Lurgan Free Library Before Carnegie

Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989

Lurgan Free Library before Carnegie

by D.R.M. Weatherup, F.M.A.

former Curator, Armagh Museum

Many people associate the library in Lurgan with Carnegie so it is often assumed that it was founded by his beneficence. Therefore it is probably worth placing on record that there was a free library started in the town before the end of the nineteenth century.

Andrew Carnegie, was born in Dunfermline in 1835 and moved with his family to Pennsylvania at the age of thirteen. There he made a fortune from oil and steel and retired in 1901 to devote himself to providing social and educational facilities, both in the USA and the British Isles, and one of his chief interests was in the provision of libraries.

Andrew Carnegie - 'The richest man in the world'
Andrew Carnegie - 'The richest man in the world'

The story of the development of Lurgan's library is recorded in the minute books of the Free Library Committee, originally appointed by the Lurgan Town Commissioners and later by Lurgan Urban District Council.

The first volume is entitled 'Public Libraries and Museums (Ireland) Acts, Minute Book, Lurgan. 1891'. (This volume is now in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland No. LA51 /14A/ 1) and commences with a preliminary meeting of the committee appointed by Lurgan Town Commissioners in accordance with the Public Libraries and Museums (Ireland) Act, held in the Town Clerk's Office, Lurgan on Monday 12th August. Mr John McCaughey was appointed Chairman and Mr W Livingston Hon Secretary. It adjourned after noting that a suitable place for a reading room and library was being sought.

At the next meeting on the 17th a clear preference was stated for Lord Lurgan's estate office as against accommodation in the Town Hall. On 31st of the month it was agreed that a weekly meeting of the committee should be held at 8pm on Mondays, starting on the 9th November and the Town Commissioners were asked to rent the estate office in Market Street for the committee.

There is a gap in the record until 21st December, 1894, so it is not clear whether the committee failed to meet, was disbanded or merely kept no records. When the minutes commenced again on that December day the meeting was still chaired by Mr McCaughey and it was agreed that the basement of the Town Hall was the most certainly available accommodation and that it should be secured. During January, 1895 a deputation met the Town Commissioners and agreed on necessary alterations to make the basement acceptable for library use.

Improvements needed

Various improvements were required to its two rooms; they were to be floored, the walls sheeted, the doors altered and the sewers examined. By the end of the month Mr Shillington, was reporting that the sewer from the Mechanics Institute should be cut off and diverted under the boiler house to connect with an existing sewer further down the passage. On the last day of January the Town Clerk forbid the opening of the tenders which had been advertised in the Lurgan Mail and Lurgan Times as there was no sanction from the Local Government Board. This apparently was overcome because a pencil note says - 'Tender was accepted on 10th February 1895 by Town Commissioners'.

By August the contractor W J Martin had his account for fitting up the rooms passed, the opening of the library was discussed and Mr W McGeown offered to do a sign board as he had no books to give to the library. This was accepted and the post of caretaker was advertised at £26-0-0 per year. At the next monthly meeting chairs, blinds for the front windows and fittings for the News Room were authorized. There were fifteen applications for the caretakers job and Mr W Charles McGuigan was appointed and newspapers and magazines were ordered from local newsagents.

By November things had become apparently more mundane with accounts passed - William Longsdale for tables etc £3-6-0; H T Shillington for plans £3-3-0; L Richardson for printing £1-1-3; William Maguire for painting £1-15-6; John Long, plumber £1-11-1 while C Fleming was to be paid £9-15-10 for chairs; D Malcomson got 12/- for bootscrapers and a carpenter, P Walsh, received £8-13-1. In December the caretaker was authorized to receive £7-10-4 wages and Walsh got another 11/2, William Longsdale was to be paid thirteen shillings and two pence also for carpentry work, while two newsagents, Pollock and McKeown, also had bills for supplying newspapers passed for payment.

News room

On 1st April, 1896 it was agreed that the news room should be opened from 9am to 10pm each weekday, but at the September meeting it was ordered that the rooms be closed between 3pm and 6pm to have them properly aired. The library by now had settled into a routine and the committee were principally concerned with the approvement of payments, the issue of cheques and other small concerns. A new development was recorded at the quarterly meeting on 4th January, 1900 when the Secretary reported that he had accepted an offer of a course of lectures to be held in the library in February and a further advance took place when, on 2nd October, it was authorized that a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica be paid for in monthly instalments and that a small room off the library be fixed up as a reference room.

Early in 1901 it was decided to have a window made in the wall between the two rooms for better supervision of the news room, and in July it was decided to obtain a uniform for the caretaker, who in 1902 received £4-5-0 on two occasions, although his standard wage seems to have been £3-0-8. On 9th July a general meeting of the committee was held at 9pm when Mr J C Combe was elected secretary. The minutes of the previous meeting were passed, although Dr J M Moore wished to be recorded as objecting to the holding of the previous adjourned meeting as he regarded it as illegal, the members not being sufficiently summoned to it. The Secretary then read a letter from Mr R W White (the former Secretary), explaining that the excessive expenditure last year was due to £10-0-0 for an encyclopaedia and about £7-0-0 for alterations which would not occur again. Without these the committee would have been within its normal £95-0-0 raised by the penny rate.

Financial irregularities

The Chairman proceeded to take up the quarterly accounts, however on an examination of the cheque book, it emerged that a number of cheques had been drawn on the authority of a meeting not properly called.

Dr Moore again intimated that he wished it recorded that as a rate-payer he strongly objected to this procedure. It was agreed that a meeting be held on the first Tuesday of each month at eight in the evening when all accounts should be passed, cheques drawn and signed and no resolution should be rescinded without seven days notice being given to each member of the committee. The Secretary was instructed to write to the Town Clerk to ask him to procure a cheque from the Urban District Council to meet the bank over-draft. The Chairman and Hon Secretary were now to be appointed annually.

On 5th August, 1902 Mr Carnegie's name first appears in the records by which time the library committee had been in existence for ten years, and the library open for at least six, established and at first run by the Town Commissioners and then Lurgan Urban District Council which had replaced Commissioners under The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. A discussion was held at this meeting as to the best means of obtaining information regarding the course to be adopted to get assistance for the library from Mr Carnegie so Dr Moore undertook to write to Dr Thompson, MP, of Omagh on the subject.

Newspaper subscriptions

At a special meeting on the 19th August a list of books drawn up by the Secretary was accepted and he was authorized to order them from Messrs William Mullan and Son of Belfast and in September, at the usual monthly meeting, it was agreed that they should adopt the Belfast Free Library Rules 'in globo', except where local modifications were necessary, also to adopt the guarantee forms and charge borrowers each 2d annually. At a special meeting in the same month they also revised the list of papers to be bought from 1st October.

From that date they would be taking the Belfast Newsletter, the Northern Whig, the Irish News, the Evening Telegraph (both 4th and 6th editions), the Dublin Irish Times, the Freeman's Journal and the London Daily Mail. Weekly publications were to be London Illustrated News, Tit-Bits, Answers, the Penny Illustrated Journal, M.A.P., Feathered World, Free Lance, Westminster Budget, Textile Mercury, Literary World, the Phonetic Journal, Cassell's Saturday Journal, Lloyds Weekly, Glasgow Weekly Mail, Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, Athletic News, Football News, Ulster Saturday Night, News of the World and Pearsons Weekly. Monthly magazines were to be Pearsons, Strand, Windsor, Royal and Chambers and the Contemporary Review, which seems, in retrospect, a very impressive list.

In November the committee were proposing to hire a gas stove for the committee room and ordered tickets for the fines which were to be levied on borrowers who kept books beyond the fourteen days allowed. In December, as well as deciding to close the Reading Room on 25th and 26th December, the committee were considering a report from the Local Government Board Auditor in which that functionary expressed himself very strongly as to the manner in which the books were kept, to improperly constituted committee meetings and the practice of sending cheques out to be signed. He advised unofficially that in his opinion the system of signing cheques by three members only to the exclusion of others was illegal and it was recorded that we the Committee of the Lurgan Free Library resolve that the irregularities complained of shall be discontinued and the auditor's directions shall in future be strictly adhered to'.

Only reading fiction

The 1903 annual meeting was held on 21st January when the Secretary's report was ordered to be published in the local papers, the committee noting with regret that fully 75% of the borrowers would only read fiction. Furthermore, it was minuted, that not-withstanding the structural alterations that had been made from time to time it was still impossible to have the rooms properly heated and ventilated. It was also revealed that the Urban District Council had made an application to Dr Andrew Carnegie, towards the cost of building a new library and they hoped that their application 'would receive that practical support for which Dr Carnegie had a world wide reputation',

Dr Moore (apparently now happier with the committee's procedures) seconded Mr McNally's motion adopting the report and complimented the secretary Mr Combe for the way he had properly looked after and attended to the affairs of the committee, 'but' he said, 'he had no idea that Mr Combe had made a special study and devoted so much attention to the work. While the funds at their disposal were not as large as they would wish, yet they would not belittle the good work the library was doing and especially he would refer to the recreation room which was he was glad to say, largely taken advantage of. There the youth of the town had an opportunity to indulge in good and harmless games that kept them out of harms way when they had time at their disposal in place of being lured into mischief.

The representative of the working class

Mr. Culbert, 'as the representative of the working class', fully endorsed the remarks of the previous speaker. He agreed with them as to the great earnestness thrown into the work by their Secretary. He could assure the committee - and he was one of those who had watched the Free Library with great interest, being one of the first to move in that direction -as outside he had a better opportunity than any of them of knowing that the public, especially the working classes, keenly appreciated the library. Mr Combe replied saying 'that any work he did in connection with the Free Library was a labour of love. Lurgan Free Library had a good future before it and all that was required was to have it well worked up and to secure not only moral but financial support. If they had looked at other towns which had adopted the Free Libraries Act they would find that Lurgan was considerably to the front. In some towns the library would only remain open a few hours through the day, while other towns had abandoned the idea altogether'.

At the meeting in March, 1903 it emerged that Dr Moore had actually lent the gas stove for the committee room and in April of that year the caretaker notified the members that a Mr Foster had paid 2/9 for work, entitled 'A Lost Ideal', which was in his possession when an outbreak of Scarletina had occurred in his dwelling house. In May, Newtownards Urban District Council wrote asking for information on the papers and magazines bought for Lurgan Library, which perhaps supported the Secretary's claim of Lurgan's advanced position in the library field. The caretaker was instructed to label all the books with a view to having them classified and catalogued at some future date - which suggests that the library service was still in a fairly simple stage of development.

On June 22nd 1903 a special meeting was held, the business being to receive an official statement from the Chairman intimating that Dr Carnegie had generously offered £22,000 to build a Free Public Library for Lurgan. In the meantime business continued as usual and on 2nd July the committee decided not to take up a Library Association scheme for power to increase the library rate, particularly in the view of a contemplated appeal to the public for financial assistance. Mr McGuigan was to get his usual uniform, but three members were asked to form a sub-committee to improve the style before it was ordered. At the end of July the Chairman (Mr R H Hazelton) gave a detailed account of his visit to a number of new Free Libraries in England and Wales, after which various styles of architecture and modes of management were fully discussed with a view to getting ideas for the management of the new Carnegie Library in Lurgan and the arrangement of the various departments.

Architect appointed

On 2nd September matters had progressed far enough for the Chairman to make a statement on the progress of the committee charged with over-seeing the building of the new library - a site had been granted, a Mr Hobert of Dromore had been appointed architect and the Local Government Board awaited the ground plans, which were being prepared, before giving final sanction for the site. The Secretary having brought to the notice of the committee that advertising boards and literature for various emigration agencies were exhibited in the Reading Room he pointed out the evils arising from Irish emigration which was virtually draining the country. The committee therefore decided to withdraw all emigration notice boards and reading mater supplied by the aforesaid agencies and to instruct the caretaker not to exhibit either boards or reading matter relating to emigration.

On 2nd October, the Chairman reported that draft plans for the new library were to be considered by the Council and after discussion some modifications and amendments were agreed. It was also directed that the caretaker would keep separate and distinct books for fines levied for the detention of books and the monies raised from the issue of guarantee forms. A special meeting was held on 22nd of the month to examine the plans for the new library when the members expressed themselves thoroughly satisfied with the Council's suggestions for modifying certain details as arranged with the architect. On 4th November the committee examined the books registering fines and borrowers guarantee forms and were happy with the new system. They also agreed to accept 21 years copies of the London Times as a present from the Linenhall Library in Belfast and recorded a vote of thanks to the Linenhall Library Committee.

At the December meeting a stock-take of all books was ordered which were then to be catalogued, the work to be done within two weeks and there was a report of same unpleasantness between a youth named Williamson and the caretaker, but the Secretary had settled the matter. It was decided to procure a lock with two keys for the letterbox, one for the Chair-man and the other for the Secretary, to ensure that all correspondence would come directly into the hands of an official. It is amusing to note that the Hon Secretary, in recording Dr Moore as Chairman in this minute, noted after his name the letters 'T.C.' (Town Commissioner) and had to strike them out and substitute 'U.D.C.' (Urban District Councillor) under the new form of local administration.

Town Crier

In 1904 the regular monthly meetings continued and on 26th April it was reported that the proceeds of the sale of papers and magazines amounted to £1-7-7 after paying the bell-man to call the auction around the town; this being possibly one of the few references to a town crier in Lurgan. Mr Joseph McConville was thanked for giving his services as auctioneer without charge. In May the Town Clerk had to attend and explain a new order sent down by the Local Government Board with regard to Free Library accounts which were now to be paid by the Urban District Council The caretaker's salary of £3-0-8 was passed for payment and then £14-1-10 was to be paid to the Lurgan Branch of the Ulster Bank to close the Free Library account. It was also decided that it was not an appropriate time to ask the public for money for equipment for the new library "as so many collections were going on in town at present", and at the meeting on 25th August the matter was again deferred. However on the 30th, at the usual monthly meeting, the question was discussed and it was decided that representatives in the various factories in the town should be asked to co-operate in raising funds from their workers.

On 20th September at a special, and apparently lively, meeting it was agreed to ask the co-operation of the working class to assist in raising funds and pass books for the subscriptions were to be sent to the owners of factories in the town with a letter of explanation. At the November meeting it emerged that the sum of £19-19-1 had been lodged in the bank, the process of the sale of papers by the caretaker, so that it would appear that an auction to dispose of old papers was no longer held.

In December the raising of funds was still being discussed and it was agreed to call on leading business men in the town to solicit subscriptions from them. Yet, despite the apparent difficulties of raising money, it was agreed at the January meeting in 1905 not to ask the Town Council to relieve them of this responsibility.

Football benefit match

At the monthly meeting in March Mr H G MacGeagh, Chairman of the Council, was elected Chairman of the Committee and in April it was agreed that the Library should be kept open on Easter Monday and the caretaker get another day off instead. A house furnishing sub-committee was suggested and this was referred to a meeting on the 26th, while it was reported that local football teams would stage a benefit match to raise money for library equipment.

On 26th April the library furnishing sub-committee was established and agreed to hold a public meeting before attempting to collect money, although a house to house collection by members of the committee in pairs was now proposed and the employers of labour were again to be approached. By 26th May the idea of a house to house collection was postponed until "the end of the harvest when money would be more abundant".

In August the chairman was able to report that there would be about ten pounds profit from the benefit football match and the committee passed a vote of thanks for the gifts of a collection of South African snakes and a guinea pig, while at a special meeting on the 22nd an offer from a Mr S Anderson to supply newspapers, etc for the quarter ending 31st December, 1905 at 5% reduction on published prices was unanimously accepted. At the September meeting the Chairman stated that he had been in correspondence with Dr Carnegie concerning a grant for equipment but as that gentleman had given his maximum amount, i.e. 20 times the amount of the penny rate, there was no hope of him creating a precedent. A street collection sub-committee was therefore appointed and the Chairman and Secretary asked to enquire about those collecting cards which had already been distributed.

In October it was reported that there was £211 in the equipment fund and it was suggested the house furnishing sub-committee should take steps to get into the new building as soon as possible. A number of ladies were to be approached to see if they would undertake additional collections and it was ordered that the lending of books be discontinued until further notice as the new building would be ready for occupation early in the New Year. On December 22nd the committee agreed to a formal opening at 3pm on 9th January, 1906 with a converazione at 7.30pm. The Chairman generously offered to pay for both entertainments and to invite Sir James Henderson and Mr Elliott from Belfast on this occasion. It was agreed that the doors of the Free Library should be formally opened by Mrs MacGeagh, the Chairman's wife.

On February 6th, 1906 the first meeting of the new committee of Lurgan Free Library was held with Mr MacGeagh re-appointed to the chair and Mr F Sloan as secretary. Now in control of their new building they rounded off the business of their predecessors by recording a credit balance of £66-8-8 after the sale of furniture and fittings from the old library.

The library opens

The Carnegie Library was opened and the first volume of the Free Library Minutes finished with, on the back page, a list of the original committee of 1891 - twelve in number - six Town Commissioners:

  1. John McCaughey, Church place
  2. James Malcomson, D.L., High Street
  3. Robert Hazleton, Market Street
  4. James Dickson, Church Place
  5. John A Thompson, Church Place and
  6. William Livingston, Market Street

along with

  • George Ferguson, Union Street
  • John Kennedy, High Street
  • John McConville, Edward Street
  • Walter Culbert, Victoria Street
  • Andrew Halliday, Hill Street and
  • James McCullough, Victoria Street

the pioneers who had set out fifteen years before to establish a free library in Lurgan town.