Wendy Greene investigates the history of Worthing Library
The Public Libraries Act 1919 allowed all County Councils to support public libraries through the rates. Books of the day included The Great Gatsby and (sadly) Mein Kampf while boys loved Just William and girls dreamed of attending The School at the Chalet.
Prior to that date, libraries did exist, many being privately owned, but most were in urban areas. Worthing was particularly well served. Stafford’s Marine Library – now Stagecoach offices on Worthing seafront – was frequented by Jane Austen during her stay at Stanford Cottage, which is now Pizza Express. Apollo Library was in South Street, with Bread’s and Colonnade House – now a thriving Art Gallery and studio space – in Warwick Street, followed by Mrs Wicks’ in Montague Street and Mrs Paine’s also in Warwick Street.
Worthing’s Public Library has a particularly interesting story.
In 1892 at a General Meeting, a vote was carried to adopt the Public Library Act 1850, where boroughs were empowered to charge 1p on the rates to fund libraries. There had been great public support, and a protest song which – in spite of the huge part played by women in bring libraries to the town – was called Song for the Worthing Boys.
Marion Frost was the daughter of a chemist who later became Mayor. In 1897 she became assistant librarian of Worthing’s Public Library which was in a cramped building on the corner of Richmond Road and Chapel Road, having recently moved from Rowlands Road. A reference library was added in 1898. When Marion heard that American Andrew Carnegie was being very charitable to libraries from the billions he made from steel, she wrote asking him to pay for a new building. Initially he refused, but on realising the inadequacy of the existing library, he agreed to pay £6,200 towards the cost, insisting the borough council provide a site free of charge and pay for upkeep. The building was a combined library, museum and art gallery opening in 1908.
Worthing’s first mayor, Alderman Alfred Cortis, anonymously paid half of the building costs – his contribution only made public on his death in 1912, whereas Carnegie received ‘the Freedom of the Borough’. Worthing Museum and Art Gallery extended into the site when a new Library opened in Richmond Road in 1975.
Today West Sussex County Library Service is a wonderful asset to the County, and Worthing Library is the Jewel in the Crown. Members have access to a vast number of fiction and non-fiction books, CDs, DVDs and Internet facilities. In addition there are training sessions, events for adults and children, talks and recitals. The reference library, available to all, is manned by helpful, well-informed staff. With so much to offer, it is the gift that goes on giving.
For information and picture archives: www.westsussex.gov.uk
History of Worthing Public Library – Jenni M Marchant 1965
Brief Outline of the History of Public Libraries, Museums and Art Galleries – Ethel Gerard 1927
Thanks to Martin Hayes for source material