A chance encounter on the number 60 bus helped lead to a research project that’s been featured in a new book on the history of libraries and reading habits.
Retired teachers Sue Roe and Mary Grover’s chat on the bus led to Sue, who taught history, becoming involved in a project being set up by Mary and other ex-English teachers to do some research into Sheffielders’ reading habits.
That project eventually led them on a fascinating journey of discovery about book clubs in the city way before public libraries became the preserve of local councils.
The Reading Sheffield project has now contributed to an academic book, Before the Public Library.
At a launch event for the book in the town hall, Sue and Mary, who co-wrote a chapter of the book with Loveday Herridge, told how the group began by interviewing Sheffielders about their reading habits.
Sue said: “These interviews provided a fascinating insight into the reading of people generally over 70: their book choices, their sources of reading and their motivation.
“There was much unwitting testimony too – about education, social class, gender difference, not to mention the impact of World War Two.”
Mary told the gathering, hosted by Lord Mayor Coun Anne Murphy: “I founded Reading Sheffield because in my academic work on popular reading in the 1930s I so rarely heard the voices and responses of original readers.”
She added: “As I work on the accounts we have collected I am constantly gripped by the way becoming an habitual reader, forming personal tastes, shaped the sense of identity developed by these Sheffield men and women.
“Most had no higher education, no guide to their reading tastes; they made personal choices in a world shaped by the Depression and the war, both of which robbed people of choice and a sense of personal significance.”
Sue said Loveday began researching Sheffield Subscription Library as libraries played a huge part in interviewees’ lives.
Eventually the work of the group focused on four historic city organisations - the subscription library, the Upper Chapel Vestry Library, the Sheffield Book Society and the Sheffield Book Club.
The book chapter starts by quoting late 18th century radical newspaper editor, social reformer and hymn writer James Montgomery: “The people of Sheffield, in whatever contempt they may have been held by supercilious censors, ignorant of their character, were then, as they are now, and as I hope they will ever be, a reading and thinking people.”
The group found that Sheffield’s growing prosperity through the cutlery and steel trades led to the growth of a thirst for knowledge and new public buildings.
The subscription library was set up in 1771 and continued to 1907 but the book club only lasted from 1821 to 1864.
The radical ideas of the French revolution had a direct effect, they found.
Well-known members included Montgomery, who was twice jailed for sedition as editor of the Sheffield Iris, and Rev Joseph Evans, who was painted in a portrait holding not the Bible but a book by political writer John Locke.
Sue said: “Their book choices were radical too, at least in the 1790s: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women were listed in the 1792 catalogue.”
She added: “Like the rest of the reading public there is a shift to more conservative and anti-Jacobin novels in the early 19th century, no doubt as a result of the Government policy of repression.”
The Vestry Library, too had a radical bent. One of its founders, Joseph Gales, was the editor of radical newspaper the Sheffield Register and was forced to flee to the US when he faced the threat of prison (his protegee Montgomery took over from him and changed the paper’s name to the Iris but didn’t manage to dodge a jail cell).
Printer John Crome, who produced a cheap version of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, joined in 1816.
The book society and book club both bought books suggested at committee meetings and then circulated them.
Members faced heavy fines for keeping books too long or failing to attend annual dinners.
The book club met in the Tontine Inn but set up a clubhouse in the 1850s because of the poor quality of wine at the inn.
Meetings were held “monthly on the Tuesday nearest the full moon”.
The group found that medical men such as surgeons, who were at the edge of polite society, could gain social status by being accepted as members of the reading clubs.
Member Hall Overend did his rounds on a donkey and had an anatomy museum where he demonstrated dissections.
He was suspected of getting corpses via body snatchers.
Members liked a wager, usually for bottles of port or Champagne. Sue said: “One was whether Paradise Square could hold 10,000 people (Paradise Square was the site of election hustings at that time).
“My personal favourite - in 1830 Mr Wake bet Mr Sayle ‘a bottle of wine that he does not purchase a kaleidoscope in any shop in Sheffield before four o’clock tomorrow’.”
The group’s research was presented to an academic gathering three years ago and their paper was expanded to become a chapter in the book.
The research work on reading habits also inspired projects involving poet Ray Hearne and community artist Jean Compton in celebrating reading today with children and families and an exhibition last October by artist Lizz Tuckerman, called In Praise of Libraries.
Sadly, it was to be the last event held at Bank Street Arts.
Find out more on the group’s website, www.readingsheffield.co.uk, where you can also hear readers’ voices.
Before the Public Library, Reading, Community and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850, is published by Brill Books ($167, 25 per cent discount code 71000 on website brill.com/lww)