Sheffield Reading History: Unitarians, Book Societies and some Extraordinary Women

A talk by Sue Roe and Loveday Herridge

Reading Sheffield members Sue Roe and Loveday Herridge gave a talk on 9 September as part of the Heritage Open Days (HODs) Festival 2018. You can read the talk, in two parts, here.

Loveday and Sue have researched the history of Sheffield’s first libraries for Reading Sheffield. The focus of their talk was four book organisations which flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the Sheffield Subscription Library, the Vestry Library, the Sheffield Book Society and the Sheffield Book Club.

Nofolk Street today – Upper Chapel

The venue – the Unitarian Upper Chapel in Norfolk Street – was a perfect choice. Unitarians had long held education and reading in high regard for both men and women, and there were strong connections between the Chapel’s ministers and congregations and the various book groups.

Upper Chapel, Sheffield

Loveday and Sue looked at the origins of the four organisations, their membership, their choice of books and the roles they played in Sheffield. Picking up the HODs theme for 2018, Extraordinary Women, they explored in particular the lives and work of well-known female Unitarian writers, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Elizabeth Gaskell, whose books were bought by the libraries.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Elizabeth Gaskell

Sue’s and Loveday’s extensive research is published in Before the Public Library: Reading, Community, and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850, edited by Mark Towsey, University of Liverpool, and Kyle B. Roberts, Loyola University Chicago (Leiden, Brill, 2017). The book, with contributions from eighteen experts, explores the emergence of community-based lending libraries in the Atlantic World in the two centuries before the public library movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

Before the Public Library

Kath’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political interests.   

Kath was born on 3 February 1928 and married Ken in 1945 when they began a life of shared reading pleasures and shared political commitment. As we have learned from Ken’s reading journey, it was Kath who introduced Ken to the Russian and Chinese classics authors who shaped his understanding of the world. Kath described them both as ‘revolutionaries’ and they relied on each other for introductions to new books and to new ideas.

Not only did Kath introduce her older boyfriend to new books but, long after they married, she became the hub of a great family book swap.

Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family. My niece is an avid reader. She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops. And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one. What was that one, Chocolat, was it called? I thought it was a lovely story. And then of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those. We read one after the other of those.

Kath and Ken’s son too has books stacked up in his room and recommends titles to his parents. Kath finds the books she seeks from all sorts of sources: friends, family, libraries, charity shops and eBay, encouraging and drawing inspiration from all around her. She gathered new words from a woman at work:

…a wonderful person. She read everything. And everyday I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that‘d fit a certain subject. I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know. But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [Laughs.] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

But Kath’s parents, like Ken’s, had prepared her to learn from everything that came her way.

They both read all the time. My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on. But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

Kath developed the skill of creating a space in the living room to read, blotting out the world around her. She cannot remember reading in bed but does recall her older sister telling her Just William stories. These Kath retold at school with her own variations. She knew the stories off by heart:

… so I could juggle all the – you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and … just stand there … and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

She was also very determined, making the long trek to the then new Firth Park Library to find the week’s reading.

The old Firth Park Library building today

We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently. (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then. I was only a young kid). But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.

Reading has been, for Kath, a private escape, a family adventure and a shared passion with her husband, Ken. Sometimes, listening to Kath and Ken share their memories of books, it is difficult to make out whose tastes they are describing, Kath’s or Ken’s, so closely have they shared the books that came their way. ‘What was that book we both liked, Kath? Fame is the Spur?’ says Ken, and Kath explains why it is a favourite. Kath appreciates Ken’s speed reading, which he developed in order to get through all the technical books he needed to master for his work; and Ken appreciates Kath’s thorough reading of the Guardian, ‘cover to cover’. She laughs and admits:

I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in. I read it all day, you know. If I were sitting here not talking to you, I should be reading through the paper.

When asked what their lives would be without reading, they are, together, clear where they stand.

Ken:  Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it? I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know. Or opinions you wouldn’t have read. Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them. Or even imagine going to places.

Kath:  Oh, it would have been dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

Ken:  I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath:  I can’t. Not at all.

 

You can access Kath’s and Ken’s interview here.

 

Ken’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political and local interests. We will post Kath’s reading journey after this.   

Ken was born on 27 April 1924. For the first 20 years of his life he lived in Fir Vale, Sheffield, in a house where he was surrounded by ‘tons of books’. ‘Everybody in the family read.’ Ken got books as presents and his older sister handed down her favourites – some of them novels his mother and father would not have approved, ‘Istanbul Train and all those stories’.

And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have. You know, tuppenny bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny. By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous.

Though Ken didn’t think much of the radio programmes in the Thirties, he did enjoy the books read on Children’s Hour, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and all are still with him. Down at Fir Vale shops was a tuppenny library, a rich source of popular books, Ken’s favourites being humorous books and The Saint books by Leslie Charteris.

And then, when he was about ten, a new municipal library opened in Firth Park. Ken’s main aim on his first visit was to get the thickest book possible because you were, in 1934, only able to borrow one book a week. So his first choice was The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F Westerman[i]. ‘Absolute rubbish, of course,’ but thick.

The old Firth Park Library building today

It was when Ken gained a place at the Catholic grammar school, De La Salle, that his reading tastes expanded to include a whole range of authors that were new to him.

An English master who was a brilliant man put me onto all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke. He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot. You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.

We used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall. You know, things like The Land and all those famous poems. Things I’ve never forgotten. I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner and ‘Young Lochinvar has come out of the west / Through all the wide borders his steed was the best’. You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things. But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen. And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect. He never failed to be right in what he’d said. Well, I think so. I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.

During his school days Ken became a socialist, reading ‘loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets. They were all the rage then’.

The outbreak of war led to the closure of Ken’s grammar school and the end to his formal schooling. At 15, he left school to go into ‘the works’, first as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman. But the war meant an increase in Ken’s reading.

During the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment. Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.

Towards the end of the war, just turned 20, Ken was lucky enough to marry Kath who shared his taste in books and politics. Kath introduced Ken to Sholokhov’s books, ‘Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels’. ‘And Chinese books, famous Chinese novels,’ adds Kath. These books opened the couple’s eyes to the suffering in ‘Old Russia’ before the Revolution. Ken describes himself ‘ploughing his way through’ Das Kapital. He and Kath became communists and during the Cold War, they took their children to a children’s camp in East Germany. Their experience left them with a deep scepticism about the way East Germany was represented in Western spy stories.

A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know. Weren’t they, Kath? Absolutely. We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin. They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it? Not a bit. And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know? Shocking, shocking.

However, despite his firm political convictions, Ken describes his reading tastes as catholic: Quiller Couch, P G Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Just William, Ken has read and enjoyed them all. Indeed, when asked to pick out a favourite book, he chooses one written by the journalist and novelist, Philip Gibbs, who was no socialist.

It was called European Journey. It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War. He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people. You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is. I love France. He writes about France with real feeling. But it was when he was a comparatively young man. That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up. It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs. It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, er, read all these bits and pieces now and again.

As Ken puts it, ‘We never were tied up to one set of things’.

You can find Ken’s full interview here.

 

[i] Although Percy F Westerman wrote over 150 books, none has the title The Great Aeroplane Mystery. He wrote The Secret Battleplane (1916) and Airship Golden Hind (1920). His son, John F C Westerman, also wrote adventure stories for boys, including A Mystery of the Air (1931). Another adventure writer, Captain Brereton, wrote The Great Aeroplane (1911) and The Great Airship (1914), John Westerman’s book seems the closest in title and date, but there is no way of knowing for certain which book Ken borrowed. The Westermans are discussed here.

 

 

The reading journeys of Pat and Mary

Sisters Mary and Pat were happy to be interviewed for Reading Sheffield by Mary’s daughter, Ruth, although neither wanted to be recorded. The short, verbatim notes Ruth took give a strong sense of the sisters’ personalities and of the importance of books in their lives.

Three sisters in Colwyn Bay, 1946. Pat, aged 20 is on the left, Mary, aged 23, is in the middle and Jean, aged 17, is on the right.

Mary’s journey

Mary was born in the Sheffield suburb of Tinsley on 24 May 1923. She left school at the age of 14 and had a job in a sweetshop until she was about 20. She then worked for the Co-Op, in their offices in Tinsley. Mary was a devout Methodist and, through church, met her husband Jack, who worked on the railways. The couple had two children, David and Ruth. Mary always regretted being unable to continue her education, and did become a mature student, studying for a while at the Open University.

Nobody read to me when I was young. I don’t think it was something people did back then. There were so many jobs to do around the house. My mum took in washing.

The books that made me feel like a grown-up were mainly the classics. I was about 16 or 17 and started to read Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I also read Charlotte Bronte and Anne and Emily too, but my favourite was Charlotte. I loved Jane Eyre. I also read some Thomas Hardy but got bored with his descriptions sometimes. So, yes, Jane Eyre made a great impression on me, as did Anne of Green Gables. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I got them from. Probably the library but I couldn’t swear to it.

Come to think of it, I think I did get my books from the library and it must have been Tinsley Library. I can’t remember there being many books at school, though there must have been some.

My parents didn’t really value reading. My dad, who was a miner, sometimes read a newspaper. I can’t remember my mother reading at all. I think they were suspicious of books and novels, thinking we’d get ideas above our station or that we were filling our heads with fantasy. Work was what they valued and they didn’t really think education and school were worth much. I passed the exam to go to grammar school but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought the uniform was too expensive and, as I was the eldest of three sisters, they said that, if they sent me to grammar school, they would have to pay for my sisters to go too. But, as it happened, neither of them passed the exam for grammar school. I really wish I’d had a better education. I love literature and I’m in a book group now. I’m 88 years old.

I used to read in our living room and everyone told me that, when I was reading, I got totally lost in the story and never heard anyone if they spoke to me. I’d read after work in the evening and in bed too.

I don’t think I had any idea about highbrow or lowbrow until I was in my twenties. Then I thought there were good and bad books. Love stories I thought were bad but then Jane Eyre is a love story and so is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and some Georgette Heyer, which I don’t think is highbrow. Maybe the middlebrow section.

I’d re-read all the books I read as a young adult, including the Mary Webb collection I had, but I think they’ve been lost. I loved those books.

Without reading I would probably have gone mad! It’s a cheap but really rewarding pastime. I’ve learnt so much from books and I think it makes you understand the world better.

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

Pat was born in Tinsley on 7 April 1926. She was christened Gertrude Ada, but disliked the names and called herself Pat when she was around 20. Her niece Ruth describes her as ‘quiet, beautiful and glamorous’. According to family legend, Pat had several proposals of marriage but declined them all. She stayed at home and was, Ruth says, devoted to her parents and younger sister, Jean.  

Nobody read to me when I was young. Like my sister Mary, I enjoyed the classics. I read Little Women and Jo’s Boys which made me feel that I was an adult, though I’m not sure that they are adult books, are they?

I think I got my books from the library and from work. I worked as a wages clerk at Shefftex and me and some of the girls would swap books. I used to enjoy the Dimsie books[i] but I think they were aimed at teenagers though I still enjoy them now. I remember all the Dimsie books and they did affect me. I suppose I wanted to live the life Dimsie lived. It was all so exciting and adventurous.

I always liked historical novels and still do. I go to the library at Greenhill every Monday morning but I’m not in the reading group that Mary’s in. I don’t want to talk about what I’ve read. I might say the wrong thing.

Some of my books came back from Sunday School when I was a child but I can’t remember what the books were. I think they might have been Bible stories. Nobody encouraged me to read and I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. I knitted and did a bit of sewing but reading has always been my favourite occupation.

I never married and I never had children so I’ve been lucky having had free time to read.

I’ve read everywhere. I used to read at work if it was quiet. Nobody encouraged me to read. I just did. Maybe I copied my older sister Mary. I do watch TV but I read more than I watch TV.

In the years you’re talking about, we had poor lighting really and I was always told that I’d ruin my eyes. When I was younger, we had gas lamps which weren’t very good really.

I particularly liked Georgette Heyer, Mary Webb, Daphne du Maurier and Jean Plaidy but I can’t remember individual titles, apart from the classics. When I see the serializations of the classics, I’m nearly always disappointed. I think it spoils your imagination. You have an idea of what the characters look like and when you see famous actors taking those parts it spoils it for you.

Reading has been very important in my life. When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better.

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

[i] The Dimsie books, written by Dorita Fairlie Bruce between 1921 and 1941, told the story of Dimsie and her friends at boarding school and at home

To Kindle or not to Kindle

Frank (b.1938): Oh no, no… I’ve always read for pleasure. I’ve done that the whole of my life. Still do… I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.

Books or Kindle? Kindle or books? The debate staggers on.[i] (I prefer the real thing, as a glance at my home would show you. But I’m very happy to go digital when travelling, whether on holiday or on a bus, and the Kindle is a good way of reading books I don’t want taking up precious shelf space.)

Here is what Reading Sheffield interviewees, born between 1923 and 1950, have to say. (Since we are interested in 20th century reading, we don’t generally ask about e-readers, but sometimes they come up.) This is not by the way a scientific survey on any terms.

Not everyone is open to the idea:

Anne (b. 1944): Ohh, I couldn’t be doing with that! … I don’t know. It’s electric, int it? I’m allergic to anything electric.

But those who’ve bought (or been given) a Kindle appreciate the convenience.

Christine (b. 1940): Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo! … I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France.

For one interviewee the Kindle gives her family the chance to share and even to read books they may not choose for themselves:

Mavis (b. 1937): … there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book. So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle. Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a 100-odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others. … I pinch my husband’s [Kindle] and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these. I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well… We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think ‘Ah’. … my granddaughter came and said, ‘Ooh, can I have that after you?’ and I said ‘No, but you can have it after your aunt.’  So there’s quite a … five or six of us.

The Kindle (NotFromUtrecht) (Own work) (Creative Commons licence)

We ask if owning a Kindle changes reading habits.

Mavis: No.  I look for what I want.  Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest, I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.

E-readers can take some getting used to.

Mary (b. 1923): I tell you what I have got, I have got a Kindle. [The book I’m reading is] very strangely written and I can’t find out who’s written it because I don’t know quite how to go back and then go forwards. It’s my son’s partner, she gave [the Kindle] me. … I can get big print you see. It is small and that is as much as my eye will take. …

Chris (b. 1939): I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with, I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before. … I’m not very technological.

There’s the business of finding books you want:

Chris: Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free.

Kindles or books, there’s still a lot of rubbish published.

Mary: You can get any book on that. Oh I tell you what the first one that was on it, I don’t recommend it to anybody, was the Hundred Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades of Grey? You have never read such tripe! I managed one, two chapters. It isn’t even well written. … I don’t mind sex if it’s well written!

For some people, the e-reader cannot compete. It’s all about the physical quality of books.

Judith (b. 1939): And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get-me-a-book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book…

Peter (b. 1930): No. I think, it sounds a bit smug this, I think the book trade is suffering from unfair competition particularly with these electronic books and whatever so I just do my little bit. If there’s a book I like, I buy it from the bookshop.

No, I’ve seen [Kindles]. I can sit for hours with a book in my hand. I find it very difficult to sit for more than about a quarter of an hour with a screen. That’s probably an age thing, I don’t know. … I like the feeling of a book.

Josie (b. 1942): I’ve got one. I won’t use it. I’ve inherited it from my husband and until I get too feeble to turn a book and my eyesight’s too bad that I can’t see there’s nothing like having a book in your hands. Seeing it and feeling it and turning the pages, looking how much you’ve got left to read … no, I’ve never touched it. I’ve no desire at all.  I can see when you go on holiday instead of taking twelve books with you if you’re flying, a Kindle would be handy.

I just don’t know [what it is about the actual physical feel of the book]. It’s just comforting, isn’t it?  It’s like you’re touching … I love it, I just love it. … It’s quite a phobia when you think about it.  I didn’t realise I was this bad.

Kindles may be light and slim but for our readers swiping lacks the pleasure of turning pages, and the faint plastic/metallic smell is not to be compared to the woodiness of paper. (I do know Kindle owners who love their actual devices, who are distressed if they have to change or send them away for repair.)

In the end e-readers generate mixed feelings. There is uncertainty about the ability to make them work, but also interest in the convenience they offer. But for some of our readers, Kindles just don’t feel right.

Jude (b. 1950): Erm, not at the moment I wouldn’t [get a Kindle]. If I went travelling I would actually … I wanted a long read but at the moment, I quite like the pleasure of… A book, yes.

 

(With thanks to Reading Sheffield colleague Mary for gathering the information.)

[i] E-readers may already be yesterday’s technology. In 2015, in the USA, for example, 19 per cent of adults reported owning an e-reader, down from 32 per cent in early 2014. But of course many people read books on their smartphones or tablets.

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

Margaret G’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born on 12 June 1924, and grew up in Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. Her mother stayed at home after she married and her father was ‘a clerk at the Town Hall [where] he did all the salaries for the teachers’. Margaret left school at the age of 15 and worked in Sheffield, including for the local transport company. Later she trained as a nurse. She married in 1953 and had two children. She remains a keen reader, and still enjoys books she had in her younger days. 

‘No, I can’t.’ Margaret is quite indignant when she is asked if she can remember learning to read, as if perhaps reading has always been there.

I can remember my parents read to me every night and my father used to draw us pictures of the stories and, er, we were always well supplied with books. … Some were presents and some they bought.

Margaret’s parents were readers, she thinks, with her mother particularly enjoying ‘what she called a nice murder’. Margaret and her younger sister both belonged to the Walkley branch library, built at the turn of the 20th century with funds from the Carnegie foundation and with its own children’s room. When they were ‘able to cross the road’, they went to the library alone and ‘read the Chalet School stories and things like that, Angela Brazil’, like so many girls of their generation.

Walkley Library

Reading was perhaps seen by Margaret’s parents as a safe, suitable activity for their daughters:

I s’pose we were still reading … I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the blitz* I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

It was around this time, Margaret thinks, that she was reading popular authors like Warwick Deeping, J B Priestley and ‘a lot of Elizabeth Goudge’.

I love her books – I’ve just been reading them all again … and er the libraries have managed to get some … I’ve got one or two myself and I got Green Dolphin Country and it’s so long I didn’t remember much and it all came back fresh. … I liked even the children’s books she wrote.

I think I read Herb of Grace. I think I read some of those early on. I know I used to go around the second hand bookshops when we were away [on holiday], especially if it was a wet day. I picked one or two books up there.

But Margaret never read ‘improving books’ or classics.

I never read Dickens or Shakespeare and that’s something I’ve never wanted to read. I suppose because I didn’t do it at school.

The war brought change. When her call-up papers came, Margaret trained as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Sheffield. While she enjoyed it, it left little time for anything else:

… when I was nursing there was no time – only for nursing books. … You had to go for your lectures in your free time for that day.

After she married in 1953, life was still busy but perhaps there was more time to read.

… my husband would probably sit in one place and I’d be in another and we might talk all evening … you know … Once we’d got the children to bed and I mean we’d only two and I used to knit and sew as well.

There were family trips to the library, the branch at Broomhill:

Yes, we all went together. My husband never read anything non-fiction. Yes, he was a physicist, so he was really more into … he did read autobiographies, perhaps, but not many.

He didn’t like novels?

Oh no, no novels!

Broomhill Library

These days Margaret says she reads ‘mostly when I go to bed, and in the morning. Make my cup of tea in the morning and I read in bed. … But I try and save my library books for bed.’  She enjoys today’s authors like M C Beaton, Jack Sheffield and Ken Follett.  ‘… the library are very good – if I ask them if they’ve got it in, they’ll send it me.’

But she also goes back regularly to the popular authors of earlier days:

A J Cronin: Shannon’s Way this is. Yes, this is the one, it says ‘To Margaret, Happy Christmas from Gladys and Dick’. Also you see, there’s a ‘1950’ in there and there’s ‘a pound’ on it. … I’ve just read this again and quite enjoyed it.

Mary Stewart: Oh, I like her.  I’m reading all those again at the moment. … Yes, I’ve got quite a few of hers there.

Patricia Wentworth: … an older one, isn’t she?  She wrote mysteries, yes. … well, I’m reading a lot of hers again with … not Miss Silver … yes, it is Miss Silver, and it’s Miss Marple. They’re quite funny really. They’re so old fashioned! They’re quite funny, quite simple stories.

And Elizabeth Goudge: … that’s what Elizabeth Goudge wrote about, families. And a lot of people would say it was fantasy but it makes good reading, and I’m finding now I’m reading properly, I’m not skipping anything. I probably did that in my younger days. I wanted to get on to see what the ending was, but I’m finding now that I’m reading more or less every word. … That is fantasy really, because it’s about a town, a small town, and everything circulates around the cathedral and the Dean and various things, and I suppose a lot of it is. But some of them write so descriptive you can feel you’re there. And that’s what I’ve found lately.

 

 

* The ‘Sheffield Blitz’ is the name given to the worst nights of German Luftwaffe bombing in Sheffield during the Second World War.  It took place over the nights of 12 December and 15 December 1940.  Margaret remembers it well:

And er I remember the night of the blitz I went to work the next day.  I walked all the way. Course when you saw the mess, I just walked all the way back because there was nowhere to go to work.  I remember that.

Without libraries what have we?*

Writing up our own reading journeys has long been the plan for the Reading Sheffield team (here is our web designer Lizz’s reading journey). The threat to libraries across the country brought the task into sharp focus for me.  Libraries have been, and are, my regular staging posts along the road.  It saddens me that so many of them are closing and so many of us will thus find the way harder.

Even before libraries, there were my parents.  My father paused his reading about Newcastle Utd in the Evening Chronicle (well, the news was often bad) to help me spell out letters, then words, from the headlines.  ‘Goal’ was probably one of my first words.  My mother, keen to give me the education she missed, taught me the alphabet – in upper case, which later irritated my teachers.  She helped me grasp narrative early on by telling me stories.  One was about how much she enjoyed ‘reading time’ at school, with Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm her favourite books.

There was a scheme allowing very young children – I was about two years old – to borrow picture books from the local library.  For us this was the Redheugh Branch in Gateshead, an Art Deco building with pale yellow doors, now a recording studio.  We went there as often as I could persuade my mother.  I remember a low table-cum-box, divided into four compartments for the picture books and known apparently as a ‘kinderbox’, with three-legged stools around it.  Table and stools were painted yellow and red.

Redheugh Library

Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

A kinderbox

When I was four, we moved.  It was around then that I started school, and found shelves of books in most classrooms.  The Council was keen on school libraries.  There were Ladybird books, Janet and John and two books which, perhaps because they were the first ‘proper’ stories I ever read, stay with me.  First was Neighbours in the Park, about a girl who lived with her parents in a double-decker bus and made friends with a park-keeper’s daughter.  The park, bus and girls were shown on the green, black and white cover.  Then came The Bittern, which had a pale green or brown cover with, I think, a drawing of a rather mournful, long-haired girl.  I have no idea what The Bittern was about, or who wrote either book, but between them they caught me, and I was never free again.  (If anyone knows these books, I would love to hear of them.)

The nearest library was now Gateshead Central, a Carnegie library.  I had no fear of it, or sense that time reading was time wasted.  It was the first place I was allowed to go to by myself.  In holidays I would go at least every other day and, in term time, on Saturdays and a couple of weekday evenings.  Often my father was persuaded to give me a lift.  ‘You won’t be long now, will you?’

Gateshead Central Library

Gateshead Central Library

To join, I had to read a passage aloud to the children’s librarian, stern in brown tweed suit and knitted jumper.  Her hair was corrugated cardboard.  But, frightening as she was, she had the power to make me free of the books on her shelves, so it was a worthwhile ordeal.  The library was a large room, with high shelves and big, oak reading tables and chairs.  It was perhaps not very child-friendly, though this never struck me then.  It was just the library, where the books were, and I wanted to be.

anne_of_green_gables_-_cover

Here I found Anne of Green Gables and loved it as much as my mother had.  How I adored Gilbert Blythe, in common with Anne and many other readers.  Anne herself was important because we both loved stories and hated geometry, and we shared red hair and the name Anne, although mine lacked the important final ‘e’.  There were also Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth (how I cried!), Katy Carr, Rebecca and Pollyanna, who was too glad to be endured for long.  And I found adventurous children like Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys.  My Reading Sheffield colleague Mary Grover points out that these are all from across the Atlantic, and wonders if the library had any American connection.  Not that I know of.

School and ballet stories were important too.  My favourites, which were plentiful in the library, were Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series – I can still name all of Joey Maynard’s eleven children – and Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells books.  I begged for ballet lessons, to no avail, and was reduced to copying the ballet-trained glide of a luckier classmate.  I didn’t read about horses, the other staple for young girls.  A teacher had read Black Beauty aloud, and I was haunted by the cruelty.

What other books stay in my mind?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its brilliant opening, where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus under the lamp-post in the snow.  But I found Aslan disturbing and never managed the other Narnia books.

Any book by E Nesbit.  ‘You’re so funny!’ said the psammead. ‘Have your parents tried boiling you?’

The Changeling of Monte Lucio and other old-fashioned, Ruritanian novels by Violet Needham.  Quests, rebellions, secret societies, castles, mountains – what more could anyone want?

A non-fiction series called The Young …, about the early lives of the famous.  My favourite was The Young Mary Queen of Scots, by Jean Plaidy.  Mary, with Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston, escaped from Scotland to France, where she married the Dauphin.  The book ended with her returning to Scotland, aged about 16 and wearing white mourning for her young husband.

‘Career novels’ like Margaret Becomes a Doctor, in which girls trained for a career but always met a nice young man and gave up their hard-won jobs.  Linked with these for me were two series – American, again – about nurses Cherry Ames and Sue Barton, who had both adventures and principles.  Cherry was unique in never settling for domesticity.

Five Children and It

The Psammead: Five Children and It by E Nesbit

violet-needham

When I was around 13, I’d outgrown the children’s library but was too young for the adult.  Ingeniously, I bullied my parents into joining and then used their tickets, always ready if challenged to say I was just collecting their books.  But no-one ever asked.

Today I belong to Sheffield Library, and Newcastle and Leeds have also known me over the years.  Libraries and I have been together for over 50 years, and we see no reason to split up now.

* The answer?  ‘We have no past and no future.’  So said Ray Bradbury.

Reading Sheffield research: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

Just posted in our Research section, a slightly edited version of a paper given by Reading Sheffield team member Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016

‘Even Edgar Wallace may be discovered’: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

 

Judith G’s reading journey

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.

j-g-age-6-or-7--

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’.

Two readers - Judith and her mum

Two readers – Judith and her mum

‘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!

Sheffield Central Library, opened in 1934, not long after the establishment of SINTO

* 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