Tag Archives: Libraries

National Libraries Day

It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday the 6th February, so here at the Library of Birmingham we’re celebrating with a blog about the history of library services in Birmingham.

View towards Archives & Collections, level 4, at the Library of Birmingham

View towards Archives & Collections, level 4, at the Library of Birmingham

Private Libraries

Prior to the involvement of the Town Council in 1860, libraries in Birmingham were in private hands, though some did provide public access, albeit at a cost or through subscription. For instance, a free library was established in 1733 through the will of a Reverend Higgs, though it catered only for Anglican clergy and other privileged people. Books were also ‘hired out’ by one Thomas Warren in 1729. A subscription library was certainly in existence by 1751, run by William Hutton, a bookseller and historian based in Bull Street. A number of others followed, with that of John Lowe charging an annual subscription of between 12s and 1½ guineas by 1776.

The biggest advance was made in 1779, when the Birmingham Library was founded by subscription. Whilst the number of subscribers rose steadily, the number of volumes housed in the library grew from 900 to some 16,000 between 1794 and 1818.

Another  library was maintained by the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, founded in 1854. This organisation was successful as it appealed to both the middle and working class on a broad base of subjects, and attracted other private collections, like that of John Lee and those from other institutions, now defunct, such as the Mechanical Institute and the People’s Instruction Society.

The Free Libraries Act

The Free Libraries Act was passed in 1850. It allowed councils to set up free public libraries, allotting one penny in a pound from the rates to finance this (in pre-decimal currency there were 240 pennies in a pound). Two-thirds of the ratepayers had to agree, but when Birmingham first voted in 1852 the majority was not large enough. In 1860 the second vote was successful, and the Free Libraries Committee was set up.

They decided there should be a central reference library with reading and newsrooms, a museum and art gallery, and four district libraries. The architect E. M. Barry was asked to design the Central Library. His costs overall were too high, so William Martin was asked to design the interior, but Barry’s plans for the exterior were retained. Continue reading


“Banned! Censoring Sexuality” LGBT History Month


Birmingham Pride Parade 2004 reproduced with the kind permission of Brigitte Winsor.

Banned! Censoring Sexuality is a talk by Rachel MacGregor as part of LGBT History Month.

Tuesday 10th February 2015

Join Collections Curator Rachel MacGregor to explore the history of censorship in Birmingham Libraries and in particular the case of the book described as “unadulterated filth” by Jean Genet, the celebrated French novelist, poet and playwright which became a national scandal when the Birmingham Library tried to buy it.  Discover more about censorship in the years before the Lady Chatterley trial and the role that Birmingham played in this.

Tickets available from The Box Tel: 0121 245 4455

Part of the Origins Season January – April 2015

At the going down of the sun

Poppy Red Remembered

This morning at 11am a wreath will be laid to commemorate the lives of members of Birmingham Libraries staff who died in the First World War.  The outbreak of war in July 1914 had a profound effect on the library and its staff. Thirty six men from the library service signed up to fight in the Great War of whom 6 were killed in or just after the war. Their names and faces of Birmingham Libraries staff are commemorated in a photograph album which comes from the archives of the Birmingham Libraries. This photograph was taken in 1915 in Sutton Park – only three of these men survived the war.

Library staff from the Royal Warwickshire City Battalion

Library staff from the Royal Warwickshire 1st Birmingham City Battalion




Library staff caption

Library staff from the Royal Warwickshire 1st Birmingham City Battalion







Percy Garner and Thomas Riley were both killed on 22nd July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme at the attack on Delville Wood. They were both serving in the 14th Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1st Battalion of the Birmingham City Battalion). Garner was 24 and Riley 25.

Henry Checketts was also in the 1st Birmingham City Battalion and survived the battle in which his comrades Garner and Riley were killed. He was promoted to Corporal and then Acting Sergeant. However Checketts died on 3rd September 1916 during the attack on Falfemont Farm along with 800 other Birmingham Pals. He was 30 years old.

Frank Izard worked at the Central Library, Birchfield Library and Handsworth Library. He was also in the 1st Birmingham City Battalion and died aged 27 at the Battle of Passchendaele on October 1917.

The deaths of Henry Checketts, Percy Garner (and Frank Izard) were reported in the Library Committee minutes:

Free Library Committee Minutes 1913-17 (BCC/1/AT/1/1/11)

Free Library Committee Minutes 1913-17 (BCC/1/AT/1/1/11)


Two members of staff also died after the conflict as a result of the injuries they sustained:William Reeves and Charles Wells. They served with the Army Service Corps and the Worcester Regiment respectively. They were both in their 40’s when they died.The minutes of the Free Libraries Committee records the deaths of all of these men.

“Mr Reeves was a member of the staff for 20 years and performed his duties in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. A few days before his death, he was granted an increased pension dating back to October. As notification was received after the salary accounts had been paid, the difference between his old and new pension is due to the corporation. The sub committee recommends that no application be made for the return of this sum.”

William Reeves, Royal Army Medical Corps

William Reeves, Royal Army Medical Corps

We do not have a photograph of Charles Wells.

Library War Memorial

Birmingham Libraries War Memorial









“They have no lot in our labour of the day-time”

Rachel MacGregor

Following the Accession Trail

I’ve been a little self-indulgent with this week’s blog. We recently had an enquiry from a member of the public about how the Library Service functioned during the First World War, or even if it did remain open and active. It was not something I could have answered with any confidence without looking further, so I went digging.

Amongst the City Council records survives a nice series of Free Libraries Committee, Later Public Libraries Committee, Minute Books dating from 1860 through to 1968, and includes minutes for the war period. Certainly following the initial outbreak of war it was business as usual across the Library Service – an interest over the number of books borrowed was ever present, and the rebuilding of Northfield Library following its destruction by fire featured as a regular report.

What struck me was that the minutes also discussed new gifts, and one that caught my eye was the permanent loan in July 1914 of 41 deeds relating to the Manor of Solihull from the Rev. H. Couchman, a collection that should certainly have made its way into Archives, Heritage and Photography.

BCC 1/AT/1/1/11 Free Libraries Committee Minutes 1914

BCC 1/AT/1/1/11 Free Libraries Committee Minutes 27th July, 1914

From here it was fairly easy to track down which collection this was – the Libraries Newscuttings contained a more detailed report of the collection, which was connected to the Gough Family. Following all the hard work done by our Documentation Team leading up to the move, it took no time at all to find the accession record on CALM (our cataloguing software). On 17th July 1914, Rev. H. Couchman deposited Deeds and related papers concerning the Gough family estates in Edgbaston, Kings Norton, Olton, Solihull, Studley, Yardley and Sussex, 1616-1833. It was given the accession number 1914/021 signifying the 21st accession received that year.

Libraries News Cuttings 1914

Libraries News Cuttings 1914

At that time, all items received by the Library were given a 6-figure reference number so that their origins could be traced (something our regular researchers will be familiar with). These particular documents were numbered 252019-59 with the intention of binding them into volumes titled Deeds Volumes 116 – 118. They were never actually bound, however even to this day we use the finding number DV followed by the volume and 6-figure number to retrieve them. They were given a new collection reference of MS 3145 prior to our move, but sure enough, in the boxes for DV 116 – 118 can be found the Gough deeds.

252058 DV 118 One of the larger indentures from the collection

252058 DV 118 One of the larger indentures from the collection

As I say, a little self-indulgent but it was quite exciting to see in practice how important proper documentation about the  collections is, and that after 100 years this allows us to provide access to these fascinating resources. Not to mention it was a happy couple of hours reading and playing detective!

Nicola Crews, Archivist

You may have seen our recent post on the Voices of War project – as part of the commemorations, there will be a series of interesting talks at the Council House on 3rd August and details are available from the Events page of their website.