Hinds, Part 6
Origins of the Carnegie Library in Barbados
After the act to establish the public library in Barbados had been passed in 1847, it was now incumbent upon the government to find a physical building, which took some time. The first location of a public library in Barbados was the rented properties at Codd’s House in Bridgetown, opposite the site where the Carnegie Library was eventually built .
An act of Parliament in April 1853 required that suitable rental quarters should be provided for a public library but it should not be priced above £40 per annum. In November of the same year, the library was removed to the house of Mr. William H. Austin in Bolton Lane and remained there until a permanent home was found in the East Wing of the Public Buildings in 1874 .
An Act of 1854 provided funds for the first paid librarian who would answer to a Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees comprised the Chief Justice, the Colonial Secretary and three other members, usually from the Legislature, the Church or the Bar. Over the latter part of the nineteenth century, various laws were passed to facilitate the growth of the public library. For example, where the original act of 1847 had neglected to provide any funds to purchase books, an act was passed in 1866 to provide £100 annually to correct this deficiency.
Two governors of Barbados, Sir William Reid (1846–1848) and Sir Frederic Hodgson (1900–1904), were clearly instrumental in helping to establish a free public library in Barbados. Governor Reid believed that libraries were especially beneficial to small islands that promoted self-instruction and life–long learning. He submitted a resolution for a free library in 1847, which was subsequently passed by the Legislature. The role Governor Hodgson played was noteworthy. He was largely responsible for the events that led to the actual building of the Carnegie Free Public Library on the present site in Coleridge Street.
Hodgson’s original plan was to have a library built as a memorial to Sir Conrad Reeves, the first ‘coloured’ Chief Justice of the island. In the June 1903 minutes of the House of Assembly meeting, he noted:
|“The very proper proposal to establish a Memorial to the late Chief Justice, Sir Conrad Reeves, has not as yet taken any political shape. It is a matter which should be raised beyond the reach of controversy. I suggest for your consideration that a very fitting way of perpetuating his memory would be by way of the establishment in Bridgetown of a Free Public Library bearing his name. Such an institution available to all classes up to as late an hour as possible is much wanted and with your concurrence the Government Library would be handed over to the Trustees appointed for that purpose, a grant of £500 towards the purchase of a suitable building might be made and then annually voted to the Government Library for expenses voted instead to the Sir Conrad Reeves Free Library.”|
A committee was appointed to look into the matter, but it is clear from Governor Hodgson’s correspondence back to the Legislature and read at their October meeting that they were not in agreement with him. He decided to pursue his plan and while visiting England in mid–1903, he sent a letter informing them that while there, he would try to raise about £1,500 by sending a letter to the Times newspaper soliciting donations from “persons to whom the distinguished career and personality of Sir Conrad Reeves would … appeal.”  Evidence suggests that public opposition and the lack of support from the legislature prompted him to abandon the idea of sending the letter to the Times. In a letter to the editor of the Agricultural Reporter on July 7, 1903, a reader noted that as far as he was aware, Sir Conrad Reeves was never in life associated with the public library and “can see no such connection between him and that institution as would justify its being transferred to a Committee to be run as a memorial of Sir Conrad.” Even the Conrad Reeves Committee Memorial Fund members were opposed to the idea. They could see no real connection between Sir Conrad and the library. The Chief Justice, Honourable Herbert Greaves, added that it would be impossible to secure anything suitable for £500 to accommodate the number of books already in hand.
Despite the opposition to the idea of a library dedicated to the memory of Sir Conrad Reeves, Hodgson was resolute in his belief that a public library would be a beneficial institution for the people of Barbados and if built, the public would use it. His letter asked for the Legislature’s approval to make a proposal to a Mr. Andrew Carnegie who had become well known for his gifts of money to build free libraries in towns all over England. According to the Governor, Mr. Carnegie had not yet given any money to the colonies and this seemed a good opportunity for him to do so. On August 22, 1903, he wrote Mr. Carnegie and asked for £2,500, of which £2,000 would be for the erection of the building and £500 “for fitting it up in a suitable manner.”  His letter to Mr. Carnegie stated that as Carnegie had taken such an active interest in the establishment of free libraries in Great Britain that he hoped that he “may be disposed to help in the establishment of a free library in Bridgetown Barbados”  where he [Hodgson] was Governor.
The correspondence between the two men indicated that no opposition arose to his request and he received a response four days after his letter of 22 August, 1903. He was granted the funds with two stipulations — the library should be free to all who wanted to use it and it should be maintained by the government. Mr. Carnegie wrote:
|“in regard to the Free Public Library for Bridgetown Barbados … If you agree to make the library free, and on the understanding that the Government will continue its support of the Library at the rate as now, I shall be glad to comply with your request that I should give twenty five hundred pounds (sterling) to erect a Free Public Library Building.” |
The evidence of the events that took place between Mr. Hodgson and Mr. Carnegie was revealed in the correspondence between the two men. In a letter to the Legislature in February, 1904, Hodgson revealed that he had managed to have the funds increased to £4,800 by explaining to Mr. Carnegie that the amount of money previously granted could, “only suffice to erect a building of an unpretentious character.”  He added that a site would be submitted to the Legislature for approval and that a design, which was inspired by the plan of the Free Public Library at Southampton in the United Kingdom, had been prepared by the Superintendent of Public Works and sent to them for inspection.
Now that money had become available, an executive committee was set up to decide on a feasible site for the location of the library. In February 1904, a letter from the Governor to the Legislature revealed that the committee had identified five plots of government land as possible sites for the location of the library. The sites were: the Gardens in Trafalgar Square; St Mary’s (Jubilee) Gardens; Reef Lands; the grounds adjacent to the Old Town Hall; and Bay Street lands .
All of these locations are located in Bridgetown and two of them are easily identifiable and still in existence. The Gardens in Trafalgar Square, now called National Heroes Square, is located across from the Parliament Buildings, and St. Mary’s (Jubilee) Gardens is located at the lower end of Broad Street across from St. Mary’s Anglican Church. Reef Lands and the grounds across from the Old Town Hall are not as easily identifiable. Reef Lands is most likely the area in Fontabelle now called Reef Road which lies to the west and named for its close proximity to the reef that fringes the coast ; the grounds across from the Old Town Hall, located in Coleridge Street, are most likely the area next to Codd’s House which was demolished in 1985 . The Bay Street Lands are likely to be the area in Bay Street where the Government Headquarters building still stands. The selection of this site in Bay Street was the source of a great deal of debate between many members of the Legislature. Proponents held that it was Government land and should be used and others thought that it was too far from the main centre of the city to be a viable location for the library.
This same letter from the Governor revealed that the committee had struck down all but two of the sites which had been proposed. The Gardens in Trafalgar Square, though central, was not a practical location because the site was too close to the Engineering Works, which was noisy and the smoke emitted from it would damage the books; additionally, the library structure would obstruct the Public Buildings. Reef Lands was too far outside of the main business center and it did not offer an appropriate site for the type of building they hoped to erect. The land across from the Old Town Hall site was said to be below sea level and the appearance of the building would be dwarfed . The committee decided that a choice would have to be made between St. Mary’s Gardens and the Bay Street Lands. After further discussion, the site on Bay Street was discarded because they believed that, even though it was a good site with an uninterrupted sea view and the erection of a Public library would improve the neighbourhood, it was just too far outside of the central area and too far away from the very people whom the library would be serving. Some members of the executive committee thought that the location of St. Mary’s Gardens would be the most appropriate site for the following reasons: it was conveniently located in the central business area; the library would benefit from the gardens which would be left after the library was constructed; library users could take their books and sit on the benches which would be placed under the trees and around the building; and since the Gardens had only existed for a relatively short time, there were no historical traditions to be considered in connection with them. The committee had no hesitation in deciding upon this site . This recommendation did not sit well with some members of the Legislature, however, and was not adopted.
While the Legislature was having difficulty coming to a decision, the public and local newspapers, especially the Weekly Recorder, were becoming increasingly irate at the inability to decide on a site for the library. For the duration of the proceedings, the paper carried a caption in bold type on the front page: DEBATE ON SITE FOR FREE LIBRARY. A letter to the editor in the newspaper of January 30, 1904 reported that a reader wanted to know what plans the government had with regard to the ‘Free Library.’ He said he was aware that the Gardens belonged to the government for the people of Barbados and therefore there could be no injustice in using a portion of it for erecting a building for the library. He suggested that a substantial three–storey stone–wall building of a dimension to fit the spot could be erected on the site for about £1,250, with the remaining £750 for accessories. He believed that had the upper–class in Barbados taken more interest in the library, it would have been established years ago. He went on to invite all those in the middle–class to let their voices be heard in the matter so that “his Excellency the Governor may see that the interest he takes in this country is appreciated and to Mr. Carnegie that we are grateful for his great kindness.”
This letter was followed by an editorial in the same paper of Saturday, February 13, 1904, where there was a clear indication that other members of the public did not favour the St. Mary’s location because some thought that it would deface the area in order for the library to be built. “Some persons have argued that as this Garden and the Fountain Garden are the only two open spots of the kind in this city and we are so much in need of more of these areas it would be doing the city an injustice to do away with one of them under any circumstances.” The editor, however, disagreed with this segment of his readers who favoured Bay Street lands over the St. Mary’s location. He was clearly in favour of the St. Mary’s site. In a March 19th editorial he said that the building
|“should be located in a central location to serve the purpose for which it was intended; it should serve as an attractive central resort, where those who care little of reading and such pursuits as well as those who already find the use of a library a daily necessity should have easy access to, and so swell the ranks of the intellectually inclined citizens of the community.”|
He added that there was no reason why the majority of the users and those who could least afford it should have to pay four pence to take a tram to Bay Street or walk the two miles there and back.
During the time, there were discussions on purchasing land to build the library. At a meeting of the Legislative Council on March 15, 1904 the matter was discussed again and another long debate ensued regarding the library site. At the end of the session, the Bay Street site emerged as the desired location. A meeting of the House of Assembly on March 26, 1904 revealed that there was still no final decision concerning the location. It seemed that there would be no end to the discussion.
The matter was finally settled by the Governor at a meeting of the House of Assembly on April 12, 1904. He indicated that the state of the financial condition of the island precluded them spending money on a site for the library, despite the funds that had been received from Mr. Carnegie. He said:
|“While fully recognizing the public spirit with which your Honourable House has been animated, I do not think that in the present financial condition of the colony, and when it also owes money to the local Bank, it would be wise to make expenditure in the purchase of a site.”|
However, he chose neither Bay Street nor the St. Mary’s site. He thought that the library could be erected on the Parade Grounds adjacent to the Old Town Hall which were government lands. The resolution was finally passed.
After all of the extensive discussions were settled, the cornerstone for the construction of the library was laid on September 15, 1904 at the site on Coleridge Street, lands adjoining the Old Town Hall. A Barbadian, Mr. E. F. S. Bowen, the Superintendent of Public Works, prepared the plans and supervised the construction. The Weekly Recorder of September 17, 1904 reported that it was a prestigious affair attended by “a large number of influential men and a fair complement of ladies.” The gathering included Governor Hodgson and his wife; the Colonial Secretary, S. W. Knaggs; the acting Chief Justice, W. K. Chandler; the Comptroller of Customs, P. L. Dillon; the Public Librarian; the Colonial Postmaster, and many others.
The newspaper added that a large plan of the building was displayed to the visitors showing a T–shaped two–storey stone structure. It measured 115 feet long by 89 feet externally and 60 by 33 feet internally; the reading and news rooms were 20 by 13 feet, 6 inches each; and an entrance porch 20 by 13 feet, 6 inches; with ionic columns of the Greek classical design. Above the library and on the second storey, there was a lecture room 60 by 34 by 18 feet in height. A steel truss roof had been ordered from England and the window frames were locally made. All of the timber required for the building was imported from the firm of Collymore & Wright, lumber merchants in Bridgetown.
The first Carnegie library to be erected in the British West Indies was officially opened on Friday, January 26, 1906, by Governor Sir Gilbert Carter. Several notable members of society attended the opening. Among them were the trustees of the Public Library; His Lordship Bishop Swaby; the Chief Justice Sir Herbert Greaves; the Colonial Secretary and many others. The Bishop, who was Chairman of the Board of Trustees, declared the library open. The Governor sent a letter thanking Mr. Carnegie for the funds; he remarked that “the building is a handsome and substantial structure and makes a useful addition to the buildings of Bridgetown.”  The editor in the Weekly Recorder of February 3, 1906, praised the opening of the library but wondered whether the Legislature were fully committed to the library as insufficient funds had been committed for its maintenance. He noted:
|“We are in favour of opening the library at night, and most hope that the institution will be dealt with liberally by the Legislature. Our Public Library has never been valued at its true worth by the powers that be. It was always possible to make it a centre of intellectual life and activity but it has been systematically starved. It almost seemed as if Government did not care to see the masses participating in literary advantages.”|
The editor had been an ardent supporter of the establishment of a public library from the very beginning and saw the library as a place where the “masses could participate in literary advantages.” He went on to give credit to the work done by Sir Frederic Hodgson whose name, he said, “would always be associated with such success.”
1. Abigail A. Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xix.
2. Ibid., 11.
3. Ibid., 35.
4. Encyclopedia of Library & Information Science, 2nd ed. (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2003): 2580.
5. Thomas Kelly. Early Public Libraries: A History of Libraries in Great Britain before 1850 (London: Library Association, 1966): 120.
6. Steven Kreis. “The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England.” The History Guide, July 25, 2002, http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture17a.html (accessed April 16, 2008).
7. Chris Cook. The Longman Companion to Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1815–1914 (London: Longman. 1999), 119.
8. Laws of Barbados, 1666–1858.
9. Robert H. Schomburgk. The History of Barbados (London: Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848), 132–133.
10. Edwin Ifill. “The Public Library Movement in Barbados and Jamaica from the Middle of the 19th Century to the Present Day” (thesis, Jamaica: UWI, Mona 1968), 6.
11. Laws of Barbados, 1847.
12. Isaac Dookhan. A Post–emancipation History of the West Indies (London: Collins, 1975), 70.
13. National Library Service. Brief History of the National Library Service, [Bridgetown: 2000].
15. Barbados House of Assembly Minutes, October 1903.
16. Barbados House of Assembly Minutes, October 1903.
17. Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Papers. Series 11A.1.a. Free Public Library Buildings, Letter from Governor Hodgson to Andrew Carnegie. August 22, 1903.
18. Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Papers. Series 11A.1.a. Free Public Library Buildings, Letter from Governor Hodgson to Andrew Carnegie. August 26, 1903.
19. Barbados House of Assembly Minutes February, 1904.
20. Barbados. Legislative Debates, Session 1903–1904.
21. “Barbadian Place Names,” The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 25 (May 1958): 137.
22. Henry Fraser and Sean Carrington, A–Z of Barbadian Heritage (Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann, 1990), 41.
23. Barbados. Legislative Debates, Session 1903–1904.
25. Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Papers. Series 11A.1.a. Free Public Library Buildings, Letter from Governor Hodgson to Andrew Carnegie. August 22, 1903.