Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Adoption of the Public Library Act 1855 (Part 2)

The Committee's Campaign

Pratt planned the campaign for the adoption of the Free Libraries Act with meticulous care, as he would have been well aware of the reasons why the 1859 attempt had failed. The Adoption Committee worked under the added handicap of not having the support and approval of many of the leading members of the Town Council. It was realised that the key to getting the Act adopted lay in a successful publicity campaign, together with a planned scenario for dealing with possible objections to the scheme.

Initially, the views and support of the workmen of the town were canvassed on this matter and it was found "that the most influential were the most enthusiastic, and were willing to do what they could" [A.J.Rowberry "A History of the Wolverhampton Public Library 1868 – 1900" [1967] p.6]. Questionnaires were sent to neighbouring towns asking what procedures had been used to get the Acts adopted, and what problems had been encountered [Miscellaneous Papers WPL LC]. From this information, and from visits to the libraries in neighbouring towns, Pratt compiled statistics which brought into question the civic pride of Wulfrunians in not supporting a Free Library. For example he made it known that Kidderminster, with only a population of nine thousand, had established a library of ten thousand volumes, financed since 1855 by a halfpenny rate. Walsall library with over thirty-five thousand volumes had obtained a thousand pound mortgage from its council who "regretted that they could not levy a penny halfpenny rate to increase library equipment" [Rowberry op cit p.6].

By the autumn of 1868 the Adoption Committee used this information to start a limited but effective publicity drive to persuade ratepayers to support the adoption of the Acts. Funds were only sufficient to print four thousand handbills, which listed towns where established libraries were "valued by all classes, but especially thronged by the working classes" [Miscellaneous Papers op cit]. Pointedly the question was asked:- "Why should Wolverhampton be without such an institution'?" [ibid]. As a final step in their preparation to have the Act adopted, Committee members made personal appearances in front of organisations and clubs to advocate their cause. The Wolverhampton Chronicle noted one such meeting where Pratt and Walker addressed workers of the Great Western Railway, and showed their ability to relieve possible anxiety over the library's costs when they explained "at worst the penny rate would only amount to sixpence per annum for the average working-class ratepayer." [Wolverhampton Chronicle 1 Dec 1868].

Such thorough preparation paid off, as popular opinion turned decidedly in favour of a Free Library. At a meeting of the Athenaeum in January 1869, which had been called to discuss the possible transfer of property to a new library, a house agent named Jones was the only objector to a library being established. He claimed that potential library users in Wolverhampton were "less intelligent and less religious than, say, those in Coventry" [Rowberry op cit p.8]. He also maintained that the working men of Wolverhampton would not avail themselves of a library's services as would their counterparts in other towns. Pratt countered this by stating that "Wolverhampton, and all centres of Free Trade, would venture to differ over Coventry's superior intelligence… " [ibid p.9]. The fact that Jones' ill-considered and illogical objection was the only one, showed the lack of opposition to the Adoption Committee's plans at that time.

On 12 January 1869 the Committee presented a petition to the Mayor, Moses Ironmonger, to hold a ratepayers' meeting to discuss the adoption of the Act. The petition contained 1,168 signatures, of which 986 came from people described as "working class" [J.Jones op cit p.99]. On 28 January a calling notice was issued for a ratepayers' meeting to be held at St. George's Hall on 8th February. The meeting, which was described as "the final test as to the opinion of the inhabitants on the momentous question 'Shall the Free Library Act be adopted in this Borough ?'" [ibid p.98] duly took place and witnessed the final collapse of opposition to a Public Library in the town.

The motion that the 1855 Act should be adopted was proposed by Sir John Morris, [a former Mayor]. He stated that a library would "combat drunkenness and maintain our prestige as a commercial nation by improving our workers' skills" [Wolverhampton Chronicle 10th Feb 1868]. He added that Wolverhampton should not be behind other towns in providing the means of "self improvement which Parliament had in mind when placing these Acts on the Statute Books" [ibid]. The motion was seconded by Thomas Whithall ["a working carpenter"] [J.Jones op cit p.100], who saw the problem of the adoption of the Act as essentially "a working man's question and [it] was for working men to show their appreciation of the Free Library Movement by voting for the motion in front of the meeting" [Wolverhampton Chronicle op cit]. According to Whithall any opposition to the library he had come across came from "mean, grovelling, money-making persons"[ibid].

Whether the brassfounder, John Edwards, was "mean and grovelling" is impossible to say, but he alone at the meeting spoke against the motion. He proposed an amendment which called for a truly "free" library which would be supported by voluntary contributions alone, and not by the rates. Although this amendment was seconded, it was defeated by "several hundred to six, with three abstentions" [ibid]. The original motion was passed by several hundred to three, and the Free Libraries Act was formally adopted in Wolverhampton [Rowberry op cit p.99].

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