeth’s, and knitted as well. You used to do more things like that. You don’t do things like that today. My daughter-in-law does; she’s made this. But you see, it’s standing her in good stead. My son works in property, and then if they want curtains or blinds making, she can do them. And then she’s got a friend who’s got a baby shop in London, nursery, and she can sell any amount of, with the names on, various things. It’s a different world down there, things are a different price.]

 LH: So you’ve got these two lists and I’ve got a very good picture of the things you like to read.

MG: Most of what I read when I was younger were family books, like I should say, the family. Like, who wrote Horseman Riding By, was it Deldefield?

LH: I’ll have to look that up. When you say family books do you mean there were series …

MG: Yes, there were families … several … that’s what Elizabeth Goudge wrote about, families. And a lot of people would say it was fantasy but it makes good reading, and I’m finding now I’m reading properly, I’m not skipping anything. I probably did that in my younger days. I wanted to get on to see what the ending was, but I’m finding now that I’m reading more or less every word.

LH: That’s interesting isn’t it?

MG: Yes, it is. And the … Elizabeth Goudge … who’s the one … I’ve forgotten her name now, yes, Elizabeth Goudge wrote The Herb of Grace and she also wrote Dean’s Watch. That is fantasy really, because it’s about a town, a small town, and everything circulates around the cathedral and the Dean and various things, and I suppose a lot of it is. But some of them write so descriptive you can feel you’re there. And that’s what I’ve found lately.

LH: But when you say, some people would call it was fantasy, do you mean they would be critical of it because it was fantasy?

MG:  Yes, they would go, well I don’t want to read that. A lot of people do that.

[Bell rings.  Interview ends.]

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On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

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