A Partial History of Leeds Central Library

This last Wednesday, to mark National Libraries Week, four of our Local and Family History team, plus one intrepid volunteer, delivered a talk offering a brief history of Leeds Central Library, primarily derived from material found in several volumes of news-cuttings covering public libraries in Leeds. So, this week on the Secret Library we offer a few highlights and extracts from that talk. You can read more about the history of the Central Library by clicking on the image below.

The Pioneer Years: 1898 – 1914
The first newscutting volume begins in 1898 – some fourteen years after the opening of this Central Library on its current site, plus another thirteen years since a Central Library was made available to the people of Leeds in the very first place. That original service was housed, from 1871, in the Old Infirmary building, on Infirmary Street (funnily enough), following the emptying of the hospital with the opening of the new Leeds General Infirmary site on Great George Street. The image below is of that first Leeds Central Library:

The Old Infirmary, Undated. More images of this building are available on the Leodis.net archive of historical Leeds photographs and prints.

Despite the seeming grandeur of this building it was clearly unsuited as a Library space, with a former user commenting in one newspaper article of 1907: “A more unsuitable house for present day requirements could not be found….[t]he library was bare, dreary and forbidding.”

Clearly, then, a new location was required – and the Corporation soon seized on the opportunity afforded them by plans for the Municipal Buildings, to be sited across Calverley Street from the Town Hall. A decision was soon made that this building – which was to  be home to various administrative departments, such as the City Engineers and the Rates payment desks – would also house the Central Library. The grounds given for this choice were several: the cost of a standalone Library site would not soon be found; nor was there a suitable location available; the provision of branch libraries throughout Leeds’ growing suburbs was of more importance; and the Municipal Building site would surely provide suitable space for a Central Library for “at least 20-years.” (emphasis added).

The Municipal Building, circa 1909. Designed by George Corson.

So it was that the various Library departments – the Reading Room (for newspapers and journals), the Lending Library and the Reference Library found themselves occupying the ground (now Tiled Hall cafe), 1st and 2nd Floors, respectively, of the new Municipal Building’s southern side, following its official opening in 1884.  Overseeing all of these developments was the first Chief Librarian of Leeds – James Yates.

The only-known image of James Yates available in our collections, from a volume of the Yorkshire Owl, 1894

The First World War and After: 1914 – 1920
Obviously WWI dominates a lot of the newscuttings in this period and Thomas Hand, the City Librarian, gives regular updates on the use and users of Central Library. He explains to the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1915 that the nature of library users had changed since the war began. Many of the young men who were issued library tickets were serving overseas and their wives, sisters and mothers had started visiting and using their tickets instead. The types of library books borrowed also changed throughout the war. There was a heavy fall in demand for works of art and science and a large increase in demand for books on those countries engaged in the war, their economic conditions, topography, as well as books on sociology and geography. In the following years there was greater demand for books on European politics, navy equipment, engineering and munitions but fiction loans remained high. Post 1918, books concerning the war fell out of favour with all but demobilised soldiers who wanted to read what was written about the events they took part in.

As with all organisations at this time, the war did not leave the library staff unscathed. The only death reported in the newscuttings during this time was that of Captain David Livingstone Strachan of the West York Regiment. Before joining the army he was Assistant Librarian at Leeds Central Library. He joined up soon after the outbreak of war and was invalided home where he became ill and passed away on 29 December 1916, aged just 27, at Beckett’s Park Hospital. He had a military funeral and was buried at Lawnswood Cemetery with library staff in attendance. – Helen Skilbeck (Librarian, Local and Family History, Central Library)

The Inter-War Years: 1920 – 1939
The inter-war years were far from uneventful at Central Library, there are two full scrapbook volumes for the years between 1920 and 1935, it seems we were never out of the newspapers. City Librarian T Hand introduced Open Access; this meant that Library members could browse books and choose for themselves rather than asking a Library Assistant to get items for them as they would have done previously. This initiative would really open up possibilities for readers to explore the Library give them the ability to browse stock. It states in an article from Yorkshire Post 13th November 1920 that main book sections were now labelled prominently with “ ‘fiction,’ ‘history’ and ‘sociology,’ moreover the shelving is so arranged as to make the most of the natural light.”

Central Library’s newsroom featured regularly in the newspapers of the early 1920s, with one journalist spending an hour in the newsroom declaring “anyone wishing to study the various types of the city’s characters could not find a more suitable centre for their labours. From the highest to the lowest are there, and the professional man is to be seen rubbing shoulders with the out-of-works.” In this article the ‘out of works’ are also labelled as ‘the great unwashed’ and ‘knights of the broad highway.’ The mid 20’s also saw racing papers banned from the newsroom due to crowds of men arguing over them, and sometimes bringing in their own to read, which was apparently unacceptable at the time. A Library Assistant is quoted as saying, “Some of these racing men are rather rough characters and have adopted a very hostile attitude towards other people who have ventured out to look at the same paper. This led to the complaints that caused us to prohibit sporting papers.”

In brighter news, a record number of books were issued in 1921 exceeding 1.5million, with visits to the central and branch libraries at 1.8 million and 39,000 registered borrowers. During this period a large number of public lectures were given across the Library service by Librarians, Academics and Curators on a wide range of subjects including music, art, local history, holidays and nature. Most of the lectures made a feature of their accompanying coloured lantern slides and the events drew crowds of over 100 attendees.

Central Library opened their first dedicated children’s room in 1928. The newly purposed room was, “decorated in bright colours and furnished with tables and chairs, so that the children that may do their reading on the spot….these alterations add greatly to the rooms appearance, which is still further advanced by bright electric lights and newly-painted walls.” The room also featured a specially simplified junior card catalogue.

One of the biggest news stories regarding the Library service as a whole was the retirement in 1927 of Mr Thomas William Hand, the City Librarian after 29 years, the Yorkshire Post lists his achievements:

“The establishment of the very valuable Commercial and Technical Library, the introduction of young people’s reading rooms, and story-telling to children using the Libraries, he also inaugurated a course of public lectures. There’s also the card catalogue, open access systems, a special Shakespeare collection of books, a special collection if newspaper cuttings in 200 folio volumes relating to local biographies and Leeds experiences in the Great War.”

Hand was replaced by Mr R J Gordon.

To briefly summarise other interesting points from the inter-war years; puzzles and radio were blamed for a decrease in the use of Library books, we received a donation of £100 from Mrs Councillor Gott in October 1930 to purchase books on English Gardening for the Reference Library and Alf Mattison gave us a talk on old Leeds in 1931. In 1933 the Police moved into Central Library they were here until the mid-1960s and for some reason aren’t mentioned in the any of the news cuttings but if you look around the building now there are remnants of the Police being here with CID signs still on the ground floor in the atrium and on the 1st floor corridor. You can see plenty of photographs of the various police offices on Leodis. Finally in 1933 the Civic Hall opened and Leeds welcomed a visit from King George V and Queen Mary, here is a fantastic photograph of the Royal Procession passing the Municipal Buildings on 23rd August 1933. – Sally Hughes (Librarian, Local and Family History, Central Library)

The Central Library at War: 1939 – 1945
Part of what David Thornton calls the “wonderful transformation” of mid 1930’s Leeds  was to have been a   Cultural Centre incorporating the present splendid library building together with an art gallery, museum and lecture theatre.  But  there is nothing cultural about the  wartime  emergency water tank built instead.

Without fuss though the  Central Library adapted and simply rolled up its sleeves “to do its bit’ for the war effort and the community. Thus the Central Library was to be the place where the expected mass of people bombed out of their homes would go for replacement food ration cards and other documentation before they were reallocated temporary accommodation. The patent collection was sifted for technical information useful to the war effort whilst the Commercial and Technical Library itself was re-designated an Information Bureau (a forerunner of the CAB) and spent the war helping people cope with an increasingly complex bureaucracy of restrictions and permits.  Whilst also helping a lovelorn Leeds lad trying to contact his Finnish girlfriend during Finland’s Winter War.

In doing their bit the library staff themselves adjusted, with great fortitude, to a much increased work load alongside rationing, a blackout and other wartime privations. Staff numbers were reduced but had to cope with a growing   readership; together with organising paper salvage drives and  sending books to evacuated Leeds’ children in Lincolnshire; to troops in Libya and to sailors on the Artic Convoys.  This was alongside their additional Air Raid Precautions (ARP) duties as messengers and firewatchers. Over the course of the war 80 members of staff were called up for military service but the library itself maintained always remained open and accessible. Indeed over the course of the war fewer staff offered an extended service over a more hours per week.

So it is no surprise that there is evident relief, optimism and sadness in the tone of the Chief Librarian’s Annual Report for 1945. Plans for the Cultural Centre were to be revived and there was to be an increased branch library building programme. Underpinned by much better professional training for the staff then being demobilized.  But there was also sadness in recording the deaths on active service four “fine librarians with great promise”. – Tony Scaife (Volunteer)

You can read more about the Central Library during WW2 in a recent blog article.

Free Library Once Again: 1945-1958

“Free Library Once Again” proclaimed the newspapers in June 1945 as the blast wall was removed from the Victoria Gardens entrance to the library, after 5 years people once again had full access to the building.

While a new Arts Centre was the ideal, an interim plan was made to spend £15,780 on maintenance for the Library and Art Gallery including moving the original Commercial & Technical library into the Sculpture Gallery.  The current location being inadequate for the number of people wishing to use it and in January 1948 the Yorkshire Post warned “arriving at 9.15 could mean the book you need is already in use.”

May 1949 saw the music collection leave the Reference Library becoming a department in its own right on the ground floor as a Music Library with a new music librarian appointed.

By February 1950 women using the newsroom were no longer segregated from male readers by the use of a screen.  Instead a ‘women only’ table was allocated to them and magazines previously stocked for the exclusive use of women would now be available to men.

After 10 years of planning, the new Commercial & Technical library opened in April 1955, in what is now the Tiled Hall.  The intricate tiles were hidden from sight by the City Architects using what the Yorkshire Post declared “mostly modern materials; invector heating, recessed lighting and false ceilings.”

May 1957 heralds the opening of the controversial Gramophone Library with disgruntled citizens complaining to the Yorkshire Evening Post that “People who can afford to buy record players should be able to afford records.”

By 1958 capacity problems arose again in the Commercial & Technical and Reference Libraries with City Librarian Mr F. Hutchings telling the Yorkshire Evening News “I only wish we could cater for more, but I’m afraid, it’s like playing a 20th century tune on an 18th century instrument.”

Ultimately we did find a way to create more library space, it took another half century and the eviction of the City Museum but we acquired the first floor and built a central stack – but that’s another story.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. val383 says:

    So interesting. A lot of this matches the history of libraries in Sheffield, though it took Sheffield until 1934 to get a purpose-built central library (which we still have). There was also much interaction between the two cities, with Thomas Hand doing a report on Sheffield Libraries for the Council in 1920, and R J Gordon coming to Leeds from Sheffield. F G B Hutchings, the librarian who succeeded Gordon, also worked in Sheffield.

  2. HI Val – thanks for your kind comments; we’re pleased you found the article interesting! We’ve actually just added an extra section, taking the story up-to about 1958.

    Any readers interested in finding out more about F G B Hutchings will find an article elsewhere on this blog: https://secretlibraryleeds.net/2016/11/18/half-a-cup-of-cream-which-nobody-else-seemed-to-want-the-american-diary-of-a-leeds-librarian/

    The Secret Library
    Leeds Central Library

  3. Julia says:

    Love the photo of the tiled hall – wonder if people who used to use it had any idea what extravagant decoration was hidden behind those white “modern materials”!

    1. Wonder no more. I was a regular user from 1955 to 1971 and loved the modern light and airy atmosphere of the place when it was the technical and commercial library. To say I, or anyone else in our small social study group had any idea of what had between concealed behind those modern materials, would be quite untrue. Years later, when I visited the library again after years of absence, I was startled to hear of a new Tiled Hall, which had a restaurant. I walked in and I was utterly stunned. The food and drink aspect of the room was overwhelmed by the flamboyance and exuberance of the decorations. How could anyone have believed such visual wonders didn’t deserve to see the light of day!. I’d always been impressed by the refreshment facilities in the Manchester Central Library and never thought Leeds Central Library would ever aspire to such a thing, much less get it into successful operation. It would have made all those risky trips crossing the Headrow to the little coffee shops, redundant. Mind you, that’s where the enjoyable post-library study social sessions were held. Do the present generation of 6th formers and students make up these ad hoc groups as they eat and drink in the Tiled Hall? I certainly hope so .

      D. A. Young

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