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.
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.
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