It all began in a small way, in the front rooms of a private house in King Street in about 1827. Several businessmen and clergymen, most of whom had been involved in the formation of Wolverhampton library, founded the Mechanics’ Institute as a means of education for the young men of the town. The front rooms were stocked with numerous books that were lent out, in exchange for a quarterly fee. This allowed subscribers to acquire a wide range of knowledge that would assist them in their working and private lives.

It was soon decided that a larger building was essential in order to expand the service and to provide a facility for factory workers who could go there in the evening to improve their education. At the beginning of 1835 a meeting of the founders was held to discuss the possibility of acquiring a new building. This resulted in the formation of a provisional committee who would seek donations from people willing to become a shareholder in the scheme.

A total of 1,082 one pound shares were sold and on the 13th April, 1835 a piece of land measuring 325 square yards, on which to build a new Mechanics’ Institute, on the south side of Queen Street, was purchased from a Mr. Ward for £220. The new building, designed by Mr. Walford had been completed by the beginning of 1836 and included a library room, a reading room, a lecture room and a dwelling house for the librarian, who would have an annual salary of £10.

The building in Queen Street.

The founders decided that the rooms were to be let to the share subscribers for an annual rent of £30 and a series of lectures was arranged for the winter months. Initially all went well, but the number of users fell, many letting their membership subscription go into arrears. The situation worsened to such an extent that by 1845 the establishment had more or less closed, only the librarian remained as a caretaker, looking after the premises.

By the end of 1846, many people felt that something had to be done to resolve the situation and so a meeting was held in the Star and Garter Hotel on the 22nd January, 1847 to discuss the matter. The managing committee of the Mechanics’ Institute and Library expressed their willingness to cooperate and a provisional committee was formed to ask for donations and to remodel the institution.

It was decided that the annual subscription for ordinary members should be ten shillings, or half a crown per quarter and that the name should be changed from the Wolverhampton Tradesmen’s and Mechanics’ Library to the Wolverhampton Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Library.

A new series of lectures was arranged and by January 1848 the institute’s debt had been reduced to £26. Twelve months later, the committee reported that the number of members was again falling, but the reading room was well attended as were the lectures. Things temporarily improved. By January 1851 there were 371 members, 1,580 books in the library, and over the previous 12 months, books had been loaned out 2,200 times.

By 1853 things had again deteriorated. The librarian had many interests outside the institute and so a new librarian who would work solely for the institute was appointed. Again things temporarily improved, more books were loaned, improvements had been made to the library and the reading room, and classes started in mathematics and chemistry. But sufficient support from the public was not forthcoming. Most people could not afford the membership fee and the institute entered a period of decline and stagnation.

The only light at the end of the tunnel was in the form of the attempts to open a free library in Wolverhampton, which had been met with a lot of opposition. On the 9th January, 1869 a special meeting was held at the institute to give support to the free library movement. The following resolution was unanimously agreed: That in the event of the Free Libraries Act being adopted in Wolverhampton within six months of this date, this meeting empowers the committee to transfer the whole of the property of the members of this institute to the Corporation for the purposes of a Free Library and Reading Room.

John Elliot.

The Free Library supporters won the day and the Fee Libraries Act (1855) was adopted by the Corporation. Negotiations for the transfer of books, furniture etc. in the Queen Street building were carried out and it was decided to take out a three year lease on the building for use as temporary accommodation for the new library. During this time larger premises would be found. The library opened on the 1st January, 1870 after the building had been completely renovated. The new librarian was John Elliot.

The Corporation owned an empty building in Garrick Street, on the corner of Bilston Street that had previously been the town’s police station. It had some spare land and so was suitable for future expansion. Behind was another empty building that had been the town’s fire station. The Free Library Committee became tenants of both buildings and the empty land. In June 1872 after the buildings had been suitably altered, the library moved from Queen Street to Garrick Street. Around the same time the committee agreed to purchase a large high-class lending library at Portsmouth, along with fittings, for just £200, which greatly increased the number of books in the collection.

In 1874 Alderman Isaac Jenks gave £100 to the committee for the conversion of the old police cells into a large classroom, which led to the formation of evening classes covering a wide range of subjects. In 1888 a chemical laboratory was built on land at the back, as was a metallurgical laboratory, which opened in January 1892. In 1890 there were 30 chemistry students and in 1894 there were 14 metallurgy students.

The Garrick Street premises.

In 1892 the following evening classes were held:
  Applied Mechanics
Book keeping
Carpentry and Joinery
Civil Service Preparation
Coach Building
Commercial Writing
Domestic Economy
Dress Making
Electric Lighting
Harmony and Counterpoint
Heat, Advanced
Human Physiology
Inorganic Chemistry
Iron and Steel Manufacture
Magnetism and Electricity
Mechanical Engineering
Modern Languages
Organic Chemistry
Rudiments of Music
Sound, Light, and Heat
Teachers' Scholarship Class
Teachers’ Tonic Sol-fa
Theoretical Mechanics

The metallurgy laboratory. Courtesy of David Parsons.

The classes were generally well attended, but the end came in sight in 1896 as a result of a report on education in Wolverhampton by S. T. Mander. The report condemned the library building and its classrooms and called for the construction of a separate technical school.

In 1897 an Electrical Laboratory was built and evening classes began in boot making and carpentry. When the Central Library opened in 1902, the old library moved to the new premises and the old building became the Municipal Science and Technical School. John Elliot remained as Chief Librarian at the new Central Library.

The new mayor in 1896, Stephen Craddock, called for the building of a new Technical School which would be a fitting tribute to honour the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. It was hoped that it would bring prestige to the town and a site was initially earmarked for its erection in Lichfield Street.

The Students' Library.

Permanent and part time staff, and courses in 1911.

By the early twentieth century, the old Deanery in Wulfruna Street, that had become the Conservative Club, had seen better days. Although it was regarded as one of the town’s important historical buildings, it was acquired from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1912, at a cost of £6,000 to provide a site for the building of a new technical college. Nothing happened on the site until after the First World War, but the science and technical classes at Garrick Street continued until the building was demolished, at the end of the 1920s. In the 1920 to 1921 session there 1,553 men and women attending courses, and a total of 150 classes, preparing people for various professions and jobs in local industry. So the development of a new college with improved facilities became all the more important.

From the 1927 Wolverhampton Red Book.

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