A very local library

When she sat in on the interview of her aunt Wynne Wilson, Diane Haswell contributed an interesting story about an unusual private library in Sheffield in the 1950s.  You can read Wynne’s story here.

Diane Haswell was born in 1947.  As a small child she lived off Rustlings Road near Endcliffe Park in Sheffield.  She remembers unusual competition for the public library service – a very local library run by a man called Smith, from a back room in his house which was, she thought, somewhere around Louth, Peveril or Ranby Roads.

Well, I can remember … going to a man’s house and I think he was called Mr Smith and in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child and my mother picked three books and she also picked three books for her husband, my father.

And he stocked all the Enid Blyton books and things like that. I think that was why it was so popular in the ‘50s so we had that for about ten years so we didn’t go to another library apart from school.

Diane’s memory is pretty good.  Kelly’s Directories between 1951 and 1965 record ‘Frederick R. Smith, library’, based at 30 Blair Athol Road, near Rustlings Road.

Here is the house from which Mr Smith ran his library.

Here is the house from which Mr Smith ran his library.

How did Frederick R Smith’s enterprising library work?  Although Diane doesn’t remember money changing hands, she thinks there was a subscription fee – ‘my mother must have paid’.  The loan period was a fortnight.  Subscribers had their own codes which were written in the front of each book they borrowed, with the result that there was a record of what they had read.  Even though it is over 60 years ago, Diane still remembers that her family code was 33 S, because they lived at 33 Stainton Road.  Presumably the ‘librarian’ kept a list of who had borrowed what and when.  Reading this, you wonder how often, and with what, Mr Smith refreshed his stock.

At all events, the library was well-used for years.

… we sometimes had to stand in a queue before we got to the living room, taking the old books back and pick[ing] up the new and sometime there were queues of people outside the front door so it must have been a popular venue and a source of books.

Just like the public library, Mr Smith developed his own mobile service.  When Diane’s family moved seven miles away to the Handsworth district in 1952, Mr Smith’s son, Eric, used to come round in a small van, ‘which [Diane] can picture now’. He would open this up to reveal a selection of books.  Despite the change of address, the family kept their 33 S code, which Diane ‘thought was strange’.  Soon the library ‘took off in [our] little neighbourhood and [my] mother’s neighbours used to borrow these books’.

Mr Smith’s home-made library seems to have been popular despite Ecclesall branch library and the Central Library, both of which were nearby and free to use.  Ecclesall had opened in October 1949 at the bottom of Knowle Lane (about a mile away from Diane’s childhood home) and became one of the busiest branches.  The Central Library was less than three miles away in Surrey Street, on a good tram route.  Of course, at this remove, we have no notion of the scale of Mr Smith’s library, but perhaps it was popular because it was so very local and therefore easy for busy families.  Maybe its casual nature was also attractive, although Sheffield Libraries was informal in terms of layout, rules etc, especially in its children’s libraries.

Sheffield Central Library, Junior Library

Sheffield Central Library, Junior Library

In fact, in time, Diane did use the Central Library with its comparatively vast resources:

As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library.

But the start of Diane’s reading journey was in a small, private enterprise patronised by her whole family:

… in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child … those three books were so important to me.

[Mr Smith’s library] really did set me and my parents on the path to avid reading.  If my father read authors such as Nevil Shute and Nicholas Monsarrat then so did I and I was still at primary school.  But then of course my father and I could discuss the stories afterwards, which I loved.

Perhaps this sort of amateur library will come back into being, as public libraries are forced to close, or at best reduce their opening hours.

Does anyone else remember Mr Smith’s library, or anything similar?  Please let us know.