Freshwater Library, A Brief History
The first ever meeting of the Library Sub-committee of the County Council’s Education Committee was held on 2nd July 1936. At this meeting the Councillor for West Wight, Miss O’Connor, raised doubts about the arrangements then in place for providing library books to local residents.
From 1904 book collections had been sent in boxes from the Seely Library in Newport, and had in turn been displayed at the West Wight Social Club and in local schools. Alternatively, books could be borrowed from Elliott’s Newsagents at a subscription rate of 2d. per week. Many locals were to face the embarrassing task of cancelling their long-standing subscriptions on the opening of the Council’s free library service. In fact, Mrs Elliott wrote to the Council in 1938 complaining about the siting of a new library in Freshwater!
The Library Sub-committee set up a working party to “report to the next meeting upon the means by which the library service in the Freshwater district may be improved.” This group reported that they were of the unanimous opinion that library accommodation should be provided in the village, and proposed that a room should be added to the new Central School, currently under construction. After some delay however, the County Architect announced in October 1937 that there was insufficient space at the school to build an extension.
The breakthrough came in January 1938, when the Library Sub-committee was informed that “the Council had agreed to the erection of a public free library in Freshwater at an estimated cost not exceeding £3,000 (including site and equipment)”. This was to be the first purpose-built branch of the County Seely Library, opened in Newport in 1904.
The first site to be considered for the library was opposite Freshwater Station. However, with agreement near to pay £650 for this plot, another piece of land became available in School Green, “offered freehold by Messrs Henry J. Way and Son at a price of £3 1Os. per foot frontage”, totalling around £455. This land was previously known as Cooper’s Field and was a popular children’s playground, as well as a source of animal dung which local people used as fuel!
The County Architect produced sketch plans for the new West Wight Branch Library, including Entrance Hall, Reading Room, Lending Room with open access to the shelves, Reference Room, Children’s Room and Staff Room. The plans were approved, as was the Architect’s proposal to build the library predominantly of timber, with a pantiled roof. The style of the building was to be New England Colonial, weather-boarded and set back from the road in attractive grounds.
An application, along with a statement justifying the need for the new library, was sent to the Ministry for Health for a loan of £3,000 to cover building work. The Ministry consented to the loan in May 1939, after the Council had accepted a tender from A. E. Jukes & Son Ltd of Southampton to undertake the building, at an estimated cost of £2,736 7s. 7d. The work was due for completion by late August 1939.
As work began, the Library Sub-committee started to order books and equipment for the new library. Over £1,500 was made available to spend on a stock of 4,000 books during the first year. This compares to the current bookstock of almost 18,000, in addition to DVDs and computers which are squeezed into the same building! Newspapers and magazines to be stocked included titles such as “The Daily Sketch”, “Picture Post” and “The Strand”, while children’s’ magazines were to include “Boy’s Own”, “Girl’s Own” and “Merry Go Round”. The delivery contract, worth about £36 per year, was awarded to the same firm who hold the contract today.
The growing likelihood of war had almost persuaded councillors to abandon the building of the library, and difficulties with the supply of labour – armed forces call-ups having started – now meant that the building work was not completed until October 1939. Work was further delayed by the arrest by police of a mysterious painter, who arrived for work each day in an expensive car, and who was generally believed to be a German spy! In addition, three Elm trees in the grounds were felled by a violent storm in September 1939, damaging builders’ scaffolding. Because of the imminence of war, included in the building were shutters at the doors and windows, and an entrance hall light lock “for blacking out purposes”, while the edges of the entrance steps were painted white “in accordance with lighting restrictions”.
A special meeting of the Library Sub-committee, held in October 1939, ironed out the arrangements for the library’s opening ceremony, and discussed practical matters such as the appointment of a professionally qualified Library Assistant who was later named as Mrs. Muriel Mullins. Other staff were to be sent to Freshwater on relief from Newport, either travelling by train or bus, or even cycling to the new outpost. Following the opening ceremony, conducted by the Chairman of the Council Sir Godfrey Baring on 16th November 1939, West Wight Branch Library opened its doors to the public the following day at 11 am. The opening of the library was celebrated with a dinner at West Wight School, an event only slightly spoiled by a waitress spilling soup over Sir Godfrey!
During the Second World War the library grounds were dug up, and used to grow vegetables in aid of the war effort. One year a plague of Cabbage White butterflies destroyed the entire cabbage patch, and the library was infested by caterpillars, which appeared inside many book covers!
Over the years the interior of the library has changed dramatically from the first layout – as shown in the opening ceremony brochure (see below). By the time of the 60th anniversary celebration in 1999 the adult lending section was expanded into the original children’s section, and included videos, CDs, talking books and jigsaws for loan. The original reading room has been converted into a smaller children’s library and gallery. There are computers available for public use.
Friends of Freshwater Library was formed in 2011 to support the library and protect its future.
In 2016, ownership and maintenance of the building passed from the Isle of Wight Council to Freshwater Parish Council – with the IWC Library Service providing one paid employee. FOFL organise events, fundraising and are looking positively toward the future with a commitment to the delivery of a library service asissted by a team of volunteers.
The library has become a local venue for concerts, events, lectures and films.
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(Reproduced with kind permission from the IW Council Library Service)