Following last week’s announcement by the County Council that High Wycombe’s former library in Queen Victoria Road could be converted into offices, readers might be interested to learn more about the early history of the library service in the town.

The origin of the library can be traced back over 150 years to the formation of a Literary Institute in High Wycombe in about 1850.

Its principal purpose was to arrange lectures on topical subjects of the time for the benefit of both working and professional men of the town.

For example in November 1854 the lecture was entitled “Electric Telegraph: its Principles and Practical Use”.

The first President was John Turner Esq, a prominent medical doctor in the town and the organising committee included other well-known residents.

As it developed the Institute seems to have taken on a more social role, with an annual fete and regular cricket matches in the summer months.

For example the fete in July 1860 included various amusements and sporting activities, with the highlight being a “Balloon Ascent by Henry Coxwell in his War Balloon ‘Mars’ ”.

The Literary Institute, which continued to meet well into the 20th century, put forward a suggestion in 1871 for the creation of a “Free Library”.

The need for this was proposed at an Institute dinner held at the Red Lion Hotel by Mr J.O.Griffits “the unwearying promoter of all that tends to the moral and social well-being of the inhabitants of his native town”.

His proposal was accompanied by the offer of £250 towards the cost. Further donations were forthcoming so that within 12 months the fund had reached nearly £700.

Unfortunately there was then a disagreement about where the Free Library building should be located.

Mr Griffits again took the initiative and urged that a temporary home should be provided. He found vacant premises in Gardner’s store on the corner of Bull Lane and Oxford St, “which was furnished, chiefly by Mr Griffits himself, with many valuable books and periodicals”.

Weekly subscriptions were introduced “in order to give the working classes an opportunity of contributing towards what was designed mainly for their benefit”.

This temporary home for the Free Library seems to have been well-used, thus confirming that such a facility would be popular.

Early in 1875 it was then announced that the old British Schools in Church Street would be vacant, following the move of the school to its new buildings in Priory Road.

Once again Mr Griffits stepped forward and offered to purchase the Church Street buildings and lease them back until he had recovered the purchase price. This offer was accepted.

Mr J H Raffety prepared the designs for the required alterations and then the buildings were rerfurbished and furnished appropriate to the intended use, one part for the Free Library and the other for the Literary Institute.

The formal opening ceremony was held on Tuesday April 18th 1876.
The 1870s were an appropriate time to focus on the development of the Free Library because in 1870 the Government had enacted the Elementary Education Act.

Up until then education of the ‘working class’ had been mainly undertaken as an extension to the Sunday Schools, which were provided by the churches and chapels throughout the country.

The Act empowered the ratepayers of each Poor Law Union or Borough to form School Boards and so establish schools themselves.

Initially this education was not compulsory but it was made so in 1880. So the Free Library in High Wycombe would have been welcome by the poorer inhabitants of the town, many of whom would only now have been learning to read.

The Free Library in Church Street successfully catered for the needs of the town for nearly 60 years, but not always without controversy.

For example in 1917, at the height of the Great War, vociferous complaints were made through the pages of the Bucks Free Press that “the library is to a large extent a collection of literary rubbish”.

This was coupled with a complaint that the library was not “the popular institution it ought to be”, the complainant however saying that “it was true that the downstairs room – the news department – is well patronised”.

The ‘news department’ being a room where newspapers and magazines could be read. Therefore the complaint was about not only the poor quality of books in the lending department, but also that “there is a large number of people in the town who do not know they have the right to use it”.

It seems that this led to a rethink about the purpose and use of the Free Library and the Literary Institute. In the following year, 1918, the latter was renamed The Literary & Scientific Institute, and a parliament introduced into its programme.

Towards the end of the 1920s it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Free Library was now too small to adequately cater for the literary interests of the expanding population of High Wycombe.

In 1928 23,351 book-loans were made. Three years later this had more than doubled to 58,037.

In that year, 1931, the total number of books in the library was 8,200, meaning that on average each book had been loaned out over 7 times.

The number of registered borrowers was 2,750.

Once again who should step forward to finance a new library, Mr J.O.Griffits, together with the Marquis of Lincolnshire (Lord Carrington) and Sir John Thomas.

Sir John was a partner in the Thomas & Green Soho Mill in Wooburn Town and amongst the other charitable donations he made was the recreation ground in Bourne End.

A significant contribution towards the cost of the new library was also made “by means of the working men of High Wycombe who in the 1880’s started a penny endowment fund for the building.”

This new library building was in Queen Victoria Road adjacent to the Town Hall. It was opened on Saturday June 25th 1932.

The Bucks Free Press headlined its report of the event with “High Wycombe’s New Brain Centre”, describing it as “one of the finest buildings in the county – bright, well lighted, and artistically decorated, with accommodation for 12,075 books. A new section is the children’s library, well stocked with young people’s literature and equipped with small tables and chairs”.

The cost of the building was £14,000 and the furniture, fittings and equipment £1,750. These were sourced from local companies.

It was built on land owned by the Corporation, which had been purchased from Lord Carrington in 1903.

Several features were installed from the old Free Library, these being an 18th century fireplace and two Griffits Memorial Windows.

The fireplace was removed in 1992 (where is it now?) and the two windows were installed in the new library in the Eden Centre in 2008.

Many readers will undoubtedly remember the ‘old library’ in Queen Victoria Road, but do not perhaps appreciate that when it was opened in 1932 it only occupied the ground floor of the building.

The first floor was occupied by an Art Gallery and Museum. It would be thirty years before the Museum moved to its present location in Castle Hill House in 1962.

The first floor of the library building was then given over entirely to the Reference Library.