Heritage At Home

By Val Hewson

It’s been a while since our last post, and the reason for the silence is that we’ve been working on an exhibition for the 2021 Heritage Open Days festival. The theme this year is ‘Edible England’ and so our exhibition is of vintage recipe books. Sheffield Libraries and Archives have been kind enough to host it for us (and to contribute three wonderful books). The exhibition can be visited at any time during opening hours in the Central Lending Library on Surrey Street until 1 October.

Our Heritage At Home exhibition of recipe books illustrates the everyday, private and individual heritage we all have. A heritage which is easily overlooked but which, when we examine it, makes us each think about what we carry from the past into the future.

Many of the books were collected simply by asking around in Sheffield. Some came from local charity shops, and a few via eBay. Most people we spoke to – even those who claimed to be uninterested in cooking – turned out to have recipe books tucked away. Enthusiasts had whole bookcases. We didn’t set out to find classics or to cover different cuisines or periods. We wanted random, not representative. What had survived? How and why?

The variety is surprising. Most of the books are dated between about 1890 and 1970. There are instruction manuals for stoves; booklets given away by food manufacturers promoting their products or as gimmicks by newspapers; domestic encyclopaedias of the sort presented to brides; and books by the Delias and Nigellas of their day, now almost forgotten. (The exception is Mrs Beeton – her book turned up more often than any other, in reprint editions.) Perhaps most interesting are the homemade books, in which recipes have been handwritten or typed or cut from magazines or food packaging.    

 

Many of the books are worn – a few almost to destruction – and this may be not so much the effect of time as of use. There are mysterious stains where something has dripped or overflowed and pages still gritty with flour, sugar, salt. Occasionally scraps of paper are tucked inside, presumably snatched up to mark a page and then forgotten. In the margins there are handwritten reminders, explanations, comments. And there is the personal – names and addresses and sometimes inscriptions, for example, from the husband who gave his wife a Mrs Beeton: ‘’To my wife on this final sign of our getting a home. 1.10.27. LHS.‘

The books tell us about the societies which produced them. They all address themselves to women, whose vocation is unquestionably homemaking. Men appear only occasionally in illustrations, happily consuming delicious food. Class is apparent too: the books range, in terms of style, ingredients and price, from the humble, through the aspirational, to the superior.    

And there are fashions in food. The older a book, the more pudding recipes it seems to have. The 1950s was clearly a time for fantastically decorated ‘occasion cakes’ (calling for skill and time), while in the 1960s food becomes more ‘adventurous’. Ingredients too change over time: lard is a staple; sugar and salt are liberally used; and fruit and vegetables are both traditional and seasonal.

There are some recipes for curry and spaghetti, but on the whole cuisines from other countries do not feature. There is only one vegetarian recipe book, dating from the 1930s and using the somehow unattractive term ‘non-flesh cookery’.    

The design of the books is revealing too: Arts Nouveau and Deco; the decorous 1950s and the bolder 1960s; line drawings giving way to indistinct black and white photography and then often garish colour plates, which are the beginnings of ‘food styling’. 

What we cannot see in the books are the memories they bear. Hand a few books round a group and they readily recall tastes, smells, textures – and then incidents and people. When we collected books from people’s homes, we were sometimes told that they are still used, and sometimes that they just sit on shelves, but either way in memory of a life that is past.

When you visit Heritage At Home, you’ll find cards on which you can leave a favourite recipe or a memory about food.

During the Heritage Open Days festival, from 10 to 19 September, we will be posting blogs about food in books – in the work of Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and P G Wodehouse, in school stories with midnight feasts every term and in detective stories where you really cannot be sure what is in your dinner. And we will tell you about the very special recipe books of Priscilla Haslehurst and the Countesses of Arundel and Kent.

In the meantime, here is a recipe from Over 120 Ways of Using Bread for Tasty and Delightful Dishes (Millers’ Mutual Association, 1934).

‘Those Cheerless Cemeteries of Books’

The thrill of entering a public library. Thousands of books arranged in familiar patterns. Fiction and non-fiction. Classics and novels contemporary and historical, romances, crime stories and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. Books about art, science, music, history, travel, philosophy, politics. What will I find this time? Something entirely new? a much-anticipated sequel? an old friend? Each visit is a promise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, public libraries, including Sheffield’s, looked very different from our ‘open access’ model, where the books are there for us to wander through, to pick up, to choose or return. Then, while there might be a few out on display, many public libraries hid their books away behind counters, or kept them out of sight in rooms marked ‘No Entry’. Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased. Borrowers would seek the advice of library staff. Once a book was chosen, an assistant checked on its availability and, if it was not already on loan, retrieved it from its shelf and handed it over to the borrower.   

The Sheffield Corporation have given a good deal of attention lately to the development of the public libraries on modern lines, and evidence of the progress that has been made will be forth coming to-day when the Central Lending Library will be open for view to the public on the open access system. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

From an anonymous pamphlet, The Truth about giving Readers Free Access to the Books in a Public Lending Library (1895)

With the exception of research and specialist institutions, there must be few ‘closed access’ libraries now. Why was it the norm in the early days? Maybe librarians and library authorities had little faith that books would not be disordered, damaged or even stolen by borrowers. Controlling access was a way to safeguard books owned by local ratepayers, not all of whom were happy with their money supporting the, to them, wrongly named free libraries. Perhaps there was also some attempt to influence what people read. Librarians and councils habitually worried about borrowers preferring the light novel over the serious work. The public library was, after all, invented to help people improve themselves.

Sheffield Central Lending Library 1910, with books locked away behind the counter (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com.
Ref: s02145)

As well as keeping borrower and book apart, closed access often meant problems for library staff. Book stores generally seem to have been crammed with shelving from floor to ceiling and young assistants had to scurry up and down long ladders to find books. Here is Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian from 1927 to 1956, on his days as an assistant:

Birmingham Central Library in those days (1913-14) was a murderous place in which only those with sound bodies and hardened minds could survive. Most of its large stock was shelved in three tiers of iron galleries reaching to the ceiling. In a closed library with an average daily issue of 900, the amount of leg work demanded of the staff was enough to qualify them as Everest climbers. (J P Lamb, Librarian While Young, The Librarian and Book World, Vol XLV, No 3, March 1956)

Opening of the Birmingham Central Free Library. Illustrated London News. Sept 16, 1865, page 256 (public domain). The ‘cheerless cemeteries’ can be seen on the left, with ladders for the staff to climb up and down.

And Sheffield librarian Herbert Waterson, who started work in 1869, hinted at the particular problems the ladders meant for Victorian women seeking library work.

Closed access inspired a piece of Victorian technology, the ‘indicator’. This was a screen, often fixed to the wall and divided into tiny sections, each matched to a book listing in the catalogue and showing if the book was in or out. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph proudly described the locally-made model installed in the new Brightside Library in 1872:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

The Cotgreave model of indicator
(from A L Champneys, Public Libraries (London, Batsford, 1907))

Indicators were often very large and could be unwieldy. The ones made in 1876 for the Upperthorpe and Highfield branches had the capacity for 12,000 books each. One of the Highfield assistants claimed that the staff used to play football behind their screen when the librarian was not on duty.[i]

Open access in a public library was trialled as early as 1893 at Clerkenwell in London by James Duff Brown and seems to have aroused considerable opposition.[ii] It began slowly to be adopted, as the objections to it were proved baseless. But in conservative Sheffield closed access was the order of the day until after the First World War. In two places only could borrowers roam at will among the books. The branch library at Walkley, which opened in 1905 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was converted to open access in 1913-14 by its pioneering librarian, Albert Ibbotson. His superiors objected but he got away with it. ‘The [open access] Walkley Library’, said a letter from Mr A Ballard to the Sheffield Independent on Tuesday 16 August 1921, ‘has been for the past seven years a veritable university to the working people’.[iii] At the same time, two schoolteacher members of the Council’s library committee petitioned successfully for the opening up of the Reference Library.[iv]

These were among the few innovations in Sheffield Libraries in the early years of the 20th century. By 1921 the service was in decline, and there was much muttering in the press. The numbers of books borrowed were falling, book stocks inadequate, administrative practices old-fashioned, staff demotivated and buildings (especially the Central Library) in poor repair. New chief and deputy librarians – R J Gordon and J P Lamb – were recruited to put things right. Determined and modern, they wasted no time.

Converting all the libraries to open access and introducing the Dewey classification system, as funding allowed, was an early decision in July 1921. The task was huge but, by the following June, the necessary alterations had been made, the stocks of books refreshed and classified. The new open Central Lending Library was ready. Albert Ibbotson from Walkley had been appointed to run it in 1918 and was probably an ally for Gordon and Lamb. He had been described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 8 March 1918 as a ‘progressive librarian’. By 1919 he had already introduced a very limited form of access: ‘…two cases in which the latest books are always placed on view, and the rapid demand for these volumes shows how useful the system is’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 6 September 1919).

No doubt primed by Gordon and Lamb, who both knew the value of publicity, the Sheffield Telegraph was eager to explain the new system to the city:

At the Library entrance is the staff enclosure where the issue records are kept and from which the staff control the entrance and exit wickets. A borrower desiring to change a book hands it to the assistant at the entrance counter, which is to the left on entering, and receives his borrower’s ticket exchange. The assistant then releases the wicket gate and the borrower enters the stockroom to select his book. After selecting the book he wishes to borrow he returns to the assistant who completes the necessary records and releases the exit wicket for the borrower to go out. Apart from this arrangement which will be greatly appreciated by borrowers, who can wander at will among the volumes, there is a new system of classification which makes for rapid working and ease of selection. As most borrowers at Public Libraries ask for books on a particular subject rather than by the author, and because of the many advantages gained by having all the books on the same or related subjects on one shelf, the books have been classified according to the subjects they cover. The Dewey Decimal classification has been used for this purpose and seeing it in operation, one is impressed by the value of the system. The books in the Library are arranged in two parts: prose fiction and non-fiction. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

Sheffield’s Attercliffe Library after conversion, showing the staff enclosure, the wicket gates to control access and the open shelving (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u01383)

The degree of detail suggests how much of a change this was. The journalist goes on to say: ‘There is no doubt that the public will appreciate the new system, under which borrowers are allowed actual contact with the shelves containing the books.’ Over the next few years, Sheffield’s branch libraries were all converted, with counters and screens removed and new shelving installed.

Borrowers in later years clearly still appreciating open access (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u02265)

Open access libraries are so familiar to us that any other system seems impossible. But in 1956, as J P Lamb approached retirement, he saw some merit in the old ways:

It seems to have been my library lot in my younger days to be fully occupied in re-organising old type libraries. Those cheerless cemeteries of books are now thought to have no redeeming features; but reflecting on my work in them after a lifetime spent in creating ‘modern’ mass appeal libraries, I am not at all sure that the change has been wholly good. Open access has resulted in the loss of a personal contact with the reader, which no kind of readers’ advisory system can replace. … The librarian as guide, philosopher and friend was then a reality. … (J P Lamb, as above)


[i] From Kelly, James R, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sheffield, 1983). A copy is held in Sheffield Archives.

[ii] Kelly, Thomas, History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1965 (London, The Library Association, 1973), pp. 175-82.

[iii] Did Mr A Ballard become Alderman A Ballard CBE who chaired the Council’s Libraries Committee between 1944 and 1954? It seems very possible.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956). Along with the newspapers quoted, this is the main source for this article.

A Light To Read By

On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.

They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]

In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.

Brightside Library. The name was eventually changed to Burngreave but the building remained a library until 1990. It is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.

On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]

At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.

For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]

Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.  

  • Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
  • Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)

Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.

The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)

Example of lighting from Champneys’ Public Libraries (p. 19)

The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.

It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?

This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.

What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.

A sign in Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon, USA. Image by Frank Schulenburg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.

[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall

On Monday 20 September 1909, Sheffield Council hosted a reception in the Town Hall to mark the annual conference of the Library Association, which was being held in the city for the first time.[i] For once my interest in library history coincides with my interest in clothes…

Both the Sheffield Independent and the Sheffield Telegraph covered the discussions at the conference in detail. They also found space for some gentle fun at the librarians’ expense, less gentle criticism of Sheffield’s own library service and, in the case of the Town Hall reception, extensive fashion notes.[ii]

The Independent’s feature on the reception is signed ‘By Our Lady Representative’. This was an anonymous byline frequently used in the newspaper between about 1895 and 1915, for reports of splendid balls, garden parties and other society events, meticulously recording the guests, gowns and jewels on display.

On this occasion Our Lady Representative set the scene, describing the Town Hall’s reception rooms:

Quite in keeping with their reputation for lavish hospitality was the reception given last night by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Ald and Mrs H K Stephenson) in honour of the visit to Sheffield of the Libraries’ Association [sic]. Our spacious civic reception rooms, garlanded with foliage and flowers, evoked much admiration from the visitors, who found much enjoyment in the admirable supper served in the Council Chamber and ante room…

Sheffield Town Hall - the main entrance today. Guests would have used it in 1909ld have
The main entrance to the Town Hall today. Guests would have come in this way in 1909

The Telegraph agreed. The ‘stately entertaining rooms at the Town Hall [had] never been more beautifully decorated’. It went on:

supper was served in the Council Chamber and ante-room from nine o’clock onwards, and there was also a buffet supper in the drawing-room on the grand corridor.

The grand staircase up to the reception rooms (By Michael Beckwith. Public domain)

There was superior entertainment for the evening:

… the entertaining programme of songs by Miss Nina Gordon and the sleight of hand exhibitions by Dr Byrd-Page … Miss Nina Gordon is an artiste very much after the style of the famous Margaret Cooper, and the selections from her varied repertoire were keenly appreciated. So too, were the clever tricks of Dr Byrd-Page … The band of the 3rd West Riding Brigade Royal Field Artillery played during the reception. (Independent)

Miss Gordon specialised in humorous songs and sketches and Dr Byrd-Page was a ‘prestidigitateur’ or Illusionist. They both feature often on theatre bills of the period, and claimed royal patronage. By 1912 Dr Byrd-Page declared ‘the honour of appearing before His late Majesty King Edward VII on no less than seventeen occasions; and frequently before His Most Gracious Majesty King George V’.[iii] The Sheffield Telegraph described Miss Gordon as ‘Queen Mary’s Favourite Entertainer’ and an ‘exceedingly versatile artiste’.[iv]

In Sheffield Town Hall, their audience included industrialists, civic dignitaries and academics from the University of Sheffield. The Lord Mayor, the Town Clerk, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Master Cutler and the Mayor and Town Clerk of Rotherham led the way, and notable Sheffield names, such as Mappin, Vickers, Bingham, Hadfield and Harrison, were all represented. The Library Association was led by its President for 1909, Sheffield’s own Alderman William Brittain, who, according to the Telegraph of 21 September, was ‘identified more than any other gentleman in Sheffield with the development of museums and libraries’; and by prominent librarians like Stanley Jast, later chief librarian in Manchester and Croydon, and Sheffield’s own chief librarian, Samuel Smith.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

As might be expected in 1909, all the illustrious guests, including the librarians, were men, but their wives, daughters and sisters were present too. It is here that Our Lady Representative comes into her own. Consider the Lord Mayor’s family:

… the Lady Mayoress wearing her chain of office disposed about the corsage of an artistic evening gown of chartreuse green satin, her jewels including a diamond tiara and a diamond pendant of great beauty. Mrs Blake (mother of the Lady Mayoress), in a handsome black toilette sparkling with jet, brought Miss Blake and Miss Esther Blake, both wearing beautiful frocks of rainbow effect, the former expressed in pale blue chiffon over white satin with broad opalescent embroideries, and the other in mauve tinted chiffon en tunique and weighted down the left side with a band of nacre sequins. Mrs R G Blake’s black satin toilette looked well with a corsage bouquet of La France roses; and Mrs Philip Blake was a pretty young matron in a tunic dress of palest mauve ninon done with a broad Greek key embroidery. (Independent)

The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that the Mayoress of Rotherham, Mrs Dan Mullins, wore a ‘heliotrope satin gown, enriched with embroideries’. (Judging by the number of times heliotrope and its near relation, mauve, are mentioned in the coverage, they must have been among that season’s colours.)

And there was:  

Mrs Brittain, whose gown of pewter grey satin was wrought with embroideries of blister pearls, her jewels being diamonds [and her daughters] Miss Winifred Brittain wearing emerald green chiffon and gold embroideries, and Mrs Hubert Rowlands attired in white satin with pendant earrings of amethysts. (Independent)

… Mrs George Franklin, wearing superb diamonds with a Parma violet toilette … Mrs Wilson Mappin, in grey brocade and diamonds … Mr and Mrs Tom Mappin, the lady in black satin with sleeves of thick black silk embroidery sewn with jet and slit up the outer side of the arms. Only two ladies had adopted the new turban coiffure. Mrs A J Gainsford, who had hers finished with a twist of white tulle, and wore a salmon pink bengaline gown, and Mrs Cyril Lockwood, whose hair was dressed with a plait, her black satin frock being enriched about the corsage with gold embroideries. (Independent)

Mrs H H Bedford chose lemon yellow satin … Miss Frost was in pale blue spotted silk; Miss Armine Sandford had a white satin gown; Mrs J R Wheatley in petunia silk applique, with cream lace motifs, had some lovely diamond ornaments … (Telegraph)

The Library Association was not to be outdone. Women librarians and the wives of the male librarians, said Our Lady Representative, ‘dispelled the illusion that a close association with books is incompatible with smart dressing’. (Just how old is the idea that librarians are uninterested in clothes?)

Miss Frost, of Worthing, who had a princess gown of pale blue satin veiled in a tunic overdress of dewdrop white chiffon fringed with silver. Mrs Wright (Plymouth) was much admired in a yellow evening frock; Mrs Kirkby (Leicester) wore white lace; and Mrs Ashton came in crocus mauve ninon de soie. Mrs Jast (Croydon) in a black toilette sparkling with jet … Mrs Chennell was wearing black chiffon; and Mrs Tickhill’s black lace gown veiled a white taffetas underslip. Mrs Samuel Smith (wife of the Chief Librarian of Sheffield) had a gown of palest pink silk, and her sister, Miss Flint, was in black, the jet bretelles being super-imposed on a fold of palest yellow velvet. Mrs Jones (Runcorn) and Mrs Singleton (Accrington) both appeared in black evening toilettes; Mrs Wilkinson (Rawtenstall) wore white silk; Mrs Bagguley (Swindon) was in sapphire blue poplin; and Mrs Pomfret (Darwen) came in old rose crepe de chine, Mrs Dowbiggin (Lancaster) wearing bright pink silk striped with white dots. (Independent)

Unfortunately, there are very few images of all this splendour. The Telegraph published the photograph shown above of Alderman Brittain with Library Association colleagues, taken during the conference, and we have the line drawings below, all of the men in their white tie and tails, and with their fine Edwardian moustaches and beards. For the women’s colourful toilettes, we have only word pictures. We have to use our imaginations to see the Lady Mayoress:

very dainty in reseda green satin, with loose hanging sleeves of cream Limerick lace, caught with cords of gold’ and wearing a diamond tiara and pendant and her chain of office. (Telegraph).

The ‘booky people’, says the original caption

Perhaps words are enough to convey the fashionable, affluent and confident elite of Sheffield that September evening in 1909. There were certainly problems locally, including poverty, slum accommodation and an over-dependence on a few, linked industries, but there was progress of which to be proud. To the world Sheffield was synonymous with steel, a place of industrial innovation and invention. Its population was growing and its suburbs spreading. It had been granted city status as recently as 1893 and within a few years it would be the fifth city in Great Britain, outstripping its great rival, Leeds. The grand Town Hall of the evening’s festivities had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1897 and in 1905 her son Edward VII had granted the University of Sheffield charter.

We know that within five years war would bring considerable change to Sheffield, with lasting consequences, but in 1909 the city could enjoy the opportunity afforded by events like the Library Association conference to show itself off and to earn the admiration of others.   

PS. Although there are no images of the women at the reception, here are a few fashion plates from the newspapers of the period, to help conjure the event.

This is the first of several pieces we plan to publish about the 1909 Library Association conference in Sheffield.


[i] The Library Association was founded in 1877 as the professional body for librarians in the UK. It was awarded a Royal Charter in 1898. It exists today as CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, having merged in 2002 with the Institute of Information Scientists.

[ii] Both the Telegraph and the Independent covered the reception on Tuesday 21 September 1909.

[iii] Middlesex Gazette, 5 October 1912.

[iv] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 3 February 1912.

Dickens Comes to Sheffield

In the spring of 1936 Sheffield Libraries mounted an exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’ in the Central Library, to mark the centenary of Charles Dickens’ novel, The Pickwick Papers. The celebrations, wrote the Sheffield Independent enthusiastically, ‘touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement’.

The Central Library, only a couple of years old, had been designed with space for exhibitions and displays, in contrast to the previous buildings, and the chief librarian, J P Lamb, took advantage of this over the years.

The Pickwick Papers – Pickwick at the slide, by Hablot Knight Browne (better known as Phiz) (public domain)

Our reader Jessie (b. 1906) was a great fan of Charles Dickens, whose novels she came to through her job as a cleaner for the vicar of St John’s Park in Sheffield in the 1920s. Seventy years later, she recalled that her employer:

… had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and [the housekeeper] had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see.

Although we cannot know if she saw it, no doubt Jessie would have been interested in Sheffield Libraries’ exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’. It was one of many events around the country marking the centenary. Pickwick, Dickens’ first novel, had been an immediate success, and remained very popular.  

The press around the country also made much of the centenary. The Sheffield Independent, for example, covered it several times. On Tuesday 24 March 1936, its columnist, ‘Big Ben’, wrote about events organised by the Dickens Fellowship in London:

On Friday next the Pickwick Centenary celebrations begin in real earnest when, at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, there will be a reception of delegates from 76 branches of the Dickens Fellowship. On the following morning the annual conference will be held. Meanwhile, rehearsals are being held daily in connection with the centenary matinee which is to take place at the London Palladium tomorrow week. …

Sir Ben Greet’s company is playing a portion of the version of Bleak House … and, of course, Mr Bransby Williams will make some appearances, first as Mr Pickwick himself, then as Charles Dickens …

On Sunday evening next a special centenary service will be held in Westminster Abbey, and on Monday the original Pickwick coach will leave Charing Cross for Rochester, driven by Mr Bertram Mills.

After the matinee tomorrow week a banquet will be held at Grosvenor House, when Sir John Martin Harvey will propose the immortal memory.[i]

The Sheffield branch of the Dickens Fellowship held its own celebration, a ‘Pickwick supper’, on Saturday 21 March. The Independent reported on the following Monday that over 70 Fellowship members ‘enjoyed hearty 19th century fare’ at Stephenson’s Restaurant in Castle Street. The meal was followed by a ‘musical evening provided on Dickensian lines’ including a contribution from ‘sweet-voiced Jimmie Fletcher, Sheffield’s own famous boy vocalist.[ii]

The Independent continued its coverage the next Wednesday, 25 March, in Big Ben’s ‘Talk of London’ column, reminding readers of Dickens’ visit to Sheffield in 1852.[iii] Dickens gave many public readings of his novels and also acted in plays. Big Ben reported seeing, in a display in a London bookshop, a playbill for a ‘performance by the Guild of Literature and Art’ at the ‘Music Hall, Sheffield’, on Surrey Street. The cast included: Dickens himself; fellow author Wilkie Collins; Mark Lemon, the founding editor of Punch and The Field; and John Tenniel, who would later illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It must have been a busy evening for all concerned, for it was one of those three-decker shows which were so popular a century ago. And as Dickens figures as the manager and the producer of all three, as part author of one, and a player in all three it would appear that he loomed nearly as large in that night’s entertainment as Charlie Chaplin does in Modern Times. …

I wonder if the Sheffielders of that day realised how honoured they were in having such famous writers on the stage of the music hall.  

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

The exhibition in the Central Library was described in the Independent on 23 March.  

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

To celebrate the Pickwick Centenary, the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) has arranged a special exhibition of Dickensiana in the Central Library, Surrey street.

A valuable collection of rare books has been assembled, including many first editions, and several with bibliographical peculiarities of singular interest.

Some of the books belong to the Central Reference Library, but the main part of the display has been lent by Mr. W. Slinn, whose fame as a bookbinder extends much further than Sheffield.

Sheffield Readings

Considerable interest is also attached to a water-colour of Dickens (lent by Mr. Daniel Evans), giving one of his famous readings at St. James’s Hall, London, in 1870. A few of our older readers may remember his visits to the old Music Hall in Surrey street, which was later used as a Central Lending Library until its demolition in 1932.

In any Dickens exhibition pride of place is generally given to the Pickwick Papers. To-day it is still one of the most popular books.

The exhibition can show you a copy of the first edition printed in volume form. Other editions on show include Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and the first octavo edition of Oliver Twist.

The exhibition begins to-day and will continue for a few weeks.

Later, on Thursday 26 March, Big Ben reported that the City Librarian, J P Lamb (never one to miss an opportunity for publicising the library), had rung to tell him that:

another copy of the playbill and a smaller bill are on view at the exhibition of Dickensiana at the Central Library in honour of the Pickwick Centenary, [along with] an actual ticket of admission to the show mentioned.

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

Music Hall, Sheffield, The Amateur Company of the Guild of Literature and Art ... will have the honour of performing for the twenty-first time, a new comedy ... Not So Bad As We Seem or, Many Sides to a Character
The playbill, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10454)
Specially designed admission cards to a performance which was given in the Music Hall, Sheffield, under the management of Charles Dickens
One of the ‘tickets of admission’, reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives (Picture Sheffield, ref: y10459)

As my colleague Mary Grover pointed out in her account of Jessie’s reading, Dickens, always popular, had a rather less secure literary reputation in the early 20th century than he does now. Big Ben for one, however, had no doubts. In his last column on the centenary, on Monday 30 March, he wrote:

The Pickwick Centenary celebrations this week touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement. Nothing new in literature, no new fashions or coteries can affect the universal popularity of Pickwick. If only some of the intellectual snobs and pseudo-intellectual cynics could produce anything with a hundredth part of the vitality, humanity and humour which characterised the art of Charles Dickens we could forgive them much of their pretentious nonsense.

Think of the gallery of rich characters, of the kindly satire, of the human understanding that this man produced. Mr. Pickwick was always surprised by the perversity of the world and by the assaults it made on his ingeniousness. He was – he is – so English. He has lived long. He will go on living. This centenary will give him new vitality and will do our hearts a power of good at a time in our history and in the history the world when so much is being done that Pickwick could never have understood and would certainly have hated.

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


[i] Bransby Williams (1870 – 1961) and Sir John Martin-Hervey (1863 – 1944) were actors who had considerable success interpreting Dickens. Sir Ben Greet (1857-1936) was an actor-manager well-known for his touring Shakespearian productions.

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

[iii] Dickens is known to have visited Sheffield four times, in 1852 to act and in 1853, 1858 and 1869 to give readings. He may also have visited in 1839, to report on local Chartist meetings, but there is no definitive evidence of this.

‘Young woman, 22, not a reader, joins library’

As we practise social distancing and self-isolation for COVID-19, we may well be reading more. At home we have old favourites worthy of another look, ‘to-be-read’ piles and perhaps library books we had on loan before lockdown. As we roam through online catalogues, bookshops both new and second-hand are valiantly posting orders and e-readers downloading titles. Public libraries may have closed their wooden doors, but their digital portals are open wide for the borrowing of e-books, magazines and newspapers, and research libraries are making their content more widely available.

All this set me to wondering how the last great national and international emergency, World War II, affected people’s reading habits. Here’s what happened in Sheffield.  

A young woman of 22 had recently joined the public library, said the Telegraph, in its Sheffield Woman’s Diary column, on Wednesday 20 December 1939. She told the library staff that ‘until the outbreak of war she had never read a book since leaving school at the age of 14’. Now she was ‘reading at least two books a week’. The woman was one of 30 to 50 enrolments a day between September and December 1939, reported City Librarian J P Lamb.

People sought out the public library because they wanted to stay safe and to avoid boredom. They were also trying to understand what was happening and why. And it has to be said that there were fewer resources in the home: for many people, one wireless shared by all the family, very few televisions with limited programming and absolutely no internet-enabled smartphones or laptops to divert you.

When war broke out in 1939, everyone expected heavy air raids and public entertainment was curtailed accordingly. (In fact, there was little activity in what became known as the ‘Phoney War’, from September 1939 to April 1940.) The local library offered distraction, comfort and information. Even though opening hours were reduced, from ten to nine hours a day in Sheffield (just imagine!), suburban libraries in particular were seen as safe. The council responded to this, opening by February 1940 a new branch library, in Totley, and twelve part-time ‘library centres’ in areas without branches, like Crosspool.

The original Totley Library building, now a hairdressing salon

The city was fortunate that its libraries came through the war relatively undamaged. Even during the Sheffield Blitz raids of December 1940, only one library centre, the Manor, was destroyed, with the loss of 300 books. The rest sustained minor damage. The Central Library, ‘bracketed in lines of flames from the Moor and High Street’ according to the 1939-47 Sheffield Libraries report, escaped too. (More or less. If you look down the next time you walk across the entrance lobby, you will see, running almost the whole width, the crack caused by bomb blast.)   

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield (public domain)

There was, J P Lamb noted, a falling off in borrowing in the first week of war – ‘less than two-thirds the normal daily average’ – but this was temporary. Even as people settled to war, and dances and the like started up again, borrowing rose. By November 1939, the number of books issued was 59,332, only 417 fewer than in November 1938, and the trend upwards continued.

What were all these people borrowing?

Borrowing in Sheffield’s Central Lending Library
(image courtesy of Picture Sheffield, ref no s06725)

Both fiction and non-fiction were popular. The Telegraph said that ‘the war has caused such a rush on non-fiction books at the Central Library that some stocks have had to be heavily duplicated’. As books wore out, replacing them was hard and costly, because of paper shortages and the destruction of publishers’ stocks in London’s air-raids. Sheffield was fortunate that its far-sighted City Librarian had early on bought a vast amount of fiction – enough for all the new library centres and a 40,000 reserve – at nominal prices from publishers keen to empty their warehouses.

Readers continued to probe the causes of the war. ‘Since September, 1938,’ the Telegraph said, ‘there has been a great demand for books on world affairs.’ German, Czech, Polish and Finnish histories were borrowed. First-hand accounts of the rise of Nazism, such as Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed and Reaching for the Stars (1939) by Nora Waln, were also much requested, as was Mein Kampf. (The 1939-47 library report also noted as popular in wartime: One Pair of Feet (1942) by Monica Dickens, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940), Trevelyan’s English Social History (1944) and Madame Curie (1937) by Eve Curie.)

Some readers were already looking ahead. ‘Among readers studying theories for a new and better Europe an exceptional number of requests have been made for Streit’s Union Now.’ Clarence Streit was an American journalist covering the League of Nations. Disturbed by nationalism, he proposed in his 1938 book a federation of the leading democracies and economies, including the USA, Australia and Scandinavian countries. From about 1944, readers’ minds turned to the practical and the future, asking for ‘back to the land’ books like Thomas Firbank’s I Bought a Mountain (1940) and material on, for example, food production.

In 1939, people were thinking about the war effort. The Council approved the borrowing of books from the Reference Libraries.

On National Service it has been necessary to duplicate books dealing with all forms of national service. Books are wanted on the Navy, Army, Air Force, first aid, fire fighting, and balloon barrage work. Men who are training for semi-skilled positions in the armament factories have made requests for books dealing with their subjects.

Young people, it was said, were ‘trying to continue their studies in spite of difficulties’, bringing their reading lists to libraries. Children who were not evacuated, or who returned, were thought safest in the home. Schools were closed and arrangements made for tuition in small groups in private houses, church halls etc. Junior libraries were therefore closed between September 1939 and November 1940. Children’s books were moved into the adult libraries and local education centres, the idea being that parents could borrow for their offspring.

Children playing in wartime (public domain)

Making your own entertainment at home was the norm. Readers ‘are asking for and reserving books from the Books for the Home Front pamphlets’. These guides were produced by Sheffield Libraries on a variety of subjects from history to handicrafts.

When a check was made recently it was found that out of 47 books on card games only 10 were available. There were five books out of 21 on fireside fun and only 19 on vegetable gardening out of 95. It was also found that only four books on Bridge were available out of a total of 34, three on party games out of 17, two on billiards out of 9, three on chess out of 54, and six on dancing out of 35.

Finally, there was escape in the form of fiction. ‘It was recently found that 11 out of every 12 volumes on the Central Library stock were in the hands of borrowers.’ Classics were popular:

… the libraries’ 10 copies of [Lorna] Doone were all on issue, also the full stock (six copies) of Adam Bede and the eight copies of The Cloister and the Hearth. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are in great demand. Of the stock of 89 Dickens books 18 were out. Five out of 205 Galsworthy books were out.

Illustration from Lorna Doone

The Telegraph says nothing about light fiction, but it must also have been widely available. At this time, public libraries were often wary of the entertaining, leaving it to the commercial tuppenny libraries on many street corners. But, while promoting cultural standards in general, J P Lamb had championed the popular for years, on the grounds that it drew people in. He had the vast, cheaply-acquired stock mentioned above, and we know from one of his staff that he was ‘buying forty copies of the latest Edgar Wallace’ for the Central Lending Library. According to the Sheffield Libraries report for 1939-47, the most popular fiction books over the war were: Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936), The Stars Look Down (A J Cronin, 1935), How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn, 1939), The Rains Came (Louis Bromfield, 1937), All This and Heaven Too (Rachel Field, 1938) and War and Peace (Tolstoy, 1869). All, apart from War and Peace, were also popular films of the period.

Scene from Gone with the Wind
Scene from How Green was my Valley
Scene from The Rains Came

How many of the books mentioned above are still read today?

After the war, Lamb concluded in his official report that Sheffield’s ‘reading throughout the war did not differ to any marked extent from that of previous years’.[ix] Fred Hutchings, his deputy in the early war years, took a different view in a paper for the 1952 Library Association annual conference :

… war became a release spring, taking the compression from dull lives and making people think beyond their narrow corners into the world around them.

Whichever view you favour, know that, in 1945-46, Sheffield broke all records, with 3.75 million books issued. What will be the effect of COVID-19 when we look back on 2020, the year Sheffield Libraries had designated their Year of Reading?

Here is Sheffield Libraries’ e-library. If you want to read more about the libraries in wartime, try Crisis Reading and In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th. To learn about the wartime reading of our interviewees, Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War, is a paper by Mary Grover and Val Hewson, read by Mary at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary in September 2019.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from A Sheffield Woman’s Diary, by Margaret Simpson, Sheffield Telegraph and Independent, Wednesday 20 December 1939.

The musical and reading adventures of the Hereford Street gang

By Mary Grover

Barbara Sorby has contributed a huge amount to Reading Sheffield. She worked in Sheffield Libraries for 47 years. You can find her story here. Barbara has also helped me understand the lure of the Chalet School stories which were popular with so many of our readers. But just before Christmas she took me in a different direction and introduced me to the memoir of her cousin, Ken Leary, whose Bombs over Bramall Lane (ACM Retro, 2011) tells the wartime story of the community of Highfield, much of which now lies beneath the dual carriageway separating Bramall Lane and the Moor.

Ken died about ten years ago. In his memoir he writes eloquently of the sheer energy of the boys he grew up with in the 1940s, often brought up by mothers whose husbands were away in the forces or working long hours in the steel industries upon which Britain’s war effort depended. Ken’s health was not always good. It is difficult to believe that a boy who led his friends into adventures all over the Peak District in the late forties spent more than a year in bed with bronchial pneumonia while the bombs were obliterating much of the neighbourhood around him. He was sent to Wales to recuperate and on his return developed a tubercular gland – treatment meant increased financial strain on his over-burdened mother. When he recovered Ken had to learn to walk again and was soon involving himself in the culture of the inner-city terraces in which he lived.

The Central Library was within walking distance of Ken’s home, a walk through and around the Moor which had once been a busy shopping centre. The boys colonised the cellars as soon as the shops above them had been bombed-out. Their explorations beneath the tottering structures above nearly came to an end when they realised they were sharing a recently revealed cavern with a pile of bodies. They ‘fled like scared rabbits’ into the rubble above to discover a fire engine hosing down mounds of smouldering tailors’ dummies. Few of our readers took such risks on their way to the Central Library.

Sheffield Central Library, which opened in 1934

Unlike his cousin Barbara, Ken preferred non-fiction. One book quite literally extended the horizons of himself and the rest of the Hereford Street Gang: ‘not a gang of hooligans – more like a gang straight out of a Just William book’.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

The Central Library was an important meeting place for the gang, particularly the Graves Art Gallery at the top of the building. They would spend their time ‘browsing and looking at the paintings and other objects on display’ especially during the winter ‘because it was somewhere to go that was warm and dry’.

Among my favourite books at the time were the Just William stories, but I generally enjoyed any boys’ adventure books like Biggles or books about football. I was particularly taken with the Out with Romany books. There were a series of books all about the countryside – the moors, the woods and fields, and the coasts around Britain. They were filled with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the birds and animals, the butterflies and insects that inhabit these islands. They really stirred-up my childhood imagination and I couldn’t wait to get out into this new and fascinating world that I had discovered – far away from the bombs and destruction we had recently witnessed in our everyday lives.

When he was ten or 11 Ken came across a small paperback, Across the Derbyshire Moors, published by the local Sheffield papers. The boys studied the ramblings mapped on those pages and discovered that many of the routes were within walking distance of Highfield or ‘at least a halfpenny tram-ride away’. ‘This book was definitely going to broaden our horizons and we couldn’t wait to get started’.

Ken exploring at speed

The local churches also introduced the Hereford Street Gang to all sorts of cultural activities and even enabled them to make a few pennies. At Christmas the boys would go round the local pubs, ‘mummering’, which in the way of those days meant singing carols with masks or blacked-up faces.

This was achieved by rubbing soot, from the back of the fire, on to our faces. Sometimes lard was applied first, and then the soot…. Where the hell we got this from I haven’t a clue.  Don’t remember anyone ever telling us about it and we certainly never saw anybody else do it. The mystery remains.

The pub crawl began at 8pm (‘You may ask: “What were your parents doing, allowing you to stay out till that time of night?”’). They were usually welcomed but they couldn’t count on getting into the Queen Adelaide which had its own concert room. Sometimes the landlord was reluctant to let them but the customers would shout to him: ‘Let them in you miserable sod.’ Those who had never heard the boys before were ‘in for a shock’ because the gang had hidden talents’.

The majority of us were choirboys, believe it or not, at St Mary’s Church on Matilda Lane. Complete with cassock and surplus, we sang at services on a Sunday morning for the princely sum of 3d a week, provided that we turned up for choir practice on a Wednesday night (we’d do anything to earn a crust). So you see, we…could also sing a bit.

Then just after the end of the war they discovered a side-door into the mighty Perpendicular-style church that still stands about two hundred yards from the famous football stadium in Bramall Lane. The church had been boarded up during the war so the gang was delighted at the new playground that awaited them inside. As they crowded into the doorway of the open church (‘as though butter wouldn’t melt in our mouth’), they stopped ‘in awe’ because at the organ, which had been silent for six years, sat a man ‘playing away just like Reginald Dixon’, the famous Blackpool Tower organist.

The front of the organ was lit up and the man suddenly turned round, spotted us, smiled, and carried on playing. On seeing that he was friendly we all timidly entered the dimly lit church and sat down on the dusty pews – not a word being spoken. What an odd sight we must have looked – a group of scruffy kids sitting in a dusty church lit only by the shafts of sunlight beaming in through holes in the boarded-up windows.’

They had other musical patrons. Though most of the boys went to Pomona Elementary School and were unable to go on to grammar school where there was usually more music on offer, Ken felt he had, on the whole, good teachers. One of his favourites was the music teacher, Mr Murray, who not only took his pupils to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall but had prepared them to recognise the instruments being played: ‘in fact I can still recall some of those classical pieces almost sixty years on.’ Mr Murray was also an excellent pianist.

Towards the end the lesson he would play a medley of popular songs of the day, all jumbled up and with some of the notes altered to disguise them. The person who wrote down the most correct titles was rewarded with a sixpence and the winners were always girls!

Unlike his much younger cousin, Barbara, Ken did not make his living from his love of reading. He became a joiner. This book testifies to how much his early encounters with books and with music meant to him. He owed a lot to the great cultural provision represented by Sheffield Libraries and the regular visits of the Hallé Orchestra. He also paid tribute to the dedication of his elementary school teachers. But, like so many of our readers, he was also a great entrepreneur. He would seize any chance that came his way and, acting on the leads given him, go tramping round the moorland that had been inaccessible until he borrowed the book of walks, or use his choir training to gather pennies from the drinkers around the streets that led off Bramall Lane.

Ken Leary’s Bombs over Bramall Lane (available here) is an inspirational book and I do recommend it.

Margaret C’s reading journey

Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.  

By Mary Grover

Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with attractive girls on them’.

Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.

I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?

Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.

Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every Saturday and remembers her first choices:

One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.

Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior Library, but never history or detective novels.

Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’  She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.

The old Firth Park Library building today

At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.

When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!

There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.

Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it. 

You can read Mary’s full interview here.

City Librarian Speaks Out

Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries, including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shines out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the

recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.

A Nazi throws confiscated ‘un-German’ books into the bonfire on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933 (image: public domain).

This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’ books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April 1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:

It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.

Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).   

The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods of teaching.

We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?

(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)

Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language, creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the ‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’, questioning rather than accepting.

Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.

The Sheffield Literary Club, with Lamb third from the left, front row (image: Sheffield Newspapers)

Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.

If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.