Earlston's Reading Room occupies a prominent place in the Market Square, but sadly this once important building is now unoccupied, unused and presents a dilapidated air, with many of the artifacts of paintings and books still in place but fast deteriorating.
A public meeting, to be chaired by Council Convenor David Parker, is to be held on Tuesday April 26th 2016 at 7pm in the Church Hall to discuss its future. So it seemed an appropriate time to look back at its past.BACKGROUND
The Reading room on the left to next to the Corn Exchange with its belfry tower. The photograph predates 1921 when the pump tower on the right was demolished to make way for the war memorial.
In the 19th century Reading Rooms were a symbol of Victorian self-help and the desire for education. They were warm, dry and largely free, where you could read newspapers, and borrow books.
Auld Earlston holds "Earlston's Reading Room and Library - Rules and Regulations", written in 1955 by Mr. R. Smith at the request of the Reading Room Committee. Importantly it includes a brief history.
The document presents a fascinating read with details of the behaviour expected of users. Newspapers of the day regularly reported on the Reading Room Committee Meetings and give us an insight into the discussions and the choice of reading material purchased - with the emphasis on books of a "high moral tendency".Major Baillie of Mellerstain was the instigator. In 1852 a meeting was held in the village to gauge support for a Reading Room at which the Major offered an initial donation of fifty books for the library. His offer was unanimously accepted, a committee formed with Major Baillie as President and a Librarian duly appointed as manager.
Prominent members of the local community were willing to serve and included over the years, Mr Colesworth and later Colonel Hope of Cowdenknowes. Mr Aitkenhead (headmaster), Rev. Mair,(minister), Robert Riddle (surgeon), Charles Wilson (manufacturer) and Adam Rodger (builder)
Major Baillie set down the following conditions:
- That the inhabitants of Earlston and its vicinity be invited to become members, without distinction as to religious denomination, or political opinion, and whether they do or do not belong to any abstinence or temperance society.
- The Reading Room and Recreation Room shall be open every day except Sundays and New Year's Day from 9am to 10pm.
- Visitors shall be allowed to use the Reading Room on payment of 6d per visit.
- That the newspapers and other publications shall be such as may be generally useful and acceptable. Works gifted or loaned should be of a good moral tendency and be approved of by the committee.
- That no intoxicating liquor be consumed on the premises on any pretence whatever
- Members will not be allowed to whistle or sing or make any undue noise or run up and down the stairs or rooms, or quarrel with one another or use bad language to the annoyance of other members.
- Members under sixteen years of age shall not be permitted to play Billiards or Snooker, and any person under that age found handling cues or balls, or touching the table...will be prohibited from entering the Recreation Room for three months.
- Betting or playing for money is strictly forbidden
- A fine of £2 will be exacted for cutting, tearing, or burning the cloth or billiard table.
- Players will not be allowed to smoke. They must also see that their hands, are clean, Members will not be allowed to use the billiard table while wearing overalls.
- Players on no account are allowed to get on the table. They must have at least one foot on the floor.
Seven years later, a report in the "The Southern Reporter" of 7th April 1859 noted:
Newspaper reports listed items added to the library and they included such erudite titles as Dyers "History of Europe" - 5 volume, Blaikie's "Life of LIvingstoun", "The Haigs of Bemersyde", "Life in Fiji" by C.F.G. Cumming, "The Life of the Prince Consort", Farrar's "Life of Christ", Marshman's "History of India", and Cameron's "Across Africa".118 people have availed themselves of the privilege of membership and that it was gratifying to note the success of this useful institution which affords so many advantages at a very moderate cost. Members have access to the Library of up to 700 volumes, and to the reading room which has a regular supply of daily and weekly newspapers and periodicals, all for the all but nominal charge of 7d per quarter."
In 1877 thanks were given to "Mr Colesworth of Cowdenknowes for his handsome gift of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and transactions of the Geographical Society".
The Reading Room remained a private subscription library, not supported by any charitable grants The early subscription of 7d per quarter had risen by 1955 to 10 shillings per annum.
Old newspapers were sold each quarter and events regularly took place for fund raising - these included whist drives, concerts, and in 1924 "a theatrical and vaudeville entertainment". In the latter years, the Camera Club regularly held meetings there.
The Southern Reporter of 5th May 1898 reported on a major bazaar:
"To meet the expenses of considerable improvements to the building and to buy new books. To increase the house accommodation of the librarian and create a larger and better recreation room."
A Centenary Celebration was held in Red Lion Hotel on 17th June 1952 at which the President the Earl of Haddington presented a framed copy of the *National Covenant with the signatures of the people of Earlston, who signed it in 1638. at Greyfriars, Edinburgh. It was also noted that the Library had a number of valuable possessions including a lock of Sir Walter Scott's hair and his autograph; and that the Reading Room had risen from a humble two roomed, thatched building to the impressive building occupying a central position in Earlston Square.
The Latter Years
The 1970's saw the opening of a Public Library in the school offering a new free facility to local readers. With the death of Reading Room secretary, John Weatherly, and all the Trustees, no-one was left to take on the management of the facility. Hence its sorry state today
A packed public meeting on April 26th 2016 heard a presentation from Council Convenor David Parker on the current legal position regarding the ownership of the Reading Room and outlined options for the whole community to work together on a way forward. A steering committee is being set up to look at revitalising this once important symbol of Earlston's heritage.
* The National Covenant
"The signing of the National Covenant has been called the biggest event in Scottish history. In essence it was a document, a contract with God, signed by the Nobles, Ministers and thousands of ordinary Scots, who pledged themselves to defend Scotland’s rights by stating what they would and wouldn't agree to in matters of Kirk and state. The Covenant demanded a free Scottish Parliament and a General Assembly, free from the King’s interference, and specifically, it demanded the abolition of bishops." (Source BBC Scottish History)
The copy donated to the Reading Room by Lord Haddington in 1952 is now in the care of the Heritage Hub, Hawick.