In the latter part of the 19th
century, most of the local towns opened public
libraries, which were seen as a way of educating the
less well-off sections of society, teaching them to
live ‘a good and proper life’, so addressing the moral,
social and educational concerns of the time. This
became a reality thanks to the Public Libraries Act
1850 that gave local authorities the power to
establish free public libraries, providing free
access for everyone, to information and literature.
By the late 1870s, many people
thought that Tipton was lagging behind some of the
local towns by not having a free library. On 16th
March, 1877 a public meeting was held to discuss the
matter in the Police Court, Church Lane. It was
attended by Tipton ratepayers under the chairmanship
of James Whitehouse, Chairman of the Local Board of
Health. Those in favour of the adoption of the Free
Libraries Act included William Lees Underhill, who
proposed the adoption of the Act, and Thomas Davies who
seconded the proposal. A large majority of the
people at the meeting were in favour of the
proposal, which was carried by a show of hands.
Unfortunately nothing came of it because the
Local Board of Health decided at a meeting on 27th
June, 1880 that due to the depression at the time,
it was inappropriate to adopt the Act, because its
adoption would result in an increase in the rates.
Nothing happened until the
matter was discussed at another meeting of
ratepayers at the Police Court, on 24th March, 1883.
As at the previous meeting, the Chairman was James Whitehouse.
The setting-up of a free library was again proposed
by William Lees Underhill and seconded by James Solly of Great Bridge Ironworks and supported by
Peter D. Bennett, J.P., managing director of the
Horseley Works. The proposal was accepted by the
majority of people at the meeting and also accepted
by the Local Board of Health who decided to adopt
the Free Libraries Act.
A Free Library Committee was
formed with the following members: James Whitehouse,
Chairman; Edward Bayley, Richard Mason, Henry Plant,
W. T. Travis, and Reverends S. T. Tozer and William
Cornwell. The first meeting was held on 9th June, 1884.
At a meeting in September, 1884, the committee received
a deputation from some of the most influential inhabitants of the town, including
Frederick T. Cox, James Solly, A. S. Underhill and
Peter Bennett, J.P., Managing Director of the
Horseley Works. They proposed that £1,000 should be
raised to help pay towards the rent for a suitable
building in the centre of the town that could be
used as a free library with a reading room. They
were told that if such a sum could be raised, some
of the members of the deputation would be co-opted
onto the committee to ensure that the money was
suitably spent. Although things seemed to get off to
a good start, nothing was done for several years.
Finally, in 1890
the decision was made to rent two rooms for use as
reading rooms, one at Horseley Heath, and another at
Toll End. £250 from the profits of the local gas
company was used to fund the project.
The room at
Horseley Heath was rented from a Mr. Clift at an
annual rent of £13, and the larger room at Toll End
was rented from Samuel Matthews at an
annual rent of £18. In the room at Horseley Heath
there were two tables, reading desks, and a gas
stove. At Toll End there were three tables, reading
desks, and a gas stove. Both rooms opened at 9
o’clock in the morning and closed at 9.30 in the
evening. The rooms were officially opened to the
public on 9th December, 1890, by Philip Stanhope,
MP. During the proceedings he expressed his
willingness to contribute £100 for the purchase of
books, if a permanent building could be found.