Noel H

Noel H

Noel was born on the 26th December 1939 in Wadsley, Sheffield, and died 2015.

He is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 1st August 2012.

Noel was born in Wadsley not Wadsley Bridge. His father was born in Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire.  At the end of the First World War, his grandfather had a friend in Sheffield who was running an engineering works, Leadbetter and Scott on Penistone Road. He arranged for Noel’s father to be taken on as an apprentice.

LH: What age was your father?

NH: He was 18. Just at the end of the War.  So he came to Sheffield …

LH: Of the First War…

NH: Of the First War, 1918 … and he lodged, got lodgings in Portland Street, which is very close to the old Infirmary and he hadn’t got far to walk to work, and he stayed with the firm until he was made redundant in 1953.   Two things I would say, my father apparently played hockey and cricket and he also went to the local church which was St Philip’s Church, which was taken down… it was a Gothic Revival church a little bit further down Langsett Road.  It was closed just before the Sheffield Blitz and amalgamated with St Anne’s Church, which was somewhere up St Philips Road.  He went to worship there and that’s where he met my mother and they were married in St Philips Church in 1930 and they bought this house in Airedale Road…

LH: In which road?

NH: In Airedale Road … and moved in there immediately after they got married. It was a modern house, it had only been built possibly a year or so, and they lived there for the whole of their married life.  My mother died first in 1970 and my father died in 1977.  And I was born at the end of 1933 in Nether Edge Hospital…

LH: Right. It was the 1st of December was it?

NH: The 26th… Noel…

LH: The 26th  of December … Oh, Noel! … yes, of course, I’m sorry …

NH: And I grew up there.

LH: OK. So tell me your first memories of any kind of book or reading matter in the house …

NH: Any books…

LH: For yourself, yes, or for your family.  Did they have a bookshelf, for example, that you can recall?

NH: They say long distance memories come back as you get older.  I have to say this, that my father being an engineer my earliest memories are those Meccano magazines.

LH: Right. Good … yes …

NH: I used to wait every month for it to be put through the letter box.

LH: Do you know how old you were when you had that feeling of anti …

NH: 1939 I think it was realistically.  At this age I had some early Dinkie toys which has remained an interest of mine throughout my life. I started school at Marlcliffe Junior School, I think in September 1939 before my … or it may have been 1938.  I think I was nearly five, that’s what I think.  And I had a very happy junior school.

LH: Could you read when you went to school? Or did you learn to read at school?

NH: Yes, I think I could.

LH: Do you remember how you learned to read? Do you have any recollection? Did your mother teach you?

NH: I think my mother encouraged… my father… they would have encouraged… I was an only child.  Yes, I think my parents did encourage me.  After all, in that sense all their energies were on me as an only child.  But I could certainly read and I think I could write when I went to school.  I’m not sure, but certainly the formative period between ‘38 and say 6 in December 1939 I could read fluently, I can believe that… and I gained that from reading magazines like the Meccano magazine, although I couldn’t understand some of what was in the magazine.  My father was particularly interested in the Meccano because he was an engineer.

LH:  Did you have a Meccano set?

NH: I did yes.

LH: So you could read the magazine… and apply…

NH: Yes, I wouldn’t suggest I was the most creative.  My father was … he could sketch very well and he made some of the early models of aeroplanes which were still available, mainly carved out of wood.  And … having said that, I’ve no recollection of reading comics.

LH: Did comics …?

NH: Beano …

LH: Did you know that they existed?

NH: Yes they did exist.

LH: Yeah, yeah. So when you went to the shop and saw them you didn’t want to buy them with your pocket money?

NH: Not that  I… My pocket money, which I think from 6 or 7 was 6 pence, 2 and a half p, tended to be spent, if you could believe this, certainly by the time I was 7 or 8, on a copy of the Aeroplane or Flight magazines. I had an interest in aeroplanes from an early age. Aircraft recognition and things like this.  Other reading … I think I must have started reading newspapers and I probably was inquiring about the War … I listened to the radio a lot.

LH: Yes, ‘cos that formative period must have been very dominated by talk of the War.

NH: Yes, it was.  My recollections are … My mother was in the WVS and she was on the Headquarters staff which were initially near the Cathedral and she would go quite regularly into the city by tram from Middlewood Terminus right into the centre, and I would sometimes, if she went in on a Saturday, I would go with her, and initially she had formed the Housewives’ Service in Sheffield in 1938-39.

LH: She formed it?

NH: Formed it. No argument about it.

LH: Did she? The Housewives’ Service.  Part of the WVS?

NH: Yes, the Headquarters staff mainly were the wives of the senior officials in the Town Hall.  One or two were what I might describe as ladies of independent means.  They were a lovely set.  The head of the WVS in Sheffield was Sir Basil Gibson, well, Basil Gibson was the Town Clerk, Mrs Gibson was the Head of the WVS, and so he was knighted at the end of the War. Nora Hays was also on the staff, John Hays was the Deputy Town Clerk. Mrs Stansfield – her husband was in charge of the cleansing department.

LH: So, how did your mum …?

NH: Well, my mother … how can I put it? … humble background …

LH: Was she? From a humble background?

NH: Yes. She was born in Green Street. Her father was a craftsman with Mellows which were just further down Langsett Road.  That’s a pair of carving … toasting forks, there, bless him, that he made, and I don’t know how it came about …  I really can’t – think I’ve got the old newspapers. She had a very interesting war.

LH: She was a forceful personality?

NH: She was born on the 13 October.  Does that tell you anything?

LH: Umm …no, I can’t place …

NH: Her Christian name was Hilda and another lady had it as her second Christian name – Margaret Hilda Thatcher. There was another one as well …

LH: Oh yes [laughs].

NH: Edwina Currie.  And if I look at one or two other ladies I know now of my generation  …

LH: So there’s something magical … it was the name …

NH: They were fairly forceful characters.  And I think my mother had been a telephonist in the Sheffield Telephone Exchange, and that was … she was not allowed to go to grammar school unfortunately … her younger sister did … and that rankled a bit with her cos she felt her younger sister, I think, didn’t quite make the most of it, and Mother became … and this was a skilled job and how it developed I think in the ‘30s …

SLH: Sorry … a telephonist with..?

NH: Well, it would be the Sheffield Telephone Exchange.


NH: So, from that I think …I was born in ‘33, three years after… and nevertheless I think probably through the church and probably through other reasons somehow … I don’t know how it came … I’ve probably got an article somewhere which was indicating … she used to write to the ladies’ magazines and there’s a picture of me sitting on a table looking so beautiful and with my funny shoes on, but articles appeared about her in the Sheffield Telegraph when she’d formed the Housewives’ Service.

LH: Did she stop working when she married?

NH: Yes, she did.

LH: As all women did.

NH: As many women did. Father had a good job, and from … how that came about I can’t tell you but what I do know is that in ‘41 she became one of the Headquarters staff, she changed her job and became responsible for all the Savings groups in Sheffield.  So in other words, they had these street groups and they collected, you had … you stuck your stamps in your … and these ladies right throughout the city would go round the city every week asking people to save for their savings certificates. It was a very important job and why she took that on I do not know and why it happened, but she took it with enthusiasm.

LH: Do you remember how many days a week this involved?

NH: I can’t remember. She probably in fact … again, I do know about Saturday mornings and during holiday times. I think my mother would go in certainly during the week and again she was mixing in Savings with all the top industrialists in Sheffield.  People like Ashley Ward … all of them.

LH: So she was there when you came home from school?

NH: Oh yes she was there.

LH: Can I just take you back to two things that really interested me.  First of all you said that you looked forward to the Meccano magazine thumping through the door.  I just want to clarify one other thing. You said that you spent your pocket money on an aeroplane magazine.  Where did you buy the magazine?

NH: I would think I probably bought them … If I bought them I bought them probably from a local newsagent in Hillsborough.

LH: Can you remember the name of that?

NH: No I cannot. Hillsborough … around Hillsborough corner … right … my mother bought her groceries from Davies which were very near the corner of Hillsborough corner … just as you crossed over the bridge the tram car came across the junction there …  there was a Davies which were quite a well known general groceries, and she would go in there for her groceries and just a little bit further up towards the bottom of Dykes Hall Road, she used to go to Mr Barnes’ meat emporium, and so I used to go with her on these occasions.

LH: And there was a newsagent along that …

NH: There was a newsagent. Almost inevitably … I do remember I used … there’s a facsimile of one very old one there and I did … again, don’t ask me how it happened but that’s what I did.  I mean I might have spent it on sweets … well, of course, sweets were on rations and, you see, many of the things, the toys, by the end of ’41 the pictures of the Dinkie toys disappeared effectively from the Meccano magazine, you couldn’t … they were no longer.  They were made I think into 1942, but restrictions on sales imposed and then after manufacture was stopped because it was wartime materials, and of course the people at Binns Road in Liverpool who made the castings were skilled workmen and they turned it all over to aircraft production, and so consequently there were not a lot of things that you could spend your pocket money on.  I think I was exhorted to try and save it. The Savings certificate was 15 shillings, which was 75 p.  The stamps if I’m not mistaken were probably 2 and a half or 5 p in present money.

LH: So … you will have bought your … those magazines in the newsagent, you will have come home to read them. You had your Meccano magazines … did you … just let me return… you have no memory actually of your mother and father teaching you to read … ?

NH: No.

LH: And no memory of any nursery books that they may have helped you to begin reading from … ?

NH: The Meccano magazine in itself led on to the fact that I got my first stamp album when I was … quick change stamp album … when I was either 7 or 8.  You bent the leaves back. Now the Meccano magazine always had a stamp collecting … you can look at them all the way through and that again developed my interest in knowledge.  I’ve always said … oh, to hell with the computer… my knowledge came from reading, listening to the radio and collecting stamps.  So occasionally if I was in town …  there was a stamp shop in Division Street and I might’ve gone in with my parents or I might’ve gone in with one of my parents and I would walk up the road … and for 6 d I could get the lowest values of the latest stamps from the Empire, right, so that developed … the history of stamps has geography, history and everything else.  British stamps were desperately uninteresting … they didn’t have pretty pictures on them.  There were no commemorative stamps apart from the pathetic centenary of the Penny Black in 1940, and even after the War … now the Post Office now issues so many that they’re a waste of time for collectors.

LH: So, what did you read at school? Can you remember?

NH: No.

LH: At your junior school …

NH: What I do know is that I would have obviously read on a regular basis, but my memory is totally blank  of that … it’s quite weird.   What I do know .. I read the Meccano magazine which was effectively non-fiction.  Now, the competitor was the Boys’ Own Paper, which was a mixture, but I didn’t read it.

LH: Right. Did your parents read to you at bedtime?  Can you remember that?

NH: I cannot remember.

LH: So, presumably, if we move on… What secondary school did you go to?

NH: Well, I took the 11+ in July 1945, just at the end of the War and I was awarded a place at High Storrs Grammar School, and I went to High Storrs in September 1945.  When you talk about a journey …  I got on a tram car at Middlewood Terminus, through the centre of the town and all the way of course to High Storrs.  Ecclesall Terminus was at the top of Ringinglow, and then we walked up Knowle Lane, Hoober Avenue, cos of course the school is still there, I can still … the exterior of it is remarkably the same cos it’s a listed building and I had … and I started there …

LH: At 11 or 12 …

NH: I was 11.

LH: Yes. That’s a journey, isn’t it, from your home…

NH: Well, nobody ever thought anything about it … Well, my day would …. initially, I’ve never forgotten this …  it was the first series of Test matches between England and Australia after the Second World War.  My father would have the commentating ..  because the last few overs were on from Brisbane, and we were doing so badly, and then I would go down with him at that time I think, he would travel down with me, we would walk down Langsett Avenue, which was a long street … and get on the tram car, and one or two … there were not that many who were going to High Storrs, and there were one or two, I think maybe one girl I remember who had also got into High Storrs, and I then would travel the whole distance.  The big problem was there weren’t … if it was raining by the time I got to school I was wet through, walking uphill, and when I came back …. although eventually I changed my itineraries home, but I always had a good walk home, even if I took the bus from town and came over via Wisewood.  But if I got to the bottom of Langsett Avenue on a snowy day or a wet day, to get to Airedale Road, which was the top one of the four roads or five roads, I was wet through.  And the day was a long day. We’d finish school at 4, I’d be lucky to be home between 5 and half past.  We might pick up one or two more on the way through town.  One I remember who lived on the same road as me was a man called Hattersley, whom you may have heard of.  Roy Hattersley lived on Airedale Road.

LH: Did he? Did he go to High Storrs with you?

NH: No, he went to City Grammar, did Roy.

LH: I wanted to ask you … do you remember using or being aware of the public libraries?

NH: Yes I do.  There was one in Hillsborough Park…

LH: Yes, there was.

NH: And I have a feeling I do remember going in it, and I may have borrowed books from there.  But again, my memory is totally blank about it.  I remember where it was, and I remember going into it … my maternal grandparents lived in Garry Road which was not far from the entrance … you walked down on Dixon Road and you were in and … but … blank! Sorry.

LH: Do you remember the librarians there?

NH: No.  I remember the library and where it was … it was a very nice old house actually … No.

LH: So at school. Let’s think about the curriculum …. presumably still, I acknowledge you may not remember, but presumably there were the classics which you were required to read.

NH: Well, I could tell you … how can I put it?  I can’t remember whether English Literature was …what I do remember was my first year I was in 1C. Now, whether we were graded on the results of our 11+ I really honestly do not know. But there were about 110 boys, four classes of 30, and there were 2 exams – one at Christmas I think, and one before the long summer break.  Not making a big deal about this, I came I think 13th out of the whole year and then I came 11th at the end of the second term,  and then I had a choice to make about … because the two top forms in the second year either read Latin or German, and I think we were given a choice, and I chose Latin and it was a great move, cos my Latin master Billy Baggs Robert Bailey was a great inspiration to me throughout my school life at High Storrs, as subsequently was my History master Jock Hamilton. But what Bailey said to me in our first year, he said, ‘The trouble with you, lad, is you’ve got to learn to speak English properly and also get your grammar correct, verb, subject, object,’ and that’s what Bailey did.  Latin was never easy for me, though I read it for five years. And in my third year I had another choice and I chose architecture, as opposed to history and I think art was the third choice.  At the end of the third year I came to the view, although I could sketch quite well, that history was overtaking it, clearly it was a developing thing, and I asked if I could change to history.  I hadn’t lost very much because the subjects for School Certificate, I took the last year of School Certificate, the subjects were determined by the staff of the fourth year.  And this is when I met Jock Hamilton, a dour Scot, he was a qualified barrister by his own efforts, but he taught history … he made history live.  He didn’t just give you the facts, but what he did with it, he analysed the facts, and he made history come alive to me.  I carried on with Latin of course and I took my School Certificate, took 9 subjects, English Literature was one, and I can’t remember … oh, I do remember, I read ‘Richard II’ as a Shakespeare for both School Certificate and A Level.

LH: That’s  … er … enough!

NH: The Woodlanders … I did The Woodlanders and something else …

LH: Some poetry?

NH: Oh, I can’t remember, maybe Wordsworth and also for Latin … I can’t remember.  I don’t think there were any special books.  I think Virgil’s Aenead came when I did Latin for A Level and Sallust’s Cataline, which was a marvellous … … that made history live again … it was simple Latin.  Oh, I read yes, Livy going over the Alps ….  but I took 9 subjects and I was down to fail maths, I was kicked out of maths but I got … I’ve never been so proud … I just scraped a credit.  And in fact at the end of it my English Literature paper was near a distinction. So I don’t know what I took but I was near to it, and I got a very high mark in history, which says it all.  And the other subjects, of course, were … I took, Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Geography, History, French, Latin, I don’t know.  But none of the … the credits were all basically between, well, maths was between 50 and about 58.  But English Literature and I still don’t remember … But I do remember I got ‘Richard II’ again when I came to do English for A Level.

LH: So you had this … I think you’ve made it clear that your inspiration … you were obviously developing towards …  your thinking, your interest, your excitement was towards history … and you had this wonderful teacher who really inspired …

NH: Something else happened …

LH: Yes?

NH: My mother’s career in local politics had … she was a woman and she considered herself very much a working class Conservative and she had some very fierce arguments with Enid Hattersley, but they were good friends, bless ‘em, and Roy and I had some tremendous discussions about the worth of the first Labour government after the War, as you might well imagine.

LH: Of course, yes.

NH: And eventually she tried for Hillsborough, and there was a lot … I think genuinely there was concern that if you were a professional that’s what they … solicitors and accountants and Conservative liberal … Mother had fought Darnall and Walkley twice and I had gone door knocking for …

LH: You mean that she had fought as an MP…

NH: No, as a local councillor.

LH: Right. OK.

NH: So what happened at the end of this period, it coincided with me effectively changing to history … my mother was summoned…

LH: Can we get the date, Noel, let’s get a date.

NH: Yes, I can give you a date. I took my School Certificate in 1949. What my history master Jock Hamilton had inspired me to was to become … I decided that maybe I’d made the wrong choice and I thought that the law might be interesting.  In 1950 my mother was made a Sheffield magistrate and the powers that be amongst … it was a very secret process then, and her sponsors were very well known ladies who were already magistrates and this … for one, she said to her, I think, ‘I have better things for you to do.’  So my mother became a magistrate.  And that fired it as well. So the things fitted together.

LH: And your mother, this wonderful strong woman, is very much something that you’ve demonstrated as an influence.  Tell me about where you think your father’s influence came into this.

NH: My father … you don’t have to … well, I would hate to say he was the Denis to Margaret, but Father was the kind of person who everybody admired.  He was not somebody who was … he was talented but there was not room … he was very supportive of my mother in that sense.  And so consequently it worked out very well.

LH: During the War presumably he was in a protected profession as an engineer.

NH: He was deferred.  He’d be 40 at the beginning of the War.

LH: Yes. Right. OK, so I won’t keep you very much longer … We’ve got you to this wonderful time when you jump out of school.  Where did you jump to with these wonderful interests and influences?

NH: For A Level I took English, when I read The Woodlanders, Richard II and something else, and I read history and I read Latin.  I did one year in the upper sixth and George Mac wanted me to stay for a second year and go for Oxford or Cambridge.  Never been away from home but the more deciding factor, having decided to go in for the law, the period of time qualifying was long so I decided … I applied to Nottingham and was eventually offered a prize, but I was also accepted for Sheffield.  So, I went to Sheffield.

LH: To read law?

NH: To read law in 1951.  It turned out to be a first class decision because I could start my articles at the same time, and again through contacts … the lady was a lady called, I think, Constance Sumner and her nephew Leslie Steyring was a local solicitor and Mrs Sumner was a very senior local magistrate, and I think she said to my mother one day, ‘Leslie’s looking for an articled clerk.’

LH: Good!

NH: And the rest again is history.  Of course, you paid article fees at that time and at the same time, first of all, again Lady Gibson had died, but Sir Basil lived just down the road, in one of these big semis in Gladstone Road, and he was very kind because Mrs Sumner’s husband had died and they had become friends the two of them … and Basil Gibson was very kind to me because I came to see him and he talked me through going into the law, which was fascinating because he was also saying get an all round legal education.  Now, in fairness, the firm I joined was very much into conveyancing, probate, trusts, there was very little on the litigation or court side.  It turned out not to be a disadvantage but when I came I then applied for articles and I had to be interviewed and he was on the interviewing panel.  And I’ve never forgotten when John Renwick turned to Basil Gibson, ‘Now, Sir Basil,’ he said, ‘Have you any questions for Housley?’ And I’ve never forgotten this, he turned to him and Gibby looked down under his … He said, ‘No John,’ he said, ‘Noel and I we’ve… I’ve had a good talk with him and he knows what he’s letting himself …’ or words to that effect.  Marvellous!  It was absolutely wonderful.  So there was this thread running through.  And I went to Sheffield.  And at that time the law faculty had what they called [structured?] year … law students who were not doing a degree course but who had to go to the law school for a full year under the Law Society’s regulations, and full time students.  But half the full-time students were in articles anyhow.  But there were only 18 full time students in the three years.  I was one of six.  The others were one of five and the others were one of seven.  And I enjoyed it … I enjoyed it… it was great … it helped me having a bit of practical … and so in ’54 I left university with my degree and I then had to finish my articles..

LH: With which company was it…what was the name of the company?

NH: Robert Steyring and Sons..  They were very kind. Particularly my father had lost his job.  It worked out very … And my mother … dad did get another job … and that was great …

LH: Another job in engineering?

NH: Not in engineering … but it was again an old contact, and the old firm were quite generous to him when he left … but he’d been there a long time and so consequently being at home I did get a grant but it had been cut because of my father’s income … but I could happily survive, and when I think what I … I could  enjoy life and live on a very small amount a week.

LH: You were still living with your parents?

NH:  Yes.  I never left home.

LH: Yes!

NH: So of course I then had to do my final … I was exempt from the intermediate exam of the Law Society but not … not the accountancy paper.  So I took that separately.  I didn’t go to cramming school for my finals but I took those in November 1956, the week of Suez.  Never forgot … I was in Southampton Row listening and then going in to Queen Square …

LH:  So, you were saying the week of Suez … were you very conscious of what was going on in your day as well as having developed a sense of history? So, you were interested in current affairs?

NH: Very much so.

LH: You were working for your degree but obviously you were reading as well? You were reading newspapers at home?

NH: Bear in mind that I was very active in local politics up to …  When my mother was … in my opinion … how can I put it? … strong personality she was … apparently I’m told the story is … in fact at the end of the day, her strength of personality and her ability stood against her, shall we say with the gentle sex rather than elsewhere, but having said that, I decided that at that moment of time politics was not for me.  It could easily have been the other way.  And I concentrated on … I played sport and … I … current affairs.

LH: And you got your knowledge from newspapers?

NH: Yes, newspapers.

LH: Radio ? Did you have a television?

NH: No, we didn’t.

LH: You didn’t.  Right. So it would have been the radio, the wireless …

NH: We didn’t have a television until… I don’t know if I ever had one when I was a child …

LH: So the radio and newspapers …

NH: Periodicals …

LH: Periodicals …

NH: I would buy periodicals, yes.  But then I had to do my national service.  I was deferred, you see.  So in fact, in April 1957, at the tender age of 23, I found myself on the local train going to Pontefract to start my basic training.  I had been in the university training corps which was a good move, and I knew that after I completed my basic training, if I did, that I would go for officer … national service officer training.  Which I did.

LH: You already had developed an interest in military history at that point?

NH: I think so.  I think, current affairs is the way you put it. I’m not saying I didn’t read bits of literature. I told you I read Alexander Dumas’ Marguerite de Vallois’, I remember reading Kidnapped.

LH: You didn’t tell me that actually!

NH: No, I didn’t!

LH: So when did you read Alexander Dumas?

NH: Well, I was given books probably in my teens and … but really the surprising thing is my mind’s blank about this.  I discovered Biggles I told you at the end … when I was 11 or 12, and Gimlet, but …

LH: I’m not at all suggesting that literature should be the only thing that we talk about.  Do you recall having encyclopaedias at home?  Very often families had sets of encyclopaedias, didn’t they, and often they were …

NH: I think we had a general encyclopaedia. We had a bookcase.

LH: Yes, yes.

NH: And certainly … Oh, and I read … I do remember one Dickens book I read was Tale of Two Cities.  I also remember being given a very early edition of Dombey and Son  by one of my … when I stayed with my grandmother who was a widow in Wadsley Woodhouse when my grandfather had died many years before.  A lady who lived in one of the cottages in the block where my grandmother was living gave me a very old edition of Dombey and Son, I mean old.  I don’t think it was a first edition.  And I got through, I think, the first chapter.

LH: And what did you do with the book?

NH: I kept it for a long time and then it was disposed of.

LH: Right. Were you reading histories of … were you following up your interests?

NH: Well, yes, I mean history that I read … I got fed up with the Tudors and Stuarts’ cos I read them for both, I think twice, both the School Certificate and A Level.  What I particularly enjoyed was The Age of Revolution which I read 1850-1914 for School Certificate. The period of European history for A Level was, I think, the seventeenth century, taking the mark at the beginning when Henry of Navarre became, I think, King of France through to 1714 which of course was the Treaty of … not Utrecht … it was when Queen Anne died. It was a blank … And then the Age of Revolution … Oh yes, I read the Age of Revolution!  Did I read that for A Level?  I forget. I think I read that for … There was an English period and there was a European.  And the European period from memory was really Louis XV and Louis XV and XVI.  My memories are mixed.  Oh yes, good grief, I did have a book, who was the great historian of that period?  I did have one or two history books…

LH: Trevelyan?  George Trevelyan?

NH: Yes, probably Trevelyan.  I probably had one or two books of various periods.  But I covered most of that period but my reading of … I probably had most … I think, Shirley said to me … ‘Oh, what, didn’t you read all these books?’  I said, ‘No,’ I for some reason …

LH: Who is Shirley, sorry?

NH: My wife.

LH: Oh, I beg your pardon, I’m sorry.

NH: Yes, she read all these books, but I didn’t.

LH: So you talked about this with your wife?

NH: Oh, we talked about it but not in any great depth.  She certainly is a much more avid reader than I am over the years. But, I mean, if you ask me beyond this period … Oh, I remember one book I did read.  When I was abroad, my company commander was a guy called Emmett.

LH: I’m sorry.  When did you go abroad?

NH: In 1958.  While doing my National service.  After I was commissioned I was with the York and Lancaster regiment, the local regiment, of course. I joined … After I completed my training, I joined the regular battalion in Barnard [indistinct] Castle in January. I can say that I visited Libya in the February because we were part of what we would call the Fire Brigade.  This was the start of the twilight of empire, get it right, and there were three infantry battalions out there with specialist teams. We were on standby and we did this exercise in the February, and then in the March I was down in Hythe doing a course.  Just got there … Hythe! ‘Get back here as quickly as you can!’  And within 48 hours I was going a very long route to nowhere and wound up in Aden … the Yemen.  I could tell you […?] this hotbed of Al Quaeda … I’ve been there!  And what we did, we were there to support.   There’d been the start of the uprising, and the nationalist movement, this is in ’58, and they’d wounded three British soldiers and there was one battalion of soldiers and we were second and what we did … we had … we put companies out in the native states of the Western Protectorate. And my company commander was a guy called Emmett, yes?, a cousin of the famous, and he was a character in his own right. And Baron Emmett had served with the Duke of Wellington’s regiment in Korea and won a military cross. One of his subalterns, a national serviceman called D J Holland, wrote this book called ‘The Dead, the Dying and the Damned’.  It was not intended to be anything other than …  it was fiction but it was based on fact.  I think the regiment were very upset because it was too close to the truth to be true.  And one of the characters that was depicted in it was Emmett.  And I would read a book like this … I would read the odd historic… I mean, for example, people like, I read some of Fleming’s novels, I read, oh what’s the one who wrote The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth, these kinds of books, because what I found I enjoyed about them was… there was … a his …

LH: There was a historical element always.

NH: You know what they say about, what was it?,  not The Day of the Jackal but The Dogs of War, that it became … it was compulsory reading for future terrorists.  And Forsyth had written it about how you could get and use … And this kind of thing appealed to me. But outside that I really don’t think I could say a lot more.

LH: Yes, OK.

NH: Is that all right?

LH: Absolutely wonderful.

NH: Are you sure? Is there anything else you want to ask me?

LH: I don’t think so, no.

NH: I’ve gone on too long.

LH: Not at all.

Access Noel’s reading journey here.






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City Librarian Speaks Out

Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries, including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the

recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.

A Nazi throws confiscated ‘un-German’ books into the bonfire on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933 (image: public domain).

This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’ books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April 1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:

It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.

Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).   

The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods of teaching.

We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?

(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)

Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language, creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the ‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’, questioning rather than accepting.

Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.

The Sheffield Literary Club, with Lamb third from the left, front row (image: Sheffield Newspapers)

Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.

If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.

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