Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Full of character and charm

Junior library was a special place for children

Sunday, 30th May 2021, 6:30 pm
The junior library in Dewsbury’s old public library in Wellington Road

IT IS a sad sight these days to see a shop closing down, especially one which has served our town faithfully and well for over a hundred years.

This has happened with the WH Smith book store in the Princess of Wales Precinct, Dewsbury which has just closed its doors forever.

Anyone who knows anything about books will always associate them with the nationally famous book store WHSmith.

But by a remarkable coincidence, the man who was to become Dewsbury’s first borough librarian in 1889, was also called W H Smith.

However, he wasn’t in the business of selling books but of lending them free of charge, and during the 48 years he was librarian, loaned out millions of them.

Our Mr Smith had come to Dewsbury from Manchester in 1887, shortly after Dewsbury adopted the Free Libraries Act.

He also oversaw the development of branch libraries at Dewsbury Moor, Earlsheaton, Ravensthorpe, Thornhill and Whitley.

As well as collecting many rare books on Yorkshire’s history, he also collected anything to do with the Bronte family’s connection with the district.

Books were his life and, within a few years of being the town’s librarian, the library was turning over three quarters of a million books a year.

This was in the day when people visited the library nearly every week, sometimes twice a week to borrow and return books.

So popular was the local library that the Reporter always published a list of new books being acquired by the library on a regular basis.

The reference library, always well stocked, was of particular importance to those who had missed out on a good education and were now trying to educate themselves as best they could.

Indeed, the forerunner of the library – the Mechanic’s Institute - had been set up years earlier by working men of the district for this very purpose.

Formerly situated in Church Street, Dewsbury, the Mechanic’s Institute was later to become part of the newly-built Technical School in Halifax Road.

They would later hand over their vast collection of books into the safekeeping of Dewsbury’s new library in Wellington Road.

Mr Smith was later able to claim the distinction of having had more to do with books than any other individual in Dewsbury before him.

When looking through old newspaper files we learn a great deal about how local government ran its affairs and how they treated their civil servants.

In the case of our Mr W H Smith, he was allowed to stay in his position until the ripe old age of 83 and was still holding his position right up to three days before his death in 1937.

Like most corporation officials at that time, one of the perks of the job was a council house, and Mr Smith lived happily in his in Ravens Avenue, Scout Hill, for many years.

He had three sons, one of whom, Alwyn T Smith, was tragically killed in World War One. Another son, William C Smith, worked in the borough treasurer’s department.

By sheer coincidence, Mr Smith was succeeded by another Mr Smith, this time Frederick William Smith, who had been his deputy for some years.

This Mr Smith will still be remembered by many people in Dewsbury, mainly for his great work in overlooking the setting up of a junior library.

Having been deputy librarian for some years, he was conversant with the needs of local people - a qualification which applicants for such jobs are no longer required to have.

But, then again, perhaps successful applicants for such high profile jobs today wouldn’t see a new council house as one of the perks of the job!

Many Dewsbury people have fond memories of the old library which was moved some years ago, like its neighbour, Dewsbury Swimming Baths, to new headquarters in the centre of town.

People like me still remember what a hallowed place it was, the beautiful building in which it was situated, full of character and charm.

Both the library and the old swimming baths are still standing and still retain their architectural stature, but what a terrible state they are in at present.

I remember as a child entering the portals of the old library and feeling that I was entering a place like no other.

It was a special place where children could go into their own library without an adult to accompany them, and choose any book they wished.

We moved around in silence.

When we dared speak, which wasn’t often, it was always in hushed tones.

We never ran around, but then why should we?

It never entered our heads to do anything other than be quiet and well behaved in places like these.

Coming from a large family where everyone talked at once and where you had to raise your voice if you wanted to be heard, my visits to Dewsbury library were my retreat from all of this.

It was my haven, and when I look at the picture on this page, I know why I loved this place as much as I did.

It wasn’t just the books which I loved.

It was the stillness of the place and the wonderful silence, which encouraged all children to stay as long as they could.

By the way, the forenames of the founder of the first WHSmith’s book store in Britain were exactly the same as our Mr Smith – William Henry. Quite a coincidence don’t you think?

Pictured above is a rare photograph of the wonderful children’s library in Dewsbury’s old public library in Wellington Road, the place where children went to choose whatever book they wished, our own little haven which was for children only.

If you have any recollections you would like to share, please email me: