This article is based on an article written by the late Allan Whatley, who was an authority on the history of Nantwich. it tells the story of the building that is now the home for Nantwich Museum.
The Public Libraries Act of 1855 permitted local authorities with 5,000 or more inhabitants to levy a rate of one penny in the pound to establish a public library. For thirty years Nantwich took no action.
In 1886 Samuel Harlock, MP, proposed that the town should adopt the Act – as an essential complement to the 1870 Education Act which had set up compulsory elementary education. The people of Nantwich were not enthusiastic. A penny rate would produce only £65 a year.
Fortunately, a year later, the Local Board discussed ways in which the town might celebrate Queen Victoria`s Golden Jubilee. Gradually Harlock`s idea to have a library was taken up. At first donations were small. Then John Brunner (of Brunner Mond Chemical Works in Northwich) wired from New York: “Gladly subscribe £200 Free Library.” This generosity was due to the impression made on Brunner as a young boy when his father took him to the opening of the Brown Museum and Library in Liverpool. He was reported to have said: “Perhaps some day I shall be a rich man and give a free library like Sir William Brown.”
By August 1887 donations had reached £900 and the Local Board agreed to adopt the Public Libraries Acts 1850-55. A Library Committee was set up. Lord Cholmondeley agreed to sell, for £200, some land in Pillory Street. He also gave £50. Thomas Bower would be the architect and J.Matthew, of Beam Street, the builder. The cost of the library was estimated to be £485 but when extras were added the cost rose to £712. Furnishings would add another £65.
By this time (1888) donations had reached £1220. The people had accepted the project. They were asked to recommend books for the collection or to donate any that were suitable for the reference part of the collection. It was the use of the books in the Reference Library freely by anyone that gave the early public libraries the name `Free` Library even though ratepayers paid for the whole library (whether they used it or not) and then had to pay a subscription to be a member!
The library of 3,000 volumes, was opened in December 1888 by John Brunner. This date is permanently built into the facade, high up, and can still be seen, even though the building has been re-cycled as Nantwich Museum. In the evening a grand concert took place in the Town Hall (lower High Street).
Miss Annie Jackson was the first librarian. She served for 26 years starting on a salary of £20 per year. She catalogued the library and the first books were circulated on the 9th of March 1889.
(Details and later history may be found in “Nantwich Free Library: the early years” by Allan Whatley to mark the centenary library building in 1988).