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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A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

On Monday 20 September 1909, Sheffield Council hosted a reception in the Town Hall to mark the annual conference of the Library Association, which was being held in the city for the first time.[i] For once my interest in library history coincides with my interest in clothes…

Both the Sheffield Independent and the Sheffield Telegraph covered the discussions at the conference in detail. They also found space for some gentle fun at the librarians’ expense, less gentle criticism of Sheffield’s own library service and, in the case of the Town Hall reception, extensive fashion notes.[ii]

The Independent’s feature on the reception is signed ‘By Our Lady Representative’. This was an anonymous byline frequently used in the newspaper between about 1895 and 1915, for reports of splendid balls, garden parties and other society events, meticulously recording the guests, gowns and jewels on display.

On this occasion Our Lady Representative set the scene, describing the Town Hall’s reception rooms:

Quite in keeping with their reputation for lavish hospitality was the reception given last night by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Ald and Mrs H K Stephenson) in honour of the visit to Sheffield of the Libraries’ Association [sic]. Our spacious civic reception rooms, garlanded with foliage and flowers, evoked much admiration from the visitors, who found much enjoyment in the admirable supper served in the Council Chamber and ante room…

Sheffield Town Hall - the main entrance today. Guests would have used it in 1909ld have
The main entrance to the Town Hall today. Guests would have come in this way in 1909

The Telegraph agreed. The ‘stately entertaining rooms at the Town Hall [had] never been more beautifully decorated’. It went on:

supper was served in the Council Chamber and ante-room from nine o’clock onwards, and there was also a buffet supper in the drawing-room on the grand corridor.

The grand staircase up to the reception rooms (By Michael Beckwith. Public domain)

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

… the entertaining programme of songs by Miss Nina Gordon and the sleight of hand exhibitions by Dr Byrd-Page … Miss Nina Gordon is an artiste very much after the style of the famous Margaret Cooper, and the selections from her varied repertoire were keenly appreciated. So too, were the clever tricks of Dr Byrd-Page … The band of the 3rd West Riding Brigade Royal Field Artillery played during the reception. (Independent)

Miss Gordon specialised in humorous songs and sketches and Dr Byrd-Page was a ‘prestidigitateur’ or Illusionist. They both feature often on theatre bills of the period, and claimed royal patronage. By 1912 Dr Byrd-Page declared ‘the honour of appearing before His late Majesty King Edward VII on no less than seventeen occasions; and frequently before His Most Gracious Majesty King George V’.[iii] The Sheffield Telegraph described Miss Gordon as ‘Queen Mary’s Favourite Entertainer’ and an ‘exceedingly versatile artiste’.[iv]

In Sheffield Town Hall, their audience included industrialists, civic dignitaries and academics from the University of Sheffield. The Lord Mayor, the Town Clerk, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Master Cutler and the Mayor and Town Clerk of Rotherham led the way, and notable Sheffield names, such as Mappin, Vickers, Bingham, Hadfield and Harrison, were all represented. The Library Association was led by its President for 1909, Sheffield’s own Alderman William Brittain, who, according to the Telegraph of 21 September, was ‘identified more than any other gentleman in Sheffield with the development of museums and libraries’; and by prominent librarians like Stanley Jast, later chief librarian in Manchester and Croydon, and Sheffield’s own chief librarian, Samuel Smith.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

As might be expected in 1909, all the illustrious guests, including the librarians, were men, but their wives, daughters and sisters were present too. It is here that Our Lady Representative comes into her own. Consider the Lord Mayor’s family:

… the Lady Mayoress wearing her chain of office disposed about the corsage of an artistic evening gown of chartreuse green satin, her jewels including a diamond tiara and a diamond pendant of great beauty. Mrs Blake (mother of the Lady Mayoress), in a handsome black toilette sparkling with jet, brought Miss Blake and Miss Esther Blake, both wearing beautiful frocks of rainbow effect, the former expressed in pale blue chiffon over white satin with broad opalescent embroideries, and the other in mauve tinted chiffon en tunique and weighted down the left side with a band of nacre sequins. Mrs R G Blake’s black satin toilette looked well with a corsage bouquet of La France roses; and Mrs Philip Blake was a pretty young matron in a tunic dress of palest mauve ninon done with a broad Greek key embroidery. (Independent)

The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that the Mayoress of Rotherham, Mrs Dan Mullins, wore a ‘heliotrope satin gown, enriched with embroideries’. (Judging by the number of times heliotrope and its near relation, mauve, are mentioned in the coverage, they must have been among that season’s colours.)

And there was:  

Mrs Brittain, whose gown of pewter grey satin was wrought with embroideries of blister pearls, her jewels being diamonds [and her daughters] Miss Winifred Brittain wearing emerald green chiffon and gold embroideries, and Mrs Hubert Rowlands attired in white satin with pendant earrings of amethysts. (Independent)

… Mrs George Franklin, wearing superb diamonds with a Parma violet toilette … Mrs Wilson Mappin, in grey brocade and diamonds … Mr and Mrs Tom Mappin, the lady in black satin with sleeves of thick black silk embroidery sewn with jet and slit up the outer side of the arms. Only two ladies had adopted the new turban coiffure. Mrs A J Gainsford, who had hers finished with a twist of white tulle, and wore a salmon pink bengaline gown, and Mrs Cyril Lockwood, whose hair was dressed with a plait, her black satin frock being enriched about the corsage with gold embroideries. (Independent)

Mrs H H Bedford chose lemon yellow satin … Miss Frost was in pale blue spotted silk; Miss Armine Sandford had a white satin gown; Mrs J R Wheatley in petunia silk applique, with cream lace motifs, had some lovely diamond ornaments … (Telegraph)

The Library Association was not to be outdone. Women librarians and the wives of the male librarians, said Our Lady Representative, ‘dispelled the illusion that a close association with books is incompatible with smart dressing’. (Just how old is the idea that librarians are uninterested in clothes?)

Miss Frost, of Worthing, who had a princess gown of pale blue satin veiled in a tunic overdress of dewdrop white chiffon fringed with silver. Mrs Wright (Plymouth) was much admired in a yellow evening frock; Mrs Kirkby (Leicester) wore white lace; and Mrs Ashton came in crocus mauve ninon de soie. Mrs Jast (Croydon) in a black toilette sparkling with jet … Mrs Chennell was wearing black chiffon; and Mrs Tickhill’s black lace gown veiled a white taffetas underslip. Mrs Samuel Smith (wife of the Chief Librarian of Sheffield) had a gown of palest pink silk, and her sister, Miss Flint, was in black, the jet bretelles being super-imposed on a fold of palest yellow velvet. Mrs Jones (Runcorn) and Mrs Singleton (Accrington) both appeared in black evening toilettes; Mrs Wilkinson (Rawtenstall) wore white silk; Mrs Bagguley (Swindon) was in sapphire blue poplin; and Mrs Pomfret (Darwen) came in old rose crepe de chine, Mrs Dowbiggin (Lancaster) wearing bright pink silk striped with white dots. (Independent)

Unfortunately, there are very few images of all this splendour. The Telegraph published the photograph shown above of Alderman Brittain with Library Association colleagues, taken during the conference, and we have the line drawings below, all of the men in their white tie and tails, and with their fine Edwardian moustaches and beards. For the women’s colourful toilettes, we have only word pictures. We have to use our imaginations to see the Lady Mayoress:

very dainty in reseda green satin, with loose hanging sleeves of cream Limerick lace, caught with cords of gold’ and wearing a diamond tiara and pendant and her chain of office. (Telegraph).

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

Perhaps words are enough to convey the fashionable, affluent and confident elite of Sheffield that September evening in 1909. There were certainly problems locally, including poverty, slum accommodation and an over-dependence on a few, linked industries, but there was progress of which to be proud. To the world Sheffield was synonymous with steel, a place of industrial innovation and invention. Its population was growing and its suburbs spreading. It had been granted city status as recently as 1893 and within a few years it would be the fifth city in Great Britain, outstripping its great rival, Leeds. The grand Town Hall of the evening’s festivities had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1897 and in 1905 her son Edward VII had granted the University of Sheffield charter.

We know that within five years war would bring considerable change to Sheffield, with lasting consequences, but in 1909 the city could enjoy the opportunity afforded by events like the Library Association conference to show itself off and to earn the admiration of others.   

PS. Although there are no images of the women at the reception, here are a few fashion plates from the newspapers of the period, to help conjure the event.

This is the first of several pieces we plan to publish about the 1909 Library Association conference in Sheffield.

[i] The Library Association was founded in 1877 as the professional body for librarians in the UK. It was awarded a Royal Charter in 1898. It exists today as CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, having merged in 2002 with the Institute of Information Scientists.

[ii] Both the Telegraph and the Independent covered the reception on Tuesday 21 September 1909.

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

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