Betty B’s reading journey

Betty was born in 1924 and grew up between Crookes and Walkley. She worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and served in the WAAF during World War Two.  

Betty’s father was the great influence on her early reading. While her mother read only magazines, her father liked Edgar Wallace. There were books at home, she says, and ‘Father took me to the Walkley Library’. Betty had a library card from the age of six, which was probably about the earliest age children could join in those days, and she ‘lived in the library’. She was lucky: the Walkley branch was home to Sheffield’s first-ever library for children, which had opened in the year she was born.

Carnegie library at Walkley

It’s interesting that, while he was evidently happy for his daughter to benefit from the public library, Betty’s father didn’t use it himself. His books came from the newsagents on Heavygate Rd in nearby Crookes. He would have had to pay to borrow from this ‘tuppenny library’, but at the time he might have felt more likely to find his favourites outside the public library. (In fact, from about 1930, Sheffield’s chief librarian, J P Lamb, started stocking more popular fiction, including Edgar Wallace, in his branch libraries, a move that was frowned upon in some professional library circles.)

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low

Betty attended the Western Road school and did the 11+ there, but she felt that she ‘had no education’. If anything, she was ‘self-educated’, reading ‘A to Z classics at school and in the library’. She had to leave school at the age of 15, in 1939, just before the war broke out. Her parents died around then, and Betty lived with her older sister, a civil servant, in Crookes. She worked at first as a comptometer operator but found itlike factory work’, so she did a course and found a book-keeping job in a local steel works.

When she was 17, Betty joined the WAAF as a driver, and was stationed at seven or eight different camps. There was a great social life, including a lot of dancing, she remembers, and there was less time for reading, even though she was sent books, ‘mostly whodunnits’, from home. After the war, old habits reasserted themselves, and started reading again. She enjoyed sports books from the library, and also studied textbooks about book-keeping.

This must have paid off, for Betty recalls that her ‘career improved’. She worked for a company called Johnson’s, then the Sheffield Steel and Tool Corporation, in its head office on Church St, and then an agricultural tool business around Queens Road.

Over the years, Betty got engaged three times – and changed her mind three times. She never married.

Now long retired, Betty continues to read. Novelists like J B Priestley and Alan Sillitoe get nods, and the classic crime and thriller writers of her youth are favourites. There are the four ‘Queens of Crime’ – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers – and also Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan. Eighty years after her father took her to Walkley Library, Betty still makes good use of the public library, through its service for housebound readers.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Dorothy L Sayers (Creative Commons licence, National Portrait Gallery)

 

Note: Betty was interviewed in 2012, but we have no audio or transcript, as the recorder was faulty. This reading journey is based on notes made by her interviewers, from which all the quotations are taken.

Eva G’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Eva was born on 24 December 1925 and lived first in the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield, moving about ten miles to Bramley in 1962. Her father was an engineer before and during the First World War when he lost a leg. On his return he worked in the offices of Edgar Allen steelworks at Tinsley. Her mother worked in the warehouse of a cutlery firm until she was married and gave it up. Eva passed the 11+ to go to Greystones Intermediate School but her parents were not interested in education for girls:

. . . they didn’t bother with the girls then, you know. Boys could have anything, but …You get married, you don’t need to. That’s the attitude then. So it didn’t get you anywhere.

She started her reading journey at school: she learned to read there. At the age of seven she started to read Dickens, unabridged: ‘I read David Copperfield; that was my favourite.’

Dickens made a great impression on her:

I liked the characters. I mean, they were really interesting characters, weren’t they? True to life,  in a way, but funny as well. I loved David Copperfield. I think he went through a lot. I know Oliver Twist is a similar sort of thing, isn’t it, what happened to them when they were younger, but I liked the characters. I liked Peggotty.

Her parents did have books at home, and both were readers:

I used to get them from the library, mostly. We had got, luckily, at home, we had got here, you know, volumes of them. . . . he [her father] used to be like army books and war books.. and  she [her mum]  used to read love stories, you know . . .

When, much later, her mum lived with Eva in Bramley, she read in bed:

She used to go to bed in the afternoon. … Because she was elderly …  she was 38 when she had me …  I used to give her all sorts of books, she used to read them upstairs and then she used to have a little nap and then come down for tea.

As a child, Eva did not get many books as presents; she went to Burngreave Branch Library which was just down the road though she never got any help with choosing books:

I used to go regularly, yes, and pick my books, choose my books. … I used to read downstairs. If I started reading, it went over my head when everybody was talking, if I got really interested in a book.

Eva went to Burngreave Secondary School which she enjoyed.

I loved school. And our head teacher was Scottish, and she came from Carbrook School. She was always a miss – she never got married.

She was Scottish and tall. She used to have her hair trimmed short, and she used to always wear tweeds and suits. … But she was very interested in music, so we got that drummed into us. I’ll always remember her for that … and speech training, we had speech training. Elocution.

… when I was at secondary school, we had elocution lessons. They didn’t in most places, but we did. It was just like having proper elocution lessons, so we did a lot of Shakespeare, you know, so you learnt that off by heart, that sort of thing …  Hamlet … to be or not to be, that is …  I learnt that off by heart, that speech, but I can’t remember it all now.

Libraries continued to be important for Eva even after she married and had a family. Initially she used Handsworth Library but that was pulled down:

[we] had to either go down to Darnall, or go up to Manor Top. We often used to go there when the girls were young; we used to catch the bus. Or we used to walk it, and then we’d got the books … well, we got the bus coming back, because it was a nicer library, you know.

As she got older she read more widely: ‘I liked mysteries. I like murder mysteries.’

[Agatha Christie] : I used to read her books, yes. But once you’ve read one of her books …  I used to like them, but they seemed to be all … when you look at them closely, they all seem to be the same, don’t they?

Eva enjoyed Dorothy L Sayers and P D James as well as adventure stories like Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps. She also liked comedies: ‘Not silly, but funny.’

Cold Comfort Farm: I read that, yes. I’ve got it actually.

I’ve read Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Compton Mackenzie … I like his books [like] Whisky Galore

Like several of our interviewees, Eva read books which were seen as shocking at the time:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover … I’ve read that, that’s neither here nor there. … I’ve read  Edna O’ Brien – I like Edna O’Brien.

When asked if she was shocked by them, she replied, ‘Not really.’

Eva still reads, though the venue has changed over the years:

Now, of course, I only read in bed. If I wake up early I read, I have a little read at night. But I don’t read like I used to do, I don’t read downstairs. And I got into that habit when the girls were young and you couldn’t concentrate, and they were all there, so that’s when I used to read when I went to bed.

I often used to go to bed early when I was married because I was short-sighted, so it was handy for me. Because I had to have my glasses on, I could lie down in bed… he often used to find me in bed [asleep] with my glasses on, and he used to just take my glasses off!

Her husband didn’t object because he was a reader as well.

Eva enjoys reading well-loved books again.

I often read books that I am very fond of again, it doesn’t bother me. Revise myself on them. … Gone with the Wind, I’ve got that, naturally. Oh, I’ve read it two or three times. I keep coming back to it.

Irene H’s Reading Journey

Irene was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield in 1921; she grew up there and later lived in Birley Edge. After school she worked in an office at Firth Brown’s steelworks and in 1943 married a draughtsman who also worked there. She and her husband left the company and set up a nursery business in Barnsley.

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene grew up in a home where reading wasn’t regarded as important,

I could read quite early. I was never stopped from reading but my mother didn’t read and my father read a paper and that was it……I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

Occasionally her mother would read a Playbox comic to her on a Saturday morning but otherwise her earliest memory of being read to dates from when she first went to school at the age of five and the teacher read ‘How the Elephant got his Trunk’ from Kipling’s Just So Stories to the class.

Irene read widely; early reading matter included Pip and Squeak annuals sent to her by an old friend of her mother’s and Schoolgirls’ Own annuals. hailstone-flyleaf-signed-

She got books from quite a range of sources. At about ten or eleven she benefited from this special offer,

A man came to the door getting you to buy the Daily Herald…..my father signed up and so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

She occasionally bought sixpenny novelettes from the newsagent at the bottom of their street. She was given books by aunts and by her paternal grandmother; when older she would sometimes ask for a specific book as a birthday or Christmas present.irene-hailstone-fondest-love-

She used Firth Park Library and later on the Central Library. As well as the municipal libraries, she sometimes used the Red Circle Library on Snig Hill.

From secondary school (Southey Green) she remembers reading Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson and also potted biographies of famous people.

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene’s parents had an account with Weston’s, a wholesale stationers in Change Alley; this meant that sometimes she could get books at a discount. She also read magazines and bought Woman almost from the start.

During the 40s she belonged to a national book club and recalls getting novels by Howard Spring and Anya Seton from there.She also bought books from bookshops such as Smith’s and bookstalls, both new and secondhand. She used the bookstalls in the Norfolk Market Hall on Haymarket and, later on when working in Barnsley, in Barnsley market. Her husband used to buy westerns from a market stall: if you took them back, you got money off the next one. Irene didn’t like westerns particularly but would sometimes read one,

Well, it was just something to read. If there was nothing to read, I would read anything.

The mark of a true reader. The war and marriage reduced her time for reading, ‘I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.’

Irene doesn’t remember other people recommending books nor did she tend to read novels because people were talking about them or because they might be improving in some way. She has a special fondness for historical fiction and biographies of historical characters; she likes them to have proper research behind them. She mentions Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Baroness Orczy. She sometimes read crime fiction and liked Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, though found Agatha Christie ‘a bit obvious’. She read romantic fiction too, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among later writers, she read Catherine Cookson: ‘Somebody always has to be illegitimate’.

Irene couldn’t identify any way in which reading had changed her life but she was always a reader: ‘No real encouragement, I just enjoyed it’. She still reads, getting her books now from Hillsborough Library, Waterstones and sometimes Amazon.