The reading habits of female members of the Langcliffe Village Institute Library, 1900-1908

Brogan Sadler
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

This article explores the reading habits of female members of the Langcliffe Village Institute Library during the first decade of the twentieth century. It compares these reading habits with assumptions made about female readers by Victorian and Edwardian male commentators. Among the assumptions considered is the suggestion that women read only fiction, which contemporary commentators tended to regard as either inappropriate or frivolous reading material. The remarks of Victorian and Edwardian commentators are drawn from secondary literature and newspapers, and these remarks are considered in the light of the reading habits of the female members of the Langcliffe Village Institute Library who are listed in the Institute Librarian’s Book between 1900 and 1908. The records held in the Librarian’s Book reveal a reality that differs from the picture created by the commentators considered.

The Langcliffe Village Institute Library

The Langcliffe Village Institute was bestowed upon Langcliffe in 1899 by a wealthy paper mill owner, Hector Christie (1828—1915). He was an active member of the community, serving as a member of the County Council for the West Riding and also as Justice of the Peace for the North Riding [1]. His devotion to the village is evident through the wording of the title deed, which dedicated the Institute: ‘for the benefit of the inhabitants of Langcliffe, Stainforth and the Locks and to be known as the Langcliffe Institute. To the intent that it be used as an Institute for men and youths resident in the Parish of Langcliffe for reading, writing and recreation’ [2]. From this statement, it is clear that Christie’s intentions were philanthropic and that the Institute was intended to support the advancement of Langcliffe residents through educational and leisurely pursuits.

A library was added to the amenities of the Institute a year later by the committee. It was intended for the use of Institute members, and a library membership scheme was established by the committee in 1902. This scheme permitted locals to become a member of the library without having to be members of the Institute as well.

The establishment of the library fits into the broader movement of the era. This period witnessed an increase in liberal legislation that aimed to provide for the education and general betterment of the working classes. The 1850 Public Libraries Act and a subsequent Act of 1919, along with the Education Act of 1870, have been characterised as the first ‘concerted attempt by the state to achieve universal literacy in England’ [3]. The education of the working classes, through schooling and libraries, was an issue British society was beginning to address.

The establishment of the Institute Library also reflected contemporary social trends, whereby the philanthropic acts of the wealthy aimed to better the lives of the working classes. It should be noted though, that the language of official documents, such as Christie’s deed, suggests that men were often envisioned to be the principal beneficiaries of such acts: hence, Christie’s statement that it was to serve ‘as an Institute for men and youths resident.’ Notably, during this same period Edward Hall established the reading room for working-class men in the Institute (inscription in the Institute’s copy of Eugene Arram from Ellen Moore, daughter of Edward Hall). However, from the borrowing records preserved in the Librarian’s Book, it is clear that local women did use the Institute Library.

Women in Libraries

At the time when the Library was established, the presence of women in public libraries was a contested issue. Women were often not encouraged to use public libraries, and some people even deemed libraries as dangerous to women’s safety. In her book The Woman Reader, 1837—1914, Kate Flint suggests that, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, ‘the act of reading publicly was seen not only as an incitement to men to consider the direction of a woman’s mental processes but as an opportunity for advantage to be taken of the relaxed social awareness that absorption in reading might entail’ [4]

The issue of women in libraries was a national debate widely covered in newspapers. Contributors to this debate drew attention to a range of issues that readers today might find amusing. Chief among these was the concern expressed about male and female interactions within the library. It was feared that the presence of women might turn libraries into courting grounds [5]. These concerns fed into other anxieties about women and their reading habits. A contributor to the Manchester Guardian in 1908 voiced these concerns in claiming that:

‘those who have observed most closely the life of Manchester workmen will tell you that a strong impulse towards serious reading is very common among them, and that to a great extent it is baulked by the difficulty of obtaining space and quiet to read either at home or in a branch library that is mainly engaged in distributing feeble fiction to uncritical young women.’

This quotation demonstrates part of the public opinion of the time. Notably, it suggests that the presence of women was perceived as encroaching upon men and their serious reading. This idea feeds into the debate surrounding what was appropriate reading, thus suggesting that not only was there a gender hierarchy, but there was also a genre hierarchy. As such, the library was perceived to be a place for the educational betterment of men, and not a place for women to enjoy ‘feeble fiction.’

Many contemporary thinkers entered this debate on appropriate fiction. One author whose views were still favoured was Reverend Edward Mangin. He concerned himself with the mind of his readers. In his work An Essay on Light Reading As It May be Supposed To Influence Moral Conduct And Literary Taste (1808), Mangin suggests that the reading of novels and romances or ‘light literature’ as opposed to ‘useful arts’ and ‘elegant studies’ would make the reader ‘obsessed with love.’ It would fill their heads with ‘false ideas of affluence that ill prepared them for the actualities of married life.’ [7]. This suggestion about ‘light literature’ was mainly aimed at the female reader, for the word literature became synonymous with the genre of romance.

Flint, for her part, also indicates how the ‘desultory reading’ practices in which women were perceived to indulge were thought to be ‘very mischievous’, and to ‘turn the memory into a common sewer for rubbish of all sorts to float through, and by relaxing the power of attention’ [8]. Furthermore, it was asserted that the reading of fiction would induce mental laxity in women and that this would be detrimental to male library patrons [9]. Male readers, it was feared, would become distracted from their reading, which was often regarded as an act of self-improvement. Women, in short, were perceived to place the improving purpose of libraries at risk.

Such concerns about appropriate reading material led some libraries to censor their collections. Committees were established to decide upon which books were appropriate to stock. Although the self-betterment of the working class was encouraged, some considered providing working-class readers with unfettered access to books to be dangerous [10]. For some reading was an activity to be controlled. Concerns that the library, as a public space, would come to symbolise an attempt to ‘transgress the boundaries’ of gender, class and morality for the working classes became another issue within this debate [11]. For many this meant that libraries needed to be monitored.

The Library Collection

Bookseller George Horner of Church Street, in Settle, provided the initial collection for the Library in 1900. Horner had arranged with the committee to provide four hundred books, changed at frequent intervals. It is difficult to ascertain how long this arrangement lasted, as there are no records from the committee to consult. Many of the books in the collection today were stamped by Horner, which might indicate that they may be from the original collection. However, establishing the exact year of their entry into the library has not been possible thus far.

From the collection that remains, it is clear that most of the books are works of fiction. There are many books by fashionable authors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These books include eight works by Mrs Henry Wood (1814—1887), the most well represented author in the collection. Wood’s most famous work, East Lyne (1861), was a ‘sensational story of murder, adultery, and divorce’ which gained the author international success [12].

Joseph Hocking (1860—1937) has seven books in the collection. He was an ordained Methodist minister who travelled and worked across the country while writing. Hocking used his novels to help convey his Christian message to the public, most famously in his novels Harry Penhale: The Trial of his Faith (1887) and Jabez Easterbrook (1890). There are five books by William Bury Westall (1834—1903). Westall was a Lancashire-born journalist and novelist who wrote over thirty novels. Unlike Wood and Hocking, Westall’s novels are far from religious in theme. His most notable novel is The Old Factory (1881), a story of ‘Lancashire life with strong local colouring’ [13].

The non-fiction books in the collection cover a broad range of subjects. Many can be placed in the genre of ‘self-help’, which was popularised by Samuel Smiles (1812—1904) at the end of the 1850s. As an advocate of self-betterment, he also believed that education should be a lifelong process, stating that ‘the highest culture is not obtained from teacher when at school or college, so much as by our ever diligent self-education when we have become men’ [14].

The Librarian’s Book

This is a large black volume, slightly bigger than A4. Considering the age of the book and the frequent use it saw, it is in good condition. The corners are slightly scuffed, and the front is marked, but the paper remains well preserved. It contains a record of items borrowed from the library from its opening in June 1900 until 1949. The book also contains the names of all the library’s members from 1902 to 1908.

While turning the pages of this hefty tome, the most striking characteristic is the disordered nature of the records. Each page of the book is written by a different hand, and borrowers’ names and book choices are sometimes difficult to decipher due to illegible handwriting. Throughout the pages both pen and pencil are used. Unfortunately, the pencil has faded over the years, making it even more challenging to read. There are notes and sums scribbled in margins and at the bottom of the pages. Ink smudges and cancellations litter many of the pages which makes reading rather tricky. However, one can extract valuable information from the book, including details about the borrowing habits of the Library’s female members.

The Library Membership Scheme

Broader societal concerns about the presence of women in libraries do not seem to have stopped the women of Langcliffe from using their local library. Not only were women borrowing books, but many were also members from the inception of the scheme in 1902. According to Margaret Lodge in Langcliffe: Glimpses of a Dales Village, library membership in 1901 was 1/- a year for those already members of the institute and 2/- for non-members. Today, these sums would amount to approximately £3.91 and £7.82, respectively [15]. Members could borrow books for fourteen days at the price of 1d (around £0.33). Annual membership increased in 1907 to 5/- (£19.64), paid in advance, or monthly for 1/- (£3.39).

To put the pricing into perspective, the average farm labourer in the North Riding in 1907 would earn 19s 7d a week (£76.93). The price of 7lb of flour in the North Riding at the time was 10 1/4 d (£3.27), 1lb of butter 1s 2d (£4.48) and 4 oz of tea 4 1/2d ( £1.31) [16]. Library member Ralph Porten, assuming he was not an institute member also, would have paid £7.82 a year out of his estimated £3,846.50 annual wage.

Members of the Library

An analysis of the borrowing records shows that while most borrowers were men, women did make up a substantial portion. Moreover, many women were active members of the scheme. Across the six years the scheme ran, there were a total of 11 female and 27 male library members. The average age of female members was 28, and the average for males was 37. The occupation of the members was difficult to discern due to illegible handwriting, both in the Librarian’s Book and in the Census records from 1891 and 1901.

Many men and women were only members from 1902 until 1903 or had a sporadic membership history. This was especially apparent with the female members. Only Mrs Yeadon and one other woman, Grace Heseltine, were members for the full six years that the scheme ran. Several male members, William Gyte (a bookkeeper), John Leaworthy (a cotton warper), Ralph Porten (a farm hand), Herbert Roberts (a paper mill labourer) and William Marriott (a quarry labourer), were members for a full six years.

Through the analysis of the records, it is safe to conclude that most of the men were labourers, many worked locally in the quarry or the paper mill owned by the Christie family. It was harder to establish the occupation of the female members. On many occasions, the occupation section of the census was blank. The most common occupations recorded were servants, cooks, and dressmakers. One exception was Mrs Elizabeth Yeadon. The 1901 census recorded that she ‘lives off her own means with her husband and three children’.

Mrs Elizabeth Yeadon: A Case Study

From the limited information available, a few aspects concerning the life of Mrs Elizabeth Yeadon became apparent from the census records. Firstly, Elizabeth was born in Langcliffe in 1846, but her maiden name has not been tracked down. Elizabeth married another Langcliffe local, Thomas Yeadon, with their address listed as Main Road, Langcliffe. It is not apparent which year they married, however in the 1911 census it states Elizabeth became a widow after 42 years of marriage. Elizabeth and Thomas had six children together, sadly two died, leaving, Annie, Tom and John, the name of the fourth child has not yet been found.

Elizabeth and her husband may have ‘lived off their own means’, but their children, Annie and Tom, did not. The 1911 census shows that Annie was an ‘uncertified elementary school teacher’ for the council, and John was an electrician in a cotton mill. Mrs Yeadon’s death cannot be traced; however, from the Librarian’s Book, it is apparent that Elizabeth was still a member of the library in 1908.

Mrs Yeadon was a prolific user of the Library, borrowing 116 books from 1900 until 1908. This averages almost 15 books a year. She read an array of authors including Joseph Hocking, Marcus Clarke, William Bury Westall, and William Black. Mrs Yeadon also read books by female authors, most notably, Bessie Dill, Florence Marryat, Arabella Buckley, and Mrs Desmond Humphreys. Mrs Yeadon borrowed mostly fiction, but occasionally non-fiction, too.

While Mrs Yeadon’s book choices support the assumption that women did indeed enjoy fiction, they also suggest that her appetite was far from ‘frivolous’. She read books that even by today’s standards would be regarded as classics. Her reading was far from the picture painted by the Yorkshire Daily Observer in 1908 of ‘the fine lady who spends all her waking hours upon the couch in reading the latest novels — consuming upon average one romance per diem - rarely develops into an intellectual athlete, and may sometimes resort to worse stimulants’ [17].

Among the books borrowed was one by Arabella Buckley. She began her career as secretary to Charles Lyell (an eminent geologist) and was a friend of Charles Darwin, before becoming a lecturer and beginning her own writing career. The book Mrs Yeadon borrowed Life and her Children: Glimpses of Animal Life from the Amoeba to the Insects (1885) is split into lectures, not chapters, marrying together descriptive prose with scientific fact to create a book to educate the masses. A book such as this was hardly ‘frivolous’, it was written to educate.

Another assumption made about women’s reading is that they read passively as if to pass the free time in which they had in abundance. Flint suggests that through the work of Amy Cruse: ‘women not only read material which it could be hard to subsume under the category of escapism, but read in a way which was often critically and intellectually alert to the issues raised within the texts: issues of religious debate and controversy over evolution, of sexuality and education’ [18].

The fact that Mrs Yeadon borrowed books by Marcus Clarke suggests that she was not a passive reader. Clarke’s novels included political and social themes of the time, most notably, the transportation of convicts to penal colonies, including Australia. Thus far, it cannot be said unequivocally, if Mrs Yeadon chose these books intentionally to read about contemporary issues, or if it was inadvertent; however, she was faced with these issues nonetheless. The intentions Mrs Yeadon had regarding her book as of yet, are unclear. There is no certainty in whether she was ‘critical’ and ‘alert’ to the issues presented to her. However, the notion she read them passively should not be assumed. The borrowing of authors like Buckley and Clarke suggests motives for reading that go beyond the assumptions made by commentators. Mrs Yeadon’s reading habits can also be understood through the lens of self-education and betterment that members of the middle class seemed to encourage and condemn simultaneously.

The books chosen by Mrs Yeadon show that the assumptions made by social commentators cannot be applied fully to her. Her reading habits show that she was far from the lady on the couch. She did borrow books by the likes of William Bury Westall and Florence Marryat. However, Yeadon also read works by Arabella Buckley and Marcus Clarke which were not frivolous; they are educational and thought-provoking.


Through the female borrowing records in the Librarian’s Book and the case study of Mrs Yeadon, it is apparent that the assumptions made by many Victorian and Edwardian social commentators do not fit the reality of female reading in Langcliffe. The borrowing records of all females, members and non-members shows that fiction was a popular choice, but not the only choice. In the case of Mrs Yeadon this study shows that while women read romantic fiction they also enjoyed philosophical and political novels, as well as works of educational non-fiction.

   (Editor’s Note: The author carried out this project during 2019 with a NCHT Bursary award.)


  2. The Langcliffe Millennium Group, Langcliffe: Glimpses of a Dales Village (Settle: Hudson History of Settle, 2000)
  3. Taylor, S, Whitfield, M, Barson, S, The English Public Library 1850-1939. Introductions to Heritage Assets (English Heritage, 2014) p.2
  4. Flint, K, The Woman Reader, 1837-1914. (Oxford University Press, 1993) p.99
  5. Hammond, M, “The Great Fiction Bore”: Free Libraries and the Construct of a Reading Public in England, 1880-1994, Libraries & Culture, Vol. 31, 2, (2002) p.99
  6. idem p.100
  7. Kincaid, R., & Kuhn, J. Victorian Literature and Society: Essays Presented to Richard A. Altick (Ohio State University Press, 1984) p.50
  8. Flint p.47
  9. Hammond p.100
  10. Hammond p.98
  11. Hammond p.92
  12. Wood, Mrs H & Maunder, A East Lynne (Letchworth: Broadview Press 2000) p.4
  14. Briggs, A, ‘Samuel Smiles, The Gospel of Self-Help' in Gordon Marsden (ed), Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Society. (Edinburgh: Longman, 1998) p.111
  15. National Archives currency converter
  16. Newman, O & Foster A, The Value of a Pound: Prices and Incomes in Britain 1900-1993 (Ipswich Book Company, 1995) p.11
  17. Hammond p.92
  18. Flint p.32