Reading Memories

By Lynne Gibbons

Our friend Lynne Gibbons shares her reading memories, prompted by her book group’s choosing to read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (London, Square Peg, 2018).

I really enjoyed Bookworm and I’m sure it will have sparked many memories for all our group. I can imagine there will be lots of ‘I loved that…’ and ‘I couldn’t stand that!’. I was reminded of books from my own childhood, from my daughter’s childhood and from my days teaching infants.

I’m still quite partial to books labelled ‘for children’ or ‘YA – young adults’. (That’s a whole other discussion – should books be age categorized at all?) I have to confess that I caused great arguments at my Lancashire book group, by recommending YA books. The one they really hated was The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2013) by Patrick Ness, but I was so sad when they were quite dismissive about Here Lies Arthur (Marion Lloyd Books, 2011) by Philip Reeve. I won’t expand on either book, but I still recommend them!

I still have some books from my childhood, including the Enid Blytons shown below. Apparently I had hysterics whenever the blue book was suggested. In that one, Mary Mouse, who was the family’s nursemaid, left the children because they were so naughty. She did return in the end, but I obviously couldn’t stand the upset and eventually I took to hiding it! ‘Not the blue book – don’t read the blue book!’ 

Post-war books look so sad now, but my Dad sought out some lovely picture books for me and later enrolled me in the Children’s Book Club. I think it was run by Foyles and happily it didn’t seem to have specific boy or girl choices, so I read lots of Biggles, by Captain W E Johns, as well as Dodie Smith!

I also accumulated piles of pre-war, vintage volumes from jumble sales, mostly run by the local Labour Party. I loved Susan Coolidge’s Katy books, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series and L M Montgomery’s novels about Anne Shirley. But I have to say some of the more obscure volumes were puzzling, to say the least! Two Missionary Ladies in Tibet or Little Maid Marigold? These books are ‘prize fiction’, that is, moralising novels given as prizes for punctuality and the like at school or Sunday School in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The photographs below show a prize book, Doreen (London, John F Shaw, 1928), by Charles Herbert, and the bookplate awarding it to Ivy Eyre. I think Ivy was a friend of my parents from the Labour Party.

Little Maid Marigold (London, Religious Tract Society, 1902) is by Eleanora H. Stooke. Two Lady Missionaries in Tibet (London, S W Partridge, 1909) is by Isabel Suart Robson and includes a photograph of the two ladies, Annie R Taylor and Susie Carson Moyes, and a fascinating 30-page catalogue of the publisher’s Popular Illustrated Books which range in price from 6s to 3d. The Missionary Ladies come in the 1s 6d list.

And there was always the library to borrow books from! Highfield was my first one, when I was aged 4.

Thanks to Bookworm, I was reminded of a conversation with my friend Frances. She never had a doll’s house when she was a child. Her lack of this toy has stayed with her as my ‘blue book’ horrors have with me. Did we suffer any long-term consequences? I don’t know but the memories are sharp. I’ve recommended to Frances that she read Rumer Godden’s The Doll’s House (London, Michael Joseph, 1947). This is a surprisingly dark story about the dolls who live in the house. When I checked in Bookworm, it turns out that Lucy Mangan knows and loves this book too.

Mary Jones and her Bible: Prizes

By Sue Roe

When I was about ten, my family moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I changed schools and made new friends – especially a girl called Janet. She was a Methodist and after a while I started going to her church. I also went to Sunday School with her. As in many Sunday Schools, books were given as prizes for attendance etc. I distinctly remember getting one myself: it was Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter. It may have been for getting a high mark in the Scripture exam.

I am sure some people are familiar with Mary’s story: how she at the age 15 walked 26 miles barefoot to Bala to buy a copy of the Bible in Welsh. She was the daughter of a poor family from LLanfihangel; her parents were devout Methodists. Welsh Bibles were scarce and she saved for six years until she had enough to buy one. Sadly, I no longer have the book but I have a clear memory of the cover.

This got me thinking about school prizes and Sunday School prizes too. I won two school prizes: the first was a Bible when I was in the second year (Y8 in today’s terminology) at grammar school This must have been in my church-going days. The second was in the Sixth Form (Y12): T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. I saw myself as more intellectual then!

Several of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention such prizes. Often they belonged to their parents or even grandparents.

Winnie had a vivid memory of one such book which was probably from the Salvation Army Sunday School:

We didn’t have books at home. Don’t think mother could afford them anyway, only the odd one that were prizes … In fact I’ve still got one or two of mum’s old books.

MG: Have you? What are they?

Winnie: Yeah, from her being ten years old.

MG: Really? Winnie: Yes. Jessica’s Prayer

Frank had similar memories:

Me mother and dad both had a bookcase full of books, one that me dad made, and it was full of books, at least 2 shelves of books in there. I think most of their books came as things like Sunday School prizes. I remember the Dog Crusoe, know that one? And there was another one, a series of books, thin paperback books he had, I can’t remember the author, about a character called Bindle. He was a Jewish man in London at the time of the outbreak of the First World War and they were very very tongue-in-cheek.

Yvonne’s parents had a collection housed in a bookcase:

Yvonne: She [Yvonne’s mother] also possessed books she’d won as prizes at Sunday School as a girl. But other than that, there was no child reading material available in those days because it was the wartime and it just wasn’t there

SR: Did your mum have a bookcase? Was it a little one? A big one?

Yvonne: Oh, it was a free-standing bookcase. There was a bureau in the middle, there was a cupboard underneath, and there were two bookcases. It wasn’t crammed full of books but my mother’s prizes were at that end, my dad’s were at that…

SR: What sort of books did she have as prizes?

Yvonne: One in a box in there that I’ve still got was a copy of Lorna Doone which I won’t part with. And I read that. I couldn’t get into it at first when I was younger but as I got older I read it again. I also read The Prisoner of Zenda. That was one of my mum’s prizes.

Shirley Ellins speaks of:

… the famous Shakespeare that mother won as a child when she was 14 from Crookesmoor School for Progress, before she left; complete works, complete with wonderful Victorian paintings and photographs of Victorian actors and actresses. Which is my pride and joy.

Betty N remembers her grandmother’s copy of A Peep Behind the Scenes, by Mrs Walton and published by The Religious Tract Society. Betty was so attached to it that she tracked down a copy in a junk shop.

I’m quite amazed but it’s true that I could read that before I went to school. My Grandmother’s had been a school prize. It had a bookplate for a school prize in her copy. But that was the first book I ever read.

Mary S has memories of prizes belonging to different members of her family:

They had all these ghastly Victorian … you know, educational novels, like Peep Behind the Scenes. That novel called Peep Behind the Scenes, that grandma thought was wonderful? All the kind of Sunday School prizes kind of books … we’ve still got all the Sunday School prizes that various bits of the family got.

Some interviewees won prizes themselves.

Josie remembers there wasn’t much money for presents so she had books for Christmas and birthday presents but she recalled other sources:

JH: … also schools used to give them out as prizes, and Sunday School used to give them out.

MG: Did you get any prizes?

JH: Yes, and it was always a book.

MG: And where were you allowed to choose your book from for the prize, or did they choose them for you?

JH: Sometimes they gave you a list and you could either put like, as I got older, cookery book or romantic novel or boy’s book or whatever. There was categories and you could actually choose at some places, but not all. Sometimes they just chose and gave what they thought was suitable.

Christine has similar memories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and I won form prizes and we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd. And then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader.

Several remembered going to Andrews Stationers on Holly Lane in Sheffield to choose their book prizes. Gillian won the prize for English Literature at school: 

So we went to Andrews and I didn’t just manage one, I got two books. I got Ivanhoe and Emma by Jane Austen.  And it’s all got ‘School Prize: Gillian Stannington’.

Margaret Young went to the Methodist Book Shop to choose her prize:

Er, yes. I once took the scripture exam in Sheffield and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they  used to take me to the Methodist book shop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

These prize books were treasured by our interviewees; many are still on their bookshelves.