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.

The Tuesday Club at Upperthorpe

Libraries have long been about more than books.

Upperthorpe Library

In 1992 Helen* wrote to the staff of Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield about one of their activities, a group called the Tuesday Club. She described herself as a ‘great library visitor’ who felt ‘comfortable and at home’ there, and was writing to say how much she appreciated what the club had to offer her.

Helen said that she was ‘not by nature a joiner’. She had expected to ‘go once or twice and then drop it’. But she had become a regular, finding that the club ‘filled a need’ that she hadn’t realised she felt – that is, ‘to meet new people’.

Helen enjoyed the chance to learn new things that the club gave her. She remembered talks about the war years, transport and Sheffield cinemas.

I love knowing things and have learned a lot which I pass on to my friends and daughter.

But Helen also enjoyed the way the club brought people together and gave them the chance to talk and share on an equal basis. The meetings were:

living history, related by the ordinary people who experienced it, and not told years later in the context of great events and important people.

‘We can talk,’ she wrote, ‘and be sure that we are being listened to, which doesn’t happen so often as you grow older.’

Upperthorpe Library

Helen concluded her letter:

I can’t say the Tuesday Club has changed me into a different person, but it has certainly broadened my outlook and made me friendlier.

 

* Not her real name. We have not been able to trace the writer of the letter, but would be happy to acknowledge her, if she were to come forward.

‘Books. This will be good.’

Kath Kay told us here about a Christmas play put on for the children of Walkley and Woodhouse Libraries in 1949 and 1950. Now she shares further memories of libraries in Sheffield, Kent and London. Kath was born at home in Crookes, a suburb of Sheffield in 1931.

It’s been an interesting career. I’ve worked as a school, public, government and university librarian. Working in libraries all my life has given me great curiosity to find things out. Now I’m constantly using my iPad. It’s all part of the information process.

Kath Kay in a school play (Kath, wearing a hat, is in the third row, second from the right)

Kath Hunt, as she was then, left Notre Dame High School in 1947. She was 16 and had no clear idea of what she wanted to do. Stay on at school? Or go to the Commercial College? Then she got a job in the first-floor book department at Boots on Fargate in the centre of Sheffield. The staff ‘had to pencil a very small letter B, near the spine, on page 17 of every book’, Kath says, the idea being that it would help track books if they were stolen.

Edith Sitwell, by Rex Whistler (1929)

One of the bookshop customers was Dame Edith Sitwell, whose family home, Renishaw, is near Sheffield. In the Renishaw museum, there are memories from Boots staff: ‘I was fascinated by a one inch square ring she wore. I wondered how she could wear a glove over it.’ And another said, ‘…she would shake hands with us and we all bobbed a tiny curtsey. … A wonderful fairy-tale experience.’ Kath has her memory too. ‘Long red nails, long hands, lots of rings, very grand,’ she says instantly, nearly 70 years later.

The job in Boots set the course of Kath’s life. ‘Books. This will be good,’ she thought. ‘Perhaps I’d like to work in a library.’

Walkley Library

At first, there were no vacancies in Sheffield Libraries, but then Jack Walker, the Deputy City Librarian, said, ‘You can start next week.’ On 2 January 1948, Kath joined the staff at Walkley Library, a Carnegie library and one of the busiest branches in the city. By coincidence, the young woman who lived next door to Kath started the same day. In the fashion of the time, she wore her hair in a ‘peekaboo’ (that is, falling over one eye). When the formidable City Librarian, J P Lamb, came on a visit, he greeted her by saying ‘Ah, I see we have Veronica Lake with us today.’ (For younger readers, Veronica Lake was a Hollywood star famous for the peekaboo. It was so popular that, during World War II, the US government asked Lake to change her hair, as the impractical style was thought to cause accidents in factories.)

Veronica Lake, with her trademark hairstyle, and Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Kath liked Walkley and her job. She remembers with affection the librarian, Mr Broadhurst, known to his staff as ‘Broady’, who used to throw Christmas parties at his home in nearby Northfield Road. There was also her friend, Olive Phillips, the Children’s Librarian, with whom Kath wrote and produced the play, The Magic Story Book, in 1949. ‘We loved it. We were young. We just did it.’ By 1950 Kath had been posted to Woodhouse Library, where she put the play on again, and was chronicled in the local newspaper. After Woodhouse came a job in the children’s library at Hillsborough. Kath remembers that staff were often transferred without warning from one branch to another and that all her professional training took place on the job.

Kath left the library service in 1952 when she got married.

I didn’t have to leave but my parents had opened a general store and I went to help out. We lived with my parents.

By 1954, Kath and her husband were established enough to sign the contract for a house. Kath returned to Sheffield Libraries, but

the only job was in Central Lending, and meant sometimes sitting on the enquiry desk which wasn’t a good experience. I’ve never been so frightened in my life.

She asked for a transfer and was sent as a Senior Assistant at Attercliffe Library, which turned out to be much better.

Tommy Osborne was the librarian. He had a tied cottage at Chatsworth, and told us that in the awful winter of 1947 he couldn’t get to work for eight weeks. But he used to invite us out there in the summer.

Tommy Osborne, his wife and some of the staff from Attercliffe Library at Chatsworth (photo by Kath Kay)

Some of the Attercliffe Library staff, at Tommy Osborne’s cottage at Chatsworth (photo by Kath Kay)

At Christmas 1958, ‘the Attercliffe children’s librarian made a model of Sputnik’, the satellite the Russians had put into space the year before, and suspended it from the library ceiling.

There was one ritual Kath recalls which applied no matter the library. Every Friday afternoon, someone from each branch made the journey, long or short, to the ‘Bin Room’, as it was called, at the Central Library. The purpose was to ‘collect the cleaners’ wages and clean tea towels’, but the occasion turned into an informal staff meeting, where you ‘met and chatted with everyone from the other libraries’.

In 1958 Kath became pregnant with her son, Chris, and left the library again. A couple of years later, the family moved to London, where Kath’s husband, a Customs & Excise official, had been posted. Kath got a job, mostly part-time, in a school in Kent for about eight years, where in the few hours a week she worked, she had to:

devise a system for a library of 20,000 books and choose new books with the teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was there for years. It was convenient for looking after my own children. The library was on the top floor of a new 6th Form block.

In time this job led to another – library assistant in the science and engineering library at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). ‘I got the job,’ Kath says, ‘because I had worked with 6th formers.’ Kath also looked after quite a few graduates doing a year’s work experience before doing their Masters course in Librarianship.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

In 1987, after 27 years in the south, Kath returned to Sheffield. She worked in the Health and Safety Executive library for a year and, in 1989, returned to Sheffield Libraries for the third and last time. Her job was at Upperthorpe, a grand Victorian building and the oldest branch library in the network. Someone had the idea of running some classes and said: ‘You’re interested in sewing and things. You could pass on some skills.’ The classes didn’t quite materialise, but a discussion group, the Tuesday Club. did. One member wrote:

I found [the Tuesday Club] filled a need in my life that until then I hadn’t realised I had. To meet new people who were not already sharing my hobbies and pursuits. … I had not realised how diffident I had become over the years, I didn’t want to meet new people and avoided even casual conversations on the bus or in the shops, in fact I had built a nice comfortable shell around my life and resented any intrusions. … I can’t say the Tuesday Club has changed me into a different person, but it has certainly broadened my outlook and made me friendlier, and I have found a lot of the confidence I had lost over the years.

You can read the letter in full here.

Kath retired in 1992, at the age of 61, but she was on the standby list until she was 65, working when she was needed, at Stannington and Walkley, where she had started all those years before. And librarianship remains a family profession. Kath’s daughter became a university librarian. And Kath enjoys her retirement.

The Secret Garden is still one of my favourite books to read, and I have a first edition now.

The Magic Story Book (1949 and 1950)

Bobby: (turning aside wistfully). Do you really think Father Christmas will bring me my engine, Betty?

Betty: Yes, I should think so. I am feeling rather worried about my doll and pram. Do you think it was too much to ask for both?

Bobby: I don’t see why you shouldn’t get them, as you want them so much. Besides, Cousin Mary asked for lots and lots of things last year, and got them all.

Betty: Yes, so she did. Well, anyway, we usually get more things than we ask for, so I don’t think he will mind my asking for two things.

In autumn 1949, the staff at Walkley Library were already planning for Christmas. What festivities could they lay on for the children who ‘regularly attended the Reading Circle’? Olive Phillips, the children’s librarian, and Kath Hunt, then a ‘humble library assistant’, decided to produce a  play. ‘We loved it. We were young. We just did it.’ Here are Kath’s memories.  

Carnegie library at Walkley

The Reading Circle was held four evenings a week, starting at 6.30pm. The children were told a story and then a book – maybe the latest Enid Blyton – was read as a serial. (Remember this was when Enid Blyton was accepted as a popular children’s author.)

Olive Phillips and I had the idea of producing a play for Christmas, rehearsing during the Reading Circle time. We looked at some plays but royalties were required to perform these to the public so we then thought of writing our own play. We did this with the encouragement of the librarian, Mr Broadhurst, or ‘Broady’ as he was thought of by us!

The Magic Story Book tells how Bobby and Betty Brown creep downstairs on Christmas Eve, hoping to see Father Christmas. They want proof of his existence, to convince their sceptical cousins Mary and Robert. But they fall asleep, and are found by Wee Willie Winkie and his friends from Nursery Rhyme Land. They decide to test the children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes. Who, for example, is this?

I come from far across the sea,

My magic lamp I’ve brought with me,

I’ll rub it once, and then again,

Now, can you tell me who I am?

Father Christmas appears and is angry that they are not asleep, but he forgives them when he hears about Mary and Robert. ‘Now rub your lamp, Aladdin,’ he says. ‘Then I will get on with my rounds or I shall never get finished before daybreak.’ The next day, Betty and Bobby tell their adventure to Mary and Robert and their friends, but to no avail. ‘There is no Father Christmas. You’re making it all up,’ says Mary. They summon Aladdin who carries Betty, Bobby and Mary off to Nursery Rhyme Land. Their friends who are left behind pass the time making up rhymes:

Something has happened, it’s very weird;

Betty and Bobby have disappeared,

Taking Mary with them too;

Oh, whatever shall we do?

When Betty, Bobby and Mary return, they tell their story:

Mary: We’ve been to Nursery Rhyme Land. It’s been such fun and we saw Father Christmas’ toy shop. He was asleep in his cottage, but we peeped through the window and saw him. I’ll never disbelieve again. Mary Mary quite contrary gave me these flowers from her garden, and the Queen of Hearts made some tarts for us.

And the play ends with carols. You can read the play here.

Olive and I were very enthusiastic, even rehearsing on Thursdays, our day off. We had much support from the Branch Libraries Supervisor, Mr Harry Marr and the Deputy City Librarian, Mr Jack Walker. They arranged for copies of the play to be duplicated (no photocopies in those days). They even lent us a platform to use as a stage in the old reading room where the play was to be performed. As the platform was not high enough, we had to balance it on four dustbins to make sure that the audience would be able to see all the children. Would we have got away with this today? Perhaps not, but it was most important as the audience were mainly parents, brothers and sisters and grandparents of the participating children. They had to have a good view.

Unfortunately there is no record of that performance but it was judged a great success. The following Christmas, 1950, when Olive had moved to Firth Park Library and I was working in the children’s library at Woodhouse, I produced the play again. This time the event was reported, with a photo, by the South Yorkshire Times and Woodhouse Express:

Woodhouse children in The Magic Story Book (1950)

Library Play

Woodhouse Debut Before Child Audience

An audience of about 100 children on Thursday saw a play. ‘The Magic Story Book,’ presented in Woodhouse Library by members of the children’s reading circle. The play was written by Miss Kathleen Hunt (19) and Miss Olive Phillips (20), of 39, Bishop Hill, Woodhouse, junior librarian at Firth Park Library, Sheffield.

The play was presented at the Walkley Library, where Miss Phillips and Miss Hunt were employed last year. Parents could not be accommodated in the Woodhouse Library.

About 30 children were in the play, which concerns the attempts of two children to convince their cousin that there is a Father Christmas.

Taking part were: Maureen Fox, Barbara Grant, Kathleen Crossland, Carol Macintyre, Carol Macvinnie, Maureen, Eileen and Barbara May, Carol Pickeridge, Auriol Wheeler, Marlene Grice, Barbara Simons, Rita Hall, Pauline Cardwell, Carol Gummer, Eileen Price, Ann and Pat Roebuck, Lynne Hartley, Sandra Taylor, Joseph Firth and Stanley Rodgers.

Kath remembers the whole experience of the play very well, and now thinks back about her friend and co-author with some sadness. Olive Phillips married and moved to the Birmingham area, and died in her early fifties, in the 1980s.

If anyone recognises the names of the Woodhouse children, or remembers the Walkley performance, please leave a comment.

Old Jack Frost comes round at night;

Fingers and toes he tries to bite,

I hide myself beneath the clothes,

And then he cannot bite my nose.

 

More of Kath’s memories will be posted soon.

Librarians’ Voices: When the library came calling…

Sheffield’s Mobile Library Service started in 1962. Here are the memories of one of the staff who joined it in 1968.   

In those days we had three vehicles, imaginatively called Mob 1, Mob 2 and Mob 3.

Mobs 1 and 3 were custom built but Mob 2 was a converted (old) single decker bus, with a back entry, so when we reached a stop, the driver had to get out to come round the back, whatever the weather. But most of my memories are of the custom built vehicles.

There were three crews, consisting of driver, librarian or assistant, rotated round the three vehicles, so everyone had to endure the old one which had a more or less non-existent heating system

At that time we were based in Highfield House, in the back of Highfield Library, on the 1st and 2nd floors.

Highfield Library

Highfield House

Some places were visited only once a week but busier stops had up to three visits but with different crews and vehicles during the week so they had as varied a selection of books as possible.

We all had office time, on the first floor in Highfield, as well as vehicle time. The office time was for processing new books, repairs and satisfying reservations – normal back-room work.

Busy places were visited for a whole morning or afternoon but small, quiet places might have as little as half an hour so there would be several stops during those morning or afternoon sessions.

For those going out, the first duty was to pick up the skips containing reserved (requested) books for the day’s routes from the bin room on the ground floor, along with the correct Browne charge (the old, manual card system of recording loans) for each stop. The skips were then loaded into a space behind the driver and assistant. The charge was wedged in the top of the skips with a fervent hope for no emergency stops along the route. Not fun sorting a spilled charge of three or four trays.

Also stowed in the front was the all-important flask of boiling water for drinks during the day. This went just under a little sink which worked on a pump system. One of the driver’s duties was to make sure there was plenty of water in the reservoir.

When we reached the first stop, the charge was put on a little counter halfway down the vehicle and the reserves on a shelf above it. People would come in brandishing their green postcards telling them their request was ready, just as in an ordinary branch library.

Customers would bring their returned books to the counter to be discharged and/or collect reserves, then they could browse the shelves which were arranged as if in a miniature branch library.

There was another little counter just behind the passenger seat where the driver would stamp books to issue them, where he had spare trays to put the issued items.

Any books returned which were needed for requests were put aside to go back in the skips. These would have been marked up as part of the backroom work from the trays which were available and any not found would be looked for on the returning charges from that day’s visits.

The drivers also wrote tickets for new members as the assistant wouldn’t usually have enough time as requests and enquiries had to be dealt with, along with putting the stock in order. This in itself took a little longer than in a branch library as each book which needed moving had to be lifted above the strip of wood which ran along the length of each shelf to prevent books falling off in transit.

At the end of the visit, the skips and charges would be stowed away again at the front then the whole process would be repeated at the next stop.

Breaks would be taken between stops, preferably somewhere with a nice aspect and definitely near a toilet. I think we knew the location of all the public toilets in Sheffield.

If it was a whole session stop, I think we just had a drink at the front counter – made by the driver from the water in the flask, which got colder as the day wore on. At some stops, we were given fresh drinks by kind customers – usually at the more remote, short visit places.

Endcliffe Park was a favourite lunch stop because on nice days we could have a walk and feed the ducks.

Little things stand out in my memory, usually concerned with hospitality.

  • At the Lane Top stop we always got tea and cakes from the lady who lived there.
  • At Halfway, the farmer’s wife, a lovely French lady, always brought us tea and whatever had just come fresh from the oven.
  • One particularly cold and snowy day at Crosspool on the old Mob 2, the driver and myself were shivering on the back seat when a couple who visited regularly arrived and were horrified at our working conditions. They went straight back home and returned shortly with a thick jumper each and a flask of coffee heavily laced with whisky. They said to keep the jumpers until we next visited.

To finish with the old mobile, one snowy day, we skidded all the way down steep Granville Road, backwards. Miraculously, we reached the bottom and stopped, facing the correct way!

The Mobile Library Service was closed in 2014, after 52 years. Sheffield City Council now operates a Home Library Service, with staff delivering books etc to the homes of people who cannot get out to visit the library.. 

We don’t have any photos of the Mobile Library Service, but here is a photo of the first vehicles, dating from 1962, and here is another, dating from 1971, which looks like the bus being retired.