In June 2023, Liverpool University Press published Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955 by Mary Grover, who founded the Reading Sheffield project. On 12 July, a special event to launch the book was held at the Central Library in Sheffield. The 90 or so guests included some of the 65 people whose interviews are at the heart of the book, along with their families and Mary’s own family, friends and colleagues.
Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, who has supported Reading Sheffield and Mary’s work from the very beginning, welcomed everyone to the event.
Mary described the experience of researching and writing Steel City Readers:
Writing is almost always a lonely process. Whatever you are writing, however supportive your colleagues and companions, you are alone with the next sentence. But, however confused or doubtful, I have never been involved in a writing project in which I have felt less alone. Never have so many people contributed to a book I have produced. … When I was, as a friend put it, ‘becalmed’, I would reread stories like Kath and Judith’s, and their energy and resourcefulness were an inspiration.
The stories Mary and her colleagues drew out of the 65 readers featured in Steel City Readers are fascinating accounts of the wonder of reading. The interviews ‘helped our readers create their own narrative structures and become eloquent narrators of their own lives’ – something they had rarely, if ever, known before.
Irene had gained a place at grammar school and was reading A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, but it was the annuals given to her at Christmas that helped establish her reading fluency. The reason why she cherished these annuals till the end of her life and the reason why my listeners lit up when they held one in their hands again after 70 years, is the part that annuals played in the narrative of their lives. Like no other book, an annual is a precise marker of development. We know the year, the month, the day when we read it, Christmas Day 1931 in the case of Irene’s Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. Its physical presence is associated with those who surrounded us when we read it and those who gave it to us, at some expense. Its inscription brings back the memory of a loved relative or friend, often an unmarried aunt.
Chris then introduced Professor Dame Karin Barber, a friend of Mary’s. Karin, an anthropologist, spoke about reading the book in draft:
… I was totally gripped by it. It transported me into mid-twentieth century Sheffield – not just into the place, distinctive as it is, and the time, before and after the Second World War, but also – most importantly – the people: the 65 participants in the project talking about their memories of books and reading, their enjoyment of all kinds of literature, their practical strategies for getting hold of books to read.
Steel City Readers, she continued, was ‘a highly original and valuable contribution to social history’.
Oral history, done like this, reaches parts of the past that no other research can. It preserves and re-activates historical memories that would otherwise be lost – but which illuminate big themes of social change, class, cultural history, with unique vividness. The Reading Sheffield project – and the book that came out of it – are pioneers. It’s to be hoped that they will have started a movement and that more projects as exciting as this one will follow.
Reading Sheffield celebrated the publication of Steel City Readers by presenting copies to all the interviewees or their families. This was made possible by the generosity of those who donated to the project, including Sheffield-based Gripple and The James Neill Trust Fund, the broadcaster, Robin Ince, who did two fundraisers, and many individual supporters.
Mary Grover and the Reading Sheffield committee would like to thank Sheffield Libraries – in particular, Library Manager Alexis Filby – for hosting the launch in the Central Library. Given the importance of public libraries in Steel City Readers, this was the perfect venue.
Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman and Val Hewson for the photos of the launch, and to Karin and Mary for permission to include their speeches.
The paperback of Steel City Readers is available from all good booksellers. The e-book can be downloaded free from Liverpool University Press.
Shelagh Dixon tells us how reading has shaped her life from childhood onwards.
I was introduced to Shelagh by Kathryn Austin whose mother, Winnie Lincoln, was interviewed for the Reading Sheffield project. Shelagh, like Kathryn, has worked to improve literacy among Sheffield adults so it was no surprise to hear how important reading has been to her from a very young age.
Shelagh was born in 1954 and grew up in Upper Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. She loved the view from her bedroom, looking down into two valleys, to the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley rivers. In 1875 John Ruskin had chosen Upper Walkley to establish St George’s Museum, his collection of natural objects and art designed to lift the artistic sensibilities of the skilled metal workers toiling in the polluted valleys below. The objects are now to be found in the centre of Sheffield but Shelagh used to play in the gardens of what had been Ruskin’s museum.
Shelagh feels that Walkley was a transitional place. Lower and Upper were rather different. Upper Walkley was only developed after the tannery was closed, in the middle of the 19th century. Walkley Tan Yard originally lay between Walkley Bank Rd and Bell Hagg Rd and was at one time the property of the resident of Walkley Old Hall. At the beginning of the 19th century it had been the dominant industry on the hillside, its foul smell deterring residents. We can still find a few of the early 19th century farms scattered among the terraces of Upper Walkley. It was when the air was cleaner that John Ruskin established his museum.
Shelagh remembers the community as very diverse. Most people were connected with manufacturing or retail work and were well paid enough to rent or own a Victorian terrace house, or a 1930s semi. There was little council housing in 1950s Walkley.
Shelagh went to Bole Hill County School, like her mother and grandfather before her. In the 1930s amd 1940s, before she met Shelagh’s father at English Steels, Shelagh’s mother had worked in an upmarket department store on the Moor, learning to abandon her Sheffield accent when she tended to her wealthy clients. She familiarised Shelagh with this kind of speech.
Shelagh herself was able to mix with everyone, knowing when to use ‘teeming’ and when ‘pouring’. A friend commented that ‘We had our own language in Upper Walkley.’ The colour mauve was ‘morve’. But Shelagh’s mother always corrected her when she used traditional local grammar. Teachers did the same. Shelagh remembers a friend telling the teacher ‘There i’n’t no green cotton left’ and being firmly corrected: ‘There isn’t any green cotton.’ ‘Mum made sure we didn’t speak like many of the local children.’
Once Shelagh learnt to read, between the ages of four-and-a-half and five, she acquired a new set of words. When she tried to use them in conversation, she found that some were understood by nobody but herself. She gradually learnt that there were no such words as ‘grot-es-cue’ or ‘ank-cious’. Because she was partly self-taught her phonics were not great.
Shelagh would probably not have become a great reader if she hadn’t been so ill as a child. She had flu when she was three, a very bad attack of measles when she was five, with maybe a touch of encephalitis, then recurring tonsilitis. She missed many of her early years of infant school but by five she was reading most things that came her way.
When she was able to go to school, Shelagh had a wonderful reception teacher who would hold up flash cards to the children on the coconut matting in front of her. She soon allowed Shelagh to read whole books. The little girl was enchanted by Janet and John books – the kittens and the little dog and the lovely garden. ‘But I never realised there were actually children who had a life that was actually like that. I thought of it like Alice in Wonderland – fantasy.’ It was only later that she realised they were depicting a real world. Shelagh didn’t have many children’s books but she got some from an aunt who was a primary school teacher in Doncaster. Two of them she never forgot. The Little Lorry was a basic early reader but Little Redwing was even more thrilling. It was in colour, in big print and about a little Native American boy. She read it over and over again, entranced by the boat he journeyed in, the little ‘canó’.
The school didn’t have a library but it did have a little library bookcase in each junior classroom. When Shelagh had gone through all the ‘girls’ books’, she moved on to the boys’ section, to books like The Gorilla Hunters. The children were meant to write a review when they had finished a book from the library shelf but Shelagh never did because she always wanted to move on and read the next title. Shelagh learnt to use the local Walkley Library, funded in part by the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The whole family ‘read library books like anything.’ When she was five she was reading Enid Blyton.
And there were always her parents’ books on motherhood and marriage. ‘All my sex education, initially, came from that.’ And she was much better informed about the facts of life than her friends.
She did, however, struggle with the Walter Scott on her parents’ shelves.
Shelagh was bought copies of the Collins children’s classics: Black Beauty, Little Women and The Children of the New Forest. ‘Before that, someone had given me a copy of Alice in Wonderland but I couldn’t get past the caucus race because there were so many hard words. I have an abiding memory of the day when I got past the caucus race.‘
Shelagh read all the time, even when she shouldn’t have. When she had measles, she was not allowed to read with the curtains drawn back or by electric light in case she went blind. She got into trouble when she tried to read under the bedclothes. The fluorescent toy sea creatures that were given away through her cereal box (a common marketing ploy at the time) provided her with light. She powered them up under the electric light and they cast a gentle light in the cave under the bedclothes.
Shelagh read books by daylight as she walked back and forward between home and school. She was in a class of about 45 children so could always get away with opening the lid of her desk unnoticed and reading the book inside it. Sometimes the book was perched on her knee. One day, having found herself comfortably tucked away at the back of the classroom and engrossed in an illicit book, she was dismayed to find that the headmaster had entered and had stopped behind her. But instead of telling her off, he just smiled and passed on. Shelagh thinks her obsession with reading made her friends think she ‘was a bit of a freak’ but because she was so bad at maths, they ‘let her off.’
The headmaster helped Shelagh a lot. He knew she was very good at subjects requiring reading and writing but her (as yet undiagnosed) dyscalculia was a barrier to passing the 11+. She later learnt that he had been her advocate at the meeting of teachers which followed the exam. It was he who pitched her case, helping her gain a place at High Storrs Grammar School. He was committed to fostering social mobility.
Many years later, in the 1970s, when Shelagh was training to be a primary school teacher, she was dismayed to visit one particular school. The headteacher had been there for many years and said ‘not much could be expected from these children, academically.’ So the school focused on fostering good manners. Shelagh said, ‘I was very glad I had not been sent to that school.’ It is that kind of attitude that makes Shelagh in favour of SATs which, in her opinion, force teachers to be ambitious for their pupils.
Shelagh feels she was lucky to get a good education both at her primary and grammar school. She went on to do a degree in education, with English as her second subject. In spite of her difficulties with maths she liked science and got a biology ‘A’ level.
Shelagh continues to read. When I asked her what books made an impression on her in her adulthood, she was unable to list them, because ‘there were so many.’
Shelagh’s reading journey is based on our notes of her interview. There is no verbatim transcript or audio recording.
Another instalment of my reading journey, in which I confess my affection for dictionaries and grammar books.
Forty years ago, I was a student at the University of Leeds, studying Latin and French. I was, then as now, rarely without a book in my hand and a spare in my bag: set texts and academic studies for my courses and novels for fun. With all that, it intrigues me that I have very clear memories of the reference books I used. I even feel affection for them.
On most Saturday mornings back then, I would be found in the Brotherton Library. I used to climb the white stone steps into the Parkinson Building, cross the court to the library entrance with its creaky turnstiles, and walk into the main reading room. Turning sharp left, I went upstairs to the gallery, where Classics was shelved. The main undergraduate library was then the South Library, long renamed the Edward Boyle. But I always preferred the Brotherton, opened in 1936 and since 1950 peacefully hidden behind the Parkinson.
hic haec hoc hunc hanc hoc huius huius huius huic huic huic hoc hac hoc
I came to the Brotherton to work on my Latin prose. Every Friday we got a passage of English to turn into Latin – something philosophical, a political speech or maybe military history. Burke, Locke, Gibbon, Macaulay are the names that come to mind. I think there may also have been occasional old leaders from the Times. Writings by women never featured. Whoever the author was, I would in theory have done a rough draft at home on the Friday afternoon. Saturday morning in the Brotherton was for polishing, looking up words and phrases in Lewis and Short, and checking out, say, the optative subjunctive in Bradley’s Arnold or, if I was desperate, in the small print of Gildersleeve and Lodge. These are, respectively, a Latin dictionary and two grammar books. I have my copies still, shelved about six feet away from the sofa where I am typing this.
These books are always known not by their titles but by their authors. Our prose tutor never mentioned Bradley’s Arnold, quoting instead from Mountford. We were all mystified, and it was only by chance, halfway through the term, that we found out he meant Bradley’s Arnold all along. Theologian Thomas Kerchever Arnold (1800-1853) wrote it in 1839. Then, you see, George Granville Bradley (1821-1903), Master of Marlborough, later master of University College, Oxford and Dean of Westminster, revised it in 1885. Finally, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Sir James Mountford (1897-1979), revised it again in 1938. Impressive chaps.
Ut, Ne, Introducing a Noun Clause: One of the main difficulties in translating English into Latin is to know when to represent the English infinitive by a Latin infinitive, and when to use a subordinate clause containing a finite verb. (Bradley’s Arnold, para. 117, p.83)
As well as these august publications, I found that I still relied on my school books: Latin Sentence and Idiom (1948) and Mentor (1938) by schoolmaster R A Colebourn. Comfortingly familiar, they were a gift from my Latin teacher when I left school. ‘In memoria temporum beatissimorum cum benigna tua magistra’ (‘remembering the happiest of times with your kind teacher’), she wrote inside the cover. Why I don’t have Civis Romanus, the companion book to Mentor, I just don’t understand. (Mem to self: check Abebooks).
Two more books on my shelves are Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (1888) and Meissner’s Latin Phrase Book. I never liked Kennedy much but it is the book perhaps most often associated with learning Latin. It turns out that it was not written by schoolmaster Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804 – 1889) but by his daughters Marion and Julia and two of his former students. The Phrase Book is an English translation by H W Auden, a master at Fettes College, from the original German by Carl Meissner (1830-1900), and my battered copy dates from 1924. It helpfully runs from the philosophical to the practical.
Choice – Doubt – Scruple: unus mihi restat scrupulus (one thing still makes me hesitate) (p.83)
Victory – Triumph: victoria multo sanguine ac vulneribus stetit (the victory was very dearly bought) (p.269)
The king of all dictionaries was Lewis & Short, first published in 1879. I never knew until now that Short lived down to his name: he supplied only the letter A and Lewis did the other 25. At first I used one of the Brotherton’s copies but in 1981 I got my own. In a medieval Latin exam we were allowed to take in our dictionaries and, while the Latin of the Middle Ages is not difficult after you’ve done Cicero or Virgil, I carried in all 2.7 kg of my Lewis & Short, just for the pleasure of having it on the desk. ‘Really?’ said my Latin tutor, eyeing it up as we started.
The Brotherton Library naturally had a set of Loebs, those blessed books with the Latin or Greek text and the English translation side by side. Red covers for Latin and green for Greek. The translations were often pedestrian but so very useful when you got stuck. The older editions of the naughtier poets are said to have passages translated into French, rather than English, presumably on the grounds that if you understand French, you must be pretty immoral anyway.
Being happiest with dead languages, I also studied Old French and Old English. In Old French, it’s really the texts I remember: unbound and uncut editions of the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes from the French publisher Champion. ‘The idea,’ said my supervisor, ‘is that you get them bound yourself.’ A pause. ‘I always have my own books bound in episcopal purple.’
Cil qui fist d’Erec et d’Enide, Et les comandements d’Ovide Et l’art d’amors an roman mist Et le mors de l’espaule fist Del roi Marc et d’Yseut la blonde Et de la hupe et de l’aronde Et del rossignol la muance, Un novel conte rancomance (Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes, ll. 1-8)[i]
(I did have to look up a couple of words in my Larousse Dictionnaire d’Ancien Français to translate this quotation just now.)
For Old English, it’s all about Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and his Anglo-Saxon Reader. Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was a philologist said to have been an inspiration for Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins.
Ælfred kyning hateð gretan Wǣrferð biscep his wordum luflice ond freondlice; ond ðe cyðan hate ðǣt me com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ǣgðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra… (King Alfred, On the State of Learning in England, Anglo-Saxon Reader, p. 4)[ii]
I also have a little book, An Outline of Old English Grammar (1976), especially written for Leeds’ English students. ‘Old English is a fairly fully inflected language,’ it starts. Quite.
I don’t know if Sweet, Kennedy, Bradley’s Arnold and the rest are still standard texts. Perhaps they are somewhere. Dead languages don’t change. But the way of teaching them may well have. Mountford, Sweet and the rest are, well, a little dry and can seem almost as old as the texts they teach. The books I relied on may therefore by now have been carried down into the Brotherton’s stacks. Forty years ago, for me they unlocked epics, romances, speeches, philosophy and histories.
A few years ago, when I needed access to a university library, I travelled back to Leeds, to the Brotherton, to get a graduate library membership. I walked from the railway station, along Park Row, across the Headrow, past the Town Hall and the Central Library on the left, and up Woodhouse Lane to the university. Then up the Parkinson steps, across the court and into the reading room. I could see many differences. In my day, there was usually a porter on duty at the turnstiles, and now of course there were computer terminals everywhere, and they seemed to have moved the Classics books. But much was as I remembered: the huge circular room with wooden tables radiating outwards like spokes, the dome supported by green marble columns and, at the centre, wonderful Art Deco lighting known, I learn, as an electrolier. As I arranged my ticket, I mentioned to the librarian that I used to do my Latin prose in the Brotherton most Saturday mornings. ‘Welcome home,’ she said to me, as she handed me my new ticket.
[i] He who wrote of Erec and Enide, he who translated the commands of Ovid and the Art of Love, he who wrote of the shoulder bite. of King Mark and the fair Yseult and of the transformation of the hoopoe, the swallow and the nightingale, he is starting a new story…
[ii] King Alfred orders greetings to Bishop Waerferth with his words in love and friendship. I want you to know that very often I think what wise men there used to be throughout England, both in the church and out in the world…
Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.
Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.
And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.
Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.
Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.
On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.
One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.
So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.
When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.
Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ – to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.
Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’
But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.
Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.
Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.
When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.
She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’
While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.
I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . . It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.
Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.
Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.
Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.
Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.
Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.
The second librarian of the Sheffield Subscription Library was, very unusually, a woman – Esther Saunders. We know little about the early keepers of the holdings of subscription libraries, of which Sheffield’s was one of the first, but almost certainly they were generally male. Esther certainly made an impact on the Library.
Her tenure was a long one. She became Librarian in 1777 (the Library had been founded in 1771) when the previous, probably the first, Librarian died. This was her father, Joseph Saunders, from whom she must have learned her profession; he had worked at the Harleian Library with Humfrey Wanley. The Harley collection of manuscripts formed the basis of the British Museum’s collection and Wanley was its learned Keeper. The association with Wanley, providing a very auspicious connection to serious professionalism and important manuscripts, must have seemed attractive to the founders of the Sheffield Subscription Library looking for a Librarian. And at Saunders’ death, Esther’s skills made her the obvious replacement.
Norfolk Street today – Upper Chapel
Norfolk Street today, still with some 18th c houses
Norfolk Street today, with the Crucible Theatre on the right
The Library was housed in her father’s house in Norfolk Street, Sheffield (the exact location is unknown). Esther was responsible for all loans and the numbering of books. She could keep the fines on overdue books and was paid ten guineas for rent and attendance at her father’s house – around £16,000 in today’s money.
One of the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Esther must also have been responsible for producing the annual catalogues.* These catalogues were arranged in subject groupings, such as Voyages and Travel, Authors Moral, Scientifical and Miscellaneous and Geography and Topography. Such groupings were not universally adopted and librarians evidently followed their own inclination and the dictates of the books in the collection to devise their groupings. Esther arranged the books alphabetically within each group, so the first book to appear in the first extant catalogue of 1792 is History of Abyssinia by Lobo in the History section. However, as Esther numbered the books, it is possible to tell which were the very first books purchased by Sheffield’s elite members in 1771: books numbered 1, 2 and 3 are lost, but number 4 is Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain, vol.1, and number 5 is Cawthorne’s Poems. These then were the first choices of the majority of the members of the Library.
Pages from one of the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Did Esther load the shelves in their groups, by number, or alphabetically? There was no separate reading room and the room was cramped. How did potential readers ‘browse’? Perhaps by using the catalogue at home – it appears that every member may have been issued with a catalogue – and by exploiting Esther’s prodigious knowledge of the Library. On 3 July 1797 the young Joseph Hunter, who was to become known as ‘the Sheffield antiquarian’, noted in his diary that Esther impressed him by remembering the number of a book.
But some of the problems which Esther’s long librarianship brought are also hinted at in Hunter’s diary. He mentions that she allowed him to keep Mrs Radcliffe’s The Italian for longer than he should, and allowed him to take out Varieties of Literature illegally, although she drew the line at issuing him another book when he had not brought back Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.
The rules of the Library, set out in the early catalogues (courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Thomas Asline Ward, ‘one of the Sheffield elite, and the reforming president of the Library’, tells us in 1825 that by 1819, just after her death, the Library was in ‘a desolate condition’. The books were dirty and tattered, and the rules were not adhered to, so that many books were lost, because the Librarian was ‘not in constant attendance’. He said that favourite books were reserved for favourite readers, and the publications most eagerly sought after were concealed in cupboards, drawers and even in the warming pan. Ward tells us that in 1787 Esther married, and until 1805 she was paid only 12 guineas (about £11,000 in today’s money). Interestingly, he blames the Library’s problems firmly on this low wage, saying that ‘for such a small sum no one could attend constantly in the room.’ ‘The Librarian was allowed to manage her household affairs and the Library neglected.’ Indeed, this may be the first expression of the difficulty facing a female librarian on a low wage struggling to juggle work and home life!
After 1805 Esther was paid 17 guineas. In 1810 there was an attempt to pension her off as it was felt she was too old to continue with her duties, but ‘feelings of compassion’ prevailed. In 1816 Esther’s wage was raised to £30 (about £23,000), on condition she worked full time in the Library, but according to Ward it was too late. There was an attempt by a group of members to set up a new subscription library, but the opportunity for reform was seized by the committee at Esther’s death in 1818.
An affectionate poem appeared in Sheffield’s newspaper, the Iris, which mourned the death of a cheerful, honest chatterbox, who knew where every book was shelved. Esther remains a tantalising figure, who tells us a lot, but suggests just how much more there is to know about the realities of using Sheffield’s Subscription Library.
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’.
[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.