Sheila Edwards

Sheila Edwards

Sheila  was born in 1937 in Sheffield.

She is being interviewed by Alice Seed.

 Alice Seed: This is Alice Seed and I’m interviewing Sheila Edwards who was born in 1937 and was at the –  was 8 in 1945 and 28 in 1965. Okay, I’m just going to start the interview off and, say between the years, probably let’s starting in 1945 – was reading important to you?

Sheila Edwards: Yes very important, yes, I was only young then and I joined two libraries because I enjoyed reading so much.  I had a subscription to Boots library and I went to the Central Library in town, and I just read masses of books; I can’t remember what they all were now but, there were one or two I remember: Noel Streatfeild- I think she wrote books about ballet, mm, Kathleen Fidler, another one called Malcolm but I can’t just remember what his surname was now, those were the main ones I remember, can’t really remember any other ones at the moment.

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AS: Did y- oh, sorry.

SE:  I mean obviously my reading changed as it got older – it was a Christmas present, the Boots one, and obviously I only read young books there and then I went onto the adult library … I’m trying to remember what I read then … I mean really round 1965, I had three very young children at home so I wouldn’t read an awful lot then, but I used to read Georgette Heyer…  that sort of book, I can’t remember any more, sorry.

AS: Did you have any like particular favourite genres that you’d read, like romance or fantasy?

SE: Mm, I didn’t like murder things. Yes it was probably romance and just interesting stories about people. Norman Bennett, I’ve got that at home now, I’ve not read it yet but I’ve got it at home waiting to be read … and I love cookery books. I’ve got loads and loads of cookery books and I just read them for enjoyment. I do read them properly, and for years I’ve had a subscription for Good Food Magazine which I read cover to cover. I’m not bothered about Woman and Home and Good Housekeeping –  that doesn’t interest me at all.

AS: Mm, when you were younger- probably around 1945 around that age, did you have any book you’d read over and over again or did you always read different books?

SE: Mainly different books you know. I had these certain authors and I used to wade through everything that they’d written and if I could – if I couldn’t find it on the library shelves then I would order it, mm, and of course as a child I used to – oh and Enid Blyton was a favourite wasn’t it, in those days? And I had her. She did like a magazine called Sunny Stories, … and of course Enid Blyton is still read now isn’t it, although when I read some of these books now and I look back they’re so old fashioned. I mean Georgette Heyer, I tried to read them recently and I just found them boring. They’re not my taste anymore. And you obviously change over the years and the sort of thing that you do, you do enjoy.

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AS: Yeah

SE: At the moment I’m reading, well, Lesley Pearse and, mm, Santa Montefiore, quite a mixture really, and  I can’t remember who else, there’s a little bit of, lot of stories about Burracombe [by Lilian Harry] which is a village, and I’ve read all those but I can’t remember the author of them. Because I worked in the libraries, I worked at Firth Park, started off that was in the first job when I left work, when I would be 18, which of course comes within these years doesn’t it?

AS: Yeah around 1955.

SE: And when I went on to Park Library, which is of course where Mary was showing us and I went and ran the children’s library there and of course some of the children there were very poor and very rough and [we] used to have a story time for them and they used to come and sort of, play games and then we’d have a story at the end and d’you know those children absolutely loved that, they would sit as quiet as a mouse and listen – they’d obviously never had parents read to them at home which to me is very important I think, I’ve always loved reading books to children and uh, I was there for quite a few years until I had my family.

AS: Yeah.

SE: And of course I didn’t, I didn’t work for several years then. It was, it was quite a place, because as Mary said there were the baths in that building and, lots of other things – there was a reading room where we used to have … oh no that was Firth Park library, used to have a reading room where the old boys used to come, I think mainly for a warm, but we had all the papers in there and they used to sit and read the papers. They’d spend all day there just because it was warm and they’d obviously nowhere else to go.

AS: Yeah … and did you, ‘cause you like you said you enjoyed reading to children, did you ever read to your children?

sheila-book-shelf-4

SE: Ooh yes, all the time, yeah I did, and there were three of them and [we] all had to have separate stories read every night so we started with the youngest and worked up, and then of course since then I’ve had grandchildren and that and I get a lot of pleasure out of reading to them. There’s something very special I think about reading to children, and I think you know, they all love books now probably because, you know, we started off like that and I got rather disappointed when they began to get older and they used to say they would read the stories. [laughs] I lost my job.

AS: Yeah.

SE: And, well, now my little granddaughter who is now 7, she’s starting to read now and she likes to read the books but sometimes she doesn’t quite get the words but she tries very hard  and she’s very interested in books and I think it’s terribly important for children to you know, read and it carries on through life, doesn’t it?

AS: So, did you always use like, the Central Lending libraries or did you ever like, did you have any particular favourite places you liked to get your books from?

SE: No, I mean I do go to Broomhill Library now because it’s nearer but I still use them both and – I’ve got a card for the Central Library now because  they’ve got a few more on the shelves, but there will always always get them for me so if there’s a particular book I want, you know, they get it for me.

AS: Hm, you mentioned the, Boots Library earlier, did you use that a lot?

SE: Yes, I used to go there every Saturday that was my – you know, when I was allowed to go to town because it was easier in those days. You used to go down on the bus and spend all Saturday there I don’t remember Boots Library having tables where you could sit down but the children’s library did, … , so you know, it was somewhere to go and, thoroughly enjoyable but I would imagine that I don’t remember going and buying and getting adult books there so I obviously probably must have had a subscription that finished when I got to, perhaps about 15 or something like that.

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AS: Mm,  a lot of people say that when they’re younger and they read a book it was very important to them or it spoke to them; did you have any books like that, that you – were really important to you as a child or anything at all?

SE: I can’t remember what, but I mean it was company for me because my sister was quite a lot younger than me so I, she wasn’t really a companion. She was still only, you know spending time with my mother and father so it was something for me to do on my own, and I perhaps I was a little bit of a loner anyway you know, so I just used to wrap myself up in books – and I mean now I don’t know what people do if they don’t read books I absolutely love reading. I’ve always got something and in fact I’ve got one at the moment which I tend to pick up first thing in the morning when I’m still in bed and I read a bit more and a bit more and more and a bit more and it gets late, but, no I get a lot of pleasure out o f- I’d rather read a book than watch television, quite honestly.

AS: Was reading a large part of you, so obviously it was a large part, but I mean like, would you talk about books with your friends and discuss like where you could get books from if you were looking for them?

SE: Yes, yes I did and I don’t remember my parents ever reading to me or you know, having any interest in books but I don’t remember.

AS: I guess there’s just something about reading once you start it’s really hard to  stop.

SE: Well that’s right, the slightest, you know I just don’t understand people that don’t read.

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AS: Yeah, it’s like all those –

SE:… hours of pleasure, puts me to sleep sometimes [laughs]. I’m reading and I’ll suddenly find the book starts going down and I’ve nodded off, but yeah it’s good.

AS: Erm, so… erm… trying to think of something else to ask.

SE: I’m trying to think of something Mary said that sort of sparked memories …

AS: Mm … well did you ever use bookshops like, I think it was called the Red Circle Library?

SE: No, no I don’t remember that at all, no … but, mm, some of the older ladies they remember that so perhaps it was a little bit perhaps before my time. I don’t know. Is it still going now?

AS: Well I’ve never seen any, so …

SE: No, they talked about the Boots down on the Moor and I don’t remember that. The one I remember was on Fargate. And there was a lot to choose from, and she mentioned that too, I read Nevil Shute and Mary brought a book out and it was a book club and I didn’t belong to that but I still got a lot of their books on the shelf. I can’t remember – we must have paid a subscription and got one every month I should think.

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AS: … I don’t know what else to say.

SE: [laughing] I think I’ve dried up now.

AS: I had a prompt sheet of questions but I think I’ve gone through most of them.

SE: I shall probably get home and remember lots of things that I should have said to you. [laughs].

AS:  Well, I was going to ask, do you prefer when, well, between the years I guess when we’re looking at, were you more of a fiction or non-fiction …?

SE: A fiction, yeah. I did read, there was a sort of Romany books I used to read but I can’t remember who wrote that, mm about the countryside. I enjoyed that, I really can’t remember who – it’ll probably come back to me when I’m at home. I should have made notes shouldn’t I? But you don’t.

AS: Ah you never do. You think, ‘ah I’ll remember it’.

SE: I do write down what I read now ‘cause, you know I’ve read so many sometimes I forget how much I’ve read so I have a quick look through to see if I’ve read it before, so I’ve got a little book which I take out  when I go to the library, just to prompt me.

AS: Mm … I think, I had a question but then I forgot it [laughs] mm, oh lord I’ve totally forgotten how to talk.

SE: It’s gone a lot easier than I thought you know, because when Mary first asked me I thought, oh I just cannot think, but as soon as I got in here and I knew the years and how old I was, it got easier for me.

AS: Yeah, is there anything else you want to say regarding books about, you know, the impact they had or, …?

SE: No, I don’t think so no.

AS: You think so? Okay … well for a first interview that wasn’t so bad, and thank you for letting me ask you questions.

SE: It’s a pleasure.

Access Sheila’s reading journey here.

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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