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.’

Poetry at Off the Shelf: White Ink Stains

Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown

On 19 October 2016 we welcomed over 60 friends and poetry-lovers to the launch of the most surprising outcome of Reading Sheffield – a series of stunning poems, inspired by Sheffield readers, from Eleanor Brown, the award-winning Bloodaxe poet.  We thank the Off the Shelf Festival for their generous sponsorship and Sheffield Libraries for their hospitality.


Eleanor’s poems are a unique and highly persuasive way of honouring Sheffield readers’ experiences.  We are delighted that they are to be published by Bloodaxe in 2018.

Here is one of the poems Eleanor read for us, inspired by reader Jocelyn Wilson’s story. You can read more of Eleanor’s poems here and Jocelyn’s story here.



Married in 1948. I had

the most exquisite nightdress, sort of like

a Greek goddess, and dressing gown to match.

They were the loveliest things I’d ever owned.

During the weeks before the wedding I’d

unwrap them from their tissue paper, hold

them up against myself and slowly sway

a sideways figure-of-eight. Didn’t have

a full length looking glass and didn’t dare

steal to my parents’ room to look in theirs.


We went away on honeymoon, the boat

to France and then by train to Switzerland.

I hadn’t brought enough to read. A kind

lady lent me a silly magazine:

the actress Lana Turner, 28,

was married for the fourth time, her trousseau

reported to have cost ten thousand pounds.

I gazed out of the window doing sums,

how many pairs of stockings must she have?

how many nightdresses and dressing gowns?


My husband hadn’t long been back from war

and – sort of totally exhausted – so

he slept a lot, in the warm weather. Well,

and I was very bored. But luckily,

luckily in this little Swiss hotel

there were a few English books. I was so

pleased to have them. I’d have read anything

(always somebody worse off than you

in a Thomas Hardy). Nobody says,

pack enough books to last the honeymoon.


In memory of Jocelyn Wilson 1926-2015

Jocelyn Wilson

Jocelyn Wilson

White Ink Stains: a reading by Eleanor Brown

Wednesday 19 October at 6.30pm, Sheffield Central Library

Reading Sheffield is pleased to announce

White Ink Stains

A reading by Eleanor Brown


Eleanor is an award-winning poet (Maiden Speech, Bloodaxe Books) and adapter (Franziska, ad. Wedekind, Oberon Books).

Eleanor has written a number of poems based on the Reading Sheffield interviews. She will be reading from her poems (some of which you can see here) during Sheffield’s 2016 Off the Shelf Festival, on 19 October at 6.30pm in the Carpenter Room at the Central Library, Surrey St, Sheffield S1 1XZ.  The event is free, with support from the Humanities Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.



Ladybird, Ladybird (Sheffield Central Library, 2015)

It may be slightly beyond our Reading Sheffield remit, but I cannot resist blogging about the Ladybird, Ladybird exhibit recently on show at the Central Library during Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s annual literary festival.  The work is by artist Andrew Malone.  As a whole, the exhibit has the look to me of a delicate 1950s fabric, suggesting the work of Mondrian.   Closer up, you see the way Andrew Malone has cut into the pages to make the drawings of animals, planes, trees etc pop up and out.  This is inspired, although I also find the idea of cutting into books disturbing.



None of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention Ladybird books but I’m confident that most would remember them, either from their own schooldays or their children’s.  For so many people, Ladybirds were the first books they learned to read, practising their skills on the beautifully designed and carefully scripted pocket-sized books.  Whole generations of children across the world were brought up with them – the books have been translated into over 60 languages.  Even now, as I look at them, I feel a sense of security, even serenity, reminding me of my own schooldays in the mid-60s.  But of course I also recognise now that some of them portrayed an idealised, middle-class world where Mummy always did the housework, Daddy went out to work and everyone seemed to be white.

According to the Ladybird Books website, the first Ladybird books appeared in 1914, marketed as ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children and published by the printing firm of Wills and Hepworth.  Henry Wills had started with a bookshop in Loughborough in 1867.  He was joined in 1904 by William Hepworth and the company focused on printing guidebooks and catalogues.  Their Ladybird range was developed by editorial director Douglas Keen to include the Key Words Reading Scheme (better known as the hugely popular Peter and Jane stories) and the Nature, How It Works, Learnabout and What to Look For series seen in Andrew Malone’s art.  The company policy was to commission experts to write the text and quality artists to illustrate them.


The Guardian’s 2008 obituary for Douglas Keen described the creative development process:

In 1948, using the kitchen table as his desk, Keen devised the first factual Ladybird. He made a mock-up of a book of British birds, with watercolours by his mother-in-law, drawings by his wife and text by himself, and took it to his boss, Jim Clegg. The resulting Nature books were to be the longest-running of the Ladybird series. Clegg and Keen now steered the company towards the educational publishing for which Ladybird was to become world-renowned.



For a whole generation the price of a Ladybird book was maintained at 2/6 – 12.5p now, half a crown then, which meant that you could buy eight for £1.  This low price resulted from the production process which used a single (large) sheet of paper for each book.

Wills and Hepworth was taken over by Pearson in the 1970s and then merged into Penguin Books in 1998.  The long-established Loughborough printing works was closed down around this time (I used to travel through the town by train and remember a big sign at the station welcoming people to the ‘home of Ladybird Books’).  Ladybird has continued to thrive, with new titles and series, including e-books and apps.

Ladybird’s new directions include their first books for adults, which started appearing in 2015.  The tongue-in-cheek titles include: Mindfulness, The Shed, Dating and The Hangover, and the books have the traditional look.  I admit to mixed feelings about this development.  On the one hand, it’s quite a good joke, but on the other, I think it’s rather a pity to trespass on my childhood memories.  I suppose the fact that Ladybird can think of doing such a thing speaks to the strength of the brand.