In Search of the ‘Haggerstonian Geordies’: regional identity and the late-Victorian public librarian in London

In Search of the ‘Haggerstonian Geordies’: regional identity and the late-Victorian public librarian in London

This week Dr Michelle Johansen suggests that the complex regional experiences of London’s first rate-assisted librarians reveal submerged interactions and networks linking and dividing the Four Nations in late-Victorian Britain.

In the late nineteenth century public librarianship was a relatively new profession. Little formal provision for training existed. Instead practical on-the-job learning was prioritised and the quality of occupational education an assistant received depended almost entirely upon the knowledge and efforts of staff operating above him in a hierarchical occupational structure.(1) William Haggerston (1848-1894) of Newcastle Public Library in the north-east of England was regarded as an energetic chief librarian with a particular aptitude for identifying and training promising junior librarians. In the 1880s and 1890s a steady stream of young assistants passed through his Newcastle ‘nursing ground’ en route to senior posts elsewhere, including in neighbouring Darlington and at Belfast in Ireland.(2) However, the majority of Haggerston’s protégés travelled south to take charge of buildings in central and suburban London, at Lambeth, Lewisham, Kingston, Croydon, Clapham and Battersea.

These promotions received positive coverage in the Newcastle press. A sense of local pride was in evidence, supporting the findings of scholars such as Storm and Butlin who have described an intensification of regional interests and associations in late-nineteenth-century Britain.(3) References to an explicitly town or ‘Toon’ character in these reports also lend weight to Colls’ view that a shared history, geography and culture had combined to establish an especially distinctive sense of regional selfhood in the North East during this period, relative to other British localities.(4)

Some of the reports expressed a hope that the departing librarian would ‘uphold the credit’ of Newcastle in his new position, an expectation that tended to overlook the fact that any connection or loyalty to the city was likely to be fragile, because short-lived.(5) Of the fourteen assistants who trained under Haggerston before moving onwards and upwards within the library world, only five had been born in the North East. The remainder had moved to Newcastle from other parts of Britain (London, Birmingham, Birkenhead, Swansea, and so on) whilst Haggerston himself had been born in Wales. Top positions in an expanding public library profession were highly sought after in the late nineteenth century and ambitious young assistants were willing to travel considerable distances to make even modest progress up a crowded career ladder.(6) Adopting the methods of the genealogist it is possible to discern meaningful recent connections to locations in Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland within the family histories of this comparatively small cohort of librarians, indicating that a ‘Four Nations’ approach to their collective career biographies might yield much of value and interest. This dimension will be interrogated more completely elsewhere.

Here, the focus is on region rather than nation. Notwithstanding their otherwise diverse experiences of place, according to the evidence of Ernest Savage (1877-1966) – chief librarian of Croydon, Watford and Edinburgh – these men were moulded into recognisably ‘Geordie’ types as impressionable young professionals under Haggerston’s tutelage at Newcastle.(7) Library historians have subsequently uncritically rehearsed Savage’s depiction of a profession both characterised and divided by region around the turn of the twentieth century. Northerners were ‘sturdy’ or ‘blunt’; Southerners were ‘softies’; the Scots seemingly hated the English, reserving a markedly keen dislike for their Geordie near-neighbours.(8) Twenty-first century scholars such as Milne have usefully problematised the ‘Geordie’ label and in a longer piece it will be subjected to a more careful and sophisticated analysis. In this context, it is sufficient to state that late-Victorian public librarians found this type of regional shorthand useful or valid as a tool of identification.(9) Theirs was a profession within which local affiliations were casually but routinely ascribed and self-ascribed, The origins and character of these affiliations demands further analysis particularly in the light of Leeworthy’s recent Four Nations post, in which scholars were challenged to ‘go beyond the “metropolitan fallacy”, that is beyond the idea that everything that is made in the centre is replicated on the periphery in an unquestioned manner.’ In the case of the set of librarians Savage memorably termed the ‘Haggerstonian Geordies’, a submerged and complex ‘periphery’ appeared to be making substantial and intriguing territorial gains in the late-Victorian London library world, reinforcing Colls’ and Lancaster’s view that belonging might be a conscious or contrived ‘act of affiliation’ rather than an accident of birth.(10)

(1) My post examines one cohort of public librarians working in Newcastle and London in the 1880s and 1890s, all of whom were men. This reflected the position in the profession more widely, most notably at senior level. Before the end of the First World War it was highly unusual to find a female librarian occupying a top post in a British rate-assisted library.

(2) Evening Chronicle, 24 December 1890, ‘Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol.I/L027.4/N536’, Newcastle City Library. Haggerston is sometimes given as Haggerstone but I am using the more usual Haggerston throughout.

(3) R.A. Butlin ‘Regions in England and Wales c.1600-1914,’ in R.A. Dodgshon and R.A. Butlin, An Historical Geography of England and Wales (1990, second edition), pp.225-6; E. Storm ‘Regionalism in History, 1890-1945: the Cultural Approach’, in European History Quarterly, Vol.33, No.2, April 2003, pp. 251-65, esp. 252-5.

(4) R. Colls ‘Born-again Geordies,’ in R. Colls and B. Lancaster Geordies. Roots of Regionalism (2005) [1992], pp.1-34 esp. pp.3-6.

(5) Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 16 April 1887, Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol.I/L0 27.4/N536, Newcastle City Library.

(6) A more detailed account of the history of librarianship can be found in M. Johansen, ‘The Public Librarian in Modern London (1890–1914): the Case of Charles Goss at the Bishopsgate Institute’ (Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of East London, 2006). For information on public library development and early history see T. Kelly A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain 1845-1975 (1977). For a revisionist approach, see A. Black A New History of the English Public Library (1996).

(7) E. Savage A Librarian’s Memories (1952), p.57, pp.100-3.

(8) J. G. Olle Ernest A. Savage. Librarian Extraordinary(1977), p.19, p.30.

(9) G. J. Milne North-East England 1850-1914 (2006), pp.7-9.

(10) Savage A Librarian’s Memories, p.103; Colls and Lancaster Geordies. Roots of Regionalism, p.xiv.

This blog is the outcome of research conducted at Newcastle City Library in 2014 with the support of a James Ollé Award from the Library and Information History Group, part of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Michelle Johansen works in the cultural heritage sector as interpretation officer at Bishopsgate Institute. Michelle researches library history as a post-doctoral independent scholar. Recent publications include ‘”The Father and Mother of the Place”: Inhabiting London’s Public Libraries, 1885–1940,’ in Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston (ed.) Residential Institutions in Britain, 1725–1970 Inmates and Environments, Pickering and Chatto (2014) and ‘Good Feeling and Brotherliness’: Leisure, the Suburbs and the Society of Public Librarians in London (1895–1930) in The London Journal Vol. 39, Issue 3 (November, 2014), pp.249-64. Michelle also blogs and tweets in a personal capacity.

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