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?

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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.

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A Light To Read By

On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.

They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]

In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.

Brightside Library. The name was eventually changed to Burngreave but the building remained a library until 1990. It is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.

On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]

At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.

For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]

Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.  

  • Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
  • Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)

Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.

The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)

Example of lighting from Champneys’ Public Libraries (p. 19)

The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.

It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?

This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.

What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.

A sign in Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon, USA. Image by Frank Schulenburg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.

[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.

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