A Short History of the Reading Room
Although the Victoria County History and J.C. Tildesley state that the Reading Room opened in 1881, it is an indisputable fact that it was inaugurated, in the Market Place, in June, 1877. It is also indisputable that it formed an important part of a Temperance campaign that was being fought in Penkridge at the time. In October 1878, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported that -
“There can be no doubt that the institution is proving a highly valuable counter-attraction to the allurements of the public house, by presenting to those who have not comfortable rooms of their own the means of enjoyable and intelligent social recreation.”
It was a strange oversight on the part of J.C. Tildesley as he was closely connected with the Reading Room, the profits from his book, “A History of Penkridge” (1886), being donated to it.
In 1880 the third annual report of the Reading Room was published in the Parish Magazine. It seems that the early, optimistic hopes for the hall were not quite being met. Although the room was free to all men over the age of 15, attendances were falling. In 1879 the average attendance was 27, in 1880, only 20. It seems that there were two stumbling blocks to progress: the idea that the room was just for reading and the belief that it was a “Temperance” hall. The magazine also reported that tea, coffee, cocoa, ginger beer, bread and butter were provided at a small cost. Commander Wilkes (The Story of Penkridge) says that the Rev. Littleton raised £200 to build the Reading Room by public subscription.
The Temperance campaign became much more vigorous in 1880 when Cecil Littleton, the youngest son of the second Lord Hatherton, became the vicar of Penkridge. Tildesley says he built the new Reading Room on Market Street in 1885 and that it was “open to working men of good character on payment of a nominal subscription, and which is largely patronised by the class for whose especial benefit it was designed”. There is something odd about this date as well, however, as the Parish Magazine of March, 1885 reported that the “New Reading Room” was being repaired (!) and that a moveable partition was being constructed to allow a reading section and a recreation section.
In August 1885 the Parish Magazine reported -
“The Reading Room is progressing and we look forward to having it ready before the long evenings make such a place of resort almost a necessity in a village like our own”. Despite all this refurbishment however, it seems the project was still under some pressure. The magazine added -
“To avoid all mistake as to its purpose, the Vicar wishes it to be understood that it is not intended to be a Temperance Reading Room alone.”
To understand this apparent antipathy to a Temperance Reading Room amongst the working classes one must understand that in the late 19th century drinking was a huge problem in Britain and that temperance was the central part of Cecil Littleton’s ministry in Penkridge. In 1886 the Parish Magazine reported that...
“[The Vicar] has carefully gone through the register of houses with a view to ascertain how far intemperance is affecting his people. The results are awful and he hopes many who read this will take it to heart; including Boscomoor, the central part of the parish contains 267 inhabited houses, giving an average population of 1,300 people. Out of this number 93 houses are under the curse of intemperance which means that in 93 houses there is one or more of the inmates who is a drunkard. Can we any longer wonder at the sin, the poverty and the wretchedness which makes Penkridge what it is?”
The Rev. Cecil Littleton took a hard line with the sinners in Penkridge. During the harsh winter of 1885/6 the Parish Magazine said,
“When on the first sign of severe weather men and women who are habitually intemperate and not only drink but drink to excess....it is neither just nor wise to help unless it be in feeding their innocent children, whom it is hard to see suffer for the abominable selfishness and sin of their parents. The Vicar feels this most strongly and has at last come to the determination never to give any relief to persons of this kind.”
Whilst you might accept the Vicar’s views respectfully on a Sunday morning in his Church, you might not necessarily make his Reading Room your first choice for an evening’s entertainment during the rest of the week. Just before the Vicar left, in 1893, he appeared to soften a little, and he allowed the installation of a billiards table in the room: immediately 20 men signed up for the users’ club ! I believe the Reading Room was well known for its billiards, well into living memory. I have come across no evidence to suggest that it was used to teach women and girls to read but I have an open mind on the subject and am willing to be pointed in the right direction.
There now follows a 60 year gap in my knowledge – I would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows anything of the Reading Room between 1893 and 1957. (Email: history at penkridge dot org dot uk)
In 1957 the Staffordshire Advertiser reported,
“New Church hall is opened. The small reading room in Market St has been transformed from a drab little building into a bright and cheerful church hall. After months of hard work, the new hall was officially opened Monday (29th April) by the ex-mayor of Wolverhampton”.
The hall has been modernised and improved since then, especially in the last 30 years through the charitable work of the “Penkridge Goodies”.
In 2008 it was refurbished at cost of
£130,000 so it could be used as a base for the Church’s Youth and Children’s
Click here for story of refurbishment and more photos.
(click here for Reading Room Website)
Robert Maddocks © December 2008/13