Friday, February 27, 2015

Libraries: a short history

We take public libraries for granted these days, even though they are somewhat under threat, and it is hard to imagine a society without them. Wolverton did not get its first public library until 1939, a full 100 years after the new town was first established.

However Wolverton people did not sit back and wait for something to happen. Instead they too matters into their own hands and ensured that Wolverton's reading public (by no means small) had access to books.

In typical Wolverton fashion this was a co-operative venture and the advertisement I show above, from a 1937 Coronation brochure, tells us that the Working Men's Clubs were active in this area. The Scocial Club - the Bottom Club - here advertises a lending library of 2000 books. The Central C;ub - the Top Club - also had a library.

The oldest library in town dated from the earliest days when the Reading Room and Mechanics Institute was established and its successor, The Science and Art Institute, also maintained a library which could be accessed for a small membership fee.

At the time that the Bucks County Council set up its branch library at 122 Chruch Street, Wolverton already had three active lending libraries.

This to me is an excellent illustration of the ability of Wolverton people to take matters into their own hands.

The first library as such was the Reading Room, built very early in the 1840s jus beside the cana; bridge. This view shows you the site, although the building has been much enlarged and adapted over  the course of 175 years. Originally it was a single storey and the canal bridge and the road was a lot lower in 1840. Later in the 1840d the building doubled up as a Wesleyan Chapel until the congregation acquired a purpose built chapel on Church Street.

You can get some idea of the scope of this library from this report in 1849.
A reading-room and library lighted by gas are also supplied free of charge by the Company. In the latter there are about 700 volumes, which have mostly been given; and the list of papers, &c. in the reading-room was as follows: Times, Daily News, Bell's Life, Illustrated News, Punch, Besides the above there is a flying library of about 600 volumes for the clerks, porters, police, as also for their wives and families, residing at the various stations, consisting of books of all kinds, excepting on politics and on religious controversies. They are dispatched to the various stations, carriage free, in nineteen boxes given by the Company, each of which can contain from twenty to fifty volumes.
In 1864, after 20 years of planning, financial setbacks, political arguments and rejected designs, the Science and Art Institute opened for adult education activities. It also accommodated a substantial library. It was for many years the most important library in the town. 

As noted above the Top and Bottom Clubs played an active role as lending libraries.

Finally, in 1949, Buckinghamshire County Council opened a branch library in Wolverton. The double-fronted house at 122 Church Street (already in the Council's possession) was partially converted into a library. The west side front room was the adult library and the east side front room was used as a children's library.

The library proved to be very popular and about a decade later a new extension to the building was constructed at the back. The foundation stone was laid by the Rt. Hon. Clement Atlee, Prime Minister from 1945-1951, and a plaque was built into the wall to commemorate the occasion. Many years later the Council decided to build a wheel chair ramp to replace the steps, and the plaque, just to the south of the original steps, was covered over with concrete. Why nobody thought to remove the plaque before this building work began and relocate it is something w might wonder at today.

This library was finally closed about a decade ago and Wolverton's original school, built in 1840, was converted into a library. The photograph below shows the modified building which largely keeps its original lines. The former classrooms to the north which accommodated girls and infants were demolished. The library is now in what used to be the boys classroom. The gable to the south would have been the residence for the schoolmaster.


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