Like our reader Malcolm Mercer, I grew up on a Sheffield Council estate. Up to the age of 10, I lived on Boundary Road in Wybourn, close to Manor. I was an avid reader but we couldn’t afford many books so I was a frequent visitor to Park Library on Duke Street. I was already familiar with it, having learned to swim at the Park Baths. (The baths and the library are in the same complex of buildings opened in 1904, making an Edwardian community hub of the sort planners are fond of today.) Despite my tender age I regularly walked on my own to the library, running the gauntlet of stray dogs and older kids on Wybourn Rec, then taking a short cut to City Road through allotments. I think there were even pigeon lofts there though my memory may be playing tricks. I had an uncle (Ted) who kept pigeons in his back yard in Darnall.
The rec (recreation ground) was an attraction in itself: who can forget the Flying Plank, the Spider’s Web, the roundabout and of course, the swings? They all had a special smell – metallic I suppose. I remember standing up on the swing, turning over the seat whilst sitting on it, or twisting the chains round, then spinning in the opposite direction. For the more daring, there was the challenge of jumping off the swing from the highest point.
The Flying Plank could seat up to 10; girls or boys stood on either end – holding on to the bars and working it backwards and forwards. There was always someone who would try to jump from the seat to catch the horizontal bar at the top. The toilets were uninviting, and I was afraid of an older, bigger girl, Olga, who I later realised had Down syndrome.
The library was a treasure trove for me: I think the children’s section was upstairs. I loved child detectives like Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers and the American equivalent, Nancy Drew. I was only allowed to borrow two or three books and they wouldn’t last me long! When I was 10, we moved to Abbeydale Road so Highfield Library became my second home. Sadly there was no rec to visit on the way there. The nearest one would have been Millhouses Park, I guess, a long way down the road towards Derbyshire. I was reminded of my younger self when I taught a Fresh Start college class at Park Library ten years ago. Sadly I can’t re-visit the rec – it has been built over!
Here is a reading journey from local artist Jean Compton, who is one of the Reading Sheffield team.
Jean was born in London in 1948. She spent her childhood in Suffolk, where her family moved when she was a year old. Jean went to West Suffolk County Grammar School for Girls, studying for O levels and A levels. Moving to Sheffield in 1971, she studied at Scawsby College of Education, Doncaster, for her Teaching Certificate in Education, and then at Sheffield University for a B Ed in art and education. After teaching both in schools and adult education for eight years, Jean left Sheffield for a community arts job in Telford. She worked in community arts and traveller education until retirement when she returned to Sheffield in 2016 and joined Reading Sheffield.
I can’t really remember what I read when I was learning to read, but I had a lovely little peep-show book of the story of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. There are no words and the illustrations are by Ionicus. I have the book today, more or less intact though a bit scrawled on.
I could read by the time I went to school. I was lucky that my parents were both readers and we had a house full of books. My father often made up stories, mainly tales of his childhood embroidered to add drama and excitement but basically true. Sometimes he took us to visit a friend of his, Edmund Cooper, a science fiction writer, who also made up stories for us. We crowded around him, asking for a story, in some shadowy corner of the room where he held us captivated and sometimes a little shivery from the eerie nature of the tale.
I read many folk-tales and fairy-tales including some with wonderful illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The Children’s Treasury of Great Stories, from Daily Express Publications, was given to me around 1958 when I was ten, and the previous owner had been given it in 1933. Another favourite was the Arabian Nights published in 1913 by A & C Black Ltd. It has the most beautiful illustrations by Charles Folkard, which I remember staring at over and over again.
As time went
on I read Enid Blyton, much to my father’s disgust, and all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows
and Amazons series. I loved these as a child, but when I read them later to my
own children and realised the incredible danger the children got into, I found
it hard to read them aloud for a choking lump in my throat. I read Louisa M
Alcott’s Little Women series, identifying strongly with Jo, and enjoyed C S
Lewis’ Narnia books.
My younger sister Lizzie and I went through a phase of reading the Bible aloud when we were in bed and supposed to be going to sleep. We weren’t doing it for religious reasons or to be sacrilegious: we were fascinated by the sound and read out random texts and lists of names and ‘who begat whom’. We took it in turns and generally ended up laughing hysterically.
We also began pretending that we were George and Neville, two Suffolk farmers. It began as a sort of impromptu storytelling, which we later wrote down as individual scenes, such as reports on a day on the farm. Our father later recorded us. We made a good attempt at imitating the local Suffolk accent, which we didn’t really acquire ourselves, as the children of parents who kept their Scottish accents until the end of their lives, in spite of living in Suffolk for over 60 years.
fascinated by Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. As an adult I came
across The Stone Room which, being quite claustrophobic, I found difficult. However,
I persisted and it was worth it.
I loved to
identify with the animals in Charles G D Roberts’
stories. I immersed myself in the wonderfully detailed descriptions of the
landscapes in which these animals survived. Kings In Exile was one of my
favourites, alongside Ernest Thompson
Seton’s stories of wild animals in their natural habitat.
When I was about 11, I was given The Romany Rye by George Borrow about his encounters with the Romany people. It was published in 1857 and, reading it in 1959, the language seemed to me old-fashioned yet the lively style and fascinating content held me spellbound. I was thoroughly intrigued and went on to work as a traveller liaison teacher with gypsy traveller families for some years.
We took four
comics at home, the Eagle, the Girl, the Swift and the Robin. We were three
girls and one boy so I guess it was one each but in practice we all read them
all. Later on we had Look and Learn and the
Elizabethan which I devoured, especially all the reproductions of famous
paintings in Look and Learn. I do remember wet afternoons at the seaside with
our friends, in a coastguard cottage they were renting for the summer. We would
dive on a big pile of Beanos and lie around blissfully reading like crazy while
the rain sheeted down.
My primary school was not well supplied with interesting books. A large box of books was delivered regularly, but I quickly grew out of most of them, as I was reading more advanced language at home. The archive section of the lending service also sent artefacts, which I loved especially when they were used for our art lessons. Once at the County Grammar School, a new world opened up, with a lot more choice in the school library. I was now based in the small market town of Bury St Edmunds, where I soon joined the public library and enjoyed the quiet atmosphere for studying, and the wider choice of books. I also came into contact with the mobile library which came once a fortnight to our village. They did not carry a huge stock, but for my grandfather who lived with us it was a lifeline. He went to choose his books initially, but then as he got older he would ask one of us to go for him. ‘But what do you like to read?’ I would ask. The answer was always ‘Oh just get me a good western!’
As life went
on, I usually had a book on the go. Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby made me
weep and John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga gave me an insight into the Victorian
and Edwardian upper middle-class.
I developed an
interest in poetry early on, fostered by my father who had quite a collection
of poetry and used to read Gerard Manley Hopkins to us, among others. I read
any poetry I could find and moved from Andrew Marvell to Brian Patten to e e
cummings to Lorca without any difficulty.
Succinct lines can offer such illumination. Now I am enjoying Alice
Oswald, Pablo Neruda, Eleanor Brown,
Shamshad Khan and Seni Seniveratne.
as a teacher, I read various writers of the deschooling movement. I
benefited from the ideas of Everett Reimer, Paul Goodman, Neil Postman, Charles
Weingartner and Ivan Illich. I also found great rapport with the ideas of A S
Neill, John Holt and especially Robert McKenzie in his A Question of Living. They
all believed that a teacher should keep the idea of a child as an equal human
being at the forefront of any teaching practice.
In between all
the poetry and education books I travelled with Tolkien on his great
allegorical journeys against evil. I read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series,
which improved my sense of historical chronology enormously.
My eyes were
opened by reading Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and
Wept – so powerfully expressed and emotional.
I delved into the writings of John Berger, which resonated with my politics and interest in art. Although other writers have since explored these ideas further, I learned to look at photography anew and saw it could only tell one part of any story.
In my childhood, our front garden had large currant bushes down the centre and a mat of grass under them. In the summer my favourite reading place was a blanket under the bushes, with the dappled light filtering through a ceiling of green, quiet, private and alone. My mother left me alone and free from boring tasks. I am still grateful for that and remember once telling her that one of my children did nothing but read. Her words come back frequently. ‘Let her read while she can. It will be harder to find the time later.’
On 29 January 2020 Reading Sheffield invited our interviewees and their families, our interviewers, the readers from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, and some old friends to a special reading by poet Eleanor Brown from her latest collection. Published in October 2019 by Bloodaxe Books, White Ink Stains is based in part on what our 60+ interviewees told us about their reading journeys.
About 25 of us met at The Art House, in the centre of the city, and over tea or coffee and scones, with jam and cream, we listened to Eleanor read a dozen or so poems and discuss how she writes. It was a particular pleasure to welcome our interviewees, Julia Banks, Shirley Ellins, Jim Green and Betty Newman.
Eleanor says that she has never looked at a transcript of our interviews. She has only listened, time and again over eighteen long months, to the voices, learning the rhythms, the sounds, the laughter and the sadness. And from this have come her poems. Here are some quotations:
Book-hungry teenage girl, great ravenous
word-eating eyes, amazing stamina
for nothing but to lie in bed and read
omnivorous of print, devouring gaze
insatiable for all the big fat works,
yes all of Dickens, Eliot and James,
now Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola, Proust.
From Helpless with Laughter:
Mother would read me The House at Pooh Corner
When I was only so high
She in her big chair and I in my little
Straight-backed Mother and I
Once I remember us helpless with laughter
Both of us laughing so much
Neither could speak, and I fell off my chair
From The Dressmaker:
They asked us what we liked to do
My mother spoke for me
‘She likes to sew’ – ‘Then she should go
In the shirt factory.’
And I were furious! For that
I could nor would not bear.
Oh, I came home and angry-cried
‘I will not go in there.’
From Snatches of Old Lauds:
I found my Sunday School hymn book –
the Bible in another form, we used to say;
the poetry helps you remember.
But damp in the attic had got it.
What hadn’t mouldered away up there
disintegrated softly in my hands.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon all round. ‘The poems were wonderful,’ said one guest, ‘ with a very rich vein of humour throughout, as well as the touching/poignant ones.’ ‘I have always enjoyed reading poems,’ said another, ‘but never been particularly attracted to readings. Eleanor’s readings have converted me.’
Sheffield Hallam University’s Humanities Research Centre was kind enough to sponsor the event, and we thank the Head of the Centre, Professor Chris Hopkins, for his continuing enthusiasm and support.
And thanks too to The Art House for their excellent refreshments and for being so friendly.
Copies of White Ink Stains can be bought locally from Rhyme and Reason and Waterstones. You can read more about Eleanor’s poetry here.
Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University continues his account of Love on the Dole in Sheffield.
Sheffield was unique in having the serialisation of the novel (described in Part One) and the play version of Love on the Dole in the public eye at the same time. The play adaptation (made by Greenwood with Ronald Gow) was as great a success as the novel when produced in 1935. Two separate companies toured simultaneous productions until 1937 and Greenwood said that by 1940 three million people had seen the play (letter to the Manchester Guardian, 26/2/1940). Productions went to almost every city and most towns in Britain. For example, during 1936 alone their venues (normally for a week of performances) included places such as Barrow, Birmingham, Brighton, Brixton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Douglas (Isle of Man), Eastbourne, East Ham, Edinburgh, Finsbury Park, Folkestone, Gateshead, Hackney, Keighley, Leeds, Lewisham, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, New Cross, Penge, Plymouth, Poplar, Rotherham, Scarborough, Sunderland, Swansea, Walthamstow, and Woolwich.[i]
The play came to the Sheffield Empire in April 1935 and
again in August that year. The Sheffield Daily
Independent noted the ‘coincidence’ that the work was simultaneously on
the stage and page in the city, and saw the two different versions as
reinforcing each other’s impact, while unmistakably advocating the superiority
of the novel version it was serialising:
It is interesting to see these Hanky Park personalities, of whom we are reading each day, come to life on the stage. This tragic picture of unemployment with its leavening of humour is but the outline. The complete canvas is found in the book (23/4/1935, p. 6).
The article then went on to argue that the play’s impact in
London was bound to differ from its impact in Sheffield. For
London audiences, the play had novelty, for while the capital had not been
completely immune to unemployment it had no experience of long-term
worklessness, of ‘the abandonment of hope in a poverty-stricken industrial
area’. In Sheffield the ‘picture is not so unfamiliar’. A review of the production of the
play at the Sheffield Empire published by the Daily Independent on 27 August
1935 also claimed that the city, like others in the north, had an affinity with
the circumstances portrayed: ‘a poignant tragedy of the evils of unemployment,
true to life in many of our large manufacturing towns.’(p. 7). There was a
further production of the play at the Attercliffe Palace in May 1939 by a
touring repertory company, the Charles Denville Players. A review in the Sheffield
Evening Telegraph praised it as a ‘clever performance’ of this ‘pitifully
human’ and ‘popular’ play (9/5/1939, p. 3).
Sheffield took other kinds of notice too of Love on the Dole. On 29 April 1935 the Daily Independent reported that the play (and there is reference to their serialisation too) had formed the basis for a sermon by Canon A J Talbot Easter at St Paul’s church. The Canon argued that the story was the result of ‘bitter experience of life’ and that ‘it did not invite one to draw conclusions but placed certain people before the audience and asked them to understand their point of view’. In fact, he said that the story itself ‘had all the essentials of a sermon’. Thus, the work showed that ‘love on the pictures was not the same as love on the dole’ and the vicar also drew the conclusion that Greenwood implied betting to be ‘a mug’s game’ (p. 7). [ii] The Vicar of St Philip’s in Sheffield (presumably the church formerly on Infirmary Rd / Penistone Rd) hit the national press when the Daily Mirror reported under the headline ‘Vicar defends Love on the Dole’ that the clergyman had criticised the Sheffield County Court Judge Essenhigh for pronouncing that men on the dole should not marry. The vicar, Reverend G E Needham, said that having failed ‘to deprive unemployed men of football and the cinema’, they were now to be deprived of love and marriage (20/2/1939, p. 2). The headline implies that Greenwood’s story is so well-known that its themes need no more introduction: it is part of a public conversation about unemployment in which the Sheffield vicar is taking part. The same can be said of a reference to Greenwood’s work by the Sheffield Central Conservative MP on 19 July 1938, titled: ‘Love on the Dole plea by City MP’ (p. 7). Mr W W Boulton said that there had been some improvements in unemployment benefit schemes, but called for more to be done for young workless men who had married and were struggling to care for their families adequately on current levels of public assistance.
Love on the Dole was also seen nationally as drawing attention to a number of northern cities which were dealing with the consequences of unemployment. While much local press coverage of the serial and play in Sheffield suggests a place split between those with experience of unemployment and those for whom it is news from another world, one article in the Daily Independent on 13 May 1935 picks up a national story which firmly casts Sheffield as a whole city in distress. Again, the story concerns a clergyman inspired directly by (the play of) Love on the Dole, but this time it is the London-based Reverend Pat McCormick, who in an appeal broadcast by BBC radio from St Martins-in-the-Fields, proposed a scheme for southern families to help struggling northern families by ‘adopting’ them. The scheme was to include ‘Sheffield, Newcastle, Hull, York, Carlisle, Oldham, Chesterfield, Darlington, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Salford, Gateshead, Warrington, St. Helens, Widnes, and a number of hard-hit areas in South Wales’ (p. 1).
I do not know if the serialisation was the publishing success the Daily Independent’s editors hoped for (I notice Reading Sheffield interviewees did not recall the novel), but Love on the Dole seems to have remained a topic of interest in the city in the next few years, with, as we have seen, further press notice. The city certainly suffered from poverty and unemployment in the mid-thirties, and at least until serious rearmament started in 1936, so it is not surprising to find that Greenwood’s novel and play were of interest. Orwell noted in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1936 that ‘towns like Leeds and Sheffield have scores of thousands of “back-to-back” houses which are all of a condemned type but will remain standing for decades’ (Kindle edition location 698). He also noted that conditions in the city were mixed, partly because of its role in rearmament: ‘Even in Sheffield, which has been doing well for the last year or so, because or wars or rumours of war … the proportion … is one in three workers registered as unemployed’ (location 994). There were significant marches against unemployment and especially the effects of the Means Test in the city in January 1935 and a particularly large demonstration on 6 February of the same year when conflict between the police and a large crowd of up to 100,000 protesters was reported by the Daily Herald (7/2/1935, p. 1). The Sheffield Daily Independent naturally also covered the events of the day under the headline: ‘Police Clash with Workless’ (7/2/1935, p. 1). The paper reported that the demonstration outside the City Hall became violent due to a misunderstanding among the marchers that the City Council had rejected a proposal to seek government approval to reduce benefit cuts in the city. In fact, the Council had just voted to approve this measure and there was a subsequent repayment of some reductions to unemployment benefit in the city on the initiative of the City Council, with the permission of the Ministry of Labour.[iii] Publication of the serial suggests the radical and topical sympathies of this widely-read Sheffield paper, as well perhaps as its eye for commercial advantage in giving relatively cheap and wide access to a current best-seller which could very reasonably be seen as being a popular and entertaining, as well as morally, socially and politically serious, work.
list of venues given here is not exhaustive, but all the evidence can be found
in the issues of The Stage in its ‘On Tour’ feature; information
referred to here is from the 1936 issues for 9/1, 27/2, 5/3, 16/4, 11/5, 25/5,
11/6, 18/6, 16/7, 13/8, 20/8, and 10/9. Accessed via the Entertainment
Industry Magazine Archive (online: ProQuest
<http://www.proquest.com/products-services/eima.html> accessed 15 May
iii] See Stephanie Ward’s book, Unemployment and the State in Britain: the Means Test and Protest in 1930s South Wales and North-Eastern England, Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2013, Kindle edition, locations 4048 and 4230. This account of the protests in Sheffield on 6 February 1935 draws on a booklet published by Sheffield City Libraries in 1985: Bill Moore’s All Out! The Dramatic Story of the Sheffield Demonstration Against Dole Cuts on February 6th 1935. For further detail see also John Stevenson and Chris Cook, The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression (Jonathan Cape 1977; third edition Pearson Education, 2010, Kindle edition Routledge 2013, location 5157).
Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University looks at how Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel, Love on the Dole, came to Sheffield.
Love on the Dole is the story of the Hardcastle family and their neighbours in a specific and poor part of Salford known as Hanky Park. Mr Hardcastle is a miner and Mrs Hardcastle a housewife; their son Harry works first at a pawnshop and is then an apprentice engineer, while their daughter Sally works at a textile mill. Neighbours include the helpful Labour activist and qualified engineer Larry Meath, as well as a group of older women who both help and exploit for their own gain the other inhabitants of Hanky Park. Mr Hardcastle and Harry and then Larry all lose their jobs as the slump bites. The characters represent a working-class society and economy that is always fragile, and which is then further fractured by the consequences of the Depression after 1929 and intensified by the coalition National Government’s cuts to unemployment benefits in 1931.
Walter Greenwood’s novel was a phenomenon when published by Jonathan Cape in 1933: it immediately became a best-seller and was praised by newspapers across the political spectrum for the way in which it drew attention to the worsening situation of the unemployed in already impoverished communities. It sold 46,000 copies by 1940, as well as being much borrowed from public libraries.[i] The West Riding County Council’s 11th Annual Library Report named Greenwood’s novel as one of the most borrowed fiction works in the region, as the Sheffield Daily Independent reported on 28/10/1935. Sheffield’s influential City Librarian, J P Lamb, also named Greenwood in a report on the value of fiction (‘classical’ and the more contemporary fiction which he called ‘semi-standard and popular’) in the city’s libraries report in 1936-37:
the semi-standard group includes … scores of modern writers of considerable gifts – Vera Brittain, Ethel Mannin, Russell Green, P. Bottome, E. Boileau and W. Greenwood – for example … they give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library-borrowers, they are ‘introductory readers’ to those newly finding an interest in reading … they widen vocabulary, extend horizons, stimulate ideas, and often add factual knowledge.[ii]
But in one respect Sheffield was unique in its reception of Love on the Dole. It was the only city in the UK where the entire novel was serialised in a newspaper, nearly two years after its first publication. Between 15 April and 21 June 1935, an episode from the novel was published daily by the Sheffield Daily Independent, with an introduction to the whole serial the week before. The daily publication took place over sixty-seven days and was clearly a substantial commitment of column space and resources – the paper must have paid a considerable fee to the publisher (and/or author) for this best-seller, suggesting confidence that Sheffield readers would want to read every episode (and be more motivated than usual to buy the paper everyday?).
The paper’s readers were warmed up for the forthcoming serialisation every day for five days (9 to 13 April 1935) by short pieces stressing the authenticity, daring and entertainment value of the novel. The first was headlined ‘Realism of Love on the Dole’ and made the grand claim that the novel was likely to prove ‘one of the most impressive and enthralling serialisations ever published in the pages of a newspaper’ (p. 7). The piece then argued that the story’s power came from both the real-life experience of Greenwood and the way in which this compelled him to become an author:
The story is not a figment of the imagination of a writer who has seen good copy in unemployment, but real life as it has been experienced by the author himself, and has so moved him that it compelled him to enter a new realm – the realm of authorship – so that he could reveal to the world the tragedy of existence now being faced by thousands of men and women who, like himself, are “on the dole”.
The (unsigned) article then promised that readers will be ‘held’ and ‘enthralled’ by the novel, but warns them that they may also be shocked: if the ‘colours are vivid, the outlines are true’ (the same article was republished on 10 April by the paper). The next introduction was headed ‘Why You Must Read Love on the Dole’ and suggested that responses from Sheffield readers would depend on their own experiences: ‘to many readers this book will come as a startling revelation – others will realise how true it all is’ (11/4/1935, p. 4). On Friday 12 April came another reminder that this was an unusual novel which had ‘won fame in a day’ for its ‘unknown author’: ‘you cannot afford to miss any portion of this sensational serial, so if you have not yet ordered the Daily Independent to be delivered to you each morning, do so at once’. Finally, on Saturday 13 April readers were reminded that this ‘outspoken novel’ would begin on Monday: ‘one of the most outspoken and sensational documents that has ever appeared as a serial in a newspaper’ (p. 8). The paper was clearly very keen to collect an audience for its investment and/or to promote public awareness of the profound and long-lasting effects of worklessness and poverty (though, as we shall see, this was not unknown territory for the city).
The following week the opening chapters indeed appeared, starting on 15 April 1935 (on p. 11). Slightly oddly, an introduction to each of the main characters, pretty much in the same form as a cast list for a play only appeared on 20, 22 and 24 April (perhaps so anyone who had missed the first chapters could catch up?). Some of the interpretations here are of interest in using descriptions which do not occur in the text of the novel. I think these are the interpretations of an editor or sub-editor of the paper, giving a sense of how one Sheffield reader at least envisaged the characters. Sally is described as ‘a full-lipped belle of the slums’, Mrs Hardcastle as a ‘dour mother of two’, Ned Narkey as the ‘giant, rough and rude libertine of the back alleys’, Harry as one ‘to whom weariness of a drab little life has been realised too soon’, while Larry Meath is said to be a ‘quiet intelligent artisan, with the instincts of a Labour leader’. Finally, what were often referred to in reviews as the ‘chorus’ of older women (Mrs Nattle, Mrs Doorbell and Mrs Jike) are described as ‘part of the human flotsam and jetsam of the district’. The two individual female characters are seen stereotypically and oddly (and more negatively than in many reviews, which see both as mainly heroic), while the older women are seen as more helpless than they are in the novel (they are more properly seen as having a curious if small privilege from drawing pensions and running small and semi-legal private ‘enterprises’). More typically of other reviews of the novel, Ned is seen as an obviously undesirable, sexually unrestrained and brutal type of working-man, Harry as a youth whom the current system has betrayed, and Larry as the best sort of ‘respectable’, self-taught, working-class intellectual. The text of the novel was identical to that of the published novel, except that sometimes daily titles for each instalment were added, as well as numerous sub-titles, again presumably by a Sheffield sub-editor. These seem to be added a little inconsistently, and perhaps depended partly on space / type-setting considerations. Some titles are the same as the novel’s original chapter titles, but others, including all the sub-titles, are new additions. So Sheffield Daily Independent readers received the novel via captions such as: ‘Puzzled and Cheated’, ‘His World Upset’, ‘A Million Mysteries’, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Travesty of Love’, ‘Where Lovers Meet’, ‘Things is Bad’, ‘Wives Who Go Out to Work’, ‘Beauty in the Slums’, and ‘When a Girl is Moody’. Though the novel already sought to entertain as well as enlighten, these sub-titles do perhaps present the story as even more like popular newspaper or magazine fiction than the original novel, with their quite frequent invitations to engage with mystery, romance and melodrama.
Richard Overy, The
Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization 1919–1939 (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 2010; first published by Allen Lane, 2009), p. 71. The sales figures
come from the University of Reading Special Collection, Jonathan Cape Archive,
Mss 2446 (endnote 80 to Overy’s Chapter 2).
The 80th Annual
Sheffield City Libraries Report (1936–37), ‘The Reading of Fiction’, was
located and drawn to my attention by Val Hewson – the full report can be read
on the Reading Sheffield website: <https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/the-reading-of-fiction-sheffield-citylibraries-80th-annual-report-1936–37/>,
accessed 4 January 2018.
Barbara Sorby has contributed a huge amount to Reading Sheffield. She worked in Sheffield Libraries for 47 years. You can find her story here. Barbara has also helped me understand the lure of the Chalet School stories which were popular with so many of our readers. But just before Christmas she took me in a different direction and introduced me to the memoir of her cousin, Ken Leary, whose Bombs over Bramall Lane (ACM Retro, 2011) tells the wartime story of the community of Highfield, much of which now lies beneath the dual carriageway separating Bramall Lane and the Moor.
Ken died about ten years ago. In his memoir he writes eloquently of the sheer energy of the boys he grew up with in the 1940s, often brought up by mothers whose husbands were away in the forces or working long hours in the steel industries upon which Britain’s war effort depended. Ken’s health was not always good. It is difficult to believe that a boy who led his friends into adventures all over the Peak District in the late forties spent more than a year in bed with bronchial pneumonia while the bombs were obliterating much of the neighbourhood around him. He was sent to Wales to recuperate and on his return developed a tubercular gland – treatment meant increased financial strain on his over-burdened mother. When he recovered Ken had to learn to walk again and was soon involving himself in the culture of the inner-city terraces in which he lived.
The Central Library was within walking distance of Ken’s home, a walk through and around the Moor which had once been a busy shopping centre. The boys colonised the cellars as soon as the shops above them had been bombed-out. Their explorations beneath the tottering structures above nearly came to an end when they realised they were sharing a recently revealed cavern with a pile of bodies. They ‘fled like scared rabbits’ into the rubble above to discover a fire engine hosing down mounds of smouldering tailors’ dummies. Few of our readers took such risks on their way to the Central Library.
cousin Barbara, Ken preferred non-fiction. One book quite literally extended
the horizons of himself and the rest of the Hereford Street Gang: ‘not a gang
of hooligans – more like a gang straight out of a Just William book’.
Library was an important meeting place for the gang, particularly the Graves Art
Gallery at the top of the building. They would spend their time ‘browsing and
looking at the paintings and other objects on display’ especially during the
winter ‘because it was somewhere to go that was warm and dry’.
Among my favourite books at the time were the Just William stories, but I generally enjoyed any boys’ adventure books like Biggles or books about football. I was particularly taken with the Out with Romany books. There were a series of books all about the countryside – the moors, the woods and fields, and the coasts around Britain. They were filled with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the birds and animals, the butterflies and insects that inhabit these islands. They really stirred-up my childhood imagination and I couldn’t wait to get out into this new and fascinating world that I had discovered – far away from the bombs and destruction we had recently witnessed in our everyday lives.
When he was ten or 11 Ken came across a small paperback, Across the Derbyshire Moors, published by the local Sheffield papers. The boys studied the ramblings mapped on those pages and discovered that many of the routes were within walking distance of Highfield or ‘at least a halfpenny tram-ride away’. ‘This book was definitely going to broaden our horizons and we couldn’t wait to get started’.
The local churches also introduced the Hereford Street Gang to all sorts of cultural activities and even enabled them to make a few pennies. At Christmas the boys would go round the local pubs, ‘mummering’, which in the way of those days meant singing carols with masks or blacked-up faces.
This was achieved by rubbing soot, from the back of the fire, on to our faces. Sometimes lard was applied first, and then the soot…. Where the hell we got this from I haven’t a clue. Don’t remember anyone ever telling us about it and we certainly never saw anybody else do it. The mystery remains.
The pub crawl began at 8pm (‘You may ask: “What were your parents doing, allowing you to stay out till that time of night?”’). They were usually welcomed but they couldn’t count on getting into the Queen Adelaide which had its own concert room. Sometimes the landlord was reluctant to let them but the customers would shout to him: ‘Let them in you miserable sod.’ Those who had never heard the boys before were ‘in for a shock’ because the gang had hidden talents’.
The majority of us were choirboys, believe it or not, at St Mary’s Church on Matilda Lane. Complete with cassock and surplus, we sang at services on a Sunday morning for the princely sum of 3d a week, provided that we turned up for choir practice on a Wednesday night (we’d do anything to earn a crust). So you see, we…could also sing a bit.
after the end of the war they discovered a side-door into the mighty
Perpendicular-style church that still stands about two hundred yards from the
famous football stadium in Bramall Lane. The church had been boarded up during
the war so the gang was delighted at the new playground that awaited them
inside. As they crowded into the doorway of the open church (‘as though butter
wouldn’t melt in our mouth’), they stopped ‘in awe’ because at the organ, which
had been silent for six years, sat a man ‘playing away just like Reginald Dixon’,
the famous Blackpool Tower organist.
The front of the organ was lit up and the man suddenly turned round, spotted us, smiled, and carried on playing. On seeing that he was friendly we all timidly entered the dimly lit church and sat down on the dusty pews – not a word being spoken. What an odd sight we must have looked – a group of scruffy kids sitting in a dusty church lit only by the shafts of sunlight beaming in through holes in the boarded-up windows.’
other musical patrons. Though most of the boys went to Pomona Elementary School
and were unable to go on to grammar school where there was usually more music
on offer, Ken felt he had, on the whole, good teachers. One of his favourites
was the music teacher, Mr Murray, who not only took his pupils to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall but had prepared them to
recognise the instruments being played: ‘in fact I can still recall some of
those classical pieces almost sixty years on.’ Mr Murray was also an excellent
Towards the end the lesson he would play a medley of popular songs of the day, all jumbled up and with some of the notes altered to disguise them. The person who wrote down the most correct titles was rewarded with a sixpence and the winners were always girls!
Unlike his much younger cousin, Barbara, Ken did not make his living from his love of reading. He became a joiner. This book testifies to how much his early encounters with books and with music meant to him. He owed a lot to the great cultural provision represented by Sheffield Libraries and the regular visits of the Hallé Orchestra. He also paid tribute to the dedication of his elementary school teachers. But, like so many of our readers, he was also a great entrepreneur. He would seize any chance that came his way and, acting on the leads given him, go tramping round the moorland that had been inaccessible until he borrowed the book of walks, or use his choir training to gather pennies from the drinkers around the streets that led off Bramall Lane.
Ken Leary’s Bombs over Bramall Lane (available here) is an inspirational book and I do recommend it.
Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.
By Mary Grover
Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany
her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to
the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded
premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta
Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but
can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like
Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with
attractive girls on them’.
Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.
I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?
Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.
Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on
the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every
Saturday and remembers her first choices:
One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.
Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a
musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who
says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read
anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior
Library, but never history or detective novels.
Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’ She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.
At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.
When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!
There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.
Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it.
Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s.
For Sheffield’s 2019 Off the Shelf Festival, on 21 October, Eleanor and Imtiaz Dharkar are reading from their latest collections of poems, published by Bloodaxe Books. Eleanor’s poems, White Ink Stains, draw in part on the Reading Sheffield interviews. Click here for more information.
Here is the Dutch original:
Jantje zag eens pruimen hangen O! als eieren zo groot ‘t Scheen, dat Jantje wou gaan plukken Schoon zijn vader ‘t hem verbood Hier is, zei hij, noch mijn vader Noch de tuinman, die het ziet Aan een boom, zo vol geladen Mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet Maar ik wil gehoorzaam wezen En niet plukken; ik loop heen Zou ik om een hand vol pruimen Ongehoorzaam wezen? Neen!
Voort ging Jantje, maar zijn vader Die hem stil beluisterd had Kwam hem in het lopen tegen Vooraan op het middenpad Kom mijn Jantje, zei de vader Kom mijn kleine hartedief Nu zal ik u pruimen plukken Nu heeft vader Jantje lief Daarop ging Papa aan ‘t schudden Jantje raapte schielijk op Jantje kreeg zijn hoed vol pruimen En liep heen op een galop.
And here is Eleanor’s ‘mainly accurate translation’:
Johnny sees the ripe plums hanging Oh! As big as eggs they are. How he longs to grasp and pluck The fruit forbidden by Papa! “But,” he ponders, “neither Father Nor the gardener’s here to see: Who would miss just five or six From such a heavy-laden tree? Yet I want to be obedient… Mustn’t pick them…better go. Shall I, for a ripe sweet handful, Disobey my father? No!”
Off goes Johnny: but his father, Who has overheard it all, Catches up as he walks homeward, Stops him by the garden wall. “Come, my Johnny,” says the father, “Come, my darling little lad, Now shall you have plums aplenty, Now you’ve pleased your watchful Dad!” Father gives the tree a shaking. Followed, eavesdropped-on, policed, Johnny fills his hat with plums, And gallops off to have his feast.
Honesty or policy? Johnny’s under surveillance from a parent who rewards obedience with approval (and plums) – if he sees it for himself. That’s why Johnny does his moral cogitating aloud, in stage soliloquy. There’s no trust here.
Here are other Dutch nursery
rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.
Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City
Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the
success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when
annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries,
including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk
about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in
October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.
Threatened by Mob Hysteria
Intellectual Freedom in Danger
Warning by Sheffield Librarian
Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the
recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.
This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’
books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor
of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April
1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as
Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque
and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people
heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This
story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City
Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better
reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even
in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to
intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:
It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.
Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).
The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being.
As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods
We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?
(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)
Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language,
creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the
‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’,
questioning rather than accepting.
Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.
Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.
If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.
Our guest blogger Julie was born on the Manor estate in Sheffield in 1950. She attended St Theresa’s Primary School. After graduating from Notre Dame High School, she left Sheffield for Newcastle-on-Tyne, to train as a teacher. She taught for two years in Liverpool before heading off on an adventurous journey to Sydney, Australia, where she still lives. She has spent her career in education – teaching, writing and lecturing. She was Head of Education at the Australian Museum and General Manager of the charity The Peer Support Foundation. She now writes fiction. Her novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and will be released by Pegasus later this year.
By Julie Howard
My earliest memory of Manor Library is the Peter Pan and Wendy mural, which was painted on one of the glass partitions. Dressed in pale greens and blue they flew through the air, their eyes wide with astonishment. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was 1955 and the library was only a couple of years old. It was glorious.
In the children’s library, boys and girls whispered
together as they searched the shelves. Occasionally a giggle would erupt only
to be quelled by a glower from the librarian. Once we had chosen our book, we
approached the counter. The librarian vigorously flicked through small brown
envelopes until she found our card. There was a nerve-wracking moment as she scrutinised
the chosen book before peering down into your face. Heaven help you, if you
chose something unsuitable. I remember a Just
William book being confiscated. With a burning face I went back to
choose ‘something more suitable’ from the shelves, which was difficult because
I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I now think it was because I had chosen a ‘boy’s
I loved Manor Library from the first moment I stepped
in there. At first, I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t borrow a book until I
was six. It took me weeks of pleading before they let me join. It was years
later I found out that the kind-hearted librarian had changed my birthdate. Nat the Cat was my first book. I read
it in the morning and went back for more in the afternoon, only to be told that
I could only have one book a day!
Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me. After tea,
mum would walk me up to ‘Reading Circle’. Children sat cross-legged on the
floor and the librarians’ stories took us away from our everyday lives to Narnia and other exotic places. From
that time on, mum often found me standing and staring hopefully at the back of
my wardrobe. The librarians always left us, jaws hanging, at the most crucial
part of the story. If we wanted to know the ending, we had to rise up to the
challenge of finishing the book.
At Christmas time the drama group would put on plays
and the whole family would attend. Of course, with my long blonde hair I was
always an angel, but one year, I was lucky enough to get a singing part… Oh joy!
It was a magical place to write. Storybook and pencil
in hand I would walk up Prince of Wales Road, to the library, which always seem
to be open. I’d sit at one of the tables and write my stories of fairies and
I now divide my time between Sydney and Sheffield (Manly to the Manor) Of course an annual pilgrimage to Manor Library to say thank you, is essential. I am still reading and writing voraciously. My novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and draws on some of my childhood memories. I also work with refugees and others trying to get their stories into print. After all we all have a story to tell, don’t we?
Manor Library serves the Manor ward in souh-east Sheffield. The area was rural until the 1930s, when Sheffield Council started building a large estate to relieve inner city crowding. The branch library was almost ready in 1939, when war broke out, and it could not be completed and opened until 1953. The design of the building was innovative in its day, and we plan to tell the story of Manor Library in a future post.