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.

 

Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

The Reading Journey of John Y

By Mary Grover

There was just room for a boy, his bed and a bookcase. In the early thirties there were few boys in Sheffield who were able to go to sleep looking at a full set of naval encyclopaedias and a set of hymn books. But John’s family had rich connections. His father had been an engine room artificer on the HMS Achilles so ‘he must have got some books somewhere to study or do some studying’.  And then he returned to Hadfield’s works and spent his days grappling

with these huge castings and things like that, yet his hobby was repairing watches. So I’m thinking he had some, he must have had some reading knowledge about things like that.

And then there was the Wesleyan Reformed church on John’s mother’s side. Many of his mother’s relatives had been ministers. The book that John has read ‘more than anything’  is a book he came across, by accident, at a friend’s house: One Hundred Years of the Wesleyan Church, published in 1949, a book that contains an etching of  his great grandfather.

IndSS-BromageT

Few of us have ancestors who made it into history books. Stories of his grandparents and meetings with Methodists from all over the country, gave John a fascination with the way events could be mapped and our personal journeys directed. The one book he would never be without is a ‘road map’.

But, having said … ‘a road map’, there are a lot of maps, or books that can act as maps if you want directions in life. And also which way not to go, you know.

map-derbyshire

Hymn books also served this mapping function, with the added advantage that the words remain when precious information has slipped away.

Why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular: ‘I am not skilled to understand/What God had willed and God has planned/I only know at God’s right hand/Stands one who is my saviour.’ And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.

Buildings too ‘stoke up the memory’. The Sheffield church that John attended is now a mosque but when John enters one of Derbyshire’s two remaining Wesleyan Reform churches ‘the memories flood up there’.

Because John has memorised so many hymns, hymn books are not the ones he has at hand.

My favourite book, if you like, is the Derbyshire street guide, because this is Derbyshire, and you can find your way all around Derbyshire by this street guide. It’s the most well-thumbed book I’ve ever had, you know; too soon does it fall to pieces and I have to purchase a new one.

During the war John’s mother worked at The Book Room, the Wesleyan Reform Bookshop in Sheffield. It was to his mother that John feels he owes much of his absorption in history. He feels that his mother would have been a fine minister herself.

John met Meg, his wife, at the Manor Library where Meg had been one of the first librarians. I interviewed them together and he looked guiltily at Meg, as he recalls the use he made of the book case that stood at the foot of his bed when he was a boy. He uses it not only to connect with his relatives but to create a hiding place were they could not enter.

The other thing about the bookcase was one I probably shouldn’t admit to, because I know how Meg is, that I used to create a secret cupboard in here, in amongst the books. And I made a door and pasted the ends of books, the title pages, just to hide it and confuse you. Desecration I suppose it was, of a book.

Access John Y’s transcript and audio here

Shirley Ellins’ Reading Journey

One of Shirley’s first memories of books begins at floor level – with the small, wooden bookshelf in the dining room which contained her mother’s library books.  There were just 4 or 5 novels, whose titles she spelled out when she had learned to read (before she was 6 in 1942), but whose contents she ignored.  These library books ‘came and went’, and Shirley didn’t open them.  Much more to her taste was The House at Pooh Corner which she remembers – again from the floor – where she fell, helpless with laughter, from her miniature chair as her mother read to her.

shirley-ellins-painting

But there are many bookshelves in Shirley’s reading journey.  The three shelves of the bookcase in the family living room contained books belonging to both her parents, ‘our personal books’, some of which she read – reference works like Arthur Mee’s Thousand Heroes, biography like Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies, her mother’s complete Shakespeare, won from Crookesmoor School for ‘Progress’, and her parents’ tune books from the Methodist church.  As she grew older, her own books – given to her by family and friends at birthdays and Christmas – were added to these shelves, for reading was a downstairs activity, not allowed in her bedroom, which was for sleeping – ‘lights off’.

‘Half a recollection of a bookshelf in a classroom’ in Shirley’s junior school reveals The Pigeons of Leyden, a historical novel about the siege of Leiden, a book which inspired her at a very young age to become a history teacher.  Then there were trips every Saturday by the ‘ladies of the household’ – Shirley, her mother and grandmother – to Sheffield’s Central Library, where the children’s and adult libraries provided Shirley with shelves of Biggles, Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, and the historical novels of G. K. Henty, D. K. Broster, and the huge output of Baroness Orczy.

At the same time, a whole room of bookshelves gave her pleasure at her secondary school – High Storrs School – where she would go to the school library and ‘sit and read there, a bit for pleasure, before I had to go down to the classroom’.  There she read the Greek myths, and pursued an interest in poetry, Kipling in particular.   Her taste was shaped by exposure to the school’s set texts, some of which she ‘mercifully seem[s] to have forgotten’, while some, like Paradise Lost, offered her rewards she would have missed had they not been required reading.  But also chance played its part in moulding her preferences – catching chicken pox, for example, meant she had the leisure to read ‘the whole of Jane Austen, one after the other, to take my mind off the itching’.

At Bedford College, where Shirley read History, she managed to keep borrowing novels from the library and buying poetry – Donne, Kipling and Betjeman were favourites.  And as a teacher of history, she filled her bookshelves with history books, and also history and guidebooks related to the holidays abroad she started to take now she could afford it.

shirley-ellins-0619

Later, Shirley’s marriage was ‘a marriage of two minds and the marriage of two libraries too when we got together’.  So her bookshelves, like those of her parents,  continued to tell the story of interests pursued, preferences arrived at, and choices made. And there will be many of her students, in Sheffield and elsewhere, whose own bookshelves now bear the imprint and influence of Shirley’s voracious reading and her generous life as a teacher.

by Loveday Herridge

Hazel’s Reading Journey

Hazel was born in Sheffield in 1929, one of four children.  Her father died when Hazel was very young and her mother brought the family up.  Hazel worked as a seamstress at a shirtmaker’s.  She married in the 1950s and had two daughters. 

HazelH01

Hazel has no memories of being read to and certainly had no books in the house. ‘There were no books, no. No money for anything.’ Hazel’s father had died when Hazel was two leaving her mother with two young children and another on the way.  Her mother struggled to feed the four of them so there were no extras. The generosity of two relatives in particular kept the family fed. ‘But we had a good childhood, friendly, good neighbours; they weren’t intrusive at all.’

School too was a happy experience. At the Junior School there was Enid Blyton in abundance. ‘We loved school. It wasn’t a bit strict and things like that, it was lovely. Everybody wanted to go to school.’

Hazel’s older sister, Cynthia, probably helped Hazel find her way down from Wadsley to Hillsborough Library, but after she was eight Hazel made her way there herself. Hillsborough is one of the most elegant of Sheffield’s Libraries, a late eighteenth century house set in parkland. In his autobiography, A Yorkshire Boyhood, the MP, Roy Hattersley, who also grew up in the Hillsborough area in the 1930s, described it as ‘our constant joy. It was part of our lives, a home from home’,

20150717_132805

During her teens the one book that Hazel recalls as a constant favourite was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – not the film because the family had no money to go to films, but the book. But by the time Hazel was a teenager her mother had enough money to buy a few books.

Somebody came round to the door and she ordered these books and she paid for ‘em weekly. She did do well ’cus she didn’t have cash in them days. We had these books and there was a collection.

Hazel obviously admired her mother’s ambition for her family and her success in supporting them, alone. However she wasn’t so keen when her mother mapped out her future when she was 14.

We had an interview at school and they asked us what we liked doing and of course I was shy and didn’t like saying anything. So mum chipped in. She always did because I were always backward at coming forward. “Well she likes sewing”. So they said, “Oh well, they want somebody at the shirt factory.” Well I came home furious. I didn’t want to make shirts! Oh I came home and I were angry, you know, “I’m not going there”.

However Hazel soon started work in a dressmaker’s in the affluent suburb of Broomhill, the workshop having being bombed out of the centre of town, and she never regretted the trade her mother had chosen for her.

With dressmaking came dancing which left little time for reading. Though Hazel read to her own children, personal reading became a pleasant memory rather than a present resource. However, the words that have remained her for ever are the poems that she learned at her secondary school, Wisewood. I met Hazel at the Wadsley exercise club, Slightly Sprightly, and interviewed a group of women from the club who had all been to Wisewood School. As children they had all lived within walking distance of Wadsley Common, still known for the richness of its dawn chorus and the wildness of the undergrowth that only half conceals the spoils from the ganister mines worked there until the 1940s.  Independently of Hazel, her three contemporaries did exactly the what Hazel did when I asked them if they had read any poetry at school. ‘Meg Merrilies,’ they exclaimed and embarked on a word-perfect performance of Keats’ poem.

Old Meg she was a gipsy;
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare
Full hard against the moon.

But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats o’ rushes,
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone!

 

By Mary Grover

Mavis’s Reading Journey

Mavis, born 18 January 1937.

Mavis is well travelled. From the age of five she walked, on her own, three quarters of a mile to school, sometimes getting a lift on one of the coal lorries as it left the weigh station where her father was manager. The weigh station was deliberately set apart from Tinsley colliery to guard against pilfering. Mavis could have taken the bus to school but because of her father’s job she was thought of as ‘posh’ and walked to avoid the bullying.

When Mavis got to nursery school at three or four she could already read. Yet, her parents being more on the maths side probably didn’t read to her much and they didn’t have any books in the house.

Well, they had three: the Bible; a book called Vigil which I thought was Virgil till I thought he couldn’t have been that bad and it turned out to be a book of prayers; and a Dorothy L Sayers murder mystery, and those were the only three books, with a dictionary, that they had in the house.

But a friend of the family, Auntie Vera, was a primary school teacher. She borrowed books from the school library for Mavis and left them with her for the week. The girl soon learned to decipher the words with the help of the pictures.

Between the ages of five and eleven Mavis went on regular visits to her father’s brother who was a headmaster two train rides away at Barnby Dunn, a village near Doncaster. With her mother working Mavis would often spend the holiday in the library of her uncle’s school.

And there were picture books, children’s books.  And he used to buy me books, often books which were much older than the age I was, and because I thought he knew what he was doing, if he bought it me and I found it hard, it must be my fault and I better make sure I could read it [laughing] because he would ask me about it when I saw him again ….His was the one book which triggered off lots of others.  He bought me, when I was about seven, he bought me a book of Greek myths.

mavis-garrattbw

Other relatives introduced her to other delights:

If went to my auntie’s I’d pick up her magazines. What was it?  The People’s Friend. And I would be as engrossed in The People’s Friend, I’m ashamed to say.  I was a bit omnivorous and unselective.

Mavis read everything, whatever she could get her hands on. When she got one of the highest 11+ passes in the city she attended Sheffield High School, another two stage journey. Her school friends came from all over the city and sometimes beyond the city boundaries so Mavis had few friends out of school. From 11 onwards her reading was extraordinarily varied.

It would be George Eliot one week [and] The Island of Adventure the next, or The Adventures of Scamp. … I had a horse phase, like all little girls, but I was reading quite a lot of adult fiction at the same time.  Especially as the stuff that I got lead on to was always available. You didn’t get a big queue for the next George Eliot whereas you did for the Enid Blytons.

Later on at the High School, she managed to take Friday afternoons off during the optional games periods and she would make her way, usually alone, to the Central Library. She remembers her first visit.

As I walked in – didn’t know quite know where to start – and started at the Ws. I found Hugh Walpole, Leo Walmsley and … I think accidentally someone had filed Warwick Deeping in the Ws and I read him and I just read others by those authors.

Perhaps the ease with which Mavis approached any kind of book, without fear or favour, made her a natural story-teller.

Funnily enough there was a little girl who used to read a lot who was on my dinner table when I was a third year. … She used to read quite widely for a little girl, I thought, and we used to play making up stories at the table, to while away the time when you’d eaten the first course and had got to wait till everybody finished to go and get the second, and you’d tell a story and stop, and the next one … And it was Margaret Drabble.  I’ve often thought, my goodness, no wonder she was a good storyteller, good at that game!

However, Mavis’s careless and carefree appetite for any kind of literature nearly cost her the chance to become the English teacher to whom so many children owe their delight in reading. When Mavis went up to Leeds University she had to make a train journey that she was anxious about. Would she miss her stop and end up in Scotland? To avoid getting lost in a book that might absorb her too fully, she snatched her mother’s copy of The Reader’s Digest magazine.  When she got to Leeds, the interviewer asked

“What did you read on the train?”  So I said “Readers’ Digest” and I saw this expression and I thought “Ah”.

Mavis quickly explained her the reasons for her reading choice and persuaded her interviewer that she was a serious enough student to do a degree in English Literature but after that I was aware that there were things you didn’t own up to but apart from magazines I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me.

Mavis's copy of Wordsworth

Mavis’s copy of Wordsworth

Listening to Mavis describe the lessons she taught all over the country: Harlow, Bolton, Kersley and Carlisle, I wished she could have been my English teacher. She created groups in which every member read a different book and shared her opinions with her friends. Alongside the necessary detailed analysis of a “set-book” these students absorbed Mavis’s delight in the range of literary journeys available to us all, her readiness to recognise the unknown and explore it.

When, at university, Mavis was temporarily abashed by how little she had learned at school about the Metaphysical poets, her response was characteristically matter of fact and entirely positive: “I realised that I had very large gaps which was a good thing to know”.

by Mary Grover

Access Mavis’s transcript and audio here 

The Reading Journey of Doreen Gill

Doreen grew up in Darnall, before the Sheffield Blitz, a hillside of terraced houses which served the workers in the steel works on the eastern side of Sheffield. In December of 1940, when Doreen was six years old, the family was bombed out of their home and they moved down, nearer the great corridor of steelworks in the Don Valley to Brightside. This was the first of many relocations.

When she was nine, Doreen’s mother died. Her father was fighting in Africa and was left with three children and no one to care for them.

 They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.

The three children were separated, Doreen going to live in a Children’s Home in Ripon, Yorkshire and her two brothers to one in Diss, Norfolk. When after three and a half years her father returned, with a Belgian wife, he gathered the family together again.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Throughout these early years, books were a constant. Doreen’s much younger brothers were twins so her mother did not have time to read to her but she “doesn’t ever remember not reading”. A great aunt lived near and her support for her mother enabled Doreen to find time to read. She thinks she might have read before she went to school because her father was a great reader and they did have books in the house.

But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

Before her mother died she used the library at Attercliffe, walking up the hill on her own to Attercliffe Common.

I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

No-one guided her choices.

They just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

Milly, Molly, Mandy, Anne of Green Gables and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind (‘not at five, though’). Her main reading time was a Sunday when she and her brothers weren’t allowed to play out. She can’t remember sharing her reading pleasures but her father approved her habit. Not so her mother.

If I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

So her bedroom became her reading space

I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!

Doreen can’t remember reading in the children’s home but while she was there she started at Ripon Grammar School and they were very keen on reading. She loved the school and went on to City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield when she returned home. There she read Shakespeare and poetry, learning lots by heart. Wordsworth’s On Westminster Bridge and Milton’s ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ still echo in her mind.

She got her O levels but had to leave school when she was 15. She would like to have stayed on; instead she went to work at Firth Brown Steels and continued reading during her lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’: Nevil Shute, Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays.

Sometimes her father would take his family to the Palace in Attercliffe.

I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Once she won some tickets to go to the Empire, probably from entering a competition from The Gloops Club, run by the local papers, The Telegraph and Star.

The Gloops Club had a badge, a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When Doreen got to City Grammar after the war, Sheffield Central Library was round the corner.

Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

But she constantly returned to Anne of Green Gables, never owning a copy but repeatedly taking it out of the library.

I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

Finding new authors she enjoyed was a matter of chance. Once she made a favourite, Dennis Wheatley, Shute or Allen Poe for example, she would read everything they wrote. Occasionally she would meet an author that seemed too difficult or too rubbishy but her instinct was to finish whatever she had started whether she liked the book or not.

Doreen’s church life has been thoroughly ecumenical. Her father was a Unitarian originally, her stepmother was a Catholic and Doreen was sent with her brothers to Attercliffe Methodist church on a Sunday. We recruited her to Reading Sheffield through an Anglican church on the south side of Sheffield. When I asked her if any of the books of the Bible was a favourite, she immediately replied.

Ruth, it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

Later on in her life Doreen’s reading life was shared, first with her children and now with a group of friends. The friends buy their books in charity shops and pass them round: Rebecca Tope, Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and Maureen Lee are all current favourites.

Doreen age 19 on a day out at Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen age 19. A day out in Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen has always been quietly persistent in finding time to read and light to read by. Neither of her two mothers encouraged her but she accepted that and outflanked them. After I had finished recording her memories I mentioned that one of our Sheffield readers had told us that she stopped reading when she started dancing. I asked Doreen whether that had been her experience. “Oh no,” she said, “You can read AND dance.”

by Mary Grover

Access Doreen’s transcript and audio here

Dorothy Latham’s Reading Journey

Dorothy was born in 1931 in Catcliffe, between Rotherham and Sheffield, and grew up there, attending Woodhouse Grammar School.  Dorothy became a civil servant, working in careers guidance and employment.  She married Derek, who ran his own plumbing and heating business and they had two sons.

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Even now I’m always reading, you know…

Always a passionate reader, Dorothy talked of reading in bed from childhood, on the bus to and from work and in the evenings while her husband pursued practical hobbies like joinery and repairing machinery.

I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses.  I mean you had a long journey sometimes…I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me.

But she was conscious of her reading tastes and interests changing over time. ‘I think you alter as you get older on what you like.’

Dorothy’s reading habit was inherited from her mother.  She recalled being told Rupert the Bear bedtime stories and then reading for herself: ‘…once I could read, you know, I just didn’t put them down’.  This included, you sense, reading to cope with the disruption of the Second World War, when Dorothy remembered standing in her garden and watching Sheffield being bombed in the middle of the night.

The first book Dorothy really loved was the ever-popular Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery.

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.

Within her family, books seemed to be a means of both enjoyment and self-improvement.  ‘You know my mother was always encouraging me…in that kind of life.’  Dorothy was unusual in her village in winning a scholarship to Woodhouse Grammar School.  There she was introduced, as children usually are, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and other classics.  ‘It was always the English that I was good at.’  Meanwhile the war made buying books and much else difficult, and so Dorothy and her mother often borrowed from the private Red Circle library: ‘…I was brought up in an ordinary household but somehow I got the best’.

As she grew older, the reading habit grew stronger.  Dorothy’s father was very protective of her, and she spent many evenings reading at home rather than going out.

It may sound strange but I was encouraged in…erm…I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he – he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.

Marriage did not stop Dorothy’s reading: ‘…when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did but I’ve always, always loved the reading’.  Her husband and mother-in-law were not much interested in books (indeed she thinks her husband was dyslexic), but her father-in-law was, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables, a ‘kindred spirit’.  He told her, for example, about finding a ‘wonderful book’ which she must read: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa.

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Dorothy sometimes made compromises between reading and looking after home and family:

…you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in, haven’t you?’

 

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Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son was an example: ‘Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic. I found it…it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down.’

By now L M Montgomery had been replaced in Dorothy’s favour by Emily and Charlotte Bronte.  She liked Jane Eyre but her favourite was Wuthering Heights. ‘Soooo romantic and now I just think: “oh, not so much”.’  The past was always interesting.  Dorothy liked history and so looked for classics like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and also lighter, historical novels by writers like Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, Baroness Orczy and Jean Plaidy.  But her reading was very wide.  She happily quoted: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine Cookson, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, P D James, Ellis Peters, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, Nicholas Monsarrat, Dennis Wheatley, Betty Neels, Arnold Bennett, A J Cronin, Nevil Shute, J B Priestley, Somerset Maugham and Howard Spring.

When it came to books vs television and/or film, Dorothy preferred books:

If I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film, I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same…I’ve always felt let down… [Filmmakers] don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances…

(Not that Dorothy disliked all adaptations: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Forsyte Saga all gave her a lot of enjoyment.)

Dorothy’s sight, hearing and mobility deteriorated as she got older and over time she relied more and more on the home library service and audiobooks.  ‘I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.’  She let others choose her books but she would give feedback: ‘…sometimes I say “oh I did like that” and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like’.  This did get her into trouble once when a friend picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be more explicit than she usually read.  ‘Phft do you like this stuff then?’ he said.  Dorothy had to explain how the book had been chosen without her looking at it.  Sadly she couldn’t recall the title or author, but she remembered it as ‘very, very embarrassing’.

This reliance on libraries throughout her life gave Dorothy strong views about their value.

‘I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library… I thought it was disgusting…and they said “Well, you can go into town” and I thought I’d come here because I was disabled and I thought no library! I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.’

After years and years of reading, did Dorothy re-read the favourite books of her youth?

I don’t know about Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely was besotted with it…and I mean now I don’t want to read it. Also I though Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top.  It doesn’t seem quite real.  But as young person I was telling everyone that’s my favourite book. I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.

Asked if reading changed her life, Dorothy agreed.

…as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not but…because of how I am, I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this.  I like to be occupied…I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good…I’ve reached a good age.  I’m 80 in a month and, and I think “well, I’ve done quite well really”.

 

By Val Hewson

Access Dorothy’s transcript and audio here

Margaret’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born in Sheffield in 1936 and grew up during the Second World War and the late 1940s.  She became a librarian in the town, married John and had three children.

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The men in Margaret’s early life were both readers. During the Second World War, with her father in Egypt, Margaret and her mother moved in with her father’s parents in Walkley, a hillside of terraced houses that largely escaped the bombing of Sheffield city centre below.

When we lived with grandma and granddad, it was mainly granddad who encouraged me to read. He was an avid reader and anything that was printed, he always asked me to [read] even before I started school. Grandma also read books and granny had a collection of bound – you know, the classics …Dickens and so on. And he took the Daily Express and I was encouraged to read all the headlines to do with the war, you know, the advance of the Eighth Army and so on. Yes, at a young age I knew more names of towns in Egypt than in this country!

Margaret’s grandfather had had a variety of occupations.

He joined the army at a young age and he was a professional soldier. I think he was really self-educated all round. He was a professional musician; he played in the army band. And he was also a [fitness] instructor in the army. But he was always reading, and he had loads of books. The Conan Doyle books I went through, again, by the age of nine I’d read Sherlock Holmes and so on. And he had a couple of encyclopaedias, which absolutely I loved, and I still love to this day encyclopaedias and the knowledge you can get from them.

The desire to understand the unknown world of her absent father had a strong influence on the little girl.

I remember in the encyclopaedias there was a section on Arabic, writing the alphabet and so on, which I thought might come in useful with my father being out in Egypt and the Middle East. Of course, I didn’t see him from the age of four until he came back in 1946. And I can remember trying to teach myself to write Arabic. I guess I would have only about eight or nine, I think.

The encyclopaedias and the Conan Doyles were perhaps all the more important because during the war only one new book came into the house. But before and after the war Margaret got books as Sunday School prizes, for birthdays and at Christmas: for example, Milly, Molly, Mandy and Richmal Compton’s Just William – ‘I could laugh out loud with those’. A special visit would be from Margaret’s father’s sister to Walkley from Sheffield.  ‘She was a maiden aunt and she encouraged reading.’

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Margaret probably ran through Enid Blyton from Walkley Library, the only municipal library in Sheffield endowed by the Carnegie Foundation (Tinsley Library was also a Carnegie library, but was opened before Tinsley became part of Sheffield).

And we were allowed a comic each, my brother – I had a younger brother – and I. My brother had either the Beano or the Dandy and I had either Film Fun or Radio Fun. And when we finished with comics we used to swap them with friends and get something different.

When her father came home from Egypt, the family were rehoused in a house of their own but the library provision was a bit of a comedown.

When we moved onto the new estate at Parson Cross [a new Sheffield housing estate], there was nothing except houses. We had no shops, no schools. And eventually, when the school was built, we had – they opened a couple of evenings a week, I think – a couple of cupboards in the school room. And as far as I can remember, there were only adult books there.

However those adult books included copies of her father’s favourite, Zane Grey. Together she and her father devoured these tales of derring-do in the Wild West and Margaret went through ‘every possible Zane Grey book printed, at the age of eleven’.

When Margaret got a place at Ecclesfield Grammar School, she looked forward to new authors to explore but the school library always seemed to be locked.

There was a library, but for some reason we were never allowed in it! Only for occasional English lessons. So I still had to rely on the locked-up cupboards and the Zane Greys.

At school Margaret did come across Winifred Holtby and J B Priestley who both reflected a Yorkshire she recognised.

I think the two of them were sort of life as I knew it in Yorkshire at that time. A gritty existence, I think, true to life, realists.

Margaret became a librarian, one of the first at the state-of-the-art library opened in 1953 on the edge of another one of Sheffield’s enormous new council estates, the Manor. She had found her vocation.

I think in the branch library it was more of a family. … We were very, very efficient, we were well-taught and we were all very proud of what we did.

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Librarianship, like her own personal reading, was all about discovery and opening doors to new worlds for other people to enter.

I think during the ‘50s I read things I would not read again. It’s like the Jacques Cousteau underwater books – I can’t even swim. But of course, in those days it was like going into space, it was something – the world under the sea was something all new and those fascinated me. I’ve never read romance books and historical novels and I still don’t read them, I’ve no interest in them.

When she and husband John had their family, they passed on their version of space travel. When their two sons were small, they bought them a secondhand set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas.

And we had to pay on a weekly subscription for these, we couldn’t afford to pay them outright. And my son, who’s now aged fifty, our second son, still has these Britannicas, [in a] proud place in his home, in his own library at home.

When I asked Margaret whether she ever tried to set limits on her sons’ reading, to steer them away from certain books, she quickly replied that nothing was off-limits.

No, because I believe you should make your own opinions on things and if you haven’t got the knowledge, how can you form an opinion on something?

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Margaret’s transcript and audio here

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