Dickens and More Wittles

By Sue Roe

For today’s Heritage Open Days blog, it’s back to Dickens.

Dickens was a bit of a foodie himself. His favourite dish was lamb stuffed with oysters and to drink, he relished a glass of Smoking Bishop or Gin Punch. He loved entertaining and held regular dinner parties. A convivial host, he had an ample wine cellar: his 1865 cellar lists a 50 gallon cask of ale, 18 gallon of gin, 18 dozen bottles of port, four dozen bottles of champagne and sundry others. He clearly was no fan of the Temperance Movement – he thought the working class deserved some enjoyment. After the forced separation from his wife, his sister-in-law Georgina acted as housekeeper. Here is one of her menu cards.

Menu card for dinner, probably at Gad’s Hill in the 1860s, with Charles Dickens’ cest (Charles Dickens Museum)

His wife Catherine was a foodie too: she published a cookery book of her recipes, What Shall We Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons (1852), under the pseudonym Maria Clutterbuck. It included many of Dickens’ favourite recipes but was not just a cook book. Catherine focussed on menu planning, and included some recipes which the author claimed were commonly ‘misunderstood’. Books on household management and etiquette were becoming increasingly popular as the rising middle class looked for guidance in order to avoid social faux pas.

Bill of Fare for Two to Three Persons, from Catherine Dickens’ cookery book, What Shall We Have for Dinner?

Despite his wife’s skills as a cook, the depiction of women in the kitchen reveal something of Dickens’ attitude to women. Dora, David Copperfield’s child-like first wife, and Bella Wilfer (Mrs John Rokesmith) in Our Mutual Friend (1865) share an ignorance of even the simplest culinary skills. They are an interesting contrast to Peggotty, the kind hearted cook in David Copperfield (1850), or Mrs Joe, Pip’s sister, in Great Expectations (1861), who runs a very tight ship in her kitchen!

In David Copperfield our eponymous hero and his wife, Dora, seem to be at the mercy of butchers and other tradesmen:

I could not help wondering in my own mind, as I contemplated the boiled leg of mutton before me, previous to carving it, how it came to pass that our joints of meat were of such extraordinary shapes – and whether our butcher contracted for all the deformed sheep that came into the world; but I kept my reflections to myself.

David Copperfield, chapter 44.

Our Housekeeping by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). Image scan and text by Philip V Allingham.

On the same occasion Dora had ordered in a barrel of oysters (one of Dickens’ favourites):

… we had no oyster-knives – and couldn’t have used them if we had; so we looked at the oysters and ate the mutton.

Bella Wilfer has a similar lack of skills, though she does try to improve them. On one occasion she informs her family ‘I mean to be Cook today’ (Our Mutual Friend, chapter 4), much to the shock and surprise of her mother who does instruct her. However she is not very successful. Of the fowls she has cooked she comments:

‘But what makes them pink inside … is it the breed ?’ ‘No, I don’t think it’s the breed, my dear,’ returned Pa. ‘I rather think it is because they are not done.’ ‘They ought to be,’ said Bella. ‘Yes, I am aware they ought to be, my dear,’ rejoined her father, ‘but they – ain’t.’

Later, as the newly married Mrs John Rokesmith, she was:

fast developing a perfect genius for home… Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating … and above all such severe study! For Mrs J R, who had never been wont to do too much at home as Miss B W, was under the constant necessity of referring for advice and support to a sage volume entitled The Complete British Family Housewife.

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 5.

This book seems to bear comparison to Yottam Ottolenghi, with both recommending hard to source ingredients – in the former case a salamander!

Behaviour at mealtimes is not forgotten. When Pip goes up to London on coming into his Great Expectations, he lodges with Herbert Pocket who tutors him on table manners:

… in London it is not the custom to put the knife in the mouth, – for fear of accidents … Also, the spoon is not generally used over-hand …

Great Expectations, chapter 22.

Mealtimes are also worthy of note in Our Mutual Friend: the Veneerings are a nouveau riche couple:

“… bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new … they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby.”

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 2.

They give excellent dinners .. or new people wouldn’t go!

Dickens doesn’t spend much time describing what is eaten at these dinners – he is more interested in the table decorations, a display of conspicuous consumption:


The great looking-glass above the sideboard, reflects the table and the company. Reflects the new Veneering crest in gold and eke in silver, frosted and also thawed, a camel of all work. … and a caravan of camels take charge of the fruits and flowers and candles, and kneel down to be loaded with salt.

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 2.

The Veneering Dinner, by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Lady Tippins is on the left behind one of the camels; the man in the background with the champagne bottle is probably the Analytical Chemist (the butler)!

Champagne was served with most courses after a sherry. The culinary similes continue: Lady Tippins, a regular visitor to these dinners, has ‘an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon’ (Our Mutual Friend, chapter2).

In Our Mutual Friend we are even given an idea of what might appear in a small Victorian kitchen. The solicitor Eugene Wrayburn and his friend Mortimer Lightwood have taken new offices together and the former takes Mortimer on a tour of ‘This very complete little kitchen of ours’ (chapter 6).

‘See!’ said Eugene, ’miniature flour-barrel, rolling-pin, spice-box, shelf of brown jars, chopping-board, coffee-mill, dresser elegantly furnished with crockery, saucepans and pans, roasting jack, a charming kettle, an armoury of dish-covers. …

In his exploration of food and drink, mealtimes, household management, there is often unwitting testimony to the changing habits of the different classes. He and Catherine initially would have served meals at their dinner parties à la française where all the main courses are displayed on the dining table. He would surely have relished playing mine host, carving the joint, serving his guests.

However in 1843, Catherine wrote to a friend that the dinner is in ‘the new fashion’. This was service à la russe where food was served to guests in courses – often ensuring much hotter meals but necessitating more servants and tableware.

Dickens even saw training in domestic skills as a way out for homeless women; he worked with Angela Burdett-Coutts to set up a home, Urania Cottage, for ‘fallen women’ where they were taught household skills including needlework and cookery. He took an active interest in the running of the project, personally interviewing all the applicants.

Dickens despite his fame and wealth clearly had not forgotten those ‘in misery and despair’ (letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1846). The experience of childhood poverty and the ignominy of working in the blacking factory seem never to have left him.

Here, from Dinner with Dickens, by Pen Vogler, is a recipe Dickens would surely have enjoyed.

Mutton Stuffed with Oysters

SERVES 6-8

2 tablespoons freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 dessertspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves

1 dessertspoon freshly chopped savoury

2 hard-boiled egg yolks

6 oysters, cleaned, shucked, and chopped, reserving the liquor, or 6 finely chopped anchovies

3 garlic cloves, minced (I think garlic is better than onion in this dish, but if you prefer to follow Catherine, use one very finely chopped shallot)

leg of mutton (or lamb if you cannot find mutton), approx. 5½-6¾ lb/2.5-3kg

2 teaspoons all-purpose/plain flour

1¼ cups/300ml lamb or chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C/Gas 7. Chop the herbs as finely as possible – a meat cleaver is useful for this. Bind them together with the egg yolks, oysters (or anchovies), and garlic (or shallot). Using a sharp knife, make about 6 indentations in the fleshy part of the leg of mutton (or lamb) and push in the mixture. If you make the indentations at a slight angle, you can pull the fat back over the cut. Place the meat in a roasting pan and roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 325°F/160°C/Gas 3. Baste the joint with the fat and juices in the pan and continue roasting for 15-20 minutes per 1 lb/450g. When the meat is done, remove it from the oven, cover with foil, and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Make the gravy by mixing the flour with the fat in the roasting dish over a low heat, and slowly adding the stock and the oyster liquor. Skim the fat off the gravy (putting it in the freezer helps it coagulate on the top) and serve as it is, or add to the Piquant Sauce ingredients.

Piquant Sauce

1 shallot, finely chopped

a little oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped gherkins

1 tablespoon finely chopped capers

4 tablespoons good red wine vinegar

1 anchovy fillet, pounded

Sweat the shallot in the oil until it softens, then add the gherkins, capers, and vinegar. Simmer for 4 minutes. Make gravy from the joint, add the oyster liquor (to make about 1¼ cups/300ml), the shallot mixture, and the pounded anchovy. Simmer for a few minutes before serving in a gravy boat.

Bibliography

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Great Expectations.

What Shall We have for Dinner? by Lady Maria Clutterbuck [Catherine Dickens] (Bradbury & Evans, 1852).

Dinner with Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens, by Pen Vogler (CICO, 2017).

‘Dinner Is the Great Trial: Sociability and Service à la Russe in the Long Nineteenth Century,’ by Graham Harding, European Journal of Food Drink and Society: Vol 1: Iss 1, Article 4 (2021).

Dickens and Wittles

By Sue Roe

Here is the first of our blogs about literary food. We’ll post one daily throughout Heritage Open Days 2021, and maybe a few afterwards, as there is plenty to say about the subject.

Dickens was one of the most common authors mentioned by Reading Sheffield interviewees. Sometimes their parents had subscribed to a newspaper like the Daily Herald to get a complete set, like Frank and Eva. Some loved the length and detail of the books though some found them too wordy. Florence found that they ‘bored her to death’. However the majority found them inspiring, especially his depiction of the suffering of the poor.

Food plays an important part in many of the novels of Dickens – this is not surprising given his childhood experience of poverty and insecurity. Despite his subsequent rise to fame and fortune, he doesn’t seem to have forgotten his time in the blacking factory or his family’s time in the debtors’ prison. In his books there are feasts, snacks, impromptu dinners. References to food help to highlight social ills and reveal internal turmoil.

The treatment of the poor and the unwanted was a subject dear to his heart. Oliver’s desperate plea is well known:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.

Oliver Twist (1838), chapter 2.

Oliver asking for more, by George Cruikshank, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly the dosing of the boys of Dotheboys Hall with brimstone and treacle gives Nicholas Nickleby an early indication of how Mr and Mrs Squeers run the school.

The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall, by Hablot Browne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Food or the lack of it can highlight even the plight of the convict on the run from the hulks.

When Pip meets Magwitch in the opening chapter of Great Expectations on Christmas Eve, the convict quizzes him on the two necessities:

‘Do you know what a file is?’ … ‘And you know what wittles is?’

The terrible stranger in the churchyard, by F W Pailthorpe. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

There is a cannibalistic flavour to this cross questioning – Magwich threatens to have Pip’s heart and liver if he doesn’t deliver – they will be ‘tore out, roasted and ate’! When he gets home he resorts to hiding his slice of bread and butter for the convict down the leg of his trousers in case he can’t find anything else. That gets him into more trouble with Mrs Joe: she doses him with tar water for ‘bolting’ his food. Getting up early he proceeds to rob the pantry:

Some bread, some rind of cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat … some brandy from a stone bottle … a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful round compact pork pie.

Great Expectations (1861), chapter 2.

All this he duly delivers to the convict. On Christmas Day there was a splendid dinner planned:

… a leg of pickled pork and greens and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince pie had been made … and the pudding was already on the boil.

Great Expectations, chapter 4.

Pip’s larceny is about to be revealed when he is rescued by the timely arrival of the militia who need Joe’s skills as a blacksmith. Fortunately for Pip when Magwich is re-captured he confesses to the theft of the food and drink.

Dickens was clearly fond of pies. In Our Mutual Friend (1865) Mr Boffin has invited the unscrupulous Silas Wegg home to read a series of history books to him. Alas Boffin can’t read. Wegg spots a pie on the shelf:

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that object up there a – a pie? It can’t be a pie.’ … ‘It’s a veal and ham pie,’ said Mr. Boffin. … ‘And it would be hard, sir, to name the pie that is a better pie than a weal and hammer,’ said Mr Wegg …

‘It would be hard to name a pie that is better than weal and ham … and meaty jelly … is very mellering to the organ. Mr Wegg did not say what organ…”

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 5.

Sam Weller makes a similar observation in The Pickwick Papers (1837):

‘Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens…’

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 19.

Food often serves as a sombre metaphor – who can forget the tragedy of Miss Havisham with her wedding feast being devoured by mice and shrouded by cobwebs, a reflection of her broken heart and diseased mind. She asks Pip:

‘What do you think that is?…that, where those cobwebs are? …  It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!’

Great Expectations, chapter 11.

She continues:

‘On this day … long before you were born, this heap of decay … was brought here … The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than the teeth of mice have gnawed at me.’

Pip and Miss Havisham, by Charles Green. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Dickens had certain professions in his sights: lawyers, politicians, the clergy and medical men. In The Pickwick Papers he satirises two hard drinking medical students: Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen. They have taken an apothecary’s shop in Bristol which is sinking into bankruptcy. They can still entertain Mr Winkle however:

… Bob Sawyer’s return was the immediate precursor of the arrival of a meat-pie [again!] from the baker’s, of which that gentleman insisted on his [Mr Winkle’s] staying to partake.

After dinner, Mr Bob Sawyer ordered in the largest mortar in the shop, and proceeded to brew a reeking jorum of rum-punch therein, stirring up and amalgamating the materials with a pestle in a very creditable and apothecary-like manner. Mr Sawyer, being a bachelor, had only one tumbler in the house, which was assigned to Mr Winkle as a compliment to the visitor, Mr Ben Allen being accommodated with a funnel with a cork in the narrow end, and Bob Sawyer contented himself with one of those wide-lipped crystal vessels inscribed with a variety of cabalistic characters, in which chemists are wont to measure out their liquid drugs in compounding prescriptions. These preliminaries adjusted, the punch was tasted, and pronounced excellent; and it having been arranged that Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen should be considered at liberty to fill twice to Mr. Winkle’s once, they started fair, with great satisfaction and good-fellowship.

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 38.
Conviviality at Bob Sawyer’s by Phiz (Hablot Browne). Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Yet food can also be a source of joy and celebration, as it is in A Christmas Carol (1843) despite the misanthropic start. When Scrooge first meets Marley’s Ghost he dismisses him with a food -inspired joke:

‘… A slight disorder of the stomach … You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you …’

A Christmas Carol, Stave 1.

However with the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present his room is transformed and food plays a key part: a veritable cornucopia:

Heaped on the floor … were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch …

Scrooge’s Third Visitor, by John Leech. Public domain, via WikiArt.

The Spirit takes him to the home of Bob Cratchit, his clerk, where he sees all the Cratchits involved in preparing the Christmas Eve Dinner:

Mrs Cratchit made the gravy … Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce …

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3.

Their oven was too small for their goose so it was cooked at the baker’s as was the custom at the time. When it was collected:

There was never such a goose. … Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.

This was followed by the pudding which had been steaming in the copper in the backyard.

… Mrs Cratchit entered … with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball … blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly …

The Wonderful Pudding, by Sol Eytinge. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

The end of A Christmas Carol is well known. Scrooge is reformed; he sends the Cratchit  family the biggest turkey in the poulterer’s, and he raises Bob’s wages:

… I’ll raise you salary … and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop …

A Christmas Carol, Stave 5.

The Reformed Scrooge with Bob Cratchit, by Charles Green. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

In fact some credit Dickens and A Christmas Carol with inventing Christmas as we know it: plum pudding was common at that time of year but Eliza Acton was the first to name it Christmas Pudding, two years after the publication of the book.

In The Pickwick Papers food appears regularly: dinners, parties, picnics: all occasions of great conviviality and good humour.

Pickwick meets the Wardles when he is chasing his hat blown off by the wind.

Mr Pickwick in chase of his hat, by Robert Seymour. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

The members of the Pickwick club are invited to join their picnic which is unpacked from a large hamper by Joe the fat boy:

Now, Joe, knives and forks.’ The knives and forks were handed in, and the ladies and gentlemen inside, and Mr Winkle on the box, were each furnished with those useful instruments.

‘Plates, Joe, plates.’ A similar process employed in the distribution of the crockery.

‘Now, Joe, the fowls. Damn that boy; he’s gone to sleep again. Joe! Joe!’ (Sundry taps on the head with a stick, and the fat boy, with some difficulty, roused from his lethargy.) ‘Come, hand in the eatables.’

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 4.

On another occasion the Pickwick Club travel down for a wedding and to spend Christmas at Dingley Dell with the Wardles. Pickwick has purchased a huge cod-fish and half a dozen barrels of real native oysters for the festivities. There are wedding breakfasts, dinners, music, dancing, story-telling and games of Blind Man’s Bluff and Snapdragon.[1]

… and when fingers enough were burned with that and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a might bowl of wassail …

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 28.

Christmas at Mr Wardle’s, by Phiz (Hablot Browne). Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Here, by way of a conclusion, are two recipes for Smoking Bishop, a favourite of Dickens.  

Make several incisions in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in the incisions, and roast the lemon by a slow fire. Put small but equal quantities of cinnamon, cloves, mace, and all-spice, and a race of ginger, into a saucepan, with half a pint of water; let it boil until it is reduced one half. Boil one bottle of port wine; burn a portion of the spirit out of it, by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan. Put the roasted lemons and spice into the wine; stir it up well, and let it stand near the fire ten minutes. Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon, (not roasted,) pour the wine upon it, grate some nutmeg into it, sweeten it to your taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it.

Oranges, although not used in Bishop at Oxford, are, as will appear by the following lines, written by Swift, sometimes introduced into that beverage. ‘Fine oranges Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup, They’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolks sup’.

From Oxford Night Caps: A Collection of Recipes for Making Various Beverages in the University (1827), by Richard Cook.

And a modern version from Punchdrink:

Ingredients: 750 ml ruby port; 750 ml red wine; 1 cup water; ½ cup brown sugar; ¼ teaspoon ginger, freshly grated; ¼ teaspoon allspice, ground; ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated; 4 oranges; 20 cloves, whole. Garnish: clove-studded orange slice.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Wash and dry oranges. Pierce and stud each orange with five cloves.

3. Place oranges in a baking dish and roast until lightly browned all over, 60-90 minutes.

4. Add port, wine, water, sugar and spices to a saucepan, and simmer over low heat.

5. Slice oranges in half and squeeze juice into the wine and port mixture.

6. Serve in a punch bowl, and ladle into individual glasses.

Bibliography

Charles Dickens: Pickwick Papers; Nicholas Nickelby; Our Mutual Friend; Oliver Twist; Great Expectations; A Christmas Carol.

Dinner with Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens, by Pen Vogler (CICO, 2017).


[1] Snapdragon was a popular parlour game often played on Christmas Eve. Raisins were dropped into a bowl of heated brandy which was then set alight. The point of the game was to pick out the raisins, and the winner was whoever amassed the most.

Charles Dickens and Popular Culture


By Olivia Vigrass

Sheffield Hallam student Olivia’s take on Charles Dickens in her second guest post for us.

Charles Dickens is perhaps one of the greatest authors of the 19th century and still has an impact on popular culture today. Some key novels still affecting popular culture today include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Perhaps the most relevant in our times is A Christmas Carol. For many people it is now a Christmas tradition to watch one of the many film adaptations every year, including my own family. This shows the lasting effect Charles Dickens has on popular fiction in the 21st century.

As a student who has studied A Christmas Carol in multiple settings over my school years, it is easy for me to have an academic pre conception on the novel. However, I mainly associate A Christmas Carol with the musical film adaptation which is The Muppets Christmas Carol. By taking an iconic classic that is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and combining it with the popular kids show of The Muppets, a timeless piece of popular culture was created. This novel reminds me of Christmas Eve and being with family, and anticipating what the next day would bring.

On its initial release, A Christmas Carol was published in staves in the newspaper. The fact that the novel was publishes in staves and not a complete novel, changes the way in which it would have been read compared to how we read it as a full novel. The activity of reading would have involved the whole family gathering to listen every time a new stave was published, which makes the reception of the novel different than today. By publishing it in staves, the people who read it would have to anticipate the next chapter for a period of time before being able to read it. This makes the reading experience perhaps a lot more exciting than how we read it today. Since we have the full novel available, we don’t have to wait to turn the page over to the next chapter, this changes the experience for us, perhaps making it not as an exciting experience.

In Charles Dickens’ career, he was well known to draw upon his criticisms of the rich and the poor. It is clear in A Christmas Carol, that Dickens is using Scrooge as a criticism of a rich man who has loads of money but refuses to be charitable and kind. The contrast of the rich in the novel being the Cratchit family who barely have enough to feed the family let alone treat their ill son, Tiny Tim. By the end of the novel, Scrooge has a change of heart after being visited by the three ghosts and decides to help the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim gets better. Dickens is expressing social attitudes he wishes to be conveyed in society, where the rich have sympathy towards the less fortunate. Comparing to today’s attitudes, it seems as though there might not be a clear poverty line in this day and age but there are still people less fortunate who could use help from those who are better off. It could be suggested that today, there is a wider use of charities compared to the 19th century, where people who would like to help can donate money anonymously and help that way.

The genres which Charles Dickens focused upon covered a variety of forms, mostly involving the criticism of the poor in some way. It could be suggested that Dickens drew from the popular 19th century genre of melodrama in order to create a sensational reading experience for the reader. It is clear that in A Christmas Carol there is use of sensationalism as there are ghosts and spirits which evoke feelings of sympathy or pity from the reader of the story. It could also be a novel of the Gothic genre, in some ways, as there are themes of death too, involving the predicted Tiny Tim’s death and Scrooge’s predicted death. Overall, the dark themes are overshadowed by the bright themes of Christmas and family.

It is clear to see that A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has taken on many different lives and forms over the past 177 years. These include film adaptations including animated versions, plays for theatres and radio. The book was published in 1843 and in 1844, it was already being adapted for stage. It is clear that the book still has a large cultural impact, as it reappears every Christmas in many different forms. As I said earlier, it is also a common novel of study for different levels of education.

Charles Dickens (public domain)

Charles Dickens in Thirties Sheffield

By Mary Grover

In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here

Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens. 

My father, David Yorweth Morgan, in Rangoon in 1954

In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.

A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald.  My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.

For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’. 

In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.

My father’s set of Dickens, still in their presentation bookcase

For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.

Dickens Comes to Sheffield

In the spring of 1936 Sheffield Libraries mounted an exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’ in the Central Library, to mark the centenary of Charles Dickens’ novel, The Pickwick Papers. The celebrations, wrote the Sheffield Independent enthusiastically, ‘touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement’.

The Central Library, only a couple of years old, had been designed with space for exhibitions and displays, in contrast to the previous buildings, and the chief librarian, J P Lamb, took advantage of this over the years.

The Pickwick Papers – Pickwick at the slide, by Hablot Knight Browne (better known as Phiz) (public domain)

Our reader Jessie (b. 1906) was a great fan of Charles Dickens, whose novels she came to through her job as a cleaner for the vicar of St John’s Park in Sheffield in the 1920s. Seventy years later, she recalled that her employer:

… had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and [the housekeeper] had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see.

Although we cannot know if she saw it, no doubt Jessie would have been interested in Sheffield Libraries’ exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’. It was one of many events around the country marking the centenary. Pickwick, Dickens’ first novel, had been an immediate success, and remained very popular.  

The press around the country also made much of the centenary. The Sheffield Independent, for example, covered it several times. On Tuesday 24 March 1936, its columnist, ‘Big Ben’, wrote about events organised by the Dickens Fellowship in London:

On Friday next the Pickwick Centenary celebrations begin in real earnest when, at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, there will be a reception of delegates from 76 branches of the Dickens Fellowship. On the following morning the annual conference will be held. Meanwhile, rehearsals are being held daily in connection with the centenary matinee which is to take place at the London Palladium tomorrow week. …

Sir Ben Greet’s company is playing a portion of the version of Bleak House … and, of course, Mr Bransby Williams will make some appearances, first as Mr Pickwick himself, then as Charles Dickens …

On Sunday evening next a special centenary service will be held in Westminster Abbey, and on Monday the original Pickwick coach will leave Charing Cross for Rochester, driven by Mr Bertram Mills.

After the matinee tomorrow week a banquet will be held at Grosvenor House, when Sir John Martin Harvey will propose the immortal memory.[i]

The Sheffield branch of the Dickens Fellowship held its own celebration, a ‘Pickwick supper’, on Saturday 21 March. The Independent reported on the following Monday that over 70 Fellowship members ‘enjoyed hearty 19th century fare’ at Stephenson’s Restaurant in Castle Street. The meal was followed by a ‘musical evening provided on Dickensian lines’ including a contribution from ‘sweet-voiced Jimmie Fletcher, Sheffield’s own famous boy vocalist.[ii]

The Independent continued its coverage the next Wednesday, 25 March, in Big Ben’s ‘Talk of London’ column, reminding readers of Dickens’ visit to Sheffield in 1852.[iii] Dickens gave many public readings of his novels and also acted in plays. Big Ben reported seeing, in a display in a London bookshop, a playbill for a ‘performance by the Guild of Literature and Art’ at the ‘Music Hall, Sheffield’, on Surrey Street. The cast included: Dickens himself; fellow author Wilkie Collins; Mark Lemon, the founding editor of Punch and The Field; and John Tenniel, who would later illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It must have been a busy evening for all concerned, for it was one of those three-decker shows which were so popular a century ago. And as Dickens figures as the manager and the producer of all three, as part author of one, and a player in all three it would appear that he loomed nearly as large in that night’s entertainment as Charlie Chaplin does in Modern Times. …

I wonder if the Sheffielders of that day realised how honoured they were in having such famous writers on the stage of the music hall.  

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

The exhibition in the Central Library was described in the Independent on 23 March.  

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

To celebrate the Pickwick Centenary, the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) has arranged a special exhibition of Dickensiana in the Central Library, Surrey street.

A valuable collection of rare books has been assembled, including many first editions, and several with bibliographical peculiarities of singular interest.

Some of the books belong to the Central Reference Library, but the main part of the display has been lent by Mr. W. Slinn, whose fame as a bookbinder extends much further than Sheffield.

Sheffield Readings

Considerable interest is also attached to a water-colour of Dickens (lent by Mr. Daniel Evans), giving one of his famous readings at St. James’s Hall, London, in 1870. A few of our older readers may remember his visits to the old Music Hall in Surrey street, which was later used as a Central Lending Library until its demolition in 1932.

In any Dickens exhibition pride of place is generally given to the Pickwick Papers. To-day it is still one of the most popular books.

The exhibition can show you a copy of the first edition printed in volume form. Other editions on show include Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and the first octavo edition of Oliver Twist.

The exhibition begins to-day and will continue for a few weeks.

Later, on Thursday 26 March, Big Ben reported that the City Librarian, J P Lamb (never one to miss an opportunity for publicising the library), had rung to tell him that:

another copy of the playbill and a smaller bill are on view at the exhibition of Dickensiana at the Central Library in honour of the Pickwick Centenary, [along with] an actual ticket of admission to the show mentioned.

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

Music Hall, Sheffield, The Amateur Company of the Guild of Literature and Art ... will have the honour of performing for the twenty-first time, a new comedy ... Not So Bad As We Seem or, Many Sides to a Character
The playbill, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10454)
Specially designed admission cards to a performance which was given in the Music Hall, Sheffield, under the management of Charles Dickens
One of the ‘tickets of admission’, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10459)

As my colleague Mary Grover pointed out in her account of Jessie’s reading, Dickens, always popular, had a rather less secure literary reputation in the early 20th century than he does now. Big Ben for one, however, had no doubts. In his last column on the centenary, on Monday 30 March, he wrote:

The Pickwick Centenary celebrations this week touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement. Nothing new in literature, no new fashions or coteries can affect the universal popularity of Pickwick. If only some of the intellectual snobs and pseudo-intellectual cynics could produce anything with a hundredth part of the vitality, humanity and humour which characterised the art of Charles Dickens we could forgive them much of their pretentious nonsense.

Think of the gallery of rich characters, of the kindly satire, of the human understanding that this man produced. Mr. Pickwick was always surprised by the perversity of the world and by the assaults it made on his ingeniousness. He was – he is – so English. He has lived long. He will go on living. This centenary will give him new vitality and will do our hearts a power of good at a time in our history and in the history the world when so much is being done that Pickwick could never have understood and would certainly have hated.

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


[i] Bransby Williams (1870 – 1961) and Sir John Martin-Hervey (1863 – 1944) were actors who had considerable success interpreting Dickens. Sir Ben Greet (1857-1936) was an actor-manager well-known for his touring Shakespearian productions.

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

[iii] Dickens is known to have visited Sheffield four times, in 1852 to act and in 1853, 1858 and 1869 to give readings. He may also have visited in 1839, to report on local Chartist meetings, but there is no definitive evidence of this.

Dickens: not the London papers for you, child!

I met Jessie in 1997, still living in the Norfolk Park estate near the vicarage of St John’s Park where she had begun work at the age of 14 in 1920.

St John’s Vicarage, where Jessie worked. (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield Archives)

I visited her to interview her about her reading because I was writing about popular fiction in the 1930s. On every shelf in her tiny flat were pictures of her grandchildren, most of them in their graduation gowns. Yet Jessie herself never had any formal education.

Charles Dickens and Little Nell (Philadelphia, USA. By Smallbones. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence)

Jessie was born in 1906 and in 1920 became a wage-earner. The story of how she came to love Dickens in the 1920s reveals how much the status of Dickens has changed from the interwar period to the present day: from ‘childlike’ popular entertainer to classic author. The Cambridge academic Q D Leavis asserted in 1932, in Fiction and the Reading Public (p 157), that Dickens’

originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world, emotionally he is not only uneducated but also immature.

Mercifully Jessie never encountered this diatribe against her favourite author and the class of people who were seduced by him. But by chance it was a comparably low opinion of Dickens and his association with uneducated readers that enabled her to gain access to his complete works.

I used to read the Times when I was 14 because my first job was in a vicarage as a cleaner. Now the Canon Greenwood he was a Londoner. At 14 I went to the vicarage and it was an old house and it was dreadful, scrubbing . . . I stayed there till I was 19 but he used to take the Sunday papers and of course I had a field day with them because we used to have an hour for lunch and the housekeeper she used to go to sleep and of course she seemed to resent me reading the newspapers. I don’t know why.  . . . He had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and she had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

Jessie’s employer, Canon Henry Francis Greenwood, Vicar of St John’s Park Sheffield

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her – even her resentment gave me a gift. And I love Dickens’ characters – she let me take them home.

Charles Dickens (public domain)

She used to let me take the paper home if it was two or three days old but she used to resent that. Some of these people they resent poor people like we were, very poor, because my dad died when he was 47 and I was 14 and my mum was left to bring up three girls and she used to go out washing and cleaning. 

[The housekeeper] was so possessive with everything he the Vicar had – she was a proper giant to me.  She resented me probably it was because I wanted to know things and I knew things but she lent me the Dickens because she resented me reading the papers, the London papers.

In his book, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History, David Price makes the point that churches and chapels broadened the horizons of many who came into contact with them because their leaders had been educated outside Sheffield.[i] Her job at Canon Greenwood’s vicarage introduced Jessie to the London papers and the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the drudgery she endured, the vicarage in which she spent the first five years of her working life made her aware of a world elsewhere.

St John’s Park Sheffield today

[i] David Price, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018), p 4.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

Sue’s reading journey

Here is another reading journey from one of the Reading Sheffield team, Sue Roe. 

Reading has been important to me from my earliest memories (I only remember from the age of about eight or nine). I was always a bookworm, always with my nose in a book, though these were almost invariably library books. I don’t remember many books in the house but my dad was interested in reading and used to buy second-hand ones from the ‘Rag & Tag’ open-air market in town and keep them in a small bookcase. I have distinct memories of a book on the Phoenicians – I can’t recall much about the content – just the glossy pages and the pictures. Aesop’s Fables is another one I remember: a yellow hardback with thick pages and rough edges.

One of my first memories of reading is sitting on a stool behind the door in a neighbour’s kitchen, reading comics like Beano and Dandy.  The neighbours had a wholesale newsagent’s in West Bar and didn’t mind me taking advantage of their spare copies.

Park Library

I progressed to Park Library on Duke Street: I used to nip over the waste ground beyond the ‘rec’ at the end of Boundary Road, Wybourn. This brought me out just above the library (where I also learned to swim: Park Baths was on the same site).

What did I read then?

One favourite when I was young was Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson, with its memorable cover.

It was a fairy story with clearly identifiable ‘goodies and baddies’. I have read it again as an adult and still enjoyed it.

I read the Nancy Drew mysteries, as well as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and her lesser-known Five Find-Outers stories with Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville – as the leader. Fatty was a ventriloquist and master of disguise! Detective novels are still one of my favourite genres – a way to relax. I love a good detective story!

I also had an unlikely fondness for boarding school novels such as the Malory Towers series. I was attracted by the fun and excitement of this other world, though those who have actually been to boarding school are quick to disabuse me.

Anne of Green Gables was a favourite of mine, along with another, less well-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, set in the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana.

I identified with both books, and especially the latter – its heroine, Elnora, was an awkward outsider, poor and finding it hard to fit in. That’s how I felt, especially when I changed schools at the age of ten, when we moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road. I was from a family of eight girls and we were not well-off! This feeling was even more pronounced when I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school.

When we moved, I also changed libraries. I now caught the bus to Highfields – a wonderful library with the children’s section upstairs. How I longed to be flicking through the tickets, stamping the books and filling the shelves. What with homework and reading for pleasure, my mum would often have to shout me downstairs to help with housework.

Highfield Branch Library

I read to escape into another world, a different, more exciting world. I read books set in the nineteenth century, in America: What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, What Katy Did At School and, obviously, Little Women.

Little Women, the story of four sisters, appealed to me, the fifth of eight girls. Jo was always my favourite – she was a tomboy like Katy, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t accept Laurie’s proposal or why she married the Professor!

I enjoyed stories from nineteenth century Britain too: I read and probably cried over Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Books as prizes

When I moved house at the age of ten, my new friend, Janet, was a Methodist. Every Sunday I went for tea at her house and then to church for the evening service. I also went to Sunday School and took the Scripture exam. To me, learning Bible stories for the exam was just like history, one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember getting 92 per cent and a prize: Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter.

At grammar school, the prizes given to top pupils for end-of-year exams were books chosen by pupils. I managed a prize twice, in Year 2 when I asked for the Bible and in the sixth form when I chose T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. My tastes had clearly evolved.

Set books

At grammar school, books were read as part of the English syllabus. I have clear memories of Dotheboys Hall, an abridgement of Nicholas Nickleby, which introduced the unforgettable character of Squeers. I cheered along with the boys when he got his thrashing.

Another book we read in class was one set in the South Seas. I had to research on the internet to re-discover this one. It was A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, set in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I wanted to be a missionary for a while after reading it!

The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis, was another set text but I can’t remember much of the plot. I do recall the drawings, by Edward Ardizzone, whom I encountered again when looking for picture books for my children.

Teenage books

As I got older, I did read some of the classics, often choosing to read several titles by authors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Far From the Madding Crowd and A Christmas Carol stick in my mind.

I enjoyed different genres, though I would not have used that word. There was science fiction: I particularly remember John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic world where any type of mutant is killed or banished and telepathy is common. The front cover shows a key moment when a child steps in wet sand and leaves an imprint of a six-toed foot – a clear indication of a mutant!

My father was a big fan of Rider Haggard and would often mention King Solomon’s Mines, both as the book and a film. The 1936 version had Paul Robeson as Umbopa, and Robeson was one of my father’s singing heroes. Unsurprisingly, I read that book, as well as others by Haggard, including She and Allan Quatermain.

I didn’t really discuss my reading with my close friends. An exception was the Molesworth books. I still find them funny and can recall the memorable lines we used to quote to one another: ‘As any fule kno’ (a phrase which regularly pops up in some newspapers), ‘Hello clouds, hello sky’ and of course, with reference to the Head Boy, Grabber Ma, ‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. Strange that three girls could enjoy tales of Nigel Molesworth, the ‘curse of St Custard’s’, a boys’ boarding school, but some things are universal: the boredom of (some) lessons, the bullying, the fear of teachers!

I was, and am still, a lover of history, so I did enjoy historical novels. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels with their period detail especially appealed to me. Anya Seton’s novels were also historical fiction and Katharine was my favourite. The intricacies of royal family trees which emerge in this novel were to appear again when I taught A level History, especially the Wars of the Roses.

Looking back, I can see how crucial public libraries were for me: not just somewhere to do school work, to revise for exams but a doorway to explore other worlds, past and present. This passion has never left me and informed my choice of degree and career. Even after 38 years of history teaching, I still love a good historical novel!

 

By Sue Roe

Anne’s Reading Journey

Anne was born in the north of Sheffield on 5 August 1944. Her parents owned a bakery in Hillsborough. Anne has been a keen reader from an early age and has remained so.  She trained as a Religious Education (RE) teacher at college in Leeds and was also involved in the Girl Guide movement for many years, as both a Guide and a Guider.  She has two daughters and grandchildren.

Here Anne remembers how she encountered that most notorious book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Anne read well from an early age: ‘I was away ahead,’ she says. At first it was fairy stories and nursery rhymes, and then books familiar to most people growing up in the mid-20th century.

I was well into Enid Blyton at a fairly young age and then as I got older I sort of went more on to the classics. I remember reading The Children of the New Forest when I was about 13 and that became one of my top favourites. … The Chalet books in my early teens were my passion and I owned practically every single one at some point. I’ve still got a lot of them up in the loft.

Of the classics, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were the ones Anne liked best, but although she tried, Jane Austen wasn’t for her. ‘I just couldn’t stick it,’ she says.

Membership of the public library and her school and college studies kept Anne reading, although she doesn’t sound as if she needed much persuasion (‘I just read anything I could get my hands on’). She belonged to Sheffield Libraries from an early age, walking there alone and choosing her books without any help from the librarians.  When, at the age of 15, she transferred to the City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield, she joined the Central Library, encouraged by a friend, Kath.  Kath ‘was doing literature and so was very much more into proper books, adult books’.  Anne dates her transition to ‘grown-up novels’ from her friendship with Kath.  In those days Anne usually looked for books which had some relevance to her history and RE courses, such as Jean Plaidy’s books on the Tudors and novels like Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe.

No-one ever made Anne feel that reading was a waste of time. Both parents were busy with their business, but were happy for their daughter to read:

…Oh no, I mean [my mother] was an intelligent person, she knew the value of reading, she just didn’t do it.

Then our interviewer asked if Anne was ever made to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading.  Only when she came across D H Lawrence, Anne replied.  And the story came out.

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Perhaps your father didn’t think he ought to be doing it either, suggests our interviewer. Probably not, Anne agrees, saying ‘he probably kept it out of sight from me’.

This happened around 1960, when Anne was a teenager. This was the time of the famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin Books re-published Lawrence’s novel (for the first time since its initial publication in 1928) and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute.  The book was a huge success, with copies selling out as soon as they arrived in bookshops.

The trial, that was why everybody read it! Everybody knew about it. I did some more D H Lawrence as well.

Anne, however, did not particularly like the Lawrence novels she read. ‘ I read them but I wouldn’t say I’d want to read them again.’ She was shocked by Lady Chatterley, she says, because she was ‘totally innocent in those days’.  But she

didn’t know what the fuss was about for most of it.

Here is Anne’s full interview.