Postscript: On the Shelves at Tinsley Carnegie Library

After their struggle to build their Carnegie Library, what books did Tinsley parish council see fit to buy for the enlightenment and entertainment of its residents?

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library, by T.Wilkinson, on 8 June 1905 (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield City Archives)

The tone was set by Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of William Cooke and Co, as he opened the library on Thursday 8 June 1905. The Sheffield Independent reported the next day:

[In his boyhood] there were no beautiful structures of that kind ready for the working man to use. He very much rejoiced that they had in the parish so excellent a building to which they could come in search of recreation of a rational character, or of the knowledge which was to be obtained from the scientific and engineering works he had observed on the shelves.

The Sheffield Independent noted the lending library’s capacity for ‘several thousand volumes’ and there was also a reference library to stock. But for now there were just ‘434 volumes’, ‘well and substantially bound in leather’. Mr H C Else, who chaired the council, said that they hoped to expand in time and that for now people

would probably think that the library looked bare … they only got the last half of the books on Tuesday of this week.

There were twelve shelves of novels, including:

Dickens, Dumas, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Hall Caine, Captain Marryat, R S Merriman, Scott, Mrs Henry Wood, E J Worboise, Stanley Weyman, Charles Reade. [i]

This range of mostly contemporary or recent novels was likely to appeal to both men and women. Some of the names, like Eliot, we rever today and others, like Wilkie Collins, are less well regarded but in print and read with pleasure by many. Still others are almost completely forgotten. Hall Caine and E J Worboise? Anyone? Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) wrote ‘novels of wide popularity’, says the Oxford Companion to English Literature. His Wikipedia entry lists his subjects as: ‘adultery, divorce, domestic violence, illegitimacy, infanticide, religious bigotry and women’s rights’, and describes him as the ‘most highly paid novelist of his day’. Emma Jane Worboise (1825–1887) wrote strongly Christian novels.

At this point the Independent’s journalist unexpectedly indulged in literary criticism of his own:

The ubiquitous Marie Corelli was unrepresented. Resenting this absence, the lady of Stratford-on-Avon will probably supply the deficiency by forwarding a complete set of  immortal works at the earliest opportunity.

Marie Corelli (1854-1924) was relished by the public for her exotic novels involving high society, ancient Egypt, debauchery, paganism, spiritualism and much else. Predictably, she was despised by the critics. Evidently there was no place for her in Tinsley.

Exotic author Marie Corelli (1909) (public domain)

It is interesting that fiction of any kind found a place in Tinsley’s public library. Libraries had been founded, in true Victorian fashion, with a view to improving the working man. To many minds the novel hardly suited this noble purpose. In addition, some ratepayers resented wasting public – or rather, their – money on providing the frivolous to the undeserving. In 1879, J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, called novels ‘the most dangerous literature of the age’.[ii] When he opened the nearby Walkley Carnegie Library, in December 1905, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Colonel Hughes

impressed upon the young people that it was not by reading three-volume novels that literary or other success was achieved, but by digesting the finest writers on subjects that would be of use afterwards. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 December 1905)

At all events, in Tinsley, in 1905, the council chose fiction that would both entertain and inform.[iii]

What then of ‘books of information’, in a phrase of the time?

The more serious books in the library included Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries, half a dozen volumes of Ruskin, a dozen of the English Men of Letters series, and a fine set of over 30 volumes dealing with national heroes. The poets at present seem to be confined to Longfellow, Scott, Shakespeare, and Tennyson.

This is another solid and conventional selection on literature, history and art. The ‘fine set … dealing with national heroes’ has a confident, even imperial, ring to it, and the English Men of Letters series included luminaries like Samuel Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth and Chaucer (there were no women of letters). John Ruskin had local connections, with his Guild of St George and St George’s Museum for Sheffield’s working men. There was apparently little science or technology, apart from the ‘small selection dealing with the coal and iron industries’ reflecting the local economy and also vocational improvement.

John Ruskin (1879) (public domain)

There seem to have been no books for children, although older children might well have enjoyed,  for example, Captain Marryat. Junior public libraries were few and far between in this period, even in bigger cities. Had the idea occurred in Tinsley, there was in any case little money. There were perhaps books in local schools and Sunday Schools.

Early libraries were intended as a source of news and information and so there were newspapers and magazines in the reading room and the ladies’ reading room. The main reading room was well-equipped with ‘six newspaper desks, and three large oak tables, on which will be laid current magazines’.

Tinsley’s new librarian, Mr J O’Donnell, was named by the Independent. There is no other information about him, but it may be assumed that he advised the council on its book purchases. At all events, he did not stay long, for by 1912 the librarian was Mr A Burton, who also served on the council.

Underpinning Tinsley’s achievement was local financial support. Andrew Carnegie’s £1,500 was a donation strictly for construction, and councils could raise a rate of only 1d in the pound for libraries. In Tinsley this meant £110 a year. Money for books was always going to be hard to find, but the council, in a move as enterprising as its applying for Carnegie money,

went to several of the large works in the parish and asked them to give assistance. … which mounted in all to £50. That would not buy many books, and so they were obliged to put another £50 to it in order to make some show at the outset. … but before they could extend it much they would need to obtain either more money or more books from some one.

The businesses which contributed were carefully listed by the Independent: Hadfield’s Steel Foundry Co, William Cooke and Co, Edgar Allen and Co, the Tinsley Rolling Mills Co, and T Gray and Sons. With the exception of the last (the company which had built the library), these were internationally important businesses.

The Sheffield Independent evidently admired Tinsley’s efforts to secure its building and books:

The handsome little library … was formally opened yesterday evening, in the presence of an interested gathering of spectators. Neither architects nor builders have attempted anything to which the word pretentious could be applied, but the building is pleasing in appearance, and admirably planned for the purposes to which it will be put. … The surrounding grounds are nicely laid out and planted with shrubs.

An artist’s impression of Tinsley Carnegie Library from the Sheffield Independent (9 June 1905)

Read more about the building of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Parts One, Two and Three).

[i] R S Merriman is presumably a misprint for H S (Henry Seton) Merriman (1862-1903), another popular novelist of exciting-sounding books: Slave of the Lamp (1894), The Vultures (1902) and The Last Hope (1904).

[ii] Quoted by Thomas Kelly in A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1975 (London, Library Association, 1977).

[iii] Not everyone disapproved of novels. Opening Sheffield’s Upperthorpe Library in 1876, Alderman Fisher said that: ‘…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon’. By 1905, novels with a Christian moral were often given to children as school or Sunday School prizes. By 1930, when Sheffield stocked Edgar Wallace, Ethel M Dell and the like in its new Firth Park branch, this proved tremendously popular with residents.

Betty B’s reading journey

Betty was born in 1924 and grew up between Crookes and Walkley. She worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and served in the WAAF during World War Two.  

Betty’s father was the great influence on her early reading. While her mother read only magazines, her father liked Edgar Wallace. There were books at home, she says, and ‘Father took me to the Walkley Library’. Betty had a library card from the age of six, which was probably about the earliest age children could join in those days, and she ‘lived in the library’. She was lucky: the Walkley branch was home to Sheffield’s first-ever library for children, which had opened in the year she was born.

Carnegie library at Walkley

It’s interesting that, while he was evidently happy for his daughter to benefit from the public library, Betty’s father didn’t use it himself. His books came from the newsagents on Heavygate Rd in nearby Crookes. He would have had to pay to borrow from this ‘tuppenny library’, but at the time he might have felt more likely to find his favourites outside the public library. (In fact, from about 1930, Sheffield’s chief librarian, J P Lamb, started stocking more popular fiction, including Edgar Wallace, in his branch libraries, a move that was frowned upon in some professional library circles.)

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low

Betty attended the Western Road school and did the 11+ there, but she felt that she ‘had no education’. If anything, she was ‘self-educated’, reading ‘A to Z classics at school and in the library’. She had to leave school at the age of 15, in 1939, just before the war broke out. Her parents died around then, and Betty lived with her older sister, a civil servant, in Crookes. She worked at first as a comptometer operator but found itlike factory work’, so she did a course and found a book-keeping job in a local steel works.

When she was 17, Betty joined the WAAF as a driver, and was stationed at seven or eight different camps. There was a great social life, including a lot of dancing, she remembers, and there was less time for reading, even though she was sent books, ‘mostly whodunnits’, from home. After the war, old habits reasserted themselves, and started reading again. She enjoyed sports books from the library, and also studied textbooks about book-keeping.

This must have paid off, for Betty recalls that her ‘career improved’. She worked for a company called Johnson’s, then the Sheffield Steel and Tool Corporation, in its head office on Church St, and then an agricultural tool business around Queens Road.

Over the years, Betty got engaged three times – and changed her mind three times. She never married.

Now long retired, Betty continues to read. Novelists like J B Priestley and Alan Sillitoe get nods, and the classic crime and thriller writers of her youth are favourites. There are the four ‘Queens of Crime’ – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers – and also Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan. Eighty years after her father took her to Walkley Library, Betty still makes good use of the public library, through its service for housebound readers.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Dorothy L Sayers (Creative Commons licence, National Portrait Gallery)

 

Note: Betty was interviewed in 2012, but we have no audio or transcript, as the recorder was faulty. This reading journey is based on notes made by her interviewers, from which all the quotations are taken.

Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part Three

At the end of Bawtry Lane stands the building designed as Tinsley’s first public library. We’ve already told how Tinsley wanted its own library and in 1903 successfully petitioned the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, for a grant of £1,500. The money almost had to be returned because of an unhappy resident (‘If a man made me the offer of a present, which I could not conscientiously accept, I should not have it’), but after much discussion the parish council approved the proposal and construction started in 1904.

Opening ceremony of Tinsley Carnegie Library (Reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield City Archives)

At the opening of the Carnegie Library on 8 June 1905, the Sheffield Telegraph said:

The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution, which was opened last night by Mr Thomas Wilkinson, managing director of William Cooke [sic] and Company, besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village. A large gathering of inhabitants assembled at the entrance to witness the opening ceremony, and to take early possession of the commodious rooms inside. …’

The ‘adornment’ was designed by the unlikely firm of Holmes and Watson. Tempting though it is to imagine the Baker Street duo disguising themselves as architects for a case, in fact they were Edward, not Sherlock, Holmes and Adam Francis, not John, Watson. They were respected Sheffield architects and surveyors, in partnership between 1893 and 1906.

Holmes and Watson’s drawing of the front of the library

Holmes and Watson’s drawing of the back of the library

The Carnegie Library is not usually mentioned in the catalogue of their work, and it must have been a relatively small commission. That they had already worked locally, on Tinsley Park School and the offices of Wm Cook & Co, perhaps helped them win this contract. Their work included industrial, commercial and public buildings in Sheffield:

  • a ‘twelve-hold melting furnace for Spear and Jackson in Gravestock Street’
  • schools like Pomona Street, Western Road and Carter Knowle Road (all still in use today)
  • the ornate Midland Bank branch on the High Street.

Midland Bank, Sheffield High Street, designed by Holmes and Watson (now part of Lloyds Bank)

For Tinsley’s library, Holmes and Watson kept things relatively simple, with only slight changes between the drawings and the finished building. Brick is the main material, and the building is double-fronted, with a central porch and a charming steeple or ‘fleche’ on the roof. The windows are large, letting in as much light as possible for readers. The porch bears a fine inscription thanking the donors, Andrew Carnegie and Earl Fitzwilliam. Inside the fittings were mahoghany – where it showed, like the fine entrance doors – and stained pine – where it did not. The building is in keeping with the surrounding houses, with good proportions, and the small corner site is used effectively. The job was well managed too, with the budget being exceeded by only 9s 10d. It says something about Holmes, Watson and the builders, Gray and Sons of Tinsley, that, over 100 years later, the building is still standing, and although there appears to be some water damage, the whole looks stable.

The fleche or steeple

Dedication on the porch to Earl Fitzwilliam and Andrew Carnegie

Entrance to Tinsley Library (from the plans by Holmes and Watson)

The interior is as simple as the exterior.

On the ground floor will be a porch, a well-proportioned entrance hall and staircase, a large reading-room, 30 feet by 18 feet, where there will be a stock of newspapers and magazines, a lending library, 15ft. 6in. by 15ft., and hall for applicants for books. first floor will provided with a ladies’ reading-room, reference library, and a spare room for stores, etc. In the basement there will be a hot water apparatus for heating the building, and on the ground and first floors there will be lavatory and other accommodation for the visitors. All the rooms will be thoroughly well-lighted and ventilated. The building is in the Renaissance style, and although simple in treatment, will be very effective appearance. It will faced with local pressed bricks, and Grenoside stone dressing. The surrounding grounds will nicely laid out, and planted with shrubs, that when completed, the whole will make a pleasing addition to Tinsley. The internal fittings, seats, book cases, etc., will of the most modern description. (Sheffield Telegraph, 11 July 1904)

On the ground floor is a porch and an entrance hall, with a large reading-room on one side, and the lending department on the other. On the floor above is a ladies’ room, a reference department and a committee room. (Sheffield Telegraph, 9 June, 1905)

 

The ground floor plan

The first floor plan

News and reading rooms were the norm then, and men and women forbidden to read in the same room. The lending library would have looked unfamiliar to us: the books – there were 434, costing £100, with half donated by local businesses. The parish council hoped to buy more shortly – were kept behind a counter and ferried by staff to borrowers, who chose from catalogues. There was no children’s library, although there might have been some suitable books for their parents to borrow. In time, the ‘closed access’ lending library and the reading rooms were done away with, and the space converted to ‘open access’ lending, and a separate children’s library. On the whole, though, Holmes and Watson’s original design seems to have worked well.

Closed access: screen in the lending library, behind which the books were kept

In The Sheffield Society of Architects, 1887-1987, Roger Harper comments that Holmes and Watson had a ‘reputation beyond actual productivity’. It is difficult, he says, to attribute their commissions, including the library, individually. But we know that Watson’s interest was architecture, while Holmes did a lot of surveying and civil engineering work, so Watson’s may be the responsibility for the design.

Adam Francis Watson

Edward Holmes

Edward Holmes (1859-1921) and Adam Francis Watson (1859-1932) were well established, individually and as a partnership, in Sheffield. Watson was born in Northants, but lived in Sheffield for most of his life, working first as assistant to the leading architect, Matthew Ellison Hadfield. Holmes was a Sheffield boy, the son of Samuel Furness Holmes, the town’s first Borough Surveyor. They were both keen supporters of the Sheffield Society of Architects and Surveyors, founded in 1887, with Holmes becoming President in 1905-06 and Watson from 1913 to 1920. They advocated professional training for young colleagues, and were members of professional organisations like the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects. They were also civic-minded and socially active: Holmes served as a Justice of the Peace and on the board of the Botanical Gardens; Watson was a member of the University of Sheffield Court, a sidesman at St John’s Ranmoor and an officer in the West Riding Artillery Volunteers. Both were Freemasons. Holmes was described in the Sheffield Independent in August 1902 as:

A broad-minded, sympathetic man…a true Sheffielder, considerate for the dignity and welfare of the city.

When the foundation stone for the library was laid on Saturday 9 July 1904 (with a capsule containing local newspapers beneath it), by Sir William Holland MP, the Sheffield Telegraph said:

… Tinsley is just one of those places most deserving of Mr. Carnegie’s help. It is the village boy, as much as the city lad, that the great millionaire wants to encourage to read and think…’

A year later, at the grand opening, Mr Wilkinson

rejoiced that Tinsley was to possess so beautiful an institution, where the inhabitants might increase their knowledge and find rational amusement.

 

Tinsley Library 1970 (© SCC. Courtesy of Picture Sheffield)

The building served Tinsley well for about 90 years – the image above shows the library looking splendid, after cleaning in 1970. There was the occasional scare along the way: for example, the library service was almost closed in 1918.

Councillor Appleyard said there had been a very serious depletion in staff. Seventeen were serving with the colours,  two had been killed, and three discharged. It was quite impossible carry on as in the past. The recommendation was that, two of the least important should be closed for a period, and that decision was only arrived at after very mature consideration. Councillor Tummon proposed and Councillor Holmshaw seconded an amendment that so much the minutes as referred to the closing of the Park and Tinsley Branch Libraries be not confirmed, and this amendment was carried by a large majority.  (Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 12 June 1918)

Tinsley’s own librarian at the time, Mr Burton, was one of those ‘serving with the colours’:

Among the wounded is Sergeant A. Burton, of 98, Greasborough Road, Tinsley. He is in the KOYLI, and writes from Chichester Hospital that he is doing well. Prior to the war he was the librarian at Tinsley Branch Library. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 July 1916)

From 1912. Tinsley’s librarian, Mr Burton, is third from right, back row. In the centre of the back row is John Luther Winkley, who almost lost Tinsley its Carnegie money.

In 1984 the Carnegie library was finally closed and the service moved to two shop units in the nearby precinct. Since 2016, because of cuts, the library has been run, as a volunteer service, from Tinsley Forum. After the books moved out, the Carnegie building was converted for the early years ‘Roundabout Centre’, but this too was closed.

Since then, Holmes and Watson’s graceful building has stood empty, much to local regret.

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

 

Sources:

  • Sheffield City Archives and Sheffield Libraries
  • Roger Harper: The Sheffield Society of Architects, 1887-1987; Centenary: The First Hundred Years of the Sheffield Society of Architects; and Timeline of Sheffield Architects 1800-1965
  • Julian Holder: ‘A race of native architects’, the architects of Sheffield and S Yorkshire, 1880-1940 (thesis, University of Sheffield, 2005)
  • Stephen Welsh: Biographical notes and a list of principal works of a firm of architects and surveyors founded by Samuel Furness Holmes in 1845 until the death of his grandson Edward Marshall Holmes in 1929.

All the plans, books and notes mentioned may be consulted in the Sheffield Local Studies Library.

 

Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part Two

The decision was not arrived at, however, without some slight but determined opposition to the acceptance of any offer from the much-talked-of American millionaire.

The ‘slight but determined opposition’ to the plans for Tinsley Library, as reported by the Sheffield Telegraph on 17 December 1903, came from one man, John Luther Winkley (1872?- 1951?). Local landowner Earl Fitzwilliam had offered a site on Bawtry Road and millionaire Andrew Carnegie had offered £1,500 for building works. But now, at a lively parish meeting on Wednesday 16 December 1903, it looked as if Tinsley might not get its library.

The ‘much-talked-of American millionaire’, Andrew Carnegie (public domain)

According to the 1911 census, J L Winkley was a steelworks clerk, living with his wife and young daughter in Harrowden Road, just around the corner from the proposed site for the library. He was a local activist, serving on the parish council, and as its clerk, and also on the committee of Tinsley and District Working Men’s Club and Institute. His name appeared frequently in the local press. An account in the Sheffield Telegraph of 26 January 1909, long after the battle of the library, shows how strong-minded he seems to have been. He was the clerk to the council and during a meeting he alleged that the chairman, Mr Marriott, had failed in his duty over Sunday trading. Marriott was forced to resign, saying that he hoped his replacement would ‘see that the clerk is kept in his proper position’. The new chairman evidently hoped to lighten the mood, saying ‘smilingly’: ‘lf the clerk has any of his nonsense I shall take him up and drop him on the floor.’ ‘Perhaps he will be a bigger pill than you can swallow,’ retorted Marriott, provoking cries of ‘Order’.

Back in 1903, at the meeting about the library, the then chairman, H C Else, summarised matters:

… the Council had had two offers made to them, one from Earl Fitzwilliam in the shape of a grant of a site for a Free Library, entirely free of cost, and another from Mr Carnegie of £1,500, on the understanding that the library building should be erected for that sum. Before doing that they must adopt the Free Libraries Act. Mr Carnegie further stipulated that Tinsley should spend £100 per year from the rates on the up-keep of the library. … It rested with the ratepayers to decide whether they would accept those two most handsome offers.

Another member of the council, J H Meades, was on hand to remind everyone, a little pompously, of the benefits a library would bring:

…it was time Tinsley had a Free Library. The present handsome offers, he considered, too good to throw away. If they did not avail themselves of this opportunity he thought it would a good many years before they would have such a favourable chance of securing a library. (Applause.) The working class population, he further pointed out, would derive most benefit from such an institution, but the large ratepayers of the district would bear the greatest portion of the burden.

Mr Winkley, however, was not easily reconciled. He had, he made clear, no problem with the library in principle, and was happy with Earl Fitzwilliam’s offer of land. But he did not want money from Andrew Carnegie. He asked how the approach had been made to the American and why local firms had not been invited to contribute. He also wanted an assurance that £1,500 was enough, and to know just how the council proposed to buy books. Most people present thought that the £100 a year to be raised from the rate would be enough for books and perhaps even a caretaker. But Mr Winkley disagreed, saying that ‘there would not be many books bought’.

From 1912, when Tinsley joined Sheffield and the parish council was dissolved. The original caption identifies Mr Meades (front row) and Mr Winkley (back row). Next to him is Mr Burton, Tinsley’s librarian.

Mr Else seemed to feel that the meeting was getting away from him. He:

urged that libraries had been established under similar financial conditions in other parishes which had accepted gifts from Mr. Carnegie. Why should not Tinsley do likewise, he asked?

But this only gave Mr Winkley the chance to be blunt:

for the life of him, he could not see how any self-respecting working man could accept an offer of this description from a man like Mr. Carnegie. …

If [local businesses had not been asked], they ought to have been, before the parish went outside to an American millionaire. He thought these firms would nearly, if not quite, have defrayed the cost of such a building if they had been approached. If the matter were gone about in the right way even now, he thought the necessary for the building could be raised in this way. Other Councils in the country had refused Mr. Carnegie’s offer.

The Telegraph recorded verbatim the discussion that followed, and the tension is evident:

The clerk: How many?

A ratepayer: Lots.

Mr Winkley: ‘If a man made me the offer of a present, which I could not conscientiously accept, I should not have it.’ (Hear, hear.)

The Clerk: Sheffield – Walkley accepted it.

Mr Winkley: That is no reason why we should do.

The Clerk: Not at all, if you don’t want it.

Mr Else said that in his view local firms could not donate ‘in a time of bad trade’.

So far as they knew, Mr Carnegie was a gentleman, and was doing very great good with the money he had compiled.

After more discussion, Mr F Bragg proposed that the offers should be accepted, adding that

a good deal had been said about the way Mr Carnegie had made his money, but he could not see that he differed from the great capitalists of this country.

The vote was a resounding 30 to one in favour of acceptance. Mr Winkley seems to have objected to Andrew Carnegie as a capitalist, and a foreigner at that, riding in style on the backs of working men. The Sheffield Independent later reported that:

It was stated by some that he had made his money by sweating his employees. (9 June 1905)

Perhaps the fact that his fortune came from steel made in another country was also a sore point in a steel town like Tinsley.[i] But in the end Winkley failed to persuade any other councillor. Tinsley would have its Carnegie library, and it seems unlikely that Andrew Carnegie was ever aware of the opposition to him.

That John Luther Winkley objected to Carnegie the capitalist seems born out by two newspaper reports. First the Sheffield Independent of 11 July 1904, reporting on the laying of the foundation stone by Sir William Holland MP, recorded Sir William’s speech:

[The library] would not have been possible had it not been for the splendid generosity of Mr. Andrew Carnegie. (Cheers.) Mr. Carnegie was a very rich man, as they knew, but he was also a man who recognised the responsibility which wealth carried with it, and the wealth that he had he had put, as they were all prepared to testify, to nobler uses than if it were spent on selfish pleasure or on enervating luxury or pompous display and show. … The work carried on in that particular neighbourhood must be one which would naturally appeal to Mr. Carnegie, because it was out of the iron and steel trade he himself had made his vast fortune, and he (Sir William) imagined that with Mr Carnegie’s intimate knowledge of that trade hardly anybody would know better than he how delightful a recreation reading would be to a man who had spent an arduous day amid the dust and din of the foundry and forge. (Hear, hear.)

(One feels that Mr Winkley perhaps had a better understanding of the effect of a day spent working in a foundry than Sir William.)

The second article is the Sheffield Telegraph’s about the official opening of the library in June 1905. As he opened the door with a special silver key, Thomas Wilkinson, the managing director of Wm Cook & Co, said:

Scornful words had been said about Mr Carnegie. He did not believe that Mr Carnegie had got his money by ‘sweating’ working men. He felt certain that as a working lad he had derived great value from reading books  and, knowing that they were the best friends a man could have, he was giving out of his wealth such institutions as the one in which they were interested, for the benefit of others…(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1905)

This must be a dig or even a rebuke to Mr Winkley, and there is an irony in the next words of the Telegraph:

On the motion of Mr Winkley, seconded by Mr J Marriott, a vote of thanks was given to Mr Wilkinson.

 

In our next post on Tinsley Library, we’ll look at the building erected with Andrew Carnegie’s money.

Architect’s drawing of Tinsley Library

[i] Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland, but had emigrated to the USA as a young boy. He lived most of his life there, although he remained close to his Scottish roots. He made a vast fortune – over $350m – from steel.

In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy Norbury, b.1931)

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the people of Sheffield woke up, if they had slept at all, to find a changed city. The day before, 12 December 1940, was the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, when the Luftwaffe targeted the steel city. In an earlier post, we looked at how our readers, like Dorothy all young at the time, remembered the raids. Here are extracts from The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 and from the memories of staff about the part Sheffield Libraries played in the aftermath of the Blitz.[i] It was fortunate that the Central Library in Surrey Street, which became the base for public assistance, was not much damaged, despite its location between The Moor and Fitzalan Square, both of which were more or less destroyed.

In the frosty dawn of December 13th, thousands of people homeless, bereaved, or threatened with loss of livelihood, turned to the Government and Corporation to find out what to do, and for the first few hours there was no one to tell them. The Public Assistance Department had planned a scheme for just such an emergency, but its headquarters  and many of its prepared centres had been destroyed. The City Librarian was asked by the Emergency Committee to put the Central Library  at the disposal of the eleven local and national departments concerned with post raid needs; by mid-day the officers of the Public Assistance Department had already arrived. The next day the other officials were at work in the newsroom, the Reference Library and the administrative offices, and a Missing Relatives Bureau had been set up by members of the library staff.

For several weeks the library presented an extraordinary spectacle. Crowds of people of all ages thronged the tables where the officials sat dispensing comfort, material help and information; dogs, tea and tobacco smoke were visible in the public rooms for the only time in history; a continual noise made up of chatter, laughter, sometimes argument and occasionally tears, ruffled the usually placid air. Amongst it all the library staff not only catalogued and issued books as usual, but listened to tales of woe, administered refreshment, and made it their business to know something about everything going on in the building.

Remembering the Blitz years later, one member of the library staff said:

The library was closed because there was an unexploded bomb somewhere in the Eyre Street area. Mr Lamb [the City Librarian] was totally tied up with getting the Information Service going, and Mr Hutchings the deputy, was in charge of the library. We found all sorts of stranded people hanging around both in the library and in the street outside. … Mr Lamb said ‘Well, set up a counter in the magazine room – what is now the Business Library – tell them what you can, you can ask the Information Committee for anything you can’t cope with.’ Gradually it grew. All I can remember now is that, all of a sudden, after a week, we were running an information service as if we’d always done it, which in a way we had.

First of all people were coming in and asking where they could get these claim forms for the damage to their houses, then soldiers coming home on compassionate leave, bursting in, wild-eyed, I can’t find my wife and children, and then other relatives came in whose people were absolutely safe and sound and they’d no way of telling them.

One of the Lending Library staff recalled:

People from Lending and myself went to a local grocery store – Tuckwoods it was called, on Fargate – and we bought as many tins of soup as we could manage between us. The Ministry had suspended food rationing because of the Blitz. We took the tins to the staff canteen and as the gas mains had gone we heated the soup in an electric kettle. We took it down to the people who’d gone into the basement of the library because the food kitchens hadn’t arrived by then.

They decided they would keep the Lending Library open … it was considered good for morale if people had books to read, you see. I was in charge of keeping the Lending Library open with about half a dozen staff, while everyone else was working on relief work. … I’d see [Mr Lamb] passing through and organising things, he’d just say ‘Hello, girlie’ and that would be it. He was far too busy to bother with me, he knew I was doing my job and that was it.

It was important to get information out across the city, noted The City Libraries of Sheffield, and the usual channels were generally not available.

Twice a day instructions received from the responsible officers were cast by the Committee into simple messages broadcast from cars by voluntary workers. The more important of these instructions were issued as stencilled or printed bulletins which were distributed daily by trained young cyclists.

Understandably uncertain at first, the library service gradually settled down, new ways of working developed, and plans were laid down.

Between all the officials in the building there grew up a spirit of mutual helpfulness and friendly co-operation. … When the representatives of most departments had left the library by the beginning of February, 1941, the staff of the Public Assistance Department remained, administering the Air Raid Information Bureau for the rest of the war in the library.

The Public Assistance Officer and the City Librarian still worked closely together to prepare for any new emergency which might arise. They devised a system of information posts so arranged that any part of it might come into action independently of the others. …

The City Librarian was appointed BBC Liaison Officer in September, 1941, and attended every meeting of the Invasion Committee from March, 1941. In the case of fighting in the neighbourhood, or a temporary occupation by the enemy, the official source of all information was to be the Central Library, the centre of a complex web of communications with the Civil Defence and military authorities. The aim of the whole organisation was to ensure that the public should know what information was accurate and what put out falsely by the enemy. The scheme, for which most careful preparations and rehearsals were carried out, was suspended in the autumn of 1943, and fortunately did not need to be revived.

After the Blitz of December 1941, Sheffield was not again seriously threatened. One of the librarians said:

We were running at full blast as an information service on practically everything for several months after the raid, then gradually business began to drop off and return to whatever you call normal life in wartime.

And the official City Libraries of Sheffield records:

By June, 1945, the Central Library was again devoted entirely to library purposes.

Sheffield Central Library today

[i] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956, pp. 47-9). The staff memories quoted come from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983). If the copyright holders come forward, we will happily acknowledge them.

Tinsley’s Carnegie Library

Part One

…I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. … When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better. (Pat, born in Tinsley in 1926)

People think of Walkley as Sheffield’s only Carnegie library, but for 75 years there was another. Tinsley’s Carnegie library opened in June 1905, a few months before Walkley’s, and seven years before Tinsley became part of Sheffield. It served as the branch library until 1985 when the service moved to a new building.

This is the story of how a village decided to open a public library. And how an English aristocrat, an American millionaire and two unlikely-sounding architects helped make it possible.    

Tinsley Library 1970 (© SCC. Courtesy of Picture Sheffield)

Here is Tinsley’s Carnegie Library in 1970, sixty-five years after it opened. This image, from Picture Sheffield, shows the library in very good condition, apparently after a recent renovation. It suits its setting, at the end of a terrace of old brick houses. The design is simple – double-fronted, four-square, like a child’s drawing. There are big windows all round, allowing in light for readers. The letters fixed to the wall on the right, spelling out ‘City Library’, are a late addition, found on several of Sheffield’s branch libraries. The building’s Victorian roots are evident, particularly the porch and the little steeple on the roof (called a ‘flèche’ by architects).

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

Here is the library building today, now over a hundred years old and looking desolate. Those big windows are all boarded up and the brickwork is shabby. Close-ups show the porch with water damage, more boarded up windows at the back and security railings around the little garden area. The flèche, however, is surprisingly sprightly.

How did Tinsley get its library?

The Act of Parliament allowing councils to open ‘free libraries’ was passed in 1850 and for the next half century, many towns and cities established and expanded their services. Sheffield was a pioneer, the first town in Yorkshire and the 11th in England to open a free library. By 1900, there was the central library in Surrey Street (where today’s library is) and several branches. The newest was Attercliffe:

Attercliffe Library opened in 1894 in answer to local public demand and closed in 1996. As well as lending books, it was one of the first places in Sheffield to display lists of job vacancies.

Tinsley was then an independent township, run by a parish council. Its residents could use Sheffield’s libraries through an informal arrangement, and this probably meant visiting Attercliffe, two miles away. Perhaps the splendid sight of it – ‘neo-Jacobean…in red brick with stone mullions and transoms and three big coped gables’, to quote the Pevsner guide – made the parish council think that their own free library would be an asset to Tinsley.

This is where we meet the American millionaire and the English aristocrat, in the beautiful inscription on the porch of the library:

The funds for this building were given by Andrew Carnegie Esquire and the site by the Earl Fitzwilliam.

The 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (public domain)

The English aristocrat was William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872 – 1943), who became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1902. (You can learn more about him, and the scandal about his birth, in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book, Black Diamonds.) The Fitzwilliams, who lived at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, owned much of Tinsley and, as the Sheffield Telegraph put it on 17 December 1903, the Earl

…intimated his willingness to give a site on the corner of Bawtry Lane. This is the site originally suggested for a parish hall. His lordship attaches the condition that the site is to be used for the purpose for which it is given only. In the event of it being used otherwise, it is to revert his lordship, or he is to be empowered to make other terms as regards its tenancy. The area of the site is 720 square yards, and its value is approximately £225.

Andrew Carnegie (public domain)

The American millionaire was Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), who was born in Dunfermline, emigrated to the USA at the age of 13 and made a fortune in steel. Carnegie’s ‘dictum’ was that a man should, firstly, get all the education he could, then make as much money as possible and finally donate his riches to worthy causes. He gave away about $350m, about 90 per cent of his fortune, including paying for 3,000 public libraries around the world. His secretary wrote to the Tinsley parish council on 18 November 1903, setting out his offer and (standard) conditions:

Dear Sir

Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate. (quoted in the Sheffield Telegraph of 17 December 1903)

So far, so good. The money and the site had been secured. A parish meeting was now held at the National School, to discuss the proposal. It was here that a local resident, Mr J L Winkley, got to his feet and almost caused the plan for the library to be abandoned.

You can find out what happened at the parish meeting in Part Two of Tinsley’s Carnegie Library, to be posted soon. Part Three, to follow, will look at the building of the library, and introduce its architects.

 

Thanks to Picture Sheffield for permission to use the 1970 photograph of Tinsley Library.

Eva G’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Eva was born on 24 December 1925 and lived first in the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield, moving about ten miles to Bramley in 1962. Her father was an engineer before and during the First World War when he lost a leg. On his return he worked in the offices of Edgar Allen steelworks at Tinsley. Her mother worked in the warehouse of a cutlery firm until she was married and gave it up. Eva passed the 11+ to go to Greystones Intermediate School but her parents were not interested in education for girls:

. . . they didn’t bother with the girls then, you know. Boys could have anything, but …You get married, you don’t need to. That’s the attitude then. So it didn’t get you anywhere.

She started her reading journey at school: she learned to read there. At the age of seven she started to read Dickens, unabridged: ‘I read David Copperfield; that was my favourite.’

Dickens made a great impression on her:

I liked the characters. I mean, they were really interesting characters, weren’t they? True to life,  in a way, but funny as well. I loved David Copperfield. I think he went through a lot. I know Oliver Twist is a similar sort of thing, isn’t it, what happened to them when they were younger, but I liked the characters. I liked Peggotty.

Her parents did have books at home, and both were readers:

I used to get them from the library, mostly. We had got, luckily, at home, we had got here, you know, volumes of them. . . . he [her father] used to be like army books and war books.. and  she [her mum]  used to read love stories, you know . . .

When, much later, her mum lived with Eva in Bramley, she read in bed:

She used to go to bed in the afternoon. … Because she was elderly …  she was 38 when she had me …  I used to give her all sorts of books, she used to read them upstairs and then she used to have a little nap and then come down for tea.

As a child, Eva did not get many books as presents; she went to Burngreave Branch Library which was just down the road though she never got any help with choosing books:

I used to go regularly, yes, and pick my books, choose my books. … I used to read downstairs. If I started reading, it went over my head when everybody was talking, if I got really interested in a book.

Eva went to Burngreave Secondary School which she enjoyed.

I loved school. And our head teacher was Scottish, and she came from Carbrook School. She was always a miss – she never got married.

She was Scottish and tall. She used to have her hair trimmed short, and she used to always wear tweeds and suits. … But she was very interested in music, so we got that drummed into us. I’ll always remember her for that … and speech training, we had speech training. Elocution.

… when I was at secondary school, we had elocution lessons. They didn’t in most places, but we did. It was just like having proper elocution lessons, so we did a lot of Shakespeare, you know, so you learnt that off by heart, that sort of thing …  Hamlet … to be or not to be, that is …  I learnt that off by heart, that speech, but I can’t remember it all now.

Libraries continued to be important for Eva even after she married and had a family. Initially she used Handsworth Library but that was pulled down:

[we] had to either go down to Darnall, or go up to Manor Top. We often used to go there when the girls were young; we used to catch the bus. Or we used to walk it, and then we’d got the books … well, we got the bus coming back, because it was a nicer library, you know.

As she got older she read more widely: ‘I liked mysteries. I like murder mysteries.’

[Agatha Christie] : I used to read her books, yes. But once you’ve read one of her books …  I used to like them, but they seemed to be all … when you look at them closely, they all seem to be the same, don’t they?

Eva enjoyed Dorothy L Sayers and P D James as well as adventure stories like Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps. She also liked comedies: ‘Not silly, but funny.’

Cold Comfort Farm: I read that, yes. I’ve got it actually.

I’ve read Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Compton Mackenzie … I like his books [like] Whisky Galore

Like several of our interviewees, Eva read books which were seen as shocking at the time:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover … I’ve read that, that’s neither here nor there. … I’ve read  Edna O’ Brien – I like Edna O’Brien.

When asked if she was shocked by them, she replied, ‘Not really.’

Eva still reads, though the venue has changed over the years:

Now, of course, I only read in bed. If I wake up early I read, I have a little read at night. But I don’t read like I used to do, I don’t read downstairs. And I got into that habit when the girls were young and you couldn’t concentrate, and they were all there, so that’s when I used to read when I went to bed.

I often used to go to bed early when I was married because I was short-sighted, so it was handy for me. Because I had to have my glasses on, I could lie down in bed… he often used to find me in bed [asleep] with my glasses on, and he used to just take my glasses off!

Her husband didn’t object because he was a reader as well.

Eva enjoys reading well-loved books again.

I often read books that I am very fond of again, it doesn’t bother me. Revise myself on them. … Gone with the Wind, I’ve got that, naturally. Oh, I’ve read it two or three times. I keep coming back to it.

On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War

On 21 September 2018, Reading Sheffield’s chair, Mary Grover, gave a paper by her and Val Hewson at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Here is a summary of the paper, which you can read in full on our Research page.

 

The war impinged on the reading experiences of our interviewees in ways that often seem contradictory.

Access to books generally was limited by paper shortages, the lack of funds to buy new books, petrol rationing and the scarcity of new titles. In Sheffield too, children faced an extra barrier when, as a safety measure, the Council closed their libraries and moved the junior stock to suburban centres. Those away from home on active service were often forced to rely on the limited choice available through the NAAFI, described by our interviewee Peter as ‘all sorts of, what shall we say, blue books and very blue books’.

But in many ways the war enabled access to books previously unexplored and above all, sharpened intellectual curiosity as readers sought to understand the world that was breaking in upon them.

Take the case of Mary, aged 18 when the war started. Her record of all the books she read between 1936 and 1942 allows us to map both the transition from teenage to adult reading but also from reading for pleasure to a wider reading, often shaped by war. In 1936 and 1937, Mary indulged in P. G. Wodehouse, Beverley Nichols, Ian Hay and Edgar Wallace. By 1939, like many others, she is clearly reading to inform herself about the world beyond Sheffield and the war. Non-fiction like Deslisle Burns’ Democracy, its defects and advantages (1929) dominates her list.

For Mary and indeed most of our readers the quality and availability of public libraries were critical to their access to books. It was their good fortune that Sheffield Libraries were then in the guardianship of a remarkably gifted librarian. In wartime Joseph Lamb oversaw the opening of one branch library and 12 suburban ‘library centres’, and was able to acquire publishers’ stocks at nominal prices. His libraries supported not only the serious interest of borrowers like Mary in the war and the world beyond, but also the general need of Sheffield’s residents for distraction and entertainment in the home, with novels like Gone with the Wind and special guides on handicrafts and games. By the end of the war borrowing had risen to unprecedented heights.

The war seems to have isolated our readers but simultaneously to have increased their passion for books and the value they set upon their reading. As our reader Judith said:

I remember running up Eyre Street with Sheila Thompson so she could join the library. They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name … and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were.

Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

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.

File:Abbeydale Cinema - Abbeydale Road 26-03-06.jpg

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.