Berlie Doherty


Granny Was a Buffer Girl

Granny Was a Buffer Girl by Berlie Doherty

Catnip, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84647-024-0. (Previously published by Methuen, 1986 and Puffin, 2003)

Click here to buy Granny Was a Buffer Girl from Amazon UK

Also available as a Collins playscript – see my Plays page. Also available in schools edition: Heinemann New Windmills. 0435 123289. Also available as Chivers Audiobook, read by author. Also available in large print: Chivers. 0745107257. Granny Was a Buffer Girl has been dramatised for BBC Radio 4 (schools), 1990

Granny Was a Buffer Girl is a gorgeous evocation of generations of a Sheffield family tinged with both joy and poignancy. Twenty-five years on this is a timely reminder of times when books like this – highest quality writing suitable for older primaries – won the Carnegie Medal. Many of Berlie Doherty's books are set around her own home areas and beautifully evoke the landscapes and peoples.

The School Librarian

Fascinating… this is required reading.

The School Librarian

A compelling and unusual book.

Times Educational Supplement

Represents the depth of Berlie’s imaginative and emotional commitment.

Chris Stephenson, Carousel

“You’ll find someone else by then,” he said quietly, not looking at me, and then he drove his pedals down and rode off, head down into the wind.

“I‘ll write, Steve. I’ll see you soon,” I shouted.

I was a snake, shedding its skin; a glistening, fleshy thing; a jewel in dark grass. I shuddered, thrilled, scared.

“You tell your secrets, ands I’ll tell mine, said Granny Dorothy. “I’ll tell you something that Albert doesn’t know, even. My best secret.”

Mum did catch my eye then, and her look promised me that I wouldn’t be going home without sharing all its secrets, all its love stories, and all its ghost stories too.

Foreign editions

Click here for details of foreign editions of Granny Was a Buffer Girl.

When I wrote Granny Was a Buffer Girl I was living in Sheffield, one of the great industrial cities of the north of England. Its international renown was based on the steel industry and on the manufacture of cutlery. When I first came to Sheffield in the 1960s there was much evidence of that industry, and to go past the blazing steel works at night was a thrilling journey. The huge decline of the steel industry will leave Sheffield stunned and bereft of its heart and motivation for many years. The steel works have become sad and decaying monuments to the past, as much a part of the history of the city as were the evidences of old mills and ‘Little Mester’ workplaces that I explored along the Rivelin Valley in my early days here.


Winner of the Carnegie medal, 1986

Winner of the Burnley book award, 1986

Globe-Horn Honor Book (USA) 1986

It was during this decline, in 1985, that I came across the painting in the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. The title of the painting was ‘Sheffield Buffer Girls’ by Sir William Rothenstein and it showed two ordinary young women in their work clothes. It did not give their names. In the way that portraits do, the eyes of the young women seemed to look straight at me and to be speaking to me. I said, aloud, ‘I don’t know what a buffer girl is’, and a girl standing next to me said ‘My granny was a buffer girl’. For weeks afterwards the faces of those young women in the painting continued to stare out at me and to haunt me, and when Dave Sheasby, a producer for Schools Radio, invited me to write a local series for Radio Sheffield I decided to go back to that painting and to try to understand what they were telling me. There they were, two young women about eighteen or so, trapped forever in the frame of the canvas, and yet they were real women. In my series I tried to breathe life into those young women, to allow them to step out of the canvas and to become real people, living and working women of Sheffield.

See also

Storybook England: a literary guide exploring places linked with much-loved children’s books which features a page on Berlie (including information about Granny Was a Buffer Girl) here.

Later, I decided to develop those five radio stories into a novel. It tells the story of three generations of a Sheffield family, seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jess, who is about to leave home. They all tell Jess the stories of the special things that happened to them when they were her age.

I’m sometimes asked whether the character Danny, Jess’s brother, is based on anyone I know. To some extent he is, though he was not related to me. I knew of a family who had a son who died at Danny’s age, and I watched the web of protection that they formed around him, and around themselves.

Teachers’ resource material

Teachers may find this resource material (PDF file; 264kb) very useful.

The Granny Was a Buffer Girl display at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's BooksThe story of Bridie and Jack, however, is based on my family history. Like Bridie, my mother Peggy was the daughter of a poor Catholic family, and like Jack, my father Walter was the son of Protestants. They married in secret, in the same way as in the chapter, and in real life the truth wasn’t discovered for six weeks. However, this would be much too unlikely to have in a book, so I reduced it to a weekend!

Great-uncle Gilbert is based on my Uncle George, but I didn’t even realise that until my sister pointed it out! It often happens to writers that fact and fiction confuse themselves.

My favourite character in the book is Lucy Cragwell, because I think in a way she represents all of us. I think there’s a time when we all look into the mirror and wish we were somebody else. But she has strong qualities that shine through at the end of the chapter. I tried to show her first as Mike and the other boys would see her, and then as she really is, deep inside herself. I wanted you to understand her too.

Photo right: The Granny Was a Buffer Girl display at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.

Some questions people have asked me about Granny Was a Buffer Girl

Q If you could write it again would you change anything?

A I don’t think so. I usually work very hard on a book before I send it to a publisher, so I have it exactly as I want it to be by then.

Q Were you excited when you were writing it?

A I often do get excited when I’ve been working on a book for some time and I’ve really got to know the characters. It begins to take over your life, and you really can’t think about anything else for a bit. I cried when Danny died.

Q Why did you use Jess as your main character?

A I had the idea of all the members of her family telling her the stories of the special things that had happened to them when they were her age. She hears how things changed them, but these stories change her too, and maybe they change the reader a little.

Q How many different languages has it been published in?

A Six. When it goes into a foreign language it often gets a new title too! Some of the titles this book has been given in other languages are The Prince and the Princess (!), Finland; Goodbye to Sheffield, Japan; A Photograph of Danny, Sweden; and Doves in Summer Light, Germany. I wasn’t asked permission for any of these changes of title.

Q Will there be a sequel to Granny Was a Buffer Girl?

A No. I really feel the sequel to a novel should be in the reader’s mind – in other words, if the characters stay in your imagination after you’ve finished reading then the book has worked. It might spoil it to write more!

Q Did you have to do research before you wrote the novel?

A Yes, a little. The book is set in Sheffield where I used to live but even so I had to find out what Sheffield was like in the 30s, where the book starts. I also had to find out about buffer girls. I asked on local radio if any ex-buffer girls would talk to me about their work, and Jackie Ruff responded. This is my favourite kind of research.

Q What is a buffer girl?

A They were the women and girls who polished, or ‘buffed’, the cutlery. They used to go to work with brown paper or newspapers wrapped round them to protect their clothes from the black dust of the buffing wheel.

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