Two Wadsley readers: the reading lives of Anne and John Robinson

We are glad to welcome two new interviewees, Anne and John Robinson, both born in 1949. This reading journey is based on notes taken during the interview. There is no audio file or transcript.

By Mary Grover

When, in January 2023, I gave a talk in Hillsborough Library about reading in Wadsley, I expected to see Anne and Alan B whose reading memories from both Wadsley and Rotherham contributed to my understanding of reading in Sheffield in the Fifties. It was good to see Anne and Alan but it was an added bonus to meet two readers new to Reading Sheffield: John and Anne Robinson. The two couples are not only great readers but they are all key members of Wadsley and Loxley Commoners. WALC is a voluntary group of mainly local people who share a great love for Wadsley and Loxley Commons, a nature reserve to the north-west of Sheffield. The four friends work together in preserving and sharing this unique common land, once an industrial landscape where gannister was mined.

Anne McConnachie, now Robinson
John Robinson

Anne and John would seem to have little time for reading but in fact they read every day. When they met with me and Sue Roe in the café of the Millennium Gallery, they shared reading histories that were very different from each other’s but they agree that they now influence each other’s tastes. Not only do they read books about the natural environment and history but they also share a taste for detective fiction, especially the novels of Anthony Horowitz. I felt that Anne was the sterner critic. The endings of detective novels were measured against those of Agatha Christie who ‘always got it right’. John loves biographies. He says that’s because he is a ‘nosey parker’.

Both Anne and John came from families which valued reading. As a girl, Anne McConnachie was given many opportunities to read. Her Sunday school introduced her to Bible stories. She was bought comics. Relatives, aunts especially, helped her acquire books of her own. At Christmas she was given annuals: Girls’ Crystal and School Friend. One of Anne’s aunties used to buy comics for her, her sister and a nephew. ‘Every week there was Girl for my sister, the Swift for me and the Eagle for the nephew. Me and my sister used to have a look at the cover of the Eagle (we weren’t so keen on the Mekon).’ Anne’s mother made sure that her daughters recorded the name of the relative who gave them an annual as a Christmas gift; each was inscribed in the front cover. A book was an object of value.

Anne in Wood Street, Kelvin

Anne’s mother was not only in a book club but she took her daughters with her on her hunt for popular fiction. She went to the cinema and enjoyed the thrillers of the Thirties and Forties with actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and Tyrone Power.  She read John Creasey and Raymond Chandler. Neither John nor Anne can remember seeing their mothers read. Both felt that when the family were around their mothers would have been too busy with domestic duties to do much reading themselves. If they sat down, they often took up ‘something useful’ like their knitting rather than a book.

As children, both Anne and John found the novels of Enid Blyton a delight. John probably got his from the mobile library in Dore, where he also found the Bobbsey Twins, mysteries and adventures written by the American Laura Lee Hope (a pseudonym for multiple authors). Anne loved Blyton’s The Faraway Tree and recalls the refrain ‘Wisha, wisha’, the noise of the wind in the trees. She could imagine going to the distant lands conjured by Blyton’s story. It was perhaps this book that inspired her love of magical stories and mythology. She realises now that the horrors of Greek mythology were just accepted as a child, their cruelty and monstrousness just taken for granted.

Another shared experience was the work of Charles Dickens. Anne found Great Expectations a very satisfying read when it was set for O level. John found Dickens heavy on the detail but ploughed on with Nicholas Nickleby and enjoyed the story. After he had finished reading it, he got a sense of achievement and still remembers it. Anne recently enjoyed A Christmas Carol. Though neither John nor Anne became regular readers of Dickens, they value the novels of his that they have they read.

One of the reasons for John’s difficulty with the sheer bulk of Dickens’ novels was possibly undiagnosed dyslexia. As for many children of his generation, the lack of diagnosis led teachers to conclude that he was not interested in reading. His primary school teacher was unconcerned by his lack of progress, often sending John and his friend to garden and to shovel snow when it needed clearing.

The 16-year-old John at South Yorkshire Sailing Club in the Sixties

John was determined to learn, and to learn from books, in spite of his early difficulties with reading. His intense curiosity and determination have led him to be the avid reader that he is today. In spite of the red ink that covered the compositions that he so loved to write in primary school, he persisted and when he got to Silverdale School, in the late Fifties, he found the environment he needed to learn. Not only was he encouraged to read but the newly built secondary modern had good facilities including a library. John joined the chess club, sang in the choir and played in the orchestra. He learned to read music.  He aimed to catch up and he coped well. His determination is reflected in the way he reads. As he puts it, ‘I will go the extra mile if the book is a bit difficult or slow’.

As a reader Anne had no obstacles to overcome. In her last year at Philadelphia Primary School, her headteacher found that she had a reading age of 15. She always found reading easy and her home was filled with print. Her dad worked nights for the Sheffield Telegraph and brought copies home. She remembers her mum reading them, building up piles that couldn’t be thrown out. Her mother read both the Telegraph and the Star.

Anne enjoyed Sunday School and the Bible stories she heard there. Upperthorpe Library was also an important source of books when the family lived in Kelvin. She probably went with her mother and sister.

Upperthorpe Library

Anne loved the library – the big round tables and the chairs – but she was a little in awe of the librarians. She wouldn’t have dared ask them for suggestions about what she might read but she can’t remember needing suggestions. She could take out five at once, would take them home, sit by the fire and read them all at a gallop. She can still do an efficient skim of a book if necessary.

As for many of our readers, an illness gave Anne increased opportunities to read. When she was 16, she got shingles and read whatever came to hand. She discovered A Pocketful of Rye and then They Came to Baghdad and became a big fan of Agatha Christie.

Though Anne went to a grammar school, Brincliffe, she can’t remember the school having a library, unlike the much better equipped secondary modern where John went.

Different though Anne and John’s reading histories have been, it is clear that what made them readers was the value their own families set on books. They both soon realised that books opened up opportunities to satisfy their natural curiosity, their imagination and their determination to make something of their lives. John’s adult confidence with print enabled him to be a committee man (one of many is the committee of the local Royal Society of Protection of Birds). All importantly, this confidence enabled him to run the family loan business. John’s command of records and paperwork was essential to building up the company’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. Anne thinks John should write a history of his working life. She suggests, ‘It could be called “The Loan Arranger”’.

Three friends from Wadsley


Joan, Winnie and Jean at the first Reading Sheffield Celebration 2012

There was an afternoon when I wanted to turn my back on the Reading Sheffield project and spend the rest of my life exploring the history of Wadsley.  It was the afternoon that I spent squashed, in Winnie Lincoln’s front room, under the coffee table where I had sited my recorder hoping to capture the voices of the five of us: me, Winnie, Winnie’s daughter Kathryn, Joan and Jean.

I had met Winnie through the Slightly Spritely exercise group that meets in Wadsley Church Hall. She wanted to share her interview with her two friends, Jean and Joan, who lived nearby. Kathryn was on hand to fetch the books that Winnie summoned and to help me field the tape recorder when it fell off the table.

Winnie, Jean and Joan had all made friends on the shopping bus.

We were all widows and decided to have Saturdays together playing cards or Scrabble or whatever.  And we’d all be sat round, there were seven of us then, and it would start up quoting a bit of poetry.  And everybody would pick it up, what they could remember, or else they’d remember a song.  And we’d all start singing until we couldn’t remember whose turn it were to play a card.

Jean dived into the middle of Hiawatha: ‘Hidden in the elder bushes, there they waited until the deer came’ … I could go on and on.’

The three women shared memories of schools they had attended. Learning poetry off by heart had obviously been a key part of the curriculum, as it had been for Hazel, one of our other Wadsley readers. They still remembered the girls who, like Jean, had excelled at learning and reciting poetry:

Winnie:  … particularly Audrey.  You remember Audrey?

Jean:  Oh yes.

Winnie:  Audrey , she were very good.  And Joyce of course, Joyce Strater.

Jean:  Oh Joyce.

Joan:  I can remember Joyce.

Though this poetry is still part of their shared life today, Jean, Winnie and Joan rarely share books. An exception is a rhyming history of Britain by James Muirden that Joan had lent Winnie.

Both Joan and Winnie are principally interested in the factual and neither of them seem to care for novels much. Their history books are kept as reference books, too precious to pass around.

Winnie treasures, in particular, local history books. All three women recall with respect an earlier vicar of Wadsley, Dr Harold Kirk-Smith, who in 1957 had published an excellent short history of Wadsley.  Not only had Winnie got a copy of this short history, she and her daughter Kathryn found out that Kirk-Smith had written another book, about William Brewster, the father of New England.

So we went and got this book and it was lovely.  It’s really nice.  It was nice because it was Kirk’s book’

Winnie and Kathryn also bought a book about Wadsley from an antiquarian bookseller. Winnie recalls that it was quite expensive. Kathryn brought it down from upstairs, a beautifully bound, gilt-edged book, published in 1852: A Gazetteer and General Directory of Sheffield for Twenty Miles Around. Winnie observed, ‘My ancestors are in there’.

Joan, also interested in history, was more curious about fourteenth century Europe. She is an artist and is fascinated not only by the artists of the fourteenth century but the process of handing on knowledge, the great Renaissance project of recovery.

I think it’s just because they kept translating new things and adding things on that weren’t normally known.

However, Jean, unlike her two friends, did not register any interest in bookish history. Her chief delight as a young woman had been to go to the theatre in town, usually by herself.

Diverse though they were, all three friends had nothing but respect for the literary tastes of the others.They all agreed that books were precious objects. One of Winnie’s treasures was a book in French that had belonged to her grandfather.

MG:  So your granddad could read French?

Winnie:  Oh no, he couldn’t read French.  He were a Lincolnshire man, he couldn’t talk Sheffield. [Laughs]

MG:  So how come he’s got this French book?

Winnie:  I don’t know, I don’t know.  They were a family who collected things.

Joan:  A book is a book is a book.

Winnie suspects that such objects were purchased when a neighbour died.

if anybody died, it was open house.  And they’d then ask people to, you know, come in and buy what they fancied. To get rid of the stuff. There was no fetching somebody to empty the house, like these dealers.  They’d go to local people with what they wanted.  And that was done regularly and it was very useful.

Joan added, ‘I don’t throw books out, no’ and Winnie, by this stage surrounded by towers of books that Kathryn had brought downstairs to show us, concludes

I think it’s important because it’s lovely to have them there and, you know, suddenly it comes back to you and you can search through and find what you’re looking for, can’t you?  Come back to things.  And you read them very often afresh, each time.

by Mary Grover

Access Joan T’s audio and transcript here.