1851: The First Library

The first public library in Bedworth was established in 1851, in Hob Lane (now Chapel Street). It must have been part of, or adjacent to, Hob Lane Infant School – one of the Honorary Secretaries was John Tansley, the schoolmaster (the other was Thomas Jaques), and old maps show almost no buildings on Hob Lane other than the school. The earliest large scale Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in 1886, shows a long, thin building just west of the school, which could well be the library. It’s located where Cadman Close is now, so no trace of it remains, but part of the school building still stands, and houses Julie Bromage Dance Academy.

By the 1850s, town libraries were not uncommon – but the 1851 census recorded only 3012 people living in Bedworth, so it’s interesting that there was sufficient demand for a library. But mining areas have always had a strong tradition of self-education, which led to the setting up of ‘reading-rooms’, effectively simple libraries where working men (and the emphasis was largely on men) could read the local and national newspapers, and perhaps also some books. Bedworth’s first library was most likely one such institution. It was supported by ‘voluntary subscriptions’, as was normal at the time, though some larger places did have free public libraries. It may or may not have been a circulating library – one which allowed subscribers to take books home to read.

Among the novels first published in 1851: Lavengro by George Borrow, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Non-fiction published that year included: The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a Slave and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, both of which would have been likely to interest people in Bedworth.

Mary Shelley, best known as the author of Frankenstein, died on February 1st 1851.

Melville Dewey was born on December 10th in New York. He grew up to be a librarian, and invented the Dewey Decimal System Classification System for grouping books by subject, still in widespread use today. Dewey was a controversial figure in his lifetime, advocating the use of the Metric System and Spelling Reform – he changed his own first name to Melvil (eliminating the redundant letters) and for a while even changed his surname to Dui. He was repeatedly in disgrace for his behaviour towards women, and was censured for racism and anti-Semitism – all this in 1905.

A report of 1872 says that Bedworth Library then housed over 800 books, and the reading-room was well supplied with both London newspapers and the “Provincial” papers, as well as magazines.

1953: A New Home

The library had a variety of homes after the Hob Lane building closed. The Local History files at Bedworth Library contain a few Annual Reports by Bedworth’s Regional Librarian. The Report of 1969-70 says:

“As the County Library reaches its fiftieth year, it is fitting to look back to the achievements in this region. Prior to 1947 the County Library service in Bedworth had been a part-time service run by voluntary helpers in a hut on the Memorial Park and later in a shop in Leicester Street …. In mid-1947 however, a new branch library, in converted premises in Rye Piece, Bedworth, was opened and staffed by paid assistants.”

In 1952-3, fears that the new medium of television would put children off reading books spurred the library to acquire a room in High Street, and “the use of a window there for publicity purposes”. This was a former shop, which had many uses over the years, including as a pawnbroker’s. The library was later extended, and various branch libraries opened which were staffed from Bedworth. A Mobile Library was introduced in 1954.

1953, of course, saw the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Literary highlights of the year include: Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming – the first James Bond novel

The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham’s latest, The Go-Between, by LP Hartley, famous for its opening lines – “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

Victoria Wood was born on May 19th, while Dylan Thomas died on November 9th and Sir Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

By the early 1970s, the total issues for Bedworth Library, all of its branches, the Mobile Library, and issues to Old People’s Homes, totalled well over half a million items per year. And even then, it wasn’t just books – in 1968 a “collection of stereophonic gramophone records” was introduced. The library also loaned out pictures, believe it or not! This was a county-wide service, whereby customers selected pictures from a catalogue and, for a small fee, had a different picture every few months to hang in their living room.

1985: A New Chapter

There had long been hopes of a purpose-built library for Bedworth, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the town finally got one. It was built on land which had been a graveyard, later used as a car-park. (Yes, the bodies were exhumed!) In the archive, we have a copy of the folded A4 handout which was provided when the building opened. It shows the façade and floor-plan, lists the project team, and provides some information about the development. Offices were also provided for the Citizens Advice Bureau – this part of the building is now Cuttsy’s Hairdresser.

Construction of the new building began on Monday 29th October 1984, with the library and CAB opening on Monday 4th November 1985. Work then started to demolish the old library and build the new Borough Council office, which opened the following spring. The project came in under budget … slightly. The allocated budget was £545,000, with £412,600 being provided by the County Council, and the Borough Council making up the difference. The final cost was £544,791. No mention is made of what, if anything, was done with the £209 change!

The new library provided 18,500 books for adults and 5000 for children, as well as 500 cassettes – these being a mixture of music and spoken word. On the first day, 2300 books were borrowed, and more than 100 people took out cassettes. There was an Information and Local History area with 500 volumes, as well as microfilms and a machine to read them … which is probably the same machine we still have today! A photocopier was provided, and newspapers and magazines.

The new stock might have included: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Death of a Gossip, the first Hamish Macbeth story by C Beaton, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Westerns were still very popular at the time) and Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

Children will have pounced on The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me by Roald Dahl, while their parents perhaps picked up Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking or Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me.

Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll died on July 16th and EB White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, on October 1st. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was born on July 14th and Tom Fletcher three days later.

A Bedworth Ghost Story

The Monkey’s Ghost

The old High Street library had an unusual story attached to it: it was haunted by the ghost of a monkey! When the building was a pawnbroker’s run by Mr Dewis, he had his office on the top floor. On Empire Day (24th May) 1910, Mr Dewis’s pet monkey knocked over an oil lantern, which set fire to his papers. Children from the Central School, just over the road, had just set out for their treat. Instead of their Empire Day celebrations, they got to watch the exciting spectacle of the Fire Brigade dashing from their station to tackle the fire. No-one was injured (though I wonder what happened to the customers of the pawn shop – were any of their items lost in the fire? Did they get their money back?) But the monkey lost its life.

Some who worked in the old library speak of occasional poltergeist-like incidents. I once talked to one of the former cleaners. She said that the top floor was only used for storage, and sometimes she’d go up there to find that boxes which had been neatly stacked were now all over the place. This sort of occurrence was always blamed on the monkey’s ghost. There aren’t many phantom monkeys in British folklore, so this little creature makes Bedworth a bit special!