A Reading Journey of Sorts

By Mike Peart

Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history.

During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I can’t ever recall being taken to the local library there. There certainly was one when it was the Borough of Heston & Isleworth, but I’m not sure if I ever darkened its door. My mother was a member of the Boots Booklovers’ Library in Hounslow which was the nearest large shopping centre. She regularly read her way through their books with the shield bookmark and eyelets punched into the binding. I’m not sure what she read but I suspect that much of it would have been linked to the films of the day as she was also a keen cinema-goer, going most weeks with my godmother. Apart from Heston Library, there was also a library in Hounslow where an aunt of mine was librarian in the 1930s before she married. But my mother didn’t go there either. I wonder if she was suspicious of public libraries and their late 1940s preoccupation with infectious diseases and their effects on the book stocks. She had lost her firstborn in 1942 at the age of ten months to gastroenteritis and this affected her life and attitudes right up to her death in 1996. It may be that she thought the books at Boots were more hygienic, what with the Booklovers’ Library being consciously refined, not to mention the company being chemists and all that – but I don’t really know.

Boots Booklovers’ Library logo (Addedentry, Creative Commons Licence)

I have absolutely no recollection of either parent or any aunt or uncle reading to me. I think my mother helped me, although I don’t think it was from children’s books necessarily as we didn’t have any. It was just as likely that I had to read the Daily Express, the News Chronicle or even the Daily Mirror, all of which appeared in the house at some time or other during my childhood. On trips out I may well have read shop signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries. I did spend a lot of time listening to the radio (Home and Light programmes) so some stories might have come across that way. I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9. It was only later when some annuals appeared as birthday or Christmas presents, although they weren’t what you would call ‘quality reading’. The tales of Desperate Dan, Biffo the Bear and Korky the Cat were hardly improving literature.

There were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase used for other purposes. I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes, The Home Doctor and The Home Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. The only fiction was two prizes given to my father at school: Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith. I did try to read both, unsuccessfully I think, when I had scarlet fever at about the age of eight or nine.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911 (public domain)

Illustration by E Frere from The Vicar of Wakefield, showing perhaps why such a book failed to appeal to a young boy (public domain)

Otherwise, most of my reading at home started with the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express. My parents were members of the Heston Ratepayers’ Association and received their monthly RAM magazine about local matters, which I also tried to read. (Almost 70 years later I write for RAM by the way!) Then there was my father’s collection of The Journal of the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers – the organisation seems to have been founded by George Stephenson. It contained learned articles, diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession ever since. There were also a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and another dealing with workshop mathematics.

I suspect that I only read anything available when the weather was bad, otherwise I’d have been outside playing, gardening and messing about with small bikes and home-made ‘trolleys’ with friends.

When the 11-plus was approaching, I do recall my mother buying me books of exercises called Progress Papers to work through, as well as Angus Maciver’s First Aid in English. These may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I was certainly an expert in collective nouns – a smuck of eels, a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a clowder of cats – and McIver’s other obsessions at a very early age.

The elephant is a bonny bird
It flits from bough to bough
It makes its nest in the rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.

English at grammar school consisted of learning ‘rules’ by rote and being forced to work laboriously through Shakespeare – Twelfth Night in my case. I can recall my father having an unresolved argument and subsequent correspondence with my English teacher about the way the subject was being taught, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all, despite passing both English Language and English Literature at ‘O’ level. I enjoyed learning foreign languages far more and probably read more Voltaire and Thomas Mann than any English authors. While still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match and I went to Librarie Hachette in London to buy a decent-sized French dictionary. The assistants spoke French and I had to say something like ‘Où se trouvent les dictionnaires?’ to which the reply was ‘En bas’.

I ‘resigned’ from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level students and had written his own French grammar book. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead of school, my great uncle who had been Director of Education for Winchester City and Hampshire and, reputedly, the founder of that county’s first girls’ grammar school, encouraged me to write. I corresponded with him regularly and he gave feedback. He also tried to persuade me to learn Esperanto. As a county president of the Rotary Club he saw Esperanto as a good way of improving international relations in the tense post-war years and he had several books in the language at his home in Winchester.

At the same time, I was by then Honorary Secretary of a railway preservation society and had to do a lot of typewritten correspondence with members, British Railways (BR), potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine (still going and now at edition number 224). Both were duplicated and, apart from typing the stencils, I had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. I also started, but never finished, a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. So far as books went, I was certainly by this time buying a lot of books dealing with railways and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for the BR organisation between September 1962 and October 1964 when I discovered I couldn’t pursue this career because of defective colour vision. I had also asked about a two-year short service commission in the Army but they, too, needed perfect colour vision. Up to this point I had been based at home in Heston, Middlesex.

Some of Mike’s railway collection

My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. I spent the first nine months helping my parents renovate a very run-down Georgian house which was their retirement home. Although I made numerous friends around Exmoor, I did find time to read and I bought several J B Priestley novels and something by Stan Barstow but mainly text books dealing with psychology and criminology. I also acquired a large collection of grammar books, style guides and dictionaries from Foyles, as well as the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron and other English poets.

After the end of the railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested a career in adult education, probation work, social work or, due to the highest ‘interest’ marks the Vocational Guidance Association had ever seen in their psychometric tests, striving to become a professional musician! I was a very bad self-taught pianist at the time and I realised that there was no way this occupation would earn me a living and the playing tailed off. Hence, the civil service beckoned after it was suggested by the Department of Employment’s Professional & Executive Register that I should join that very department: I did. It was only after retiring from the successor to that wretched organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one book for Hodder & Stoughton, and three more with a fourth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.

Even now in my seventies I do not buy, borrow or read fiction. I write surrounded by well over a thousand books – all of them works of reference, histories, geographic guides and technical books mainly dealing with railways. That said, I will happily watch television and film dramatisations of novels old and new. I do, though, feel that it’s cheating – much like absorbing the classics from the Classics Illustrated comics that I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. I will occasionally resort to radio dramatisations as well – creating the pictures for oneself is a pleasurable part of using that medium.

Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, the central libraries at Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield, and the National Railway Museum library.

 

Postscript: On the Shelves at Tinsley Carnegie Library

After their struggle to build their Carnegie Library, what books did Tinsley parish council see fit to buy for the enlightenment and entertainment of its residents?

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library, by T.Wilkinson, on 8 June 1905 (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield City Archives)

The tone was set by Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of William Cooke and Co, as he opened the library on Thursday 8 June 1905. The Sheffield Independent reported the next day:

[In his boyhood] there were no beautiful structures of that kind ready for the working man to use. He very much rejoiced that they had in the parish so excellent a building to which they could come in search of recreation of a rational character, or of the knowledge which was to be obtained from the scientific and engineering works he had observed on the shelves.

The Sheffield Independent noted the lending library’s capacity for ‘several thousand volumes’ and there was also a reference library to stock. But for now there were just ‘434 volumes’, ‘well and substantially bound in leather’. Mr H C Else, who chaired the council, said that they hoped to expand in time and that for now people

would probably think that the library looked bare … they only got the last half of the books on Tuesday of this week.

There were twelve shelves of novels, including:

Dickens, Dumas, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Hall Caine, Captain Marryat, R S Merriman, Scott, Mrs Henry Wood, E J Worboise, Stanley Weyman, Charles Reade. [i]

This range of mostly contemporary or recent novels was likely to appeal to both men and women. Some of the names, like Eliot, we rever today and others, like Wilkie Collins, are less well regarded but in print and read with pleasure by many. Still others are almost completely forgotten. Hall Caine and E J Worboise? Anyone? Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) wrote ‘novels of wide popularity’, says the Oxford Companion to English Literature. His Wikipedia entry lists his subjects as: ‘adultery, divorce, domestic violence, illegitimacy, infanticide, religious bigotry and women’s rights’, and describes him as the ‘most highly paid novelist of his day’. Emma Jane Worboise (1825–1887) wrote strongly Christian novels.

At this point the Independent’s journalist unexpectedly indulged in literary criticism of his own:

The ubiquitous Marie Corelli was unrepresented. Resenting this absence, the lady of Stratford-on-Avon will probably supply the deficiency by forwarding a complete set of  immortal works at the earliest opportunity.

Marie Corelli (1854-1924) was relished by the public for her exotic novels involving high society, ancient Egypt, debauchery, paganism, spiritualism and much else. Predictably, she was despised by the critics. Evidently there was no place for her in Tinsley.

Exotic author Marie Corelli (1909) (public domain)

It is interesting that fiction of any kind found a place in Tinsley’s public library. Libraries had been founded, in true Victorian fashion, with a view to improving the working man. To many minds the novel hardly suited this noble purpose. In addition, some ratepayers resented wasting public – or rather, their – money on providing the frivolous to the undeserving. In 1879, J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, called novels ‘the most dangerous literature of the age’.[ii] When he opened the nearby Walkley Carnegie Library, in December 1905, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Colonel Hughes

impressed upon the young people that it was not by reading three-volume novels that literary or other success was achieved, but by digesting the finest writers on subjects that would be of use afterwards. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 December 1905)

At all events, in Tinsley, in 1905, the council chose fiction that would both entertain and inform.[iii]

What then of ‘books of information’, in a phrase of the time?

The more serious books in the library included Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries, half a dozen volumes of Ruskin, a dozen of the English Men of Letters series, and a fine set of over 30 volumes dealing with national heroes. The poets at present seem to be confined to Longfellow, Scott, Shakespeare, and Tennyson.

This is another solid and conventional selection on literature, history and art. The ‘fine set … dealing with national heroes’ has a confident, even imperial, ring to it, and the English Men of Letters series included luminaries like Samuel Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth and Chaucer (there were no women of letters). John Ruskin had local connections, with his Guild of St George and St George’s Museum for Sheffield’s working men. There was apparently little science or technology, apart from the ‘small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries’ reflecting the local economy and also vocational improvement.

John Ruskin (1879) (public domain)

There seem to have been no books for children, although older children might well have enjoyed,  for example, Captain Marryat. Junior public libraries were few and far between in this period, even in bigger cities. Had the idea occurred in Tinsley, there was in any case little money. There were perhaps books in local schools and Sunday Schools.

Early libraries were intended as a source of news and information and so there were newspapers and magazines in the reading room and the ladies’ reading room. The main reading room was well-equipped with ‘six newspaper desks, and three large oak tables, on which will be laid current magazines’.

Tinsley’s new librarian, Mr J O’Donnell, was named by the Independent. There is no other information about him, but it may be assumed that he advised the council on its book purchases. At all events, he did not stay long, for by 1912 the librarian was Mr A Burton, who also served on the council.

Underpinning Tinsley’s achievement was local financial support. Andrew Carnegie’s £1,500 was a donation strictly for construction, and councils could raise a rate of only 1d in the pound for libraries. In Tinsley this meant £110 a year. Money for books was always going to be hard to find, but the council, in a move as enterprising as its applying for Carnegie money,

went to several of the large works in the parish and asked them to give assistance. … which mounted in all to £50. That would not buy many books, and so they were obliged to put another £50 to it in order to make some show at the outset. … but before they could extend it much they would need to obtain either more money or more books from some one.

The businesses which contributed were carefully listed by the Independent: Hadfield’s Steel Foundry Co, William Cooke and Co, Edgar Allen and Co, the Tinsley Rolling Mills Co, and T Gray and Sons. With the exception of the last (the company which had built the library), these were internationally important businesses.

The Sheffield Independent evidently admired Tinsley’s efforts to secure its building and books:

The handsome little library … was formally opened yesterday evening, in the presence of an interested gathering of spectators. Neither architects nor builders have attempted anything to which the word pretentious could be applied, but the building is pleasing in appearance, and admirably planned for the purposes to which it will be put. … The surrounding grounds are nicely laid out and planted with shrubs.

An artist’s impression of Tinsley Carnegie Library from the Sheffield Independent (9 June 1905)

Read more about the building of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Parts One, Two and Three).

[i] R S Merriman is presumably a misprint for H S (Henry Seton) Merriman (1862-1903), another popular novelist of exciting-sounding books: Slave of the Lamp (1894), The Vultures (1902) and The Last Hope (1904).

[ii] Quoted by Thomas Kelly in A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1975 (London, Library Association, 1977).

[iii] Not everyone disapproved of novels. Opening Sheffield’s Upperthorpe Library in 1876, Alderman Fisher said that: ‘…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon’. By 1905, novels with a Christian moral were often given to children as school or Sunday School prizes. By 1930, when Sheffield stocked Edgar Wallace, Ethel M Dell and the like in its new Firth Park branch, this proved tremendously popular with residents.