A Library at War: Leeds Central Library during WW2

Today we hear from regular guest author Mike Harwood, who tells the story of this building during the tumult of World War 2…

‘Tuesday, 31 October 1939: “Felt energetic so polished several floors and worked fairly hard. Tony came home to lunch at 1.30, and the afternoon somehow slipped away….Went to the library and got out a book by Siegfried Sassoon about the last war….”’

‘Wednesday, 1 November, 1939: “After dinner finished Sherston’s Progress [1936, by Siegfried Sassoon] and passed it on to Tony. Thought it was very similar to [Edmund] Blunden’s Undertones of War [1928] in general feeling – that the war was bloody in every way, but the men wonderful and it was almost worthwhile to find that out…..”’

So wrote Joan Ridge in the diary which she was keeping at that time for Mass Observation.[1]

            ‘And a good book and a boiled egg – which somehow seems an appropriate combination – so we read a little later for ‘Friday, 24 November: ”Went to the library and chose two books, then came home and had a boiled egg tea by the fire. Mixed the Christmas puddings and listened to the six o’clock news, which was depressing- more ships sunk….”‘ [Voices, p 50]

The UK had entered the Second World War on the 3rd September 1939.

            Joan Ridge and her husband Tony were part of what might have been called the reading and writing class; or perhaps the class which then at least had more of the time and education needed to read. They were certainly part of the Oxbridge class. Tony had been to Jesus college Cambridge; their close friend David Masson to Merton College, Oxford. They lived in Far Headingley, in Leeds,  in Moor Park Drive, which was no doubt much as it is today; a comfortable life, at least in the frame of their future prospects. Tony worked for the Post Office; and after the War, in 1963, he became Deputy Director- General of the Universal Postal Union, a United Nations Agency. David ended up as the curator of the Brotherton Collection at Leeds University.

There was a radio but no television for the Ridges (or anyone else) at this time. With the reading (and discussions about their reading) went visits to the theatre, music – as at home on 29 October 1939: ‘We played the gramophone until the news – some Beethoven songs sung in lovely German….I was beginning to get tired but Tony insisted on playing some Bach to David and explaining its characteristics….’ (Voices, p 32)  What is interesting is the frequency with which Joan was visiting the cinema during the daytime – often on her own, Tony being at work.

‘Then I had tea and went to see a film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, which I enjoyed very much. All the films you see nowadays seem to be connected with the war in some way. [2 November, Voices, p 38].

‘Left about 5.30 and went straight on into town where I did a little shopping and went to a cinema. It was a new little cinema I hadn’t noticed before, and the top price was only 1s [shilling, pre-decimal] so that I was afraid it might prove to be a rather low dive and a man would come and nudge [grope] me. However, it was very comfortable….’ [19 October, Voices, p 26]

The cinema was a relatively new art/entertainment form. Modern cinema is generally regarded as descending from the work of the French Lumière brothers in 1892, and their show first came to London, at the Regent Street Polytechnic  in 1896; cinemas to be described in 1914 as ‘the most universally accepted modern amusements’. In 1934 there were 4,300 cinemas in the country, with many of them large and ostentatious ‘picture palaces’, in some cases seating over 4,000 people. [Beaven, pp, 105, 187]. In 1939, you could not afford to or maybe ‘just would not’ drop in casually to see La Bohème of an afternoon at the Grand Theatre in New Briggate in Leeds. Perhaps the cinema, like the public library, marked a step towards the democratisation of art and culture. Today, on October 3rd 2017 at 7.30 pm at the Vue Cinema, in the Light, in Leeds you will (this being written in August) be able to watch La Bohème on screen broadcast from a live performance (and no need to wear a tuxedo!)

But it is the public library and its wartime function which interests me in this piece. How was a library and its readership in this period affected by a cataclysmic war, what purpose did it serve? Just as today the question arises as to the function of a public library in the age of Kindle, computer games and Google.

The Leeds (public, I should say, which above all magnificently it was) Library Service was started in 1870 with James Yates as Chief Librarian and the opening of branches in Hunslet Mechanics Institute; and, to serve Hunslet and Holbeck, in the Zion School, in Whitehall Road. The history of today’s Leeds Public Library had begun.

8th March 1965 In the centre of this view is the premises of British Paints Ltd situated at the junction of Spence Lane and Whitehall Road. This building had originally been a Zion School. A branch library serving Holbeck and New Wortley opened here in 1870, closing in 1938. The building was used by Whitehall Motors Ltd, used car dealers in the 1940s. www.leodis.net, (c) WYAS

The Reference Library was first opened in the Old Infirmary in 1871 with 14, 151 volumes.  The Central Lending with 8,000 volumes was first opened in the Old Infirmary in 1872.  The vision of the public library was not the monopoly of the middle classes. It is worth noting, in passing, that it was only a few years earlier, in 1867, that the Reform Act of that year had enfranchised part of the urban, male working class.

1884. An 1884 engraving of the new Municipal Buildings, designed to concentrate all the administrative council departments of Leeds under one roof. www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Libraries

The Headingley Branch Library, no doubt the one that Joan was visiting, was first opened in 1884. In 1892 it had been transferred to a new building; and in 1931 it had been reopened after reconstruction (before moving to its present location in 1983). The library’s reach was widespread, and certainly not confined to the more middle class areas. By 1940 there were 23 branch libraries including Armley, Beeston, Bramley, Burley and Chapel Allerton; and Kirkstall.

Undated, Situated on the corner of North Lane and Bennett Road, exterior of the old Headingley Library. www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Libraries

The Libraries and Arts Committee to the Council published a Report with respect to libraries each year between 1870 and 1966 (copies available in the Local and Family History department). The first after the start of the war, was that for the year ended 31st March 1940 (war immediately having an effect in necessitating an abbreviated report). This is the period of the phoney war, (‘Twilight War’ to Churchill; ‘Sitzkrieg’ or ‘Sitting War’ to the Germans – though they were busy crushing Poland at the time).  It seems that Leeds’ Library Service has been thriving – now 70 years of age – but the time to read is already becoming a luxury. Here, a glimpse of the home front at the start of the war:

‘There can be little doubt that, but for the outbreak of war, the book issues for the year would have shown a commendable increase, and registered a new high record of circulation. The enlistment of thousands of young men, many of whom must have been borrowers and users of the library service; the leisure time occupation of adults on various forms of civil defence; the reluctance of many to face the darkened streets; the overtime worked by industrial workers; the evacuation of school-children and the almost complete dislocation of the educational system were all of adverse effect upon the library service. It would have been surprising, and indeed revealing as to the place the libraries occupy in the normal life of the citizens, had it been otherwise.’[Annual Report, 1940, p1; the circulation of books had decreased by 482,914 to 3,360,312]

The Library’s established readership was thus diminished; and to the regret of the Library, the view which had been expressed ‘in some quarters that the many to whom, unfortunately, the reading of good books makes no appeal would, in a time of stress, have sought the restful relaxation of reading’…. was not reflected in its readership. ‘If there were any such it is to be regretted that few registered at the public libraries of the city.

‘The circulation of books totalled 3,360,312, a decrease of 482,914.’ [Annual Report, 1940, p 2].

It is fair to say perhaps that reading, any sort of reading,  is a matter of a particular culture (and one should talk of ‘a culture’ not just ‘culture’) to be taught or absorbed over a period of time; not to be acquired off the peg or borrowed like a shirt in a moment of need.

And already in the Report for 1941 [Annual Report, 1941, p 2] the Librarian was able to strike a more optimistic note – people do need time to get used to a war, especially such a war!-:

‘It was a welcome surprise in 1940-41 to note month by month a steady influx of new borrowers, eager to find a relaxation in reading, and the many demands on the service  to provide technical books of assistance in the war effort.’

And in 1942 the use of was again expanded and a record issue established; and an increase in the reading of ‘the more solid and cultural books.’ [Annual Report 1942, p 1 & 2]

Obviously, reading habits were more or less affected by the bombing of towns and cities. In this respect, Leeds was relatively lucky. It suffered only one major raid, that during the night of 14/15 March 1941 when some 65 people were killed and a hundred houses destroyed. The town hall, the museum and the railway station were hit. The Library, its branches and books escaped lightly. The majority of the windows in the Central Library were destroyed by enemy action and this resulted ‘in a thick deposit of dirt and broken glass in the various rooms, but the public service was only interrupted for one day. The Law Library in the Town Hall, was destroyed but by good fortune all the book stock was retrieved, and the only damage was to the bindings of 140 volumes. Windows and skylights were also broken at the Hunslet and Woodhouse Moor Branch Libraries, and an incendiary bomb fell on the roof of the Sheepscar Branch, but it was extinguished before it could do any damage.’

14th September 1941. View of the Museum on Park Row following air raid damage in March 1941 which destroyed the frontage on park Row as well as many exhibits. The museum reopened with a concrete rendering and included a miniature coal mine. The museum closed in 1965 and transferred to municipal buildings on the Headrow. The building was demolished in 1966. HSBC bank now occupy the site. www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Libraries

In the four days following this attack the Library was it seems well up to its extra tasks:  700 enquiries from the public were dealt with. Many emergency food cards were issued. The lists of casualties and of persons billeted were made available, through the Central Bureau and its Units [of the Library] to many thousands of enquirers. The squads of messenger and searcher parties organized for special work operated well in the emergency. [Annual Report, 1941, pp 3& 4]

A local contrast: Sheffield suffered heavy blitzes on 12/13 and 15/16 December in which almost 700 people were killed and some 40,000 made homeless.  [Voices, p 120, fns].

The war must have introduced so many to a host of new skills to be learnt in little time  – from growing carrots to contriving blackouts for windows – homely but vital to the prosecution of a national war. The Central Library played its part:

‘Almost immediately war was declared the Commercial and Technical Library began to receive numerous requests for information relating to activities, local and national, caused by the emergency. It became quickly obvious that this department could perform a most useful service by functioning as a Central Information Bureau, a clearing house of general information occasioned by civil defence and war conditions. To do this effectively and efficiently special planning and the requisitioning of additional and topical informational material were essential. Promptly this was done, and with excellent results. Enquiries have been received from over a wide area, not merely from within the city itself, and by the end of March 3,981 enquiries had been received and satisfactorily dealt with.’ [Annual Report, 1940, p 1].

A child’s future lies in part in the books and reading to which he or she has access from an early age:

‘To assist in meeting the reading needs of Leeds children who were evacuated, helpful and willing co-operation was secured between the county libraries of the West Riding, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, the City of Lincoln Public Library, the Gainsborough Public Library and ourselves. From our stocks 5,500 books were lent to these reception areas, and these helpfully and promptly supplemented the various local resources available for the Leeds children in these areas. It gives much satisfaction to report that few, if any, of the children evacuated from the city were deprived of reading material during their sojourn away from the city and the libraries they were accustomed to use so freely.’ (Annual Report, 1940, p 3).

And just as children were taken away from their native reading homes, so the war took the need for books into new areas:

‘It was also a pleasure to lend books to the local Anti-Aircraft Batteries             of the City, and to the various A.R.P. Report Centres’. [Annual Report, 1940, p3]

War and its bombs are no great respecters of culture; and a library is one of the guardians of our culture. In Leeds, the Library’s valuable collection, gathered during its life of 70 years, of books, manuscripts, maps, etc (all part of the Yorkshire Collection, much of its books and material irreplaceable) was deposited in a place of security. As in the final comment of the Committee’s report for that year (p 4): ‘Books and their use are part of our civilization. They must not perish.’

I shall move now to the Library’s report for the year to 31st March 1943, what can perhaps be seen as the height of the war.  [Annual Report, 1943].

The Report starts on an optimistic note:

‘In a world distracted and shocked by the greatest war in history, in which almost every individual is faced with a host of new and difficult social and economic problems, it is of much pleasure to those responsible for the administration of public libraries that so many more people are increasingly seeking the solace of reading and the use of books for information.’ [Annual Report, 1943, p 2].

In Leeds the number of books issued had increased in each year of the war.

And the war had made the task of the librarians more difficult – keeping the book stock adequate at a time when, because of the war and paper shortage, fewer books were being published; replacing the many thousands of books worn out by use; a delay of six or seven months to rebind a book which had previously taken only six or seven weeks, meaning that a book would be out of circulation for the greater part of twelve months.

The Librarian is not without strong views which might or might not have been shared by all: ‘that there are very many readers whose only reading interest would seem to be in the most recently published books – but he is somewhat reassured in recording that ‘a number of discerning readers’ return to books previously read even years earlier. And he suggests – a view with which few would have disagreed – the library’s obligation particularly at the time of such a war to ‘to provide, as generously as possible, a good selection of books on all aspects of current problems to assist readers to consider and evaluate ideas and facts, so that when required they will be able to make intelligent and informed decisions on the many important problems to be faced after the war’; and is pleased to record that such books have been much in demand throughout the year. And, a poignant reflection on a scene that can easily be imagined, that:

‘As the war progresses, places named daily in the newspapers, and on the wireless, hitherto only spots on a map have become significant and important for national and more intimate personal reasons….’ [Annual Report, 1943,  3]

With the result that many turned to the libraries for further and fuller information.

Lastly in the report for that year, the Librarian notes how the libraries have assisted the national effort in several ways, small in themselves but overall of importance: responsibility for the Emergency Information Services, designed primarily to assist citizens after air raids; providing rooms for organizations concerned with the civil part of the war; distributing information leaflets and posters, sending on donated books to the armed forces, including the Russian convoys and the armed forced in Libya; co-ordinating in the Commercial and Technical Library the stream of information and regulations; and dealing with wartime problems and difficulties, both for service personnel and civilians.

11th December 1941. Construction of a water storage tank on Headrow Gardens, outside the Municipal Building, which housed the Central Library, Art Gallery and Police headquarters. On the left is Oxford Place Chapel, Leeds Town Hall, then Calverley Street. The Library has a sign outside which reads ‘Remember the Commercial and Technical Library for information’. This service is now called Information and Research. www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Libraries

All perhaps a foretaste of the expanding functions of public libraries, which with the advent of computer technology, is still much debated today. And the librarian concludes on this theme:

‘With legislation still expanding, fresh problems continually arise both in the commercial and industrial field, and to individual persons, and the fact that the enquiries have increased so substantially shows with what reliance the public has come to regard this feature of the modern library service’ [Annual Report, 1943, p 5]

A public library is not just a collection of books.


  1. [‘Voices’] Voices From Wartime Leeds, 1939-40. Three Mass Observation Diarists. Edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson (Thoresby Society 2017)
  2. [‘Beaven’] Leisure, Citizenship and Working-class Men in Britain, 1850-1945, Brad Beaven, (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  3. [‘Annual Report, 1940’] City of Leeds, Annual Report of the Libraries and Arts Committee to the Council with Respect to Libraries for the year ended 31st March 1940 (Leeds Central Library; ref LO27. 4 LEE]
  4. [‘Annual Report, 1941’] City of Leeds, Annual Report of the Libraries and Arts Committee to the Council with Respect to Libraries for the year ended 31st March 1940 (Leeds Central Library; ref LO27. 4 LEE]
  5. [‘Annual Report, 1942’] City of Leeds, Annual Report of the Libraries and Arts Committee to the Council with Respect to Libraries for the year ended 31st March 1940 (Leeds Central Library; ref LO27. 4 LEE]
  6. [‘Annual Report, 1943’] City of Leeds, Annual Report of the Libraries and Arts Committee to the Council with Respect to Libraries for the year ended 31st March 1943 (Leeds Central Library; ref LO27. 4 LEE)

[1] An organisation set up to collect together the daily diaries of a wide range of people throughout the country; now archived at Sussex University, and kept at the Keep in Brighton. These excerpts taken from Voices from Wartime Leeds, 1939-1940, Three Mass Observaton Diaries, edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, published by the Thoresby Society, 2017.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. val383 says:

    Fascinating. Interesting to compare this with a paper the Reading Sheffield group has recently done (for The Leeds Library’s 250th birthday conference) on wartime reading in Sheffield. https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/research/running-down-eyre-street-sheffield-reading-and-the-second-world-war/

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