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.



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…’



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.



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 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’.


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

Down the Yangtze in 1949

A book group in 1949?  What was it like and how did it work?

Book groups are everywhere today.  They take many forms and have many starting points.  Some support research projects or study for pleasure, while others are simply a chance to talk (a bit) about the latest bestseller over a drink with friends.  They take place in people’s homes, in the upstairs rooms of pubs and cafés, in bookshops and libraries, online and even on country walks.


© Sheffield Libraries

It’s easy to assume that they are a recent phenomenon.  But here is a ‘book discussion circle’, from an earlier time – 1949.  The invitation and suggested reading list are preserved in Sheffield Local Studies Library (the list is reproduced below for ease of reading).


© Sheffield Libraries

The group met at 7.30pm on Monday 21 March 1949 in the Study Room at Firth Park Library, Sheffield.  It was apparently cold that night – about 2°C – and must have been dark outside.  There was a talk, ‘Down the Yangtze River’, by Mrs D White, who had recently visited China.  We don’t know who or how many came along to hear Mrs White, or why they were moved to come.  The invitation makes it clear that the circle is a regular event, organised by the librarian and with an established membership.

Sheffield Libraries have always organised story hours, talks, special book events and many other activities, and it seems that discussion groups were a settled part of the mid-20th century library round.  For example, there is in the archives another Firth Park reading list from 1936 which advertises talks on ‘Travels in Germany in 1936’, ‘The New Map of Europe’, ‘Finance and War’ and ‘All’s Right with the World’.  And the Sheffield Forum here includes happy memories of what must have been a junior reading circle at Firth Park in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘…such a happy and interesting place/thing to be involved with’.

We don’t know how the circle worked.  The librarian’s invitation says the discussion was ‘quite informal’, with questions.  The evidence we have from 1949 and 1936 suggests it was always based around a talk, and we can guess that this was probably illustrated. How many people attended?  Was there ever simply an open discussion about some subject?  What part did the librarian play?  It is known that groups such as this depended to a large extent on the enthusiasm and time of the library staff.

Then there is the subject and the speaker.  In his invitation the librarian talks of forming ‘sound opinions’ based on a first hand account of China, ‘that enigmatical country’.  China was probably much in the news in early 1949.  The long civil war was coming to an end: on 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong would declare the People’s Republic of China.  Just one month after the Firth Park meeting, the ‘Yangtze Incident’ was headlines in Britain, when HMS Amethyst, guarding the British Embassy during the civil war, was trapped on the Yangtze for three months until a daring night-time escape.  After their meeting in March, members of the Firth Park group probably felt well-informed enough to comment when this news broke.

We have no idea who Mrs D White was or how she came to do the talk.  Was she local or doing a lecture tour?  Not even Google can help, based on this slight information.  ‘Down the Yangtze River’ sounds today like one of those upmarket cruises, but in 1949, in the middle of a civil war, Mrs White can surely not have been there on holiday.  Might there have been a business, Christian mission or diplomatic connection?

That formidable, even worthy, book list repays scrutiny.  It includes literature, memoir, politics and history.  Surely it was not expected that everyone would have read all the books.  But who compiled it and on what basis?  Was it drawn up by an academic, Mrs White who gave the talk or the librarian?  With a few exceptions, the books date from the 1930s and 1940s, confirming that China was of as much interest then as it is now.  Unsurprisingly, Western writers are in the majority but, perhaps surprisingly, not by much. Women writers, however, are rare.  The individual authors are a fascinating mix.

  • Mildred Cable (1878-1952) and Francesca French (1871- 1960) and Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1961) were Western missionaries. They worked in China for many years, before returning home to write and lecture on China.
  • Hsiung Shih-I (1902–1991), Tsui Chi (d.1951), Chiang Yee (1903-1977) and Hsiao Ch’ien (1910-1999) all lived for long periods in the UK and were credited with improving Western understanding of China.  Hsiung Shih-I was a playwright who translated Shaw and J M Barrie into Chinese and was the first Chinese person to direct a West End play, Lady Precious Stream (1935).  Tsui Chi taught English in China and came to Oxford in the 1930s.  Chiang Yee (1903-1977) was a poet, author, painter and calligrapher.  He wrote a series entitled The Silent Traveller, covering the UK, Ireland, France, the USA and Japan.
  • American academic Owen Lattimore (1900-1989) was an adviser to President Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek. In the 1950s he was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being ‘the top Russian espionage agent in the United States’ (this was never substantiated).  Carl Crow (1884–1945) was an American newspaperman who opened the first Western advertising agency in Shanghai.  He apparently worked for American intelligence alongside Owen Lattimore.
  • Lin Yutang (1895-1976) was a best-selling Chinese writer and translator, who nevertheless was criticised for attacking Western racism and imperialism. He also invented the first Chinese typewriter (challenging with a character-based language).
  • Sir John Pratt (1876-1970) and Peter Fleming (1907-1971) may be remembered better today for being brothers than for themselves. Pratt, the brother of film star Boris Karloff, was a British government adviser.  Described by Owen Lattimore as an ‘inspired amateur’, Fleming was a well-known journalist who travelled in Asia for the Times.  His ultimately more famous brother was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (and his wife was Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter).
  • Robin Hyde (1906-1939) was a New Zealand poet, novelist and journalist. In 1938, during the Japanese invasion, she travelled through China.  The resulting book, Dragon Rampant, was published in 1939, around the time she committed suicide.  Here are lines from Ku Li, her poem about Chinese peasants: ‘…Too poor for marriage-bed / He looks for dreaming in the big dim shed, / Rolled in the quilt where other warmth has dossed…’

It is interesting to consider who and what is not on the list.  There is no sign, for example, of Pearl S Buck (1892-1973), the daughter of missionaries who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.  Her best-known work, The Good Earth, became a popular film in 1937. Nor is Han Suyin (1917-2012) included.  Of Chinese and European parentage, she studied medicine in London between 1944 and 1949, joining a ‘circle of progressive Asia-minded intellectuals’ according to her obituary, and Bertrand Russell said that her novel Destination Chungking (1942) ‘told him more about China in an hour than he had learned there in a year’.

These omissions are clearly not because fiction was frowned upon.  Plays, poetry and short stories are included.  Given the Firth Park librarian’s earnest hopes for the evening, perhaps Western fiction was considered of little value in this context.  Gender may have been a factor too, as there are so few women on the list.  Or they may have been too uncomfortable a choice.  Han was known to have Communist sympathies at one time, and Buck once famously criticised missionaries for their arrogance and ignorance.

Libraries in Sheffield still host and support book groups.  In the case of Firth Park in 1949, given those serious titles, there are strong hints of adult education and self-improvement, which libraries have always encouraged.  Without reading all the books, it is hard to be sure but, given the period, the books seem pro-Nationalist rather than pro-Communist.  No matter the birthplace of their authors, the books seem to meet the librarian’s stated goal of learning about ‘the other fellow’.  As Cable and French said in China: Her Life and Her People: ‘[this book]…is written for those who desire a better understanding of China.’



Of the books that did make it to the list, it is somehow deeply pleasing that Sheffield Libraries still own copies of four.  Sitting unregarded in the reference and reserve collections, they are: China: her life and people, by Mildred Cable and Francesca French; News from Tartary, by Peter Fleming; My country and my people, by Lin Yutang; and Lady Precious Stream, by Hsiung Shih-I.  Turning their pages now gives an odd sense of that book discussion circle in Firth Park in March 1949.

Do you have any memories of book discussion circles in Sheffield libraries?

By Val Hewson


SELECTED READING LIST: Down the Yangtze River

Cable, Mildred, and Francesca French China: her life and people (1946)
Chiang Yee A Chinese childhood (1944)
Crow, Carl Foreign devils in the flowery kingdom (1941)
Dobson, R P China cycle (1946)
Fleming, Peter News from Tartary (1945)
Hughes, E R (ed) China, body and soul (1938)
Lin Yutang My country and my people (1936)
Rattenbury,  H B China – Burma vagabond (1946)
Rattenbury,  H B Face to face with China (1945)
Farmer, Rhodes Shanghai harvest: 3 years in the China war (1945)
Hsiao Ch’ien China but not Cathay (1942)
Hyde, Robin Dragon rampant (1939)
I Feng Give back my rivers and hills (1945)
Lattimore, Owen The making of modern China (1945)
Lin Yutang The vigil of a nation (1946)
Pratt, Sir J T China and Britain (1944)
Sun Fo China looks forward (1944)
Sutton, A S E The Chinese people (1934)
Tsui Chi A short history of Chinese civilisation (1942)
Confucius Book of odes (1909)
Hsiung, S I The professor from Peking: a play (1939)
Hsiung, S I Lady Precious Stream: old Chinese play (1937)
Snow, Edgar (ed) Living China: modern Chinese short stories (1937)
Lin Yutang With love and irony: essays (1941)

The Reading Journey of Mary S

Mary didn’t have to travel far to find the magazines and books she loved. They came to her and surround her in the house that she has lived in since she was a girl: her first book, Chuckles, a book of little poems with drawings to be coloured in, and given to her by ‘Father Christmas’; her copies of Girl’s Own Paper delivered to the door; her mother’s Woman’s Pictorial magazines, one containing the coupon for a cut-price set of Dickens that was never ordered, and the volumes from The Travel Book Club subscribed to by her father.

Mary treasures all the family’s books, not always for the reading pleasures they brought. Mary’s daughter Frances ponders how Mary’s mother could have delighted in the pious A Peep Behind the Scenes, ‘absolutely ghastly’.  But each book, loved or not, had been shared or handed on. She reflects that the only things she has given away, and that comparatively recently, are her piles of Magnet comics.

Both Mary’s parents worked in the book trade. Her father was a master printer who built up his own printing press. He did well and was able to move the family to the outer suburb of Bents Green and sent Mary to a little private school in the early 1930s.  Before she was married, Mary’s mother worked in the market on a family stall selling ‘books and things’, which was subsequently bought by Mary’s in-laws and renamed L. and A. Wilkinson.

So she was encouraged to read bits of the books so that she could discuss them with customers, you know … and they used to sell books and stationery and all that kind of thing, and when gramophones first came in they sold those too.

In the 1920s Mary became a member of the Sheffield Star ’s Gloop Club which offered outings to the theatre and other sorts of entertainment for children. Then came the Depression. The printing business, like many other small printing businesses, struggled and in 1935 Mary left school at 14 to train as a secretary. By 16 she was typist for a tax expert in town.


Mary and her mother would set out together to find books: first from the Green Circle tuppenny library half way into town at Hunters Bar, and then the municipal libraries – two of them, the local down the Ecclesall Rd and the Central Library near Mary’s work. There, she found a new borrowing companion. After work, two or three times a week, she and the office boy used to  make a joint expedition to  the Central Library to borrow books to read on the tram on the way home.  ‘You got through quite a few books that way.  When the buses came in it was a bit bumpy!’  But she never took one of her own books on the journey to work: ‘If they’re your books you keep them at home, don’t you?’ You only read Penguins and library books on the tram.


Gradually Mary’s social circle widened and her friends were all required to help her create her own book. In Mary’s Confessions, compiled in the late 1930s, each friend had their own page on which they answered the questions Mary proposed, in particular, ‘Who is your favourite author?’ A lot could hang on the answer. John Lee, with his ‘nice writing’, liked Oswald Mosley. Edward Bedford enjoyed the swashbuckling romances of Raphael Sabatini. William Olivant was more up-to-date with his taste for Leslie Charteris. Kenneth Hutton must have been into scouting because his favourite author was F. Haydn Dimmock. However it was Philip who won Mary’s heart, with his admiration of ‘David Hulme’ unknown to any library catalogue we have consulted.  When war was declared Mary and Philip went separate ways but the husband who found his way to Mary’s door also arrived with books.

Mary, who just before the outbreak of war was the major wage earner in the family, had been looking out for a lodger to supplement the family income when she spotted an advertisement in the paper, ‘Respectable young man requires lodgings’. Maurice was a young engineer at Firth Brown Tools.

 and I remember him coming I think it was one Saturday morning, and my friend and I who lived across the road, was across the road, and we saw him pull up in his little Morris 8 that he had in those days, you could get petrol before the war.  And we looked at him, and he decided that he’d stay and so he almost became one of the family.  He taught us to play bridge.  Mother and father were quite keen on whist, they used to go to a lot of whist drives, and he taught us to play bridge and we used to do that in the evenings.  And he was quite good company.  And we used to do the Telegraph crossword sitting on that settee.

A few years after his arrival, Maurice bought Mary a complete set of Kipling for her 21st birthday because he knew Kipling was one of her favourite authors.

Throughout her life Mary compiled a list of all the books she read. Her teenage favourites, Anne of Green Gables and Daddy-Long-Legs, were not in her grandmother’s glass bookcase behind her because they had been borrowed and reborrowed from the public libraries throughout her life.


It was Mary’s daughter, Frances, who, at a Reading Sheffield talk told us about her mother’s book-filled life, her precious booklist and her book of Confessions. Thank you Frances.

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Mary S’s transcript and audio here

Josie Hall’s Reading Journey

Born in 1942 Josie remembers her home as a place full of curiosity and knowledge about the world, but no books. ‘Because there couldn’t be. It was just after the war, and working class people, they just didn’t have books in the house. I don’t remember anybody, ever, reading to me.’


After the war Josie’s father returned home from two years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and worked as a crane driver in the steel works. He had passed his 11+ and went to the grammar school ‘but he had to be fetched out because he was the eldest of six and he had to go to work … he was really cheated.’  A remarkably able man who never found a job to match his talents, he brought what reading matter he could into the house: Reader’s Digest magazines, and then, one day ‘a pile of second-hand comics, manna from heaven; I just used to fall on them. And it wasn’t particularly because it was the comics. It was the written word, I suppose.’


The shelves of books surrounding Josie today are the legacy of her father’s encouragement of her reading and her own natural curiosity. She is open to every kind of book, fact and fiction.  The written word helped her get to know her husband because soon after she married at 18, he too was sent to the Far East, one of the last men to do their National Service. She remembers writing to him every day and receiving his letters as often as he could find an opportunity to post them.

The notebooks that record Josie’s reading show a great surge of reading in her early twenties, then in 1965, after her son was born, nothing. So when the twin girls came along in 1967 she said ‘they’re not doing that to me again’ and determined to keep reading which she did, as her notebook testifies.


Diana Gabaldon books, Tess of the D’Urbeyvilles, biographies of Charles II and Martin Luther, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Doctor Zhivago, Tale of Two Cities, Forever Amber, Catherine Cookson, Howard’s End, Crime and Punishment, Dennis Wheatley’s science fiction, Gone with the Wind, George Orwell, Michael Bentine ‘oh and Utopia’s in there, Thomas More. I don’t know how I got my hands on all these.’


She reflects that many were borrowed from Attercliffe library. A few were given as Christmas presents and Sunday School prizes.  Later Josie also bought paperbacks from second-hand stalls, newsagents and booksellers: they are all listed in her compendious notebooks. Only detective novels and horror fail to figure.

One book she particularly goes back to: Jane Eyre. ‘I can see Jane sat in the window seat hiding from her cousin, reading the book and I presume maybe I was a bit like that … hiding away, reading a book. Not wanting anybody to find you.’ This absorption in what she reads is sometimes overwhelming. She had to keep putting down Black Diamonds because she was so upset. ‘It took so much out of you.’ And  ‘Lady of Hey: that one spoilt a holiday for me.’ She left her companions playing Bingo downstairs in the hotel lounge and didn’t come down again till the next morning. Fortunately her husband shared her addiction so they could be anti-social together.

Josie has only recently realised that she doesn’t have to read all the books she is given. People just give her their books when they have finished with them, ‘piles and piles. So nowadays if anyone gives me a ton of Mills and Boon I just shove them to the Salvation Army. I don’t have to read them.’ This ability to leave a book unread has obviously been dearly bought. Josie’s instinct is to treasure every book. She was horrified to learn that someone she knew had burned her books when they moved house. ‘You do not burn books.’ So even ‘silly Mills and Boon’ would not be consigned to the flames.

When the children were older she did A levels and then a degree. For a while the scope of her reading narrowed so that she could focus on her studies. But now she has returned to her omnivorous habits and has a different book on the go in every room in the house.

‘Where other people have to have a cigarette, I have to have a book.’

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Josie’s transcript and audio here.


David Flather’s Reading Journey 1931-2015

David’s reading journey had begun long before he was born. He was the heir of two of Sheffield’s literary families: the Waterhouses Continue reading

Noel’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover


Born in that catastrophic year, 1939, Noel’s imagination was fired by the factual: Meccano magazines and stamp albums. Reading was a way of acquiring knowledge, especially historical knowledge.



I’ve always said oh, to hell with the computer, my knowledge came from reading, listening to the radio and collecting stamps. The history of stamps has geography, history and everything else.

Noel remembers spending his pocket money on stamps or Aeroplane and Flight magazines stamps rather than comics. He can’t remember being read to but explored Biggles and Gimlet when he became an independent reader. Both by W E. Johns, the Gimlet commando books were perhaps even more full of derring-do than the chronicles of the famous aviator.

But his mother was the greatest influence on the young boy’s reading. She was a Sheffield town councillor, a Conservative. It was her engagement in politics that led him to read the newspapers, political periodicals and history books often found in Hillsborough Library. Though he did well in literature at grammar school it was history that Noel loved.

I met Jock Hamilton, a dour Scot, he was a qualified barrister by his own efforts, but he taught history, he made history live.  He didn’t just give you the facts, but what he did with it, he analysed the facts, and he made history come alive to me.

Noel’s school boy reading reflects that interest: Tale of Two Cities, Alexannder Dumas’ Marguerite de Valois and Kidnapped and unsurprisingly a history play, Richard II. More surprisingly perhaps, given the conservative commitments he shared with his mother, the history book that still grips his imagination is Eric Hobsbawn’s The Age of Revolution.

The Latin language made a great impression on Noel and upon the way he talked. Robert Bailey, the Latin master said to Noel, in his first year at High Storrs Grammar School,

‘The trouble with you, lad, is you’ve got to learn to speak English properly and also get your grammar correct, verb, subject, object.’

But there was the literature as well: ‘Sallust’s Cataline, which was marvellous – that made history live again. Oh, I read, yes, Livy going over the Alps’.  In the 1950s Noel’s time in the National Service led him to discover a book, D J Holland’s The Dead, the Dying and the Damned which contained a fictionalised portrait of one of the soldiers Noel worked with in Aden. This period provoked an interest in thrillers with connections to political events – some of Fleming’s novels, and Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.

Also remembered, and in a way treasured, was a book that Noel could never bring himself to finish.

A lady who lived in one of the cottages in the block where my grandmother was living gave me a very old edition of Dombey and Son, I mean old.  I don’t think it was a first edition.  And I got through, I think, the first chapter.

Because it was so old Noel held on to it and it only recently left the house. It joins the ranks of books that our readers treasured but did not read, books that find a place in the bookcase for all sorts of reasons: its giver, an inscription, its antiquity or because there was a story attached to rather than contained within it.

Access Noel’s transcript and audio here


Elsie Brownlee’s Reading Journey

Born  24th June 1925, died  31st January 2015.

Elsie became a regular reader because her father volunteered to find the runaway daughter of the landlady of the boarding house in Anglesey where he and his family were on holiday in the 1930s. He had a motorbike, being the under-manager of a small steel firm in Sheffield. This enabled him to scour the island, find the daughter, persuade her to return home and bring her back to her family.

Successfully found and restored to her family, Gwen from Anglesey became a nurse and fetched up in Sheffield where she lodged with Elsie’s family in Walkley, on a hill two miles away from the city centre. In 1934 the splendid Art Deco Central Library opened in Sheffield.


Sheffield Central Library in 2009 by Lawrence Whiteley. (courtesy Sheffield Libraries)

Gwen was amazed that not only had Elsie’s family not discovered this library, they hadn’t used their local library either. So, she helped overcome Elsie’s father suspicion of the germs that might be spread by borrowed books and encouraged Elsie and her mother to enrol at the Central Library, a long trek for them as they hadn’t enough money to go down on the tram.

At about the age of eleven, Elsie became a fervent library user. Not only that, her dream was to work in a library. Elsie: ‘I thought, ‘I’d love to work in a place like this. I’d LOVE to work in a place like this.’

But her father thought otherwise. Because she had enjoyed playing with the typewriter in the steelworks she was destined to become a secretary. Though the next door neighbour’s daughter went to train as a teacher, Elsie’s father thought further education for girls a waste of time as they were bound to get married. Elsie didn’t get married and loathed her job as a secretary.  Her father died in 1952 which meant that Elsie took a second job, in the evening. Walking into town to work from 9 till 5, walking up the hill for her tea, and then walking out of town to the isolation hospital at Lodge Moor to look after sick babies 7-10 and back home for 11, Elsie had no time to go to the library or to read. She went on to nurse her sister and then her mother till they died. It was only in the last few years of her life that she was able to satisfy her passion for reading.


Elsie showed me some of her most cherished books: one by Frances Parkinson Keyes bought from the Boots Library sale for 2/-; another, her Scrubby Bears Annual, given to her as a child and lastly the heirloom, unread by anyone in the family, The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance, dated [1849]. When I met her, Elsie was getting most of her books from jumble sales rather than libraries; Phillippa Gregory was a favourite. Her final home was only half a mile from the isolation hospital where she had done her cherished evening job and about four miles up the hills from the Central Library which ‘was warm, safe and gave you constant entertainment’.

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Elsie’s transcript and audio here.