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
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
Ted L, born in 1919, was one of our oldest interviewees. He lived in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield most of his life, apart from his war service as a fitter and machinist in the Ordnance Corps. He took part in the retreat from Dunkirk (he and three others were stranded for six days, with only a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot to eat) and then was stationed in East Africa for two and a half years. In peacetime, he worked in engineering, and the ‘only one romance [he] was ever interested in’ was with his wife, Nellie, whom he met at work and married in 1948.
All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary … We went to look at Leonardo … it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.
This was Ted, talking about a visit to the National Gallery. For him, books meant art rather than anything else. His flat was full of books, and they were mostly about art, noted the interviewer, although he also enjoyed history, architecture and music. His neighbour Gillian, who sat in on the interview, described how Ted ‘devour[ed]’ all the book she lent him, and Ted himself said:
Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books. I don’t read fiction books. Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.
There were books in his childhood, with Ted’s mother going to the library every week to borrow, among other, P G Wodehouse, and his father (‘He wasn’t educated. He was a working class man, he was a plumber’) enjoying detective stories. And Ted himself did read fiction as a boy – ‘ripping yarns’ from authors like John Buchan and Rider Haggard, who were so popular in his youth. He remembers studying Buchan’s Prester John at Duchess Road School and also reading Blanket of the Dark, She, The Thirty-Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines:
… that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them … I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book.
At school, Ted was a clever boy, particularly interested in history and once coming ‘top in English’:
Always in the top of form. I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross. He was a Londoner with a broad accent. I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days. He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round [and brought in books]. He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross. He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.
As with many boys of his background, Ted’s formal education ended at the age of 14 when he became an engineering apprentice. But by then it had opened that important door to art, as for two days a week he used to go to the art school in the centre of the city.
This art school was close to the site of the new Central Library and Graves Art Gallery which opened in 1934. Ted had a ringside seat at the building:
Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school. And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning.
Ted, who liked architecture as well as art, was interested in the new library, which he describes as a ‘fine building’.
Well, I think, [the old library] was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. … The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it.
Now, when he went to the public library, ‘I didn’t get reading [fiction] books. I used to get out books about art. ‘ He also enjoyed visiting the Graves:
I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built. I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, ‘What’s all this for?‘ She said, ‘It’s Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children’. ‘Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now. That’s Lowry up there [on the wall of his flat].
You can read and listen to Ted’s interview in full here.
Florence was born in Huddersfield in 1923 and moved to Sheffield when her father got an engineering job there. Later her parents ran a greengrocer’s shop. The family lived in the Abbey Lane area; initially she attended a private school and then Abbey Lane Primary when it opened. She passed the eleven plus examination at the age of 10, and went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School. At sixteen, after passing the School Certificate in English and Botany, she went to the Commercial College on Psalter Lane. In 1939 she left school aged 16 and got a job with the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway. At the end of the war she married and gave up work.
Florence was always passionate about reading:
In fact, if I was ever naughty and I was sent to my room, my mother always made sure I hadn’t got a book because she knew it was no punishment if I had a book.
One of her earliest recollections is reading one of her grandmother’s books, Little Folks:
I read all sorts of bits out of it: school stories, adventure stories, little poems, letters from children who were stationed in India, letters to the editor.
Florence’s family encouraged her reading: her grandfather was a headmaster and bought her the books for grammar school. Her godmother was a teacher and gave her books for Christmas presents: ‘she once gave me a whole lot of Enid Blyton’.
Her mother also loved reading:
I’ve got some of my mother’s books that she had as a young woman … [Mary] Anerley, two volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Little Women and Good Wives, yes. That was my mother’s book.
Gone With the Wind was a present from her mother for her nineteenth birthday.
As a result of family circumstances, Florence spent a lot of time in libraries as she got older, especially in the Central Library :
‘That’s why I used to go to the library and that, because I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working. And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go down to the [Library]. Have a little trot around Woolworths by myself, get myself some sweeties. And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the Art Gallery. I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures. And then I used to go down to the Reading Room. You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend the whole day, you know, really, and then come home on the tram you know, and read my library books.
Probably another reason Florence spent so much time in libraries was that she did not see much of her school friends:
I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school … People came from all over the city …So my best friend lived at Pitsmoor … another one lived out in Grindleford.
Reading was a private thing – Florence didn’t discuss her choice of books with anyone.
At school she read the familiar titles: Anne of Green Gables (she liked the struggle of the little girl); What Katy Did; Black Beauty (she loved horses); but as she got older, she graduated to more adult books. Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country was a present for Christmas 1944 and Florence still has her copy, which she bought herself, of Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General. Others she borrowed from the library, like A Tree Grew in Brooklyn and all Nevil Shute’s books (except Requiem for a Wren).
She read Jane Eyre but
some of the older books, you know, like Jane Eyre, they can be a bit fulsome, if you know what I mean.
Florence had what would be considered a modern view of education – not one recognisable to Mr Squeers or Mr Gradgrind!
Knowledge and education isn’t knowing a whole load of facts. It’s knowing where to find the information you want. And I think a book is, to open a book and you find things out that you never knew before.
She read for pleasure not for self-improvement or because she thought she ought to read them:
I’ve got a full set of Dickens, but I haven’t read much of him. My godmother used to send me two or three every birthday, so I’ve got the full set. I didn’t really appreciate it… quite frankly, a lot of them bore me to death.
After school, as a girl, her opportunities were limited:
Well, you had a choice. You either went in a shop, or a hairdresser’s, or you went in an office. No, there wasn’t this business about going to university and this, that and the other.
She wanted to be a reporter and got a job on the local newspaper :
I worked in the publicity department with Gloops* and all that sort, you know. And then the war broke and … they closed the paper down … And my father said, ‘You have to get a job’ and I went to work for the North Eastern Railway.
Florence stayed there throughout the war as it was a reserved occupation and then married in 1946.
I worked there until I got married. And then I left, of course, when I got married.
However she still managed to keep on reading.
I did go on reading, but … I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married.
In some senses reading changed Florence’s life: she enjoyed reading about foreign places and travel which led to:
a love of wanting to explore, wanting to find out about things. I’m always interested in people, how people live…
Different books stimulated interest in different parts of the world:
Green Dolphin Country, gave me a yen for Australia -…You know, the other side of the world. I didn’t go to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia. … I used to like the Sundowners and all stories.
Her visit to South Africa was also stimulated by what she read.
The Valley of the Vines one gave me a yen for South Africa. I eventually went to South Africa and saw the Valley of the Vines… I always was interested in [South Africa], in particular around the Cape, the Cape district, and of course I went there, but it’s a long time ago now. Well, Nelson Mandela was still on Robbin Island and there was still apartheid. That was just after Sharpeville, I think
Florence was also a poet and painter – self-taught.
I went to the local art class … Well, my husband used to go fishing and I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t particularly want to knit, and I decided I’d try and paint a picture and it went from there.
She was interested in books about shipwrecks and painted the wreck of the Royal Charter ‘… and that is mentioned in Dickens, in Uncommercial Traveler’. She used books for reference for both her painting and gardening.
The following is a fitting tribute to the power of books and to the zest for life which Florence showed so clearly:
This is my own bit of things, and I found it, I saw it in the library van once.
I’ve travelled the world twice over,
And met the famous saints and sinners,
Poets and artists, kings and queens,
All stars and hopeful beginners.
I’ve been where no one’s been before,
Drawn secrets from writers and cooks,
Always with a library ticket
To the wonderful world of books.
I would like to say that books have been me life, all me life, and without them, my life would be nothing like as good as it has been. Because books have been there.
Written by Sue Roe
Enter Sheffield’s Central Library and Graves Art Gallery and, just before the entrance to the Lending Library, stop and look up. What you see above you is Blue Bird by Japanese-born, Sheffield-based textile artist Seiko Kinoshita. Made from paper yarn which is hand-dyed and woven, this wonderful work is said to be inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play, The Blue Bird, about the search for happiness.
Here is Seiko Kinoshita’s website, where you can read about what inspires her and how she works.
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. (Dr Johnson)
Alysoun Bagguley, born in Nantwich in the 1940s, worked for Sheffield City Libraries for over 40 years. She became Law Librarian, Business Librarian and, finally, Science and Technology Librarian and deputy head of the Commerce Science and Technology Department. Alysoun is the first of our Librarians’ Voices interviews.
‘No two days were ever the same,’ Alysoun says, looking back on the Commercial Science and Technology library. ‘You’d be jumping from one thing to another as one query followed another!’ The fascination was that ‘you are constantly learning.’ One hundred and fifty enquiries a day was the norm for this library in a city famous for steelmaking. An opening like ‘I’ve got this steel …’ was common, but Alysoun and her colleagues were asked everything from the weight of a cubic foot of sand to the recipe for making rose-hip syrup. Law, business, chemistry, cookery, birds – anything might come up. A particular pleasure was searching the wonderful Botanical Illustration collection – hand-coloured Victorian, Edwardian and 20th century books (demonstrating incidentally the skill of librarians in choosing books). Less happily, a man once came in to ask advice about his pet spider, a tarantula, which he produced from under his jumper, making nearby schoolgirls scream in fright.
Alysoun’s first post was in Woodseats Library in the early 1960s. The staff knew their customers by name and got to know the books they liked. The male librarian in charge appeared very ‘old school’, fierce and bluff, but his approach was to ‘give the customers what they like’. So while the prevailing professional wisdom was to exclude pulp and escapist fiction from municipal libraries, he bought romantic fiction, known to borrowers as ‘luverly books’. At Christmas, these satisfied borrowers thanked the staff with sweets and cakes. ‘Libraries were always friendly places,’ Alysoun remembers.
While at Woodseats, Alysoun went, on her day off, to classes for her library exams. In 1963, she started a sandwich course at Liverpool College of Commerce, alternating six-month periods of study and work over two and half years. Back in Sheffield, the jobs varied. Alysoun worked in the Highfield and Attercliffe branches and on the enquiries desk/telephone service in the Commercial Science and Technology library. Sometimes, she did ‘call booking’, that is, calling on people who failed to return books, to ask for the book and money. Light moments included finding a slice of bacon in one book and in another, a pay packet.
In 1967 Alysoun became, to her surprise, the Law Librarian responsible for the Assize Court Library (later the Crown Court Library). ‘The personnel officer suddenly said one week, “Next Monday you will be in the Law Library”’. She was ‘terrified. Coming from basic fiction to look after the barristers and judges …. But you just get on with it.’ She remembers barristers’ clerks commenting, in the era of the mini-skirt, when librarians climbed ladders to reach high shelves. ‘They certainly knew you were there.’
(Law became important to Alysoun in other ways. Under the National Subject Specialisation Scheme, Sheffield Libraries specialised in company law. ‘This changed my life,’ when she helped someone with his law degree dissertation. She refused a date with him. Then ‘a member of staff invited me to a party and who should happen to be there but my enquirer. Things went on from there and I am still married to him!’)
In time Alysoun became Sheffield’s first Business Librarian, and then Science and Technology Librarian. Her job included SINTO, the Sheffield Interchange Organisation. SINTO was started by Sheffield Libraries in the 1930s, to exchange information about steel and related subjects between local businesses and research and academic organisations. In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge. Sometimes representatives from the metal industries would ask to ‘see the gaffer’ and were surprised to discover a woman, but Alysoun is clear that it was all about teamwork. The librarians were under pressure all the time and ‘people buckled to and did it. It was a mutual support.’
Promoted to Science and Technology Librarian, Alysoun ran the World Metal Index – ‘a joy, an absolute joy.’ The Index is a unique collection of British and international standards and specifications, trade and technical material on ferrous and non-ferrous metals. Enquiries came from Euro-Disney, the Royal Naval Dockyards, the team trying to re-create the computers used in cracking the Enigma Code and many others. There was, Alysoun recalls, huge satisfaction in ‘solving something’. Originally, the Index was compiled by hand from original documents. Before retirement Alysoun successfully secured EU funding to digitise the service, in partnership with a research organisation and various businesses. ‘I can’t imagine doing anything more interesting.’
When she gave notice, Alysoun was asked to stay on but decided not to. She notes wryly: ‘There was one year when 100 years of experience walked out of the door and that is happening again.’ But ‘I think that I was very lucky to have worked in such an interesting and useful department when the City Libraries were considered to be one of the leaders in their field within the UK.’
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.
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’.
‘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!
* 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
Our interviewee Judith G was born on 5 May 1939. In her interview (which you can read here), Judith reveals not only her own reading journey but also, at one remove, her mother’s. It was while she accompanied her mother on her reading journey that Judith started her own: ‘I just took to it because my mother read a lot.’
Here is Judith’s mum’s story.
Judith’s mother was born in Sheffield around 1906. She married a much older, ‘aloof’ husband who had been married twice before and who worked as a joiner at Chesterman’s Bow Works off Ecclesall Road*. They had five children, one of whom died as a baby. In time, Judith’s ‘demanding’ grandmother came to live with the family. There was little money for luxuries in a working-class area during the war and the austerity that followed. ‘I think she took to the libraries as an escape from looking after us and, you know, not having much.’ There were some books and newspapers at home, and when Judith’s grandmother came to stay, she ‘was always on about books and that, she’d been well educated’.
Judith’s mother ‘started with the private Red Circle Library’ between Ecclesall Road and the Moor, with its books ‘written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing’. We have no titles or authors, but she liked ‘what they called “bodice-rippers”, romantic novels and stuff’ and used to go to the Red Circle every week:
… my mother used to walk me down there I think just to get me out of the house and give her a break from four kids and my father … I can still see it with the red circle on the front and it was just like two shop windows with books in. Circulating library they called it, which I think is a lovely name. I always used to think it might revolve! … I think it cost tuppence a week, or every time you took a book out or fourpence – something like that.
Although she is pretty sure that her mother never borrowed it, Judith vividly remembers one particular book cover:
… there was a skull and there were pearls rolling down its face – I must have been a macabre child! – and it was called Devil’s Tears and that’s stuck in my mind for 60-odd years.#
Then Judith’s mother
decided to join the library, the big library in town, the main library. Because my mother was quite timid and 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.
This was Sheffield’s Central Library on Surrey Street, opened about 15 years earlier and then recovering from wartime privations.
Judith’s mum found pleasure in reading all her life. When she was older and lived in Sharrow Vale, she used to go to local Highfield Library.
I can still see her, she used to come in with four or five books, and … she still used to toddle up and down to the library, which was not far from her in those days, with those books. Because she used to say, “Oh, they were ever so nice at Highfield Library.” At Christmas they used to give them a cup of tea and a mince pie.
Looking back, Judith understands her mother. She never talked much about how she met her much older husband, but ‘no, I don’t think that mum, bless her, had a good marriage’. Books were:
… the only sort of rest she got from the lot of us. Don’t forget, my grandmother lived with us, she died when I was fifteen, and she was always demanding, my poor old mother was easily … cowed, shall we say?
Oh yes, [escape’s] what I think it was. She’d not much in her home, kind of thing, apart from keeping us four in check, and I think that’s it, she sort of buried her face in books.
* The splendid Bow Works are now occupied by Aviva Insurance.
# We think that this book might have been Edgar Hale’s Devil’s Tears (1946), although the cover shows a face rather than a skull. You can see the cover here.
A third set of library memories from Sheffield Forum.
S talks about Hillsborough and Broomhill libraries:
As a child, I used Hillsborough Junior Library; I think the children’s librarian at one time was Maureen Raybould (?). The Junior library was/is a single storey extension built on to the side of the enormous old house which housed the adult library. I used to go to Library Club and loved both the story time and, when older, the quiet reading sessions.
In the dark winter afternoons, when the park gates were shut, the only access to the library was down a fenced walkway entered from Middlewood Road. During the 1940s and 50s (and maybe into the 60s?), there was an infant welfare clinic on the top floor of the adult library building.
When I left school in 1966, I started working for Sheffield City Libraries. My first appointment was to Broomhill Library on Taptonville Road. Bruce Bellamy was the librarian in charge. I liked helping out in the children’s library, Mary Wilde was the children’s librarian. Each week, classes of boys from Birkdale Preparatory School came to change their books. One part of the job I really enjoyed was “call-booking”; this was going out to the addresses of people who had not returned their library books in an attempt to get the books back. Sometimes we were successful, often not, the borrower had a call booking fee imposed on top of the fines, needless to say, we hardly ever got any money, even if we got the books back. The left tickets file back at the library was stuffed with wodges of tickets belonging to people with fines owing (people weren’t allowed to borrow more books until all outstanding fines had been paid).
SD recalls a small, private library:
I used to frequent the Southey Green Library and Central library. I remember a private library on Snig Hill, not sure of the name maybe Red Circle.
I had an uncle, Reg, who had an industrial accident. With the money he got in the settlement he purchased a mobile library from someone. It consisted of a pile of books and a wooden hand cart. I remember visiting my Aunt in the late 40’s and seeing all the books on shelves in the living room.
O knew the library at Highfield:
I used to go to Highfield Library in the early 60’s every Friday afternoon with my mum. The squeaky floor amused me more than the books. It must have made an impression somewhere as I could read before I started school, and am still an avid reader now.
AB worked as a library assistant:
I was a Library Assistant at Handsworth Library and Central Library from 1968 until 1973. They were interesting places to work, with lots of variety and lots going on ‘backstage.’ like hunting for reserved books, repairing books, processing new releases and shifting books round in the underground ‘stack,’ Plus plenty more. As well as the many branch Libraries and the mobile Library unit, I don’t know if most people realised the many different Libraries housed in the Central building. There used to be the Central Lending Library, and the Children’s Library, but there was also the Music Library, the Library of Science and Technology, The Business Library, Central Information Library, The Local History Library, the Reading Room, and the Picture Library up by Graves Art Gallery on the top floor. There was also the massive two storey underground ‘stack’ for keeping overflow and specialist books and vaults in the basement where the valuable and rare books were kept in their own little padlocked cells. It was such an extensive network that they even used to run tours round all the different departments. It was a brilliant service for the people of Sheffield. I love libraries, what they represent, and what they can do.
I am so disappointed that some branches and services have had to close in Sheffield. Even in this digital age there’s nothing like real books, real Librarians and real libraries.
What do you remember about libraries?
In February 2016 Reading Sheffield put out a call for memories of local libraries on the online Sheffield Forum. Here are some of the stories and comments we got.
I used to go to Firth Park Library late 30s early 40s. I would read anything I could get my hands on. I went one morning to borrow a book, read it and took it back the same afternoon to exchange for another, but the librarian wouldn’t let me as she said I hadn’t read the one I was taking back.
A recalls a private library on Abbeydale Road:
I grew up as a child on Gatefield Road, off Abbeydale Road in the fifties/early sixties. In the row of shops between the bottom of Gatefield Road and Marden Road, there was a newsagents – I believe it was called Yeadon’s. On one side of the shop, they had a small private lending library which my parents used to use regularly. I usually had the task of running errands to fetch my dad his 10 Park Drive (none of this underage stuff in those days) and my mum her quarter of liquorice torpedoes.. Sometimes, I’d take their books back, The shop always seemed very dark and miserable to me. If I’m remembering correctly, they called it the Abbeydale Lending Library. The reason I know this is because, many years later, while clearing out one of my older brother’s belongings, I found a borrowed book with that name stamped inside. The shop owners had been long gone by then, so the family guilt feeling was significantly less! After they shut, I graduated to the much grander Highfields library – “Just William” books being my staple reading for several years after.
AE thinks of the temporary library at Low Edges:
My first experience of a library was as a child and using the one on the Lowedges estate. It was in the centre of a shopping parade. It was used as a temporary facility until a new one was built at Greenhill shops. I used this for many years. I remember always wanting to take out books produced by either Antelope or Reindeer publishers although I cannot recall what the stories were about. Later I became interested in football autobiographies.
SA used three libraries for study:
I used three libraries as study areas when I was a student at Sheffield university. The reading room at the main library on Surrey Street was a great venue as it provided desk space and peace and quiet, which were not always available at home. I also used the Manor Top library for the same purpose, as well as the Woodhouse library. The Surrey St library was also a spot where street folk and those in low income boarding houses used to hang out during the colder months. It was warm in there and they were no problem.
J recalls Firth Park Library:
I have fond memories of Firth Park library. I was at Firth Park Grammar school in 47/48, after school I would go to the library & spend hours looking at reference books on ancient Egypt.
What do you remember? Please let us know.
When she sat in on the interview of her aunt Wynne Wilson, Diane Haswell contributed an interesting story about an unusual private library in Sheffield in the 1950s. You can read Wynne’s story here.
Diane Haswell was born in 1947. As a small child she lived off Rustlings Road near Endcliffe Park in Sheffield. She remembers unusual competition for the public library service – a very local library run by a man called Smith, from a back room in his house which was, she thought, somewhere around Louth, Peveril or Ranby Roads.
Well, I can remember … going to a man’s house and I think he was called Mr Smith and in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child and my mother picked three books and she also picked three books for her husband, my father.
And he stocked all the Enid Blyton books and things like that. I think that was why it was so popular in the ‘50s so we had that for about ten years so we didn’t go to another library apart from school.
Diane’s memory is pretty good. Kelly’s Directories between 1951 and 1965 record ‘Frederick R. Smith, library’, based at 30 Blair Athol Road, near Rustlings Road.
How did Frederick R Smith’s enterprising library work? Although Diane doesn’t remember money changing hands, she thinks there was a subscription fee – ‘my mother must have paid’. The loan period was a fortnight. Subscribers had their own codes which were written in the front of each book they borrowed, with the result that there was a record of what they had read. Even though it is over 60 years ago, Diane still remembers that her family code was 33 S, because they lived at 33 Stainton Road. Presumably the ‘librarian’ kept a list of who had borrowed what and when. Reading this, you wonder how often, and with what, Mr Smith refreshed his stock.
At all events, the library was well-used for years.
… we sometimes had to stand in a queue before we got to the living room, taking the old books back and pick[ing] up the new and sometime there were queues of people outside the front door so it must have been a popular venue and a source of books.
Just like the public library, Mr Smith developed his own mobile service. When Diane’s family moved seven miles away to the Handsworth district in 1952, Mr Smith’s son, Eric, used to come round in a small van, ‘which [Diane] can picture now’. He would open this up to reveal a selection of books. Despite the change of address, the family kept their 33 S code, which Diane ‘thought was strange’. Soon the library ‘took off in [our] little neighbourhood and [my] mother’s neighbours used to borrow these books’.
Mr Smith’s home-made library seems to have been popular despite Ecclesall branch library and the Central Library, both of which were nearby and free to use. Ecclesall had opened in October 1949 at the bottom of Knowle Lane (about a mile away from Diane’s childhood home) and became one of the busiest branches. The Central Library was less than three miles away in Surrey Street, on a good tram route. Of course, at this remove, we have no notion of the scale of Mr Smith’s library, but perhaps it was popular because it was so very local and therefore easy for busy families. Maybe its casual nature was also attractive, although Sheffield Libraries was informal in terms of layout, rules etc, especially in its children’s libraries.
In fact, in time, Diane did use the Central Library with its comparatively vast resources:
As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library.
But the start of Diane’s reading journey was in a small, private enterprise patronised by her whole family:
… in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child … those three books were so important to me.
[Mr Smith’s library] really did set me and my parents on the path to avid reading. If my father read authors such as Nevil Shute and Nicholas Monsarrat then so did I and I was still at primary school. But then of course my father and I could discuss the stories afterwards, which I loved.
Perhaps this sort of amateur library will come back into being, as public libraries are forced to close, or at best reduce their opening hours.
Does anyone else remember Mr Smith’s library, or anything similar? Please let us know.