A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part I)

The previous post told the early story of Herbert Waterson who became librarian at Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. Here is the story of how Upperthorpe got its library.

‘…more of an experiment than anything else…’ (Sheffield Independent, 4 October 1869)

Sheffield was a pioneer of the public library movement, and as the home of its first branch library, the residential suburb of Upperthorpe had a part in that achievement.

Free public libraries were among the great social reforms of the mid-19th century. They would, it was thought, enable the lower classes to educate themselves. The Public Libraries Act 1850 allowed councils to spend a halfpenny[1] from every pound collected from ratepayers on a free library or museum. Sheffield’s first public library opened on 1 February 1856. It was located in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street, more or less where the Central Library is today. (The Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, who lived in Upperthorpe, was one of the founders of the Institute.) By the end of the decade, there were about 8,000 books and 12,000 adult borrowers (no-one under the age of 14 was allowed to join).

The library continued to grow, with almost 30,000 books and 27,000 members by 1869. It seemed the time to extend the service. The Council agreed to a branch library in Upperthorpe. On 4 October 1869, there was a grand opening by the chairman of the library committee, Alderman William Fisher JP, accompanied by other councillors. Reporting on the event, the Sheffield Independent speculated that the first branch was:

…more of an experiment than anything else … as upon the success which attends the operations of the library in that part of the town will very much, if not entirely, depend whether similar libraries will be opened in other parts of Sheffield.

The library was to have two staff: the librarian, William Bramhall, and a ‘boy assistant’, J Bunn. Opening hours were every morning from 10 am to 2 pm in the afternoon, and from 4 pm to 9 pm at night. It was located in the Tabernacle Congregational Chapel, on Albert Terrace Road, which has since been demolished. The Independent described it:

… the [schoolroom], which is used only on Sundays, has been converted into an admirable reading-room, and is well supplied with nearly 30 periodicals and magazines. One of the tables is set apart entirely for the use of young women. The room for the storing of books, and in which they are given out and returned, has been erected by the trustees of the chapel, and is capitally suited for the purpose in every respect. The number of books at present in the library is 3,603.

With so many councillors present, the opening ceremony seems to have turned into a lengthy discussion (there were no fewer than 12 speakers) about the purpose of libraries. Alderman Fisher talked of the benefits of reading non-fiction, noting:

…how the political knowledge and the patriotism of the readers had been enlarged, and how much better citizens they had been made by studying the records of the history of this and other countries.

He appears to have been rather broad-minded, thinking that novels, which were often frowned upon, had their uses:

…many most valuable aids as to the conduct of life might be obtained from reading a good novel. … many hours of weariness, pain, and anxiety had had their sting taken out of them by the interest which a good novel excited. At all events, when the young read novels, they were kept from more dangerous pleasures, such, for instance, as the public-house and the dancing-saloon.

Alderman Saunders thought that novels were a good way to attract young people:

If they gave them one of Carlyle’s works, or a book upon mathematics or astronomy, they would fail in giving them a taste for reading. They should induce them to come to the library by allowing them to have works of an attractive character, and then by-and-bye [sic] they would take to works of a more sterling character. It was therefore important and desirable that works of fiction should find a place upon the shelves of such a library as the one they were about to open.

Councillors Fairburn and Hutchinson were conscious of the original rationale for libraries. Fairburn thought:

there was no better way of spending ratepayers’ money than by giving facilities to the working classes to improve their minds and thus enable them to become better citizens.

Hutchinson said that one objection he had to libraries was that:

the books were not sufficiently made use of by the working classes. Sometimes they could not get the books they required, and … before the upper classes were supplied with books from a free library, the authorities ought to see that the working classes were provided with them.

There certainly seemed to be enthusiasm for the new library. On its first day, 221 people registered and 144 books borrowed.

In 1873, a new librarian took over at Upperthorpe.  Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a commercial traveller but free libraries fascinated him. He worked at Upperthorpe between 1873 and 1875. In 1886 he published the first manual of library administration, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in, and it must have influenced him.

We know that about 2,000 borrowers registered at Upperthorpe, and the Council evidently decided that the experiment was a success. The Council opened a second branch in 1872, in a purpose-built building in Brightside.[2] Then, in 1874, two more libraries were agreed – a new branch in Highfield and a permanent home for Upperthorpe.

Read the next post to learn about the new library in Upperthorpe.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

[1]   A halfpenny is about a quarter of one penny today, but it could buy much more than 1p today.

[2] The library’s name was later changed to Burngreave. It was on Gower Street. The library has long since moved out and the building is now a mosque.

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  1. Pingback: A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part II) | Reading Sheffield

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