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The first Birmingham Central Library

The Free Libraries Act was passed in 1850. It allowed councils to set up free public libraries, allotting one penny in a pound from the rates to finance this (in pre-decimal currency there were 240 pennies in a pound). Two-thirds of the ratepayers had to agree, but when Birmingham first voted in 1852 the majority was not large enough. In 1860 the second vote was successful, and the Free Libraries Committee was set up.

They decided there should be a central reference library with reading and newsrooms, a museum and art gallery, and four district libraries. The architect E. M. Barry was asked to design the Central Library. His costs overall were too high, so William Martin was asked to design the interior, but Barry's plans for the exterior were retained.

For larger versions please click on the captions or on the image.

The opening of Birmingham Central Library


On 6th September 1865 the Central Lending Library and the Art Galley were opened; the Reference Library was opened just over a year later on 26th October 1866. George Dawson gave an inspiring speech, of which a few short extracts are reproduced here; he began:

"There is, probably, no word of the human vocabulary which brings a greater crowd of thoughts to the educated man's mind than that blessed word library; for a library is one of the greatest causes, as it is also one of the greatest results of man's civilisation...

... "a library may be regarded as the solemn chamber in which a man may take counsel with all that have been good and great and wise and glorious amongst the men that have gone before him. If we come down for a moment and look at the bare and immediate utilities of a library, we find that here a man gets himself ready for his calling, arms himself for his profession, finds out the facts that are to determine his trade, prepares himself for his examination. It is, too, a place for pastime; for man has no amusement more innocent, more sweet, more gracious, more elevating and more fortifying than he can find in a library..."

His words at the end of the speech are religious in tone, reflecting the ideals of the Civic Gospel, and his belief in the powers and responsibilities of the Corporation:

"...the opening of this glorious library, the first fruits of a clear understanding that a great town exists to discharge towards the people of that town the duties that a great nation exists to discharge towards the people of that nation - that a town exists here by the grace of God, that a great town is a solemn organism through which should flow, and in which should be shaped, all the highest, loftiest, and truest ends of man's intellectual and moral nature... We are a Corporation, who have undertaken the highest duty that is possible to us; we have made provision for our people - for all our people - and we have made a provision of God's greatest and best gifts unto Man."

The new Central Library was highly successful, and soon needed space for expansion. There was also to be an Art Gallery, and a Museum of Industrial Art. The end walls of the Lending and Reference Library and the newsroom was knocked down so that the rooms might be lengthened, and replaced with wooden partitions.

It was 1.30 pm on Saturday 11th January, 1879. There had been a hard frost for five weeks. The library was illuminated by gas, but the gas-pipes which supplied the chandelier had frozen. A workman trying to thaw the pipes out had made a hole in a pipe, fitted a transformer and lit it; producing a flame about two inches high. The wind blew a wood-shaving through the flame, which caught fire, and then set light to more wood-shavings stuffed at the base of a partition.

This caught fire. The workman tried to extinguish the fire with his hands, but was unsuccessful. Smoke appeared in the Reference Library. Library staff and readers attempted to put the fire out - there was a large tub of water and fire-buckets - but were hampered in their efforts. 'Unfortunately the buckets had been hung far too high, and the result was some little delay before they could be got down, men having to stand upon each other's shoulders to reach them.' - it transpired that this was because previously a bucket had been stolen.

The fire took hold.

Other readers had dashed outside to raise the alarm. The Birmingham fire-brigade and police arrived quickly, to be joined soon after by the Aston fire-brigade. The fire could not be extinguished, but was prevented from spreading to other buildings nearby. Eventually the ceiling and floor collapsed, and no more could be done.
Many people helped to bring out books from the fire. The Mayor, Alderman Jesse Collings, had been one of the first to arrive, and rescued some of the Shakespeare Collection.
'His worship showed the greatest presence of mind, and himself broke the glass of some of the Shakespeare cases, and helped to get out the books. The Mayor would have stayed longer, but it would have been at great personal peril, and the firemen arriving at the time forcibly brought him out.'

Books were taken to the Town Hall, some were placed in the porch of Mason College, some went to a shop in Edmund Street.

Most of the Lending Library books were saved, but very few of the Reference Library's 50,000 books survived the fire, and water from the Fire Brigades' hosepipes. The books burnt so fiercely that pages flew up in the air and were dispersed by the wind. Some pages were later returned to the library, some were kept in scrapbooks like this one from the Pearson Collection.

Fortunately amongst those books saved were 500 volumes from the Shakespeare Collection, an original edition of Don Quixote, and the medieval manuscript 'The Gilde of St. Anne of Knowle'.


The second Birmingham Central Library

The opening of the third and present Central Library

The present Birmingham Central Library


The original Birmingham Library
A Brief History of Birmingham Central Library
Adderley Park Library
Constitution Hill Library
Deritend Library
Gosta Green Library