Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

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

Madeleine Doherty’s Reading Journey

Madeleine was born in Sheffield in 1940 and grew up near the Botanical Gardens. She lived with her parents and her brother, who was four years older. Her father was an engineer. Her mother was French and Madeleine’s French grandmother also lived with them. After leaving school, Madeleine trained as a teacher. She married and had a family; her husband taught engineering.

madeleine-treeby-1952-.okMadeleine says of the house she grew up in:

…it was a house full of books,..a lot of them were my father’s engineering books, then there’d be my mother’s French books, and then there were my brother’s books.

Her early memories of books are of being read to but by the time she was eleven she was choosing books and reading them. From this time she remembers the Milly Molly Mandy stories, a French book called Les Malheurs de Sophie about a naughty girl, a weekly comic called Sunny Stories which came out on a Friday and a series of books, The Twins, about twins in different countries. Her favourite book was a beautifully illustrated edition of The Water Babies, which was a present from her father’s mother. Although she understood French and had French books read to her, she didn’t read any herself.

She used to go to the Children’s Library in Sheffield, first with her mother and later with her brother. He would also take her to the Saturday morning film shows at the Library Theatre. When she was a bit older, she would sometimes get the tram to Ecclesall Library but she always preferred the Central Library. She loved Enid Blyton and probably read them all. She read some of her brother’s books, for example, historical stories by G.A. Henty.

Later on school became important for Madeleine’s development as a reader. She went to grammar school and when she was about 14 had a form teacher who was also Head of English. She had a cupboard full of books which anyone could borrow. Madeleine identifies this as the point at which she became an avid reader.

I used to stay up reading half the night, you know. I’d not turn my light out but I read them too fast…

She read many classic novels at this time: Thackeray, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell. She read what was there and didn’t necessarily seek out other books by writers she liked; in fact she thinks that even now there are Dickens’ novels she hasn’t read. She remembers C.S. Forester and E.M. Forster from that time as well.

Another powerful memory for Madeleine comes from when she was about 17 or 18 and she was introduced to the novels of Charles Williams by the curate at her church. He ran a youth club after church on a Sunday evening which she went to with friends, though she was the only one who borrowed books. Madeleine doesn’t recall the titles of these books but she remembers clearly their compelling quality. She has sometimes looked for them since but has never found them.

…I was absolutely hooked on those books…I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that.

Madeleine talks more about Williams than about any other writer and his books clearly had a great impact on her. He was one of the Inklings group of writers, along with Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. His novels are very difficult to categorize but are usually described as religious or supernatural thrillers. Each one features a conflict between good and evil, with powerfully drawn characters on either side. This conflict is played out in a world where the boundary between the everyday world and the spiritual world is porous, with certain characters able to move between the two. The atmosphere of the novels is uncanny and quite unmistakable.

During the 1950s, Madeleine’s family didn’t have a television though she used to watch it at friends’ houses. She remembers seeing Quatermass at a schoolfriend’s and thinking that she wanted to read it. Later on she got the book.

Madeleine went to Notts County Teacher Training College in Retford. She used to come home at weekends and collect books to read. She mentions 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World and also the novels of Nevil Shute. Madeleine’s husband wasn’t a reader and after she was married and had children, she read less. Television had a big effect. She thinks that having one meant she read less, although sometimes it would lead her to read something, as with Quatermass. Watching a television version of a book is different from reading,

…television actually spoilt people’s reading. I still believe it now. I watch things and that’s giving you a picture…and it might not be what you would have thought if you had read it yourself.

Or if you have read the book first, ‘I watch it and I think, “That’s not what I read”.’

Madeleine also enjoyed reading poetry and ‘years and years ago’ had a hardback book into which she used to copy poems. She also learned some off by heart.

She does read more now, mostly books given to her by her daughter.

Read or listen to Madeleine’s interview in full here.

Note: reviews of three of Charles Williams’ novels can be found on Reading 1900-1950 and further information about his life and work from the Charles Williams Society.

Access Madeline’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.

meg-young-1955-ok

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