It’s a long story


It was our birthday on the 28th. I mean the Library’s birthday. Or at least the anniversary of the Lending and Reference Libraries moving in together to the Podium in Northgate Street. It seems like a minor event in the great scheme of things, but it meant a lot to the Avon Library Service at the time. Bath’s library history is… unusual. We won’t reach our centenary for another nine years, so commemorating our move 25 years ago will keep us going for a while. And the fact that the public library had separate lending and reference libraries? Well that’s part of a longer story.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Meyler's Circulating Library bookplate, Bath in Time ref. 47100
Meyler’s Circulating Library
Bull's Circulating Library
Bull’s Circulating Library

Chapter One: What came before (pre-1850)

Libraries are a serious business. We are all accustomed, in this country, to having free access to books. But it was not always so. At the height of its fame in the eighteenth century, and during its fading glory years at the start of the nineteenth century, Bath had its fair share of intellectuals: Fanny Burney and Hester Lynch Piozzi, William and Caroline Herschel, Venanzio Rauzzini and Charles Moore. Many societies were formed to pursue scientific and literary interests: the Bath & West of England Agricultural Society; the Bath Literary Society; the Bath Microscopical Society; the Bath Literary and Scientific Institute to name a few. This literate class often had their own libraries, or they borrowed, mainly from circulating or subscription libraries by paying a fee to be a member or borrow the books. Very popular with visitors who didn’t want to bring their own precious volumes, such as Jane Austen.

BRLSI bookplate
BRLSI bookplate
Bath Athenaeum
Bath Athenaeum









There were other options although none of them were free. The Mechanic’s Institute started in 1825 and provided workers’ education, but the depression of the 1830s meant many of the poorest couldn’t afford the subscription, and thus the education, so the membership became more geared to commercial tradesmen. By 1845 it had changed to the Bath Athenaeum and became more a working-man’s club for recreation. The Athenaeum merged with the BRLSI in 1898.

The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute was predominately set up by wealthy professional men who didn’t like its position in the lower town at the Terrace Walks. The charges mainly put the lectures and membership beyond the reach of the working class. The Institute moved in 1932 to Queen Square, closed in 1959 and restarted in 1990.

The Commercial and Literary Institute started in 1839 as the Bath Commercial Rooms to cater to the middle class tradesmen and shopkeepers of the town. It provided access to newspapers and journals, but few books so it mainly acted as a chamber of commerce. Rebranded as the Institute in 1847 it began offering regular lectures and classes, and a library.

By the mid-nineteenth century there was a growing movement in Victorian Britain to encourage the education of the working class – often seen as a way of moral reform or social control, not just education. This was a complete turnaround from the view that educating the masses was a dangerous thing to do – in fact, this point of view never really disappeared. By the mid-1800s this movement had produced the Public Libraries Act which allowed a Council to set up a free museum and/or lending library for the use of the public, funded by a halfpenny increase in the rates, and agreed to by 2/3rds of the ratepayers of the city. And, this is where the problems started in Bath. The great and the good, the philanthropic and the intellectuals were happy to help set up a public library, but the majority of ratepayers were not so happy.

Pros and Cons of Libraries
Pros and Cons of Libraries

Chapter Two: Campaign Trail (1850-1880)

Enthusiasts for the new Public Libraries Act began their campaigns shortly after it became law, slowly at first. Isaac Pitman started collecting books from the wealthy that could be donated to a new library, and Jerom Murch and R.E.M. Peach formed a committee to propose a public library, including selecting premises. But this first approach to the Council, in 1869, proved surprisingly unruly. In fact the Guildhall was fairly overrun with voters attempting to have their say, and the opposition won, 3 votes to 1.

It didn’t take long for another attempt, in 1872. This time measures were taken to ensure the meeting would not degenerate into a squabble, and only valid voting ratepayers could attend. It didn’t really help, and the speakers were loudly heckled. 1200 attended, but only about 50 raised their hands in favour. Disheartened, the pro campaigners kept going, but in other ways. Charles McKillop made a grant for the Bath Free Library in Abbey Churchyard in 1875 – he’d support it for only three years as he assumed there would be a public library after that when his Free Library proved how popular the concept was… There were 1500 members by 1877, so they tried the ratepayers again. This time with property plans and financing in place. At least the speakers’ arguments were heard this time, for a change, but it made little difference. The motion was defeated 1808 to 1644.

Vote For the Library
Vote For the Library
Vote Against the Library
Vote Against the Library









McKillop kept his library open for a further three years, towards the end of which another campaign got going. This time by posters and flyers rather than a meeting. The arguments were no less vociferous, even if they were conducted in print for the most part, with occasional open public meetings. The newspapers took their sides: the Chronicle and Herald were all for the public library; the Journal and Argus were against it, and the letters pages were full of arguments. Finally a postal poll was taken in October 1880 – no loud heckling at a public vote this time. 3857 against, and 2298 for.

You’d think the campaigners would be a little weary by now. The Bath Free Library finally closed – the books were donated to Bath College. Pitman’s collection of books, started with such hope nearly thirty years earlier, was dispersed to other public libraries around England. The future did not look bright.

Chapter Three: Thinking outside the box (1880-1906)

During the arguments over thirty years, the Corporation had been receiving donations of books in anticipation of a public library becoming a reality. By 1893 these donations, of mainly local and often valuable books, needed a home and a reference library was proposed. A pokey little room in the tower of the Guildhall was provided, and even a curator, Joseph Davis, was appointed. But it wasn’t advertised – a newspaper reporter found it by accident in 1895. So Bath had finally got a publicly accessible (if you could find out about it) library – albeit a reference one only, but it was a start.

Laying the foundation stone of the Victoria Art Gallery
Laying the foundation stone of the Victoria Art Gallery

In 1896 another opportunity arose in the form of a bequest from Mrs Arabella Roxburgh for the building of a public art gallery – with or without a public library. Even by this time – with funding in place to provide the building – the idea of a public lending library was still controversial, and the money went to create the Victoria Art Gallery in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, without a lending library. But the Guildhall Reference Library would be allowed to move in. In April 1900 the Library and Art Gallery Committee was created under the 1892 Public Libraries Act, the Marquis of Bath opened the Gallery in May, and no-one mentioned the Library.

Time seemed ripe. There was a building. There was the start of a collection with the reference library. And the Mayor even had the assurance of £13,000 from Andrew Carnegie to help fund an extension on the Gallery to house the library. In 1906 another poll was held. Even the Council and Committee meetings couldn’t agree, so the ratepayers were polled again. 4761 defeated the 2109 supporters of a public library. But the Council did agree to pay £100 towards a book fund even as donations continued to come in, and they also appointed an assistant to the ageing Davis, Reginald W. M. Wright.

Chapter Four: Finally! (1906-1964)

All the Public Libraries Acts up to World War I required two thirds of the city’s ratepayers to agree to the proposal, including adding a penny to the rates. It was Bath’s big stumbling block. But this requirement was removed so by the time the Council again debated a public lending library in 1923, they no longer needed a public vote. Bath was the largest borough in England of the 22 who had not yet adopted the Public Libraries Act by the time the Council agreed in July 1923.

Back row: Mr Lionel Vibert (co-opted member and Art Gallery Commissioner), Ald. T. Struge Cotterell, Ald. Jenkin. Second row: Alds. Bush (Chairman of the Education Committee), Mr Leonard Miller (co-opted member), Mr R.W.M. Wright (Director), Mr Alfred Jones. Front row: Maj. Gen. L. Bradshsaw (Chairman), Mayor and Mayoress Ald. Hacker and Mrs Hacker, Counc. Cedric Chivers.
Back row: Mr Lionel Vibert (co-opted member and Art Gallery Commissioner), Ald. T. Struge Cotterell, Ald. Jenkin. Second row: Alds. Bush (Chairman of the Education Committee), Mr Leonard Miller (co-opted member), Mr R.W.M. Wright (Director), Mr Alfred Jones. Front row: Maj. Gen. L. Bradshsaw (Chairman), Mayor and Mayoress Ald. Hacker and Mrs Hacker, Counc. Cedric Chivers.

It didn’t take long. The doors opened on Bath’s Public Lending Library in July 1924 in the converted Print Room, next to the existing reference library, with a book stock of 9200 volumes. The first book borrowed by the Mayor was The Heavenly Twins, written by Madam Sarah Grand (who acted as Lady Mayoress to Cedric Chivers, one of the greatest supporters of the public library).

Newspapers in store under the Victoria Art Gallery
Newspapers in store under Newmarket Row
A porter piled high with books when moving the Reference Library to Queen Square
A porter piled high with books when moving the Reference Library to Queen Square

Bath Lending Library didn’t stay in the Print Room for long. It expanded, and kept expanding, until it occupied all of the ground floor of the Gallery buildings and a good proportion of the basement as well. Major flooding in the storage areas in 1960 exacerbated a pressing need for more space, and the Reference Library moved to the vacated BRLSI premises in Queen Square in 1964. Temporarily. For twenty six years.

Proposal for using former Technical College building as a Library
Proposal for using former Technical College building as a Library
Elevations of proposed Library building on the Podium site, 1976
Elevations of proposed Library building on the Podium site

So, twenty five years in the Podium might not seem very long, but it hides a longer, darker story of public libraries in Bath. Other places were suggested as a home for the library to allow for expansion through the years, such as the Technical College buildings (the west wing of the Guildhall, now The Hub), the Assembly Rooms whilst they were empty between the wars, or the empty podium site in Northgate Street – they even drew up detailed plans for a single use library building. But it took until 1990 and a new shopping development before the library was again whole, though not in its own building.


Looking back at the photos of the library as it first opened, a lot has changed since then. Our major refurbishment in 2004 removed the separate issue and enquiries desks. We got new flooring and shelving and a brighter paint job. It’s hard to visualise now, and we still keep moving things around.

Where once the citizens of Bath protested the creation of a public lending library, they would now protest equally as loudly about its demise. How things have changed.

Crowded Issue Desk in the Lending Library in the 1930s. John Fry behind counter.
Crowded Issue Desk in the Lending Library in the 1930s. John Fry behind counter.

All photographs copyright Bath in Time-Bath Central Library


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