The third of five children, Judith was born in May 1939. As a child, she lived off Ecclesall Road in Sheffield. Although she passed the 11 plus, her parents could not afford grammar school, and so she went to Greystones Secondary School and left after O Levels. Judith tells two stories in her interview: her own and her mother’s. Judith’s mother loved reading and shared this with her daughter. ‘I just took to it because my mother read a lot.’
The first library in Judith’s life was the private Red Circle at the bottom of the Moor. Her mum used to borrow ‘what they called “bodice-rippers”, romantic novels and stuff’ every week. ‘I think it cost tuppence a week, or every time you took a book out or fourpence – something like that.’* Then her mum joined the public library and Judith went along too, to the imposing Central Library in Surrey Street. ‘I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.’ In those days, the public library service in Sheffield, under City Librarian Joseph Lamb, was rapidly becoming one of the best in the country, with a reputation for responding to the interests and needs of its members.
From before she left junior school, Judith was allowed to go alone to the central children’s library. She recalls joining with her friend Sheila:
… she wanted to join the library and we ran up all the way up there after school and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were. Her name was Sheila Thompson … and I said, “If you come with me, we can come and join.” … They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name in that, God, I remember that.
Judith spent a lot of time in the children’s library. For her, it meant not only interesting books, but also warmth and peace ‘until they closed at five o’clock’:
I used to bring books home, but on a Saturday afternoon I’m afraid I spent a lot of time in that children’s library because you could sit there with any book you liked, encyclopaedias, because at home it was, you know, hustle and bustle, we didn’t have much because we had no money and there weren’t a television in those days, this is the ’50s, coming up to the ’50s, and I just used to go to the library for a bit of peace on my own. Because there was four of us and my grandmother and father and mother all rattling round one house …
The children’s librarian was Mrs Scott, who sounds formidable. Young borrowers’ behaviour was expected to meet the standards of the day.
She was really nice, you know, because in those days you couldn’t run around like they do nowadays, you had to sit reading quietly … she was quite stern, you know, you couldn’t racket round – mind you, nobody did in those days.
Having joined, Judith ‘read and read’.
I think it was my Aunty Marjorie, she used to say, “Doesn’t that child do anything? She’s always got her nose in a book.” And “What’s the matter with you, child, why don’t you go out to play?”
A book which made a lasting impression was Joey and the Greenwings#, ‘about this young boy and these things that came from outer space or something’. Almost 70 years later, the memory is strong:
Dear Lord, how your memory comes back! There was a little song in it about this little lost chick. What was it? Little lost chick sang cheep in the night, cheep in the night, and the moon stretched her arms out shiny and bright, to the little lost chick that sang cheep in the night!
In time Judith moved up to the adult library. ‘ … you’d go in there and think, you know, posh.’ Books by popular authors of the day like Georgette Heyer, Mazo de la Roche, Rider Haggard, Mary Webb, Conan Doyle and John Buchan drew her in, although she got into trouble with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. Her mum used to ‘keep an eye on what I read’ and ‘made me take it back – she thought it was a bit racy! And it wasn’t.’ (Judith has less happy memories, as many of us do, of her set texts, like Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, ‘the most dreary book I’ve ever read’.)
Over 60 years later, Judith remains a keen member of the public library. In this, she is like her mother, who in old age ‘used to come in with four or five books’ from Highfield Branch Library. In her turn, Judith has influenced her daughter, Lindsey, who works in a bookshop and has #enough books to start a library’. In fact, you can trace reading through four generations: from Lindsey, through Judith and her sister who talk together about books, to their mother and even their grandmother who was ‘always on about books and that, she’d been well educated’.
‘It’s interesting, isn’t it, how libraries are places where people feel comfortable,’ says our interviewer. Judith agrees. These days she goes to the Ecclesall branch, but still occasionally visits the Central Library:
It still is the biggest library, isn’t it? And plus, the fact it has all the other things, you know, the reference library and the art gallery and whatnot. Because we used to go and have a cup of tea up there and look around the art things, and I used to think, “This is fantastic, it’s free, it’s a public library …” that was the whole point of going there. And … when they have an open day, and I’ve been down in the bowels where all the old books are – you might find my Joey and the Greenwings down in that bottom bit!
* Tuppence (2d) and fourpence (4d) are roughly equivalent to 1p and 2p, but worth about £1 to £2 today.
# Joey and the Greenwings (1943), by Augustus Muir