Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library

Books for Balloon Barrage Men (Telegraph and Independent, Thursday 14 September 1939)

Sir. – At various points in and around the city the men who man the balloon barrage are working in small groups.  Their hours of duty are long, and their means of recreation limited.  The YMCA are providing games and other amenities, and I have been asked to help to arrange a supply of suitable books for them.

There must be many readers in Sheffield who would be willing to give books from their private libraries, and I should be very glad to receive them at the Central Library, the Libraries Committee having kindly given permission for books to be received, selected and issued there.  Light reading is most likely to be welcomed, and there should be a ready use for fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types.

May I appeal to all who have suitable books to spare to send them to the Central Library for this purpose?

Yours etc

J P LAMB

City Librarian

This letter from City Librarian Joseph Lamb, dated just a few days after the start of World War II and repeated in the Star, was probably the first of Sheffield’s wartime book drives.  That such an appeal should be issued so soon after the declaration of war suggests preparedness and foresight.

256px-barrage_balloons_over_london_during_world_war_ii

barrage_balloons_near_biggin_hill_in_kent_part_of_the_defences_on_the_south-eastern_approaches_to_london_to_combat_v-1_flying_bombs_1944-_tr2161

Air-raid defences, including barrage balloons, were being put in place around the UK during the late 1930s.  Sheffield had around 70 of the huge balloons.  They aimed to interfere with an aeroplane’s flight path and efforts to drop bombs.  They might even bring it down by catching it in the cables which secured them to winches on lorries.  The balloons were managed by crews who, day and night, manoeuvred them into place and raised and lowered them to protect suspected targets.  Wind and rain made the job more difficult.  The crews were often housed in schools and other public buildings, and their lives must have been a mixture of hard work, boredom and tension.

Hence the need for books and games for relaxation and diversion.  J P Lamb asked for ‘light reading … fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types’.  This was a change from the usual calls of librarians of the period for their borrowers to read serious books.  (In fact, Joseph Lamb did not scorn light reading, stocking popular books ‘in the belief that having attracted novel readers … [libraries] are given the opportunity of leading them to better reading, or at least to informative books’.  He was criticised for this by other librarians.  Furthermore, in the lead-up to war, books which explained the international situation had been in demand from the library.)

Unfortunately, there are no records of how people responded to the appeal.  How many books were donated?  What were they?  The success of two book drives in 1943 and 1944, when over a million books were collected, suggests that this early appeal was probably successful.  And we do know that when crews moved on, they often left behind games and books for their successors; and that by October 1939 there was a library service for troops stationed in Sheffield.

In September 1939, the war was for newspapers the only story in town, and they were unsurprisingly patriotic and positive.  J P Lamb’s letter shared space with:

  • ‘Why Germany Has Invaded Poland’, a long article by Count Sforza, former Italian Foreign Minister
  • a leader, ‘Nazis’ Rage’, doubting the German war effort and mentioning the plight of Jews ‘treated … with such devilish inhumanity’
  • reviews of a book about British naval history and essays by historian Lewis Namier who was a Polish Jew by birth
  • discussion of blackout regulations and lighting restrictions as the long nights drew in.

But it was not all serious.  There was a column by the Rambling Naturalist and, by popular demand, a crossword (puzzles had been dropped to make way for war news).

Sheffield’s other main paper, the Star, was much the same: a leader entitled ‘Hitler’s War on Women’, an article by Beverley Baxter MP asking ‘Have German Plans Miscarried?’; and – lighter in tone – a snippet that research by Sheffield metallurgist Robert Hadfield had helped produce the newly essential tin hat.

Lamb’s letter was also an early indicator of his library’s important role in the wartime life of the city, for example, in public information and assistance services.  But this story is for another post.

Here are the pages from the Telegraph and Star.

14091939-barrage-balloons-daily-tel

14091939-barrage-balloons-star

 

Firth Park Teacher Guiding Sheffield’s Literary Taste

While exploring the review pages of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in the 1930s, I found that only one reviewer was named.  Among the totally anonymous or mysteriously initialled reviews (how I would love to know the identity of EKM and LASW), only Frederick T Wood was allowed to sign his columns and be held to account for his views.

It is not surprising that he filled a position of such stature for he was a remarkable man and a great addition to the cultural life of Sheffield, not only in the 1930s, but until his death in 1967, just a term after his retirement from schoolteaching.  He reviewed a wide range of books: a biography of Thackeray; the latest novel by Louis Golding dealing with the persecution of the Jews in contemporary Germany; the latest anthology of modern poetry; and a history of the social life of the Middle Ages.  He dealt with each volume in a fair, scholarly and totally accessible way, perhaps his skills as a teacher helping him connect with the general reader.

Frederick Wood

Frederick Wood

The only information I have been able to find about Frederick Wood is on the website of Firth Park School.  From 1928 to 1961, Wood was English master at Firth Park Grammar School for Boys.  Reading Sheffield interviewee John D, whose interview you can find here, was at Firth Park, but sadly doesn’t mention Wood.

 

Dr Wood’s influence spread far beyond Firth Park or even Sheffield. He was known across the globe as the author of English Prepositional Idiom which was printed in many different languages, and is still generally available.

The following obituary from the Firth Park School website makes it clear that he was a highly reputable scholar, a brilliant teacher and a man who, guided by his strong Unitarian faith, had strong principles.

wood-prepositional-english-idiomsDr Frederick T Wood – School teacher

In 1928, Frederick T Wood, having achieved his doctorate at London University, was confronted with the choice of a career as University Lecturer or as Schoolmaster. Choosing the latter, he was soon invited to an interview in Sheffield for the post of English master at Firth Park Secondary School.  By the next post came a similar invitation from Birmingham: but the interview at Sheffield was the earlier one, and he was offered the post at Firth Park.  And so he left his native Kent to come to Sheffield, and to the School which was to be his academic home for the rest of his teaching life. How deeply he has enriched the life of this city and this school.  He soon turned to the writing of books, first School Text Books, then Anthologies and other works, and – recently – he produced his greatest work, Current English Usage, which is certain to be a standard authority for many years to come.  Altogether he has published over thirty volumes, the majority for students in all parts of the world who wish to learn and understand the English language.  His works have appeared in a dozen languages, including Serbo-Croat, Arabic and Japanese.  At the same time he has been a devoted and conscientious member of the school staff, setting a high standard of scholarship for his Sixth Forms, and meticulous in the performance of the multifarious details of school life.  In particular, he has for thirty-seven years carried the immense burden of the School Magazine, a task which he undertook in 1929 – “on a temporary basis!”  He was not, however, simply academic in his interests.  He was a man of principle, devoted to the truth, and dedicated to the championing of freedom of thought and speech.  He was never afraid of being in a minority of one.  He conceived it to be the right, and the duty of each individual to proclaim and indicate the truth as he sees it.  He was a genuine nonconformist in the widest sense of the word.  He was a devoted member of Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street, and on many Sundays in the year went out as a lay-preacher to the country chapels of Derbyshire and the West Riding.  He was a notable personality in the Unitarian denomination, and was the President Designate of the Assembly of Unitarian Churches for the year 1968.  His fame and reputation was nation-wide. He told the story that he received a letter, safely delivered at his Sheffield home, addressed simply “Dr. Frederick T. Wood, England.”  He is the only member of the staff whose name has ever appeared in “Who’s Who.”  His letters and articles have appeared from time to time in The Times.  He was offered – but declined – the post of Professor of English at a Swiss University.  Yet, despite all this, he never paraded his learning or tried to impress with his importance.  He was always prepared to go to infinite trouble to clear up difficulties about the meaning and use of words, both for staff and boys.  He was invariably kind, helpful and good-natured; he loved to tell stories against himself.  He never said or did anything mean or malicious in all his time at Firth Park.

When he retired at the end of the Autumn Term in 1966, he was so much looking forward to the freedom he would enjoy in writing the many books of which he had already drafted the outlines, and we all wished him a long and happy commitment to the consummation of his work.  But it was not to be.  His early death has caused us much sorrow; but we honour him for his scholarship and integrity, and remember him with affection for his goodness of heart.

 

For a teaching lifetime he ran his race solo

Pacing relays of boys in the school he refused to leave,

Turning down a Professorship abroad;

And making a map of even the seemingly bleakest moorland

Of prepositional idiom for foreigners

So they might immigrate to our mother tongue.

I think of him screwing his erudition down

On exam scripts, accurate to half a mark;

Or classifying himself in his “English Usage”

Not as “Kentish Man” but “Man of Kent”.

Exile to the externalised catarrh of our

Northern so-called Spring, the dignity of the

Old Buildings tower rising above

His ground floor room as he removed a howler

From a schoolboy’s brain, he could tell the hair’s breadth

That had fallen golden from the Muse’s head

Between the pages of a school edition.

firth-park-grammar

Wood’s ground floor room beneath the tower

Unitarians and Sheffield reading

Frederick Wood is one of a number of Unitarians who have contributed hugely to the love of reading in Sheffield.  The research by Loveday Herridge and Sue Roe on the Sheffield reading societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (which we plan to feature shortly) shows the importance of the Unitarian tradition of curiosity, learning and high principles in the formation of our first reading societies.  Frederick Wood worshipped at Upper Chapel, just round the corner from where City Librarian J P Lamb was overseeing that other magnet for those who wanted to explore the world of the imagination and the intellect: the Central Library.

If you remember Frederick Wood, we would love to hear from you.  Email us at mkg0401@aol.com

Mary Grover

 

Librarians: ‘minds like detectives’

In this article from the Sheffield Telegraph and Daily Independent of 12 April 1939, an anonymous reporter challenges Sheffield’s professional librarians to answer some obscure questions – and loses comprehensively.  There is no proof but experience suggests that the idea came from the City Librarian, J P Lamb, who had an eye for publicity for his library service.

Of course, today Google will yield answers in a minute, although there seems to be uncertainty about Rock Day and its information on matildite is hard for the non-specialist to understand.  But consider what information professional Ned Potter suggests here – that Google and librarians don’t do the same things and there’s a place for both.

NOTHING TOO MUCH FOR SHEFFIELD’S LIBRARY SLEUTHS

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours trying to catch out a body of Sheffield people with minds like detectives – people who can trace anything, writes a “Telegraph and Independent” reporter.

You may find them in the reference departments of Sheffield Central Library.

Go and ask them anything, and they’ll tell you the answer.  I think they’d even find out the numbers of the proverbial sands of the seashore, if anyone really wanted to know.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

I had heard all about the efficiency of Sheffield librarians in answering the most out-of-the-way queries, and I decided – rather heartlessly, you may think – to give them an unofficial test.

Cunning Questions

So I armed myself with a list of varied and abstruse questions, cunningly designed to foil each one of the 75,000 reference books at the disposal of the detectives.

“If they answer two they’ll be lucky,” I thought, “and they won’t answer two so very quickly.”

So I went into the Reference Library with a sly smile and approached the desk set aside for enquiries.

“Can you tell me,” I said, the sly smile broadening, “who swayed about upon a horse and thought it was Pegasus?”

The gentleman to whom the question was addressed did not look at me as if I were a madman.  He was interested.  Here was an opportunity for a spot of really good Sherlock Holmes stuff.

This is how he tracked the quotation down.

Pegasus was mentioned in a Greek legend.  Right.  Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary.  He gets the dictionary, turns up Pegasus.  No luck.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Hot on the Scent

It might refer to some incident in a book.  So Brewer’s “Reader’s Handbook,” Baker’s “Guide to the Best Fiction” and other books of reference are consulted.  Still no clue.

Then various concordances are tried.  In Keats’s concordance are found the words: “And thought it was Pegasus.” Hot on the scent now.

Keats’ “Sleep and Poetry” is turned up.   In it is the passage:

with a puling infant’s force

They swayed about upon a horse

And thought it was Pegasus.

From the context the reference was obviously to eighteenth century poets, and one of my most deadly questions had gone down the drain – all in a quarter of an hour.

“Rock Day” and Why

Badly shaken, I returned to the attack with “When is Rock Day, and how did it get its name?”

My hopes rose.  I began to think I had won this time.  An examination of encyclopaedias, dictionaries, indexes to names, calendars, and even Chambers’s “Book of Days” revealed nothing.

Then they tried a dictionary of archaic words.  A long shot, but it came off.  It was found that “rock,” besides its usual meaning, was formerly a synonym for spinning wheel.

Spinning wheel?  Distaff.  Distaff Day?

And under Distaff Day in Smith’s Encyclopaedia of names was the following entry:-

Distaff Day.  7th of January, so called because on that day the women who have the Christmas festival till Twelfth Day (the 6th) return to their distaffs or ordinary work.  As a distaff is also called a rock it is likewise called “Rock Day.”

“Very good,” I admitted.  “But I haven’t nearly finished with you yet.  What is the correct word to describe a government of old men?”

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Gerontocracy

My heart secretly rejoiced when Roget’s Thesaurus afforded no help, but I was foiled again by the best bit of detective work of the whole day.

Democracy, aristocracy, theocracy are all derived from Greek roots, the officials argued.  Therefore it was likely that the word required, being of kindred meaning, would be formed in the same way.

So a Greek dictionary was consulted for the word “old man.”  This was “geron.”  Then a reference to the Oxford Dictionary brought to light the word “gerontocracy,” which had the required meaning.

I went into the Science and Technology Library to recover….

It was just the same in appearance – neat rows of books, spaciously designed, a counter for inquiries, assistants ready to go to any trouble to help you.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Trump Card

Here I wanted to know what matildite was.

Reference to chemical dictionaries, technical encyclopaedias and general chemical texts supplied no information, but the construction of the word – ending in “ite” – suggested the possibility of its being a mineral, and reference to Dana’s “System of Mineralogy” substantiated this, giving analysis, occurrence and other details.

So I returned to the Reference Library (where they must hate the sight of me, by the way) to play my trump card.

“What place in Wales has the longest name?” I asked leering hideously.

But it was no use.  True, guide books of Wales failed to give any information on that point, but Walsh’s “Handy Book of Curious Information” did.

The answer is Llanfairpwllgynggyllgogerpwllllandypilwgogo. (All right, there’s no need to laugh.)

“And how do you pronounce it?” I said.

They told me.

I went away a beaten man.

Experience Counts

But in all seriousness, Sheffield reference libraries are as efficient as it is possible for reference libraries to be.  The fact that the officials found answers to questions as unusual as I set them proves that.

A wealth of record books is there, but it is only through the skill of an expert staff that they are able to give up their information; in the same way as the most magnificent of motor-cars cannot give the best results unless it is driven by a man who knows it inside out.

The libraries’ staff do not rely on catalogues to any great extent.  Their experience has equipped them to go to the right reference books without any trouble.

“The best catalogue is an intelligent staff and a gradual building up of a unique knowledge of books,” Mr. J. P. Lamb, Sheffield’s Chief Librarian, told me.

It is to his credit that he has gathered around him such a staff, and sources of information which could supply the greatest scholar in the land with the answer to any question he cared to put.

 

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven” (28 December 1939)

In the 1930s, Sheffield’s libraries were being reformed and developed, and the numbers of borrowers and books issued were both rising.  One strategy to promote the library service seems to have been to seek coverage in local newspapers.  Here is an example of this – an odd little anecdote in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 28 December 1939.  Odd because it seems incomplete without the name of the teacher or details of the books she wanted and why these were unobtainable locally (there were established library services in Manitoba at the time).  Today, when the story might at most have merited a tweet, we would have had a photo and a quote from her, but no doubt transatlantic communications three months into the Second World War were restricted.  At this remove, we will likely never know who she was or whether she ever returned to Sheffield.  At all events, the fact of this slight story appearing in the paper suggests the good links between the library and local media.

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven”

City Library Praised

Sheffield has just had a remarkable tribute to the efficiency of its library service.

A Sheffield girl who is teaching in a small town in Manitoba, Canada, required books of reference for a lecture she was preparing.

Being unable to get the books in the district and not knowing of any place near at hand where she could get them, she wrote to the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) asking him to send books and offered to pay postage both ways.

In her letter she described the Sheffield Library as “the fifth floor to heaven”.

As it is scarcely possible to send books from Sheffield to Canada in this way, Mr Lamb has referred the request to the Chief Librarian of Toronto, suggesting that some regional library organisation in Canada might be able to supply the demand.

‘A really brawny old building’ – Sheffield’s Central Library

But I remember going with my mum to the main library. It was quite daunting because it’s a really brawny old building isn’t it? I think it’s a lovely building … (Judith G)

… when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning. … I think it’s a fine building that is.’ (Ted L)

Sheffield Central Library

Here is Sheffield’s Grade II-listed Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, now over 80 years old.  In his 1959 West Riding volume, Pevsner was concerned that the building was:

… in an incomprehensibly insignificant position.  However, the plans for a civic centre, not yet in a final form at the time of writing, are to incorporate the building and provide a better context for it.

The 2004 Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield says rather more.  The ‘dignified Beaux-Arts’ Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, ‘steel-framed, faced with Portland stone, with giant Ionic pilasters and a high parapet wall around the top-lit galleries’ and ‘oak fittings with restrained Art Deco details’ were ‘intended to form one side of a grand civic square, first proposed in 1924 by Patrick Abercrombie’s Civic Survey as the setting for civic offices, law courts and a college’. This square, never built, was presumably where the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens are now.  The result was that the library was ‘never really seen to best advantage’.

This is true enough, and the situation is made worse now by the brutality of Arundel Gate just below the library.  This major thoroughfare cruelly – Pevsner might have said ‘incomprehensibly’ – exposes the back of the building.  At one time, there was a plan for a ‘Peace’ mural by Edward Bawden here but sadly it came to nothing.

Sheffield-city-library-2016

The library and gallery, designed by City Architect W G Davies in collaboration with Joseph Lamb, the City Librarian, were opened in July 1934 by the Duchess of York (better known to us as The Queen Mother).

They were a reason for civic pride.  Local diarist G R Vine was among many invited to view them and wrote: ‘Magnificent! The arrangements are wonderful.’  There was considerable coverage in local papers, with the Sheffield Telegraph saying in a special feature that the building ‘resembles no other in the country’.  .

Home of Sheffield's first public library

Home of Sheffield’s first public library (public domain)

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen (public domain – {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

The old and woefully inadequate central library had been on more or less the same site in Surrey Street, housed in a former Mechanics’ Institute and an old music hall next to it.  Neither could be re-modelled or expanded.  They perfectly illustrated the poor condition of Sheffield’s library service in the early 20th century.  ‘Revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally’, with dust ‘nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years’ and staff ‘long used to repression and neglect’, says the library’s official history (p.29).  The new building, which in the end cost £141,700, symbolised the reformed, improved and expanded service and, less tangibly, cultural and educational aspirations.  It housed lending, junior, reference, science and commercial libraries, a basement stack, study cubicles for students, rooms for archives and special collections, offices and staff facilities and a theatre/lecture hall.

The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath … (Ted L)

Over the next 20 or so years, Sheffield City Libraries became nationally respected (for example, for its scientific and technological information exchange scheme for local businesses).  Issues rose from 1.2 million in 1922-23 to 3.7 million in 1945-46.   This was due largely to the imagination and expertise of the two City Librarians of the period, Richard J Gordon (1921 – 1927) and Joseph P Lamb (1927 – 1956) and a committed Council committee.

But all this success might never have happened as the Council was originally uneasy about this major project at an estimated cost of £95,000.  Happily, one of their number, Alderman J G Graves, offered to help.  John George Graves (1866–1945) was a pioneer of the mail order business and a local benefactor.  The original plan had been for a library alone but in 1929 Graves offered a generous donation if a gallery was added:

… I am willing to defray the entire cost of the Art Gallery Section, and also to contribute £10,000 to the cost of the Free Library portion, making altogether a contribution of £30,000  …

Graves donated part of his art collection to the gallery, where it can still be viewed.  The librarians and Council committee had doubts, as the gallery significantly cut down the library’s space, but it was too good an offer to miss, and so Sheffield got its new library.

Even so, the depression of the 1930s saw cuts in book and publicity budgets and issues fell accordingly for some years.  The official history of Sheffield Libraries says sharply: ‘so much easier is it to destroy than to build’.  (Words worth bearing in mind today perhaps.)

The library was fortunate in World War II.  The worst air raids, known as the Sheffield Blitz, were on 12 and 15 December 1940* and there were huge fires across the city.  The building was at one point ‘bracketed in lines of flame from the Moor and High Street’ (Raiders over Sheffield, the official history of the Sheffield Blitz).  But the damage was relatively light – windows blown out and, more seriously, a long crack across the marble floor of the entrance hall, caused by a bomb in nearby Fitzalan Square.

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Today, the building is now showing its age a little.  Library services have changed a lot since the 1930s, and so layouts and systems have altered.  Funding is still, of course, an issue – today more so than for many years.  So it is interesting to reflect on those 1930s aspirations, revealed in the fine carvings by local stonemasons, Alfred and William Tory, on the outside of the building.  As the 2004 Pevsner guide says:

… around the main entrance medallions representing Literature, Music, Drama, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Mathematics, Chemistry and Astronomy. High up on the splayed corner a figure of Knowledge holds the ankh and asp to represent the choice between good and evil.

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-7

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-3

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-2

And as a library user said:

As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library. (Diane H)

 

* 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured and 40,000 made homeless.

‘Children Keep Author Writing’ (Sheffield Telegraph, 10 April 1951)

Kathleen Fidler (image by courtesy of her niece)

The children invited must have felt special.  I imagine them wearing their Sunday best and being carefully checked by their mothers before they left home, probably with family escort.  They would have taken with them the invitation – formal, white pasteboard with the city coat of arms and a rather nice font.

request-

Here are the words of the invitation (which is filed today in the local history section of the library) in case you cannot read it clearly from the image.

The Chairman and Members of the Libraries, Art Galleries and Museums Committee request the pleasure of the company of …………. at a meeting of members of the Hillsborough Junior Library which is to be addressed by Miss Kathleen Fidler, the well-known author and broadcaster of “Brydon” and “Mr Simster” stories, on Monday, 9th April, 1951, at 6.30pm.

The Lady Mayoress of Sheffield (Mrs Keeble Hawson) will preside.

Oh yes, the children would have been on their best behaviour in front of a famous author, the Lady Mayoress, the chairman of the Libraries Committee, the City Librarian and the local press.

The Sheffield Telegraph reported the visit the day after.  There were apparently 80 boys and girls present (a number that suggests very few refused the invitation).  Girls outnumbered boys three to one, and they were all ‘hand-picked for their receptivity’ by the librarians, the Telegraph remarked rather repressively.  Flowers were of course presented to the Lady Mayoress and Kathleen Fidler, by 13 year-old Anne Beresford and nine year-old Paula Mercer respectively.  Miss Fidler read for about 40 minutes from the ‘domestic adventures of the famous Brydon family and a charming fairy story’.  These were evidently much appreciated as, afterwards, most of the children besieged Miss Fidler with requests for autographs (this was the day of autograph books), and she ‘painstakingly signed every one.  It took 20 minutes’, said the Telegraph, hence the title above.

The Brydons Stick at Nothing by Kathleen Fidler

The Telegraph explained that the visit to Sheffield had a ‘pronounced family flavour’.  Kathleen Fidler brought along to Sheffield her husband, James Goldie, and her 79 year-old father, Francis Fidler, who lived in Sheffield as a boy.  They were met by her sister, who was married to Frank Pinion, the headmaster of local Woodhouse Grammar School, and a cousin who lived in Woodseats.

All in all, this visit seems to have been treated rather singularly.  Sheffield Libraries ran events often – exhibitions, story-tellings, lectures, discussion groups etc – and Miss Fidler was not by any means the only author to feature.  But why did the Lady Mayoress and various Council dignitaries attend?  Perhaps it was to promote the Council’s library services, or was it the Fidler family connection, or just someone who knew someone?  (It was by the way a busy time for the Lady Mayoress.  The next Monday she and her husband played host at the Town Hall to Winston and Clementine Churchill.  Winston was Leader of the Opposition, but became Prime Minister a few months later, in October 1951.  That visit made the front page of the Telegraph.)  At all events Kathleen Fidler’s visit to Sheffield is perhaps not that different from today’s book-selling strategies: although they may travel faster and do more literary festivals, authors still do readings and sign things.

Kathleen Fidler was a popular children’s author of the period.  Sixty years afterwards, she was remembered by one of the Reading Sheffield interviewees, Sheila Edwards:

…I joined two libraries because I enjoyed reading so much, I had a subscription to Boots library and I went to the Central Library in town … and I just read masses of books; I can’t remember what they all were now but, there were one or two I remember: Noel Streatfeild- I think she wrote books about ballet, Kathleen Fidler, another one called Malcolm but I can’t just remember what his surname was now…those were the main ones I remember…

Kathleen Fidler was born in England in 1899, trained as a teacher and rose to be a headmistress.  After marrying in 1930, she moved to Scotland and eventually settled in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh, where, just like Sheffield, she often read to children in the local library.  Like many others, she started her writing career with stories for her own children.  In all she produced about 80 books (more than one a year), including series about two families, the Brydons and the Deans, historical novels like The Desperate Journey (1964) and animal stories such as Haki the Shetland Pony (1968).   Books from Scotland notes: ‘Her work has been praised for the depth and detail of research into the background of her stories.’

Some stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Children’s Hour.  For example, in 1946 there was  ‘The Mysterious Mr. Simister: a school mystery play in three parts by Kathleen Fidler’.  (The cast list includes Gordon Jackson, then in his early 20s but later to become famous as Mr Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs.)  Kathleen Fidler contributed to the much-loved BBC children’s programme, Jackanory, and wrote many schools programmes for the BBC and was ‘one of the pioneers of BBC Schools Broadcasting’.

After her death in 1980, the Kathleen Fidler Award was instituted for children’s literature, for previously unpublished authors of novels for children aged 8 to 12, alongside the prestigious Carnegie and Kate Greenaway prizes.  I haven’t been able to discover more than a couple of the winners: in 1984 Janet Collins for her novel, Barty; and Cathy MacPhail for Run, Zan, Run in 1994.  The award closed in 2002.

Kathleen Fidler is clearly less well-known today than back in 1951, although some of her books are still available, as reprints, second-hand copies or e-books.  Why this fading?  A novel like The Desperate Journey, about twins, Kirsty and David, who lose their home through the notorious 18th century Highland Clearances, remains enjoyable. If there is not much subtlety, the characters are nevertheless vivid and there is a very strong sense of place and an exciting storyline.  But of course, while historical and animal stories are always popular, she wrote no space saga or fantasy novels about attractive vampires.

the Brydons go canoeing by Kathleen Fidler

Her contemporary novels about the Deans and the Brydons may just be too dated, the Brydons for example being about a family evacuated to the countryside during WWII. There are at least nineteen stories about them.  The Brydons Stick at Nothing, a pacey story about a series of local burglaries, is presumably fairly typical.  The Brydons’ world – the Lancashire countryside – is conventional, comfortable and secure (and it is heartening that the children firmly reject the suggestion of adults that local working-class children may be responsible for the burglaries).  The children are, in the classic way, ‘nice’, middle-class and largely free from adult supervision.  The Brydon girls appear confident but tend to do what their protective brothers tell them.  To today’s children the lives of the Brydons and their friends must seem as far from their own lives as the lives of Victorian children.

20150717_132714

Kathleen Fidler was clearly a great success on the day of her visit to Hillsborough Library.  I wonder whether she had a lasting influence on the children who met her.  A book read in childhood can seize the imagination and change everything afterwards forever.

Have you read Kathleen Fidler’s books?  Do you remember her visit to Sheffield, or any similar events in local libraries? Please let us know.

By Val Hewson

Access Sheila Edwards’ transcript and audio here.