The Birth of Brentford Library

by Carolyn Hammond, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 13, 2004

One hundred years ago, on 9 May 1904, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish/American philanthropist, opened the new free library in Brentford. This, though, was not the beginning of the public library service in the town. The first attempt to set up a free library had been made in 1882, but was defeated by campaigners who insisted that it would lead to large increases in the rates. The pro-library campaigners tried again seven years later – this time, forewarned of the likely opposition, they ran a poster campaign explaining that it was against the law to levy more than one penny in the pound for a library service so that this would not make a noticeable increase in anyone’s rate bill. As a result the public meeting, called to debate the issue in June 1889, voted overwhelmingly for a free library to be established in Brentford.

Fred Turner, Brentford's Librarian for over 40 years

Fred Turner, Brentford’s Librarian for over 40 years

The Brentford Local Board promptly set up a Library Committee consisting of four members of the Board and four of the pro-library campaigners. The Committee advertised in The Athenaeum, a weekly journal of the arts and sciences, for a librarian, and received 36 applications from all over the country and as far afield as Edinburgh and Guernsey. The Committee chose Alfred Turner (always known as Fred), the 25-year-old son of a tinplate worker from Wolverhampton, on a starting salary of £1.10s.9d per week.

Turner had been working at Wolverhampton Free Library since he left school. Wolverhampton was a progressive authority which had set up its library service in 1869 and was actively involved in providing adult education classes for working people. Through this association Turner developed his lifelong zeal to encourage working people to better themselves through reading and study. To assist Turner the Committee also appointed Harry Green, a 16-year-old from Windmill Road, who was paid eight shillings per week.

Finding suitable premises for the new service proved more difficult until the Library Committee persuaded the Local Board to allow the use of a ground floor room in the Board’s newly acquired offices in Clifden House, a Georgian mansion on the corner of Clifden and Windmill Roads. The library was also allotted some space in the large entrance hall to display newspapers and magazines.

Within ten weeks of his appointment Fred Turner had assembled 2,662 books. Many were donations, including nearly 1,000 from the trustees of the defunct Mechanics Institute, which had been set up as a subscription-only library and reading room in the 1840s. Turner had also been allowed to spend £100 of the donations raised by the pro-library campaigners and with this had purchased 500 volumes, novels and non-fiction. Newspapers and magazines were also considered an important part of the library’s stock and Turner managed to secure promises of regular donations of weekly and monthly periodicals so that only about a third of the 150 titles received by the library had to be paid for.

The opening
By the end of 1889 arrangements were sufficiently advanced for plans to be made for a grand official opening by James Bigwood the local MP on Thursday 16 January 1890. There were light refreshments in the Board Room at Clifden House, speeches, musical entertainments and displays of antiquities belonging to Thomas Layton, the Chairman of the Library Committee, and other local gentlemen.

The next morning the Library opened its doors to the public. The entrance hall with the newspapers and magazines was open from 9am until 10pm every day except Sunday, the lending department opened one hour later and closed one hour earlier, and was closed all day on Fridays and Sundays. The reference books were arranged round the walls of the main room, but the books for borrowing were stored out of reach behind a long counter. Would-be readers were allowed only one book at a time. They had to choose a title from a printed catalogue and the Librarian fetched the book from shelves behind the counter. An ‘indicator board’ showed which books were available and which were already out on loan. This system remained in place until 1923 when people were at last allowed to browse round the shelves and choose their own books. Books had to be returned within a week or a fine was levied.

In the first full year 792 readers borrowed 27,035 books, and an ever growing number of people came in to read the newspapers and magazines. Every year more people used the Library, and more books were added to stock so that the Library room, only 20 feet by 30 feet, became increasingly inadequate. Fred Turner persuaded the Local Board to let him store seldom used books in a spare room on the top floor of Clifden House, and there was even a plan to build a library extension onto the side of the building to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, but nothing came of this. Two thirds of the Library’s income of about £300 per year went on staff salaries, and the rest had to cover the utility bills and purchase the books and newspapers so there was nothing left over for new buildings.

By 1902 the situation was desperate – the number of books had gone up to over 7,000 and there were now 2,135 registered readers. At this critical moment the Library Committee heard that the Scottish/ American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was offering funds for the erection of library buildings in needy areas and they instructed Turner to write to him immediately, putting Brentford’s case as persuasively as possible. Within two weeks a letter was received stating that ‘Mr Carnegie will be glad to furnish Five Thousand Pounds Sterling for the erection of a Free Public Library Building for Brentford. The town must however provide a suitable site for the building’. The search for an affordable site caused some consternation until the Brentford Urban District Council, which had by now replaced the Local Board, stepped in with the offer of some land in the grounds of Clifden House.

Opening day, Brentford Library , 9 May 1904, Andrew Carnegie is 4th from left in the front row with Thomas Layton to his left

Opening day, Brentford Library , 9 May 1904, Andrew Carnegie is 4th from left in the front row with Thomas Layton to his left

Nowell Parr, the Council’s Surveyor, working with Fred Turner, drew up plans for the new library and by July 1903 these plans had been agreed and the site prepared. On Monday 27 July the foundation stones were laid by the Countess of Jersey of Osterley House, and Mr James Clements, the Chairman of the Council, one on either side of what would be the main entrance. Below one stone was a sealed bottle containing copies of newspapers and a programme of the ceremony. Unfortunately it rained heavily on the day, spoiling the plans for tea to be served to guests on the lawn, and the speeches and presentations took place in Clifden House.

The building work was carried out by J Dorey & Company, a local firm, and was completed by the spring of 1904. The Library Committee had invited Andrew Carnegie to perform the opening ceremony and was delighted when he agreed. On the morning of Monday 9 May he was met at the railway station and given a private tour of the building. He then opened the main doors with a large silver gilt key and processed up the main staircase while the string band of the British School played Scottish airs. In the upstairs lecture room a capacity audience witnessed the presentation of an address on vellum (provided by Bands the local tannery) to Mr Carnegie and listened to a number of speeches before adjourning to the Council Chamber for a five course luncheon with more speeches and toasts. Mr Carnegie confided that it was the happiest day he had spent for a long time and promised that he would often think of that day and what was going on in Brentford. At the end he called Fred Turner aside and asked if extra money was needed to complete the furnishing of the library and gave another £400.

The move
Although the buildings were only a few feet apart it was still a mammoth task to transfer all the books and equipment. The reading room for newspapers and magazines was only closed for two days but the lending department was out of action for two weeks while Fred Turner and his assistant checked every one of the 7,873 volumes, dusted them, repaired them where necessary, then reclassified and rearranged them on the new shelving. This extra work earned Turner a bonus of 10 guineas and £2.10s for his assistant. He admitted to the Committee that although the task was ‘most difficult and trying…the pleasure of re-arranging the contents of our library in a properly constructed building has been very great’.

The building that the public entered for the first time the next day has not changed very much structurally. Some of the department entrances have been moved, the librarian’s office has been reduced in size, the staff quarters improved and the first floor has been converted for the use of the Hounslow Afro-Caribbean Association. Any major changes have resulted from the changing emphasis on priorities for the library service. In 1904 newspapers and periodicals were a very important part of the stock and filled the whole of the area now devoted to magazines, non-fiction and large print books, entered through a doorway to the right from the front of the entrance hall. A doorway on the opposite side of the entrance hall led into the reference library, which did not become the children’s room until 1933. At the back of the hall another doorway led to a lobby area where a large counter containing the indicator boards separated the readers from the books for borrowing.

The new building gave Fred Turner the opportunity to develop his educational aims. Using the large upstairs room he was able to expand the programme of educational lectures which he had started in hired rooms when the Library was in Clifden House. He supplied lists of books for further reading to encourage attendees to learn more about the lecture topics. Then, when Thomas Layton died in 1911, leaving his enormous collection of books, prints and antiquities to form a museum, it fell to Turner to sort, catalogue and arrange the collection in Brentford Library, and this formed a focus for school visits and educational talks.

When Fred Turner retired in August 1930 he was able to look back on 38 years as Brentford’s first (and last) librarian followed by two years as the first librarian of the newly-created Brentford and Chiswick UDC, ‘an example of devotion, ability and unremitting labour for the welfare of your institution’ as one of the tributes on his retirement put it.

Brentford Library Annual Reports and Minutes

Carolyn Hammond has been the Local Studies Librarian for the Brentford and Chiswick area for the last 15 years. She is co-author of the books Brentford (1996) and Chiswick (1994), both in Chalford’s Old Photograph Series, and Chiswick Then and Now published by Tempus in 2003.

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