‘A counter-attraction to the public house’ Discovering the Workers’ Library at Quarry Bank

Image of books from the workers' library at Quarry Bank

Literary life at Quarry Bank tends to be associated with the mill-owning Greg family. But hidden within the collection lies the Workers' Library, a set of hundreds of books which were enjoyed by the mill workers and residents of Styal village in the early twentieth century. We've been discovering the secrets of the Workers' Library and its readers in collaboration with the University of Manchester.

What was the Workers' Library?

Throughout Quarry Bank’s history, the Greg family were keen to promote the education and literacy of the mill workers. The Workers' Library was part of the Styal Club Room, which was set up and opened by Samuel Greg’s great-grandson, Henry P. Greg, on 8 November 1900. The Club Room, next to The Ship Inn in Styal village, was intended to provide ‘pleasant, social interactions’; amusements such as billiards, draughts and chess but also ‘elevating’ activities such as ‘lectures, classes, debates, concerts, penny readings’ and drama performances.

Image of Henry P Greg

Henry Greg owned The Ship but was an avid promoter of Temperance (abstaining from consuming alcohol). He saw the Club Room as ‘providing a counter-attraction to the public-house'.

By the start of the 1900s, reading had emerged as one of the most popular and widespread leisure activities. This was in part due to the introduction of compulsory education which had caused literacy rates to hit 97% by 1900. It's no surprise then that the library quickly became the most popular activity on offer at the Club Room. Club membership was for men only but women and children were given access to the library, ensuring that the whole village benefitted from its riches.

The Workers' Library was promoted as an alternative to drinking at The Ship Inn
Archive image of The Ship Inn in Styal
The Workers' Library was promoted as an alternative to drinking at The Ship Inn

The collection 

The collection at Quarry Bank now contains 260 books from the library, but a catalogue from the 1920s shows that there were far more on offer. Lists show 487 books in alphabetical order with spaces left under each section for the addition of further books. Meeting minutes of the Club Committee refer to £10 being given yearly to the librarian to expand the collection, about £500 in today’s money. 

What type of books did the Library offer?

The librarian was free to choose the books to buy without oversight by the committee. This meant that unlike many libraries of the time, the books that were circulated were mostly works of fiction. The fiction industry was booming at this time and publishers were always looking for innovative ways to produce fiction books quicker and cheaper. However, the cost of purchasing novels was still beyond the means of the majority of working class readers, so libraries like this offered a way for people to indulge their love of reading. 

The growth of fiction led to new genres being created such as Science Fiction, Pulp Fiction and Children’s Fiction. The Workers' Library includes books from these new genres as well as historical fiction, romance novels, adventure stories, religious and moralistic fiction, and even fiction with a feminist or political tone.

Every loan from the Workers' Library was recorded in the Borrowers Book
List of borrowers and books borrowed from the Workers' Library in October 1913
Every loan from the Workers' Library was recorded in the Borrowers Book

Who were the borrowers?

The borrowing book recorded the names of all those who took out loans from the library. The first borrowing book covers the period from the first loan in November 1901 to March 1915, during which time there were 3,810 loans taken out, more than five a week. 

The diverse records in the Quarry Bank archive allow us to match the borrowers' names with other data held on them. We know that the library was popular with mill workers, manual laborers, shop assistants, domestic servants, dress makers, boot makers, house wives, students, farmers and gardeners, as well as clerks, teachers and store managers. 

Together with Dr Ruth Colton from the University of Manchester, we've been researching which kinds of books readers preferred and have built up a picture of popular tastes among the workers. Follow the link below to find out more about the different genres in the Workers' Library.