How the purchase of novels caused a rift at the Mechanics Institute

Picture of the library at Wark Mechanics' Institute
Picture of the library at Wark Mechanics' Institute
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The latest Morpathia nostalgia feature by Roger Hawkins.

RECALLING the early days of the Mechanics’ Institute, Robert Blakey says that: “Subscriptions were soon obtained, and a tolerably fair sum was provided for the purchase of books. I was commissioned to purchase some hundreds of volumes in Edinburgh, and thus the Institution was at once set in motion.”

An underhand attempt by its opponents to discredit the Institute came to nothing, and James Fergusson records that by the end of 1825 the library contained 574 volumes, including some that were donated.

Subscriptions and money donations were £244 4s 2d and the committee purchased 549 volumes, an electrical machine and other ‘philosophical instruments’ for £208 19s 6d.

Four years of peace followed, but in 1830 there was trouble again, this time from within.

It was about novels, a common cause of friction in mechanics’ institutes everywhere. Many upper class people had a dog-in-a-manger attitude towards working people reading for pleasure.

It was accepted that the poor should read the Bible, but that meant they could also read newspapers and novels.

Newspapers were taboo because they contained political information. One would think, therefore, that any literature that distracted the poor from such a dangerous preoccupation would be welcome, but the rich had a variety of reasons for their disapproval of novels.

Some had no taste for literature, and thought reading a waste of time – that working men should only work, eat and sleep.

Others liked novels for themselves, but not for the workers, while people with narrow religious views disliked them because all fiction is a lie. At bottom, there was an uneasy realisation that imaginative literature is liberating. It gives people ideas beyond their dreams.

The trouble arose, Fergusson says, from a proposal to buy a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels: “A very large majority of the members voted for their introduction, but it was strenuously opposed by some members anxiously desirous for the welfare of the Institution.”

In these circumstances, ‘the committee consented to admit them, with an express stipulation that no other productions of a like kind should ever be allowed to enter the library’.

They also resolved to charge a penny per issue for borrowing novels, ‘thus establishing a fund by which the expense of this somewhat objectionable acquisition to the property of the society would be defrayed without infringing on the regular contributions’.

Although Fergusson quotes a contemporary report saying that ‘some members’ objected, I think it likely that there was really only one main objector, and that he (they were mostly he) would have been an annual subscriber to a large amount, perhaps as much as two-guineas-a-year; also that the proposal was not so much to buy novels as to keep the ones already on the shelves.

Wealthier subscribers would not easily know what books the Institute had. Being of a higher social status than the ordinary members, such people would have their own libraries and would have no occasion to visit the rooms.

But in 1830, the librarian William Wilson reclassified the books into six categories, gave them new numbers, and issued a printed catalogue.

A note explains that, as the old numbers ‘have been stamped on many of the Books’ and so ‘could not be changed or obliterated’, most books have both old and new catalogue numbers.

The old catalogue was evidently a simple accession list, probably a bound book kept on the librarian’s desk.

If so, the old numbers give us a good idea of what books were in the library, not only in 1830, but at the very start.

Allowing for donations and perhaps for a few bought later in the year, the bulk of the 574 books at the end of 1825 must have been those bought in Edinburgh by Robert Blakey.

Wilson’s classification is detailed above.

Only 18 per cent of the purchased books were technical works in Classes I and II.

The rest were more attractive reading, such as travel, biography, drawing, plays, poetry, fiction and magazines. In short, Robert Blakey, scholar and man of wide sympathies, chose well.

Class V especially contained a fair selection of the best of English literature, including Theobald’s Shakespeare in 12 volumes with old numbers 41-52, Scott’s poetical works 53-62, Byron’s 146-9, and Robert Burns, 219-20.

Most striking is a section in Class V, headed ‘Scott’s novels, 40 vols’, beginning at old catalogue number 498.

There are 21 titles, including Waverley, Rob Roy, Guy Mannering, The Black Dwarf, Heart of Midlothian and Ivanhoe, followed by 19 blank entries.

The committee clearly meant to purchase the whole set.

One novel, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, old-catalogue number 256, was placed in Class VI. This looks strange, until one realises that it was part of a collected edition of Swift’s works, including his sermons.

No other novelists were represented. The library contained nothing by Defoe, Smollett or Fielding.

Following the publication of the printed catalogue in 1830, we can imagine our two-guinea subscriber, as we suppose him to be, seated in his favourite chair, idly turning the pages of the booklet in his hands.

He starts up: ‘What’s this? Novels! I don’t pay two guineas a year for these fellows to waste their time reading novels.’

And his objection resulted in the library banning all new novels for the next eight years.

“In 1838,” says Fergusson, “the rule prohibiting the introduction of novels was rescinded and, in the following year, the committee reported that they had purchased a new set of the Waverley novels, the original series having become utterly dilapidated through being ‘more frequently and generally read than any other class of books in the library’, and what was more significant still, they had bought eight volumes of new novels beside.”

Very sensibly, the committee retained the penny charge for borrowing novels.

They did, however, resolve to spend up to £5 a year on them in future and the report for 1839 says that they had acquired ‘some of the latest publications in general literature’ – coded language for fiction.

The supplementary catalogue for 1840 goes even further, with several novels by Edward Bulwer, including Last Days of Pompeii, six by Fennimore Cooper, including Last of the Mohicans, and a volume of Fielding’s works, the author of Tom Jones.

Dickens is represented by Nicholas Nickleby, 1839, and Master Humphrey’s Clock, a series that only began in 1840.

Nothing could signify the committee’s change of heart more clearly.

From buying no novels at all for eight years, by 1840 they were buying the latest works of the most popular living novelist of the day.

The library of Wark Mechanics’ Institute still exists and gives an idea of what Morpeth’s might have been like.