This has been a planned post for some time, although as we progress through 2017 I feel as though this is a crucial time to publish the history of this building and how much it means to the town. Atherton Library, in its current form and indeed its only form for the past 112 years, is under threat and the future of the building is uncertain. I sincerely hope that this will not become yet another ‘Long Lost Histories’ of Atherton.

Atherton Library, York Street (Source: Own Photograph, 2017)

A long time coming: Eighteenth Century Origins

Since at least 1750 there has been a form of library in the Parish of Leigh (which at that time incorporated Atherton as well). The library started at Leigh Parish Church with a collection of books donated from Atherton Hall by Robert Gwillym (Lord of the Manor of Atherton). The books previously belonged to his brother, Charles Gwillym who died in 1748.

Members of this library had to be enrolled and they paid a subscription fee which allowed the collections to grow. Like modern libraries there was a fine of one shilling for late returns (unless a member was ill). In his impressive local history books, John Lunn notes the managers of this early library included:Robert Gwillym, the Vicar of Leigh,  the Curates of Atherton and Astley and several others. A note in the archives reveals Gwillym received £7/8/6 (£1053 in modern terms) in subscriptions and fees and he spent £2/10/0 (£354) on new books. The records also reveal the most popular works were those on Presbyterianism but also some lighter reading such as Daniel Defoe’s A Tale of Two Tubs.

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a continued development of lending libraries linked in partnership with churches. For example, around 1760 a book club was started at Alder House and the collections were available for the woshippers at Chowbent Chapel; likewise Thomas Mort left some 250 volumes of books which were eventually held at St. Stephen’s in Astley. At the same time there was a real drive, led by these churches, to provide a basic education to local children. This in turn resulted in a better educated, more literate population than ever before.

The Nineteenth Century

However by the mid-nineteenth century there was still a lack of any library or similar cultural and educational building in Atherton. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 granted local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. This was amended in 1855 to make it more inclusive, so the power to adopt the public library legislation was extended to parishes and the population requirement was dropped from 10,000 inhabitants to just 5,000. A parish or local borough could also adopt the legislation if 2/3 were in favour of it at a public meeting.

By the 1860s the residents of Atherton had taken matters into their own hands. They formed the Atherton Literary and Mutual Improvement Society. In April 1864 the society held a concert of vocal and musical instruments in Atherton; tickets cost 1 shilling for the front seats and 6 pence for seats behind. The money raised was to purchase books with the intention of setting up a public library.

However the Atherton Local District Board, which was only formed in 1863, was reluctant to take up the Library Acts. In April 1867 a new subscription library and adjoining reading room was opened by the Unitarians of Chowbent Chapel. The library, was located above the school room of the lower school on Alderfold Street (now part of Footprints Nursery).  The collection of 1000 books, which had their origins in the Alder House book club, were available to all the townspeople. The library was only open Friday evenings and the fees amounted to 4 shillings and 4 pence for the year but they were paid in installments each quarter. Mr G.S. Holmes was the librarian. At the opening, Maramduke Charles Frankland (1815-1888) Reverend of Chowbent Chapel read extracts from Kendrick’s Archaeology and History to the public gathered there.

The first library to be located in Atherton, the subscription library of 1867, was located on the upper floor on the infants school at Chowbent Chapel, visible in this photo. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)
Frankland was an avid supporter of the Public Libraries Act and he tried to convince the ratepayers to adopt the Libraries Act several times (unfortunately he would not live to see it implemented). In November 1871 the Atherton Local Board debated on the Act again and a requisition was signed by 17 ratepayers but it was still unsuccessful. The Local Board realised they simply could not afford to build and maintain a free library under the existing ‘penny rate system’. In 1879 Frankland spoke at the Atherton Collieries’ Village Club in Howe Bridge and expressed his regret at seeing so many “young fellows lounging about the shop windows” and his desire for a free public library “for those who had passed the day of their early youth and were entering upon manhood.”

By the 1890s, the subscription library above Chowbent School was still the only library service for the town with a population of 15,833. The library was now open only on Thursday evenings and Edward Manley was librarian as well as acting as nuisance inspector, school attendance officer and chief of the fire brigade. Finally in 1897, the Local Board which had now become Atherton Urban District Council, decided to adopt the Public Library Act to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. This in turn coincided with the demolition of the Public Hall on Bolton New Road to be replaced with the Town Hall. Therefore a new, purpose-built library would have to be constructed – which would not have been possible without a grant from Andrew Carnegie’s Trust.

Who was Andrew Carnegie?

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a Scottish-American billionaire who had made his fortune in the steel industry. His family emigrated from Dunfermline to Pennsylvania in 1848. After a lifetime of success and fortune, in his old age Carnegie decided to leave a philanthropic legacy across America and what was then the British Empire.

Andrew Carnegie (Source: Apic/Getty Images
In his early years in America, Carnegie borrowed books from the personal library of a Colonel James Anderson. Carnegie was so grateful for the use of this library, which developed his own intellectual education, that he vowed “if ever wealth came to me, [to see to it] that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to the noble man.” He stayed true to this and donated some $350 million ($78.6 billion in modern terms) to charities, foundations and universities. Between 1883-1929, his trust built 1,689 libraries in the USA, 125 in Canada, 660 in the United Kingdom and Ireland and 35 others in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Serbia, Belgium, France, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Mauritius and Fiji.

In order to receive funding local councils had to demonstrate there was a need for a public library, provide a building, fund running costs, staff and books, annually provide 10% of the library’s cost of construction and provide a free service to all. Carnegie tended to promote his libraries in poorer, working class towns, so not only was one built in Atherton but also the Trust built libraries in neighbouring Tyldesley and Westhoughton too.

Atherton’s First Free Public Library 

An application was made by Atherton Urban District Council (UCD) in 1902 and Carnegie donated £4000 (£387,400) towards the building of Atherton Library in 1903. A site for the new building was chosen on York Street, behind the new Town Hall and adjoining the Technical School (built 1893 – the architecture of both buildings is almost identical). The Atherton UDC had hoped for a more prestigious location but the site chosen on York Street was at least central to the civic and cultural complex.

By April 1904, architects Bradshaw and Gass of Bolton had been appointed to design the building. The contractors were Messers. Rathbone & Sons of Atherton who sub-contracted Mr A. E. Prescott, of Leigh, for the brickwork. The carpenter and joiner was Mr Cocker, the slating done by Mr Brown, the plumbing and glazing by R. Scholes and Messers. Warburton did the plastering and painting.

The building was very modern; it was lit by electricity and featured a combined central heating and ventilation system. It has been altered since it was first built, but when it was opened in May 1905 it featured a large entrance hall, at the rear of which was a staircase which led to a corridor linking the library to the Technical School next door. On the right hand side of the entrance hall was the news room; overlooking this was the librarian’s private room. On the left hand side was the reference reading room and the lending library section. The tables, desks and bookshelves were solid American oak. There was also a basement in the building for the storage of books.

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Some of the original desks once used at Atherton Library. (Source: Own Photograph, 2017)
Around 4,000 books were donated by the old subscription library at Chowbent Chapel providing the Library Committee also raised £500 (£48,420) to purchase more. It was community driven projects that raised over £600. For example the teachers and older pupils at the Bolton Road Sunday School held a charity concert to raise money for books. It was estimated the library would be stocked with a collection of about 10,000 books; with works by Thackery, Du Maurier, Cruickshank and Austen as well as lighter reading such as Punch. The non-fiction section covered everything from apparitions and appendicitis to self-help and seismology. The catalogue of books itself was 369 pages long and took a year to compile. The Committee acknowledged the fact that they would be unable to buy further new books for some time, as the rate system at the time meant they would only raise £285 a year to cover the costs of running the library, paying wages and other expenses.

1905: The Grand Opening

On Wednesday 24th May 1905, the library was officially opened by Lord Lilford, some 150 years after his ancestor had started the library at Leigh’s Parish Church. Among the honoured guests present were the Fletcher and Selby families, Colonel Wardrop, Rev. Nuttall, Rev. Wright, Dr Sephton, Dr Martin, Claude Herbert Blair, Richard Manley Peake, J. Blakemore, Thomas Smith, G.D. Frankland, S. Warburton and D. Scholfield – all prominent members of Athertonian society at the time.

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The opening of Atherton Library, York Street, May 1905. Over the 20th century the front doors have been replaced and sadly the decorative mouldings removed from the front of the building. (Source: PC2010.265 – Wigan Archives & Leigh Local Studies – Copyright)
Prior to the opening there was a lunch held for the 45 members of the UDC and the Library Committee at the Technical School. The architects presented Lord Lilford with a gold and enamelled key and at 3pm he unlocked the door to the library declaring it open. He stated:

” I can only say in response that it has been a real pleasure to me to be here to-day to open this very beautiful building. I received the invitation with the very greatest pleasure, first because I felt I should be taking some share in helping the good work (hear, hear) and secondly because I have very lively recollections of previous visits to Atherton and of the truly kind and cordial welcome which I have invariably received.

I sincerely trust everyone who hears me to-day is a real lover of books and of reading. I myself cannot claim any great distinction in the world of learning or books. It is quite true that I did manage to struggle through a degree at Oxford but that was only after exceedingly intimate application (laughter)… There is one thing that is indisputable and that is that no one who has really a taste for books and a love for reading need never have a lonely moment.”

Colonel Fletcher, speaking inside the library said: “he hoped it for many years would be a help to all the students in the town and promote a love of reading, not of trashy books, but good books.” Mr J.S. Burrows added that he hoped in time a museum and art gallery would complete Atherton’s cultural expansion. The library opened its door the public at 5pm that evening.

The wonderful Art Nouveau style bronze plaque commemorating the opening of the Library in 1905. (Source: Own Photograph, 2017)
In June 1905, a rather witty and sartorial piece was published in the Leigh Chronicle about the opening of the library. The unknown author wrote that the thought of the penny rates meant some people welcomed the new library with “the resignation that the family man receives [upon] the announcement of new born twins- or triplets”. The author somewhat scoffs Burrows idea of a museum and gallery stating “the only works of art that Atherton possesses are to be seen in the Coffee Pot”. The author also makes light of Lord Lilford’s appearance in Atherton and the public’s reaction to him:

” The man in the street was somewhat exercised at the presence of a live nobleman in the town. People expected to see him in a coronet and purple robes, whereas he wore a ‘dolly’ hat and an undress coat, disdaining to even wear his gloves. “He is only an ordinary man!” a woman was heard to say. Even so, he was like a noble governor of one of the Australian colonies, who went about with his hands in his pockets and whistled and leaned against a brick wall. His lordship gave an auspicious send off to Atherton’s temple of literature.”

A Community Asset

Within a year of opening, there were over 1000 members of the public library. People from nearby Tyldesley also had access to the library (their library was not built until 1909). As they were not part of Atherton township, they had to pay a penny per volume loaned or an annual sum of 3 shillings. The Library also had strict rules (here are few of the 20 listed in 1906):

  • The library was only open to people aged 14 years and over.
  • Each new member had to provide a guarantor when joining, anyone on the voters list could be their own guarantee.
  • A member and guarantor had one week to inform the librarian of a change of address at the risk of forfeiture of their borrower’s ticket.
  • Each book had to be returned within 14 days. The fine was a penny for the first overdue week and two pence for each subsequent week.
  • No person who is intoxicated, dirty or disorderly will be allowed into the Library or Reading Rooms, nor shall any audible conversations, smoking or refreshments be permitted.

The Library was open Monday-Saturday 10am-8pm (except Thursday which was a half day and only open 10am-1pm). Amazingly the reference department and the reading rooms were open from 10am-10pm on the same days! This clearly shows how popular the library was and the role it played as a cultural and educational space in Atherton.

The figures for the library are also an impressive reminder of how well-used the service was. In October 1907 some 2399 books had been borrowed, a year later in October 1908 the figure has risen to 2784. The success continued, in just sixteen days in July 1909, 1306 books had been borrowed. In 1909 Andrew Carnegie himself donated a book to Atherton Library, Sir Randal Cremer: His Life and Works.

The lecture room at the library was also used widely. In 1908 the talks included; Mr A.H. Garstang’s Tours of Castles in Central France (with slides) and Mr A.E. Hope gave a presentation about his cycling tour of Touraine. Thereby these talks brought a slice of the Continent into Atherton. Other lectures were much more familiar, such as Mr Partington’s A Short Sketch of the History of Atherton given to the Atherton Young Men’s Society in April 1911.

A view of the fiction section of Atherton Library as it appears in March 2017. (Source: Own Photograph, 2017)

The first librarian was Gervase Charles Meredith Octavius Briars (1879-1949), who lived on Bee Fold Lane, Atherton. In 1906 Gervase C. Briars had two assistants; John Farrimond and Robert Hutton (Hutton’s parents ran The Coffee Pot). In 1907, H. Roden was appointed as an assistant. Briars held the position of chief librarian until 1945 and well was known in the community. There was a lady called Mary, who lived on Wardour Street (she was b.1925 on Hamilton Street) and I knew her quite well through my paper round. The age restriction of 14 years and over still applied to visitors when Mary was a young girl. However she told me her father was a good friend of Briars’, so she was delighted to be the only child allowed in the library when she was returning or collecting her father’s books. Mary herself left school aged 14 at the outbreak of WWII but she always longed to finish her education. In her seventies, she went back to complete her A levels and gained a BA degree in English. This unique access to the library may have inspired Mary, it was certainly the type of attitude the Library Committee hoped to install when they opened the library.

Atherton Library after refurbishments, 1953 According to local folklore the ghost of an old lady can sometimes be seen in the upstairs window (Source: PC2010.2188 Wigan Archives & Leigh Local Studies – Copyright)
In the early 1950s the library underwent an extensive refurbishment in a more modern style. This new change also meant updating some of the old formal Edwardian rules.The library was now clearly split into an adult section and a children’s section (referred to as Juvenile’s Department) and the service available to children aged 8 and over. The opening times were shorter, the library only open until 7:15pm and the children’s section was only open from 4pm-7pm and books could be borrowed up to 28 days.

The library was again further altered in the 1970s. The most recent alterations occurred a few years ago, when the central desk was replaced with a smaller desk and self-service machines. The library has constantly evolved particularly over the past two decades, during my time as a member. I would avidly read any history book I could get my hands on and I’d call in weekly, if not more, when walking home from school. The Library service updated their member ticket system to a plastic card and sadly books aren’t really stamped anymore with the return date. There is something quite nostalgic about visiting the library today and picking up a book I may have taken out years ago and finding the date stamped in the front.

The old library ticket system. These belonged to my mum and date from 1993. (Source: Own Photograph, 2017)
The introduction of computers to the library, altered the internal layout and also the meaning of libraries in the 21st century as places of learning and recreation. Another significant change has been in how the library is used as a community space. The large, light and airy rooms of Atherton Library have been used regularly by community groups; from young children to coffee mornings for charity groups such as Dementia Buddy.

What does the future hold?

Sadly the future of Atherton Library has been under threat for several years now. There was a rumour some years ago that it was going to be closed and moved to Atherton Community High School but these plans never came to fruition.

More recently plans have been in place to close the Library and move it to a new room in the old Town Hall, which has stood unoccupied for some time. Despite local protests, which have caused some discord, the plans are going to go ahead. The library will be closed and the service moved to the Town Hall, in which books will have to be ordered from other library branches – a sort of click and collect scheme. Although these means Atherton will technically still retain its library service, it will be reduced.

Atherton Town Hall and Library as viewed from the junction of Bolton Road/High Street. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)
What about the building?

It seems ludicrous Wigan Council are planning to move the entire service just a few meters to the building next door, especially when there is a perfectly good, purpose-built library already there. As far the public know the building is structurally sound and moving the library service will not only mean a reduced collection size, but it will also result in the loss of the community space.

As a whole, libraries are not as popular as they had once been, but surely the council could invest money in updating facilities in the existing building, rather than the cost of adapting the former Town Hall? (Although it is good they are trying to get this building back in use too, this perhaps is not the best solution). It is quite ironic the library service will be moving into a smaller room with a reduced collection, something which the Victorian residents of Atherton fought for many decades to replace with Carnegie’s library. It seems like a reversal in progress.

In the past decade Atherton has been drained of its cultural facilities and the buildings mercilessly demolished. First the town lost their sports facilities when the swimming baths on Mayfield Street was demolished. More recently the town has lost its leisure facility of Formby Hall, which is currently being demolished. If they can take away recreational facilities such as these, what happens when you take away the educational facilities?

Like the library, these lost buildings were constructed using a charitable, philanthropic legacies. Currently the Library and adjoining Technical School have no legislative protection on their structures. They aren’t even protected under any local legislation or heritage lists despite their age and importance as community assets. It is plain to see that the land they stand on is more valuable than anything else, in the eyes of the council. The Technical School is already becoming dilapidated and if, or rather when, the library becomes empty how long will it be before both buildings are deemed ‘unsafe’ and are demolished? This is a very real threat facing our historic structures, not only in Atherton but in towns and cities across the country.

As we have seen by the centuries long struggle to gain a free public library, once this building is gone there is no way of replacing it, especially in the current economic situation. There seems to be a lack of philanthropic billionaires like Carnegie who was so driven to share his wealth for the improvement of people across the globe.

To lose Atherton Library, as it stands, would not only be an injustice to the current population of Atherton but it would also be an injustice to the former residents who fought so hard to establish the library and the future residents who won’t get to appreciate it.