The Reading Room

Hugh’s initiatives for the most part evolved out of an auspicious circumstance or the need to solve a problem. The circumstance of a cottage becoming empty, which he, in any case, thought was miserable and woefully inadequate as a cottage, provided the trigger for starting his first venture, the Reading Room.

“In the summer of 1889, a cottage at the end of the Old Row on the ‘topside’ at Brandsby became empty and I at once decided to take out the bedroom floor and convert it into a “Reading Room” for the labourers and all residents in the Parish.”

(See improvements to cottages on Buildings page)

“I told my bailiff, Hanson, my intentions and sent him round to get together a meeting of as many as would come to the empty cottage. Hanson, who had come from the Castle Howard Estate, was a Gladstonian Liberal and he was quite enthusiastic at the idea. So I went down one evening and about fifteen men including some farmers standing uncomfortably round the walls inside the empty cottage met me at about 8pm. There were three farmers (the two Franks and old Maskill, I think), the joiner, the postmaster and the labourers from the village with perhaps one or two others. It was my first experience in addressing the people at Brandsby. I began explaining nervously my idea in the best Toynbean phraseology, which must have sounded very strange. I said I hoped the rReading Room would be a social centre for reading and recreation for the labourers. When met by obstructive questions from the Franks, I said that I intended to provide the newspapers myself and to meet such expenses as were a difficulty in the way. Of course Stephen Frank found difficulties without end, while professing the greatest sympathy and I, detecting hostility and danger, quickly said I intended to proceed with the business.

“The next day the Parish was in a hubbub and Hanson came to me very worried to say he feared the scheme would not work in so small a place, and that the farmers would not allow their men to use the room, because it would keep them out late at night. This referred to the hired men who lived in the farm houses, but it could not affect the cottagers and I told Hanson summarily he was to get on with the work at the cottage. So he had to pluck up what courage he could and obey orders.

“To begin with I drew up some fifteen rules as a sort of constitution and got a committee appointed of which I was to be one. The committee was allowed to make bylaws so long as they kept within the constitutional rules. I worked from the beginning with the intention of gradually developing complete self-government. The subscription was to be 1/- per quarter and it was to be open to all residents in the parish who cared to join and subscribe to the rules.

“However, I was obliged to be very watchful in order to defeat the efforts of the Rector and the farmers to destroy my scheme. When they could not dissuade me they tried by every means they could devise to prevent the men from using the room. What threats could not accomplish, bribes and intrigues attempted to accomplish, and finally when the men still came to the room, Swann’s coachman was sent to create discord among the members and to report our proceedings.

“Committee meetings were to be once a month and at first and for the first year or two I used to go to Brandsby purposely to attend them. These meetings used to be immensely long because it was extremely difficult to get anyone to make any definite proposal. My great difficulty was the I had to persuade the men to say what they wanted in committee. At first and for some two years or more they would spend their time in trying to find out what my opinion was on any subject and would then vote for what they thought I wanted. After that they would disperse and set about opposing their own decision because it was not what they themselves wanted and worst still they were never able to agree among themselves.

“So endless weary evenings were spent in futile meetings and it was only by the utmost patience that I was ever able to arrive at what they did want, after rescinding and again rescinding the various resolutions. The men too used to quarrel and to the great danger of our existence as a community, and of course outside enemies sedulously fostered these troubles.

“One frequent form of trouble would be that the officials or committee would resign or members would cease to use the room because they had quarrelled with some particular member. As our numbers were not more than a dozen or fifteen, any defection was quite a serious matter and I used to have to go down to compose these differences – a very difficult matter for a Squire who was trying to get men to act independently of him.

“I began by giving a subscription of £1 per annum and I supplied a good strong Radical newspaper, The Star, which at that time was a very smartly written and saucy semi-socialist London paper, edited by T.P. O’Connor and H.W. Massingham. Most of the leading Fabian writers contributed to it.. Its appearance was created by a shriek of horror among the opposition. The Rector contributed the conservative Yorkshire Post and the Club took another Tory newspaper, the Yorkshire Herald, at its own expense.

“During all these difficulties the only encouragement I received was the continuous reiteration of everyone that a Reading Room was bound to fail in so small a village and that the men did not want it. This came not merely from the avowed opponents, but also from workmen and labourers, even the members themselves. The Rector and his wife were assiduous in spreading this idea in the village itself and made constant house to house visitations to dissuade people from attending the Reading Room. But The Star did its work and gradually instilled into this sleepy little village some sort of sense of what was going on in the great democratic movement outside.

“In the autumn of 1889 I got some Toynbee friends to come down to help with a sort of lecture or discussion at the Reading Room, which gave us a start and from that time onwards during the next few years I kept the men together by occasional meetings for sing songs or lectures. As soon as I was able to do so I started a library with a good edition of Dickens and whatever many standard works as I thought would be read. Promptly the village was canvassed by Mrs Swann, who implored people not to read any of the books. But by this time the club had become popular and I soon overcame prejudice in the village.”

Whilst Hugh was in Brandsby to attend a Reading Room committee and other meetings that autumn, he had an attack of jaundice.

“… which came on just as my friend A. G. Stevenson brought Brooke – a former Toynbee resident – to give a lecture at the Reading Room. However, the two went down to the meeting and had a very interesting evening, of which they gave me an amusing account on their return. Brooke was an excellent hand at drawing out workmen and he succeeded in arousing a lively debate on the value of Small Holdings in which apparently William Allen, who was a shrewd old Yorkshireman, attacked a farmer named William Frank. and made some amusing scores off his various opponents. This bought great life into the meeting and the men enjoyed their evening.

Afterwards poor Allan was made to feel by the farmers that it was imprudent for a labourer, who obtained work from them, to give utterance to his opinions, and several of the men complained to me that it was unfair that what was said in the Reading Room should be repeated outside and used against them.”

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