The Twopenny Library: ‘A home without books is like a room without windows!’

Where did you go in Sheffield in the 1930s if you wanted an entertaining read? An Agatha Christie? Perhaps The Murder at the Vicarage with its unlikely detective, Miss Marple, or the more glamorous Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe one of Zane Grey’s Westerns? Wasn’t that one of his films at the Abbeydale Picture House?

With this in mind, you might well have headed to the ‘Novel’ Library. ‘A home without books is like a room without windows! May the ‘Novel’ Library let the sunlight into your house?’ and ‘A Book a day keeps the blues away’, said its newspaper adverts. It was one of the ‘twopenny libraries’, a commercial venture common in the 1930s. They specialised in popular fiction and got their name from the cost, 2d (about £1 today), of borrowing a book. The Sheffield branch was on the corner of the High Street and George Street. This was a good location, next to the prestigious Walsh’s department store, although on one occasion in September 1935 it led to trouble, when the library was invaded by cattle. (Yes, cattle. You can read about it here.)

The Corner of George St and High St, Sheffield – the site of the ‘Novel’ Library in the 1930s

Sheffield’s ‘Novel’ Library, one of around 25 branches across England, opened in 1934, supported by a campaign in local papers. The first advert appeared in the Daily Independent on the opening day, Saturday 10 February. ‘Something new in book lending’ was promised, with a flat fee of 2d per book per week and no deposit or subscription. Another ad appeared the next week, saying that 5,000 readers had joined on the first day[i] and announcing special opening hours – 8.30 am to 11 pm – to cope with the demand.

Later that week, the new library was mentioned in the Daily Independent’s ‘Mrs Vulcan’s shopping diary’, along with sale bargains such as ‘charming reading lamp shades in silk and parchment’ for only 3s 11½d (about £20 now) at Walsh’s. ‘Opening shortly. What is most needed in Sheffield,’ said another article, explaining that these words on a poster in the empty shop window had attracted much attention. There were already 8,000 books in stock, it went on, and the plan was for 15,000: ‘thrillers, love stories, biographies, serious works and every type of fiction’. The authors named were chosen no doubt for broad appeal: J B Priestley, Edgar Wallace, Ruby M Ayres and Warwick Deeping. All were well-known in the 1930s: Yorkshireman Priestley had local appeal and literary merit; thriller writer Wallace was one of the most popular authors in the world; Deeping’s novels dealt with serious themes like alcoholism; Ruby M Ayres was a prolific romantic novelist. None was highbrow or avant-garde.

The ‘Novel’ Library was set up by George Berthold ‘Bertie’ Samuelson (1889 – 1947). He had been a successful film director and producer, but ceased production for a time after being sued by an actor. According to his biographer, Gabriel A Sivan, Bertie Samuelson then ‘set up a number of “tuppence a week” lending libraries that ensured him a reasonable income for the next few years’.[ii]

The ‘Novel’ Library was not Sheffield’s only private library. There was a branch of Boot’s Booklovers’ Library and the local Red Circle Library had branches across the city. Reader Judith G remembers her mum using the Red Circle’s Moor branch in the late 1940s, borrowing books ‘written for somebody who didn’t want … you know, stir your brain kind of thing’.[iii] There were also smaller ventures, like Abbett’s Library run by Sir Norman Adsetts’ father alongside his sweetshop shop in Derbyshire Lane. W H Smith supplied his stock.

It was in this library, surrounded by delectably long runs of Nat Gould, Zane Grey and Ethel Boileau (a favourite of his mother’s), that the four year old Norman learned to read and to acquire his life-long passion for reading of every kind.

The economics of the twopenny library are interesting, as Reading Sheffield explored here. They cost the keen reader in depressed 1930s Britain much less than, say, the Boots libraries, which charged an annual subscription or a deposit and a borrowing fee.[iv] But why didn’t more people make use of the free public library? (Bertie Samuelson cheekily asked in one advert: ‘Why borrow a book at the free library for nothing when you can come to the ‘Novel’ Library and pay 2d?’) Sheffield, after all, had a new Central Library which opened the same year as the ‘Novel’ Library. In fact, more and more people were using it – the annual issue rose from 365,000 in 1925-26 to 3,640,000 in 1932-33. But for some it was perhaps too intimidating. Judith G remembered her mother:

‘ … for some reason she decided to join the [public] library, the big library in town … Because my mother was quite timid and I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.’

There were other factors in the popularity of twopenny libraries. They were apparently places where people socialised.[v] They dealt in ‘the kind of popular fiction insufficiently improving to pass muster on the shelves of the municipal libraries’. Graham Watson said (rather sniffily) in an article in The Spectator in 1935:

When the twopenny library first came on the scene it made an instantaneous appeal to an entirely new reading public – a public which was largely unable to afford either to buy books or to subscribe to the circulating libraries. It was a public which was largely State-educated, which had only just ‘discovered’ books, a public which wanted popular, very popular, fiction.

Public libraries had been founded, in 1850, to improve the working classes. Non-fiction, ‘books of information’ and great literature were their prescription. In 1927, Sheffield’s chief librarian, Richard J Gordon, said in a BBC talk: ‘[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should be the work of a novelist of admitted quality.’ By the early 1930s, the then City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, was experimenting in branch libraries. What people wanted, said Lamb, was ‘a book, preferably an attractive one’, which they generally chose ‘at random’. He deduced that ‘the provision of quantities of popular fiction [would attract] non-readers.’ He bought and promoted multiple copies of books by Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Ethel M Dell, Rafael Sabatini and others. He was right: issues increased by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000. (Compare this with the ‘Novel’ Library’s claim of 5,000 readers in a single day.)

The Novel Library chain folded in 1936. Bertie Samuelson was bankrupted by the enterprise early that year. He said in court that only two branches had failed and that the trouble had come when he had sold the business in good faith to someone who then defaulted, leaving him with liabilities of over £5,000 (about £248,000 now). In his best year, he said, the libraries made him £1,400 (about £70,000 now). The court suggested he had been unwise. The assets were sold and the bankruptcy discharged in November 1936.

Apart from the surviving 18th and 19th century subscription libraries (such as Newcastle’s Lit and Phil), private circulating libraries had died out by the 1960s. Today, as public libraries endure cuts and closures, perhaps the twopenny library will yet return in some form.



[i] This figure is not convincing when you learn that the same claim was made for the Leeds and Bradford branches in the Yorkshire Evening Post in November 1933; and that the ‘Novel’ Library claimed to have registered over 9,000 readers in a five week period in Eastbourne.

[ii] Gabriel A Sivan, George Berthold Samuelson (1889–1947): Britain’s Jewish film pioneer, Jewish Historical Studies, volume 44, 2012.

[iii] We would love to know more about the Red Circle libraries. Please leave a comment below if you have any information.

[iv] According to an advert from November 1933, the Hastings ‘Novel’ Library offered, ‘in response to countless requests, a season ticket for 10/6 (about £5) which allowed the holder to change books ‘as often as desired’.

[v] Robert James discusses this in Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930-39: A Round of Cheap Diversions? (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010).