Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

Born in 1925, Malcolm Mercer has lived most of his life in and around the Manor estate in Sheffield, and left Pipworth Road School in 1939. After seven years in the retail trade, disrupted by three years in the Royal Naval Patrol Service – Minesweeping (1943-1946), he trained as a teacher at Sheffield Training College and taught in several Sheffield schools before being appointed Head of Parson Cross School (1968-1983). He gained a Diploma in education management at Sheffield Polytechnic in 1971 and an MA in education at Sheffield University in 1979. He contributed to two of the major histories of Sheffield city and is the author of The School at Parson Crosse 1630-1980 (1980), Schooling the Poorer Child (1996) and A Portrait of the Manor in the 1930s (2002).

Unlike his wife Jean, whom we also interviewed, Malcolm did not pass the 11+, He left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. However that never prevented him doing what he wanted to do and as a teacher and historian he has written himself into the history of Sheffield, its schools and the community to which he still belongs, the areas of Manor and Park.

Malcolm has always read and he came from a family where there were books about.

I never saw father read but I’ve still got a number of his books. He was a newspaper man and though I never saw him read he’d bought a lot of books when he was younger including Shakespeare and I’ve got them now, and Southey and poetry by Goldsmith. So yes, he must have read.  My mother read Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and I’ve still got her copy and I can remember her reading Lorna Doone. So I think they must have read when I’d been put to bed.

Malcolm’s life was rich. He was a Boy Scout, and he has always been an active member of the church community at St Swithun’s on the Manor. He read constantly, like Jean his main source of books being Park Library. There were two tuppenny libraries on the Manor in the ’30s but the thrilling tales provided by Park Library seemed to satisfy the fourteen year-old’s need for adventure when he returned from working in a shop during the early 1940s.

The one I think that struck me most was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But, I mean, I read quite a great deal, The Scouts of the Baghdad Patrol by Lieutenant Brereton, Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. The Last of the Mohicans by Fennimore Cooper, The Three Musketeers and then I read Dumas: Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask, Count of Monte Cristo, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, The Queen’s Necklace, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen, all by Alexandre Dumas and of course Conan Doyle – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Gerard.

A lot of the stories that he loved were connected with nature: the Romany stories on children’s radio. ‘A Summer Road to Wales, I‘ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times.’

He also describes being ‘enthralled’ by a geography series on BBC radio for schools, which inspired an interest in ‘South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that.’ The survival skills of Manga, a boy living in the Amazon, appealed to the Boy Scout as he prepared for his Camp Craft badge.

Malcolm’s boy scouting had practical consequences. His knowledge of signalling meant that in 1943 he was posted to serve on a minesweeper for the duration of the war. There were few books or readers on the minesweeper but Malcolm had taken Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to sea with him.

I had it throughout the war until … we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman.

After the war, Malcolm returned to Park Library where he found his favourite authors, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Though Malcolm began by reading such novels as The Tale of Two Cities for their stirring qualities, he was soon, as he began to think about the education and care of children in Britain’s cities, reading novels as social history. ‘Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and I compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse’.

Malcolm still has in his possession a little notebook in which he listed all the books he read during the war years 1941 and 1942. Each letter of the alphabet has two pages, and just a look at the page for B shows how widely Malcolm’s curiosity ranged.

Since Jean and Malcolm got married, the books they bought have been mostly for Malcolm’s work as a teacher and historian of Sheffield’s schools. Despite their regular book-borrowing habits, Jean observes that ‘in fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says “I’ll ring you back” and then he disappears.’

You can read Malcolm’s and Jean’s interview here

The Five Find-Outers by Enid Blyton

By Sue Roe

I remember as a child, on my visits to Park Library on Duke Street, Sheffield, being captivated by child detectives – Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five and Secret Seven of Enid Blyton (1897-1968). Yet I have yet to meet anyone who remembers the other group of child detectives: the Five Find-Outers and a Dog. They were led initially by Larry but from the third book by ‘Fatty’: Frederick Algernon Trotteville, an only child with very relaxed parents and lots of pocket money for cakes and other treats which he shares with the others in the group. These are: Larry, his sister Daisy, Pip and his younger sister Bets, and Buster, Fatty’s Scottie dog, who eats biscuits with potted meat and nips the ankles of the local plodding policeman, Mr Goon.

All except Bets attend boarding school so the adventures happen in the school holidays. The children hunt for clues (or ‘glues’ as Bets calls them) and talk to witnesses. Fatty specialises in disguises: he has wigs, grease paints, false teeth, cheek pads which he uses to gain information and to outwit Mr Goon. The books very much reflect a particular mid-twentieth century village society with cooks, maids and valets, tramps, gypsies and fairground folk. There is an undercurrent of class difference: Fatty’s mother plays golf and bridge; Mr Goon’s nephew, Ern, who becomes an unofficial member of the group, eats with the cook, not with the other children.

The stories were set in the fictitious village of Peterswood, based on Bourne End, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. At the start of the series Larry was 13; Fatty, Daisy and  Pip were 12, and Bets was eight. There were 15 adventures in total, published between 1943 and 1961, with titles like The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) and The Mystery of the Vanished Prince (1951).

I remember being fascinated by their adventures and especially by Fatty’s exploits – the  disguises and deductions, his ability to ‘throw his voice’ at crucial points in the plot! He makes the series special and, for me, more interesting than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, whose adventures had the advantage of more exciting venues like Kirrin Island and Smuggler’s Top.

I would be very interested to know if anyone else is familiar with them. Please leave a comment if you remember Fatty and his friends.

 

You can read more of Sue’s reading journey here.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Three: Park Library and beyond

Former Sheffield library worker Barbara has told us about her days at Lane Top Library and her work on School Instruction, helping groups of children learn how to use a library. Here she describes her move to Park Library and brings us up-to-date.  

Eventually the regular 9am smell of Hubba Bubba bubble gum and pickled onion Monster Munch rising from thirty excited 14 year-olds herded into the entrance hall for their School Instruction session got too much for me to bear. I joined Astrid Gillespie, Irene Collumbine and Pauline – what was her name?- at Park Branch, upstairs in the children’s library. As the other half of the building housed a swimming pool (Park is an Edwardian municipal complex, housing a library, swimming pool and public baths), we enjoyed tropical temperatures throughout the year.

Park Library

The worst thing about that job was ‘film night’. A projectionist equipped with folding benches and film equipment arrived regularly at selected children’s libraries. Admission was by ticket only, but with only me to hold back the crowds it quickly became a free-for-all. There existed a local gang of ‘children’ who were notorious and, whilst I never issued tickets to them, they always managed to obtain one. The projectionist and I would set up the rows of folding benches – which often did just that during the general rammy [brawl] – and I guarded the doorway with my heavy rubber torch held menacingly across the gap. But they always managed to smuggle their way in. I shall not name the ring leader for fear of legal action, but I heard some years later that he went down for murder, having been disturbed during a break-in.

In 1974 my then husband’s job relocated to Teesside and we moved to Guisborough near Middlesbrough. I worked in their Central Library and then Guisborough Branch Library, until my children were born.

But Sheffield City Libraries had not seen the last of me.

In 1984 my husband’s job moved again, this time to Rotherham and the family decamped to Eckington on the outskirts of Sheffield. My motherhood experience did not match up to that of Children’s Librarian, as I presented my hapless 5 year-old to the school doctor with his unreasonable (to me) behaviour. She observed me over the top of her specs:

‘Do you have a job, Mother?’

‘How could I have a job when I have two children who are as mad as a box of frogs and driving me demented?’

‘I suggest you work on Saturdays and let your husband look after them.’

So began my weekly holiday in Sheffield Central Children’s Library. I would have paid THEM to let me work there. I went upstairs for my break that first blissful, child-free Saturday – and to my amazement there were the same tables, covered in the same wipe-able cloths, with the same departmental faces gathered around them as I had last seen ten years previously. I had travelled all over the place (it seemed to me) and experienced so many things, and yet time seemed to have stood still here in this little room.

Sheffield Central Library

As my children got older, they became more human and my life settled. I no longer sought refuge down the magic staircase to Central Junior. I spent many very happy years working in the classroom with children who had behaviour problems, whilst teaching library skills in the school library.

I now live in the Scottish Borders with yet another surname – but I’ll go no more a-roaming. I have found the perfect husband, live in the perfect town with a sandy beach surrounded by rock pools at the bottom of my road and I live in the perfect house with a sea view from my lounge window.

I will never forget Sheffield City Libraries, but I still can’t stand the smell of bubble gum or pickled onion Monster Munch.

Sue’s reading journey

Here is another reading journey from one of the Reading Sheffield team, Sue Roe. 

Reading has been important to me from my earliest memories (I only remember from the age of about eight or nine). I was always a bookworm, always with my nose in a book, though these were almost invariably library books. I don’t remember many books in the house but my dad was interested in reading and used to buy second-hand ones from the ‘Rag & Tag’ open-air market in town and keep them in a small bookcase. I have distinct memories of a book on the Phoenicians – I can’t recall much about the content – just the glossy pages and the pictures. Aesop’s Fables is another one I remember: a yellow hardback with thick pages and rough edges.

One of my first memories of reading is sitting on a stool behind the door in a neighbour’s kitchen, reading comics like Beano and Dandy.  The neighbours had a wholesale newsagent’s in West Bar and didn’t mind me taking advantage of their spare copies.

Park Library

I progressed to Park Library on Duke Street: I used to nip over the waste ground beyond the ‘rec’ at the end of Boundary Road, Wybourn. This brought me out just above the library (where I also learned to swim: Park Baths was on the same site).

What did I read then?

One favourite when I was young was Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson, with its memorable cover.

It was a fairy story with clearly identifiable ‘goodies and baddies’. I have read it again as an adult and still enjoyed it.

I read the Nancy Drew mysteries, as well as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and her lesser-known Five Find-Outers stories with Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville – as the leader. Fatty was a ventriloquist and master of disguise! Detective novels are still one of my favourite genres – a way to relax. I love a good detective story!

I also had an unlikely fondness for boarding school novels such as the Malory Towers series. I was attracted by the fun and excitement of this other world, though those who have actually been to boarding school are quick to disabuse me.

Anne of Green Gables was a favourite of mine, along with another, less well-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, set in the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana.

I identified with both books, and especially the latter – its heroine, Elnora, was an awkward outsider, poor and finding it hard to fit in. That’s how I felt, especially when I changed schools at the age of ten, when we moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road. I was from a family of eight girls and we were not well-off! This feeling was even more pronounced when I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school.

When we moved, I also changed libraries. I now caught the bus to Highfields – a wonderful library with the children’s section upstairs. How I longed to be flicking through the tickets, stamping the books and filling the shelves. What with homework and reading for pleasure, my mum would often have to shout me downstairs to help with housework.

Highfield Branch Library

I read to escape into another world, a different, more exciting world. I read books set in the nineteenth century, in America: What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, What Katy Did At School and, obviously, Little Women.

Little Women, the story of four sisters, appealed to me, the fifth of eight girls. Jo was always my favourite – she was a tomboy like Katy, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t accept Laurie’s proposal or why she married the Professor!

I enjoyed stories from nineteenth century Britain too: I read and probably cried over Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Books as prizes

When I moved house at the age of ten, my new friend, Janet, was a Methodist. Every Sunday I went for tea at her house and then to church for the evening service. I also went to Sunday School and took the Scripture exam. To me, learning Bible stories for the exam was just like history, one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember getting 92 per cent and a prize: Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter.

At grammar school, the prizes given to top pupils for end-of-year exams were books chosen by pupils. I managed a prize twice, in Year 2 when I asked for the Bible and in the sixth form when I chose T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. My tastes had clearly evolved.

Set books

At grammar school, books were read as part of the English syllabus. I have clear memories of Dotheboys Hall, an abridgement of Nicholas Nickleby, which introduced the unforgettable character of Squeers. I cheered along with the boys when he got his thrashing.

Another book we read in class was one set in the South Seas. I had to research on the internet to re-discover this one. It was A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, set in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I wanted to be a missionary for a while after reading it!

The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis, was another set text but I can’t remember much of the plot. I do recall the drawings, by Edward Ardizzone, whom I encountered again when looking for picture books for my children.

Teenage books

As I got older, I did read some of the classics, often choosing to read several titles by authors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Far From the Madding Crowd and A Christmas Carol stick in my mind.

I enjoyed different genres, though I would not have used that word. There was science fiction: I particularly remember John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic world where any type of mutant is killed or banished and telepathy is common. The front cover shows a key moment when a child steps in wet sand and leaves an imprint of a six-toed foot – a clear indication of a mutant!

My father was a big fan of Rider Haggard and would often mention King Solomon’s Mines, both as the book and a film. The 1936 version had Paul Robeson as Umbopa, and Robeson was one of my father’s singing heroes. Unsurprisingly, I read that book, as well as others by Haggard, including She and Allan Quatermain.

I didn’t really discuss my reading with my close friends. An exception was the Molesworth books. I still find them funny and can recall the memorable lines we used to quote to one another: ‘As any fule kno’ (a phrase which regularly pops up in some newspapers), ‘Hello clouds, hello sky’ and of course, with reference to the Head Boy, Grabber Ma, ‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. Strange that three girls could enjoy tales of Nigel Molesworth, the ‘curse of St Custard’s’, a boys’ boarding school, but some things are universal: the boredom of (some) lessons, the bullying, the fear of teachers!

I was, and am still, a lover of history, so I did enjoy historical novels. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels with their period detail especially appealed to me. Anya Seton’s novels were also historical fiction and Katharine was my favourite. The intricacies of royal family trees which emerge in this novel were to appear again when I taught A level History, especially the Wars of the Roses.

Looking back, I can see how crucial public libraries were for me: not just somewhere to do school work, to revise for exams but a doorway to explore other worlds, past and present. This passion has never left me and informed my choice of degree and career. Even after 38 years of history teaching, I still love a good historical novel!

 

By Sue Roe

A walk through Park with Jean

Jean Mercer was born in Sheffield in 1925 and has lived in the city all her life. In 1950 she married local boy Malcolm who became a teacher. 

Above Sheffield Station lies an area called Park. Beyond it spreads the Manor Estate, built in the 1930s on the fields surrounding the Queen’s Tower, where the Earl of Shrewsbury guarded Mary Queen of Scots during her period of imprisonment in Sheffield. On the deer park of the castle was built in 1957 the austere Park Hill flats dominating the ridge above Sheffield station and ‘hailed universally in the technical press as a visually as well as socially satisfactory conception’ according to Nicholas Pevsner. As an architectural historian with a taste for modernist brutality, Pevsner admired the Council’s vision of a village in the air, but sadly, as he predicted, Park Hill soon became a slum.

Park Hill and Sheffield Station today

The partly-renovated Park Hill Flats today. Park Library is behind the flats, up the road on the left. (Creative Commons licence)

Jean and Malcolm Mercer have lived in this area all their lives. They grew up in the streets bulldozed to construct Park Hill. Then, after the Second World War they married and moved to the Manor Estate, then a thriving community when the working classes it housed were actually in work. When we interviewed them, they had moved off the estate and were living in a house in one of the Victorian terraces which are a remnant of the old Park district.

Since 1903, all the communities around Park have been served by a glorious complex of buildings which used to house public baths, a laundry, a swimming pool and a library, all heated by the furnace whose red brick chimney still rises against the hill behind it. The library has survived all this time, rather against the odds: in the 1930s it was almost closed because of its proximity to the splendid new Central Library; and now it is run, not by the Council, but by community volunteers.

Park Library now

Park Library then

Jean Mercer has been a member of Park Library since she was two years old. She remembers the delights on offer when she visited the library with her class from school.

When I was a girl they had story-time. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epanimondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epanimondas was lovely. [Miss Heywood] she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

Though Jean passed the scholarship exam she was not able to take up a grammar school place. But there is no trace of bitterness or any sense of loss in the way she describes her secondary school education.

At Standhouse School and Prince Edward as well, I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

Like many pupils from elementary schools, Jean treasures the poetry she learned by heart. Elementary schools seemed to set much more value on reading and reciting poetry than grammar schools. Elocution lessons were also part of Jean’s school experience.

Jean can’t remember a school library. Instead the children were marched down to Park Library and encouraged to use it regularly.

Park Library – all that it is left of the spiral stairs which used to lead to the first floor children’s library

Her parents also encouraged her reading. They were chapel-goers. Jean’s father’s health had been damaged in the First World War so he was found a job in the fruit market by his uncle. Though this was a physically Iess strenuous than a job in a steel mill, it did mean a very early start. So he would get home from work early and spend the early evening reading. She can remember him reading westerns by Zane Grey and then The Man in the Iron Mask.

As for her mother,

she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

The passion for reading that Jean shared with her parents prepared her for a life-time of supporting Malcolm while he wrote books of his own. Jean would field the phone calls and the children while Malcolm prepared his lessons, researched and wrote his histories of Sheffield schools. Like her mother, Jean took delight in the margins, always finding time to explore new novels and read to her own children.

Jean never bought the novels she read because Park Library was so handy.

And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask they’re still very helpful.