Bobby: (turning aside wistfully). Do you really think Father Christmas will bring me my engine, Betty?
Betty: Yes, I should think so. I am feeling rather worried about my doll and pram. Do you think it was too much to ask for both?
Bobby: I don’t see why you shouldn’t get them, as you want them so much. Besides, Cousin Mary asked for lots and lots of things last year, and got them all.
Betty: Yes, so she did. Well, anyway, we usually get more things than we ask for, so I don’t think he will mind my asking for two things.
In autumn 1949, the staff at Walkley Library were already planning for Christmas. What festivities could they lay on for the children who ‘regularly attended the Reading Circle’? Olive Phillips, the children’s librarian, and Kath Hunt, then a ‘humble library assistant’, decided to produce a play. ‘We loved it. We were young. We just did it.’ Here are Kath’s memories.
The Reading Circle was held four evenings a week, starting at 6.30pm. The children were told a story and then a book – maybe the latest Enid Blyton – was read as a serial. (Remember this was when Enid Blyton was accepted as a popular children’s author.)
Olive Phillips and I had the idea of producing a play for Christmas, rehearsing during the Reading Circle time. We looked at some plays but royalties were required to perform these to the public so we then thought of writing our own play. We did this with the encouragement of the librarian, Mr Broadhurst, or ‘Broady’ as he was thought of by us!
The Magic Story Book tells how Bobby and Betty Brown creep downstairs on Christmas Eve, hoping to see Father Christmas. They want proof of his existence, to convince their sceptical cousins Mary and Robert. But they fall asleep, and are found by Wee Willie Winkie and his friends from Nursery Rhyme Land. They decide to test the children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes. Who, for example, is this?
I come from far across the sea,
My magic lamp I’ve brought with me,
I’ll rub it once, and then again,
Now, can you tell me who I am?
Father Christmas appears and is angry that they are not asleep, but he forgives them when he hears about Mary and Robert. ‘Now rub your lamp, Aladdin,’ he says. ‘Then I will get on with my rounds or I shall never get finished before daybreak.’ The next day, Betty and Bobby tell their adventure to Mary and Robert and their friends, but to no avail. ‘There is no Father Christmas. You’re making it all up,’ says Mary. They summon Aladdin who carries Betty, Bobby and Mary off to Nursery Rhyme Land. Their friends who are left behind pass the time making up rhymes:
Something has happened, it’s very weird;
Betty and Bobby have disappeared,
Taking Mary with them too;
Oh, whatever shall we do?
When Betty, Bobby and Mary return, they tell their story:
Mary: We’ve been to Nursery Rhyme Land. It’s been such fun and we saw Father Christmas’ toy shop. He was asleep in his cottage, but we peeped through the window and saw him. I’ll never disbelieve again. Mary Mary quite contrary gave me these flowers from her garden, and the Queen of Hearts made some tarts for us.
And the play ends with carols. You can read the play here.
Olive and I were very enthusiastic, even rehearsing on Thursdays, our day off. We had much support from the Branch Libraries Supervisor, Mr Harry Marr and the Deputy City Librarian, Mr Jack Walker. They arranged for copies of the play to be duplicated (no photocopies in those days). They even lent us a platform to use as a stage in the old reading room where the play was to be performed. As the platform was not high enough, we had to balance it on four dustbins to make sure that the audience would be able to see all the children. Would we have got away with this today? Perhaps not, but it was most important as the audience were mainly parents, brothers and sisters and grandparents of the participating children. They had to have a good view.
Unfortunately there is no record of that performance but it was judged a great success. The following Christmas, 1950, when Olive had moved to Firth Park Library and I was working in the children’s library at Woodhouse, I produced the play again. This time the event was reported, with a photo, by the South Yorkshire Times and Woodhouse Express:
Woodhouse Debut Before Child Audience
An audience of about 100 children on Thursday saw a play. ‘The Magic Story Book,’ presented in Woodhouse Library by members of the children’s reading circle. The play was written by Miss Kathleen Hunt (19) and Miss Olive Phillips (20), of 39, Bishop Hill, Woodhouse, junior librarian at Firth Park Library, Sheffield.
The play was presented at the Walkley Library, where Miss Phillips and Miss Hunt were employed last year. Parents could not be accommodated in the Woodhouse Library.
About 30 children were in the play, which concerns the attempts of two children to convince their cousin that there is a Father Christmas.
Taking part were: Maureen Fox, Barbara Grant, Kathleen Crossland, Carol Macintyre, Carol Macvinnie, Maureen, Eileen and Barbara May, Carol Pickeridge, Auriol Wheeler, Marlene Grice, Barbara Simons, Rita Hall, Pauline Cardwell, Carol Gummer, Eileen Price, Ann and Pat Roebuck, Lynne Hartley, Sandra Taylor, Joseph Firth and Stanley Rodgers.
Kath remembers the whole experience of the play very well, and now thinks back about her friend and co-author with some sadness. Olive Phillips married and moved to the Birmingham area, and died in her early fifties, in the 1980s.
If anyone recognises the names of the Woodhouse children, or remembers the Walkley performance, please leave a comment.
Old Jack Frost comes round at night;
Fingers and toes he tries to bite,
I hide myself beneath the clothes,
And then he cannot bite my nose.
More of Kath’s memories will be posted soon.