Jack Vallance (b. 1914) – Reading & Writing

Signal Box at Matlock Station, Derbyshire. Supplied by Local Historian, Glynn Waites. 

When it comes to the mention of literature, Jack refrains from discussing his reading and frequently downplays his intelligence and ability to write well. Instead, he focusses on the technical subjects regarding the Railway, and uses his memoir as an opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a technically minded individual.

Although Jack does not explicitly deal will the subject of literature and his experience of reading within his writing, this is not to suggest that he did not undertake light reading as a hobby. From my own understanding, this was a common pastime for Railway workers when working long shifts in the signal boxes.

Cromford, situated in the Midlands where Jack was born and raised, saw the first of the ‘Penny Readings’ (Beaven, 2009, 21) according to Brad Beaven. He notes that they first emerged in the area ‘when Samuel Taylor, the secretary of Hanley’s Mechanics Institute, began in 1854 to read aloud extracts of The Times in the market square’ (Beaven, 2009, 21). The introduction of literature to working-class uneducated people saw an increase in interest and by the time Jack was born small libraries were becoming more accessible for working-class people. Who, as Jonathan Rose suggests, used reading as a form of escapism.

‘In Derby it was deemed the most successful organised philanthropic venture…’ (Beaven, 2009, 21)

With regards to Jack, I feel that this is a prime reason as to why he does not acknowledge reading throughout the chapters. Being educated, skilled and technical minded, he did not feel it important to discuss his reading habits. Instead, as literature did not play a large role in his job on the Railway, he used his writing as an opportunity to write about his hobbies, childhood, and deep interest in the Railway.

Beaven extends his opinion on working-class readers in Leisure, Citizenship and Working-class men in Britain, 1850-1945, where he notes that ‘One report observed that most working men ‘did not get beyond the reading room, where they scanned the newspapers for ‘situations vacant’ and sports and betting news’ (Beaven, 2009, 185). With this, it is possible to see past times and the use of accessible literature being different for men and women. For women, it is possible to see it as an escape from the home life of raising children and housework. Whereas for men it was a source of information and a link to accessible pastime information.

Scarthin Books, Cromford. Find image at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-32048355

Jonathan Rose suggests that ‘British Working-class maintained a vital autodidactic culture…they were introduced to books by friends, schoolmates, teachers, workmates…other members of the Working-class.’ (Rose, 1992, 54). This social aspect of story-sharing increases the value of community and suggests the importance of Working-class influence on literature that is shared. Jack reflected on his childhood towards the beginning of his memoir, recalling that ‘My pals and I liked to talk to the older men in the village as they were a mine of information of happenings and ways of doing things’ (Vallance, Childhood memories 1E).

Scarthin Books Cromford opened in the village in 1974 as an outreach book shop – making books and local literature more accessible in an out-of-town location. This increase of availability is important, but by the time of it’s opening, Jack had made his move to the Sheffield area for work and makes no mention of the popular book shop.

Find more information about Scarthin Books and Cromford’s local history and literature here: http://www.scarthinbooks.com/


Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent Eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. 2:780.

Beaven, Brad. Leisure, Citizenship and Working-class men in Britain, 1850-1945. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009.

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53.1. (1992): 47-70.



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