Dickens Comes to Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music Hall, where Dickens performed

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

Rare Dickens Books

Pickwick Centenary Exhibition

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

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

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

Sheffield Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.

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

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

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

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

Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.


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

[ii] Sheffield Independent, Tuesday 26 May 1936.

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

Lockdown reading

By Poppy Hart

Poppy, who is 11 years old and lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger. Like many others these days, she’s thinking about her lockdown reading.

My book review is about the book A Pinch Of Magic, or as it says in full on the cover, Three Sisters, A Family Curse and A Pinch of Magic, written by Michelle Harrison.

This book is based around a family who (years before) had been put under a curse. The curse meant that if they left their town they would die by sunset. The main character (Betty) and her sisters are determined to undo the curse.

Personally, I like the main character Betty because she is adventurous, daring and mischievous!

Some parts of the book I find very puzzling and scary! Puzzling because I didn’t know how it was possible that they would break the curse, and scary because sunset was coming near which would cause their death!

My favourite part of the book was when Betty finally found her sisters, after they had been taken, by risking her own life as well.

The reason I wanted to carry on the book was because I had no idea how it was going to end. Also, this is a book that is hard to stop reading.

A book I would recommend is Why The Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. I would recommend this because it’s a short, interesting book set during the war.

I normally prefer to only read a book once but one I have read more than once is Katy by Jacqueline Wilson, because at points in the book it’s telling you the perspective of somebody in a wheelchair. It’s saying that when you’re in a wheelchair, everyone stares at you and treats you differently, which is something I find interesting.

Personally, a place I specially like to read is either in my bed. or in the garden on a nice sunny day! I read in my bed because I find it comfortable and gets me ready for a good night’s sleep. I like to read in the garden because it’s nice and relaxing with the sun shining above you.

The books along the way…

By Lily

Lily, who lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.

During lockdown I have been enjoying the Harry Potter books very much. They are very intriguing and I can’t get to sleep until about 10pm because I can’t put them down. I am currently reading the sixth book and there have been lots of interesting things that have happened along the way. I like Ron because he is funny and gets in the way, not knowing what is going on around him. I don’t like Luna because she is very strange and doesn’t play a big part in the books.

I also like the Famous Five books written by Enid Blyton. They are great tales of four children and a dog called Timmy and together they find criminals and solve mysteries. My favourite character is Anne because she makes me feel like myself. I don’t like Julian because he is too serious. I recommend you read them, because something new happens every time. There are 21 books in the series and all of them are amazing, I would really recommend them. They are old books but still great reads.

Another author I like is David Walliams. He has a really good collection of funny stories with incredible illustrations by Tony Ross. Some of my favourites are The Ice Monster, Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great Escape, but all of them are really good. David Walliams is really good at writing about how children and adults interact, and the characters are great. Lots of his books have been turned into films.

One book I often go back to is The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig. It’s about a pixie who is cursed to tell the truth which stops her getting any friends. In the end she finds a little girl who loves her and wants to keep her for who she is. I like to read it when I am scared or upset as it is comforting and stops me having nightmares.

Sometimes I enjoy to read fact books. At the moment I have been reading the Great Women books by Kate Pankhurst. She is the great-grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who I also enjoy reading about – I have a book called Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, by David Roberts, that I really enjoy reading. I got Greta Thunberg’s book for Christmas and it is great. Inside are all her speeches which are worth a look at. Me and my family also love the See Inside series of fact books. They are lift-the-flap books with hidden facts and there are lots of different ones, we’ve got Castles, Space and General Knowledge.

In lockdown I’ve been reading in the garden because it has been warm and sunny. I also read in bed where it is cosy and warm. I am looking forward to the libraries reopening so I can get some new reads.

The top of the attic stairs

By Mabel

We usually record the reading journeys of Sheffielders born in the first half of the 20th century. But we enjoy hearing from anyone who loves books. Here is our latest guest blogger, Mabel, born in the 21st century, talking about what she reads.

At the moment I’m reading The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about a girl who goes to boarding school because of the war and joins a folk dancing class which goes to a competition in the kingdom of Bergania. But when they get there the king is shot and the girl rescues the orphaned prince from going to Colditz.

My favourite character is Tally because she is funny, brave and exciting. The book is sad because it’s set in the war so people die but it has a happy ending. It’s also quite mysterious because you don’t know who is the mother of Julia, another student at Tally’s school. My favourite bit is when they go to the dragonfly pool – it sounds beautiful – I’d like to go there. I need to keep reading the book because the prince has been taken away and I need to see if he comes back.

I would recommend The Dragonfly Pool to people who like adventure and suspense. Other books I would recommend are:

  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke – for a person who likes books, magical creatures and adventure
  • The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – for someone who likes mystery, horses and happy endings!

I love to read all my books again and again because they feel like old friends and they’re still exciting even though I know what’s going to happen. The place I most like to read is the top of the attic stairs because it’s light and I’m not disturbed, unless Mum comes up to tell me not to sit on the stairs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Totley Library building, now a hairdressing salon

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

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

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

What were all these people borrowing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children playing in wartime (public domain)

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Lorna Doone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wybourn in the 1950s

By Sue Roe

Sue, one of the Reading Sheffield team, has already contributed her reading journey and her memories of the Gloops Club and of loving Enid Blyton. Here she continues her story.

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.

Park Library today
Park Swimming Baths, with the library on the right

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.

A Flying Plank

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.

A Famous Five Adventure

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!

Around Wybourn
Boundary Road, where Sue’s journey began

Jean Compton’s Reading Journey

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.

Detail from Coot Club cover in Swallows and Amazons book series (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swallows_and_Amazons_01.png )

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.

I was 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!’

Illustration by Hablot Knight Browne from Nicholas Nickleby

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.

While training 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.’

Tea and poetry (2020)

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 BanksShirley EllinsJim 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:

From Appetite:

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.

Love on the Dole in Sheffield: a Unique Story (Part Two)

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.

Chris Hopkins is the author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018 and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite:


[i] The 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 2016).

[ii] St Paul’s, sited near what is now the Peace Gardens, was an eighteenth-century foundation, sold by the Church of England and demolished in 1937 (see: http://chrishobbs.com/sheffield/stpaulschurchsheffield.htm).

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).

Love on the Dole in Sheffield: a Unique Story (Part One)

Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University looks at how Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel, Love on the Dole, came to Sheffield.

1933 First edition dust jacket cover of Love on the Dole 

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.

Here is Part Two.

Chris Hopkins is author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018 and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite


[i] 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).

[ii] 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.