The Centenary Dinner of the Sheffield Book Society

By Sue Roe

In today’s Heritage Open Days blog, Sue Roe tells us about the centenary dinner of one of Sheffield’s earliest literary groups.

The Centenary Dinner for the Sheffield Book Society was held on 29 December 1906 at the Royal Victoria Hotel. The Book Society had been formed in 1806 at the King’s Head Hotel, Change Alley, by six men for the circulation of books. There was a strong Unitarian presence: three were Unitarian ministers and the others were members. The group did expand quickly to twenty-five and then to thirty. It continued throughout the nineteenth century and during the First World War – in fact it was only dissolved in 1944 because of a book shortage. Titles were chosen by the committee with suggestions from members; the books were then sold at the Annual Dinner and the profits used to buy more. The books were circulated amongst members and a record was kept via a ‘check book’. Members were expected to bring this to the Annual Dinner or be fined. Later in the nineteenth century a collector was appointed to deliver and collect the books.

Michael Ellison’s check book (Sheffield City Archives)
Michael Ellison’s check book (Sheffield City Archives)

Planning for the Centenary Dinner started early. At a Committee Meeting in September 1905:

It was resolved to hold the Centenary Dinner of the Society on Dec. 29 .1906 & to select Mr. Wightman, as the Senior Member of the Society, President for that occasion.

(Arthur Wightman was the longest serving member.)

In September 1906,

…it was decided that no public officials (as such) should be invited. It was suggested that a Card of invitation be prepared and each Member be furnished with three wherewith he may invite that number of guests.

Invitation Card (Sheffield City Archives)

Furthermore:

The Honry. Secty. was instructed to have a full list of all the members of the Society printed, giving the year of their election from 1806 to the present time & that such list be presented to every one at the Centenary Dinner together with a short history of the Society from its commencement.

Members of Sheffield Book Society (Sheffield City Archives)

… the Society … is managed by a Committee of twelve … who are appointed each year at the Annual Meeting in December. This Committee meets at the house of each member in turn, about every three months, for the purpose of voting in new books from a list furnished by the Honorary Secretary. Periodicals Magazines and Art Publications are only voted in at the Annual Meetings.

The contrast was drawn with Sheffield in 1806 when ‘The age of cheap literature had not yet dawned. Books were costly.’ Novels were often published in three volumes. The Magazines and other periodicals were usually bought by members and given to charitable institutions.

Short history of the Sheffield Book Society Image 1 (Sheffield City Archives)
Short history of the Sheffield Book Society Image 2 (Sheffield City Archives)

At the Committee Meeting in December 1906:

The Menu for the Centenary Dinner on Dec 29 was submitted, discussed & decided upon.

Menu for the Centenary Dinner (Sheffield City Archives)

The menu seems a bit daunting these days – ten courses and then coffee. Four meat courses and fish too! Intriguing that they would have foie gras rissoles as the penultimate course.

Oysters are thought of as a luxury these days but in the nineteenth century they were a common dish. In The Pickwick Papers (1837) Sam Weller observed ‘the poorer a place is the greater call there seems for oysters’. Soup followed the oysters: a choice between a Petite Marmite and Cream of Artichoke. The former was a soup consisting of a variety of meats – the cheaper cuts of veal, beef and pork with vegetables simmered in stock, then served all together in individual bowls. A petite marmite is a small bowl in France, so the dish is named after the vessel.

The Joinville sauce accompanying the sole is a béchamel sauce with crayfish and shrimps, garnished with mushrooms and often black truffle. Whitebait need no explanation, I would imagine. Neither does the chicken soufflé.

Tournedos Béarnaise is fillet of beef with a sauce made from butter, shallots, tarragon and white wine. The guests were obviously accomplished diners.

Mutton was long regarded as superior in taste to lamb and was a staple in many households: Dickens’ favourite dish was mutton stuffed with oysters. Game such as pheasant was also a common course: shooting was a popular sport.  

For dessert guests could choose from ice cream or cake: Peach Melba was created by the French chef Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in the early 1890s for the famous Australian opera singer Nellie Melba. It is a dish of peaches with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream. Friandises are small pastries or sweets – what we would call petit fours.

Savoury courses were often served towards the end of an Edwardian meal – rabbit, cheese mushrooms, herring roes, chicken livers, ‘devilled’ in a spicy sauce. It is hard to imagine any of them choosing foie gras rissole (deep fried pastry turnovers with foie gras and truffles) after such a gargantuan meal. And yet there was a dessert course to follow!

The Hon. Secty. offered a prize to the School of Art pupils for the design for Menu Card at the Centenary Dinner – thirteen designs were submitted and the one by Mr. C. S. Jagger was selected.

I wonder if Mr C S Jagger was a relation!

The menu, the list of members and the short history were collected into a booklet with a front page presumably designed by C S Jagger.

Front page of the Centenary Booklet (Sheffield City Archives)

Despite the Committee’s decision that no public officials be invited, guests included W F Osborn, Master Cutler; Sydney J Robinson, an ex Master Cutler; the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr. Smith; and Professor Arthur Herbert Leahy, Professor of Mathematics at Sheffield University.

The event was widely reported in the local newspapers: an article in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (December 1906) pointed out the number of Sheffield worthies who were, and had been, members. Two Sheffield families had shown long membership. John Favell had joined in 1817 and from that date to the date of the dinner there was always at least one member of the Favell family in the Book Society. A later article spoke of:

the exceptionally large attendance of members … The company was representative of the medical and legal professions, as well as the manufacturing and commercial interests of the city, the former predominating.

In an article in the Sheffield Telegraph in January 1907, Robert Leader complimented those members who had proved loyal to the Society over the years. This was particularly significant bearing in mind the strain, before a messenger was employed for delivery and collection, of punctually passing on the books from house to house.

Where distances were short this was no great tax but the obligation was serious when, for instance, a member living at Broomhill had to deliver at the office of another in town; who, in turn, had to convey the books to his own residence in Burngreave and in due course to send them forward to Pitsmoor.

Reported in an article of 31 December 1906, at the Dinner Arthur Wightman was in reminiscent mode. He recalled his first meeting with Thomas Asline Ward, the long serving Secretary and Treasurer of the Society. Wightman was a member of the Sheffield Football Club which played in a field belonging to Ward. The Bishop of Sheffield proposed a toast to the President which was ‘received with musical honours’. Wightman kept his reply brief so that the sale of books and periodicals would not be delayed.

This was the feature of the evening and was entered upon with great zest and enjoyment. The works were distributed to the guests around the table and each in turn offered the book for sale, descanting on its merits, and striving to get the most he could for it. The Centenary Dinner was indeed a ‘very pleasant gathering’.

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