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.

Recent Posts

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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