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Public libraries in Victorian Cornwall


The Public Library Act of 1850 had little direct impact on Cornwall. By 1890 only Truro had established a rate-supported free public library. The libraries that were established in the last years of the century were the product of private philanthropy rather than civic initiative.

The man responsible for those libraries, Passmore Edwards (1823-1911), the “Cornish Carnegie” had been born only a few miles away from the farmhouse where my grandmother wept over East Lynne. Sadly, none of the public libraries he founded lay within walking distance of her home. In his autobiography, A Few Footprints (1906), he recalls desperate attempts to find privacy for reading not unlike the young Mary Nicholls bent over the pages of East Lynne:

“. . .hundreds and hundreds of times I pressed my thumbs firmly on my ears until they ached, in order to read with as little distraction as possible. In this way I managed frequently to entertain myself and pick up fragments of knowledge. These recollections of early days, fresh and vivid as those of yesterday, have encouraged me in after years to promote the public library movement, so that poor boys and girls, as well as men and women, may enjoy educational or recreative advantages denied to many during the early and middle parts of the last century.”

Edwards also recalled the print famine of his boyhood. The only literature that came into the village of Blackwater where he lived as a boy consisted of “one newspaper and a penny magazine brought into the village by a man named Davies.”

In later life as a newspaper publisher Edwards amassed a considerable fortune which he dispersed into various philanthropic projects, mostly hospitals and libraries. Eight of the libraries he founded were in Cornwall and Edwards was impressed by the reception to their opening. In A Few Footprints, he notes that while library openings in London were formal and perfunctory, in Cornwall they were accompanied by public holidays, banquets and even music, fireworks and “a carnival.”

Although Edwards’ philanthropic efforts were aimed at relieving what he deemed the “monotony” of village life, the libraries he founded were, necessarily, situated in the towns. For most villagers “the library” consisted of the small collection of books housed in the local chapel for the use of Sunday School pupils. A near contemporary of Edwards, John Harris (1820-1884), the autodidact “miner poet” drew up a study plan for himself in which one day a week was devoted to “history, or such books as I may have from the (Sunday School) library.” Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 11.33.58 AMSecular reading was in particularly short supply and Harris depended on the goodwill of such local gentry as were willing to open their “library doors” to him. Harris’s autobiography documents, not only the scarcity of printed books but also the shortage of writing materials. As a boy Harris seems to have used almost any available smooth surface as a substitute for paper—pieces of plaster, wood, even his own hat. Discarded “tea-wrappers” sometimes became available as paper and blackberry juice served as ink.

Small wonder that newspaper accounts of the time attribute vast social change to the advent of free public libraries. More surprising is the way that the founding of a library not fully funded by a philanthropist like Passmore Edwards met with opposition.

In 1885 many Truro ratepayers questioned the tax increase incurred by the proposed foundation of a free public library. Proponents countered by warning that such opposition would class the community with “small stagnant towns, devoid alike of intelligence and common sense.”

The Quiver, 1888

The Quiver, 1888

They held out the model of the beneficial effects of free public libraries in large centres in providing “wholesome” entertainment for the working class.

Not to be beaten, resentful ratepayers argued that the increase in rates was unfair to “lady” ratepayers since they would not be library users. Library advocates responded that the library would be open to “every man woman and child in the city.” However, it appears that in many cases the public space of the free libraries was occupied almost exclusively by the “working men” whose leisure was being directed to self-improvement.

Bethnal Green Public Library, The Quiver, 1888

Bethnal Green Public Library, The Quiver, 1888



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“Literacy” and the Victorians

Anyone who scans Victorian publications for the term “literacy” is likely to come up more or less empty-handed. While people were sometimes described as “literate” in Shakespeare’s time and even earlier, it meant that they were generally “learned” rather than merely able to read and write. Similarly, when newspaper reports during the nineteenth century refer to individuals, or more often groups, as “illiterate” it usually means “uncultivated” or just badly behaved, as in “the illiterate mob.” “Literacy” doesn’t start to occur in print until 1893.

Despite having no single word to refer to reading and writing skills, Victorian literature repeatedly puzzles over what distinguishes readers from non-readers. In Our Mutual Friend (1865) Dickens constantly locates characters on one side or the other of the literacy divide. Interestingly, the newly-literate class which formed a significant segment of Dickens’ own audience is painted as either venal (Charley Hexam), ridiculous (Miss Peecher), sinister (Bradley Headstone) or conniving (Silas Wegg). All of these characters, though “literate” in the sense of being able to read and write, are far from literate in the older sense of being “learned.” The first three are products of an inadequate school system that relied on rote learning. The last, Silas Wegg, is barely literate purveyor of a soon-to-be-defunct variety of street literature.

Street literature seller from Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor

Street literature seller from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor


“Literacy” in Victorian Cornwall


Social historians have relied heavily on marriage registers, gathering the statistics on the number of individuals who signed their names with an “X,” but they acknowledge that it’s a crude and unreliable guide as to how people might function in a world in which an understanding of the printed word was becoming more and more important. Some of those who produced a signature on a marriage register might be at the outer limits of their orthographic skills. More rarely, those capable of producing a signature might still sign with an “X” to avoid embarrassing a less capable partner. Dickens records one such face-saving gesture in Bleak House under the heading “A Touching Incident” where a “labouring man’s daughter” who had “quite distinguished herself in . . . school” signs the marriage register with the same “rude cross” as her new husband.

Court records provide clues as to the ways basic activities might be hobbled by being unable to read and write. The Cornish courts in the last quarter of the nineteenth century heard numerous cases in which the defendant’s inability to read and write is given as grounds for acquittal. Other cases record the ease with which non-readers could be defrauded.

Cornwall, however, had the lowest rate of school attendance of any county in England—a phenomenon that the 1887 Royal Commission on Education attributed to the “very low class of children.”

Mary Nicholls with some of   her pupils in Troon School

Mary Nicholls with some of her pupils in Troon School

Once schooling had become compulsory after 1880 a lack of what would later be called “functional literacy” became the subject of comment in news reports. It’s also clear that improved literacy might well be driving a wedge between children and their unschooled parents. A few weeks before the century’s close the Royal Cornwall Gazette editorialized on “Respect to Parents” admonishing “the younger generation” with their “superior advantages.” “Nothing so tells against a young man or woman as the evident feeling of shame they manifest because of an old-fashioned or illiterate father or mother.”

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