On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part I)

The previous post told the early story of Herbert Waterson who became librarian at Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. Here is the story of how Upperthorpe got its library.

‘…more of an experiment than anything else…’ (Sheffield Independent, 4 October 1869)

Sheffield was a pioneer of the public library movement, and as the home of its first branch library, the residential suburb of Upperthorpe had a part in that achievement.

Free public libraries were among the great social reforms of the mid-19th century. They would, it was thought, enable the lower classes to educate themselves. The Public Libraries Act 1850 allowed councils to spend a halfpenny[1] from every pound collected from ratepayers on a free library or museum. Sheffield’s first public library opened on 1 February 1856. It was located in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street, more or less where the Central Library is today. (The Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, who lived in Upperthorpe, was one of the founders of the Institute.) By the end of the decade, there were about 8,000 books and 12,000 adult borrowers (no-one under the age of 14 was allowed to join).

The library continued to grow, with almost 30,000 books and 27,000 members by 1869. It seemed the time to extend the service. The Council agreed to a branch library in Upperthorpe. On 4 October 1869, there was a grand opening by the chairman of the library committee, Alderman William Fisher JP, accompanied by other councillors. Reporting on the event, the Sheffield Independent speculated that the first branch was:

…more of an experiment than anything else … as upon the success which attends the operations of the library in that part of the town will very much, if not entirely, depend whether similar libraries will be opened in other parts of Sheffield.

The library was to have two staff: the librarian, William Bramhall, and a ‘boy assistant’, J Bunn. Opening hours were every morning from 10 am to 2 pm in the afternoon, and from 4 pm to 9 pm at night. It was located in the Tabernacle Congregational Chapel, on Albert Terrace Road, which has since been demolished. The Independent described it:

… the [schoolroom], which is used only on Sundays, has been converted into an admirable reading-room, and is well supplied with nearly 30 periodicals and magazines. One of the tables is set apart entirely for the use of young women. The room for the storing of books, and in which they are given out and returned, has been erected by the trustees of the chapel, and is capitally suited for the purpose in every respect. The number of books at present in the library is 3,603.

With so many councillors present, the opening ceremony seems to have turned into a lengthy discussion (there were no fewer than 12 speakers) about the purpose of libraries. Alderman Fisher talked of the benefits of reading non-fiction, noting:

…how the political knowledge and the patriotism of the readers had been enlarged, and how much better citizens they had been made by studying the records of the history of this and other countries.

He appears to have been rather broad-minded, thinking that novels, which were often frowned upon, had their uses:

…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … many hours of weariness, pain, and anxiety had had their sting taken out of them by the interest which a good novel excited. At all events, when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon.

Alderman Saunders thought that novels were a good way to attract young people:

If they gave them one of Carlyle’s works, or a book upon mathematics or astronomy, they would fail in giving them a taste for reading. They should induce them to come to the library by allowing them to have works of an attractive character, and then by-and-bye [sic] they would take to works of a more sterling character. It was therefore important and desirable that works of fiction should find a place upon the shelves of such a library as the one they were about to open.

Councillors Fairburn and Hutchinson were conscious of the original rationale for libraries. Fairburn thought:

there was no better way of spending ratepayers’ money than by giving facilities to the working classes to improve their minds and thus enable them to become better citizens.

Hutchinson said that one objection he had to libraries was that:

the books were not sufficiently made use of by the working classes. Sometimes they could not get the books they required, and … before the upper classes were supplied with books from a free library, the authorities ought to see that the working classes were provided with them.

There certainly seemed to be enthusiasm for the new library. On its first day, 221 people registered and 144 books borrowed.

In 1873, a new librarian took over at Upperthorpe.  Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a commercial traveller but free libraries fascinated him. He worked at Upperthorpe between 1873 and 1875. In 1886 he published the first manual of library administration, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in, and it must have influenced him.

We know that about 2,000 borrowers registered at Upperthorpe, and the Council evidently decided that the experiment was a success. The Council opened a second branch in 1872, in a purpose-built building in Brightside.[2] Then, in 1874, two more libraries were agreed – a new branch in Highfield and a permanent home for Upperthorpe.

Read the next post to learn about the new library in Upperthorpe.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

[1]   A halfpenny is about a quarter of one penny today, but it could buy much more than 1p today.

[2] The library’s name was later changed to Burngreave. It was on Gower Street. The library has long since moved out and the building is now a mosque.

Sheffield – City of the Library

Here is a selection of libraries in Sheffield: Totley, Hillsborough, Highfield and Manor.  The buildings they occupy, or occupied, are one way of telling the story of the public library – and popular reading – in Sheffield.

On 1 February 1856, Sheffield’s first public library supported by the rates opened in the Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street (where the Central Library is today).  The first branch library opened in rented rooms in Upperthorpe in 1869.  Since then, in attempts to meet the needs of outlying areas, the council has opened, inherited through boundary changes, moved around and, in some cases, closed many branch libraries, part-time ‘library centres’ and mobile services.

In the early days in Sheffield libraries, as elsewhere, the emphasis was perhaps more on education and improvement than on leisure and entertainment.  (Libraries do, of course, do all these very well.)  The number and selection of books was at first limited, particularly in the case of fiction.  The books were kept behind a counter and had to be requested from a rudimentary catalogue, rather than being stored on the open shelves familiar to us.  Reading rooms, which have now disappeared, were an important feature and were often separate for men and women.  Over the years, book stocks have increased hugely both in number and variety.  As have the services available, with libraries regularly hosting book groups, exhibitions, concerts and other events.  They now offer internet access, ebooks, films and music, as well as books between hard and soft covers.  Sometimes they share premises with community centres and other public services.

The council had opened three branch libraries – Upperthorpe, Burngreave and Highfield – by 1876, although it was concerned by the expense and kept book funds low.  From about 1900, building and refurbishment started in earnest and continued for many years, albeit with gaps.  Progress was often uncertain, with part-time libraries set up in inadequate, rented rooms.  This was the case with the first branch, Upperthorpe, which started in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road.  Occasionally, grand buildings were adopted, adapted and expanded over the years.  The Hillsborough branch, for example, opened in 1906 in two rooms in the former gentleman’s residence of Hillsborough Hall, grew over the years and is there still.  In most cases, from Burngreave in 1872, the approach was the purpose-built building reflecting the architectural style and library management theories of the day.  But happenstance has often played a part too, as a building or site became available unexpectedly and was turned into a library.

Like many other towns and cities, Sheffield benefited from the generosity of Andrew Carnegie who donated the funds to build Walkley and Tinsley.  They both opened in 1905, although Tinsley did not join Sheffield until 1912 and so the credit for its library belongs firmly to the then Tinsley Urban District Council.

Highfield

Highfield

In 1876 ‘twin buildings’, splendid and solidly Victorian, were opened in Highfield and Upperthorpe.  They were designed by E Mitchell Gibbs, who was the University of Sheffield architect.  Highfield, on London Road, is still in the library business, sharing premises with a children’s centre. Today the building looks a little tired outside but inside is bright and cheerful open-plan.  Connected to the library is a substantial house for the librarian, which may indicate the council’s aspirations for its relatively new library service.

The 2004 Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield describes the ‘Florentine Renaissance style’ of this Grade II-listed building.  Over the main entrance are carved figures representing Literature and Medical Science and a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: ‘That there should one man die ignorant who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy…’  On Sheffield Forum here, PlainTalker says: ‘I love the inscription over the doorway…I find it touching and inspiring. I spent many happy hours in Highfield library as a child/young woman. I love books and love reading.’  Reading Sheffield interviewee David Flather remembered taking his wife Sally, who used a wheelchair, to Highfield: ‘…she’d go around in her wheelchair and collect a dozen books or so…they looked after her very well…’

Hillsborough

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In A Yorkshire Boyhood (1983), Roy Hattersley described the library as:

‘our constant joy…part of our lives, a home from home housed in what had once been a mansion owned by a local worthy’.

Reading Sheffield interviewees Noel Housley, Bob Webster* and Joan* all remember using it, with Noel Housley saying it was a ‘very nice old house’.

Hillsborough House (on Middlewood Road) was built in 1779 by Thomas Steade (1728-1793).  The Steade family’s lands apparently included not only the present park but also the land on which Hillsborough Stadium stands.  The estate changed hands several times until 1890, when the council bought the house, stables and surrounding land.  There was talk about turning the house into a museum or gallery but in 1906 it opened as a branch library and the surrounding land became Hillsborough Park. The house is Grade II-listed and looks well in its mature parkland, although the single-story, municipal additions – necessary for the library’s functioning – are a pity and the separate stable block, also listed, is in a very sorry state.

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Totley

Old Totley Library

In late 1939, Sheffield Council was preparing for war.  Junior libraries, for example, were closed as part of evacuation plans and small, part-time libraries for adults set up in some areas.  But by Christmas 1939, when the expected air raids had not happened, things returned to normal.  This meant that a small branch library could be opened at 288A Abbeydale Road South, in Totley, a suburb which had become part of Sheffield in 1935. Ironically, the tobacconist next door apparently ran a small private lending library.  The building was previously an electricity showroom/sub-station (and perhaps a bank) and is now a hairdresser’s salon. It looks odd – windowless, like a shoebox, but with an elaborate stone garland on one wall, carved by stonemason Horatio Taylor who helped build All Saints’ Church in Dore.  As a library, it was said to be long, dark and badly-lit but without it there would have been no service in Dore and Totley.  The building rent was £15 a year.

Totley Library

It was not until 1974 that matters improved, at a cost of around £50,000.  The library was moved to a new building at its present location at 205 Baslow Road, on the site of a plant nursery.  This has much more light and is no doubt much more flexible, although it too resembles a box – this time, an egg-box.  The architects are said to have been influenced by the shape of Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre, constructing two octagonal rooms for children and adults, connected by an administrative area.  Since October 2014, Totley Library has been run by volunteers as an ‘associate library’, following the council’s plans to close it as an austerity measure.

Manor

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Manor Library, serving a large housing estate, is a pioneer and another sign of the council’s aspirations.  It somehow has a look of both the 1930s and the 1950s.  This is no surprise as it was started in 1938, mothballed during the war (when it was used for civil defence) and finally opened in 1953, at a cost of about £30,000.  Its opening was part of a postwar plan for 11 new branches to serve both new estates and older suburbs.  It was the country’s first modular library: that is, the interior walls were kept to a minimum to allow maximum flexibility in layout.  Glass screens and doors meant visitors could see all the public parts of the building from any point within it.  The foyer was panelled in walnut and sycamore and the furniture made of oak and beech.  It still looks very well today.  Much More Than Books, Sheffield’s history of its libraries, talks about its ‘sense of its spaciousness and dignity’.

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Reading Sheffield interviewee Margaret Young’s first job after school was as a trainee in the new library.  For Margaret (centre above), it was a fulfilling career and happy time:

‘…we were very, very efficient, we were well-taught and we were all very proud of what we did. And very busy when the Manor Branch Library opened, particularly on Saturdays, extremely busy. So we all got on together, I think you had to do really.’

What do the stories of these four branches say about Sheffield’s libraries overall?  The individual branches seem to have little in common.  They are in different parts of the city.  One is now a community library, while the others remain in the hands of the council.  Three of the five buildings were designed as libraries, but erected over a 90-year period and so look very different, while the fourth is a historic house in the Adam style and the last an odd little building chosen because it was available.  Where these buildings come together is in the council’s ambition for this public service and the commitment of the people working in them.

  

Do you have any memories of libraries in Sheffield, particularly Totley, Manor, Hillsborough or Highfield? Get in touch below and let us know.

* Bob’s and Joan’s stories will be published soon.

By Val Hewson