As LiveWire’s consultation period over the modernisation of Warrington’s libraries enters its final weeks, Warrington History Society’s Chairman ANDY GREEN takes a look back at the history of the town’s book-lending service, the origins of which date back to 1760, and urges townsfolk to have their say.
In 1848 Warrington had the proud distinction of becoming the first town in the United Kingdom to open a rate-supported public library. It was born from a long-established private subscription library that had been operating in Warrington since 1760 from the Horsemarket Street premises of the printer William Eyres. Known as the Warrington Circulating Library, it was used mainly by tutors from the nearby Warrington Academy, but in 1844, six years after joining with the town’s Natural History Society, its members sought to make its collections available for the benefit of the town as a whole.
In 1848, this wish became a reality when the town’s first Mayor, William Beamont, and its first Clerk John Fitchett Marsh, took advantage of the government’s 1845 Museums Act by vesting the Society’s books and artifacts in the council. The Museums Act allowed boroughs with 10,000 or more people to raise monies for the establishment of museums and thus, almost by default because of its sizeable book collection, Warrington became the first town in the country to have a municipal library.
In the same year the cities of Canterbury and Salford followed suit by establishing libraries as annexes to their own museums. Nearby Manchester later became the first local authority to provide a dedicated public lending and reference library but this wasn’t until the passing of the Public Libraries Act of 1850 and its opening in 1852 was a good four years after Warrington’s rate-aided library had come into being.
By the mid-1880s, Warrington’s municipal library – by now housed in purpose-built premises in Museum Street, the foundation stone of which was laid by William Beamont in front of a massive crowd – boasted over 20,000 books and was thought to be the largest of any town in England based on the number of books per head of population.
Warrington has another distinction with regard to its libraries. Another unrelated library service, known as the Warrington Perambulating Library, is recognised as one of the first mobile libraries in the country.
Established by the town’s Mechanics’ Institute in 1858, it comprised a travelling one-horse cart that set out to visit “every door in Warrington”. It was said to be a resounding success with the Institute’s book lending rates increasing by over 300% in just 12 months.
The existence and success of these libraries led to an increase in literacy levels across the town and Warrington became known as a centre of cultural excellence – facts seemingly overlooked when the RSA voted the town bottom of its Heritage Index in 2015.
Our current library service is something I feel we Warringtonians should be very proud of. The proposal to close our central library in favour of a wellbeing centre in Golden Square that does not include a true lending service seems a backward step as it detracts from one of the town’s great historical distinctions. Surely, if the library in Museum Street is to be turned into a heritage centre, the ability to lend books as well as view reference books should be maintained to continue a service that dates back to 1848. It is much better to say Warrington “has” the longest established rate-aided library rather than “had”.
Personally, I believe it is good that the town is reviewing its library service, even if it has been sparked by the need to reduce costs. The establishment of libraries within ‘neighbourhood hubs’ seems a sound idea particularly if sharing a number of facilities within one building reduces costs and increases book lending.
For areas without a nearby hub, we should think very carefully before closing their libraries. We should not forget that books are enablers – they help educate and improve lives. On a recent consultation with a GP, a member of my own family was offered a book “on prescription”, an initiative supported by many public libraries including Warrington’s LiveWire. This national scheme helps people manage their well-being through self-help reading and is endorsed by health professionals who acknowledge how empowering books can be.
Such services, and the advice available from librarians and archive support staff such as the ever-helpful Lynda and Patsy in the local history section of our central library, should not be jeopardised and I would urge anyone with similar views, or indeed different views, to take advantage of LiveWire’s consultation period which runs until Friday 21st October 2016. They are our libraries and we should have our say.
Let your views on the future of Warrington’s libraries be known by visiting LiveWire’s website.