Ted L

Ted L

Mary Grover is interviewing Ted L in the company of his ex-neighbour Gillian B.

Ted was born on 26th September 1919.

[This is partial summary and partial transcript because most of it is not about books. Sections summarised are between square brackets.

Not transcribed are interesting passages towards the beginning of the interview about Ted’s Second World War experiences as a fitter in Sheffield, Rhyll, France, Aldershot, Scotland, Middle East, Cairo, Mombasa, Nairobi, Berbera in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, East Africa. He was in Ordnance with South Africans.]

Mary Grover: So we are in Norfolk Park now. And you have lived in Norfolk Park all your life, Ted?

Ted L: Well this area, well you could call it Norfolk Park area.

[After he came out of the army Ted moved up to Gleadless, then Gleadless Town End, then Dronfield ( Coal Aston) for about six years.]

TL: We moved out of there actually.  Nellie’s mother got Alzheimer’s disease and Nellie had to look after her and that bungalow wasn’t big enough to do a job like that you see. So we moved back into Sheffield and we went to live on Langdale Drive.

[Ted left Duchess Rd School in 1933 at fourteen and went into engineering works as apprentice. He was 19 years old when he went into the army. When conscription was announced, it was ‘a big blow’ … ‘because I was just twenty’.  He and some friends decided to join up in something that would maintain his trade so they joined the Ordnance Corps.

The great raid was when he was on leave. Everything at his old school was made of wood so the incendiary bombs just blew it up.]

TL:  Always in the top of form.  I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross. He was a Londoner with a broad accent. I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days. He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round.  [Ted remembers the books he brought in.] He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross. He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.

[During the passage that follows Ted describes his army career in the Ordnance Corps.  He was first sent to France and then evacuated to Dunkirk.  He was on the beach in Dunkirk for six days. For four of them the only thing they had to eat was a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot.

After this he had a glorious summer in Rhyll -“‘three beautiful cinemas”. He then went to Aldershot. Then he was posted to Scotland to the Clyde estuary and went out to the Middle East. When he got there, he went to Cairo and Suez where he was in a big camp for five days. Every morning there was parade and if they called out your name you were posted somewhere..

Ted was In East Africa for two and a half years:  Mombasa then Nairobi. The men were separated into different workshop units. He was put into Kenyan Armoured  Car Regiment. He was in Ordnance Mobile Workshops, units of five. He had to learn to drive and had a machinery truck which was his workshop. Eventually he was sent by ship to Berbera in Somalia, then up to Abbis Ababa.  He was a fitter and machinist.  He had to make new parts for the armoured cars. Outside Addis Ababa was an air strip full of abandoned and destroyed Italian planes, abandoned because Mussolini couldn’t maintain them.

Ted has used Highfields Library and then Central. He watched Central Library being built in Surrey St because halfway through his schooling he was given two days a week at the art school near the Lyceum and used to watch the great cranes moving the big blocks. He much admired the building and still does.]

TL: Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school. And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning. [cut]

TL: Well, I think, [the old library] it was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. [cut ] Started building it about 1929 and took them about three years. [cut] The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think [it] they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it. Aye, it was interesting that. I’ve often thought,”‘I watched them building that”.

MG: As an artist did you like the building?

TL: [Ted has always been interested in art, design and architecture] Oh yes, I thought it was fine. I think it’s a fine building that is. I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built.  I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, “What’s all this for?‘”She said, “It’s  Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children”. Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now.  That’s Lowry up there.

MG: On the calendar.

[cut]

MG: Can you remember what you borrowed and read before you went to school?

TL: The books I used to read were Rider Haggard. He used to write books about South America and Africa.

[Ted remembered She, King Solomon’s Mines and studied Prester John in school.]

TL: King Solomon’s Mines, that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them [cut] I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book. In fact I don’t know where they were about. They were in various places. Southern Africa or Central Africa.

MG: Did you ever read John Buchan?

TL: Yes, I used to read John Buchan books. Blanket of the Dark was one of them. I’ve got that in there now.

GB: Thirty Nine Steps.

TL: Thirty Nine Steps, that was one of them, aye. Can you think of any others?

MG: Prester John, about Africa.

TL: Oh yes, that was the first one I read. I read that at school. That was the first one I read – that was probably what got me on Africa in earlier part of my life. Aye, Prester John. I forgot all about that.

MG: So do you think you studied Prester John in class?

TL: Yes, we had that when we read it. They were teaching us all about it, about people in Africa, I think it was the northern part of South Africa where he was there and that was where I first got introduced to Africa really. That’s what set me going. I liked the books I read and I said, “I’d like to go out there” like and I fetched up out there. There you are, you see!

[Mary introduces Ted’s friend Gillian B.]

MG: So when you were at school, what school was it?

TL: Duchess Rd. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war and I think they’ve built a small building on it now but I don’t know if it’s a school or what it is but, you know, the school, it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home – was it draft leave? – and we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything in the side was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

[Discussion about subsequent schools built and housing.]

MG: Do you think you enjoyed your English lessons, your history lessons at school?

TL: Well, I liked history. I warn’t so keen on English, I was all right. I got it all right, the grammar and all that. Some of them didn’t. I was even top of the class one time but I was always in about the top four. I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. I did all right at school.

Gillian B: You love history don’t you?  Because we often talk about history.

[cut]

Gillian B: You’ve got lots of books yourself.

[Ted’s flat is full of books, mostly art books. Gillian describes how Ted ‘devours’ all the book she lends him.  History, architecture, art, music.]

TL: I don’t read a hell of a lot now.

[When Mary asked about the NAAFI libraries, Ted only had memories of one in the camp in Aldershot but never went into it. He never came across Hank Janson.]

TL:  Books? [in the army] I can remember all sorts of things but I can’t remember them.

[There were books in Ted’s family home. Mother went every week to the library and his father read detective stories. Ted got his books from the libraries.]

TL: [discussing libraries] I didn’t get reading books. I used to get out books about art.

[Ted’s father was a plumber born in Crowthone in Berkshire. His paternal grandfather was a regular soldier who joined the army in 1854 when the Crimea War started.”‘He had a rough job in Crimea, got a head wound which eventually killed him”.  He took up physical training, became a fencing master in schools and became the army fencing champion and taught fencing at Winchester. He got a job at Wellington College and did it till he died. They put a metal plate in his head. Ted has got his Crimean war medal.

There follows a long discussion about long-lived relatives and how their longevity took him back in time to the eighteenth century. His Aunt Ada died at 99.]

MG Do you think there were books in your family over many generations?

TL:  Oh yes. Not many people had books but we had a big wardrobe. There were all sorts – plumbing trades books, beautifully produced things. [One was printed in 1750 “a reading book, a story”.]

[Ted’s sister, Dorothy, provided a window on London for Ted and his wife, Nellie.]

GB: T’s sister was a communist so she must have read quite a lot.

TL: Oh aye, anything Russian, but she calmed down later on.

MG: What was her job?

TL: Secretary. She went down to London. Secretary to this woman  well known  but … . I didn’t know much about her work – out of my sphere.

[Dorothy retired at 74 and went to live in an old people’s flat in Clapham on the top floor, eleven floors up. The flat had a balcony and “you could see right across London.  Battersea Power Station. Could see St Paul’s the other way”. “I used to like London in those days” but Ted doesn’t like the rush now.]

MG: Your family has really got around.

TL:  Oh yes, my father, and his father born in 1837 but before that the family came from Mansfield.

[MG asks whether he got back to reading when he got out of the army.]

TL: Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books.

I don’t read fiction books. Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.

MG: Would you ever think that fiction was a waste of time?

TL: Oh no. If they want to read it, they can read it. I will if it interests me but apart from that …

GB: You have fantastic knowledge considering you left school …

TL: A lot of it was from my father. He wasn’t educated.  He was a working class man, he was a plumber. He lost his job in about 1929 in the Great Depression so he started working … He spent money too quickly on beer and everything.

[Ted had read Three Men in a Boat  .. ‘that was funny that’. …]

TL: My mother used to read that P G Wodehouse. … My mother used to read anything … they were all fiction books  … aye, romances, being a woman it would be something like that.

[MG asks if mother used the Red Circle library].

TL:  Now you mention it I think … I never used to use it.

[His mother liked romances and detectives. Ted didn’t know anything about Boots Library.]

GB: You don’t like anything romantic.

TL: There was only one romance I was interested in and that was with Nellie.

[Ted married Nellie in 1948.]

TL: I came out the army on St Valentine’s Day 1946 and I stated courting Nellie in 1947 September. I met her at work …. They manufactured tyre gauges and Nellie used to test them. I asked her out one day and she said ‘Oh yes please’.  That was the best answer I ever had to anything. It went from there on.

TL: We got married in 1947 [sic].

MG: Was Nellie a reader?

TL: She liked romances in magazines. The books I read she didn’t like though.  She worked in an engineering works. … She took a job as a secretary but she had no particular education .She went to an ordinary school, you see. She got called up and directed into this job, you see, working on these tyre gauges. She could have gone to night school but I don’t think she ever did. … She was clever enough to learn it and was in charge of an office at one time. She worked for the AA company in Paradise Square and she was in charge of that office and then they scrapped it all. … All the office work was sent to London [she was offered chance to work there and turned it down] a good job and well paid but neither of us fancied living in London. It’s like an absolute rush in London  … I don’t like that.

[Ted used to go and visit his sister in Sibella Rd in Clapham and the chap who owned it used to let rooms off – he was a Labour MP during the recess.  Ted and his wife use to rent one of the rooms for about ten days.

Visited art galleries National Gallery.]

TL: All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary  …. We went to look at Leonardo … one section there and it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.

[GB mentions the Leonardo drawings exhibition at the Graves.]

TL: We were down at Windsor Castle one time with Dorothy … down the corridor beside the chapel … and it’s Charles I and three views of him.

GB: Van Dyke.

[Ted likes coats of arms.]

TL: [Re Leonardo drawings] The paper was white as that and it was good drawing paper. It looked as though it was done last week and he’d got a woman with a fancy big cloak or something and the shading on that.

GB:They used something called silverpoint.

TL: Gave us a chance to go down and see things.

[Then follows a long description of an encounter that meant a lot to Ted. On holiday in 1958 in Innsbruck, a quintet on a dais playing Tyrolean songs, he and his wife met a Dutch couple, a Frenchman with two girls and a German couple. He had been a major in the German army. Ted told the German that he had been at Dunkirk. The German replied, ‘I was at Dunkirk’.]

TL: We were shaking hands across the table, “We are comrades.” We weren’t drunk or anything!  He was a smashing bloke to talk to.

 

Recent Posts

On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

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