Maureen Lambert

Maureen Lambert

Maureen was born in Parson Cross, Sheffield on 6 November 1941.

Maureen is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 30 April 2012.

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Mary Grover: Maureen was born in Sheffield. Which area of Sheffield?

Maureen Lambert: Not far from here, Parson Cross.

Mary Grover: And Maureen was born on … ?

Maureen Lambert: 6/11/41.

MG: And she lived in Parson Cross between 1945-1965 – is that right?

ML: Yes. 1945-1963, then I moved to Ecclesfield.

MG: I’m interviewing Maureen in Ecclesfield now. Maureen, even though we’re interested in adult reading, we want to sort of go back to when your love of reading started. How do you think you got your love of reading?

ML: My parents are working class. They didn’t have any books in the house; they only read newspapers. They didn’t read at all. I was an only child, quite lonely I think, and I got lost in books. I would read, I suppose, out of boredom, but then I would be a character in the books, I would be involved in the book. And I suppose … I don’t know. I know we had like nursery rhyme/children’s books were read to me, then I would borrow books from school, school had a library, and I joined Southey Green Library quite early on, so I would have however many books I could have, but every Monday night I went to the library, so I would have read those books in that week, plus whatever I got from school. I also had School Friend magazine, and there was another one on a Friday, I had two magazines… I don’t know whether it was Bunty, or whether Bunty was out then, but I know there were two at that time. And then on a Sunday, my dad used to get me the Dandy and the Beano, and more of a boy’s one, I can’t think what that was called. So I had those five magazines as well. And Christmas I used to have annuals, I’d probably have six or seven annuals. I mean, to get that one, my mum would pay so much a week into a club, and then at Christmas she would have… like I said, we didn’t have a lot of spare cash for books.

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MG: So that would have been a big outlay, five magazines a week.

ML: Yes, it would really. Like I said, we had two delivered on a Friday and School Friend, which was similar stories to Enid Blyton, the girls in boarding school and this sort of thing.

MG: Your parents obviously cared about you reading.

ML: Yes. Talking about it now, like the money for Christmas, like I said, I would have six or seven annuals, probably the School Friend one and different ones like that. I loved cinema; we used to go to the cinema twice a week because we lived quite near one. And Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was one lot of films, Thursday, Friday and Saturday was a different film, so we went on a Tuesday and a Friday evening, and I loved that, I loved the stories, because I had film star annuals as well and I still remember some of the pictures in there, you know, from them… and then when we moved to Ecclesfield, I joined the library here which was in like a terraced house near the church, it was just a … very strict she was in there.

MG: Was it a council library?

ML: Yes, it was.

MG: Did she have any influence on your reading, that lady?

ML: No, not really. She was not a friendly lady at all – it was looking at your hands when you went … you know, I mean, this was as an adult though, but the children, you didn’t speak in there, you know… you didn’t really [indistinct] as a child.

MG: So when you went to the films, did any of the films trigger you to read the book of the film?

ML: Not really. There was such a variety of films. I mean, we went to everything, whether… unless it was an X, which children couldn’t go to, but whether some of them were suitable really, I don’t know – but we went. So there were crime ones, I enjoyed the musicals mostly, being a young person… but we didn’t go to everything. Every Tuesday and Friday we went to the cinema, no matter what was on we went.

MG: So you grew up loving books and reading. Can you remember any of the first books you read where you thought, ‘These are grown up books’?

ML: Oh, gosh, no. Not really. No. I can’t, I’m afraid. I mean, the ones I read as a youngster were all Enid Blyton, the Malory Towers ones, the Famous Five ones … I mean, there must have been others, but I can’t remember what they were.

MG: What about school? Was there a time when you were 14 or 15, when your teachers said, ‘Now you’re ready for that book’?

ML: No. I mean, we had the Shakespeare, the usual ones at school, but not … they didn’t say anything about what you read out of school, no. I mean, there must have been a library, but I don’t remember there being a library other than what they were doing in class.

MG: Was that Ecclesfield School?

ML: No, it was Marcliffe.

MG: And then after Marcliffe, where would you have gone on to?

ML: I left.

MG: Because it’s not a secondary school now, is it?

ML: No … you had to pass the 11+ then to go there.

MG: Can you remember any of the books you studied in school which you felt, ‘Oh, this is interesting’?

ML: No … no, I can’t. Not at all! I left without any … and then when my children were growing up, I went to evening classes to do English – it was O-level then – so that was when, I suppose, Thomas Hardy and some of the other ones that we read, when I went there … and now I read quite a cross-section. Not particularly romance ones. I belong to Ecclesfield Library, which I have done since I moved here, and they have a good book group, so I read books through that that I would not pick up and read – some I have not enjoyed, but it’s good to get a cross- … you know.

MG: So in that period between leaving school and starting a family, did you read quite a bit in that time?

ML: I’m trying to think … probably not. It was probably, as I said on the phone, I wanted to rejoin the library when I was 20 and went up to Southey Green library, which was quite a hill from where I lived, I was heavily pregnant at the time, and they wouldn’t let me join because I had to go back and get my husband’s signature because I wasn’t 21. You know, when we had this house, I couldn’t go on the title to jointly own it because I wasn’t 21.

MG: So when you were turned down, as it were, from Southey Green, unless your husband signed, what did you do?

ML: I got him to sign and went back! I wasn’t happy about it. I think I was rather annoyed, especially as I’d walked up this very steep hill, and to be told just … I don’t know. I was very cross because I was married, I’d got a child, I was 20, almost 21, but also I think their attitude, it was not a ‘I’m really sorry, but you can’t have…’. The libraries now are very different. They’re friendly… even if I’m not going for a book, I love going for a wander round. I just love being in the library, surrounded by books and having a look around and thinking, ‘I can’t take anything else, because I’ve got a huge pile in there that I haven’t read …’. You know, you pick up, either I’ve had bought me for birthdays or Christmas, or I’ve got from book sales and things, I pick them up then … there’s no point in getting a library book.

MG: When you were a young adult, did you get a chance to read anything that was just for you?

ML: That was probably when I did the Catherine Cookson ones, that type of book. And I’ve always bought books for the children; we’ve always had … and I’ve got three daughters … my youngest daughter always wanted to know … she used to put letters down before she went to school and say, ‘What does that read?’ Well, it didn’t read anything because it was just a jumble of letters! And she would sit and get a salad cream bottle or something, and she would write the letters with her nose while we were having tea, she would so this … she as constantly doing letters. So all three enjoy reading, but the eldest and the youngest particularly – my middle daughter didn’t read as a child really. She does now, but she didn’t particularly as a child.

MG: And you read to them, I guess?

ML: Oh, yes. We used to get a good hardback for half a crown, so on Saturday when I had shopping, we would often have a book … I suppose a little [indistinct]  I’m not sure now, I can’t remember, because half a crown would be … to get three would be … seven and six would be quite a bit of money. So I’m not sure, but I can remember that we got a nice hardback one for that price.

MG: Can you remember where you bought them?

ML: Usually we went to town, so I would have thought something like W H Smiths … I don’t know. We used to go to BHS for lunch, we used to go to M&S … I am just thinking what shops were around, because obviously Sheffield has changed. There weren’t many bookshops … possibly W H Smiths or the Co-op had children’s books in, that was there…

MG: There was a Methodist bookshop, and Applebaums. You didn’t use that, did you?

ML: I don’t think so.

MG: There wasn’t a Boots library, was there?

ML: No.

MG: And that was 19…?

ML: My eldest daughter was born in 1962, so that was the ’60s, going into the ’70s.

MG: But again, it was a big outlay of your income to buy the book.

ML: Yes, it was.

MG: And you spent on them like your parents spent on you.

ML: I suppose so, yes. So although they didn’t read … and I think my mum particularly would have got a lot of pleasure out of books … I think she would have, had she … I don’t know, they never joined a library.

MG: Did they ever have any books in the house?

ML: Not that I remember, no. Only the ones that I had.

MG: What was her attitude to you enjoying reading? Did they ever say you were reading too much?

ML: No … no, no. Perhaps she was glad it kept me quiet! But I don’t think so, they weren’t that sort of parents, you know. I mean, … they would read the paper in the evening – they both worked, my dad worked 12-hour shifts, he was a labourer, and was very tired by the time he got home – we had a meal, and by the time we had the meal it would be 7pm or later. He didn’t get home until about quarter past six, he used to work six til six, 12-hour shifts, so by the time he got home from work it was quarter past, twenty past six, he’d have something to eat and sit and read the evening paper.

MG: Do you remember what paper they read?

ML: Star. I’m not sure if they had a morning one, I don’t think they did, they just had the Star… I’d think as well, there wouldn’t be a lot of money left, a labourer didn’t get very much money, that’s why my mum got part-time work when I was about eight.

MG: Where did your father work?

ML: Samuel Osborn’s, steel firm.

MG: And your mother?

ML: She worked at Batchelor’s before she was married, and she worked there for a little while afterwards – I think that’s where she first met… and Swann Morton’s, which has now expanded, they made surgical blades. She worked there until she was … she was only 58 when she died, so she worked there until she died.

MG: Did they read to you when you were a child?

ML: I can’t remember them reading. All I can remember is … what my memories are of me reading, so they didn’t need to read to me then … but they must have done, because my mum used to tell me I always cried when she read Little Bo-Peep, so she stopped reading it. I think I had it on a handkerchief and she threw it away because I got upset about these sheep being lost! So they must have done. And I remember my dad playing Ludo and stuff like that, but often, after he’d had something to eat, he’d fall asleep! When he’d read the paper, you know. And we always went to my grandfather’s at weekends; all my cousins were there. That was like a pattern really, like holiday times, we went out [indistinct] and places like that … I suppose it was just after the war as well, so everything was rationed, wasn’t it, you couldn’t get stuff. You couldn’t get books.

MG: Paper was rationed.

ML: Yes … I know I had comic type things from people … quite young really.

MG: Did any of your friends of family give or lend you books?

ML: Only friends … I mean, Monday nights, there were about four of us who used to go to the library, that’s what we did on a Monday night … there were two children who lived across the road for a time, they went – Ann and Caroline Barr, I think their names were – and another friend, so there were three or four of us at least who used to go to the library on a Monday night – and I can’t remember, but I used to borrow the maximum, probably about three books, and I would have read them ready for the next Monday. I used to get as many as I could from school – you were allowed several from school …

MG: It must have been hundreds.

ML: Yes. I can’t remember them, can I?

MG: Can you remember your favourites?

ML: I think the Enid Blyton ones, because I can remember looking out for them, like the Malory Towers ones – there must have been others – but there were boarding school ones, and the Famous Five ones. There must have been others but I can’t remember what they were. I can remember reading Heidi – like I said, Jo’s Boys, Little Women, all that series I read … I can’t remember others. I recently read and loved, one of the ones we read recently was Graham Greene. I couldn’t get enough of it, the descriptions. Daphne Du Maurier, I did like that one, so gripping, and Charles Dickens, I still love now. I really enjoyed the books I’ve read.  [this passage was indistinct]

MG: So you’ve read Dickens more recently?

ML: Mostly through … it started with the book group, one Christmas we were given A Christmas Carol and I just loved it. And we did Shakespeare when I was older at school, we did about three I think, but really didn’t get a lot out of them. And I did it at O-level as well, but I can remember … I’m thinking, ‘Well, who’s decided that that’s what he meant with that?’ You know? Whose decision was it? When the teacher is talking about it. And I thought, ‘She’s only saying that because someone has taught it her. How do they know that’s what he meant?’ but then recently there have been things on the radio which I’ve not listened to all of them, but it’s linking in with what was happening at the time, and I found that really good, and I’ve just asked for … they’ve ordered me two that they’ve found from the library, which is the modern Shakespeare, going alongside his works, so there was just … Romeo and Juliet, I think, and I don’t know if it’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I just said, ‘Is there a children’s Shakespeare that I can just read straight through and look at the books again?’ So they looked up and got these – she said it’s like a modern one alongside the original, so I’ll see what they’re like when they come.

MG: Have you enjoyed Shakespeare in the theatre or on film?

ML: I like theatre … I have enjoyed it … I mean, Romeo and Juliet on film is very tongue-in-cheek, isn’t it, it’s not really … it is David Jacobi [sic], isn’t it? I’m trying to think what he was in, that was absolutely amazing. Taming of the Shrew, I saw that in Stratford, and that was amazing – I loved that. I love the theatre, but I don’t often go. I go to local … we have a local theatre group that I go to in Ecclesfield that I go to, they are very good, then I go to local [indistinct] because they do … recently they did [indistinct], there’s one that does it at Montgomery Hall and another that does it at Rotherham, that I go to. I don’t often go to the Lyceum.

MG: It’s a bit pricey now.

ML: Very. Very. When I was working, when my grandchildren were small, I mean, my eldest one is 23, and the youngest two are 13 and 14, but when the others were small, I could afford to take them, so I used to take five of them, but it’s a shame because the two younger lads, I can’t do it any more, because you’re talking £60-£70.

MG: You were saying you’re interested in the historical background. With your reading, do you enjoy fiction as much as non-fiction?

ML: Yes, I do. I think I do, yes. I mean, the historical books that I’ve enjoyed, they’ve obviously linked in with history, you know … I kept a book, an exercise book, for quite a long time, I write titles down – this goes back to 2004. I also keep a little bit of what I’ve done. Elizabeth Chadwick there, and I’ve written a little bit about it.

MG: How interesting!

ML: Because I think, “What was that one?” and then I look back and think, “Yes, I’ve read that.” Yes, I do that.

MG: That’s very interesting. Did you ever keep any lists when you were younger?

ML: No, I didn’t.

MG: It sounds as though you read much more now than you did when you were a young adult.

ML: Yes. I wonder if that’s because I’d got children, I don’t know. Possibly. Because by the time they were [in school?]… I don’t know. Then I read, it was more very light, like Catherine Cookson-type books. And I was in the library the other day and somebody said, “This is really good,” and it looked a little bit like The War Years, and I thought, “It’s not something I would pick up.” This is going to sound a bit … You know the depth? I’ve read …  what was such a lot of …  depth is probably what … I mean, I do look a t… I like Milly Johnson – do you know Milly Johnson?

MG: No.

ML: She’s from Barnsley – I’ve met her actually at book things at the library, I’ve been to Southey and I’ve been into town, I met her in town, was the first time. She writes real life books, usually a romance with a twist, like The Yorkshire Pudding Club – three friends who start by going on a picnic, and one of them, you know that chalk horse on the hillside, she says, we’ll have the picnic on there, sit on the penis, unbeknown – she wants to get pregnant – unbeknown to the other two, and all three get pregnant, and it’s going down there. … So it’s quite a fun book, and I’ve just bought Autumn Crush. Unfortunately, I bought it months and months ago, but so far it’s not come back to me. My friend borrowed it, my daughter’s borrowed it, it’s just gone to another friend, so eventually I shall read it! But anyway, I like.. she’s a very lively woman, very funny, and because she does … she knows Barnsley, so some of the expressions in the book, so ‘chuff me’ is something in Barnsley. ‘Chuff me!’ So there’s different sayings in the book that I found quite amusing, so I read two or three of hers. At the minute we’ve got South Riding from the book group, but I’m finding that a bit hard to get into. So I like to do a lighter one but I like to do something with a bit more description, a bit more depth to it.

MG: You like description?

ML: Yes. I think that’s why I enjoyed Jamaica Inn so much. I have read that again as a younger person, and Rebecca. But a description of this young woman being afraid of walking down the corridor, you can feel it in your tummy. The way she describes it you can feel the tension, and you don’t want her to get to this door and open it, you know. It’s very much like that where you don’t want to put it down – it’s a brilliant book.

MG: It sounds as though you feel quite a lot when you read a book.

ML: I think that’s what I did as a youngster. As I got immersed in the books, I was in the book, and when I put the book down I was still in character, of whoever … I was still at the boarding school or skating somewhere or wherever it was I’d read, and I was involved in it. Oh, yes. I could not … it would be hard to put the book down when I was reading. I read constantly as a child.

MG: Can you remember any person in a book who you identified with?

ML: I think the girls at the boarding school, and yet that was so far from where I was. Like I said, we were working class, very loving and caring parents. We wouldn’t have much money but as a child I wasn’t aware of that. As I said, all the bills were paid, you know.  I went to the cinema a couple of times. My aunt lived next door, my aunt Ethel, she always went with us, and I know, Cadbury’s chocolate, again we probably wouldn’t be able to get one … We shared a sixpenny block between the four of us.

MG: Yes.

ML: [commenting on something going on outside]  Against the fence … the thing there, because they’ve took the fence down the other side, I had my daughter’s dog, and he thinks it’s good fun to go next door and have a look around!]

MG: It’s interesting – because you talked about the Barnsley novelist, and you liked it because it felt familiar.

ML: Yes.

MG: And yet, nothing could be more different than Malory Towers to your …

ML: No. I wonder whether perhaps it was … it was another world, wasn’t it? I went to local primary [indistinct] Road, which was in the middle of the estate, you know, I didn’t enjoy school, I hated school, it was awful.

MG: Why?

ML: The head teacher, until the year I left, I think was quite cruel. She would hit you, really, and she would leave finger marks there. I can’t ever remember … I was just frightened of her. Some of the teachers were lovely. I think because … I mean, you didn’t go until you were five. I’d always been just with my mum at home, so going to school, there was no playgroups, there was nothing that you belonged to, you didn’t … We didn’t live on a bus route, not initially, because there weren’t any buses locally at that time, so we had to walk towards the bridge to get the tram or walk down to Herries Road to get a bus there, but then when the bus route came I wasn’t allowed to cross the road. It was quite a busy road really, so … I think it was just me and my mum, although like I said, my aunt lived next door, and at weekends I saw my cousins. I think I was probably quite lonely. I played a lot on my own. We had a huge field at the back of where we lived, so again I’d spend a lot of time there, with my imagination. I was riding a horse, I was always riding a horse and then there was ballet, so I think I read the … oh, gosh …

MG: Noel Streatfeild.

ML: Yes. And I had some bedroom slippers and I was constantly on my toes with these bedroom slippers, so yes, I think … that’s what makes me think I was lonely, as I lived – partly lived, not all the time – but I was sort of in the books, they fed my imagination.

MG: Can you remember reading something as an adult that seemed interestingly different to you?

ML: I don’t know really. I can’t think of anything in particular. Books that stood out was The Kite Runner, and was it A Thousand Suns, written by the same man about Afghanistan and the women there, … those two I would recommend. But they’re not … I suppose … they were slightly different. I have enjoyed Joanne Harris books, particularly Blackberry Wine, which, when I’ve recommended it to other people, they’ve said, “I couldn’t read that, it’s horrible”.  I absolutely didn’t want… I kept reading the last few pages really slowly because I didn’t want it to end! I absolutely loved that book. I’ve read a lot of Jodi Picoult books, I’ve read Gervase Phinn, and then Jack Sheffield, in a similar vein to Gervase Phinn … I don’t know … what do you mean in terms of different?

MG: I suppose The Kite Runner, yes, would take you to a very different world.

ML: Yes.

MG: And what you were saying earlier about enjoying historical novels before the interview began, do you think that was part of their appeal?

ML: The history of it? Yes, yes – I loved history at school. Yes, that was one of… although I didn’t like school from beginning to end, history and English were my favourite lessons I would think, but history … about people rather than the wars – I loved to hear about the different characters in history.

MG: Going back to those four girls that you went to Southey Library with. How old were you when you went up with them?

ML: Well, I met them in junior school, so I think probably … Ann and Caroline [indistinct] used to come for tea on a Monday night, and so that carried on probably until about 13, from junior school, so 10, 11, 12, 13 …

MG: Did you talk about books with them?

ML: Yes – we’d say what we were looking for and what we’d read, and share what we were looking for, but like I said, you couldn’t speak, and you’d be looked at – your hands to make sure they were clean …

MG: Very different from toddlers going up to the ball pool and having the storytelling like now, under, you know, three-year-olds.

ML: No …

MG: So there was no librarian you remember who kind of encouraged you, really.

ML: No, not … no, I can’t remember any of the librarians. No, I didn’t. It was just you went in, you handed your books in, they looked at your hands, if you spoke too loudly you’d get “Shhh!”. It was divided, as it is here, I suppose [indistinct] fairly. Been built probably ten to twelve years, I don’t know. A small, purpose-built brick building where the shops are, and there is a children’s area, and it is divided by just bookshelves slightly. But the children can move around, whereas there, it was again Southey Green Library, the children’s area, which was quite a big area, the adult one … again, I suppose you could go into the adult side.  I don’t think you were encouraged to.

MG: You can’t remember how old you were when you went to the adult side?

ML: No, I can’t. I was… no. I think when I was at the comprehensive, when I went there. I don’t think I borrowed a lot of books – I don’t remember now. I did until my teens, because I can still remember going to Southey Green Library, but then like I said, we had books from school. I can’t remember going to the library sort of 15 – 16.

MG: So your passionate reading life almost seems to have stopped when you were 14 or so.

ML: It seems to have, yes. And then like I said, when I was 20, I joined again, I joined as an adult.

MG: And you took out mostly children’s books at that point, did you?

ML: No, no – because I was having a baby, I’d not got … I don’t know what I took out. I don’t know what I read then. Quite a few Agatha Christie ones, but I don’t know at what stage. Catherine Cookson probably when my children were small, but after reading perhaps eight of them or whatever, I kept getting confused with which book was which, because they were all written very much in the same vein, so … yes.

MG: You must have been ever so tired when you had small children; you wouldn’t have wanted to read anything too …

ML: No, probably not, I probably didn’t do much reading; when they had gone to bed I did a lot of knitting, you know, cardigans and stuff. Whatever dress they had, I always had a cardigan to match – and I dressed them the same, so I did three of everything that I did. So when they had gone to bed, I just knitted, you know.

MG: Did you watch much television?

ML: No, because there was … during the day we had Watch With Mother on at lunchtime, because that was the first time it came on, and in the evening the news was probably the first … news … I don’t think we had a television, when we moved here we had very little, so television was something I don’t know … we had a radiogram, which was given to us, comparatively new, with two fireside chairs that were 21st birthday presents, we had a dining suite and a bedroom suite, and that was it – no carpets or anything, you know … it was all right.

MG: And you had all your childhood annuals with you at that point?

ML: No … they’d gone. Didn’t bring any books.

MG: So would I be right in thinking that your parents encouraged you to read more than anybody by buying you the annuals?

ML: They bought them … I think I first started looking … I suppose reading, was at school, that’s where I learnt to read. My mum didn’t teach me to read … and I would think as soon as I could borrow books from school then I would bring the books home from there and read them.

MG: But nobody guided you and told you what to read?

ML: No.

MG: Interesting.

ML: Because it was something that took me out; it gave me something to do, something I enjoyed, and it gave … it opened new worlds, didn’t it?

MG: And it was free!

ML: And it was free, yes! That’s even better, isn’t it? Because the school friend, Connie, I can remember the front page of it and it was like a boarding … about girls at a boarding school, and they were mostly that type of story. The Dandy and Beano were the cartoon-y ones. Another one, I can’t remember now, it opened up quite big, the other one I had on a Sunday … and it was more a boy’s one. It had got the riddle type things in that one. And I can’t remember what the other one was, because I think Bunty I bought for my children, my eldest daughter, so I’m not sure whether it was School Friend or what it was. I know I had two on a Friday morning, and then sometimes – this was junior school, primary, infant, whenever it started – and sometimes I stayed for school dinners, but sometimes, when my mother was at work, I could go to my auntie’s who lived next door, and sometimes I would think, ‘I’m dying to read a book, but should I save it until teatime?’ And sometimes I couldn’t resist it so I would read some of it and try not to read any more until I got home at teatime, because it was something to look forward to at teatime. Because it was episodes you had to wait a week before the next episode, you know?

MG: So a lot of the things you were reading were in episodes?

ML: Yes – well, they were. Yes.

MG: You don’t get many modern books written like that.

ML: No, these were the comics, the Friday comics, not the annuals – they were complete stories.

MG: Because Dickens wrote in episodes. When you’re reading Dickens, do you get the same sense of excitement?

ML: I think … marvellous. For the first time, a few Christmases ago, I read A Christmas Carol and I absolutely loved it to read. I mean, there are so many versions of the film on television and in films, and more modern ones, but I just loved his descriptions.

MG: You come back to that word a lot, Maureen – descriptions.

ML: Descriptions. Yes, I love words. I’m not very good with them – I’m rubbish at crosswords, I’m not very good with them at all – but I love the reading of them and the sound of them, I suppose. Yes.

MG: Do you read poetry?

ML: No, not really, not very much at all. And I’ve got a few poetry books, there’s just a few and, Christian books.  I’ve got a few poetry books … there’s two or three poetry books there.

MG: What about the Church? Does that have an influence on your reading?

ML: Oh, yes. Yes. I read either Daylight, which is [indistinct], I read a Daylight reading every day, and I read … this is just … I am a member of Mothers’ Union, so I am interested in what happens in other countries. I read this every morning; I read other things as well, – a magazine that comes out with them, [indistinct], I am in the RSPB so I get the magazine every three months, and the National Trust, so I get theirs, whatever.

MG: How long have you been the member of a church?

ML: I went a little bit to a local Methodist one as a teenager – again, my parents never went to church – and then when I moved here, I always had a … I’ve got a Bible there, which was given to me after I asked for a Bible for my ninth birthday. This one.  And I’ve written in it, because my aunt bought it from … there was a really good toyshop at Firth Park, expensive toyshop, and she bought it me from there. And I put on it: “1951. To Maureen, for her ninth birthday from Auntie Edith.” But I wrote it. And I put how many words are in the Bible and how many chapters and how many verses. So that was mine as a child. I don’t know where I got that from – I’ve not counted them obviously.

MG: How amazing. So when you were nine …

ML: When I was eight I asked for that for my ninth birthday.

MG: And do you think you chose this verse?

ML: That’s on my baptism certificate. I’ve still got mine.

MG: For the record, Maureen wrote in the front of her bible: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me’.

ML: Yes.

MG: So that was an important …

ML: Well, it was something I knew. I didn’t know a lot of other things. And I know I went with my auntie to choose it;  it’s got some pictures in it … it’s the old King James one.

MG: So you didn’t start going to church when you were nine?

ML: No, I didn’t. When I was a bit older, they had a Girls Lads Brigade [sic] at the Methodist church which was just up the road from where I lived, and I occasionally went there. And when I was at my granddad’s, I was friends with the family next door, the two youngest daughters there, and we sometimes went to the Methodist church around the corner from my granddad’s, because I used to stay up Saturday night to Sunday, and come home and he would fetch me home on a Sunday afternoon – so I used to go to the Methodist church there. Occasionally. I remember being in a concert that they did. They used to have the anniversary,  the anniversary Methodist Sunday school anniversary and you all wore a white dress [indistinct] … but then when we came to Ecclesfield, and I had my second child, my eldest, they were all baptised, but when she was baptised they then… the vicar’s wife did an afternoon tea party for all the families of children who have been baptised, and she started, and I think it was probably a pram service in the afternoon, where you took the prams into church, and then we started going regularly, so that’s … my daughter is 48 this year, so that’s 48 years that I’ve been going to St Mary’s, Ecclesfield.

MG: So when you were a young adult, did the Bible stimulate your imagination as well as your faith?

ML: Probably. I mean, I think the two go together, don’t they? I mean, the words, and it’s different, you’re growing all the time … reading generally, I think you grow in the spread of what you read, and your faith changes all the time. You can read something one day and you can read it another day and it means something different to you.

MG: Is there any particular book of the Bible that means a lot to you?

ML: Isaiah. I like Isaiah, because I think it’s relevant for today, the things that are happening in the world today were happening in Isaiah – and we’ve still not learned very much, have we? We must have, but I think a lot of what is prophesied … came true. The words that he used – and I do have doubts sometimes – the words that he used actually came to fruition in Jesus, and then the gospels, you know, what Jesus said as well, but … yes, Isaiah stands out for me.

MG: That’s very interesting.

ML: Again, the words can be very flat, can’t they, in the psalms, again, the songs and beautiful words in them, but I don’t read the Bible in chunks of it, you know, I tend to just read … At the minute, there’s a bible reading that I do in the morning, and then there’s a little description, different people write what they think that means.

MG: We sometimes take it for granted, don’t we, if we’ve grown up with the Bible, that it’s not a book, you know? Actually I think it often influences us a lot.

ML: I mean, if you just read it as a book, you’ve got murders, you’ve got all sorts, you’ve got wars, you’ve got murders … I mean, I’ve just been reading about the king who married Jezebel and all of that, and John had his head put on a platter … so even if you just had no faith, but read it as a book, there’s everything in it really, I suppose. There’s love, there’s hatred, there’s forgiveness, the brothers, you know … Jacob and his brother, and Jacob did his brother out of his inheritance, and then they made friends years later, you know … I’ve read a few [indistinct] but based on … the novels, but based on … the Christian books, based on … and they’re quite … I think it’s called  [indistinct], that was from the first page, very powerful because it’s about… who’s the chap… [Josiah?], who married a prostitute, and so that’s about her as a child on the first page, and straight away on the first page there because of the way, you know, [her mum] dies and this chap takes her in and obviously grooms her, you know, uses her at age six as a sex person, you know, so you get that one straight away. So I’ve got a few of those … I’ve got different … I mean, the bookshelf in there has got all sorts in. I’ve got some crime ones … I don’t read a lot of crime, although I enjoy watching … I used to enjoy watching Morse, and now Lewis, and Taggart –  watching them on TV, but I don’t read a lot of crime. I’ve got friends who do, and when I go to book sales, I will bring some back and think, ‘It sounds good,’ but I don’t …  and they pile up.

MG: You don’t get into crime?

ML: Not really, not at all. And some, I’ve got a couple on there that I’ve not read, about India. I’ve got two friends who support a school in Bangalore, and I got it for Heather really, but I thought I’d give it to her when I’ve read it. It’s about the Taj Mahal and about how that came to be, so I quite like those.

MG: You seem to read so widely, Maureen – you seem to be interested in a lot of different kinds of reading.

ML: I think the book group has been very good because there has been books that I’ve not read, I would not have looked at twice. Madame Bovary – I didn’t like that! I found that … at the time I suppose it was very daring, but I didn’t find the style of writing very good. Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, I mean, that was on the television, and I found that boring. This Francine Rivers, I read that in 2009, [?], The Kite Runner, and yes, I didn’t like Madame Bovary. I didn’t write comments then; it was later when I started [indistinct].Woman in Black … I liked that. I didn’t like Broken Biscuits. Yes. I’ve read Nigel Slater, that as through the library, but I don’t think I would have read his…

MG: Toast?

ML: I’ve read it twice, yes. The first time I didn’t really enjoy it, but then … I don’t know why I read it twice, but I enjoyed it much better the second time. When I see him now on TV, I think, ‘Oh, I like you.’ Odd times he does a cookery programme.

MG: So which is your favourite reading group book?

ML: I think probably Dickens out of all of them.

MG: He’s a favourite author for you?

ML: Yes … I think … I think that one, then the Daphne Du Maurier one really gripped me. I didn’t like Gordon Ramsay’s Playing With Fire, I didn’t finish it. It was mostly about him more than his business; it wasn’t about people. Shadows of the Workhouse, which has been a TV series, we did that in book croup two years ago … it was all right, I quite enjoyed it, but I think I enjoyed the television series more because they did pick the best bits of the book out. Yes, Wilkie Collins, Woman in White … I put: ‘Brilliant writing, descriptive, drawn out, good storyline.’

MG: So the really big question, looking back on all the books you’ve read, is there anyone you think changed the way you looked at things?

ML: No … I think the books that we read through college – I went to college when I was 42, and that changed the way I looked at things generally, in terms of social things, gender, quite a lot of things that changed … I suppose I should say the Bible … but yes, college.

MG: Which college?

ML: Sheffield Hallam.

MG: Hallam? Did you?

ML: Yes,

MG: Oh, yes. That’s where I taught.

ML: I wonder if I met you because the name seemed to ring a bell – I was there 83-85. I did social work.

MG: Oh, did you?

ML: Social work until I retired. They called them welfare assistants before that for a couple of years, then I applied and got on the course. So yes, I did social work.

MG: So even though you weren’t doing a literature course, you feel the course changed the way you looked at books?

ML: Looked for books and the way I looked at life, I suppose. Broader than what I thought. I don’t think that was politics; it was more sociology, psychology … you know, social work interventions and things like that, so it just gave me … things I had accepted before I found a challenge after that. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it?

MG: It is. Is there anything else you want to tell me?

ML: I don’t think so. I just love … when I go to the library I just get a lovely feeling. Our librarians up here, in particular who does the book group, she’s so lovely, she’s so friendly, so informative in a lovely way, and just … I mean, when they talked about libraries closing, I don’t often go on marches and stuff, but I would have, I would have stuck out for the libraries. I think people, again for recession, there was a chap on the radio when they talked about them closing, he must have been a politician, but people were ringing in, and his arrogant attitude, ‘Books are so cheap to buy now,’ that’s what he was saying: ‘There’s no need for libraries, books are so cheap’ … You know, I mean … someone rang in who was bedridden and said her partner went every week, brought books for her and him. It gave him somewhere to go; it gave him something to focus on and it gave her something, and he was like, ‘Well, if you’re bedridden you can’t get to a library anyway!’ I turned it off. I had to turn it off because it so infuriated me. I thought, ‘You stupid man.’ The education that’s in a library… you know, for children… One of my grandchildren has learning difficulties so she doesn’t read very much, but you know … I once said to a friend who was a teacher, ‘It just upsets me because I get so much pleasure…’ and they said, ‘Yes, but he doesn’t know that.’ But for children… and I mean, it is, it’s educating people, children of all ages, and you can get encyclopaedias, they’ve got computers now, so you can get facts from that…  It’s just… it’s just a whole, … it’s education in a box, isn’t it? You can get everything from it. You can get escapism, you can be educated, you can get laughter… biographies, autobiographies … you know, it’s just all there, information. … They have someone coming in and doing art classes, they were doing with the children, one evening, that’s well-attended. They have other events going on, you know, as I say, the toddler group where the librarian reads to the little ones. So mums are going in; they have a knitting group on a Wednesday, a natter … I think a coffee morning on a Wednesday. In fact I think most times you can get a drink. I went in on Friday, and I was really busy on Friday, but I went in to take my book back, and there was two people in there having a drink and chatting, so I sat down, and she says, ‘You don’t want to go home now, do you?’ I was like, ‘I’m just tired, I could just sit here,’ you know? But that stupid man. Not everybody can afford to buy books. Yes, you can get two for £8 at Asda, but you can’t get the variety, the educational ones, and £8 is £8 – whereas libraries are usually walking distance, and you know … and I believe they’ve built something on the edge of Parson Cross, which is where I used to live, which is not far from here, and… well, it’s near Chaucer School, and there’s a library built in, but I’ve not been – but that is a brilliant area because there’s people there, it would be … the nearest one would be [indistinct ] … There was one there, I think there still is one there. So I think it would be a good walk or a bus ride. I just think … taking it to the people. Sometimes I feel very strongly about, you know. So there’s not many marches I’d go on but I would have done for the library. It’s sad, but for me, being retired … I’ve just bought my granddaughter, she’s doing English at college, my youngest granddaughter, and she was saying about the books they had been having. And she said, ‘The teacher’s [recommended] Pigeon English, so I said, ‘We’ll have a look on the internet.’ So I’ve got that one in my room for her, you know… It looks good. It’s about a boy coming from I don’t know which country.  He knew very little English and didn’t know how to use a knife and fork and stuff, and I think that would be interesting. Another book that I found that I didn’t mention – Mark Haddon. I loved The [Curious Incident of the] Dog in the Night, and I’ve got another one of his. Now, I loved that one, and it rang bells because one of my grandchildren is dyslexic and dyspraxic, and just the senses, how it affected the boy in the book, I could relate quite a lot to that with him – and that did help me look at my grandson … differently, I think.

MG: And obviously your career as a social worker is about empathy.

ML: Yes. I have loaned it to someone and it didn’t come back… And we did have, for a little while, a charity shop in the village and there were a lot of books in there, and then we decided not to have it, and every time I went in I must have looked for it, to see is anybody had brought this book in, and then a friend, who used to be in the charity shop volunteering, she bought it for my birthday. But I did pick up his other one, which is about [indistinct], which I’ve not read, but I have got it.

MG: I haven’t read that. Would I be right in thinking that you’re never bothered about what anyone thinks about what you read?

ML: No. I would … I would say, ‘Have you read this?’ My youngest daughter, Louise [?], she’s the one who wrote with her nose, she’ll read … I mean, we get quite cross with her because my middle daughter Rose [?], they both live quite local – one around the corner, one in the row – and she knows if she comes round she has to put away all the magazines away because if she comes round and there’s anything there, you’ve lost her. If there’s anything there she’ll pick it up and start reading, and she’s gone. So she has always loved, before she went to school, it’s always … she’s always loved words. She did English. She’s a midwife now.

MG: It sounds as though this love of reading has gone right back from when you were a child, and then …

ML: Yes, it has. I mean, the pleasure, the hours … what would I have done? I don’t know. The hours that I have spent reading have given me such a lot really. It’s only in talking about it that you realise just what it has given you.

MG: Thank you so much, Maureen.

ML: My pleasure.

Recent Posts

In the year 1873

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

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

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

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

Brightside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upperthorpe

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

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

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

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

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

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

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