Mary S

Mary S

Mary was born in 1921 and was interviewed with her daughter Frances.

They are being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on 3rd December 2012.

Note that there are files to be read in conjunction with this interview – a transcription of a list of books Mary read from 1939 to 1942 (age 18 to 21) and a file of scanned pages from Mary’s ‘Confession Book’ (1936-1938, when she was aged 15 to 17), of pen portraits of her friends.


Mary S: But we know they came from Preston …

Frances S: Originally, then London, and then up to Sheffield, but Preston was in the eighteenth century, so the only thing we can think is it might have been the cotton famine that sent them down to London for work but we don’t know.

Loveday Herridge: So you’ve done lots of research into your family.

FS: We’ve done bits, mum did quite a bit and I’ve done a bit since, and my cousin has done a lot of the family tree.  But they’ve been in Sheffield since 18 whenever …

LH: Well, 1870s, or earlier than that … I’m just working out from….

FS: Oh, earlier … earlier …

LH: … and always in print?

FS: Yes, yes always in … Your family were in Sheffield from the early 1800s weren’t they?

MS: I think so, yes.

FS: … and always in stationery and printing but we don’t know why they got into that.

MS: My father was born …

FS: 1876.

MS: Yes, 1876, that’s right.

FS: … and his father was here, and his father was here, I think, so it goes back quite a way.

LH: So, I think Mary said that her father was a master printer working in a press in Furnival Street, is that right?

MS: Yes. They used to do the printing for the railway companies. They print the … you know, excursions and things, and also print the … a lot of stuff for the … would it be the council then?  … for recipe books and things for schools you know, all that sort of stuff at that time, until they started to build their own …to print their own, and then of course the business went down quite a bit, because when you’re working for one… you know, you put all your stuff into one basket kind of thing, don’t you … they lost a lot of work.

LH: This would be in the late nineteenth century.

FS: That was the 30s.  No, that was …

MS: That was when the war started.

LH: Oh, the Second War.

MS: … things were very bad.

LH: But you were born in 1921?

MS: Yes.

LH: With two older brothers, one of sixteen …

MS: Yes, sixteen and seventeen weren’t they? … Yes.

LH: And you said you were a bit of a shock to the family.

MS: Yes, printer’s error, probably!

LH: I see … !  And tell me a bit … you were born … you lived in Slinn Street until you were four and then your family moved to this house.

MS: Yes, it was new in 1925.

LH: It was newly built in 1925?

MS: And I’ve been here ever since.

LH: Right.  Right.  And do you remember … I’m just thinking …Two older brothers … were they interested in you, Mary?

MS: Oh, I think so. I think I was a novelty … sort of passed round at parties and things.

LH: Right. I’m wondering if they were involved in how you learned to read.

MS: Sorry?

LH: Did your brothers help you to learn to read? Or, do you remember how you learned to read?


MS: No, I think it was when I went to school. I don’t think I was very good at reading at first.

LH: And where did you go to school?

MS: Well, it was in the tin chapel at the top of the road.  It was a little private school called Ringinglow High School, at that time.

LH: Ringinglow High School, even for the little ones?  This was the school you went to when you were quite little?

MS: I didn’t go until I was six.  I didn’t start school till I was six, and then after a while they moved down to the … it was an old sort of chapel, wasn’t it, at the corner of the road here and we transferred to there, and I was there until I was fourteen.  And then I left school at fourteen.

LH: Right. And, tell me a bit about your education at school.  How were you taught?

MS: Well ….

LH: With others of your own age? Was it a very little school?

MS: Yes, I was the oldest when we moved down here, so there was only me in my form.

LH: Really?

MS: But they were very good.  It was a Miss Hambley and a Miss Givens and we did all kinds of subjects, you know.

LH: What did you prefer? Which lesson did you like?

MS: Well, I always liked English … writing letters and writing little stories and things like that.  I was no good at maths … I could never quite see the point of algebra and geometry.

LH: Well, you got to algebra and geometry by age 14, that’s quite sophisticated, isn’t it?

MS: It must have been, yes. Well, I left really because at that time my parents’ business was … you know, they wanted the money really.  I think we only paid about £5 a term but it was quite a lot of money in those days and so it was helpful for me to leave school.  I was at home for … I think when I was 14 … when I was 15 I started going to Gregg’s Business College and learned shorthand and typing so’s I could get a job, which I got when I was 16.

LH: OK.  So just to go back to your school for a moment … did the school have a library, Mary?

MS: No, I don’t think so.

LH: No? Did they encourage you to read at the school?  Did they encourage you to read? Did they want you to read?

MS: I don’t remember that, but I used to go to elocution lessons on a Saturday, at Hunter’s Bar, and there was a little library round the corner and I know I used to get books from there and read.  It was called the Green Circle Library and you paid tuppence a time.

LH: Oh, that’s really fascinating.  So there was a library at Hunter’s Bar and it was called the Green Circle?

MS: Green Circle, yes.

LH: I’ve heard about Red Circle Libraries.

MS: Yes, this was the Green Circle.

LH: This was the Green Circle.

MS: I can’t remember what particular books I read, but I suppose I read anything … I like reading.

LH: Yes. Do you know anything about that library?

MS: I don’t, no.

LH: Was it owned by private ….

MS: I think it would be privately owned I think.  It was only quite small … do you know Hunter’s Bar …? Well, there’s the big thing on the corner and there’s a wool shop or something and it was like … was in one of those ….

LH: Was it?  And so did it have a shop front with glass  …?

MS: Yes, I think it had a shop front with books in.

LH: Were they new books?

MS: Oh, I can’t remember.

LH: I’m sorry to press you. So, when you went into the shop was there a librarian there?

MS: I just can’t remember.  I just remember I got the books!

LH: And do you remember any of the titles?

MS: Yes, and er … I can’t remember what I read.  I know sometime it must have been round about then I read a lot of books about Dr Fu Manchu and I can’t remember what he was, whether he was a detective or what.

LH: Well, I know the name but I’m not sure … I can’t think what he did …

MS: Well, it’s quite escaped me … he’s not in this book anyway… [refers to handwritten book ‘Confessions Book’ which will be discussed later].

LH: At this time you were still at school … ?

MS: Yes.

LH: Did you change the books?

MS: Yes, I changed the books the next Saturday, you see.

LH: The next Saturday. Did you change books for your parents or was it just for you? Was it a children’s library or was it adult …?

MS: I’m not sure … I’m not sure … I think it could have been anybody’s.

LH: Yes. So, did people buy books for you, Mary?  Did you have books as presents from your parents?

MS: Yes, probably not as many as I would have liked!

LH: Did you get them for birthdays and Christmas? Can you remember the sort of books you might have got at Christmas?

MS: Yes, I remember when I was six I got Christopher Robin’s Now We Are Six, ’cos he was just the same age as me.  I’ve always liked A A Milne.  I used to read those and I think I’ve got … what’s that one … the blue book with the … ?


FS: You’ve got the Dickens? You got Oliver Twist and Great Expectations …

MS: No, that was … no, the one with poetry in … can’t remember the name of it …

FS: You mean the A A  Milne ones? Do you mean the Christopher Robin ones?

MS: No …

FS: I don’t know then … They’re all still here anyway …

MS: I’ve still got most of the books …

FS: Oh, Walter de la Mare.

MS: Yes, Walter de la Mare. Yes, that was a present, but I didn’t like it as much as the Christopher Robin books.  I’ve still got … you can still see where … you know, tea marks and things on my …


LH: Yes, a well read book.

MS: Yes, very well read. I used to know all the poems as well.

LH: Did you? Did your mother and father encourage you to read, do you think?

MS: Well, I suppose they did really.  I don’t know. Mother when she was … before she was married, worked in the market on a stall selling books and things.

LH: Did she?

MS: So she was encouraged to read bits of the books so that she could discuss it with customers, you know, so I think even after they were married, I think they … father’s mother helped, and they bought the business there in the market, and they used to sell books and stationery and all that kind of thing, and when gramophones first came in they sold those too.

LH: Right. And so did the stall in the market have a name?

MS: Yes, it was L and A Wilkinson.

LH: L and A Wilkinson.

MS: I think we’ve got a photo of it in one of the books..

FS: Yes, we’ve got a photograph of it, which in fact … we gave a copy to the library and it ended up as a full page picture in Martin Olive’s book of the city centre.  You know those brown books of everywhere in Sheffield … well, the city centre one has got this picture of the market stall but with the 3 shop girls at the front but none of the family on it, it has … you can see what the book titles were, and it’s a proper shop front with all this stuff.  It’s a nice picture.

LH: I must look that up.  And so was Wilkinson your mother’s maiden name?

MS: No, it was Taylor.

FS: Wilkinson was my mother’s maiden name, but Taylor was my grandmother. It was the in-laws’ stall.

LH: Yes. So one can imagine the love affair of the printer and the bookseller … together, your mother and father. So books were very much part of your life …

MS: I suppose so, yes.

LH: Did they have books in the house?

FS: They had all these ghastly Victorian … you know, educational novels, like Peep Behind the Scenes.  We’ve still got that, haven’t we? That novel called Peep Behind the Scenes, that grandma thought was wonderful?  All the kind of Sunday School prizes kind of books… we’ve still got all the Sunday School prizes that various bits of the family got.

MS: I’ve still got quite a few books that were prizes to my mother when she was a girl and her brother, you know, they were all Mrs Gaskell and that kind of thing …

LH: Oh that’s a bit more fun though isn’t it, Mrs Gaskell?

MS: I’ve still got a lot of those books.

FS: You told me that your father used to read aloud, or was it my father used to read aloud … You told me about reading aloud in the house.  Was it my father or your father?

MS: Oh yes, it was your father.  When I was expecting Jonathan I think, we still lived here, after I was married … after my father died we lived here, he used to read to us in the evening,  I remember it was The Egg and I, I don’t know whether you know that book.  I can’t remember who wrote it …

FS: Betty Macdonald … Betty Macdonald.

MS: Oh yes, that’s right … we were busy knitting and he was reading to us.  I don’t know whether men still do that …

LH: Some men, I’m sure.

MS: I think they’re too busy with television these days!

LH: Nowadays… maybe, yes.  So I must make sure I get this right.  You left school when you were 14 because the money that paid for your education was necessary…

MS: Yes, it was really. Because the railway work was taken away when I was 10, so they had been struggling since then really…

LH: Did they ever publish books … did they ever print books or was it always… I suppose it’s called ephemera, isn’t it?

MS:  I remember they did print that one about Eyam.

FS: There was the book about the plague at Eyam that they printed so they did do some books, we’ve got copies of that.  So they did do some books, small books, nothing … not kind of hardback … you know.

MS: Yes, father was a bookbinder as well as a printer, and I had … I used to take The Girls’ Own Paper … magazine, I had a year’s worth, and he bound it together for me and you’ve got it now.

FS: I’ve got that.

MS: Unfortunately, there’s a serial running through it and we haven’t got the last instalment!

FS: I’ll never know what happened!

LH: So you bought comics, did you, as a teenager … you bought comics?

MS: I didn’t have a lot of comics.  I used to take The Playbox. I never liked comics.

LH: But you bought ‘The …

FS: …The Girls’ Own Paper, which is like a magazine really,

MS: I used to take … the boys’ … Magnet, you know the one with Billy Bunter.  I used to like that one.

LH: Where did you buy these magazines, Mary?

MS: Oh, well there was a newsagent’s at the top of the road.

LH: At the top of this road?

MS: Well, yes, it was on Trap Lane, just up Trap Lane.  They used to deliver the papers … presumably it came with that.

LH: They delivered them … ?

MS: Yes, I think so.

LH: So you didn’t go to the newsagent to buy them?

MS: No, I don’t think so.  I think they just got delivered.  I kept the Magnets for years and years and then got rid of them and now I could have sold them for quite a lot of money!

LH: But what were you reading when you were a teenager then, and after you had left school? Maybe it’s time for us to look at these lovely books …

MS: It’s 1930.  How old would I have been then?  [all three participants begin to look at notebook with list of books read]

LH: 9… if you were born in 1921 …

MS: I can’t even read that … Seven…, Schooldays with Kipling’ .. something with C H [MG it was G C] Beresford … ‘A Woman at the …’

FS: I think that must have been a bit later than 1930 … Oh, it’s 1939.

MS: 1939 …

LH: But, if we go chronologically … this one is a bit earlier, isn’t it?  [all three participants begin to look at ‘Confession Book’]

MS: Oh, that was our ‘Confession Book’.

LH: Tell me about the ‘Confession Book’.


MS: We used to collect it from all the people that we knew.  Me and a friend who lived across the road … we both had this confession book …

LH: All the girls had a confession book, did they?

MS: Yes.

LH: So in 1937 you were 16 so you had finished at college …

MS: Yes, I was working when I was 16.

LH: So where did you work? Where was your first job?

MS: I worked on Leopold Street.  It was a firm of accountants called Watson Sons and Wheatcroft.  Maths was something I never wanted to have anything to do with but I was the typist for the tax expert there, and then during the war we moved from Leopold Street to Norfolk Row and they decided that the tax files were very important for the war effort so they moved me and the tax files out to Dronfield to my boss’s mother’s house, so during the war I was working at Dronfield.  It was a bit lonely really, after a busy office.

LH: I’m sure it was.

MS: Yes, a bit boring. I remember reading Gone with the Wind at that time.

LH: Did you pass the time at the office with Scarlett?

MS: I read it on the bus going in and in the lunch hour.  Once I’ve started a long book like that I can’t put it down till I’ve finished.

LH: And do you know, with Gone with the Wind for example, how was it that you came across that novel?

MS: Well, it was just popular at the time. It must have been when it first came out.

LH: And when you say popular … did you hear about it on the radio or did people talk about it … How do you think you began to know about it?

MS: I don’t know … possibly, I don’t know really how I came to know about books like that. When I was working in Leopold Street, that was just before the war, there was a boy who was a little bit older than me who taught me to use the telephone and things that kind of thing, and we used to do the stamps and the letters and I’d take them to post on Surrey Street then we’d go along to the library and get books out of the library there, we went quite often, most nights, on to the library.

LH: Did you? Many times a week?

MS: Well, I wouldn’t say every nigh …

LH: Several? One or two times … ?

MS: Yes. Yes.

LH: So having changed your books at the Green Circle Library …

MS: Yes, I’d finished with that then after I started going to town.

LH: What was the library like on Surrey Street for a young woman of 16?  Was it an inviting place?

MS: What the library? Yes, I think as far as I know. I don’t know if it’s still the same. I haven’t been in for so long

LH: But there was this time in your life when you went there a lot …

MS: I used to get all different sorts of books out there.  I used to read things like D H Lawrence and Lawrence of Arabia was one of my favourite characters and I read his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And I read books about Buddhism and all kinds of stuff.

LH: And how did you come to choose these very different kinds of books?

MS: I don’t know.  I just looked along … I always liked biographies and if I read a book by somebody then I liked to find out more about them, you know.  I was very into Beverley Nichols.

LH: Did the librarians help you to choose books?

MS: No, no..

LH: So you just went along the shelf …

MS: I just went along with this friend.

LH: And what did he choose? Did he choose similar books?

MS: I don’t know … presumably … I don’t think we swapped books … but this was really because we used to go to work on the tramcars you see, and you could read on the tramcar. You got through quite a few books that way.  When the buses came in it was a bit bumpy!

LH: So is that when you mostly read … on your journey to and from work?

MS: Yes.

LH: Did you read in the evening, or just on the bus and tram?

MS: No, I might have read in bed, but not a lot, because we had the radio in the evening. I always listened to the radio.

LH: I’m just thinking about your friend Winifred Amies … [refers to Confession Book].  How do you come to have this book?

MS: Oh, she married my brother.

LH: Oh, I see. So …

MS: That was before she was married to him.

LH: Yes, I think so.  And so it says that her favourite author is Maurice Walsh.

MS: I don’t know Maurice Walsh. She was 5 years older than me.

LH: Can I just have a look at this? Oh, I’m pleased that the girl she likes best is Mary.

FS: Did everybody have one of these confession books on the go?

MS: No, I don’t think so.  I don’t know why we got into the habit.  I think it’s because the boys used to like to come you know, can we do your confession book … !

LH: Well, that’s a ploy I haven’t heard of!

MS: We were friendly with a lot of the boys who went to King Edward’s.  Most of them went there.

LH: Here’s John Lee. Do you remember him?

MS: No, not a clue.  I think he must have been one of the Nether Edge lot.  Nice writing though …

LH: His favourite author is political writer … Mosley…  that must be Oswald Mosley.  My goodness, in 1937…

MS: I just can’t remember him at all.

LH: And then Edward Bedford …

MS: Oh, yes, he was older.  He was a colleague at the office.  He unfortunately died when he was 24.  He was very tall, about 6ft 4” and very thin you know… and he had a weak heart … it was a shame … he was a nice boy.

LH: His favourite author is Raphael Sabatini.  Did you read him?

MS: Oh, I know the name but I don’t remember the book.  I think Daddy Long Legs was one of my favourite books. I don’t think I’ve got me in there.

LH: But lots of other friends. Here’s someone … William Olivant … his favourite author was … Leslie Charteris is his famous author.

FS: That’s The Saint isn’t it?  The man who wrote the books about The Saint.

MS: Oh, yes.

LH: Let’s see.  Here’s somebody … Kenneth Hutton … and his favourite author is F Haydn Dimmock.  I haven’t heard of him.

FS: Interesting to look them up.

LH: Yes, I wonder if you would let us borrow this book to photocopy i t…

FS: I could type them up. I could photocopy it.

LH: All these people … your contemporaries … Philip Downing….

MS: Oh, he was my boyfriend yes, at the time … yes, we all went to dancing class on Psalter Lane that’s where most of the ones that we were friendly with … there was Philip and his brother Frank.  But after the war you see all that finished.  I don’t think I ever saw any of them again.  Philip came back all right but I was married and he married somebody else and we never ever got together again.  But he was a very nice boy.

LH: His favourite author is ‘David Hume’.

MS: I know the name but I don’t remember the books.  David Hume. I don’t know what sort of books they were. We didn’t talk about books!

LH: Well, it’s nice to see that the girl he likes best is Mary Wilkinson!

FS: But look who’s written it in …

MS: Yes … ‘a secret’ …

FS: Mother’s written it in over the top!  At some point …

LH: Here’s another one … Walter Buttery …  do you remember Walter Buttery?

MS: Oh, I think he’s the one I met on holiday.

LH: His favourite author is Prof Law.  Not sure about that one …

MS: When I looked through the book I didn’t know half the people.

LH: Well, it’s an absolutely wonderful book.

FS: It’s an interesting snapshot of the time just before the war.

LH: The questions that are asked are very astute I think. Who decided on what questions should be asked?

MS: I suppose we did it ourselves, Irene and I.  But we kept changing our opinions, so we kept changing ours.  I haven’t got mine in there and I don’t think Irene’s is.  We kept changing … it’s like catching a moment in time, isn’t it.

LH: Here’s someone whose favourite film star is Fred Astaire.

MS: Oh yes, and that little boy on Strictly Come Dancing had never heard of Fred Astaire but … that’s sad.

LH: Oh dear, that is sad.  But many other people have.

LH: This is just wonderful.  Here’s Audrey Hopkinson.

MS: Yes, she was one of our little gang.  She was a favourite girl.

LH: Her favourite author is Netta Musket.

MS: I don’t know that.  I remember her father was something at the Gas Company and they used to go on cruises, which was quite something in those days and she was only 12 but she was a very sophisticated 12, you know.  She used to dance with the sailors on the ship!

LH: You had a lot of friends, Mary.

MS: It seems like it, doesn’t it?  They’re all dead now!

LH: Not all, I’m sure.

MS: Well, I’m 91.  So I suppose it’s to be expected.  I don’t know what happened to most of these people.  I don’t know what happened to Audrey.

FS: You kept in touch with some of them until they died, didn’t you?

MS: Oh yes, some of them.

LH: Were these all young people who lived close to you?  Or were they school friends?

MS: Well, this one lived on Grove Road, at Millhouses.

LH: How did you meet them, Mary?

MS: I think it was through dancing class.  I can’t remember Audrey at dancing class…

LH: So was dancing your main pastime?

MS: Yes, it was really.

LH: And all this time you were still reading?

MS: Oh yes.

LH: And once you started work you must have been very busy and of course it’s coming up to the war. How did the war affect you particularly?

MS: Well, ’cos I was working … we’d moved at that time to Norfolk Row … and there were lots …

LH: Oh, your office …

MS: The office, yes.  All the articled clerks or most of them anyway went off into the army so I used to write a lot of letters to them and get letters back, and my father at that time he’d developed cataracts and couldn’t see very well at all.  Cataract operations were very difficult in those days, you know, and, I mean, things just altered really during the war because we were rationed.  But I don’t remember it affecting us particularly, you know we weren’t short of food.  We seemed to have all that we needed.  These programmes that you see on television, some dreadful things, and I can’t remember anything really dreadful. I was reserved because of the tax business because of my job so I didn’t get called up but I was in the ARP, and the telephone department was in Chelsea House, I think, somewhere there, it was underneath … was it a hall, Chelsea House?  It was a big house and we were down in the basement. I don’t remember ever getting a call!  There were about four of us girls there.  And my husband, we weren’t married then, but he was living here at the time, he used to walk down with me.

LH: He was living here. Why was he living here?

MS: Because he came to stay with us … would it be just before the war or during the war, about 1940 I think, he came from Swadlincote, and his first job was at Firth Brown Tools, and he was in digs at Nether Edge somewhere.  And it was quite romantic really, at this time we were struggling a bit as regards money because I didn’t earn very much.  I think it was 10s a week to start with and then it got to 12s 6d, so I didn’t help all that much, but things were a lot cheaper. And anyway we saw, I said well why don’t we get someone to live with us.  And we looked, and there was an advert in the paper and I think it said something like ‘Respectable young man requires lodgings’, I think I’ve got the cutting somewhere, anyway we answered this, and I remember him coming I think it was one Saturday morning, and my friend and I who lived across the road, was across the road, and we saw him pull up in his little Morris 8 that he had in those days, you could get petrol before the war.  And we looked at him, and he decided that he’d stay and so he almost became one of the family.  He taught us to play bridge.  Mother and father were quite keen on whist, they used to go to a lot of whist drives, and he taught us to play bridge and we used to do that in the evenings.  And he was quite good company.  And we used to do the Telegraph crossword sitting on that settee.

FS: Till he died about 9 years ago.

MS: And gradually, you know, he asked if he could take me out. And we used to go for walks and things.  And then he took me to his home and eventually we got married, after four years you know living here.  So we knew each other pretty well.  So that was how he came to be here.

LH: And all that time he was working as an engineer.

MS: Yes, he was in the army for one day.  I think he must have volunteered, and they accepted him, and he got a number and everything. And then they called him back and said, look we’ve decided you would be a lot more valuable here than in the army, so he stayed there and joined the Home Guard.  So he was in the Home Guard and I was in the ARP and did fire watching and things like that, he did.

FS: He bought you a lot of books, didn’t he?  He was keen on reading as well.

LH: Yes … he was a great reader, he read a lot?

MS: Yes, I think their father had read a lot, but of course once his eyes started to go he couldn’t. But I think as a young man he’d read a lot.  I remember mother saying when they were first married, she said, well, you’re not going to be doing that all the time – I want to go out!  She was very vivacious so he didn’t read so much then.  But I remember him joining in a travel book club.

FS: Yes, we’ve got all these travel books.

MS: I think we’ve got rid of most of them, but there might be one or two. I think it was half a crown a time. And they were really nice books.

LH: Travel Book Club?  That I haven’t heard of … was it magazines?

FS: No, it was all these things. I can remember reading most of these as well. It’s those wasn’t it, that series. That’s one. The Travel Book Club. But we used to have loads of these, you’ve got rid of most of them haven’t you. But when I was the stage of reading anything I worked through all these.  The Kontiki Expedition was one of them.  Oh 1939.  So that was your father subscribed to that.

LH: Your husband when he joined this bookish family he brought books to the household?

FS: Whose was the Kipling set?

MS: Yes he bought the set of Kipling for my 21st birthday, because I was into Kipling.  Yes … he did read.

LH: A whole set of Kipling?  When you say you were into it, were you reading everything that Kipling wrote?

MS: Yes.

FS: And he wrote in all of them as well.

LH: And his name is Maurice Soar from Swadlincote in Derbyshire.

MS: I don’t remember that one. It’s a long time since I read them.  I think Stalky and Co. was the first one I read.  I think somebody at work persuaded me to read that.

LH: And these were the books that you were reading on the bus to work.

MS: Not not those, those were a present and I think I only read library books on the bus.

LH: Oh did you? And why…

MS: A lot of Penguins…

LH: You read Penguins on the bus…

MS: Yes.  I liked Ian Hay, I think I’ve still got some of those.

LH: I’m trying to work out why you didn’t read this on the bus, but why you read library books on the bus.

MS: Well, because I think if they’re your books you keep them at home, don’t you.

LH: And I see you have beautiful cabinets for the books.

MS: Yes, that one was over there, and that one …

FS: We bought that one within living memory.

LH: They look like a pair.

FS: They’re not. My godfather sold us that when he left Sheffield.

MS: We used to have the radio in that top bit and batteries in the bottom when we first came here.

LH: So you always kept these special books in bookcases.

MS: Yes. I think so.  There’s a lot more upstairs.

LH: Yes, I was just going to ask … did you have books in your bedroom?

MS: Yes, I used to have that bookcase that you’ve got, didn’t I, in the bedroom, full of books.

FS: Yes, but when you were a girl did you have books upstairs or were they all downstairs?

MS: Yes, I had a cupboard with books in, the cupboard that’s got stuff in in the little room now.

FS: Oh yes, the toy cupboard,

MS: Yes, we used to have girls’ annuals and that sort of thing when I was younger.

LH: When you were a girl, when you were about 10?

MS: I suppose so, yes.

LH: There was a period when you always had a girl’s annual.

MS: Pip, Squeak and Wilfred … what did they call them … a good nunc?

FS: I don’t know. You had the Wonder Books, didn’t you and Chuckles.


MS: Oh yes, I got The Wonder Book.

LH: The Wonder Book for Girls?

FS: Yes, the Wonder Book of various things, there’s several aren’t there. Those were yours, weren’t they, and Chuckles was yours, wasn’t it.

MS: Oh yes, that was my first book. I’ve still got that. Scribbled on …

LH: Your first actual book that you had.  And who gave you that book, Mary?

MS: I don’t know.  Father Christmas I expect!

LH: Yes! And so that came even before Christopher Robin?

MS: Oh yes.  What’s the book I’ve got, is it The Wonder Book that’s Esther and Frank in it?  Cos that would be before we came to live here?

FS: That was probably Chuckles.  I’ll go and have a look.

LH: Who was Frank?

MS: He was a friend of my brother’s. You know, they were all a lot older than me.

LH: And were you the little pet?

MS: Yes, that’s right.

LH: So the big boys would give you books?

MS: Yes, I suppose they did.

LH: Did they read to you?

MS: I can’t remember.  I can vaguely remember  … you never know whether you can remember or whether you’ve been told, can you, but I remember being in the pram at Slinn Street and mother had gone out, I expect to a whist drive, and father was sitting in the chair and he had a piece of string on the pram pulling it backwards and forwards and whether I can actually remember it or whether I was told it I don’t know.

LH: What was he doing sitting in the chair? Was he reading?

MS: Reading, yes.

LH: And the string was rocking you to sleep.

MS: Yes. It must have been.  I can remember going up Slinn Street to meet him after work, pushing a doll’s pram and it always used to keep going into the side.

FS: Like supermarket trolleys.  Some of these are father’s. The Wonder Book of Aircraft must have been father’s.  The Wonder Book of Railways actually says ‘Maurice Soar from Auntie Fan and Lucy 1923’.  So that was father’s.  That is the very first book, and that’s the one from Frank.  ‘To Mary from Frank’ but there isn’t a date in that one…  That’s ‘The Wonder Book’, that’s the basic Wonder Book.  Gosh, we’ve all read this so many times.

LH: So this is what I would call a colouring in book … Chuckles.

FS: It is now!

LH: With little poems inside.  And you read this a lot?

MS: I must have done.

FS: It looks very battered.

LH: Yes. Were your brothers … when did your brothers leave your house?

MS: Well, the eldest one went about 19…  Jim was born in 1934, he must have got married about 1933. I was 12. I remember when they got married ’cos I was a bridesmaid, and the other one got married when I was 16.

LH: Did they go into the army or were they in reserved occupations?

MS: Well, they did actually.  The younger one went into the tank corps, he was an artist actually, a commercial artist, and the other one went into the air force, but they were quite old to be doing that.  I think the one in the air force did get over to Egypt.  He was in Egypt for part of the war.

FS: Was that Sonny?

MS: Yes.

LH: So if we go forward a bit from 1939 … you’re still working in Dronfield at the end of the war?

MS: Yes, until it was sort of safe to come back, they’d got all these tax files out there.

LH: So that was about 1944, 45.

MS: I was married in 1944.

LH: So you were married in 1944.  Did they allow you to continue working after you were married?

MS: Yes, I kept on working till Jonathan was born.  Jonathan was born in 1945 and I kept on working till a few months before he was born.

LH: That’s quite unusual isn’t it?

MS: I don’t know.

LH: Very often I think women were asked or had to leave their workplace when they married, didn’t they? Perhaps it was because it was during the war and you were doing war work.

MS: I don’t know, I didn’t think about it.  It was a very nice place to work anyway. They didn’t pay very well, but it was like a big family really … very nice.

LH: So when you returned and you were expecting your first son, Jonathan, and your husband was reading to you, do you remember what books he read to you?

MS: Well, it was only this Egg and I I remember.  I don’t think there was another one. But my father died in 1944 before Jonathan was born, so it was quite a traumatic time and my mother had a nervous breakdown, so it was a bit rough.

LH: Oh goodness.  Was it the whole experience of … ?

MS: I don’t know.  She just stopped eating … She couldn’t eat, and she went an awful yellow colour and the doctor didn’t know what was wrong with her, and she went into hospital and they operated on her and they still couldn’t find anything wrong, so they sewed her up again and she came home like you often do from the hospital with pneumonia so I had to look after her. She gradually got better, but she got down to five stone.  The doctor thinks she had got a broken heart so it was something like … anyway, the funny thing was the first thing she wanted … I fancy some of your Yorkshire pudding and sausage and …

LH: Was that the first sign?

MS: Yes, I think it was.  In hospital they’d tried to tempt her with all sorts of food but she just wouldn’t eat it … very strange.

LH: And were you at this point about to have your first child?

MS: Yes.

LH: Do you think your baby helped your mother to recover?

MS: Yes … yes.

LH: Were you still living at home?

MS: Yes, we were always going to have a house of our own but when my father died, mother was ill and Maurice was living here anyway so we just stayed on and on … and on!

LH: And you were very busy during this time I’m sure.  Did you have other children quickly?

MS: No, we didn’t have Frances for 5 years.

LH: So you were busy at home at that point, and it’s just after the war so the recovery period is starting.  Did you have time to read then, Mary?

MS: No, I don’t think I read as much, unless it was reading in bed.  We always had books around.

FS: You must have been reading to us as children, although I can’t remember at all, because we were all brought up on Winnie the Pooh weren’t we? I have no recollection of it at all.

MS: Funny I can’t remember.  I know you used to be in that little back room and there were games and books and before she could read, she used to be able to pick out letters, and looking at  television she could read then ‘The End’.  You  could read well before you went to school, oh yes.

FS: Could I? I don’t remember.  But I think once you’d got the children – there were just the 2 children – I think your reading became our reading really, so that you used to take us to the library, but I can’t remember you getting books out.  I used to get books out on your ticket before I was old enough to have my own ticket.  You couldn’t have your own ticket until you were seven.

LH: Which library was this?

FS: Ecclesall.

MS: I must have helped you to read because I know you could read before you went to school.  The other one, Jonathan, was quite different.  He didn’t read much at all.  But you were always keen on reading.

LH: So you took the children to the library but you didn’t take a book out yourself?

MS: Not as far as I can remember.

FS: We certainly went to the library before … when I was too young to go on my own.  And as soon as we could go on our own we were encouraged to go.  I went with a friend from next door but one, every week.

LH: And did you ever get books for your mother?

FS: I don’t think so no.  Although we did get books out together didn’t we, ’cos we used to choose books together which we both read.  As we do now.  If we go in a charity shop now we browse together don’t we?  And I think we must have done that in the library. I was certainly brought up to read. I just read all these.  We just worked through what was on the shelves here.

MS: I’ve always been fascinated with books.  Every time we go into a charity shop it’s the books that I look at first although there are a lot of books here I haven’t read yet.

LH: And who are you reading at the moment then Mary?

MS: At the moment?

LH: Which authors do you like?

MS: Well, I’ve got that book about … I haven’t started reading that yet …  and John Humphreys’ book which I’ve had before, but I saw it and felt sorry for it so I bought it again, and I’ve got into Maeve Binchy.  Frances’ partner he knew she was interested in Italy and he saw this book and you passed it on to me and I couldn’t put it down.  And then after that I’ve had one or two Maeve Binchy’s ’cos she’s a good writer and a good story.  But once you start the book you have to finish it.  So I haven’t read anything lately … well, we’ve both had colds and I’ve not felt like reading.

[There follows a discussion of the List of Mary’s books inside a small notebook, now transcribed, also Mary’s father’s library ticket is shown]

FS: I noticed Gone with the Wind is 1942.

MS: Is it?

FS: So would that be when the film came out?

MS: It was during the war when I was reading it.  I remember we went to see the film at the Hippodrome and it was very very long and we took sandwiches with us!

LH: There’s a lot of books here, isn’t there?

MS: It’s very difficult to make out.

FS: I think I ought to transcribe it.

LH: The ideas was … it was just a period when you decided to write down everything that you’d read?

MS: I don’t know if I’d written them down before but I just found this book one day.  It had just got left over.

LH: So there’s Right Ho Jeeves! and very near by there’s A Picture of Dorian Gray.  So you were reading all sorts of things!

MS: I know!  I really enjoyed one called With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet and I’ve still got the Penguin of it, and fairly recently it was just released again and I remember enjoying that.

LH: The End of the Affair…

FS: I think I really ought to transcribe that.  If we can do it between us.

MS: Yes, perhaps so.

LH: It would be enormously useful for us. Paris France Gertrude Stein…

FS: Crikey! I didn’t know you were reading Gertrude Stein.  It’s an amazing mix of stuff, isn’t it.  They must have been library books, mustn’t they?  This is going to sound very patronising, but for someone who left school at 14 it was a fairly heavy reading list.  You know, it’s like an academic reading list.

MS: I suppose it does.  Maybe because I chose it myself and not somebody said, you’ve got to read that. Like when I left school they gave me that copy of Dickens and I’ve never read that!

FS: You’ve still got it waiting!

LH: Well, you’ve noted Pickwick Papers …

MS: Yes, I must have read that.

FS: And Christmas Carol..

MS: And Christmas Carol, I had to learn some of that for elocution, the bits like the Fezziwigs ball, I quite enjoyed that.  And A Tale of Two Cities, I enjoyed that.

FS: That’s in there.

MS: The funny thing was I didn’t read any Jane Austen.  I’d never heard of Jane Austen until … you know, they started doing things on television and then I read all the books.

LH: So that would be in the 1950s, 1960s.

FS: 1950s and 1960s I suppose.

MS: Later than that wasn’t it?

FS: Well, they were on television right from the beginning weren’t they.  It was probably when I started reading her at school.

MS: No. I didn’t know about her when I was younger.

LH: Well, It was a treat to come. Did you read Charlotte Bronte or Emily Bronte?  Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre?

MS: No, I have read it, but not when I was younger.

LH: Some of our interviewees have read those at really a very young age, so there’s this enormous variety of reading.

MS: I was very keen on Beverley Nichols.

LH: Yes, here’s Beverley Nichols, Revue. [Loveday reading from Mary’s notebook]

MS: I was interested to know … I was quite keen on the Mitfords, you know, but that was later. The Mitford one who was interested in the war. I’ve forgotten which one she is now, but it was through reading Beverley Nichols that she got interested in …Cry Havoc  which I read but I don’t think it will be down there.

LH: So not everything was written down in here.

MS: No, because some of them would be earlier and some would be later.

LH: I notice just above Beverley Nichols you’ve got Warwick Deeping. Sorrell and Son. Do you remember that one here?

MS: Well, I can’t remember the story, no. I liked J B Priestley too, that was later. The funny thing was we had all the Beverley Nichols garden books, and during the war, just after the war, I couldn’t face reading those sort of books.  Or the Wooster ones … what’s his name?

FS: Wodehouse.

MS: I couldn’t fancy them. It sort of put me off. It’s too trivial.  It was years before I got back to Beverley Nichols.  I never really have got back to the other one.  Though you’re very fond aren’t you? [to her daughter, Frances] There’s somebody else who used to write similar books to P G Wodehouse but I just can’t think of the name, about the same time.  Funny that. It’s not in there …

FS: Did you read Saki? Or was it my father who was keen on Saki?

MS: I think so.

MS: Your father was keen on Tarka the Otter, which I wasn’t.

FS: No Saki.  The short stories.

MS: I don’t remember them, but I did read that sort of thing.

LH: Did you read books together, you and your husband?

MS: Might have done, might have passed them on, I don’t know.

LH: You didn’t read to one another?

MS: No, no.

LH: I notice here in 1942 that at the end of the list there are three books on ballet.

MS: I was very into ballet.

LH: But in 1942 was it possible to see ballet? Could you see any ballet?

MS: Yes, we used to go and see every ballet we could, and so I got quite a few books.

LH: This is a wonderful record.  So, this is a big question, but what would you say reading has meant to you during your life?

MS: You just lose yourself into the book and when you’ve finished a book you sort of live with the characters for a while don’t you, if you’ve read … I like to read the whole book at once if I can and you sort of stay with them for a bit. And that’s Maeve Binchy, because she brings the same characters into different books, and you think, oh, yes, that’s so-an-so’s daughter, so it’s like being with a family.

LH: You know the history.

MS: Perhaps it’s something to do with being … I was more or less an only child.  Perhaps that’s why I liked reading.

FS: You’ve never watched the soap operas on television.

MS: No.

FS: So that sort of enjoyment you got out of books I think.

MS: I’ve never watched the science things either.  Into space … I’ve never watched those.

LH: Nowadays do you prefer to read or watch television?

MS: Well, both really, but I can’t read in bed any more. I have to depend on television you see for news and all that kind of thing because can’t hear the radio, otherwise I wouldn’t watch so much television.  So most of the evenings I watch television.

LH: And you said that this sofa is where you and your husband used to sit to do the Telegraph crossword.

MS: Oh, used to. I don’t do any more. I just do the Radio Times Sudoku.

LH: Oh, do you? And so did you always have newspapers in the house?  Delivered to the house when you were a child?

MS: Yes, I think so. Can’t remember what they took now.  Well, we always took the Sheffield Telegraph, the Morning Telegraph in those days.  The Radio Times from the first edition.

FS: You were in the Gloops Club weren’t you?

MS: Yes, I was a Glooper.

LH: Oh, I don’t know what that is.

FS: That was part of the Star.  It was a cartoon cat and they had a club and Badgers… And Teddy Tale.

MS: Yes, Teddy Tale.  That was the Daily Mail I think.

FS: So you must have had access to the Star, and the Daily Mail and the Telegraph didn’t you.

MS: I also belong to the Harry Webb fan club!

FS: So there were obviously papers around in the house all the time.

MS: Yes.

FS: Your mother must have taken Ideal Home magazines and things, because we’ve still got half of them.

MS: Yes, when we first came to live here… of course the business was doing well then, and they went to the Ideal Home exhibition in London and they you know bought things for the house.  You’ll have to cut out a lot of that from your recording!

LH: Oh no, nothing to cut out. [Frances] sent me a little cutting from one of your magazines from the 1920s which was an advertisement for a subscription to Dickens’ novels, the whole lot, and there was a coupon which you should fill in and then send off and presumably you paid an amount every week and got the books in return.

FS: [At the ‘Off the Shelf’ meeting about Reading Sheffield] …we were talking about the sets of Dickens like the one I’ve got, and I found an advert for one in those magazines, like the ones I’ve got at my house.  It was one of the women’s magazines, I think it was Woman and Home, and you could send for these sets of Dickens.  So much a week.

MS: I don’t think we ever did.  When I was a young girl I used to take Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Own.  I took one and my friend took the other one.  We used to take the radio magazine and she took the film magazine

LH: This was when you were a teenager.

MS: When I was in my teens yes.  Because I used to put all these pages with the pictures and have them all round the bedroom walls of the radio stars, and she did the same with the films.

FS: That little pile of women’s magazines that were your mother’s from the 20s.  You found them in the attic, didn’t you, in a box.  It isn’t a proper attic that you go can in but you can shove stuff through the hatch.  And there was this box that you fetched down last time we did the loft insulation.  And we found all these pristine women’s magazines, which I’ve been reading cheerfully ever since.

MS: We’ve even got one … they used to put dressmaker’s patterns in … and we’ve even got one with the pattern in for a dress.

FS: And most of this furniture, there are adverts for it in the Ideal Home magazine, because that was when they were getting their ideas for the house in the 20s.  But presumably everyone had one of these sets of Dickens, but not here actually.

LH: I think they are very well known.

FS: The one I’ve got isn’t the same one as in that picture … the same … a little oak bookcase, and obviously the same type of thing that’s in that period.  Mine came from the family that lived next door but one, two, down the road.  When I was in my probably 20s he was clearing his uncle’s house when his uncle died and gave me this set of Dickens, so that’s somebody else’s family heirlooms who had sent off a coupon like that.  It would be the same period of family, but someone else’s family as it happens, but almost every other family must have got one of these sets of Dickens.

LH: Is there any other book that’s meant a lot to you, Mary, that you’d like to tell us about.

MS: Well, I don’t know really.  I’ve always been interested in the family at Chatsworth so I’ve collected a lot of their books, and the Sitwells … I’ve read all the … which one would it be?

FS: Osbert?

MS: Yes, Osbert’s Left Hand Right Hand which I really enjoyed, but that was quite recently really, well in the last 20 years! I always enjoyed reading about people in that …You know like D H Lawrence and his biography, all those sorts of people in that era.  I’ve always like those.  That’s why I’ve got that book for 50p because she’s part of that lot.

FS: Rebecca West.

MS: I never knew that that wasn’t her name.  She just sort of took that name … the West.  But they’re such fascinating families aren’t they and they’re all connected with the big houses and so forth.

LH: And often connected with one another too, aren’t they.

MS: They all seem to join together like the Nicholsons and the Sitwells and so forth.

FS: I think particularly with the Sitwells and the Chatsworth lot you think they’re part of the family, being local don’t you?

MS: And they all seem to be related to the Churchills.  Everybody seems to fit in with everybody else.

FS: How did you come to know the book Daddy Long Legs?

MS: I must have found it in the library I suppose.  It’s always been a favourite book, and I think Anne of Green Gables.  Somebody gave me another American book … can’t remember the name. It’s such a different way of life, Daddy Long Legs, it’s quite interesting.  I’ve read it so many times. If I get a book I like I keep on reading it.

LH: We do that don’t we?

MS: I still can’t spell.

FS: You can!

LH: Mary I’m going to stop the recording now.  Thank you so much.

Access Mary’s reading journey here.








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In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.


Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  


The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:


The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   


I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.

[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

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