Libraries: a short history

We take public libraries for granted these days, even though they are somewhat under threat, and it is hard to imagine a society without them. Wolverton did not get its first public library until 1939, a full 100 years after the new town was first established.

However Wolverton people did not sit back and wait for something to happen. Instead they too matters into their own hands and ensured that Wolverton’s reading public (by no means small) had access to books.

In typical Wolverton fashion this was a co-operative venture and the advertisement I show above, from a 1937 Coronation brochure, tells us that the Working Men’s Clubs were active in this area. The Scocial Club – the Bottom Club – here advertises a lending library of 2000 books. The Central C;ub – the Top Club – also had a library.

The oldest library in town dated from the earliest days when the Reading Room and Mechanics Institute was established and its successor, The Science and Art Institute, also maintained a library which could be accessed for a small membership fee.

At the time that the Bucks County Council set up its branch library at 122 Chruch Street, Wolverton already had three active lending libraries.

This to me is an excellent illustration of the ability of Wolverton people to take matters into their own hands.

The first library as such was the Reading Room, built very early in the 1840s jus beside the cana; bridge. This view shows you the site, although the building has been much enlarged and adapted over  the course of 175 years. Originally it was a single storey and the canal bridge and the road was a lot lower in 1840. Later in the 1840d the building doubled up as a Wesleyan Chapel until the congregation acquired a purpose built chapel on Church Street.

You can get some idea of the scope of this library from this report in 1849.

A reading-room and library lighted by gas are also supplied free of charge by the Company. In the latter there are about 700 volumes, which have mostly been given; and the list of papers, &c. in the reading-room was as follows: Times, Daily News, Bell’s Life, Illustrated News, Punch, Besides the above there is a flying library of about 600 volumes for the clerks, porters, police, as also for their wives and families, residing at the various stations, consisting of books of all kinds, excepting on politics and on religious controversies. They are dispatched to the various stations, carriage free, in nineteen boxes given by the Company, each of which can contain from twenty to fifty volumes.

In 1864, after 20 years of planning, financial setbacks, political arguments and rejected designs, the Science and Art Institute opened for adult education activities. It also accommodated a substantial library. It was for many years the most important library in the town. 

As noted above the Top and Bottom Clubs played an active role as lending libraries.
Finally, in 1949, Buckinghamshire County Council opened a branch library in Wolverton. The double-fronted house at 122 Church Street (already in the Council’s possession) was partially converted into a library. The west side front room was the adult library and the east side front room was used as a children’s library.
The library proved to be very popular and about a decade later a new extension to the building was constructed at the back. The foundation stone was laid by the Rt. Hon. Clement Atlee, Prime Minister from 1945-1951, and a plaque was built into the wall to commemorate the occasion. Many years later the Council decided to build a wheel chair ramp to replace the steps, and the plaque, just to the south of the original steps, was covered over with concrete. Why nobody thought to remove the plaque before this building work began and relocate it is something w might wonder at today.
This library was finally closed about a decade ago and Wolverton’s original school, built in 1840, was converted into a library. The photograph below shows the modified building which largely keeps its original lines. The former classrooms to the north which accommodated girls and infants were demolished. The library is now in what used to be the boys classroom. The gable to the south would have been the residence for the schoolmaster.


The evolution of Wolverton’s First School

In the first two years of “railway” Wolverton the new town grew rapidly. By 1840 the northern streets (Bury, Gas, Walker, Cooke and Garnett Streets) are fully inhabited and work had started on Creed Street, Ledsam Street and Glyn Square. A school was now a necessity so in 1840 the London and Birmingham Railway Company put up the money for construction and the school was built in 1840 on Radcliffe Trust land on the west side of the new Creed Street.

The school as it may have appeared in 1840

There were essentially three wings to the building illustrated here. As far as I can gather from contemporary reports the northern section housed the girls and infants schools, the central section accommodated the boys and the southern part was housing for the schoolmaster and his family. The first schoolmaster, Archibald Laing, was paid £100 a year. This was not a bad salary for the times. The average worker in the works earned half that, although some clerks on the railway could earn as much or more. The girls teacher was paid £40 a year and the Infants teacher paid a measly £30 a year. Women still had a long way to go to achieve pay equality.

The school went through some expansion over the century as the town population grew. You can see from this mid-20th century photograph, that the school had sprouted a number of additions.

This photo shows the buildings when they were used as a Market Hall

In the early 1890s the “Tank House” at the end of Ledsam Street was converted from public baths and a water pump house into a residence for the schoolmaster. The former schoolhouse was reclaimed for classroom space.

But before long even that was inadequate. Wolverton was undergoing a rapid expansion in the 1890s. Cambridge Street, Windsor Street, Green Lane, Victoria Street and Osborne Street all date from this period. So it was resolved to build a new school. Accordingly, again on the western edge of town, a new Boys School was opened in 1896 beside Church Street. The Girls and Infants continued to use the old school on Church Street.

A decade later, a new two storey school opened on Aylesbury Street for the Girls and Infants and the original school was abandoned. It is not known if there was any intended use for it, but in that same year there was a fire at the old Market House beside Glyn Square and it was decided that the Friday Market should occupy the original school.

And so it came about that the building that many of us remember as the Market Hall came into being and every Friday for almost three quarters of a century these buildings bustled with activity until 1980 when the new Agora opened and all such activity was transferred there.

The market now abandoned,

The building remained empty for a while and became vulnerable to damage and fire but a decision was then taken, probably by the council, to renovate and adapt the building. The northern wing and the walls were pulled down. The rest of the buildings were modernised and converted to offices. A travel agent occupied the central wing (the old Boys School) and another company occupied the rest of the building. In the first decade of this century the council reclaimed the building for its own purpose. The  Library was moved from Church Street and the remaining buildings were converted to meeting rooms.

The present day appearance. The white painted section is the original Boys School

This is now the oldest surviving building in Wolverton. Somebody should put a plaque on the wall.

Wolverton’s Libraries

There has been much discussion recently about the future of public libraries as we know them. I have some opinions on the matter but I’m going to restrain myself and instead review the history of libraries in the Wolverton context. It is always worthwhile to look at the historical evolution of an institution. Libraries, as we now know them, have not always been with us.
The first library of sorts came to Wolverton quite early, and this account from Sir Francis Bond Head, writing in 1849, provides us with some detail:

A reading-room and library lighted by gas are also supplied free of charge by the Company. In the latter there are about 700 volumes, which have mostly been given; and the list of papers, &c. in the reading-room was as follows: Times, Daily News, Bell’s Life, Illustrated News, Punch, Besides the above there is a flying library of about 600 volumes for the clerks, porters, police, as also for their wives and families, residing at the various stations, consisting of books of all kinds, excepting on politics and on religious controversies. They are despatched to the various stations, carriage free, in nineteen boxes given by the Company, each of which can contain from twenty to fifty volumes. 

 Wolverton’s birth came at a time when there was a great hunger for knowledge and self-improvement. The very young Hugh Stowell Brown gives us a flavour of this:

On Sundays, Hayes generally went out into the fields to meditate; Harvey went to the Methodist Chapel at Stratford; Mickle wandered from one place of worship to another; and I went to church somewhere in the neighbourhood, generally to Stratford, because there was an organ there, which, however, was very execrably played. Our studies were various. Hayes went in for philosophy; Harvey for theology; Mickle for mechanics; I for mathematics. I don’t think we read a novel all the time we were together, and our whole stock of books was not worth £5.

He describes his efforts to learn Greek and while at work cleaning boilers would scratch Greek words into the limescale to help himself remember.

The Reading Room no longer really exists in any recognisable  form but its location can be seen beside the canal and the Stratford Road bridge.

The next phase in this development was the opening of the Science and Art Institute on Church Street in 1864. The building itself, probably the finest example of Victorian Institutional architecture that Wolverton ever had, is no longer with us, being damaged by fire in 1970 and subsequently torn down by the local authorities – never ones to miss a chance for corporate vandalism.
This was not a free library. I think subscriptions were nominal and affordable. As I recall the library was on the right hand side of the main entrance from Church Street. It had many traces of its Victorian foundation. Newspapers (all were purchased on a daily basis) were held on wooden wands and could be read on a lectern. The tables also had sloping book supports for reading books. This photo of book cases preserved in the MK Museum gives a flavour of the quality of the furniture.
In 1949 Wolverton got its first free Public Library. It was housed in this building at 122 Church Street. It was built as a substantial double-fronted house in 1894 but had been taken over at some time for Council Offices.
The two front rooms were converted for book lending. On the left was the adult section and on the right a children’s library. The librarian’s desk was in the main hallway between the two. There may have been a reference library in one of the back rooms but my curiosity as a child did not extend that far. We were given two little cardboard pockets on which we wrote our names and addresses. They may have been a plain manilla at first but in time they evolved into a colour coded system – yellow for fiction and blue for non fiction. As you borrowed a book a card was taken from the book pocket and inserted into your card, which was then filed by date of return. Books were rationed.
The next developement was to build a larger, more modern library, and the back yard was filled with this building.
It was probably erected c1960, which was about the time the Bucks County Council had their love affair with Terrapin buildings. In my view it was adequate in all respects; however, it was moved in 2007 to its present location in the old school. 

Wolverton Public Library

In 1949 Wolverton got its first free public library. Hitherto the Science and Art Institute’s Reading Room  on Church Street had fulfilled that function. I understand that a membership fee or subscription was required.

The new library was located at 122 Church Street, a double-fronted house on the corner of Cambridge Street. It had been built and occupied 50 years earlier by a builder and had been acquired by the Wolverton Council some years later for office use.
The two front rooms served as the library – the children’s library on the Cambridge Street side and the adult library on the western side of the front door.
The library ticket was a small credit-card sized cardboard folder with your name and address written on the front. Each book you borrowed ( and there were limits) had a slip which was put inside your card and filed on the date due. The due date was stamped on a paper inside the front cover. I think we were issued two cards – one for fiction and one for non-fiction. In those early days I think I was reading books illustrated by Ronald Searle (of St Trinians fame), Biggles stories about the WWI air ace, and books about Greyfriars school which featured the overweight Billy Bunter.
I believe that the council offices were at the back or upstairs. The School Dentist had a surgery here, upstairs through the side door. The lady dentist had heavy dark-rimmed glasses which gave her a severe appearance, which did not help my confidence on the occasions I went there. The drill, which ran on a system of rubber belts and pulleys was grindingly slow. The anaesthetic used for extractions was laughing gas (nitrous oxide), administered through a pink rubber mask that covered the nose and mouth. I remember the “laughing” sensation as one went down and awakening sometime later with a mouth full of blood.
The newer flat-roofed building at the back of the house was added circa 1960 and served as the library until it was moved to the renovated Market Hall in 2007.