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History of Gateshead Libraries

Swinburne St (interior)
Swinburne St (interior)

People now expect a free library service but it was not always the case.

Gateshead always had its libraries - but you had to pay for them!

There were at least two circulating libraries operating from booksellers in Bottle Bank and Bridge Street in 180. Both the Gateshead Mutual Improvement Society and the Gateshead Parochial Institute had libraries founded in 1860.

And of course, the Mechanics Institute, whose members saw a ’free’ public library service in the town as a threat, had been operating a reasonably successful library from the 1830’s.

There were no free public libraries in England until 1850 when the first Public Libraries Act was passed. This gave councils the power to levy an extra penny on the rates to support their own library service. Most were quite quick to adopt this but Gateshead, whose council was always careful about adding extra burdens on to their rate payers, lagged behind and it was not until 1880 that the decision was taken. Even then, it was a close run thing and the Council had to resort to holding a burgess vote which was only passed by a very narrow majority of 32.

The first Library to be built, which still stands today, was in Swinburne Street and this was completed in January 1885. It was built in a style described as ’Romanesque’ with a carved head of Archimedes over the front porch.

A visitor at the time would have been impressed by the number of facilities on offer - a reference reading room, a ladies reading room (which had its own lavatory!), and a news room. There were 3 levels served by a lift and a spiral staircase. The librarian was able to keep an eagle eye on everything on the ground floor from his second floor office.

The building was heated by gas with steam heated shafts for ventilation.

The first public library committee met in 1881 and members included George Davidson (of Davidson Glass fame), the Rev Moore Ede, Rector of St Mary’s Church and a pioneer of one of the first ’school meals’ service in the country in Gateshead, James (later Lord) Joicey and Henry Fife Fallow, who was still serving on the committee 50 years later!

The first librarian was Mr GH Elliott who had been deputy librarian of the Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle - he beat 136 others for the post! He received the princely salary of £110 a year.

An appeal went out to people living in Gateshead to donate books. Only 234 were received - from a population of 80,000...this does not seem a lot.

The library did eventually have over 6,000 books when it first opened - the staff of 3 at the time, must have worked like beavers as they were all catalogued and processed within 2 months

In February 1885, the reading rooms were formally opened by Lord Northbourne who was presented with a silver key.

The lending and reference libraries were opened in November that year by the Mayor who was presented with the rather less inspiring gift of a bound volume of the library catalogue.

In the first year, over 100,000 books were issued. The most popular books were a 7 volume set of the History of the Crimea, a 12 volume series of Art at Home and a 10 volume set of Shakespeare. The least popular work was Smiles book of Industrial Biography, closely followed by a work called Poverty and Progress.

A list of the professions of library members was kept then - mechanics were the heaviest users closely followed by accountants, cashiers and clerks. The majority of users were between 13 and 20 years of age.

There were a few quirky magazine titles taken including the Sanitary Review, the Band of Hope Review and the Vegetarian Messenger.

Choosing a book was much harder than it is today. First of all, you had to find the book you wanted to read in a large printed index. Each book was given a number and once you had found this number, you went to the Cotgreave indicator. This showed whether your book was ’in’ or ’out’. This was a common practice in all libraries at the time. The days when you could go to the shelves and browse were as yet, sometime in the future!

Issues however gradually increased until 1911 when the highest daily issue ever was reported. 1322 books were issued on the day the library re-opened after closing for 2 weeks for stock taking.

As issues increased so did the number of books in stock. From 6,000 when the library opened, they had already reached over 17,000 by 1907 and this resulted in a severe lack of space. The reading room was particularly cramped. A branch library was being called for as early as 1903 (something that was not going to happen for a further 31 years) and it soon became obvious that the library was just not big enough. In 1907, sections of the library had to be ’re-adjusted’ to provide extra accommodation.

In 1912, there were 2 innovations - readers were allowed to reserve books for the first time (so long as they paid the necessary penny and could come quickly to collect them - they only had a day!) and the other new procedure was that books were now returned to the shelves on the day they were returned. Previously, they were kept back for one day, presumably so that readers could not borrow their returned book again.

1914 saw the outbreak of the first world war. It also saw the appointment of the first female library assistant and the introduction of the Extra district fee - something that was still operating until a few years ago. People living outside Gateshead could now register for a ticket - only 2 people did so in the first year , presumably because of the steep cost. (5/-)

In 1915, the first floor of the library was occupied by the army and also by Gateshead and Chester le Street Parliamentary Recruiting Committees. They remained there until the end of the war.

In 1919, the original ’penny rate’ which had been compulsorily levied for town library services, was abolished. Councils were allowed to set their own amount and Gateshead took the opportunity to increase theirs by a halfpenny.

An innovation was that for the first time, books were placed directly on to shelves in the reference library. Borrowers were still having to use the indicator boards in the lending library but there are reports of library staff bringing out more and more books so that people could make an easier selection.

Reading, understandably, had not been a priority for people during the Great War and issues had dropped.

However, the number of people using the library gradually began to increase again once the war had ended and by 1920, in an effort to reduce the amount of congestion, libraries in schools were being mentioned as a possible solution. By encouraging children to borrow books from these, it was thought that the pressure on the Swinburne Street library would be eased.

It was also becoming more and more apparent that the building was no longer suitable as the town’s only library. As more people were using it and as more books were bought, congestion was getting to be a serious problem. A new locality for the library was needed and a site on Prince Consort Road, where the current library now stands, was bought. It was thought that this site would be particularly useful as it was in a residential area ’far superior’ than where the Swinburne Street library stood. Even in such a residential area, however, there seems to have been a stigma attached to working for the library - a friend of the mother of one of the staff commented that she was surprised that she allowed her daughter to work in such a ’dirty filthy place’.

Arthur Stockwell, a Newcastle architect who had been responsible for the Shipley Art Gallery, was asked to prepare plans. At the same time, plans were proposed for branch libraries to serve the Teams and Sunderland Road areas.

However, money difficulties meant that the plans had to be amended and a Mr Ditchburn, who had worked with Arthur Stockwell, was commissioned to revise them.

The library service to all 38 schools in Gateshead began in 1921 and was so popular that in 1925 the first designated Children’s Librarian was appointed and in preparation for the opening of the new library, it was decided to use the original library in Swinburne Street as a children’s branch library.


On 6 April 1926, the present library was opened. All the books were now on open access - the indicator board could now be consigned to the proverbial dustbin. This resulted in a huge increase of issues of over 33%, the numbers of borrowers doubled and the number of staff rose to 10.

The original library in Swinburne was kept open as a Childrens reading room and library. The original idea was that it would provide ’poor children’ with a room where they could do their homework or quiet reading under more comfortable conditions than was possible in their homes.

The library finally closed in 1934 when the new Sunderland Road library opened with a specially designed children’s area.


The library service 40 years on

One major improvement was that borrowers were now able to go directly to the shelves to borrow their books - previously they had to choose the title they wanted from an ’Indicator board’ which showed whether a book was ’in’ or ’out’. This resulted in a massive increase in the number of books borrowed -from 399,425 in 1925-6 to 666,563 the following year. Another reason given for the increase at the time was that the library had moved ’from the rather rough neighbourhood of Swinburne Street’ to ’the more residential Shipcote’.

The library service had originally (pre 1914) been estimated to be built at a cost of £16,330. By 1919, the cost had rocketed to over £40,000 so the original design had to be scaled down. The planned lecture theatre and the children’s reading room both disappeared from the plans.

There seems to have been a slight stigma in working for the library service at the time - a friend of the mother of the children’s librarian was horrified that she worked in such a ’filthy’ place. There seems to have been some foundation for this as the original building plans were modified so that people did not have to pass through the main library in order to get to the reading room ’since newsroom people are liable to cause more dirt and noise than those who commonly make use of a reference room’.

One thing you could not do in the library was to look at any betting news. In fact, from 1906 - 1939, anything to do with horse racing was obliterated from newspapers with the judicious use of gummed strips!

However, we were obviously giving a good service to the public as there is a reference ’Too great an emphasis cannot be placed on the statement that the popularity of the library is mainly due to the excellent relations between staff and public... the committee takes every care to choose assistants of good education, because these assistants are constantly being asked to give readers help on all kinds of subjects’

A child’s view of Gateshead libraries - 1937!

If you were a child living in Gateshead in 1937, where could you go after school?

Storytime at your local library was one option. Weekly storytimes were held at the Central Library on Saturday mornings and at Sunderland Road on Tuesday evenings. If you were lucky, they were illustrated with an epidiascope (an early version of a slide projector) and the storytellers were not only library employees but local ’personalities’ such as the Mayor, the vicar and the Chairman of the Libraries Committee. You could listen to a wide variety of stories ranging from ’Pinocchio’ to the ’Knights tale’ from the ’Canterbury Tales’.

Of course, you were only able to borrow books if you were 9 or over and even then you were only allowed 1 book at a time for 15 days. There were some dubious new titles being promoted, examples being ’What Pamela saw in Japan’, ’Air dope hunters’ and most bizarre of all ’Romping through physics’.

In 1937, a table and ’a few chairs’ were added to the Central Library so you could do your homework. You were encouraged to ask for help although "the assistant won’t do the work for you - that would not be fair to you or to the teacher - but she will find books containing just the information you will need"

A final word to Gateshead children from the then Children’s Librarian Miss Eva Johnson, "Every day brings something new and exciting to the boy and girl of healthy mind and body"

This information has been taken from ’The Chimney Corner’ - the quarterly magazine of the Junior libraries

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libraries@gateshead.gov.uk

Gateshead Central Library
Prince Consort Road, Gateshead, NE8 4LN
Tel: 0191 433 8410

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