By Mary Grover
Erica Jeremiah was born in Totley in 1937, to comfortably-off parents. The family moved to Hathersage, where Erica grew up, coming into Sheffield regularly. She studied German at King’s College London and worked as a teacher. She lived in Mexico for several years, where her husband was working. Erica has children and grandchildren.
Erica’s father was an unusual man. He took the education of his daughter very seriously but Erica was six before anyone suggested that she learn to read. She had been sent to a progressive school which used the Montessori principles of education. The teachers fostered a child’s connection with the natural world through practical and imaginative play and books were only to be introduced when those connections were established. When the time came Erica learned quickly; she can still remember
the joy of learning to read. I think I remember the first book that I really read and enjoyed because it belonged to the maid we had in the house at the time. She came from Northumberland and brought a book of folk stories down with her which was called ‘Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ or something like that. I’ve got the copy because she gave it to me, … the first book that I read.
Erica still has a great admiration for the way she was taught at the progressive school her parents sent her to:
…remembering it being so stimulating. And we were read The Pilgrims Progress, which I remember, and The Cloister and The Hearth, when we were eight and nine. And they were so exciting and I do think that was formative. … We were read aloud to, yes, we didn’t have to read them ourselves, no we were read aloud to. And they had this system, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it: Narrating Back. At the end of the lesson the class retold the story that they’d heard. And I’m sure it was excellent.
While she was being read texts that many of her age would have found challenging she was also becoming an independent reader. Erica’s father gave her all the encouragement he could. He was a pearl button manufacturer in the centre of Sheffield, his factory just opposite the Central Library. Before he set off home he would collect ‘about eight books’ from the library then drive out to Hathersage in the Peak District to the west of Sheffield where they had moved at the end of the war.
Father brought me, from the library, the popular books, the easy books, the Elinor Brent-Dyer and Josephine Pullein-Thompson, and then there was Arthur Ransome, which was, for a country child, which was a great development really.
As well as these stories of boarding school, pony shows and learning not to be a ‘duffer’ in a boat, Erica found in her grandparents’ house the Angela Brazil series that had belonged to her mother as a child. Her father’s parents had volumes of Walter Scott ‘which I used to borrow one by one. … I think I was only nine or ten, because there was nothing else.’ She remembers choosing Peveril of the Peak because it was local. Her parents bought few books because times were hard for manufacturing after the war but Erica can remember the secondhand set of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, ‘a bit out-of-date’ but read and reread. The family had moved out of Sheffield after the war. Though the open spaces of the Peak District must have been a welcome relief from the dereliction left by the Blitz, it held social perils. Erica’s father had gone up to Cambridge to study engineering.
The only person he recognised as coming from his own part of the world was a miner from Ilkeston with a Yorkshire, er Derbyshire accent. And they became great friends. He was on a mining scholarship, and I think he introduced him to all these views and that was how he became interested in the left.
In the thirties the family bookshelves began to fill with volumes from the Left Book Club. Erica remembers their distinctive yellow covers which caused her mother great embarrassment when they moved to the Hope Valley. The family were the only household in the valley to subscribe to a Liberal newspaper and to distribute Liberal pamphlets. When the family inherited the grandparents’ library, Erica’s mother lined up the respectable books that she had just acquired in front of the left wing titles, to conceal the family’s socialist leanings from their Conservative neighbours.
Erica gained a lot from her father’s intellectual curiosity and openness to new ideas. He was an admirer of Arnold Freeman, a Fabian turned anthroposophist who ran The Little Theatre in the Sheffield suburb of Upperthorpe.
I remember going to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream very vividly, and Faust I remember going to. I remember it was in the old Settlement but I forget where it was exactly. And it was a fascinating, completely fascinating. And Faust, I do remember. Arnold Freeman was very keen on Faust.
Erica shared this delight in Freeman’s theatrical productions with Winnie Lincoln whose Reading Journey you can find here. Arnold Freeman was the first person to make a survey of what Sheffielders read. His Equipment of the Workers (London: George Allen and Unwin 1919) is an edited version of the survey of the reading over 800 men and women which he organised before the First World War and published 1918.
Erica moved back and forwards from children to adult fiction and back in her teens.
I think as an introduction to adult books it was always Georgette Heyer and Margaret Irwin. Because there wasn’t any teen fiction, was there? You moved straight on from the school stories, Just William. I remember I read all the Biggles books. Perhaps I borrowed them from someone. But I remember particularly enjoying the fantasies; Beverley Nichols wrote some fantasies that I really enjoyed, which I suppose were the same as the fantasies the children enjoy now. And of course Enid Blyton.
Erica went on to study German at King’s College in London because the family business needed someone with European languages to help with exporting. In fact by the time she had graduated the business had gone and she became a teacher, got married and in the 1970s brought up her two young children in Mexico. There, getting to the library was an adventure.
I [used] the wonderful British Council library, which was in the heart of Mexico City and I actually I don’t know how I had the nerve to drive down there with the children. We used to go to films and borrow books. So The British Council was marvellous. And the library was good! It had everything that I needed.
Erica then became very reliant on a newspaper to keep a connection with home. She always had the Observer sent out.
Whether it arrived or not was a different matter. I remember it didn’t arrive for several weeks and I was getting worried. I said to someone I had to have this. And she said ‘Did you remember Postman’s Day’? And so I said ‘Postman’s Day’? And apparently one should’ve given the postman a tip on Postman’s Day and I hadn’t. So, as soon as that was put right the paper started arriving again!
In 1976 when the family returned to Sheffield, Erica joined what she thinks was one of the first book groups in Sheffield which was started in the Geography Department at Sheffield University. Erica has read a vast range of fiction of every sort and constantly returns to the support her father gave her and her sisters, helping them borrow books and, because of his interest in ideas, inviting all sorts of different kinds of people to their home in Hathersage. Moral Rearmament, Montessori education and Liberal Politics all helped inspire Erica’s interest in current affairs and current debates.