Hanley’s first library was founded by bookseller James Straphan in 1790. Called the Pottery Subscription Library, it was a profit making commercial enterprise. James ran the library from his bookshop. Customers were charged two guineas (£2.10p) to join the library and one guinea (£1.05p) a year to borrow books. During 1796, he sold the shop and the library to John Allbut whose son Thomas acquired them at the beginning of the 19th century. Thomas ran the library until he retired on December 31st, 1852 when the books were transferred to the Mechanics Institution’s library in Gitana Street.
Shortly afterwards, the Mechanics Institution launched a successful appeal to erect new premises in Pall Mall. Hanley became a borough in 1857. A year later, pottery manufacturer William Brownfield was elected mayor. He persuaded the institution’s management committee to allow working men to use its library and gave £500 to establish a working men’s reading room. The Public Libraries and Museums Act gave local authorities power to build public libraries if the ratepayers agreed. Hanley’s borough council wanted to erect a public library and called a town meeting to obtain approval for the project. Despite eloquent supporting speeches from leading industrialists and trade union officials, the proposal was defeated by a large majority.
During the 1870s, antagonism between trade unionists and the Mechanics Institution’s management committee led to a campaign to create a public library. A committee was formed to publicise the campaign. Over 3,000 people signed a petition calling on the ratepayers to change their mind and £2,000 was raised towards the cost of establishing a library. At a meeting held in the town hall on June 24th, 1884, the ratepayers said that Hanley could have a library and the council made plans to open one.
It rented rooms on the ground floor of the Mechanics Institution. The working men’s reading room was regenerated and opened for public use on June 1st, 1866. Soon more than 500 people a day were coming to read newspapers and magazines. A small room was set aside for lady readers and William Taylor was appointed librarian. There were 3,820 books in the lending library and 1,560 in the reference section. The library was very popular and the reading room quickly became overcrowded. Adults complained about the large number of schoolboys and young men using it. More space was needed and the mayor, Edwin Hammersley, appealed for help to turn the basement into a boys’ reading room. His appeal was successful. Over 800 books were donated by members of the public and a large, damp, dingy cellar was transformed into a boys’ library.
(Betty Cooper – The Phoenix Trust)