BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1850: Public Libraries Act
This year, it was established that books were for everyone – not just the rich – as the Public Libraries Act gave local boroughs the power to set up free libraries. Factory work and urban living had given employees set hours, which, in turn, resulted in time off. Previously, in agrarian communities, there was always something to do in the fields or the cottage garden. Social reformers wanted this time to be spent in morally uplifting leisure activities such as reading, and not in drinking.
As usual with major social changes, there were different factors pushing in the same direction to bring about legislative advances. Religious people wanted widespread access to ‘morally improving’ literature. Similarly, political radicals thought a better-educated workforce would support their cause and work for reform – or revolution. Members of these two factions may not agree on the objectives, but they all supported free access to books.
It was widely believed that the greater levels of education attained by providing public libraries would result in lower crime rates. This paternalistic approach was typical of the Victorian middle-class attitude towards the working class. The middle class, it was felt,
were moral and educated enough to make their own way, the feckless working class needed guidance.
William Ewart, MP for Dumfries in Scotland, was a reformer in the classic Victorian mould, committed to reducing cruelty in public life and encouraging education. Before promoting the Public Libraries Act he had successfully steered bills through the House of Commons to abolish hanging in chains, and capital punishment for cattle-stealing and other similar offences.
In his commitment to public libraries, he was assisted by a remarkable figure called Edward Edwards who was a self-educated son of a bricklayer from Stepney, London. He was 38 years old in 1850 and an assistant at the British Museum (where what was later called the British Library was based).
Edwards wrote a long pamphlet called A Statistical View of the Principal Public Libraries in Europe and the United States. This comparison, showing that Britain lagged behind the rest of the world, was a winning argument. The first statement in favour of Ewart’s Libraries Bill in the House of Commons was that British towns were “in a melancholy state of destitution in respect of public libraries as compared with almost all the cities and towns of the continent”.
British people were acutely conscious of comparisons with other nations; if they were not the best, then that was shameful and improvements must be made.
Some Parliamentarians objected to educating the working class at all, thinking this would give them dangerous ideas, but most opposition was centred on the cost of the endeavour and the principle of keeping taxes as low as possible.
In order to get the Bill through Parliament, William Ewart was forced to make a number of compromises. Only boroughs with populations of more than 10,000 people would be allowed to open libraries; local referendums would be required, with the support of two thirds of ratepayers needed to approve plans; local rates could be increased by no more than half a penny in the pound to pay for the service – and this money could not be used to buy books. Similar provisions to the Public Libraries Act were made in Scotland and Ireland in 1854.
Edward Edwards was appointed as librarian of the Free Public Library in Manchester, the first authority to adopt the provisions of the new Act. He assembled and organised a comprehensive collection, though he single-mindedly built up an impressive library of reference books, rather than the popular novels favoured by the public.
Although the rate that boroughs could charge for libraries was increased to one penny in 1855 (‘the product of a penny rate’) it was not enough for councils to fund new libraries, and their growth was heavily dependent on the donations of philanthropists, such as newspaper owner John Passmore Edwards; sugar importer Henry Tate; and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Many public libraries still bear their names to this day.
Who was using the libraries? From the evidence of marriage registers: half of brides and two thirds of grooms were able to sign their own names at this time. Reading was taught before writing, however, and probably more could read than write. The literate population was higher in the towns than the countryside, and emphasis on library provision was very much towards towns.
All libraries would soon contain the three major works of literature published this year: Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, which had been published serially but was now a book; Alfred Tennyson’s long poem In
Memoriam A.H.H. and William Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude. What they had in common was a reflection on the self: Dickens’ book is in part a fictionalised autobiography; Tennyson’s work describes a three-year-long pondering on the meaning of a friend’s death; The Prelude is a poetic biography now complete and published in this, the year of Wordsworth’s death. It is from this period of increased interest in biography that you may well find memoirs of your family members as they took inspiration from great writers and pondered the course of their own lives.
Education for girls
Girls’ education had always lagged behind that of boys. People now started asking why this was so, and the first school to give girls the same educational opportunities as boys was founded by Frances Buss. The daughter of a painter and etcher, she had gone to one of the basic schools available to her as a child, and at
“ONLY BOROUGHS OF MORE THAN 10,000 PEOPLE
WOULD BE ALLOWED TO OPEN LIBRARIES”
14 was teaching at one, sometimes being left in charge. Very typically of ambitious people at this time, she attended evening lectures and continued her education, studying French, German and geography.
Her mother had set up a small private school, which on 4 April 1850 moved to Camden Street, London, now with Frances Buss in charge and the name North London Collegiate School for Ladies. Frances was the first person to use the term headmistress.
The first prospectus stressed that the school was for “daughters of limited means, clerks and private offices and persons engaged in trade and other pursuits”. She stressed competitive external examinations as the best preparation of her students for professional life, and was adamant that girls should compete to the same standard as boys. She encouraged gymnastics and games such as hockey. Buss was feared and respected by her pupils, it was said that she had no need for corporal punishment since she could reduce a girl to tears in minutes.
Her friend Dorothea Beale followed a similar course and later in the 1850s became the first principal of the Ladies College, Cheltenham. The two schools with their stalwart heads forged a national model for girls’ education.
Distilling paraffin oil
Scottish chemist James Young made a discovery this year that would soon produce a distinctive smell, instantly recognisable to your ancestors, while it illuminated hundreds of thousands of homes. He was investigating the products of the Riddings Colliery at Alfreton, Derbyshire, where he found a seepage of natural oils from which he could distil a thin oil suitable for lamps. He set up a small business refining oils and, after a long and painstaking series of experiments, he found a way of distilling what he called paraffin oil from coal. He patented his discovery on 17 October 1850 and formed a company operating from Bathgate, Glasgow, which was the first commercial oil works anywhere, producing lubricating, heating and lighting oils. Under the later name Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, the business of ‘Paraffin Young’ sold paraffin oil
and lamp s all over the world.
A Ah hippo for London
Thhe first hippo seen in Great BBritain since prehistoric times wwas on display at London Zoo tthis year. The British Consul GGeneral in Egypt, Sir Charles AAugustus Murray (known as ‘HHippopotamus Murray’) had a yeear-old hippo, captured on the NNile on the island that gave him hhis name – Obaysch.
The hippo was sent by boat accompanied by a herd of cows to provide him with milk, and was an instant success in London, attracting up to 10,000 visitors a day who came to look and to buy hippopotamus souvenirs.
Who Do You Think You Are? The Lichfield Museum
and Free Library
Diplomat Sir Charles Augustus Murray acquired this hippo from the Nile and brought it to London Zoo this year
Frances Buss was a pioneer of female education and the first ever headmistress
Scottish chemist James Young distilled paraffin