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The Rise and Decline of Village Reading Rooms

  • CAROLE KING (a1)
Abstract

This article describes the development of the reading room, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Reading rooms were originally imposed upon the working classes by the upper classes, mainly the church and local landowners. Their establishment reflected contemporary attitudes to philanthropy, recreation and self-help and confirmed the great class divide. Little research has been carried out on this subject, and this article focuses particularly on rural Norfolk, explaining the distribution of the one hundred and sixty village reading rooms identified, their varying location and architectural styles, membership profile and differing methods of financing, including fund-raising social events. The article uses local and national archives and contemporary Ordnance Survey maps, as well as information from many local people. Reading rooms offered a much needed alternative to the public house for the working classes, although they tended to appeal more to the lower middle classes, and membership was mostly restricted to males. The difference between reading rooms in ‘open’ and ‘closed’ parishes is discussed. In the twentieth century, as other diversions appeared and the countryside became more democratised, reading rooms gradually declined. They were an important part of village life and have left interesting evidence of former lifestyles and attitudes.

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Notes

1. Burchardt, Jeremy, ‘“A new rural civilization”: Village Halls, Community and Citizenship in the 1920s’, in Brassley, Paul, Burchardt, Jeremy and Thompson, Lynne, eds., The English Countryside between the Wars: Regeneration or Decline? (Woodbridge, 2006), p. 27.

2. Parliamentary Paper 1834 [44] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Administration and Practical Operation of Poor Laws. Appendix (A). Part II. Reports from Assistant Commissioners, p. 17a.

3. Parliamentary Paper 1842 [380] [381] [382] Royal Commission on Children's Employment in Mines and Manufactories. First Report (Mines and Collieries). Appendix, p. 290.

4. The Swaffham Parish Magazine, November 1878.

5. White, William, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk 1883 (Sheffield, 1883), p. 215.

6. Norfolk Record Office, PD146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room Minutes and Accounts.

7. Burchardt, Jeremy, ‘Reconstructing the Rural Community: Village Halls and the National Council of Social Service, 1919 to 1939’, Rural History, 10:2 (1999), 203.

8. A Plea for Reading Rooms in Rural Parishes by a Country Curate (Derby, 1862), p. 3.

9. Ibid., p. 4.

10. Ibid., p. 5.

11. ‘Whatever is done for men and classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves’, Samuel Smiles, Self-Help (1859), p. 1, quoted in Briggs, Asa, Age of Improvement 1783–1867 (Harlow, 2000), p. 382.

12. NRO, PD 146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room.

13. Parliamentary Paper 1852 [1479] [1480] Committee of Council on Education: Minutes, Correspondence, Financial Statements and Reports of H. M. Inspectors of Schools, 1851–52, Vol. II, p. 39.

14. White, Directory of Norfolk 1883, p. 745.

15. Mallows, Jessie, Scole from Past to Present (Ipswich, 1962), p. 13.

16. Plea for Reading Rooms, p. 6.

17. Parliamentary Paper 1842 Royal Commission on Children's Employment in Mines and Manufactories. Appendix, p. 152.

18. NRO, BUL 4/221, 614XI. Bulwer, W.E.L., Address at the Opening of a Reading Room at Cawston. [Printed pamphlet] (Bulwer of Heydon Family Papers, 1863), pp. 3, 4, 9.

19. Ede, Janet, Virgoe, Norma and Williamson, Tom, Halls of Zion: Chapels and Meeting-Houses in Norfolk (Norwich, 1994), pp. 3841; Virgoe, Norma and Williamson, Tom, eds., Religious Dissent in East Anglia: Historical Perspectives. The Proceedings of the Second Symposium on the History of Religious Dissent in East Anglia (Norwich, 1993), pp. 83–4.

20. Bonner, Harry and Moore, Stephanie Beckett, A Brief History of Bradwell Reading Room Trust. [Typescript] (Bradwell, n.d.).

21. NRO, PD 394/47 Correspondence and other Papers re Parish Reading Room (Parish Records of Roughton).

22. Mallows, Scole, p. 13.

23. Kelly's Directory of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1892. [Part 2: Norfolk] (London, 1892), p. 613.

24. Kelly's Directory of Norfolk, 1912 (London, 1912), p. 436.

25. NRO, PD280/65 Costessey Reading Room Committee Minutes.

26. White, William, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk 1883 (Sheffield, 1883), p. 117.

27. Bateman, Great Landowners, p. 461.

28. Kelly's Directory of Norfolk 1904 (London, 1904), pp. 190, 530.

29. Who Was Who 1929–1940 (London, 1941).

30. Kelly's Directory of Norfolk 1904, p. 159.

31. NRO, PD677/4 Bishop's licence to perform divine service in the Reading Room.

32. James, Jenefer Warwick and Stone, Peter, Sir Alfred Jodrell 1847–1929 (Dereham, 1996), pp. 23.

33. Banks, Sarah, ‘Nineteenth-Century Scandal or Twentieth-Century Model? A New Look at “open” and “close” Parishes’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 41:1 (1988), 5173; Holderness, B. A., ‘“Open” and “close” Parishes in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Agricultural History Review, 20 (1972), 126–39; Mingay, G. E., ed., The Victorian Countryside. Volume 2 (London, 1981), pp. 471–2.

34. Mills, Dennis and Short, Brian, ‘Social Change and Social Conflict in Nineteenth-Century England: The Use of the Open-Closed Village Model’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 2:4 (1983), 253.

35. These statistics were extracted from Returns of Owners of Land 1873. Norfolk (London, 1875) and confirmed by White, Directory of Norfolk 1883.

36. NRO, PD 208/31 File of vouchers and accounts for erection of Haddiscoe Reading Room 1906–1907.

37. NRO, PD 208/160 Correspondence with Charity Commissioners.

38. Kelly's Directory of Norfolk 1904, p. 189.

39. NRO, PD146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room.

40. NRO, PD178/43 East Barsham Reading Room Minutes 1918–1931, 5th December 1921.

41. NRO, PD548/60 Letter from Mordaunt Edwards, Hardingham Hall, April 19th 1911.

42. NRO, SO156/1 Witton Reading Room Minute and Account Books 1909–1960.

43. Cromer and North Walsham Post, 15th October 1904; correspondence with Mr. D. W. Bunning, Gressenhall Green.

44. Correspondence with Mr. M. Grix, Burgh-next-Aylsham.

45. Fielden, Kenneth, ‘Samuel Smiles and Self-Help’, Victorian Studies, 12:2 (1968), 160.

46. Price, Richard N., ‘The Working Men's Club Movement and the Victorian Social Reform Ideology’, Victorian Studies, 15:2 (1971), 125.

47. Harrison, J.F.C., Learning and Living: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (London, 1961), pp. 50, 51.

48. Post Office Directory of Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1869 (London, 1869), p. 348.

49. White, Francis, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield, 1854), p. 428; The National Archives, 1851 census: HO107/1810/633/7.

50. Francis White, Directory of Norfolk, p. 427; TNA, 1851 census: HO107/1810/646/33.

51. TNA, 1861 census: RG9/78/62/42. This is a particularly interesting name, as Isaac Jex left home, going to London to join the police force. Was he still at home when the building was constructed, or did he send money home to support an endeavour he thought was worthwhile?

52. TNA, 1851 census: HO107/1810/631/2.

53. TNA, 1861 census: RG9/1207/86/5.

54. TNA, 1851 census: HO107/1810/641/22.

55. TNA, 1861 census: RG9/1207/87/7.

56. Cf. ‘It was . . . customary for villagers and Sunday school children to lay a brick, sometimes initialled, together with a suitable donation [for the local non-conformist chapel]’, Ede, Virgoe and Williamson, Halls of Zion, p. 17.

57. Francis White, Directory of Norfolk, p. 733.

58. Ede, Virgoe and Williamson, Halls of Zion, p. 15.

59. NRO, HIL 1/145 Plan of glebe farm, Hilborough.

60. Kelly's Directory of Cambridgeshire, etc., 1892, p. 499.

63. NRO, MC 389/40 Royal Norfolk Nurseries Estate inc. Reading Room (1884).

64. Bernard, and Orna, Elizabeth, Flint Building in Norfolk (Worthing, 1984), p. 7; Pevsner, Nikolaus and Wilson, Bill, Norfolk 1. Norwich and North-East (London, 1997), p. 20.

65. Pevsner and Wilson, Norfolk 1, p. 26.

66. NRO, BR 35/2/64/11 Keswick Reading Room.

67. Kelly's Directory of Norfolk 1904, p. 212.

68. Ede, Virgoe and Williamson, Halls of Zion, p. 37.

69. NRO, PD704/30 Dickleburgh insurance policies and papers.

70. Richards, Terence, Visitor's Guide to Overstrand [Leaflet] (Overstrand, 2005); conversation with Mr. David King, Suffield.

71. NRO, PD 146/50 Treasurer's book, Swanton Abbott Coffee Room.

72. NRO, PD 146/49. Swanton Abbott Coffee Room minutes.

73. NRO, PD 208/31 File of vouchers and accounts for erection of Haddiscoe Reading Room.

74. NRO, PD 209/456 North Elmham Reading Room Society Committee Minutes and Accounts.

75. NRO, PD 146/50 Treasurer's book, Swanton Abbott Coffee Room.

76. NRO, PD 479/11 Account book for Great Melton Reading Room, etc.

77. NRO, PD 459/152 Litcham Reading Room balance sheet.

78. NRO, PD 368/68 Balance sheet for Helhoughton Reading Room.

79. NRO, P/CH 2/177 Norman Reading Room.

80. NRO, PD 530/40 Belton parish account book.

81. NRO, P/CH 2/177; NRO, PD 373/183 Northwold Reading Room accounts.

82. NRO, PD 143/64 Necton Reading Room accounts.

83. NRO, PD 479/11 Great Melton Reading Room, etc.

84. NRO, PD 117/10 Overstrand Reading Room account 1940–41.

85. NRO, PD 479/11 Great Melton Reading Room, etc.; NRO, PD 117/10 Overstrand Reading Room.

86. NRO, BUL4/221, 614XI Bulwer, Address.

87. NRO, PD 368/68 Helhoughton Reading Room balance sheet 1901.

88. Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815–1872 (London, 1971), p. 47.

89. NRO, MC 97/116, 541XI Cromer Working Men's Club and Reading Room – MS notes, reports, rules.

90. Mulbarton Men's Club Minutes Book, in the possession of Mrs. Jill Wright, Mulbarton.

91. Ibid.; Mulbarton Reading Room rules: ‘no person in a state of intoxication shall be permitted to enter or remain in the room’. Mulbarton Men's Club Minutes Book.

92. NRO, PD146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room; PD502/97 Warham Reading Room member's card, 1929.

93. NRO, PD146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room.

94. Ibid.

95. NRO, PD 373/178 Northwold committee minutes 1884; PD215/25 Letter about partition in Dunton Reading Room.

96. NRO, PD 146/49 Swanton Abbott Reading Room.

97. Barclay, P. S., The History of the Trustees of “The Cromer Working Men's and Fishermen's Reading Rooms” and the Property at No. 11 Chapel Street, Cromer [Typescript] (Cromer, 1988).

98. Mulbarton Men's Club Minutes Book.

99. NRO, MC 97/116, 541XI Cromer Working Men's Club and Reading Room – MS notes, reports, rules (1880).

100. Stinchcombe, Owen, ‘Researching Village Reading Rooms’, Local Historian, 20:4 (1990), 156–57.

101. TNA, 1881 census: RG11/1981/10/14.

102. White, Directory of Norfolk 1883, p. 400.

103. TNA, 1881 census: RG 11/1981/5.

104. TNA, 1871 census: RG10/1848/14/20.

105. NRO, PD 459/152 Litcham Reading Room balance sheet; TNA, 1881 census: RG11/1981/6/5; White, Directory of Norfolk 1883, p. 400.

106. NRO, PD 143/64 Necton reading room accounts; Post Office Directory of Cambridge, etc.,1869, p. 357; Harrod, Directory of Norfolk 1877, p. 339.

107. Harrod, Directory of Norfolk 1877, p. 161; TNA, 1881 census: RG11/1982/62.

108. NRO, PD373/178 Northwold Reading Room committee meeting minutes; White, Directory of Norfolk 1883, p. 432.

109. TNA, 1881 census: RG11/2011/69/1, RG11/2011/86/4, RG11/2011/73/9.

110. Horn, Pamela, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside (Stroud, 1987), p. 43.

111. Burchardt, Jeremy, ‘“A new rural civilization”: Village Halls, Community and Citizenship in the 1920s’, Brassley, Paul, Burchardt, Jeremy and Thompson, Lynne, eds., The English Countryside between the Wars. Regeneration or Decline? (Woodbridge, 2006), p. 27.

112. Hill, C. P., British Economic and Social History 1700–1982 (London, 1985), p. 240.

113. Burchardt, Jeremy, ‘Reconstructing the Rural Community: Village Halls and the National Council of Social Service, 1919 to 1939’, Rural History, 10:2 (1999), 193216.

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