Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lichfield, Staffordshire

Palace of the book

Before the mid-19th century there were no public libraries in the sense that we have them today. Apart from those belonging to private individuals or universities, most libraries charged the public a fee to borrow books. Such commercial libraries flourished with the rise of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the middle classes flocked to the circulating libraries to get the latest Henry Fielding or Fanny Burney. Those amongst the poorer classes who could read were excluded.

This state of affairs exercised those who campaigned for social reform, especially the Chartists, who, as well as agitating for electoral reform and building land colonies, set up reading rooms that were run on a cooperative basis. It wasn’t just the Chartists who did this. The early-19th century saw numerous societies and institutes for working people who, in return for a small annual payment, could attend lectures and borrow books. In Lichfield a Reading and Mutual Instruction Society was set up for just this purpose in 1850, and it soon had over 100 members.

This kind of thing worried the establishment – if the lower orders got hold of too much education, they might rebel, and then where would we all be? But by 1850 parliament passed the Public Libraries Act, allowing local councils to levy a halfpenny rate to fund local libraries and museums. Not many councils rushed to do this, but one of the first was Lichfield, whose Free Library and Museum opened in this Italianate building in 1859.

There was a catch with the halfpenny rate, though. The council could use it t build a library but not to buy books. The money for those had to come from somewhere else, a problem that stymied a few library projects before they got off the ground. In Lichfield, the Reading and Mutual Instruction Society wound itself up and donated its books to the new library. And so, in the city of Dr Johnson and David Garrick, everyone had access to books, and this grand building seems to express pride that literature is available to all.


Peter Ashley said...

The statue of a lone sailor up on the wall of this building is a refugee from York. Lichfield's monumental stonemason's were Bridgeman & Son, (who made the War Memorial opposite) and they did eight figures for York's South Africa memorial. This one was a reject, and they offered it to the city council who didn't quite know what to do with it. Until someone obviously said "Ah, I know".

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: A provincial peculiar, then! I am amazed and all.

Unknown said...

hi, i'd like to know abit more about the statues in lichfeild as im doing some family history -

ive found out that my great great grandfather worked for bridgemans - before and after the first world war.
name is albert edward martin

they commissioned a statue for sandon near lich, and i was told that they used my relative as the modal piece for it.

now ive been told that also there was his brother ( im unsure of the names ) but they used him too for a statue that was in lich. how true this is im not sure. but my dad always said it was near the library. weather this statue is the correct statue im now sure. maybe someone here could help


you could email me at

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ben: I'm sorry, but I don;t know anything about these statues. If anyone else reading this knows, perhaps they could contact Ben or leave a comment here.

Kate said...

Ben: Perhaps a year late, but did you get any further with this? There is a book about Bridgemans in Lichfield Record Office. I know as I have just been researching another Bridgemans worker from the same era. In the book, there is a drawing of the workers, one of whom is called Ted Martin. Will look tomorrow to see if anything else....