By Val Hewson
In Sheffield City Library is a department called Sheffield Room. It is a treasure house of historical records of the city and district.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Tuesday 17 January 1939
In years of searching newspapers for stories about public libraries, I’ve found various articles discussing the obscure, odd and funny questions people apparently expect librarians to answer. It’s hard to tell if these are the idea of the journalist, editor or librarian. When I mentioned this to a friend, he even suggested that the questions are just made up for effect. At all events, the resulting articles are an easy job for a journalist and good publicity for a library service, with readers presumably both amused and bemused by the information sought. The stories tell us something about how libraries work – and about what life was like before Google.
On Tuesday 17 January 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, one of these stories appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, under the title: ‘Where They Know Nearly All The Answers’. It must have been a collaboration between librarian and journalist. The statistics included were clearly official and the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, who was quoted, was very canny in securing publicity for his service.
The 7,000 books, 30,000 manuscripts, 5,000 plans, and 6,000 deeds in Sheffield Room omit nothing of importance in the city’s history. The room is constantly in use. In addition to personal inquiries on an average there are two inquiries a week by post, which lead to research among the voluminous records, steeped in the atmosphere of bygone tradition.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
After setting the scene, rich in tradition and scholarship, the unnamed journalist got down to business with ‘the most recent inquiries’: the Spence Broughton affair, William Mompesson and the Lescar Inn on Sharrow Vale Road. There was something for everyone in these fragments of local history.
Spence Broughton, the library’s record revealed, was a farmer, who, having squandered his money took to robbery.
BODY HUNG IN CHAINS
One night a boy was taking the mail from Sheffield to Rotherham. Broughton and another man – who was never caught – set upon him at Attercliffe, took the mail bag and left the boy bound upon the highway. In 1792 Broughton was hanged at York for the crime. His body was brought back to Attercliffe, where it hung in chains for 35 years. This is believed to have been the last example of gibbetting in England.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
I detect a hint of local pride in those last two sentences about the gibbet. To this day there is, you might note, the Noose & Gibbet Inn on Broughton Lane in Attercliffe.
In the case of William Mompesson, ‘the parson of Eyam plague fame’, the enquirer was looking for his date and place of birth. This proved a ‘teaser’, reported the journalist.
Finally, it was established after extensive research that neither the date nor place of Mompesson’s birth was definitely known, although it was possible to trace the approximate date of his birth from a tombstone inscription.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Then there was the enquiry from the man writing a book on inn signs. How did the Lescar Inn, still a popular pub today, get its name?
The library records showed there were two grinding wheels in Sharrow Vale Road —they had been there since 1547 – called the Upper and Nether Lescar Wheels. The inn, built in 1879, was named after them.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Having established the library’s credentials with these stories, the reporter turned to the City Librarian:
It is one of the purposes of a library to provide material for research, though it cannot, of course, undertake unduly detailed work … In the main … we provide the source of information that will satisfy queries, but in cases of inquiries from overseas the actual details asked for are also supplied if possible.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
The overseas enquiries, it seemed, usually referred to family history. People in Australia or America would get in touch in the search for their ancestors or long-lost relatives. Not much has changed then, as genealogy remains big business for public libraries. Sheffield Libraries, like many others, offer advice and free access to sites like Ancestry and the British Newspaper Archive.
In the 84 years since the Telegraph published its article, things have changed. People do still ask librarians questions, and use their libraries for research, but they also turn easily to Google, or sites like Find My Past and Ancestry, for information. It takes seconds to search Google to find the Wikipedia entries on Mompesson (his birth still seems obscure, by the way) and on Spence Broughton. There’s a lot of interesting information on Broughton, including this song of the time, in which he has apparently learned his lesson:
Hark, his blood, in strains so piercing,Spence Broughton’s Lament by Joseph Mather
Cries for justice night and day,
In these words which I’m rehersing,
Now methinks I hear him say –
‘Thou, who art my spirit’s portion
In the realms of endless bliss,
When at first thou gav’st me motion
Knew that I should come to this.’
The obvious question in all this is whether there is still a need for public libraries in this context. Of course there is. Who but library and archive services have the capacity and expertise to collect and store the information the online articles draw on? The services are impartial. They are not out to make a profit or run by characterful billionaires. They have the trained and qualified staff to help people access, search and assess the material available. As Joseph Lamb noted all those years ago,
A library … was a storehouse of knowledge and experience, and if properly used could supply the answer to any reasonable question.Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above