Magic of a Georgian Library

The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?

Georgian Library

Grand Library at Osterley Park, not like my poor house at all!

Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze.

Georgian Library talk

(L to R) Kate Walker, Alison May, Janet Gover in the Leeds Library

But it was a visit to the Leeds Library during the RNA Conference last month which really started me thinking hard.

Authors Kate Walker and Juliet Bell (a.k.a. Janet Gover and Alison May) gave a panel discussion there, considering whether any of the Brontë sisters’ novels could be called romantic to an audience of 50% romantic novelists and 50% library subscribers. All had written modern versions of Wuthering Heights. The consensus was — passionate and intense, yes; romantic, no.

Leeds Georgian Library

Georgian Library Leeds, entranceAt least, that was the conclusion they came to, once they (and I) had found the place.

Leeds Library  is in the middle of a shopping street and its truly wonderful reading rooms are situated above the shop, as it were. We were looking for No 18, but the shop hoardings had no numbers. We flew up and down the street, frantic, as the minutes ticked by and the Hour of the Lecture approached.

leeds Georgian library blue plaqueAnd then we saw it, squeezed in between a bank and a stationer’s. The blue plaque on the wall gave it away, of course — though it took us a while to find it.

in fact, this siting of the library was deliberate, according to their own website. The rental for the shops in what was then the most fashionable shopping street in Leeds, provided useful income to support the library.

For the Leeds Library is the oldest surviving subscription library in the UK. It was founded in 1768, purchasing books which could be lent out to paying members for a period of 10 days at a time. The library ticket states that if the books were not returned, the fine was sixpence a day. This was a lot. (One scholar suggests its purchasing power in 1760 would be equivalent to £5-£7.50 today.)

Georgian Library chair bill

OK, I admit it. I love the signature.

But then books were seriously expensive, which is why even prosperous people wanted to read more books and journals than they could afford to buy. And the Library was furnished so that the patrons would feel comfortably at home, as the bill for 20 green chairs attests. Twelve still survive!

Georgian Library Secretary

Georgian Library Secretary

Jasperware cameo of Joseph Priestley by Josiah Wedgwood & Co

The blue plaque helpfully explains that the first secretary of the Library was Joseph Priestley. Now, this threw me. Surely not the Joseph Priestley who was one of the Lunar Men, friend of Josiah Wedgwood and Benjamin Franklin?

I had heard of him among Enlightenment scholars of  the West Midlands and also in London, where he met Franklin and went to the Royal Society. But Leeds?

Georgian Library patronsSo I consulted Jenny Uglow’s Bible on the Lunar Men (such a wonderful book) and it was indeed that Joseph Priestley.

A Yorkshireman by birth, he lived and worked in Leeds for some years. Indeed he organised a local census in 1771 and was supported in the endeavour by many Leeds Library members according to a talk at the Library earlier this year.

I’ve always been fond of Priestley. He was a grammarian and wrote the most widely used grammar book of the day. He sounds like a born teacher, which was a role he took very seriously. He invented soda water. He was a Dissenting cleric who didn’t believe in life after death. He sort of discovered oxygen — before galloping off madly in the wrong direction, propounding the phlogiston theory.

He was an optimist. When Priestley had the brilliant idea of using electricity to decorate pottery, Wedgwood teased him affectionately, “Heaven’s dread bolt is now called down to amuse your wives and daughters — to decorate your tea-boards and baubles.”

Georgian Library reading room

Leeds Library Reading Room

And in the end, his radical pro-revolution views forced him out of England (via Hackney where he also gets a blue plaque, incidentally) to spend the last ten years of his life in Pennsylvania.

I really like thinking of Priestley organising this delightful library. I just bet he adored it.




Sophie Weston AuthorSophie





16 thoughts on “Magic of a Georgian Library

  1. lesley2cats

    Now I want to go to Leeds and buy The Lunar Men. I did some research on libraries and muniment rooms for a book a few years ago – I still have loads of pictures…

    1. Sophie Post author

      I recommend it. Leeds is fabulous. Huge amount to see. And the library is a wonder – once you’ve negotiated your way in, of course.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you John. I so loved the library – and was delighted to find (eventually) that it had employed one of my favourite Lunar Men.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    It looks fantastic. So interesting that it was a subscription library, of which we hear much but don’t ever get a chance to see.

    1. Sophie Post author

      There are still a few round the country, Liz. I seem to remember there’s one in Belfast, which I always meant to visit when I went there for work and then never had a gap when it was open.

      I think they were sort of mutual societies, unlike the circulating libraries like Mudies, which was definitely for profit.

      But I’m not certain and don’t have time to research it until I’ve finished the current To Do list. (Can you see that I’m itching to get at doing just that?)

  3. Jan Jones

    Osterly Park was the default historical house for school visits when I was a teenager. Excellent place. As is the Leeds Library, of course.

    Must research the Lunar Men…

    1. Sophie Post author

      How interesting. Osterley Park was only four or five miles from where I was born, but I never went to visit it until years later.

      My first truly grand Georgian library was Blenheim’s. I went to hear a concert of baroque music in that library and the whole thing was just breathtaking. The highlight of the evening was the Coffee Cantata, I remember, with a seriously naughty soprano singing the coffee-addict. I’ve never forgotten it.

  4. Sue McCormick

    I knew about most of Priestley’s many coats, but was unaware of his library connection. So thank you for the enlightenment.

    I know that books are much more common today. Our library (over 7000 volumes but some are duplicate titles) some of which has yet to be unpacked from or move 29 years ago, is NOT stately. It’s crammed into cheap shelves, Rubber Maid containers, and canvas boxes. We’ve been cataloging it for the entire 29 years and are still not finished. We DO discard some books, but the new buys outweigh the discards by far.

    I feel sorry for the compulsive reader in years gone by.

    And just for general information, 45 years ago two compulsive readers married and merged libraries. It wasn’t until the hard drive let us begin build our catalog that we had any idea HOW to weed out the duplicates.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Sounds like a marriage made in Heaven, Sue. Though possibly a challenge too far for the De-cluttering Brigade.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this post. I was actually in Leeds yesterday (a young friend’s wedding) and I came across a splendid building on the west side of City Square,very near the station. I’ve no idea what it once was – it has now been divided into several outfits, but the façade remains – AND four statues of the great and the good of Leeds, including Joseph Priestley, stand on plinths along the front of it.

    I loved Jenny Uglow’s ‘The Lunar Men’ and I gave her ‘In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815’ a rave review for the Historical Novels Review when it came out in 2014. Anyone who is interested in how people actually lived in that period should read it.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you, Elizabeth. I had a load of fun researching after the visit. This blog is but the tip of the iceberg…

      Jenny Uglow is my hero. She approaches history in exactly the way I wish my teachers had done. I haven’t read her Napoleonic Wars book, but I bet that, if she mentioned the Conference of Vienna at all, it was lucky to get a footnote. Our A Level Course took a whole TERM on the politics of slicing and dicing Europe.

  6. Anne Harvey

    I loved this post! I used to be a Leeds Tourist Guide back in the 80s but never ever got to see the Leeds Library. I noted your interest in Joseph Priestley too. Did you know that the reason he came to Leeds was to be a the pastor at Mill Hill Chapel, located near City Square? Mill Hill was one of the first Dissenting meeting houses erected in the North and was built in 1673.

    1. Sophie Post author

      He was certainly a Renaissance Man.

      I knew he was a Dissenter, Anne, but didn’t realise he served in Leeds. Oddly enough, the first time I ever heard about Priestley, long before I’d read The Lunar Men, was when he was a pastor at Needham Market in Suffolk, where my grandmother’s family came from. I think it must have been a very early job and they didn’t take to him. I suspect their feelings were reciprocated. But his faith was clearly as important to him as his scientific observations and discussions.

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