Tag Archives: Early electric lighting

Musings in the dark

As the electricity was off for a couple of hours this morning, the Library, open for business as usual, was lit only by natural light. This led inevitably to thoughts of what it would have been like here prior to electric light being installed.

 The Librarian’s job description in the first 1816 catalogue, states that the Librarian shall have ‘the immediate care and inspection of the books, fire, candles, and everything else relating to the library-rooms and furniture’.  This remained described as candles through to 1853, but in 1864 the reference changes to ‘lights’.  Given that the library was open until 9pm in the evening it must have become quite dark during the evenings, and on winter days.   


We know that in 1868 pendent gas lights were installed in the building, but certainly in one of the attic rooms you can still see the old wall mounted gas light there, and behind a panel near the double doors into the main reading rooms the piping and taps remain, hopefully disconnected.


Electric light arrived in 1899, and however dim it would seem to those of us used to the brightness of modern bulbs, it must have seemed wondrously bright, if a little harsh, to those used to the softer gas lighting. Not immediately provided for the tenants – Mr Middleton, in his photographic Studio, asked permission to install electric lighting in 1906 – ‘with due precaution being taken with respect to fire and damage to the building’. The committee was concerned about fire, purchasing a rubber pipe to connect to the water main in 1886, and also 6 hand grenades for fire fighting. You can also still see the holders for these around the Library. The fire hose was put to use in 1914, when a small fire did start up in the Studio…


As for coal fires, there are a few people who remember those in existence in the library, with somewhat more affection from the members than from the staff, who had to carry the buckets of coal up. Some rooms were cold though – the Thoroton Society very kindly offered their room for the use of the committee during a spell of very cold weather in 1952. At that time coal was still rationed. The flaps above the bookshelves are a legacy of the attempt to keep coal dust off the books.


So, the gentleman in the window seat is reading there not to enjoy the view whilst he muses, but  to get a better light on his reading material…


 Russell spiral stair


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