PEEK INTO THE PAST: The history of Burnley’s libraries

Often, when I am in Burnley town centre, readers of this column stop me and want to talk to me about the Peek into the Past series or, more often than not, an individual article.

Monday, 1st August 2011, 1:59 pm

I have been writing the series for 13 years and people remember particular articles which have a personal connection for them, a street they, or an ancestor, once lived in or a building I might have mentioned which they once called home.

The other day I met a lady in Curzon Street who told me that, for her, the most important building in town is the one we once called Burnley Central Library. She pointed out that I had not written much about it, or Burnley’s Library Service, and she would like me to do so. I explained my articles depend on the possession of an old photo on any subject to be addressed and, until recently, I don’t think I have had a good image of Burnley Library.

My father had several good pictures of the building and, when he died, in 1986, they came into my possession. I knew where they had come from. They had been used in the production of Burnley’s Official Handbooks, a publication for which my father has been responsible when he was a clerk in the council’s printing and stationery department in the 1950s. I decided that they, and others, should be returned to the council and they are now included in the collections of Towneley Hall’s Art Gallery and Museum.

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One of my father’s photos is of a very new library. It was taken from the former crossroads of Grimshaw Street and Parker Lane. Others were of the interior of the building and I remember one was of the reference department, and its uncomfortable chairs, when this splendid service was provided upstairs rather than in the basement, where it is now.

The picture today is taken from a postcard published by the Yorkshire photographers of Lilywhite’s of Brighouse. The library is shown in the bottom right hand corner. Unfortunately, the card is unused and, therefore, not stamped or franked, but, looking at the images, it seems to me the photos were taken in the 1950s. This is confirmed by some of the cars in the photos, particularly the Austin in the picture of the municipal college, top right.

My Curzon Street conversation with the lady made me think that, perhaps, this column ought to contribute to the coming celebrations of Burnley’s 150 years as a borough. That anniversary falls in October this year. A number of small events are planned and I thought some of the history and achievements of Burnley Council over the years might be outlined in preparation for the anniversary.

Don’t get the idea that, in these articles, I will be painting a rosy picture of Burnley’s municipal history. Far from it, and fortunately the story of Burnley Library is a good example of what I mean. The achievement of the opening of the Central Library was a considerable one but it took Burnley Council from 1861, when the council as we know it was created, until 1930, when the library was opened – almost 70 years to “get its act together”, as we might say!

In fact, Burnley Council has made its mistakes in the past. Not only did it not invest much money in local libraries, for many years, the council did not have a public park until 1893 (32 years after the town’s incorporation) and, even then, the great mine owner, Sir John Thursby, provided the land for free. The town’s second park, opened in 1895, was paid for out of the will of a former Mayor of Burnley, John Hargreaves Scott. Of course, the park was named after him.

In other areas of activity Burnley Council did not have a good record. At one time the town had fewer boys’ grammar school places (based on population) than any other town in England and Wales. There was no girls’ high school until 1910. The council opposed the coming of a university (or equivalent) to the town on two occasions (can you believe it?) in the 1890s and 1960s.

If I was asked which of the failings of Burnley Council surprised me most, I would say that taking the years from 1861 to 1889 to build the town hall takes some beating. However, it could be argued the failure of the council to construct a purpose-built technical college until 1909 was even worse.

All that said, if those who were responsible for the governance of the town in the early years of the council, were asked to account for their actions I am sure they could defend themselves. Again, the library service is helpful as it was not that Burnley did not have libraries in the 19th Century, it was that the libraries that existed in the town were not free.

There were two very impressive private libraries in Burnley in the latter half of the 19th Century. These were the libraries associated with the Mechanics Institute, which dated from 1834, and the library administered by the Church Institute of 1848.

There was a similar service run by Burnley Co-op of 1862 and other libraries existed at Burnley Grammar School, a number of private schools in the town and at some of the churches and chapels. There were also private family libraries like the famous library at Towneley Hall.

All of these, and a number of other small libraries in shops, were private in that they were privately owned or could only be accessed by members of the group which owned the library. To use the Mechanics Library you had to be a member of the institute.

There had been calls for a free library in Burnley for years. Burnley Trades Council raised the issue again in 1887 pointing to other towns of a similar size which had large free libraries. They even reminded Burnley people that much smaller places had their own libraries and reading rooms and one of them could be found only a few miles away in little Haggate. The village was then not in Burnley but, by public subscription, the residents of Briercliffe had built a splendid reading room in 1877.

When the present town hall was opened in 1888/9 the Trades Council asked that a room in the building be reserved for use as a free library and, throughout the 1890s the Socialists of Burnley made at least one request a year that the council provide a library. In 1897 Dan Irving, who in 1918 was to become Burnley’s first Labour MP (he was then secretary of the SDF) pledged his support to the cause.

However, nothing was achieved with the exception of the setting up of a joint committee of interested parties. The committee made little progress because Burnley Council could not find the necessary funds. Not surprisingly, the private sector came to the rescue in the form of the Marshall Library which opened, not in the town centre, but in Trafalgar Street in 1914.

This was followed by Burnley’s first municipal library which was opened in Colne Road in 1924. Six years later, Burnley Central Library opened. It cost £37,000 to build of which £16,500 came from the Carnegie UK Trust. Quickly, this latter library was rated as one of the best public libraries in the country and it became the hub of a library system of which any town would have been proud.

Now is not the time to verify the statement above, but I will return to this subject in the near future and explain what I mean.