The musical and reading adventures of the Hereford Street gang

By Mary Grover

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.

Sheffield Central Library, which opened in 1934

Unlike his 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’.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

The Central 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’.

Ken exploring at speed

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.

Then just 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.’

They had 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 pianist.

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.

In the Frosty Dawn of December 13th

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy Norbury, b.1931)

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the people of Sheffield woke up, if they had slept at all, to find a changed city. The day before, 12 December 1940, was the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, when the Luftwaffe targeted the steel city. In an earlier post, we looked at how our readers, like Dorothy all young at the time, remembered the raids. Here are extracts from The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 and from the memories of staff about the part Sheffield Libraries played in the aftermath of the Blitz.[i] It was fortunate that the Central Library in Surrey Street, which became the base for public assistance, was not much damaged, despite its location between The Moor and Fitzalan Square, both of which were more or less destroyed.

In the frosty dawn of December 13th, thousands of people homeless, bereaved, or threatened with loss of livelihood, turned to the Government and Corporation to find out what to do, and for the first few hours there was no one to tell them. The Public Assistance Department had planned a scheme for just such an emergency, but its headquarters  and many of its prepared centres had been destroyed. The City Librarian was asked by the Emergency Committee to put the Central Library  at the disposal of the eleven local and national departments concerned with post raid needs; by mid-day the officers of the Public Assistance Department had already arrived. The next day the other officials were at work in the newsroom, the Reference Library and the administrative offices, and a Missing Relatives Bureau had been set up by members of the library staff.

For several weeks the library presented an extraordinary spectacle. Crowds of people of all ages thronged the tables where the officials sat dispensing comfort, material help and information; dogs, tea and tobacco smoke were visible in the public rooms for the only time in history; a continual noise made up of chatter, laughter, sometimes argument and occasionally tears, ruffled the usually placid air. Amongst it all the library staff not only catalogued and issued books as usual, but listened to tales of woe, administered refreshment, and made it their business to know something about everything going on in the building.

Remembering the Blitz years later, one member of the library staff said:

The library was closed because there was an unexploded bomb somewhere in the Eyre Street area. Mr Lamb [the City Librarian] was totally tied up with getting the Information Service going, and Mr Hutchings the deputy, was in charge of the library. We found all sorts of stranded people hanging around both in the library and in the street outside. … Mr Lamb said ‘Well, set up a counter in the magazine room – what is now the Business Library – tell them what you can, you can ask the Information Committee for anything you can’t cope with.’ Gradually it grew. All I can remember now is that, all of a sudden, after a week, we were running an information service as if we’d always done it, which in a way we had.

First of all people were coming in and asking where they could get these claim forms for the damage to their houses, then soldiers coming home on compassionate leave, bursting in, wild-eyed, I can’t find my wife and children, and then other relatives came in whose people were absolutely safe and sound and they’d no way of telling them.

One of the Lending Library staff recalled:

People from Lending and myself went to a local grocery store – Tuckwoods it was called, on Fargate – and we bought as many tins of soup as we could manage between us. The Ministry had suspended food rationing because of the Blitz. We took the tins to the staff canteen and as the gas mains had gone we heated the soup in an electric kettle. We took it down to the people who’d gone into the basement of the library because the food kitchens hadn’t arrived by then.

They decided they would keep the Lending Library open … it was considered good for morale if people had books to read, you see. I was in charge of keeping the Lending Library open with about half a dozen staff, while everyone else was working on relief work. … I’d see [Mr Lamb] passing through and organising things, he’d just say ‘Hello, girlie’ and that would be it. He was far too busy to bother with me, he knew I was doing my job and that was it.

It was important to get information out across the city, noted The City Libraries of Sheffield, and the usual channels were generally not available.

Twice a day instructions received from the responsible officers were cast by the Committee into simple messages broadcast from cars by voluntary workers. The more important of these instructions were issued as stencilled or printed bulletins which were distributed daily by trained young cyclists.

Understandably uncertain at first, the library service gradually settled down, new ways of working developed, and plans were laid down.

Between all the officials in the building there grew up a spirit of mutual helpfulness and friendly co-operation. … When the representatives of most departments had left the library by the beginning of February, 1941, the staff of the Public Assistance Department remained, administering the Air Raid Information Bureau for the rest of the war in the library.

The Public Assistance Officer and the City Librarian still worked closely together to prepare for any new emergency which might arise. They devised a system of information posts so arranged that any part of it might come into action independently of the others. …

The City Librarian was appointed BBC Liaison Officer in September, 1941, and attended every meeting of the Invasion Committee from March, 1941. In the case of fighting in the neighbourhood, or a temporary occupation by the enemy, the official source of all information was to be the Central Library, the centre of a complex web of communications with the Civil Defence and military authorities. The aim of the whole organisation was to ensure that the public should know what information was accurate and what put out falsely by the enemy. The scheme, for which most careful preparations and rehearsals were carried out, was suspended in the autumn of 1943, and fortunately did not need to be revived.

After the Blitz of December 1941, Sheffield was not again seriously threatened. One of the librarians said:

We were running at full blast as an information service on practically everything for several months after the raid, then gradually business began to drop off and return to whatever you call normal life in wartime.

And the official City Libraries of Sheffield records:

By June, 1945, the Central Library was again devoted entirely to library purposes.

Sheffield Central Library today

[i] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956, pp. 47-9). The staff memories quoted come from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983). If the copyright holders come forward, we will happily acknowledge them.

Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

My dad picked me up and carried me around to me aunt’s house because she had a cellar, and we went down the cellar. And as he was carrying me around, I could see all these beautiful lights in the sky. And I said to him, ‘Dad, dad, stop. I want to look at those pretty lights.’ And he said, ‘Another time.’  (Dorothy Norbury, b.1934)

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy L, b.1931)

The Sheffield Blitz – the worst air-raids over the city during World War Two – happened 77 years ago this week, between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th December 1940. The city was a target because of its many steelworks. It’s thought that, by the end, over 600 people had been killed, 500 seriously injured and 40,000 made homeless. About 80,000 buildings were damaged, mostly houses but also schools, shops and offices, and thousands were destroyed.

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Our readers born in the 1920s and 1930s remember the Blitz and the war well.

Mary Robertson (right) in childhood

Working life was disrupted. Mary Robertson’s father was an industrial chemist. He worked at Vickers ‘seven days a week’. ‘The day after the blitz,’ Mary (b.1923) said, ‘he walked all the way to Hillsborough and the place had been bombed. … And his laboratories were all a mass of broken glass.’ Hazel (b.1929) was due to start work in the sewing room at John Walsh’s, the grand department store on the High Street, but it was destroyed. ‘It caught fire from a shop next door and it just went right through the building.’ Florence Cowood (b.1923) had a narrow escape on her way to work.

I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work, or walk to work. I … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked. … And there was no one about at all. And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, ‘Where have you come from?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.’ But it didn’t blow me up.

The war affected people’s leisure time too. Margaret G (b. 1924) remembered almost being caught in a raid.

I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the Blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

And Florence’s sister was caught.

And after the Blitz, I was at home with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house. … In Woodseats.  And she couldn’t come home, because of the [bombing] …

Then there was the impact on children’s education. In the early days of the war, many schools were temporarily closed to enable shelters to be incorporated. Instead they  were taught in small groups in private homes. Peter Mason (b.1929) said:

‘… after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.’

Alma (b.1928) also recalled home schooling.

Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table. I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.

Several schools were destroyed in the raids. Doreen Gill (b.1934) was living near Attercliffe:

Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out. ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.

Doreen Gill

Ted L (b.1919) had vivid memories of what he calls the ‘great raid’:

Duchess Rd [School]. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war … it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home, was it draft leave? And we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything [inside] was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

Ted L

John D (b.1927) lost more than his school:

… then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

People waited out the raids in shelters and cellars, but unsurprisingly hated the experience. Eva G (b.1925) was living in the suburb of Pitsmoor.

… of course there were a lot of incendiaries dropped around there, you know, they lost a lot of houses, and we were in the cellar. We had one of those [Anderson shelters] in the garden, but when it was raining and wet it was horrible, so we used to go down the cellar!

Not everyone bothered with shelters. Florence said:

We didn’t worry about it. I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar. And I got so fed up with it. I thought, ‘Blow it.’ So I used to just stop in bed. … I slept through it, me. I could sleep through anything.

Florence on her wedding day

But for Alma and her family in Rotherham, the shelter was a blessing on one of the nights of the Sheffield Blitz:

… we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there. There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air! So we had got an auntie – it was Auntie Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter. It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright. Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and … my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something. So that was exciting.