Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War

On 21 September 2018, Reading Sheffield’s chair, Mary Grover, gave a paper by her and Val Hewson at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Here is a summary of the paper, which you can read in full on our Research page.

 

The war impinged on the reading experiences of our interviewees in ways that often seem contradictory.

Access to books generally was limited by paper shortages, the lack of funds to buy new books, petrol rationing and the scarcity of new titles. In Sheffield too, children faced an extra barrier when, as a safety measure, the Council closed their libraries and moved the junior stock to suburban centres. Those away from home on active service were often forced to rely on the limited choice available through the NAAFI, described by our interviewee Peter as ‘all sorts of, what shall we say, blue books and very blue books’.

But in many ways the war enabled access to books previously unexplored and above all, sharpened intellectual curiosity as readers sought to understand the world that was breaking in upon them.

Take the case of Mary, aged 18 when the war started. Her record of all the books she read between 1936 and 1942 allows us to map both the transition from teenage to adult reading but also from reading for pleasure to a wider reading, often shaped by war. In 1936 and 1937, Mary indulged in P. G. Wodehouse, Beverley Nichols, Ian Hay and Edgar Wallace. By 1939, like many others, she is clearly reading to inform herself about the world beyond Sheffield and the war. Non-fiction like Deslisle Burns’ Democracy, its defects and advantages (1929) dominates her list.

For Mary and indeed most of our readers the quality and availability of public libraries were critical to their access to books. It was their good fortune that Sheffield Libraries were then in the guardianship of a remarkably gifted librarian. In wartime Joseph Lamb oversaw the opening of one branch library and 12 suburban ‘library centres’, and was able to acquire publishers’ stocks at nominal prices. His libraries supported not only the serious interest of borrowers like Mary in the war and the world beyond, but also the general need of Sheffield’s residents for distraction and entertainment in the home, with novels like Gone with the Wind and special guides on handicrafts and games. By the end of the war borrowing had risen to unprecedented heights.

The war seems to have isolated our readers but simultaneously to have increased their passion for books and the value they set upon their reading. As our reader Judith said:

I remember running up Eyre Street with Sheila Thompson so she could join the library. They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name … and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were.

On the BBC: ‘The more we read the more we live.’

The more we read the more we live. The better our reading is the better our living is sure to be. Food, clothing and shelter are requisites of life, but reading is necessary for complete living.

This sentiment – authoritative, clear and aspirational – is at the heart of a talk given on the BBC’s first Sheffield station, 6FL, on Thursday 27 January 1927.[i] The speaker was the city librarian, Richard J Gordon (1881-1966), and the broadcast was for a series entitled ‘How Sheffield’s City Departments Work’. As a whole, this sounds worthy, even dull, but Gordon, who had, a colleague said[ii], ‘an innate flair for saying and doing the right thing at the right time,’ is fascinating for what he tells us about the ambition felt for public libraries by the people who ran them in the early twentieth century.

Sheffield was lucky to have Richard Gordon. A ‘dynamic person who believed so passionately in the civilising mission of public libraries’, he ‘added lustre to his profession,’ say his obituaries.[iii] His lifetime contribution was recognised when he was chosen as President of the Library Association in 1947.

The converted music hall on Surrey St, which served as half of the central library in Gordon’s day. It was inconvenient and unsafe. (Photo:{{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Gordon arrived in Sheffield in 1921, when the public libraries were stagnating (a strong word but the one used in the official history[iv]). Sheffield had made a good start: in 1856 it was the first city in Yorkshire to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act allowing corporations to establish free libraries. For the next half century, things went quite well, with central lending and reference libraries and  branches opening. But then the service declined, to the extent that in 1920 the Council shamefacedly asked the chief librarian of Leeds to assess the problems and recruited, from 60 applicants, the chief librarian of Rochdale, Richard Gordon, to rebuild the service. The challenge is set out in City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956:

… the bookstocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind … What little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding… The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally… The staff … had been actively discouraged from attempting to qualify in their profession …

A letter to the Sheffield Independent in April 1920 said that the libraries were a ‘disgrace to a city of such importance’ and blamed the ‘Council’s absurd policy of parsimony’.

By 1927, when he spoke on the radio, Gordon was revolutionising the libraries. New books were bought and old, worn-out ones removed. The staff were re-organised and new systems designed. Open access shelving was introduced.[v] Information and publicity campaigns were initiated. The central libraries were reformed, five branch libraries attractively renovated, a children’s branch library opened, the school library service expanded and plans laid for a much-needed, new central library building.

Walkley library – where Gordon opened a  children’s library in 1924, which was used by many of our readers.

Highfield Branch Library, renovated and re-opened in 1923.

These achievements are evident in Gordon’s radio talk: ‘Much has been done to make the libraries worthy of their name, but much more remains to be done.’ More importantly, Gordon used the opportunity to make the case for reading and for public libraries. (Although our situation today is very different, his arguments still have merit). Libraries were, he said, ‘community schools where all may increase and supplement their education’, although their contribution to the ‘national educational structure is but, as yet, dimly recognised.’ An experienced local authority man, Gordon pointed out that the libraries were good value (11d – £4.70 today – per head, less than in other northern cities), offering ‘[information] freely placed at the service of the public; competent counsel in the choice of books; [and] where to look for the required information…’ He aimed, he said, to ‘attract and cultivate readers’, including children, and to anticipate and supply people’s needs:

If we have not the book wanted don’t hesitate to say so. If you do not tell us what you want, we are only able to guess at your requirements …

He went on:

Please do not mistake my meaning regarding this, I mean requirements of books of real value, and not merely of recreational interest.

‘Books of real value’ is an important phrase for Gordon and other librarians of the day. Free libraries were part of the great social reforms of the mid-19th century, founded with a view to the improvement, the self-improvement, of the working classes. Reading for pleasure and reading fiction (particularly the cheaper sort) were frowned upon. By the 1920s, librarians had mellowed somewhat, but the focus on education remained, along with the feeling that ratepayers’ money must be spent on the worthwhile, rather than the entertaining. So Gordon said:

[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should happen to be the work of a novelist of admitted quality. In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

And:

Too often the public library is only thought and spoken of in connection with the reading of novels, and without detracting in the slightest degree from the value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading, yet I would emphasise the contribution it offers to the raising of the standard of general intelligence which is the library’s greatest value to the city.

Gordon concluded: ‘I believe the libraries have something for everybody … I hope many more will … find pleasure and profit in [them].’ The broadcast was clearly part of a communications strategy, aiming to draw Sheffielders in. There were also updates in the local press and trade papers, public lectures, reading lists, exhibitions and slogans such as ‘The Library exists for Books, Information, and Service’. But it seems likely that Gordon was also talking to his employers, the Council. He emphasised the benefits of the library service, including as a means of profiting local industry, and he talked confidently of growth: ‘…when our library service expands, as it must expand…’ A library, he said, is ‘books made productive’.

1927 was to be Gordon’s last year in Sheffield. Shortly after the broadcast, he started a new job as chief librarian in Leeds. There were press suggestions that Sheffield had itself to blame, as the salary offered was well below that of other northern cities. He stayed in Leeds for the rest of his career, and was much praised for its libraries. In Sheffield, he was succeeded by his equally energetic and insightful deputy, Joseph Lamb, whose work is explored elsewhere on this website.

Gordon presided over an increase in borrowing in Sheffield from 711,000 books in 1921 to over 1.5 million in 1926.  His friend Lamb wrote of him: ‘when he was in charge libraries became marvellously alive’.[vi]

 

[i] The script can be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

[ii] Obituary by J P Lamb, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.418.

[iii] Obituaries by E Hargreaves and A E Burbridge respectively, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.420.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield, 1856-1956 (Sheffield, Libraries Galleries and Museums Committee, 1956).

[v] Open access, i.e. shelving accessible to the public, is almost universal today. In the early twentieth century, closed access, where books are chosen from catalogues and brought to borrowers by staff, was the norm.

[vi] From (ii) above.

‘A really brawny old building’ – Sheffield’s Central Library

But I remember going with my mum to the main library. It was quite daunting because it’s a really brawny old building isn’t it? I think it’s a lovely building … (Judith G)

… when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning. … I think it’s a fine building that is.’ (Ted L)

Sheffield Central Library

Here is Sheffield’s Grade II-listed Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, now over 80 years old.  In his 1959 West Riding volume, Pevsner was concerned that the building was:

… in an incomprehensibly insignificant position.  However, the plans for a civic centre, not yet in a final form at the time of writing, are to incorporate the building and provide a better context for it.

The 2004 Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield says rather more.  The ‘dignified Beaux-Arts’ Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, ‘steel-framed, faced with Portland stone, with giant Ionic pilasters and a high parapet wall around the top-lit galleries’ and ‘oak fittings with restrained Art Deco details’ were ‘intended to form one side of a grand civic square, first proposed in 1924 by Patrick Abercrombie’s Civic Survey as the setting for civic offices, law courts and a college’. This square, never built, was presumably where the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens are now.  The result was that the library was ‘never really seen to best advantage’.

This is true enough, and the situation is made worse now by the brutality of Arundel Gate just below the library.  This major thoroughfare cruelly – Pevsner might have said ‘incomprehensibly’ – exposes the back of the building.  At one time, there was a plan for a ‘Peace’ mural by Edward Bawden here but sadly it came to nothing.

Sheffield-city-library-2016

The library and gallery, designed by City Architect W G Davies in collaboration with Joseph Lamb, the City Librarian, were opened in July 1934 by the Duchess of York (better known to us as The Queen Mother).

They were a reason for civic pride.  Local diarist G R Vine was among many invited to view them and wrote: ‘Magnificent! The arrangements are wonderful.’  There was considerable coverage in local papers, with the Sheffield Telegraph saying in a special feature that the building ‘resembles no other in the country’.  .

Home of Sheffield's first public library

Home of Sheffield’s first public library (public domain)

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen (public domain – {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

The old and woefully inadequate central library had been on more or less the same site in Surrey Street, housed in a former Mechanics’ Institute and an old music hall next to it.  Neither could be re-modelled or expanded.  They perfectly illustrated the poor condition of Sheffield’s library service in the early 20th century.  ‘Revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally’, with dust ‘nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years’ and staff ‘long used to repression and neglect’, says the library’s official history (p.29).  The new building, which in the end cost £141,700, symbolised the reformed, improved and expanded service and, less tangibly, cultural and educational aspirations.  It housed lending, junior, reference, science and commercial libraries, a basement stack, study cubicles for students, rooms for archives and special collections, offices and staff facilities and a theatre/lecture hall.

The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath … (Ted L)

Over the next 20 or so years, Sheffield City Libraries became nationally respected (for example, for its scientific and technological information exchange scheme for local businesses).  Issues rose from 1.2 million in 1922-23 to 3.7 million in 1945-46.   This was due largely to the imagination and expertise of the two City Librarians of the period, Richard J Gordon (1921 – 1927) and Joseph P Lamb (1927 – 1956) and a committed Council committee.

But all this success might never have happened as the Council was originally uneasy about this major project at an estimated cost of £95,000.  Happily, one of their number, Alderman J G Graves, offered to help.  John George Graves (1866–1945) was a pioneer of the mail order business and a local benefactor.  The original plan had been for a library alone but in 1929 Graves offered a generous donation if a gallery was added:

… I am willing to defray the entire cost of the Art Gallery Section, and also to contribute £10,000 to the cost of the Free Library portion, making altogether a contribution of £30,000  …

Graves donated part of his art collection to the gallery, where it can still be viewed.  The librarians and Council committee had doubts, as the gallery significantly cut down the library’s space, but it was too good an offer to miss, and so Sheffield got its new library.

Even so, the depression of the 1930s saw cuts in book and publicity budgets and issues fell accordingly for some years.  The official history of Sheffield Libraries says sharply: ‘so much easier is it to destroy than to build’.  (Words worth bearing in mind today perhaps.)

The library was fortunate in World War II.  The worst air raids, known as the Sheffield Blitz, were on 12 and 15 December 1940* and there were huge fires across the city.  The building was at one point ‘bracketed in lines of flame from the Moor and High Street’ (Raiders over Sheffield, the official history of the Sheffield Blitz).  But the damage was relatively light – windows blown out and, more seriously, a long crack across the marble floor of the entrance hall, caused by a bomb in nearby Fitzalan Square.

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Today, the building is now showing its age a little.  Library services have changed a lot since the 1930s, and so layouts and systems have altered.  Funding is still, of course, an issue – today more so than for many years.  So it is interesting to reflect on those 1930s aspirations, revealed in the fine carvings by local stonemasons, Alfred and William Tory, on the outside of the building.  As the 2004 Pevsner guide says:

… around the main entrance medallions representing Literature, Music, Drama, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Mathematics, Chemistry and Astronomy. High up on the splayed corner a figure of Knowledge holds the ankh and asp to represent the choice between good and evil.

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-7

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-3

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-2

And as a library user said:

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. (Diane H)

 

* 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured and 40,000 made homeless.

Crisis reading: Sheffield Libraries in 1938-39

In 1938-39, the book most requested in Sheffield Libraries was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Seventy-five years on, this comes as a surprise.  But in the context of the time and the role of a public library it makes sense: people turned to their local library to learn about, to understand, the awful international situation.

Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf (public domain)

Events in 1938 and 1939

In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria.  Then, prompted by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia began agitating for self-government and in September, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a third of Czech territory.  On 30 September the Treaty of Munich was signed by Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory to Germany.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was hailed as peacemaker by many on his return from Germany, appearing with the King and Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony.  But he was condemned by others as an appeaser – the reputation he still has.  On 1 October Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  Next, on 9 November, came the violence of Kristallnacht, with hundreds of Jews killed, thousands more imprisoned and their property damaged or destroyed.  Soon Jews in the Third Reich were forced to wear the Star of David and their civil rights were removed.

During 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and made territorial demands on Lithuania and Poland.  Hitler’s attacks on the Jews continued.  On 31 March, Britain and France, which had abandoned Czechoslovakia the year before, agreed to defend Poland in the case of invasion.  In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Books in Demand

Sheffield Libraries’ 82nd annual report, for 1938-39, discussed people’s response to the international situation.

  • Mein Kampf ‘topped the list of reserves in every library’. Next came Guns or Butter (1938) by  diplomat and journalist Robert Bruce Lockhart, which had as a subtitle ‘War Countries and Peace Countries of Europe Revisited’; and Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed, who was anti-Semitic but said to be wary of Hitler.  Also in demand were: Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Kurt Ludecke’s I Knew Hitler (1937) and Madeleine Kent’s I Married a German.  Gunther was a US foreign correspondent based in Europe and Ludecke, a Nazi supporter who had fallen out with Hitler.  I cannot discover much about Madeleine Kent, but the title of her book sounds rather sensationalist.
  • Sheffield Libraries routinely recorded non-fiction borrowed by category. The annual report speculated that the sharp increases in the categories of politics, travel and history* were due to the international situation.  Almost 10,000 more books were read on politics, from 47,614 in 1937-38 to 57,094 in 1938-39 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent; and travel and history were each up by about 4,000.  The total issue that year was, by the way, 2.7 million and it was estimated that 18 per cent of the Sheffield population had library tickets.

Apparently it did not prove easy to meet readers’ demands:

The demand for ‘crisis’ books has, in fact, been rather embarrassing. The pace of events makes such books quickly out of date, and the sum available for new books does not allow of their being bought in the quantity necessary to satisfy more than a fraction of the demand for them during their life of immediate appeal.  Moreover, it is a library’s function to select those of merit, and it is not easy to separate these quickly from the hurried ‘pot-boilers’ which have appeared on the market.

There was a particular problem with Mein Kampf, and the resolution shows how responsibly  Sheffield Libraries took the business of meeting readers’ needs.  The German edition was available in the Central Library but there was at first no full English translation.  There was an abridged version and ‘an attempt was made to supplement [this with pamphlets from the Friends of Europe] summarising and commenting on the main points of the full German edition’.  A note was inserted in this short version explaining that it did ‘not give an adequate representation of Hitler’s views … It is, however, useful as a guide to some of his ideas’.  The Sheffield annual report, probably written by the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, comments drily:

The shorter English edition is still on service, as readers may prefer to read this, in conjunction with the pamphlets, rather than attempt the 560 pages of the full translation, which is a formidable task to a reader with a clear mind – not merely because of its length.

We do not know how great the demand for ‘crisis books’ was, although it must have been significant to be noted for the annual report.  Other than the borrowing figures by non-fiction category, there is no indication of how many people reserved these books and we know nothing about who they were.  It is interesting that the annual report goes on to note:

But the third place in lending library records of reserves was held by Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue, which last year topped the list.  Next were Evens’s Out with Romany Again, Mackenzie’s Windsor Tapestry, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Haldane’s A.R.P.

Out with Romany Again

The Stamp Catalogue was probably a standard in lists of reserves.  Windsor Tapestry (1938) was a study of the new Duke of Windsor by novelist Compton Mackenzie.  In 1938, Edward VIII must still have been of great interest, as perhaps was T E Lawrence, who had been killed in 1935.  Out with Romany Again (1938) was the latest book from GB Evens, aka Romany, a popular broadcaster on the countryside.  Haldane’s ARP [Air Raid Precautions] was an analysis of stress based on his experience of air raids during the Spanish Civil War, and interest in it might perhaps be linked to the developing crisis.

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind (public domain)

Fiction was, of course, also in demand.  Most of the books popular in 1938-39 are solidly middlebrow and they and/or their authors are almost all remembered by our Reading Sheffield interviewees. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was still the book to be seen with, not least with all the excitement about the casting of Scarlett O’Hara for the December 1939 movie.  Also sought after were: A J Cronin’s The Citadel; Winifred Holtby’s South Riding; Francis Brett Young’s Dr Bradley Remembers; Kenneth Roberts’s North-West Passage; Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; Leonora Thornber’s Portrait in Steel; Howard Spring’s O, Absolom!; Philip Gibbs’s This Nettle, Danger; Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth; and Cronin’s The Stars Look Down.

The interest in Les Misérables, the annual report speculates, was because of the BBC’s 1939 serialization, while Portrait in Steel was ‘undoubtedly due to the book’s local associations … referred to in the local press’.  It was set in Stelborough, a thinly disguised Sheffield.  South Riding had local associations too.  Sheffield Libraries might also have noted that: films of The Citadel and South Riding were released in 1938 and The Good Earth in 1937#; and that Pearl S Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The resulting publicity no doubt influenced these choices too.

Sir Philip Gibbs’ book, This Nettle, Danger, takes us back to international problems.  Perhaps the City Librarian had not read it or he might have included it in his crisis list too, as it is a fictionalized account of Munich.  The title, from Henry V, was famously quoted by Chamberlain on return from Germany.  Gibbs apparently felt that Chamberlain had been right in 1938, but also that the Munich settlement was probably only temporary.

Today’s crises

Do we turn to libraries today, to understand international crises?  Are people asking for books now about Syria and ISIS?  Library memberships are falling, while books are cheaper and more available (including online) than in the ‘30s.  And we have: rolling news, with instant updates and expert analysis; politicians who are (generally) gifted communicators never far from a microphone; and social media and even citizen journalism.  So the answer is: perhaps yes, we still look to libraries – but not to anything like the same extent as in 1938.

* In full, these categories were: politics, economics and social science; travel and description; and history.

# North West Passage, Rebecca and The Stars Look Down were all filmed in 1940.