Lending libraries of Burnley's past

St Jamess Street, Burnley, at about the time of Gilbertsons Subscription Library
St Jamess Street, Burnley, at about the time of Gilbertsons Subscription Library

I have been writing “Retro” and Peek into the Past” for so long that I thought I ought to do an audit of the subjects I have covered, writes local historian ROGER FROST.

In doing so, I have discovered that I have not written very much about our local Library Service, a good reason for doing so now. Of course the current Library Service is very much in the news with the closure, only a week or so ago, of a number of local libraries, so that is another reason to approach the subject.

The Church Institute, which had a very good library for members, was located in the building on the extreme left of this postcard image of Manchester Road in Burnley. The Church Institute was part of the block of property between Yorke Street and Hargreaves Street.

The Church Institute, which had a very good library for members, was located in the building on the extreme left of this postcard image of Manchester Road in Burnley. The Church Institute was part of the block of property between Yorke Street and Hargreaves Street.

The services that have been lost do not apply only to places like Briercliffe and Read, where village libraries have been closed. Some of the services that are carried out, at what I still refer to as Central Libraries like the one in Burnley, have disappeared or have been cut substantially. Did you know that Burnley Local History Library is now refusing to accept gifts of historic photographs and postcards of the district?

Gifts, by the general public, of such material was the means by which Burnley Library built up its magnificent collection of local images. Hundreds of nameless people have had the foresight to pass their collections of postcards on to their Library so that succeeding generations could appreciate what their town was like during their lifetimes and often before. This will no longer be possible and neither will it be possible to buy the books and booklets published our local heritage societies – the Burnley and District Historical Society, the Burnley Civic Trust and the Briercliffe Society – at our local libraries.

With regard to historic photographs and postcards those in positions of authority at Towneley Hall, the Burnley Civic Trust and the Briercliffe Society will continue to welcome such gifts. These bodies still realise how important these images are whereas the County Council, which now runs the Burnley Library Service, seems to have forgotten what its responsibilities are – and I am not referring to statutory responsibilities but their moral duty to preserve the heritage of the communities that they serve.

Lecture over, let us look at the history of the Service in Burnley, though I will extend the area covered to include Padiham and what were formerly called the “out of townships” like Briercliffe, which has a long history of library provision. This was ended so abruptly only a few days ago. Worsthorne should also be included as should the other villages which set up their own library services only, as in the case of Briercliffe, for the County Council to take them over. How much, I wonder, would those who connived in these arrangements with County Council regret, had they lived long enough, to see the folly of their actions?

To be truthful the authorities in Burnley did not come willingly to the provision of a public library service for the town. Long before the town had a Council (this was granted by the Crown in 1861) there were a number of private libraries in Burnley. Those at the Mechanics Institute, established in 1834 and occupying the present Mechanics Theatre by 1855; the Church Institute (1848) and the Co-operative Society (1862) were the most important. There were, however, others of which the one associated with the Catholics of St Mary’s, Yorkshire Street, is the best known.

These libraries were not public libraries. Technically, they were subscription libraries open to those who paid a small annual membership subscription. The libraries at the Mechanics and the Church Institute became magnificent institutions taking the daily newspapers, technical and scientific books and non-fiction on a wide variety of subjects. Particularly important to them were books on the history, heritage and what we would now call the ecology of Lancashire. There was a time when Burnley was well known for its amateur naturalists and geologists and these libraries recognised those needs. Both libraries stocked some improving fiction. This should not surprise you as two of the most read authors of this genre were both Methodist ministers living and working in Burnley.

The Church Institute, which was founded, among others, by Robert Mosley Master, the Incumbent of Burnley, and the Catholic equivalent, also had religious books, but neither of these libraries was free in the sense that readers had to pay for the privilege of reading and borrowing books. There were other smaller private libraries that were also not free. Mr Bennett, in his History of Burnley, mentions two of them – Ackroyd’s, on Yorkshire Street, and Gilbertson’s, on St James's Street – which existed at the beginning of the 19th Century but there were a number of others, usually occupying part of shop premises in the town centre.

They were circulating libraries and, indeed, even I remember a library of that kind in Harle Syke as Starkie’s, one of the two local newsagents in the village, ran a branch of a national circulating library operated by WH Smith, or was it Boot’s? I forget which. There were a number of these firms which survived up to the 1950s when they found that they could no longer compete with the municipal library services.

For most of the 19th Century we should not forget that one of the country’s great libraries was to be found here in Burnley. This was the Towneley Library at Towneley Hall. It not only contained the product of over 200 years of book collecting, the Library at Towneley also had the papers of the Towneley Estate, and those of the better known members of the family, like Christopher, Richard and Charles Towneley, men who rose to national prominence, though in the case of the first and third, be it after their deaths.

With the decease of the male line with the death of Col John Towneley, early in the last quarter of the 19th Century, the Towneley Library was sold. It was a sad loss but, of course, it had never been open to the public. However, Charles Towneley made it available to his friend Dr Thomas Dunham Whitaker, who used it extensively for his great book on Whalley. The Towneley Library contained the writings and researches of Christopher Towneley, the important Lancashire antiquarian and archivist. Without this material, and much more in the Library at Towneley Hall, Dr Whitaker could not have written his book and we would all be the poorer without it.

At about the time that the library at Towneley was sold there were increasing calls for Burnley Council to establish a Free Library in the town. Other towns had such facilities but it is my impression that many members of the Council did not appreciate that such bodies were, as education became more available to all classes in society, of increasing importance.

Next week I will take up the story in the 1880s when the demands for a Free Public Library were becoming louder.