The Bagnall's of Wakefield

Press - Generosity that spoke volumes

Generosity that spoke volumes

Excerpt by kind permission of Kate Taylor from her book "Wakefield District Heritage"

It would not be possible to write about local buildings and the people who were associated with them without access to the resources of the Public Library and, more especially, of its Local History section and the help of its staff.

Today we tend to take free libraries for granted as one of the facilities any local authority ought to provide.

Even 70 years ago, however, when Wakefield's Drury Lane Library was first opened, the acquisition of a public library had the air of a coup.

If its opening was a somewhat "heady" occasion, undertaking its maintenance seemed something of a shot in the dark.

The following account is based on contemporary newspaper reports and other documents held at the Wakefield M.D. Library Headquarters in Balne Lane, and draws on research by Miss Stella Hutchings, librarian in charge of the local history section.


Wakefield had had a subscription library from 1786 and copies of its rule book and some of its 19th century catalogues have been preserved. A Dissenters' Library, supported by Dr Caleb Crowther, John Pemberton Heywood and Thomas Lumb, was founded in 1799. Westgate Chapel had had a book club from the 1760s.

The 19th Century saw the provision of libraries at the Mechanics' Institute and the Church Institute, to the former of which we owe the splendid collection of bound volumes of local newspapers that remain available today.

Possibly it was the existence of such valuable amenities that led Wakefield to lag behind many local authorities as the Free Library movement gathered momentum in the second half of the last century.

There were demands in Wakefield itself for a public library for at least 30 years before the local authority took action, and in the 1890s a Public Library Provisional Committee was set up.


Mr. W. Glover was its president and a number of men eminent locally as vice-presidents.

In March, 1894 one of the committee's secretaries, Mr. Sam Whitaker, wrote to the "Free Press" to draw attention to the opening of a new public library at Harlesden at a total cost of £2,980, and to suggest that for a modest £3,000 Wakefield could enjoy a similar asset.

When Wakefield finally did acquire its, library in Drury Lane, for almost three times that sum, it owed much to two men - one who was born in Wakefield but achieved distinction elsewhere, the other with an international reputation and no local connection.

Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropic multi-millionaire, had first given a free library to his home town of Dunfermline in 1882 a year after his retirement as the foremost ironmaster in America.


His personal fortune of £60m had been made largely from the development of railways in America with such companies as the Pittsburg Locomotive Works and the Keystone Iron Bridge Company.

He devoted some 12 million dollars to endowing 660 libraries in the British Isles.

Wakefield was one of the favoured boroughs. An application by Wakefield's Mayor, Henry S. Childe, in 1902, secured £8,000 from Carnegie on condition that the Public Library Act (1850) which authorised the levying of a penny rate, was put into operation.


The design of the library was put out to competition. There were 81 entrants and Messrs Trimnell, Cox and Davison of Woldingham, Surrey, secured the award.

Modifications in the final design of the building owed much to the architects being more accustomed to preparing schemes for the London area.

What was described initially as a "somewhat plain barn-looking building" could be transformed into an unusual stone-faced edifice for the difference between southern prices and the cheaper north.

The foundation stone was laid by Henry Childe, then in his second term of office as Mayor, on February 15, 1905, the day that his wife unveiled. the statue of Queen Victoria in the Bull Ring.

It was then that Alderman Simpson, chairman of the Free Library sub-committee, voiced a hint of the uncertainties of the venture when he reminded spectators that "how far a penny rate would go had yet to be proved."

Faced with Crosland Moor stone, the library was built by Messrs Bagnall Bros., of Wakefield, under the direction of Mr. Billington.

The second benefactor associated with the new library was Charles Skidmore (l839-1908), then Bradford's Stipendiary Magistrate. At the time of the opening, he gave Wakefield no fewer than 2,000 books and pamphlets, all either about Wakefield, originating in Wakefield or written by Wakefield men, thus laying the foundation of the present local history collection.


Skidmore was the son of Joshua Annable Skidmore, of St John's, Wakefield, a deacon of Zion Congregational Church for nearly 50 years.

Charles was educated at the West Riding Proprietary school and at Dr Monroe's High School, Stone Grove, Sheffield, before being called to the Bar in 1863.

Four years later he married Mary Ann, or Marianne Haigh daughter of Thomas Haigh a former Mayor of Wakefield.

Between 1868 and the time of his appointment in Bradford in 1889 Skidmore practised in Darlington and an obituary in 1908, remarking on his affection for the town, commented that "Darlington was often the salvation of many an old lag."

If a man brought before him in Bradford claimed Darlington as his home town Skidmore would drop the formal manner for a moment and chat about old acquaintances.

The same obituary on Skidmore's "leniency towards the weaker sex" and his "deep-rooted abhorrence of wife beaters."

Skidmore presented his collection of books o Wakefield at a ceremony on June 20, 1906, when Andrew Carnegie formally opened the new library.

Carnegie referred to in one local paper as "he famous dispenser of free libraries who had already received five reedoms during the week", was then declared a Freeman of yet another borough.

The Mayor, Alderman Hudson, told Carnegie that "in fact he was not a Yorkshireman" he did suffer from one little defect but that "all things being considered a good Scotsman was not much inferior to a Yorkshireman".

Carnegies was described as "just a quiet, well-dressed little man, with nothing in feature, figure or apparel to suggest any special distinction except his big head and large top hat". He was "dressed in the orthodox way of a Sabbath-school teacher".


Criticism of the library was voiced even before its opening. In a sermon in January 1906, the Rev Andrew Chalmers, Minister of Westgate Chapel, who had seconded a cote of thanks to the Mayor at the stone-laying ceremony, made his own disappointment clear. Care had not been bestowed which such a place deserved and for £8,000 people "had certainly expected more than was shown at present".

Quote what a public library should look like, or indeed quite how it should function, cannot have been clear even in 1906. The "Wakefield Herald" was clear, however, on what should not be done, and in February 1906, it published a colourful diatribe.