Kathleen Fidler (image by courtesy of her niece)
The children invited must have felt special. I imagine them wearing their Sunday best and being carefully checked by their mothers before they left home, probably with family escort. They would have taken with them the invitation – formal, white pasteboard with the city coat of arms and a rather nice font.
Here are the words of the invitation (which is filed today in the local history section of the library) in case you cannot read it clearly from the image.
The Chairman and Members of the Libraries, Art Galleries and Museums Committee request the pleasure of the company of …………. at a meeting of members of the Hillsborough Junior Library which is to be addressed by Miss Kathleen Fidler, the well-known author and broadcaster of “Brydon” and “Mr Simster” stories, on Monday, 9th April, 1951, at 6.30pm.
The Lady Mayoress of Sheffield (Mrs Keeble Hawson) will preside.
Oh yes, the children would have been on their best behaviour in front of a famous author, the Lady Mayoress, the chairman of the Libraries Committee, the City Librarian and the local press.
The Sheffield Telegraph reported the visit the day after. There were apparently 80 boys and girls present (a number that suggests very few refused the invitation). Girls outnumbered boys three to one, and they were all ‘hand-picked for their receptivity’ by the librarians, the Telegraph remarked rather repressively. Flowers were of course presented to the Lady Mayoress and Kathleen Fidler, by 13 year-old Anne Beresford and nine year-old Paula Mercer respectively. Miss Fidler read for about 40 minutes from the ‘domestic adventures of the famous Brydon family and a charming fairy story’. These were evidently much appreciated as, afterwards, most of the children besieged Miss Fidler with requests for autographs (this was the day of autograph books), and she ‘painstakingly signed every one. It took 20 minutes’, said the Telegraph, hence the title above.
The Telegraph explained that the visit to Sheffield had a ‘pronounced family flavour’. Kathleen Fidler brought along to Sheffield her husband, James Goldie, and her 79 year-old father, Francis Fidler, who lived in Sheffield as a boy. They were met by her sister, who was married to Frank Pinion, the headmaster of local Woodhouse Grammar School, and a cousin who lived in Woodseats.
All in all, this visit seems to have been treated rather singularly. Sheffield Libraries ran events often – exhibitions, story-tellings, lectures, discussion groups etc – and Miss Fidler was not by any means the only author to feature. But why did the Lady Mayoress and various Council dignitaries attend? Perhaps it was to promote the Council’s library services, or was it the Fidler family connection, or just someone who knew someone? (It was by the way a busy time for the Lady Mayoress. The next Monday she and her husband played host at the Town Hall to Winston and Clementine Churchill. Winston was Leader of the Opposition, but became Prime Minister a few months later, in October 1951. That visit made the front page of the Telegraph.) At all events Kathleen Fidler’s visit to Sheffield is perhaps not that different from today’s book-selling strategies: although they may travel faster and do more literary festivals, authors still do readings and sign things.
Kathleen Fidler was a popular children’s author of the period. Sixty years afterwards, she was remembered by one of the Reading Sheffield interviewees, Sheila Edwards:
…I joined two libraries because I enjoyed reading so much, I had a subscription to Boots library and I went to the Central Library in town … and I just read masses of books; I can’t remember what they all were now but, there were one or two I remember: Noel Streatfeild- I think she wrote books about ballet, Kathleen Fidler, another one called Malcolm but I can’t just remember what his surname was now…those were the main ones I remember…
Kathleen Fidler was born in England in 1899, trained as a teacher and rose to be a headmistress. After marrying in 1930, she moved to Scotland and eventually settled in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh, where, just like Sheffield, she often read to children in the local library. Like many others, she started her writing career with stories for her own children. In all she produced about 80 books (more than one a year), including series about two families, the Brydons and the Deans, historical novels like The Desperate Journey (1964) and animal stories such as Haki the Shetland Pony (1968). Books from Scotland notes: ‘Her work has been praised for the depth and detail of research into the background of her stories.’
Some stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Children’s Hour. For example, in 1946 there was ‘The Mysterious Mr. Simister: a school mystery play in three parts by Kathleen Fidler’. (The cast list includes Gordon Jackson, then in his early 20s but later to become famous as Mr Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs.) Kathleen Fidler contributed to the much-loved BBC children’s programme, Jackanory, and wrote many schools programmes for the BBC and was ‘one of the pioneers of BBC Schools Broadcasting’.
After her death in 1980, the Kathleen Fidler Award was instituted for children’s literature, for previously unpublished authors of novels for children aged 8 to 12, alongside the prestigious Carnegie and Kate Greenaway prizes. I haven’t been able to discover more than a couple of the winners: in 1984 Janet Collins for her novel, Barty; and Cathy MacPhail for Run, Zan, Run in 1994. The award closed in 2002.
Kathleen Fidler is clearly less well-known today than back in 1951, although some of her books are still available, as reprints, second-hand copies or e-books. Why this fading? A novel like The Desperate Journey, about twins, Kirsty and David, who lose their home through the notorious 18th century Highland Clearances, remains enjoyable. If there is not much subtlety, the characters are nevertheless vivid and there is a very strong sense of place and an exciting storyline. But of course, while historical and animal stories are always popular, she wrote no space saga or fantasy novels about attractive vampires.
Her contemporary novels about the Deans and the Brydons may just be too dated, the Brydons for example being about a family evacuated to the countryside during WWII. There are at least nineteen stories about them. The Brydons Stick at Nothing, a pacey story about a series of local burglaries, is presumably fairly typical. The Brydons’ world – the Lancashire countryside – is conventional, comfortable and secure (and it is heartening that the children firmly reject the suggestion of adults that local working-class children may be responsible for the burglaries). The children are, in the classic way, ‘nice’, middle-class and largely free from adult supervision. The Brydon girls appear confident but tend to do what their protective brothers tell them. To today’s children the lives of the Brydons and their friends must seem as far from their own lives as the lives of Victorian children.
Kathleen Fidler was clearly a great success on the day of her visit to Hillsborough Library. I wonder whether she had a lasting influence on the children who met her. A book read in childhood can seize the imagination and change everything afterwards forever.
Have you read Kathleen Fidler’s books? Do you remember her visit to Sheffield, or any similar events in local libraries? Please let us know.
By Val Hewson
Access Sheila Edwards’ transcript and audio here.