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Three Centuries of a City Library an Historical and Descriptive Account of the Norwich Public Library Established in 1608 and the present Public Library opened in 1857

Three Centuries of a City Library
an Historical and Descriptive Account of the Norwich Public Library Established in 1608 and the present Public Library opened in 1857

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This book was prepared by instruction of the Norwich Public Library Committee, and it is now published as a souvenir of the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the present Public Library, which will take place on March 16th, 1917.  Norwich occupies a unique place in the history of libraries: it has the distinction of having established in 1608 one of the earliest provincial public libraries, if not the first in England, and it was the first municipality to adopt the Public Library Act, 1850.  It is hoped, therefore, that the following sketch, besides giving local readers and archæologists a detailed account of an important Norwich institution, will form an interesting chapter in the history of British Libraries.

The compilation has been made from the recently discovered Minute Book of the old Public Library, covering the period 1656-1733, from annual reports and other official records, and from notes accumulated since 1911.  The work has been done under difficulties due to the abnormal conditions caused by the Great War, and I am conscious that imperfections have resulted; for these I crave the reader’s indulgence.

I am grateful to the Dean of Norwich (the Very Rev. H. C. Beeching, D.D., D.Litt.) for his kind help in several matters, for many suggestions, and for reading the galley proofs.  To Mr. Walter Rye I am indebted for reading the proofs, and for assistance.  Thanks are also due to Mr. F. Johnson, the Assistant City Archivist, for consulting the City Records and providing me with some extracts; and to Mr. F. R. Beecheno, the historian of the parish of St. Andrew’s, for assistance and information.  My obligations to Dr. Montague Rhodes James, the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and Mr. A. W. Pollard, M.A., of the British Museum, are acknowledged in the text.  For any errors in the book I am solely responsible.

January, 1917.Geo. A. Stephen.


In mediæval times the making, collecting, and preserving of books, as well as the maintenance of learning, were almost exclusively confined to monastic institutions, some of which lent books to laymen, and thus became the public libraries of the surrounding district.  As to the literary life of Norwich in the fifteenth century, the late Dr. Jessopp wrote: “Whatever may have been the case in other dioceses, it is certain that the bishops of Norwich during the fifteenth century were resident in their see, and that they were prominent personages as scholars and men of culture and learning. . . . It is clear that . . . their influence was not inconsiderable in encouraging literary tastes and studious habits among their clergy.  Pitts, in his list of distinguished Englishmen of letters who flourished during the latter half of the fifteenth century, mentions no less than twenty-four Norfolk men who were recognised as prominent scholars, controversialists, historians, or students of science.”   Coincident with the decline of monastic learning in Europe were the revival of secular learning and the invention of printing, which gave a great impetus to the collection of books, especially on the continent.  The sixteenth century was a dark age in the history of British libraries, the iconoclasts of the Reformation ruthlessly destroying innumerable priceless treasures both of books and bindings.  John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, who was educated at a Carmelite Convent in Norwich, and became vicar of Swaffham, Norfolk, in 1551, wrote scathingly of the literary condition of England in the middle of the sixteenth century, and referred specifically to Norwich: “O cyties of Englande, whose glory standeth more in bellye chere, than in the serch of wysdome godlye.  How cometh it, that neyther you, nor yet your ydell masmongers, haue regarded thys most worthy commodyte of your contrey?  I meane the conseruacyon of your Antiquytees, and of the worthy labours of your lerned men. . . . I have bene also at Norwyche, oure seconde cytie of name, and there all the library monumentes are turned to the vse of their grossers, candelmakers, sope sellers, and other worldly occupyers.”

In the early years of the seventeenth century many famous collegiate and town libraries—i.e., libraries under the guardianship of municipalities—were founded throughout the country, and in the history of the latter Norwich has a unique place.  So far as can be ascertained from the published historical accounts of libraries, Norwich has the distinction of having established in 1608 (six years after the foundation of the Bodleian Library, and 145 years before the foundation of the British Museum) the first provincial town library under municipal control.   The other earliest popular town libraries are those of Ipswich (1612), Bristol (founded in 1613 and opened in 1615), and Leicester (1632).  Mr. Norris Mathews, the City Librarian of Bristol, contends that “The claim to the earliest [public library] in England still belongs to Bristol.  This library was that of the Kalendars or Kalendaries, a brotherhood of clergy and laity who were attached to the Church of All-Hallowen or All Saints, still existing in Corn Street” (“Library Association Record,” vol....