1850: Pub­lic Li­braries Act

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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



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

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