Monday, 4 February 2013

The Fight for a Free Public Library in Newcastle upon Tyne

A Victorian Story

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 allowed town councils in England to levy a rate of not more than half a penny in the the pound for the purpose of establishing free public libraries. In 1855, the Act was amended so that councils could increase the rate to one penny in the pound. As the Libraries Act dealt with an increase in local taxation, public meetings were required in order to debate the issue and take a vote on any proposals. If a two-thirds majority voted for public libraries at such a meeting the town council could adopt the Act.

The great Northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool were swift to capitalise on the Act and opened their central libraries, for the edification of their citizens, in 1852. Newcastle Town Council, however, was much slower in gaining public consent to institute a free public library system and the city was without a free library until 1880.

The cause for a free public library in Newcastle was advocated, in large part, by Henry Newton (1842 - 1914). Henry Newton studied medicine at Newcastle University and after qualification he took over his father's practice. He became a town councillor and later mayor in 1883 and again in 1901. He is remembered as an advocate for public parks (he was chairman of the parks committee for thirty two years) and free public libraries. Henry Newton was aided in his quest for a free library by his friend W.E. Adams (1832 - 1906), the editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. From the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850 until the opening of a free public library in Newcastle, W.E. Adams ensured that the free libraries issue was not forgotten by the people of Newcastle. 

The paper regularly ran editorials discussing the benefits of free libraries and deconstructing the opposition to them. The opponents of a Free Library could not see the necessity for further services when the city already had numerous subscription libraries (The Literary and Philosophical Society, The Mechanics' Institute, libraries connected to churches and other charitable organisations), they objected to the extra taxes and questioned the benefit of the reading material held by free libraries. The extract below tackles the issue of taxation and the dubious reading habits of the public (editorial  published the weekend before a public meeting and vote at the Guildhall. Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, Saturday 25th May 1872).

"If any opposition be offered to the project which is to be submitted to the meeting in the Guildhall, we hope no attempt will be made to appeal to the weaknesses and prejudices of the ratepayers. The only sound objection that can be offered to the scheme is one which relates to the increase of taxation. but the utmost increase which is possible under the Free Libraries Act would be so slight that it would hardly be felt. No heavier rate than that of a penny in the pound can be levied in any year for the support of a Free Library. Thus the great bulk of the householders of Newcastle would be required to contribute no more than a shilling or eighteen pence per annum. And for this paltry sum - paltry especially now that wages and profits have greatly improved - the ratepayer, his wife, sons, daughters and apprentices, would enjoy the inestimable advantage of a library which would be as much his and theirs as if it were their own property. We shall hear probably, if opposition be offered to the adoption of the Act, a paltrier argument even than that of expense. It has been used before in Newcastle, and it is likely to be used again. The great bulk of the works issued from the Free Libraries at present in existence belong, it is contended, to the class of light literature - poetry and fiction. The statistics sometimes compiled to establish the point are probably accurate enough. But what is the value of the point when it is established? Light literature is the general literature of the reading public. Hence the larger proportion of books issued from Free Libraries must necessarily be books of fiction. But are books of fiction to be despised because they happen to be popular? We know for a fact that some of the greatest minds which have illuminated the world have been exercised in producing them. As pure a delight can be obtained from reading the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Milton, the romances of Scott and Bulwer, the stories of Dickens and Thackeray, as from studying books of science or philosophy. Besides the taste for reading, once created, can never be completely gratified by one class of literature alone. And it is because Free Libraries are calculated to encourage and develop the taste for reading that those institutions are held to be preeminently valuable."

Dickens and Thackeray: light reading. The mind boggles!

The proponents of a free library eventually won the fight and despite further obstacles in securing a suitable site for the new institution, Newcastle's first Free Library opened, in temporary lodgings on the ground floor of the Mechanics' Institute, in September 1880. The first book borrowed from the new library was John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, borrowed by Joseph Cowen, radical politician and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1882, a new, purpose built, Library building was opened next to the Mechanics' Institute and became an immediate success with the reading public.

No comments:

Post a Comment