Celebrating 120 years of Balsall Heath Library

Balsall Heath Branch Library, Balsall Heath, Birmingham. 1910. [WK/B3/29]

Balsall Heath Branch Library, Balsall Heath, Birmingham. 1910.

Balsall Heath Library was officially opened 120 years ago on 18 April 1896.

You discover some odd things while looking into the Birmingham Free Libraries Management Sub-Committee minutes, in order to flesh out the first year or so.

In January 1896 it was recommended that ‘noiseless chair pads’ be attached to the chairs at Balsall Heath as they were regarded as very satisfactory in the School of Art.

The first Librarian appointed in October 1895, a Mr Shuttleworth, left within a month to go to Rotherhithe and the post was re-advertised. A Mr Mould was then appointed, previously a librarian at Harborne, aged 23 and a half, with 8 years of service and a good exam result. His starting salary was 30 shillings a week.

The first cleaner appointed in February 1896 resigned within a month on health grounds, and the second, Mr Whittle, appointed in March 1896, also resigned within a month. He already held the job of caretaker at the Wesleyan Chapel, Moseley Road, and the Chapel authorities would not give permission for him to hold another post. A previous candidate, Mrs Annie Smith was therefore appointed at 15 shillings a week, to find all her own materials and necessary assistance. This was 5 shillings less than the sum offered to Mr Whittle.

In March 1896 an India Rubber Mat was ordered from India Rubber Company for not more than £5-15-0.

According to the Visitors’ Report made after a visit on 29 April 1896, just ten days after opening, there were complaints of disorderly conduct by the School Board children at Balsall Heath ‘which will doubtless disappear as the novelty wears off.’

By July 1896, there were already complaints about the noise from the door springs caused by the number of people going in and out, which was distracting to readers.

Library Sub-Committee minutes for 1896. [BCC/1/AT/3/1/6]

Library Sub-Committee minutes for 1896 showing the newspapers collected by Birmingham Libraries.

A printed catalogue of the books at Balsall Heath was produced and could be purchased for 4 pence. The different categories of books were:

Theology, Moral Philosophy etc.; Biography; Law, Politics, Political Economy etc.; Arts, Sciences, Natural History, Music etc.; Poetry, Drama etc.; Fiction; Miscellaneous;  Magazines, Reviews etc.; Juvenile Literature.

Those entitled to borrow books (those who were resident in, employed in, or ratepayers to the City of Birmingham or those whose names were on the Parliamentary Register) were invited to submit at least a dozen titles from the list to avoid disappointment. Special notice was to be taken of any scribbling in the books so that the offender could be traced and punished.

The Rules and Regulations of Free Libraries, a copy of which is included in the second Balsall Heath Library catalogue, published in 1898, states:

‘Being in the Libraries in a state of intoxication, using the same for idling, sleeping, eating or conversation or for transaction of any business other than reading the books or papers are specific breaches of this regulation…’

Catalogue of Balsall Heath Library, 1898. [L53.32]

Catalogue of Balsall Heath Library, 1898.

You could borrow such books as Women of Israel by G. Aguilar; Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia by Baker; Elements of Banking by MacLeod; Handbook of Acoustics by Harris; Poetical Works of William Wordsworth; How to Parse by E.A. Abbott; An Old Fogey by Max Adeler…..

At the opening on 18 April, speeches were given by the Lord Mayor, Sir James Smith; Councillor Charles Green; J. Powell Williams, M. P.; Councillor Baker; Mr Howard Shakespeare Pearson and Mr John Thackray Bunce, and the occasion was well attended by members of the public.

There had been some difficulty finding a suitable site for Balsall Heath Library but eventually, the Libraries Committee joined with the Baths and Parks Committee, as at Small Heath, and jointly purchased 670 square yards of land for Library and Public Baths from Mr John Bowen and Mr Aaron Jones. The Corporation of Birmingham had offered to provide a Free Library and Public Baths for Balsall Heath as an inducement to the district to join the city of Birmingham in 1891.

The architects were Cossins and Peacock, and the cheapest tender for building, £4750, was accepted from Mr R. Fenwick of 40 William Edward Street, Birmingham. The memorial stone was laid on 18 May 1895 by the Lord Mayor.

By 1898 the Visitors’ Report on 2 June noted:

‘The pressure is very great on the Assistants at Balsall Heath on Saturday evenings – at 7 o’clock last Saturday the Reading Room was crowded and a constant stream of book applicants poured up to the counter. I counted as many as 23 waiting at one time. Is it possible to give extra assistance at such times?’

It will be equally busy on Saturday 23 April at Balsall Heath Library when they will be celebrating 120 years since the opening, with children’s events, exhibitions etc.




Birmingham Archives & Collections:

BCC 1/AT/1/1/7 Minutes of the Library Committee

BCC 1/AT /3/1/5-6 Minutes of the Free Libraries Management Committee, 1893-1896, 1896-1899

History of the Corporation of Birmingham by C.A.Vince & J.T.Bunce, Vol. III

133469 L53.32 Library catalogues. Balsall Heath Branch. 1896.



Contact details for Balsall Heath Library:


Address: Balsall Heath Library, Moseley Road, Birmingham. B12 9BX

Email: balsall.heath.library@birmingham.gov.uk

Tel: 0121 464 1962

Fax: 0121 464 0113


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