A look back at Sunderland’s first ever library

Inside the library.
Inside the library.
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The times are changing for Sunderland’s Central Library.

It will be relocated next year - but the library service in the city has always had a fascinating history.

The 1801 Sunderland Subscription Library

The 1801 Sunderland Subscription Library

Philip Curtis, of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, looks back and recalls a time when the city had no library at all.

There is no doubt that public libraries are changing.

The borrowing of books has been gradually declining in recent years.

The result is that a number of local Wearside libraries have closed and the city’s Central Library is now to be relocated early next year to the Museum.

Rules were quickly established, Members were allowed one book out for a fortnight and if not returned within that time there was a fine of one penny per day for a pamphlet or twopence for a book, with a maximum of five shillings

Philip Curtis

It is hard to imagine that, at one time, there was no public library at all in Sunderland.

The need for one was first recognized by the Sunderland Debating Society in 1794 .

The members agreed to start an institution in which a collection of books could be made available to the local people.

A room was taken in High Street West and the Sunderland Subscription Library was duly formed. In 1801 they moved to much improved premises, still in the High Street. These were eventually taken over by the Liverpool House department store.

Dr William Clanny.

Dr William Clanny.

All the archives of the Subscription Library are with the Sunderland Antiquarian Society and include minute books, visitors books, stock lists as well as the lending and borrowing details of the early 19th century.

The list of borrowed books illustrates the literary tastes of Sunderland in those days.

There were few novels and most were heavy reference books – the first book on the list was Edwin Darwin’s Zoonomia (2 volumes) which was valued at that time at £2, 15 shillings and six pence. He was the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Can there really have been a demand for this down High Street? Remember a fair number of the inhabitants were probably illiterate.

The new Subscription Library charged 2 guineas a year membership – not a great deal now but in the early 1800s it was the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for a shipwright.

Unsurprisingly, by 1802 there were only 170 members from a population of 19,000.

The first members included the ‘great and good’ of the town. There were names such as Abbs, Goodchild, Grimshaw, Maling, Paley, Hedworth Williamson and Dr William Clanny and many of the books were donated.

Rules were quickly established, Members were allowed one book out for a fortnight and if not returned within that time there was a fine of one penny per day for a pamphlet or twopence for a book, with a maximum of five shillings.

Visitors who lived outside a 15 mile radius of Sunderland were only allowed into the library if accompanied by a member, and they had to be signed in (a bit like a working man’s club).

The early visitors book makes fascinating reading with the names of the guests and the flourishing signatures of the members of important Sunderland families.

One of the members who regularly signed in visitors was Dr William Reid Clanny who became nationally renowned for the invention of the Clanny Safety Lamp.

He, in fact, lived just further up the street from the library. One of his many guests was Robert Surtees of Mainsforth Hall who wrote the great History of the County Palatine of Durham. One can just imagine Clanny and Surtees in the High Street building pouring over the books.

The society holds photographs of the library from the early twentieth century and these show the interior lined with oak bookcases packed with books. There are also large tables and chairs for use of members.

The library became a thriving institution and eventually moved into 52 Fawcett Street near the old Town Hall.

The premises had a glass-domed lecture hall (the dome is still there) and there the library remained until 1938 when it closed down and the archives and some of the early books were deposited with the Antiquarian Society.

The 1801 building which housed the library still stands in High Street West.

Liverpool House store is long gone and there are plans afoot to demolish it.