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Jill Powell shares her memories as a young library assistant in Shipley Library, based in Victoria Hall Saltaire, between 1971-1973.

I started work as a ‘Saturday Girl’ in the children’s library in 1971, when Shipley Library was situated in Victoria Hall, Saltaire. On leaving School at 16 yrs. I took a full-time post there as a Library assistant and felt fortunate to have an annual salary of £615 a year. This compared favourably with that of some of my schoolfriends who began working life as hairdressing apprentices.

At that time, Shipley Library occupied the whole of the ground floor of Victoria Hall. From the entrance, turning left was the main library and to the right were the reading rooms and the children’s library, with the main work room for staff beyond that and a small office for the one (qualified) librarian.

The librarian, Christine Unwin, decided that all library staff should wear uniform, and these were nylon overalls of a sky-blue colour. There was also a male member of staff who travelled every day from the Yorkshire Dales to work in the Library. The library was open from 9 am to 7pm or 7.30 most days, with an early finish at 5 pm on Saturdays and it closed on a Sunday. Wednesday’s were a half opening day and the afternoons were spent in processing new books, covering, and cleaning existing books and cataloguing.

Jill is furthest right in the photograph.

As library assistants we had to attend a library assistants’ course at Keighley College where we were taught about the Dewy Decimal system and cataloguing principles. In those days, a ‘brown’ system of lender cards was in use where the lender and date were entered. A card index system stored information about all the books. Each book was recorded on a postcard sized card and all were stored in long wooden boxes in alphabetical order, the boxes were then placed in filing cabinets. I was especially proud that I was allowed to create these records because of my neat handwriting. It was my favourite job.

Jill Powell in the library at Victoria Hall
Jill Powell in the library at Victoria Hall

I particularly remember one regular customer very well. He was an elderly man called Willey Stoyles who I guessed was probably in his seventies. He lived in one of the Saltaire Alms-houses and came to the library most days with his old, quiet dog who was also allowed in. He spent a lot of time in the reading room, where it was warm and there were plenty of newspapers and reference books to read. From the start, he christened me ‘half pint’, presumably because my name is Jill.

Willey Stoyles only ever borrowed one book, titled ‘Woodbine Willie’ and renewed this on a regular basis. The book is a biography of a vicar who had served as a chaplain in the British army and spent much of his time providing comfort to the soldiers in the trenches during World War One, often supplying the soldiers with a ‘Woodbine’ cigarette. The army chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy became very well-known during and after the war.

He was born in Leeds on 27 June 1883, the seventh of nine children born to Jeanette Anketell and William Studdert Kennedy, Vicar of St Mary’s, Quarry Hill, Leeds. His father William Studdert Kennedy was born in Blackrock, Dublin, in 1826 and Geoffrey always maintained he was an Irishman. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained a degree in classics and divinity in 1904. After a year’s training at Ripon Clerical College, he became a curate at St Andrew’s Church, Rugby and then, in 1914, the vicar of St. Paul’s, Worcester.

On the outbreak of World War I, Geoffrey volunteered as a chaplain to the army on the Western Front. Attached to a bayonet-training service, he toured with boxers and wrestlers to give morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet and was always ready to provide small comforts for the soldiers. It was in caring for the soldiers in the trenches where he gained the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’. In 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross at Messines Ridge after running into no man’s land to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline.

Having been converted to Christian socialism and pacifism during the war, he wrote books based on the views he formed by witnessing the dreadful waste of life and the futility of this war. His books include Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925).

He was later appointed as a missionary for the Interdenominational Christian Fellowship (ICF) which released him from routine clerical duties. It was on one ICF tour that he was taken ill, and he died in Liverpool on 8 March 1929, exhausted at the age of 45. His funeral took place in Worcester, to which poor working people flocked to pay their respects. The Dean of Westminster refused burial at Westminster Abbey, because he said Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a “socialist”.

I often wondered if Willey Stoyles had received comfort himself from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy and whether, as a result, ‘Woodbine Willie’ was his hero, but I did not find out more about this unusual chaplain until many years after I had ceased to work at the Library.

On being encouraged to write about this striking memory of one elderly man and his ‘one book’, I sought help from a Saltaire Historian who traced Willey’s life through census and genealogy records. My first surprise is that his name was spelt Willey (not Willie). He was born on the 27th of October 1895 in Bradford and his parents were Ingham Stoyles and Martha Ann Pratt. He was baptised on the 8th of December 1895 at Bradford Cathedral. Whilst living in Bradford, in 1911 he was working as a silk ‘doffer’ in one of Bradford’s many textile mills.

Willey served in WW1 with the South Staffordshire Regiment and I do think he probably knew ‘Woodbine Willie’ from his time in the trenches. After surviving the war, he married May Whitelock 26 January 1924 at St James’s Church, Bolton, Bradford. In 1939, Willey was a clerk for Bradford Corporation and an A.R.P. ambulance driver, living with his wife in Bradford. By 1956 they had moved to 7 Wharf Street in Shipley and he probably moved into the Saltaire Alms Houses in the 1960s, possibly after the death of his wife May in 1966. Willey would have been aged 76 years when I started working at Shipley Library and he died in 1985, aged 92.

Another notable customer was a man who lived in Nab Wood who had served in the RAF and been a member of the Dam Busters crew. I do not recall his name.

G A Studdert Kennedy
G A Studdert Kennedy

None of the library assistants liked working the late shift on a Friday and I can recall taking my going out clothes to work when I was on that shift, ready to get changed and go out. There was a cramped toilet behind the library office, but it did not have much space or a good mirror so Mr. Lesley, the caretaker would open the big double doors for me to shoot upstairs and get changed in the lady’s toilets on the first floor. I can remember scuttling past the huge portrait of Sir Titus salt, averting my eyes, each time I did this because in the dim light his image gave me the creeps.

I was working at the Library during a period when the whole of the exterior was ‘sand-blasted’ to clean the stonework and recall that the sand got everywhere – in the books and in my sandwiches. Another memorable event was having to evacuate the building when a ‘bomb scare’ occurred – not an uncommon event during the troubles in Ulster.

The library back ‘office’ was our workroom and had an enormous table in the centre, at which we all worked, having our own workspaces along it. It was there that we checked, cleaned, and backed books. It seemed to work very smoothly.

As a young assistant, looking back, it seems surprising that I was often sent to open up and serve, single handed at Windhill and Wrose libraries. The Windhill library was in the beautiful Carnegie building where the library was on the ground floor and there were rooms for hire on the upper floor. Wrose library was on the main throughfare through Wrose, past the Black Bull public house and before the hairdressers. I was allowed to choose the books for that library. It was a glass fronted building where, on dark evenings, people could see into the library, but I could not see out clearly and I distinctly recall getting a suspicious phone call one evening where a man said he was watching me inside. At the time, I just took this in my stride.

On the subject of telephones, I remember that there was a wooden telephone kiosk in the entrance of Victoria Hall which could be used by the public, but it must have had a remarkably similar number to one at Salts Mill. Frequently, we would hear this phone ringing, go to answer it and the person on the other end would be perturbed or indignant as they were sure they were sending a fax to Salts Mill and at times, took some convincing that they were speaking to a library assistant up the road.

Jill Powell

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