We might associate grand public libraries with the great Victorian gestures of civic pride, such as Liverpool’s Central Library (1860). Yet the 1930s witnessed an ambitious and striking wave of library-building in northern towns and cities. For example, Birkenhead, Manchester, and Sheffield all invested in large central libraries. Opened in 1934 amid great pomp and ceremony, these civic buildings reflected an important investment in local culture by committed and passionate civic patriots that we might not associate with these towns and cities between the wars.

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Victorian Civic Pride: William Brown Street in Liverpool

Pioneered by the town’s “civic father”, Alderman E. G. Mason, Birkenhead library was opened by King George V in July 1934, as part of wider celebrations and a royal visit to mark the opening of the Mersey Tunnel. The library is a grand, art deco building with designated children’s library (the Wirral claims to be a pioneer of children’s libraries http://www.upton-wirral.co.uk/index.php/recreation/library )

Sheffield Central Library was opened by the Duchess of York in 1934. Financed in part by contributions by local businessman J. G. Graves, the building reflected cutting-edge art deco architectural designs, including several stone carvings to represent arts and scientists.

Birkenhead Central Library - geograph.org.uk - 532728

Birkenhead Library, opened by King George V in 1934

Why did these towns and cities invest in such ambitious civic buildings at a time of economic and political upheaval? Firstly, they represented an opportunity to stimulate local business at a time of high unemployment and economic decline. Second, they represented part of a wider drive to re-envision the modern city and, for example, Birkenhead was the focus of ambitious, albeit unrealised, plans during the Second World War. Finally, the libraries represented an important gesture of civic pride as a response to instability and as a way to quell dissatisfaction – there were unemployment riots in Birkenhead in September 1932, for instance.

Civic Pride was a way to boost the local economy: The second Cunard liner Mauretania is launched from Messrs Cammell Laird’s shipyard in Birkenhead, 1938

These new civic buildings may, like their Victorian predecessors, have functioned as a way to impose power and authority over a threatening local population, or, they may have provided a more populist approach to civic culture by investing in a building that aimed to serve the local community. Nevertheless, such energetic ambition and the passion of local civic patriots like Graves and Mason points to ways that we can rethink established narratives about decline in northern Britain during the twentieth-century.

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