On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.
They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]
In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.
On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]
At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.
For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]
Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.
- Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
- Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)
Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.
The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)
The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.
It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?
This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.
What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.
[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.
[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.
[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.
[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.